Friday 30 December 2016

2016: The year of walking barefoot around the sun

It's that time of year again, when we glance back over our shoulders at the year that's been before striking out into a new one brimming with possibilities.

Barefoot on Bruny Is, Tasmania
How to measure a year? For each of us it's one lap around the sun, another birthday, a cocktail of losses and lucky breaks.

Where I live, the passing seasons are marked by blooming jacarandas, autumnal offshore winds, the winter whale migration. Numbers can help: I spent two and a half months away and three months not surfing (after a knee injury), had 50 stories published, wrote 15 blog posts.

Lately I've realised there's one constant however (well, two) whatever happens and wherever I go: my feet.

I don't wear shoes much these days, since moving to the NSW north coast two years ago. It's often too hot, and going barefoot is just easier and freer when you live near the beach (and I can live with my car being full of sand).

But I've been going barefoot when I travel too.

I've heard that taking off your shoes and walking on grass is a good remedy for jetlag when you arrive at your destination (possibly just because it gets you outside into natural light).

Bare feet are infinitely practical: all-terrain, weatherproof and amphibious. They're cool in summer; in winter I swaddle mine in sheepskin (ugg boots, worn with shorts - it's a north coast thing).

Barefoot in the Maldives (last year)
But there's a less rational reason I kick off my sandals whenever I can: it makes me instantly happy. Just to feel the air on my toes and solid earth under my feet is enough; if I can make contact with water - a stream, a pool, a puddle, the sea - even better. It calms me, slows me down, brings me home.

Now I seem to have developed a new habit: taking pictures of my feet in various locations - like the globetrotting garden gnome that sent selfies back to its owners.

My feet are my constant companions after all (see what happens when you travel solo too much?).

So I'm looking back at this year by looking down. These are a few of my barefoot highlights of 2016 (with links to my stories about them):

Barefoot in the Amazon with
citronella anti-malarial anket
In the Peruvian Amazon I sat on the deck of the beautiful Delfin II expedition vessel, dangling my feet over the muddy water while getting tips from Lindblad's resident photographer on how to snap the pink river dolphins cavorting in front of us.

Sometimes my bare feet were clad in hiking boots (walking the secret mountains of the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia) or in fins (while snorkelling with sharks, turtles, manta rays and elusive humpback whales on Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia).

Atlantis Pool in the Kimberley
If there's anything better than an outdoor shower, it's a wild swim, and in the north-east Kimberley I had both. I stayed in low-key luxury at Berkeley River Lodge on a media trip and one afternoon our guide led us barefoot over sun-warmed sandstone to one of the most perfect (croc-free) swimming holes I've ever swum in.

I had both at Bruny Island in Tasmania too, last month (see pic at top): showering in a forest of the tallest trees I've seen in a long time then relaxing barefoot in my tent after walking all day.

Bare-pawed cat in Lima, Peru
I even had barefoot (or near-barefoot) moments in cities, which I seem to enjoy a lot more now I don't live in one. I kicked off my sandals at a cat park in Lima, Peru, to hang out with dozens of friendly, stray felines.

And looked down during an Art Deco walking tour of gorgeously retro South Beach, Miami, just in time to see some footpath graffiti (see below).
Footpath wisdom, Miami

And there have been countless barefoot days on home soil and sand: surfing with friends, walking on the beach and along grassy headland trails, swimming in the sea, going barefoot in local cafes.

One of the most memorable was a lonely winter's Sunday when I had a small adventure, crossing the Richmond River by car ferry to South Ballina and a neverending beach I'd never set foot on.

South Ballina blues
But my barefoot beach walk was cut short when I saw a piece of sky poking out of the sand. That tiny bit of Mount Franklin-blue plastic was just the beginning; I spent the next couple of hours beachcombing the high tide mark, picking up as much plastic as I could carry. A good deed is surely better when done barefoot?

My new year's resolution for 2017? To have more barefoot time, at home and away, and to remember my favourite Kahlil Gibran quote: "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."

Happy barefoot new year, everyone.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Sharing the gift of travel on Christmas Eve

Last week I was one of six travel writers asked to write about "The gift of travel" for Fairfax Traveller. We also had to say where on Earth we'd send someone we love, if money (and holiday leave) were no object.

Kids playing on the jetty
at... Christmas Island
I love assignments like this: one brief, six totally different stories. They were all published today as a cover story called A gift that keeps on giving.

Here's mine, my gift to you. Happy giving-season, everyone. Be kind to each other.

Stepping into the unknown
by Louise Southerden

It happens every time. Boarding a flight, to anywhere, I feel the rush of possibility I felt the first time I travelled overseas alone.

You cross a threshold when you leave home soil. Step into the unknown. It doesn’t matter if you’ve booked hotels, made reservations, arranged tours.

Just as an obituary is not a life, an itinerary is not a trip and even the most demanding schedules have room for unplanned encounters, unchaperoned moments and other cracks for the light of chance to shine through.

