Slow boat to Thailand
Just on nightfall we found a room in the Bunmy Guesthouse, an awful concrete block building where the generator was broken and the lights were out. This disguised the fact that the room was filthy and the toilet was overflowing with black water.
When the lights came on, briefly, we realised this and were moved to the next room, where the toilet didn't overflow but the top was broken, piled up in a neat little pile of porcelain in one corner. You had to flush it with a little string arrangement, but we were too tired to care.
We went out for dinner, came back and had a beer in the guesthouse restaurant, where in conversation it emerged that the manager was also an opium dealer and would we like some?
Next morning, after buying supplies for the day and heading back down to the pier, the manager came flying down the hill, clinging to the back of a motorbike driven by a very fat man.
"Toilet!" he yelled at us. "You break toilet!"
Nope, not us, we said.
"Yes! You break toilet!"
I reminded him he'd shifted us to the next room on account of the overflowing toilet.
"Yes!" he yelled. "You break toilet in new room! Top! Was not broken yesterday!"
This went on, heatedly, for some minutes, before we turned and started to drag our bags over the sand towards the boat.
"Come back!" he shouted. "I get police!"
Holy cow and Mother Ganga
Varanasi is one of the world's oldest living cities, with a history dating back to 1400 BC. But it was in the 8th century that it became the heartland of the Hindu religion, when Shankaracharya, a reforming Hindu sadhu, established Shiva worship as the principal sect. Varanasi has been destroyed and built again many times in the following centuries, but Mother Ganga, silent, tawny brown and omnipresent, always dominates.
It's on the steps between the temples at the top of the bank and the river at the bottom, that life and death play out with a unique, weirdly beautiful Varanasi intensity.
Sadhus sit in a circle, playing cards. Others meditate, cross-legged and naked but for a saffron thong. Some bathe, energetically scrubbing even their tongues, and lads make the ritual bath fun, ducking and diving, enjoying a cool moment.
Old folk waiting to die - anyone who dies here attains instant enlightenment - live on charity in the hundreds of temples at the top of the ghats. Many have hobbled down to the steps to enjoy the sun. Some beg with half-hearted, toothless smiles, others just sit and gaze blissfully at the river.
River of Grass
In 1983 the State of Florida granted Buffalo Tiger's tribe a lease on 189,000 acres of conservation land and nearly a million dollars, ostensibly it seems, to shut him up. He put up a hotdog stand, a gas station, and a white man's school, then went out and bought a house in Miami and a brand new, gold Cadillac.
The news was not received well by the other tribes with similar land claims. They called his tribe a fake, his hotdog stand "Sellout Corner" and argued that he bartered their birthright for a government pay-out.
"He's not doing things the Indian way at all," says a fellow Miccosukee, "Far as we're concerned, Florida is not part of the United States in the first place because we've never been conquered ... how can the white man give it to us when we already own it?"
Buffalo simply accepts, "These people better wake up and be like everyone else". Perhaps it's simply an ardent realism. Having petitioned the royalty of Europe, the communists of Cuba and the democrats of his own government, he is resigned to never receive the balance of the original Miccosukee homeland. Perhaps he's just making the best of a bad lot.
North to Alaska
Most of Alaska is "bear beware" country, and there is plenty of advice about commonsense behaviour towards the creatures. Three species live here: the black bear, the brown bear and the polar bear, all large, free-range, untamed and forever hungry. My favourite of the bear etiquette tips advised "not to surprise bears at close distance, avoid crowding them, and respect their personal space". Fast runners, bears can easily climb trees and rock faces, and they tackle the water for more than a spot of salmon fishing.
We were surprised to see a bear swimming vigorously towards the ship, as was the Forest Service park ranger on board for that day, who remarked that it was a very unusual sight. It looked to be a very purposeful bear, and although it turned back to shore, we were glad that our "personal space" was well above the waterline.
Carroll Du Chateau
It wasn't when Juan pulled his Argentinian beret over his eyes, took me in his arms and started the slow slide. It wasn't when the music kicked into that unmistakable rhythm, or when the instructor started clicking her fingers and stamping her feet. No. It was when I first wriggled my feet into those high, black, T-bar-strapped tango shoes. I was there. Buenos Aires, the city Madonna called the Big Apple.
On Sunday morning, we found what we were looking for. We heard the music on the outskirts of a San Telmo antiques market, where you can buy a real mink wrap with its paws on.
Two couples, the men in fedoras, the women in sexy tight skirts and blouses, were slinking along the street. At first they looked almost ordinary. Sure, the girls' skirts were slashed way up to the knicker line, their tights black and lacy, their heels impossibly high. But then, on the rough cobbles, they broke into a dance that would make Norm Hewitt sob. The girls arched their backs, slid their legs between their partners' and kicked as fast and sharp as scissors; the men snaked their necks, glared, twisted and twirled like bull fighters.
Teetering on the brink
So this is where our clothes come to die. In the harbourside market of Honiara, the dusty and humid capital of the Solomon Islands, women squat beside meagre piles of peanuts, bananas and root vegetables, wearing dirty, threadbare cast-offs from Sydney and Auckland.
On the street old men wear filthy T-shirts with incongruous Nike and le Coq Sportif logos, a middle-aged man ducks through the traffic and fumes wearing a heavy overcoat in the 40C heat, and everywhere there are the menacing-looking young guys hanging around in groups, Bob Marley and reggae their clothing preference.
