australia day… my way

This evening, down at Altona Beach, I strolled in the evening sunshine and literally watched the world go by. Australia Day had brought everybody out to enjoy the beach, and the council had put on a festival to help.

A small number of Aussie flags were flying on cars and transferred onto sunburnt cheeks, a few green-and-gold sports shirts were in evidence, and two mounted police officers flew the Boxing Kangaroo flag from their saddles.

On the boardwalk people wore hijabs and chadors, beach towel turbans and long-haired topknots, bikinis and board shorts, saris and sarongs. There was Greek baclava, Italian woodfired pizza, vegetable samosas, New Zealand “fush, chups and igg”, SES sausages in bread, all for sale within a hundred metres. Young muscle-bound men showed their Polynesian tattoos with pride, and one brave soul rocked a bleached-blonde flat-top and bandana.

One end of the Esplanade had live Country & Western music, the other Tongan reggae blaring out from a huge speaker. Kite surfers hung out down the western end of the beach whilst kite flyers dominated the east.

I saw Africans of every stripe, Japanese tourists and Vietnamese families, three generations of Pacific Islander at the same all-day picnic, young and old from sub-continental Asia, Italian nonnas with gaggles of grandchildren, a handful of mix-race couples of various flavours. Not many pale-skinned, freckled people like me though.

There was no “love it or leave” slogans, no “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” chants, just people being people, chatting and laughing, running after two-year-olds, drinking coffee and beer, ignoring boys and posturing in front of girls. This is the Australia I subscribe to, the Australia I belong to.

 

 

 

 

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walking on very long beaches

I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.

On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car. IMG_7274 But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.

Queensland?

I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.

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I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.

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Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.

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These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.

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My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.

Jamaica?

These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.

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Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.

Where are your favourite VLBs?

where in the world?

 

are you bikini ready?

At this time of year we are bombarded with magazine and website articles telling us how to get “bikini ready” for the New Year. As a Woman Of A Certain Age with a beach holiday on the horizon, I alternately devoured these articles or shunned them completely, knowing that I had failed in my plans to lose 5kg before our holiday and that my bikini body was nowhere in sight.

Fast forward to the day before we fly. I stand in the fitting rooms in Target with an array of bikinis, having convinced myself that my elegant but sensible black one-pieces would not be enough to tide me over for twelve days on a tropical island. I buy a purple two-piece, two sizes larger than my usual size in the desperate hope that it will somehow make me look thinner.

Two weeks later, after piling on even more pounds in the winter wonderlands of the northeastern United States, I stand on the balcony of our beachfront apartment and know I am going to spend the whole beach holiday in that purple bikini. I am so happy to be in the sunshine, on one of my favourite beaches in the world, with good company and (god help us) excellent food, that I no longer care how I look. All that matters is how I feel, and I feel like a Tropical Queen.

By day two I have perfected my sashay down the beach before immersing myself in the turquoise water to cool down. The purple bikini is now way too big for me, having already stretched in the seawater. I fold the bottoms down to make them even smaller – the suntan is all that matters now.

Every day I watch a procession of tourists walking past. Women of all shapes, sizes and ages sport a staggering array of swimwear. Without the aid of a spreadsheet (this is a holiday, after all) I watch and analyse, and the Five Commandments of Bikini Wearing emerge (specifically for Women Of A Certain Age, but relevant to any woman who is a little less than confident in her appearance).

