A bucolic Thai beach, full of unsmiling, tattooed, European bodybuilders.

After several joyful days in Bangkok, we decamped for the beach. The water was lovely, the hotel was charming, and the guests were, how shall I put it? Weird.

We spent four days at this charming little beach resort on Koh Samui, a perfectly good island off the east coast of Thailand in the South China Sea, but I am left scratching my head about why so many strange people are attracted to this place. For starters, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of Eastern European body builders. There was one couple, covered head to toe with tattoos, who kept their kickboxing apparatus on the bench in front of their room. We never actually saw them beat each other up, but that seems to be their hobby. They’re both ripped up like, well, Herr and Frau Universe. And they never seemed to speak. Herr Universe would wade out into the water and put his head down and stand there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, just pacing back and forth in the water. Then he’d hop onto a small floating pier and pace back and forth some more. Either he was thinking very deep thoughts or he was searching in vain for a contact lens.

On the plane on the way back to Bangkok there was another fellow who was bigger and broader than Herr Universe, with even more tattoos, if that’s possible. (Speaking of tattoos, on the beach the other day, we saw an older gentleman with a massive tattoo on his back of an extremely well-endowed naked man. I tell you, this place is just plain weird.)

Another woman who might have been Turkish or Russian walked around the property photographing or taking video of herself with her selfie stick almost constantly. Then there was the other unsmiling bearded gentleman with the prohibition-era haircut (y’know, shaved on the sides but the top flops downs over it) who sat in the restaurant staring ahead (or occasionally at his ipad), his leg in constant motion, as if he were stomping on imaginary cockroaches. Every so often his female companion would sit down next to him, but he seldom seemed to notice. There were a few European-looking gentlemen of a certain age accompanied by what appeared to be non-European women not of a certain age. There was another guy with a big Smith Brothers beard and a man bun who looked like he should be pouring cocktails in Bushwick. He never smiled either, or made any obvious expression. And then there were our roommates. Well, they might as well have been our roommates because the walls provided shockingly little noise reduction. The fellow never spoke. His significant other had a Midwestern accent out of the movie Fargo, which we were easily able to identify as she carried on an extended Skype call late one night. The next morning she was rather less articulate, but no less noisy. Happily, they were quick about it.

The sunbathing rituals of the resort’s inmates were impressive. Each morning, round about 8ish, the guests would scope out their chaises, put a towel or some other item that marked the property as theirs, and then have a quick breakfast before returning to their claimed territory, where they would proceed to crispify themselves for the rest of the day. Many of them turned purple before our very eyes. If I had some extra money I’d invest it in German skin cancer clinics.

A perfectly nice beach resort in Thailand.

A perfectly nice beach resort in Thailand.

And as bizarre as this sullen, territorial, tonsorially unusual assembly of Teutonic sun worshipers was, the staff was warm, welcoming and gracious. I would not be surprised to learn that they hire zen masters to work at Koh Samui resorts, just because normal human beings would surely go stark raving mad.

Despite the cultural gulfs between us and our fellow guests, Janine, our friend John (who joined us at the beach) and I had an embarrassingly good time. We kept ourselves quite busy by moving with alacrity from the restaurant to the beach to the pool, never pausing long enough to seem lazy. And we were quite responsible in our appetites as well, almost never drinking beer before noon. One day we even ventured into what passes for town. Why, you may ask, would we waste the opportunity to take advantage of the myriad cultural opportunities that Thailand has to offer in favor of a prosaic trip to the beach with a menagerie of semi-disgruntled European melanomics? Well, John was cold after a cruel East Coast winter, and after seven months of busy, culturally thoughtful travel, we had hit the sweet spot between tired and lazy that cried out for a restorative trip to the beach. I’m happy to report that it appears to have worked.

Meandering from Sydney to Melbourne – with a David Lynch casino, squeaky beaches, and an Alzheimer’s benefit (contains brief descriptions of perfectly safe for work nudity).

Australia is a very big country. With only two and half weeks to spend in it, we had too many options. There’s the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, Tasmania – the list goes on, and on, and on. Barry Schwartz calls this phenomenon the paradox of choice. Faced with a hundred brands of cereal, the paralyzed consumer begins to whine and bleat, and scurries home empty handed, where he prepares a breakfast of dry toast.