That’s one of the gifts of travel. Another is freedom, the opportunity to shrug off our lives back home, for a few days or forever, and face the world just as we are.

Travel gives us simplicity, by stripping life back to basics. You don’t have to go trekking with everything you need in a pack on your back or spend two weeks alone in a cabin in Norway (though I highly recommend both). Just staying in a hotel can be simplifying (no cooking, no cleaning!).

And aren’t the days so much longer when you’re somewhere else? When time resumes its natural dimensions and there’s suddenly enough of it to “waste” lingering over a coffee and writing notes in a journal, getting lost in the lanes of a strange city and embracing the magic of everyday life that passes us by at home?

Travel can give you a dose of human kindness or natural wildness when you need it most. And landscapes so grand they break your heart. It can make us more at ease with the world and our place in it, even while that place shifts under our feet. Nothing lasts forever anyway. When you understand that, hotel rooms and departure lounges aren’t so different from houses and driveways.

For all these reasons and more, travel is the greatest gift we can give ourselves – and our offspring. I don’t have any of my own, but from the moment I held my newborn nephew in my arms 11 and a half years ago, I’ve been mentally bookmarking trips for him and his two younger siblings. Trips that would widen their eyes and impress upon them the bare beauty of the world.

Where to start? Perhaps with a road trip between Uluru and Alice Springs to show them what most of Australia looks like and meet some of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Or a homestay in Japan, a place at once otherworldly and, outside its megacities, incredibly earthy. Or a trek across the Mongolian steppe to remind them we all depend nature, and each other, to survive.

In the meantime, this might be the year I slip three copies of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt into their Christmas stockings.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Oh, Kolkata: Big yellow taxis and solar slums

I didn't expect to love Kolkata. It was the surprise highlight of 2016 for me. After my first trip to India in 2009 I'd longed to return - to see the beaches and houseboats of Kerala in the south, the Taj Mahal, Darjeeling's tea plantations and Himalayan views, but not the city nicknamed the "Black Hole of Calcutta".

Kolkata's earthy chai cups
But I soon learned Kolkata has another nickname: City of Joy, after a 1985 novel by French writer Dominique Lapierre (later made into a Patrick Swayze movie).

And that's how I remember it now, because I fell hard for this city of 14 million on the Ganges in far eastern India. It was a brief affair, just two days.

That's how it is with some places (and people). That's all you need.

I loved Kolkata's friendliness, its big-crowded-city-but-everyone-just-gets-on-with-it buzz and its bookishness: there are bookshops everywhere, even booksellers on trains. I went to the world's largest book market, where you can buy anything from a doorstopper on anatomy to the latest shade of grey at a roadside stall; I bought a book about Kolkata's writer-hero, Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913.

Brightness at the Indian Museum
I loved how untouristy it is; I barely saw another Westerner. At landmarks like the stately Indian Museum, girls in pink saris swirled along marble corridors and asked to take selfies with me (making me wish I'd worn something pretty too).

There's more in this Three-minute guide to Kolkata, the first of four (!) stories I've now written about the city.

But my three favourite things about the city were:

1. Chai in clay cups. Milky sweet tea spiced with ginger and cardamom is an Indian institution, but in Kolkata it's served in espresso-sized clay cups called "khuli" (pictured above). They're hand-made and completely biodegradable. In fact when you finish your tea, you just toss your cup on the ground - if it smashes, it's good luck - returning it to the earth.

Taxi driver-surfers waiting
for their next fare
2. Big yellow Ambassador taxis. Nothing says "I'm in Kolkata" like riding in the back of a rattling old Ambassador taxi with the windows down, seatbelts optional.

Modelled on the UK's Morris Oxford, they were first made in India in 1957. The last Ambassador rolled off the production line in 2014, but they're still going strong, keeping mechanics in business and resisting the siren song of the scrap heap.

I loved them so much I put some of my pics together for this photoessay, An Ode to Kolkata's Ambassadors. It includes my favourite photo (above): taxi drivers lounging on their cars like Californian surfers circa 1960 hanging at the beach between waves.

King of the world
Pic by Urban Adventures
3. The solar slum tour. My first night in the city, I visited a community living near the river on a new tour run by Urban Adventures.

It's not "slum tourism"; the tours help an Indian-Australian social enterprise called Pollinate Energy provide portable solar lights to slum dwellers in Kolkata (and other Indian cities), which improves their lives and reduces air pollution and carbon emissions at the same time.

It was inspirational to meet people working together to make a difference to others and to the planet. My story about the tours and the project, Lighting up Kolkata's slums, went live this week.

Back seat of an Ambassador:
my new happy place
(There's one more Kolkata story still to come.)

Oh, Kolkata. I missed you as soon as I saw your lights dissolve into the night from the plane that brought me home. But I'll see you again, I promise.