  1. Choose a bikini. Don’t choose a one-piece. No piece of swimwear is going to make you look like Halle Berry coming out of the sea in that Bond movie, and anyway all that fabric on your tummy in the sun will be really uncomfortable. Relax. You are on holidays. By day three you are going to feel like a Tropical Queen and will believe you look like one too. You look fine, and anyway nobody is watching you because they are either worried about their own wobbly bits or they are already at Tropical Queen status in their head. If you are still unsure, throw a sarong in to hide your curves until day three.
  2. Avoid Large Bikini Bottom Syndrome. You have already decided to wear a bikini. Don’t spoil it by going large. Any stylist will tell you that swathes of patterned fabric draws attention to any area of the body, and anyway it will make you look middle-aged. In the past week I have seen a size 18-20 lady at the water’s edge, shoulders thrown back,  rocking a skimpy sunshine-yellow bikini and looking like a goddess. I have also seen a couple of thin, athletic women of a similar vintage, slightly stooped, looking like apologetic grandmas in their big-knicker bikinis.  Don’t do it unless you have a real reason for that extra support like a post-op scar. You may not be able to see this in the badly lit fitting rooms of your local mall, but take my word for it: you want a fairly skimpy bikini bottom, no more than an inch and a half or 3cm of fabric at the side of your body. If you can find one that ties on the side, so much the better. Remember, the fabric will stretch after a few days and the last thing you want is a bikini bottom that looks like a full nappy, or one that falls off as you get out of the water (it’s happened on this beach twice in the past week).
  3. Bikini tops must be multi-functional, or else you will need more than one bikini. In fact, you probably need at least two or three bikinis for a two-week holiday. Remember, this is essentially your “working wardrobe” of the trip. Never mind how many frocks you pack for the evenings – you will be spending up to ten hours a day in your swimwear, and you will be doing more than lying on a sunbed in that time. Your bikinis need to work for sunbathing, strolling on the beach, jumping into the water and drinking cocktails at the bar. Bandeau type bikini tops are great for minimising tan lines; the ones with a removable halter straps are great for a bit more security when wandering about or when hit by a rogue wave. More well endowed ladies will need properly fitted bikini tops in the appropriate cup size. Again, a halter-neck top will help with the support and look great.
  4. Choose strong colours and patterns. This is no time for nuance: look for bold colours and designs especially if you are a pale-skinned person like me. Pastels are all very well but they look washed out under the bright tropical sun. Go for bright greens, reds, oranges, blues and purples. Avoid all-black items unless you are already sporting a fine tan – if you absolutely must choose black, find one with white piping around the edges. It’s softer on the skin. If you have had your colours done, opt for the stronger colours in your palette.
  5. Accessorise. Again, this is your holiday daywear. Bring cheap and cheerful jewellery to accessorise each piece of swimwear you bring. A pair of matching earrings here, a statement bangle there, some toe-rings, a wide-brimmed sunhat and a matching cover-up or sarong, and you are making an outfit out of your swimsuit. Bring a simple crocodile clip or two if you have long hair. Don’t forget the footwear too: they will have to be sturdy enough to get you down the beach without falling over, but fabulous enough not to ruin the overall ensemble. Think pretty coloured flip-flops or a summery pair of Birkenstocks.

The most important accessory is, of course, lashings of sunscreen. Go one level higher than you think you need, especially if you are aiming for eight hours a day on that sunbed. You can always go down a level after your first four or five days when you have built up a base. The last thing you want is sunburn that keeps you out of the sun, ruins your coordinated look and quite frankly can lead to premature ageing and skin cancer.

Above all remember this: you already have a bikini body. You already look great. You just mightn’t feel great yet. But by day three when the Tropical Queen comes to town, you’ll look back and thank me. Promise.

 

christmas island

Christmas Eve starts early in the tropics, with a dawn wake-up call from the birds and the ocean. I peer out from the curtains and see wild water and an overcast sky – or is it just that the sun is not properly up yet?

But there is no lounging about today. We have jobs to do. Expecting bad pre-Christmas traffic on the narrow roads we leave the car behind and stand out on the street to hail a ZR.

There are three ways to get around Barbados by public transport: a regular bus, a regular taxi and a ZR (so called for their ZR number plates). These privately owned route taxis ply their trade to and from Bridgetown on pre-determined routes, picking up more passengers than you could expect to fit in such a small mini-van. Technically there are eight seats in the back and two in the front (including driver) but it is not unusual to have fifteen or more paying passengers along with the driver and money man.