We were starting to feel like we were standing in the cereal aisle at Safeway. How on earth should we allocate our precious time in Australia? Sydney was great, and we knew we had to end up in Melbourne, because that’s where our next flight leaves, but we had no idea what to put in the middle of the sandwich. With any number of exotic and complicated air, sea, and land itineraries in front of us, we decided to just rent a car and drive to Melbourne, stopping along the way at places that seemed interesting. It’s kind of like traveling to the U.S., driving from LA to San Francisco and pretending that you actually saw the U.S., but so be it. After 182 days away from home, sometimes the simple choice is the best choice.

Besides, after almost three weeks of hitting the open road in New Zealand, we were getting used to being footloose and fancy free. Driving in Australia has not been without its challenges, however. For one thing, the car rental company only had cars with manual transmissions. We both have driven stick shift cars for years, and we’ve been driving on the left side of the road since South Africa, but having to shift with our left hand threatened to add a layer of complexity that resembles patting your head, rubbing your belly, and reciting the alphabet backward while tap dancing. I should add, respectfully, that Aussie drivers seem ever so slightly more caffeinated than Kiwi drivers do. Basically, the speed limit appears to be a floor, not a ceiling. If you drive at the speed limit, expect to see someone very close in your rear view mirror, looking impatient.

No matter – we’re intrepid! It’s only about five hundred miles from Sydney to Melbourne, but we decided to take a week to meander down the coast, stopping when the spirit moved us to stop, if it even works that way. Our first stop was Jervis Bay, a white sand crescent about a couple hours south of Sydney. We found a cute little cottage on airbnb and watched the sunset on sand so fine that it squeaked underfoot.

On a squeaky white sand beach in Jervis Bay.

On a squeaky white sand beach on Jervis Bay.

The next night we wandered into little Huskisson and discovered a tiny village movie theater holding a special showing of Just Alice, the Julianne Moore movie about Alzheimer’s. I really have to be in the mood for downer movies. (“Hey honey, what do you want to see tonight? How about Shoah? Ooh, sounds good!”) Janine has been on a quest to see as many Oscar performances as possible before the awards are announced, and it was the only thing playing, so we went.

The Alzheimer's gala in Huskisson, near Jervis Bay.

The Alzheimer’s gala in Huskisson, near Jervis Bay.

The showing was part of a fundraiser for the local Alzheimer’s nonprofit, and fifty or sixty concerned members of the community showed up, ate potato chips and little squares of cheese, and asked thoughtful questions in the talkback after the show. Frankly, we don’t get nearly as many chances as we should to breathe the same air as folks who have nothing to do with the tourist industry. We were in a shy mood, though, so we merely lurked, but it was nice to see real people going about their real lives for a change. Mostly we spend time with waiters, cabdrivers, innkeepers, and other tourists. The two questions that everyone asks are “Where are you headed? and Where are you coming from?” Sometimes we give minimalist answers and sometimes, if we’re feeling expansive, tell people that we’re on a nine month trip, which tends to get the party started. By the way, we’ve run across more than a few people who are on similar journeys. One Dutch couple we ran into was traveling for twenty months, and they brought their own tricked-out Range Rover, which they’d converted into a travel camper, and which they would load on a cargo vessel and ship from place to place. They had already spent a year driving around Australia and were now in New Zealand for the next several months. I’m happy to report that they still seemed to be having fun.

Our next stop was a little burg called Narooma, where we stayed at a funky, slightly dowdy motel that was redeemed by the show put on by a group of flamboyantly colored parrots that live there.

The resident parrots at our funky motel.

The resident parrots at our funky motel.

For dinner, the owner of the motel also recommended something called Club Narooma. Okay, this was a cultural experience to be sure. I’m not quite sure I fully understand the concept, but anybody can “join” the club by signing a piece of paper, so I don’t really know what makes it a club. I suspect that it’s a way to circumvent liquor licensing laws. Anyway, the place felt more or less like your basic not-quite-ready-for-Las Vegas casino, with cheap food and drinks, slot machines, and a country western singer warbling on the outside patio. There, a single pair of seniors two-stepped with serious concentration. The food won’t win any awards, but for local color and David Lynch-y strangeness, it couldn’t be beat.

