Bunch of fat tarts

I’m just back from an eight-day hike in Portugal, and as much as I’d love to report that the hiking has rendered me a svelte imitation of my former self… well, it hasn’t. Reason? I blame the Portuguese egg tarts. Pastéis de nata – that’s what they’re called in the local lingo. It means “pure custardy evil in a warm pastry cup”.

Pastel de nata1

If you’re an Australian who, like me, grew up on a steady diet of custard tarts (usually ordered together with a sausage roll and a chocolate milk – the holy trinity of the Aussie bakery), you’ll understand why I couldn’t resist them in Portugal. It has to be said, though, the Portuguese version of the tart makes ours seem kind of… flabby. Nothing can beat the crisp, wafer-thin layers of a pastel de nata, or those glistening black spots of caramelisation. If the psychologists had used these things in the Stanford marshmallow experiment, the kids would’ve opted for immediate gratification every time. Continue reading

Kayaking in the Philippines

Kayak-Philippines-IntroductionTravel writer Paul Theroux once spent a year and a half in a collapsible kayak, paddling around 51 islands in the South Pacific, and facing all kinds of challenges on sea and land. The two hours I spent in a sturdy plastic kayak atop the waters of Bacuit Bay in the Philippines at the beginning of this month almost give adventure a bad name by comparison.

I guess that’s why Theroux wrote a 500-page book (The Happy Isles of Oceania) based on his experience whereas I’ll be settling for 200-word blog post.

I will say one thing, though. My respect for anyone who takes this kind of vessel into open water has risen enormously. During my two hours, I never drifted more than about 500 metres from the shore, but it was enough to have me completely freaked out by the thought of what might be swimming around in the inky blackness beneath the kayak. I kept having visions of this iconic photo. And when a green sea turtle interrupted the silent swish of paddle in water by popping up behind me and shorting like a whale, I almost passed out into a reverse Eskimo roll. (Inuit roll?) Continue reading

China flashback: metalheads and mohawks

I recently read about a John Cage composition for organ called As Slow As Possible, a piece of music that is currently being played live in a church in Germany. The performance began in 2001 (though the first actual chord wasn’t struck until 17 months later) and will take 639 years to finish. The next scheduled change of note is in October this year.

And I thought: that’s about as slow as my book on China is coming along. Continue reading

Mount Etna redux

So, Sicily’s Mount Etna has kicked off again. She doesn’t take much of a break these days.

I must say I kind of miss my time living in the shadow of an active volcano. As a half-remedy, yesterday I jumped on a cheap-as-chips AirAsia flight from Singapore to Yogyakarta in Central Java, Indonesia, to explore the volcanic belt around Borobudur temple. Woke up this morning with the call to prayer echoing across the plain and snapped a couple of pics, below. Bit of a moody sunrise, but an impressive view nonetheless.

Mount Merapi, Java

Mount Merapi, Java

Borobudur, centre left (click to zoom)

Borobudur, centre left (click to zoom)

Continue reading

Travel: more memorable moments of 2012

Part two of my best bits and bobs from last year’s peregrinations. (Click photos to zoom.)

6. Bali, Indonesia
6. Bali, IndonesiaWhereabouts: Bali’s Bukit Peninsula
Mood: Windswept
Day five of a fantastic holiday in Bali with my family found us poolside at a villa complex called “The Edge”, a place I had grudgingly accepted the task of reviewing for work. This stint in Bali was our first outside the well-trodden haunts of Seminyak and Ubud. I loved the Bukit Peninsula for a change, especially with its 180-degree view of relentless, pounding surf, and even more especially for its total lack of retail outlets. Continue reading

Travel: memorable moments of 2012

Plenty of travel opportunities last year, thankfully, including regional stuff out of Singapore (three trips to Malaysia, three to Thailand, one to Indonesia), and a handful of journeys further afield. Here are some of the bits I enjoyed the most. (Click photos to zoom.)

1. Loubressac, France
1. Loubressac, FranceWhereabouts: On a rural road between hamlets
Mood: Invigorated
Travel highlight of the year was a toss-up between a brilliant first-time trip to India, encompassing Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra, and an eight-day hike in the Dordogne Valley of France’s southwest. This photo was taken on day five of the latter, near the village of Loubressac. After a torridly wet start to the week (70km of squelching boots), the early morning fog signalled glorious weather ahead. Continue reading

Reflecting on 2012 (or: Nope, not quite famous yet)

Hang on. What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen?

I didn’t get famous, that’s what. I can’t understand it. I wrote a book and it got published. I thought the logical progression from that point was to lie back, let the shower of riches begin, and enjoy a life of fame and fortune. Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany has been out for nine months. NINE MONTHS! I should have been relaxing on a Majorca beach way back in August.

It gets worse. Look what I discovered the other day when I plugged my name into the search facility of a website: Continue reading

A Christmas proposal from China

Eleven years ago today – Christmas Day, 2001 – I asked my girlfriend to marry me. Gill was living in Brisbane but holidaying with her family on the Gold Coast at the time. I was 8,500 kilometres away in northeast China, having relocated to a city called Changchun for work a few months earlier.

How do you propose to someone on the other side of the planet? By email, of course. The hitch is that it’s not an especially romantic method of popping the question – a bit like the guy I read about who proposed to his girlfriend while they were pulled over at a Mobil service station.

My task, then, was to find a way to make it more than just an average email. Continue reading