ZR drivers are known for their enthusiastic driving styles and loud music, so it’s an entertaining way of getting about. Passengers, on the other hand, sit quietly and politely, squeezing into more and more impossible spaces to let another person sit, all without comment, frown or smile. It’s the Bajan way.

We stand on the roadside beside a young man who greets us politely and formally, like all Bajans do: “Good morning and Merry Christmas”, he smiles. Soon he is picked up by a friend in a new 4×4, leaving us to our fate in the ZR hurtling towards us. I sit between an elderly lady dressed in an impeccable mint-green frock with matching bag, shoes and gloves and a friendly tourist bloke from the north of England who is off to Dover beach for the day. He tells me the most he has seen in a ZR is twenty. I forget to ask him if that includes the driver.

We crawl through unusually busy traffic as the sound system cranks out some excellent soca tunes, all of which are Christmas songs with hilarious storylines. Men complain about being made to clean the house before Christmas and the wife’s family eating him out of house and home. Women sing of a turkey and ham feast, presents under the tree and a home full of happiness. Two sides to every story I suppose.

The bus station is right by the market and we weave through the crowd.  A man sells Christmas CDs out of the boot of his car. A woman around my own age sets up a jewellery stall for all those last-minute boyfriends. The busiest stall is the fresh bread.

Left alone for an hour I wander down into the city centre looking for a pharmacy. Most shops are blaring Christmas music of one type or another (although you won’t hear White Christmas or Winter Wonderland here) and there is plenty of last-minute shopping being done. The venerable Cave Shepherd department store has been doing business on Broad Street in Bridgetown since 1906 and is crowded with locals and tourists. The toys and books department is doing the most business, along with the beauty and perfumes department right inside the door. Down the street I am surprised to see Bridgetown’s new Tiffany’s store in the fancy Colonnades shopping mall, although it doesn’t look too busy.

I turn down the back streets and find my way to Swan Street, a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare crammed with shops, mini-malls, street vendors and shoppers. Think Dublin’s Henry Street or London’s Camden Town. Barbados is the only place I have seen outside Mexico whose stores display female mannequins with the rear end facing out, the better to see how well these trousers/that dress will show off your rear end. A few women sit at stalls shelling peas, selling bags for $8 (US$4) a pop to those too busy to prepare everything from scratch for tomorrow’s feast. The occasional shopper hurries past with a Santa hat at a jaunty angle and a Christmassy brooch on her top.

I take a quick look inside a $3 shop. These everything-at-one-cheap-price shops are fascinating to me, a handy cultural barometer of any town or country I visit. I am always interested in the range (or otherwise) of goods on sale, indicating both availability and demand. Today I find last-chance red Christmas bows for doors and windows, a decent choice of cheerful Christmas crockery, a mundane mix of dried goods from long-grain rice to cake mix, some quite lovely wrapping ribbon and the usual wall of kitchen items you never thought you wanted.

A few doors down in a mini-mall, Warren the roti man shares a shop with a Chinese buffet. It is about a dollar more and 30% bigger than the Chefette all-beef roti, which is my favourite snack here. But he’s a small local business and his food smells good. I get a beef and potato roti with a choice of plain or dhal puri roti. He adds a dollop of chilli sauce before the beef and potato mix goes on. It’s expertly wrapped and handed to me in moments. I peel away the paper and start nibbling carefully lest the bread gives way. The filling is bordering on the wet side for something being held together with a thin piece of pastry, but it’s just delicious. Warren looks over anxiously, gesturing a question: do you like it? Is it ok? I roll my eyes happily, smile and give him a shaky thumbs up. This is really good food.

The ZR trip back to our lodgings is more eventful than usual. One young lady breaks all protocols and attempts a loud and disgruntled conversation with the driver, with whom she appears to be unhappily acquainted. I can feel her fellow passengers stiffen. After a quick survey of the final destination of each passenger, we take a wild detour from the usual route, trying to avoid the Christmas Eve traffic. I enjoy house-watching from my window seat: there are some lovely big houses down these back streets that I hardly ever get to see. When we end up down a cul-de-sac courtesy of another passenger’s directions, our rowdy neighbour laughs raucously. “He tells us to go past his house, but he don’t know where he live!” The other passengers hide their smiles and try to maintain the decorum required of them.