On our way out of town, we took a detour toward the teeny village of Tilba, which is one street of Victorian buildings that house tiny shops and tea houses and a small hall that was holding a smaller farmer’s market, where we bought veggies for dinner, a smashing little asparagus and tomato tart, and pair of knitted Australian wool gloves for Maggie, who is currently freezing her patooky off in New York. Tilba looks like the hippie enclaves that dot the Northern California coast, complete with a shop that featured lots of tie-dye and hemp products (and which was showing a loop of a pro-hemp documentary just in case you didn’t get the memo).

Sweet little Tilba, which has the munchies.

Sweet little Tilba, which has the munchies.

From there, we detoured to Mallacoota, where we stayed at the Karbeethong Lodge, an absolutely perfect little hotel high on a hill overlooking a gorgeous inlet. The building has been an inn since the 1920’s, and it has retained all of its charm. There’s a long covered porch with comfy chairs and a big communal kitchen for guests, like me, who like to cook.

The view from the Karbeethong Lodge in Mallacoota.

The view from the Karbeethong Lodge in Mallacoota.

I could spend a month on that porch, staring out at the water and doing nothing at all. Mallacoota is next to a beautiful national park with great hiking trails, the golf course is overrun by kangaroos, and there are more squeaky white sand beaches than you can count.

Here's something you don't usually see at the golf course.

Here’s something you don’t usually see at the golf course.

One, called Shipwreck Beach, is at the end of an 8 km dirt road and is as isolated as it sounds. When I was certain we were alone, I took off my suit and danced around in the altogether, just because I could.

Shipwreck Beach, where the great unveiling occurred.

Shipwreck Beach, where the great unveiling occurred.

After two days in Mallacoota, we pressed on, stopping at yet another goofy motel in a place called Lake’s Entrance. There’s not much to do here, but we stopped because Janine wanted to watch the Oscars (we’re nineteen hours ahead and the Oscars were on in the middle of the day on Monday), so we grabbed the first place with a television we could find. I like the Oscars as much as the next guy, but this was my chance to sneak in nine holes of golf. I was able to find a nearly empty golf course next to the ocean where my round, including greens fees, balls, tees, and club rental, came to a whopping seventeen bucks. I tried my best to keep the ball in the fairway, since as I was heading out to the first tee, the woman in the golf shop warned me to be on the lookout for snakes.

And so we make our final push for Melbourne, having seen the tiniest tip of an enormous iceberg. But I have eaten surf and turf at an Australian casino, watched a paranoid pro-hemp video, attended an Alzheimer’s fundraiser, and danced without any pants on a vacant beach, so there’s that.

Food, Culture, Burlesque, and a Girlfriend Named Itchy – the Joys of Wellington

After spending the morning padding around a perfect black sand beach in the entertainingly named town of Whanganui, we felt that we were missing something.

On the black sand beach at Whanganui

On the black sand beach at Whanganui

The sand was amazingly fine - like powdered sugar, but black.

The sand was amazingly fine – like powdered sugar, but black.

Where are all the sword swallowers, we thought?

Okay, we didn’t think that, but we were ready for a little city life to balance all this fresh air. We were pointed toward Wellington, which people say reminds them of San Francisco. We were hoping for a little culture, maybe a nice meal. Oh, and while we’re at it, maybe we’ll take in a burlesque show.

Okay, that’s not what we were thinking, but how do you pass up the chance to see a Kiwi burlesque show? It turns out that there are countercultural hipstery types wherever you go, and New Zealand is no exception. As anybody who’s been to Brooklyn in the past decade knows, there has been a revival of semi-ironic versions of old burlesque. On the last Saturday night of the month, Wellington puts on its version, which may not put it in the big leagues, but which was worth an evening just for the cultural weirdness of it all.

The evening was hosted by a British woman who called herself Miss Behave, and she got the festivities going by shoving the stem of a fake rose through a hole in her tongue and twisting it about. She followed that by swallowing a sword (although the retired burlesque performer seated next to us said that Miss Behave once swallowed a table leg with the table still attached). Later in the show, she set a man’s head on fire.

She tossed it to a petrified close-up magician, whose hands shook so much he almost dropped his playing cards. After him was a woman folksinger who looked like she got cold feet in the middle of her last haircut – only half her head had been attended to. She proceeded to warble a song of love and loss that was clearly about a former lost love – a girl called Itchy, which sent the mind spinning in deeply unfortunate directions. At least she wasn’t called Stinky. Then came the David Lynch moment when Voluptuous Twinkle took the stage. VT did her best to keep step to Barry Manilow’s Copacabana up to the moment when she revealed what may be among the world’s largest pasties.

Next was the most unfunny standup comic I’ve ever been subjected to, a woman from our own San Francisco. To say that she died onstage would be unfair to the dead.

The hero of the night was a scatological poet. With his beautifully sculpted Smith Brothers beard, suspenders, and touring cap, this guy riffed on New Zealand niceness, men who fancy his girlfriend, and he concluded with the funniest dirty poem I’ve ever heard, whose topic I’ll only reveal in person.

It was funky, weird, and like any funhouse, lots of fun if you don’t expect the comics to be funny, the strippers to be sexy, or the magicians to be magical. Keep up the good work, Kiwis!

Wellington is a fantastic city. For starters, it’s a fine place to park your RV. The city council, in its wisdom, runs an RV park right on the waterfront within easy walking distance to almost everything you want to see. The waterfront is full of restaurants, bars with beanbag chairs, and really terrific museums.

The Wellington waterfront ain't beanbag - wait, yes it is.

The Wellington waterfront ain’t beanbag – wait, yes it is.

The Te Papa Museum is the national museum of New Zealand and has sections on natural history, social history, modern art, among others. And it’s free! So is the Museum of the City of Wellington, which had a fascinating film on the sinking of a ferry between the islands (which we’d be taking the next day!), and a year by year history of the city. The City Gallery museum (also free!) featured a retrospective on the work of Yvonne Todd, New Zealand’s version of Cindy Sherman. We just stumbled in, not knowing what the place was, and were delighted.

On to the food!

Our first stop in Wellington was the Mt. Vic Chippery, the best fish and chips place I’ve ever been to. You have a choice of four or five different fishes, a bunch of frying styles (tempura, beer battered, panko coated and a few others), and a choice of fries. They also have a bunch of dipping sauces. People who have difficulty making decisions should stay far away. As it was, we turned to the tatted fellow manning the fryer who recommended the gurnard (also known as the sea robin), a bottom feeding fish with a skull and wings (seriously) cooked tempura style, and holy christmas if it wasn’t the best damned fish and chips I’ll ever eat. The fry guy told me about the fish’s taste for what he called “apex crustaceans” and pantomimed how it flaps its wings. How can you not love a place like this? We ordered two pieces, which turned out to each be the size of a surfboard, and made quick work of them. If they sold beer it would be one of the world’s great meals.

Breakfast in Wellington is similarly exciting. The food was as good as the service was bad at Duke Carvell’s, but I didn’t care. I had a dish of baked eggs, cherry tomatoes, roast red pepper, black pudding, chorizo and mozzarella, with the fruitiest, hoppiest beer I’ve had since New York and I didn’t care if the server never came back with the bill. The next day we went to the breakfast place next door, Floriditas, which was just as good, except with nice, smiling waitstaff. In two days we had two better breakfasts than we had in eleven years in Palo Alto. Sigh.

We had a smashing three course bistro menu at Logan Brown, which is housed in a converted 1920s bank. There was a perfectly cured salmon appetizer with a horseradish panna cotta, of all things, and a lamb entrée that was good because it was great, but bad because it’s hard to imagine that we’ll have a better one while we’re here. On our last night, we had the Sunday Roast dinner at the Boulcott Street Bistro. It was a perfect porchetta-like roast pork, with a crackling, sticky pork skin and a fatty, juicy inside. Bring on the Lipitor.

Porky, fatty, crispy, yummy.

Porky, fatty, crispy, yummy.

The short of it is that they can cook here, and how.

Oh, and the glorious thing about English-speaking countries is that they show English-speaking movies! We stumbled into the Embassy Theater, a 20’s movie palace that has two cocktail bars and will bring a cheese plate to your seat. Why, oh, why does one have to travel to New Zealand to get a decent moviegoing experience? Oh, we saw Birdman and The Imitation Game. Liked ‘em both.

There’s Wellington for you – funky, weird, yummy. They know how to show a movie, how to make breakfast, and how to fry fish. They’re still working on the burlesque, though.