Back on the balcony the sun stays mercifully behind the clouds as I sip a nice cup of tea and dunk a couple of ginger nuts. The waves are still wild but we venture in for a dip as a procession of airplanes descend overhead towards the airport: Virgin, Thomas Cook, American Airlines, Iberia. These people are leaving it a bit late to reach Paradise in time for Christmas.

My candle is lit on the balcony although it is not quite dusk yet. The Irish tradition of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve is one I treasure from my childhood, and one I have upheld in every home I have had. Mary and Joseph will know there is room for them in our two-bedroom apartment if they happen this way and are turned away from the inn.

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Merry Christmas, everybody.

 

waiting to exhale

It might be the longest night for most in the northern hemisphere, but to us it is the shortest night. Determined to wring every last drop out of a brief New York City visit, we book late night tickets at the Blue Note to see Chris Botti, and get back to our hotel less than three hours before our wake-up call is scheduled.

Bleary-eyed at half past four in the morning, we lug our bags downstairs, say goodbye to the night staff and put ourselves in the hands of the limo driver.

An hour later I am sitting in the American Airlines club lounge, Virgin Mary in hand (it’s been an alcohol-laden few days) and a relatively healthy granola breakfast on the way. Orlando has opted for yet more eggs and bacon than you can shake a stick at. At this point it’s a case of whatever will get us on the plane still conscious.

We sit slumped in our exit row seats, ignoring Wolverine on the TV and the wonderful American Airlines in-flight service (a polystyrene cup of luke-warm tea is all we are offered in five hours) and fall into a coma. I wake about three hours into the flight and realise it’s almost time to ditch the fur-lined boots and woolly jumper for rather more tropical sandals and fresh linen.

The azure horizon changes and we can see the northern-most tip of Barbados taking shape.  I peer out and try to identify each beach as it emerges from the haze. Is that Dover? Or Worthing? Orlando doesn’t care: all he sees is an island he calls home.

Stepping out onto the apron at Grantley Adams International, the feeling of warm tropical air on my bare legs and arms is just perfect after two weeks of freezing temperatures, wind chill and thermal underwear. The air is laden with the perfume of the tropics. We scribble our landing cards hurriedly and I follow Orlando to the “Citizens only” booth, avoiding the growing queues of tourists.

The immigration lady gives us a formal “good afternoon” but her eyes are friendly. Minutes later we are in the cleanest taxi cab I have ever been in, diverting off the Tom Adams highway and taking the back roads down to Oistins. Beautifully kept concrete homes make way now and again for older, smaller weatherboard homes and the occasional brightly painted chattel house, all equally well presented. Occasionally a verandah or a front door is festooned with Christmas decorations, the tinsel taking pride of place on this sunny island. An odd snowman or penguin ornament looks out of place but cheerful enough in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

Finally checked into our temporary home, we stand on our balcony overlooking a tiny beach, miles away from the main tourist centres, and finally start to relax. All we can hear is the sound of the Caribbean Sea pounding just yards from our door. The turquoise and blue of the water hurts my eyes after two weeks of weak winter daylight.

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A quick visit to the supermarket for some provisions, and just before sunset we finally make it into the water. The day has cooled down somewhat as we dip our feet into what feels like a chilly sea. Orlando dives straight in, whilst I stand and wait for one of the big rumbling waves to envelop me.

We bob up and down chest-deep in water, breathing in the warm evening air and watching the colours change in the sky. As the sun sets, a handful of teenage boys play a rowdy game of football nearby on a postage stamp of white sand as we give ourselves over to the water.

Later on the balcony the rum punch is strong and the fried flying fish going down a treat: that healthy breakfast seems like a long time ago now. The sun sets quickly in the end, leaving us in darkness with only the pounding of the waves and the trilling of the crickets to keep us company.

It’s going to be an interesting two weeks.