In Honiara - its town centre little more than a couple of hundred metres long and two dirty lanes deep - vendors wearing T-shirts from Australian universities, or in once "smart-casual" shirts, sit on low stools selling betel nut, single cigarettes and the dark, damp local tobacco, rolled in pages from an exercise book.
This is a battered country, dressed in last decade's cast-offs and living at subsistence level.
The big somewhere
The Red Centre, the Australians call it. But in the imagination it is more like the Big Nowhere, a flat, lifeless red thing that is closer to Mars than the third rock from the Sun. Certainly, on the flight to Alice Springs you can, from a window seat, see that this country really does have true Nowheres and Nothings. The immense, red wilderness of the Simpson Desert looks a hell of a place.
But in the country near Alice, though it too is an arid landscape, there is very much more than nothing. The MacDonnell Ranges run east and west of the town, forming a land of long spine-like ridges, craggy gorges, an intricate network of dry rivers, utterly beautiful but totally freezing waterholes, and plains and valleys dominated by acacias, spinifex and desert grasses. The fauna - from dingos to whistling kites to black-footed rock wallabies - is equally diverse, although because much of it is nocturnal, it is mainly unseen during the blazing daylight.
Berlin, capital of Europe
There is a buzz about Berlin. It may not have chic, but it has energy. The streets bustle with the nations of the world, the new architecture is brash and breathtaking, the nightlife goes until you drop. And yet behind a daring new facade you will glimpse an old Trabant buried in a muddy wasteland. Here and there, a turn-of-the-century building stands sharply alone - the sole survivor of bomb destruction. Taxis are all yellow Mercedes, minus the proud Mercedes star - a popular collectible for young thieves.
Whichever way you look, railways bisect your vision. Berlin can't be said to be beautiful, but it is a cultural epicentre, a perfect symbol of a new Europe where East and West do their best to get on with the twenty-first century - and with each other.
You don't have to be rich, old or crazy to become a QE2 passenger, but certainly those who enjoy low impact aerobics (lift that walking frame) and matching low cholesterol food are well catered for, and I noticed restaurant staff helping passengers with their medication between courses. You could have something soft for dinner at 6pm, followed by a slow waltz around the Queen's Lounge (known to the crew as God's Waiting Room) while the band plays You Make Me Feel So Young, pop a Mogadon and be in bed by 8.30pm.
London: falling in love again
I like reading about London but I didn't much want to go there. I went once and went round and round in a double-decker bus, always going the same way - the wrong way - because I kept getting on the bus going the same way.
I saw Buckingham Palace six times and grew fond of it although people scoff. Too small. Too plain. Too dour. Too lacking in grandeur. It was never built as a palace. It was a house, a grand residence, certainly, but just a house. I like it very much.
It is just like the Queen, who lives there. I like that you can imagine her sitting in one of her sitting rooms, eating her tea off a tray, watching Corrie St, perhaps. I like to imagine her rows of tweed skirts, and sensible shoes, dusted daily by one of the dailies.
On the riverbank, I thought of the huge trade that passed here before the invasion, when Tainui supplied Auckland with an extraordinary quantity of produce. Thought of the scores of waka plying the river; of their campfires. Some waka even had their own cooking fires on board. And, down in the delta, two days' paddle downriver - as many as fifty great waka would beach at the landing in a single day to disgorge corn, potato, kumara, peaches, goats, pigs, apples and wheat, ready for the Auckland market. By the mid-1850s, many villages had accumulated sufficient profit to build their own flour mills at river's edge. Sacks of flour were added to the trade.
They'd talked of that at the marae.
"The soldiers smashed all the waka, from big to small, right up and down the river. You see, my hapu used to own the riverbank at Hamilton. After the war they went back there, but it was a soldiers' camp. Where could they go? My hapu was moved like cattle from one place to another. They had nowhere to go, and nowhere's a big word."
A quiet night in Waitangi
I'd flown in from Wellington earlier that afternoon. After staring at nothing but the upside of clouds for the best part of an hour, the sunlit propellers of the little Chathams Air Convair 580 flickering across the view like a migraine aura, we began our descent. There, through ragged holes in the cloud cover, was Chatham Island itself. The rocky points of Capes Pattison and Young swept beneath us, fringed with white surf, then the dry-looking, low-lying land behind them gave way to the waters of the Te Whanga Lagoon, whitened by a keen northerly and speckled with countless black swans.
Wide white land
Along the hallway of Scott Base today are photos of every Kiwi team that's wintered over in Antarctica, the hardy, the oddball, the adventurous and the escapists who could countenance four months of midwinter darkness and constant bleakness. At top left is that first 23-strong team led by jut-jawed Hillary, lined up in checked shirts and woollen jerseys, a signed portrait of the young Queen on the wall, a kettle in one corner, an empty quart beer bottle in another. Including scientists, mechanics, dog handlers and pilots, they established a base that survived in the world's windiest, coldest, darkest and driest environment. They mapped areas never visited before, carried out remarkable research and laid out the supply depots for Fuchs. Then, at Hillary's urging, five of them pushed on to the Pole, seriously upsetting the Brits who were again beaten there but filling New Zealanders with rebellious pride.
I loved every second as a commuter on the two-hour-and twenty-minute journey through three zones: cramped South Auckland, Franklin county with its crops and hawks, the damp Waikato plains. I loved looking at things, I loved reading, I loved falling asleep - the clatter fell to a hush, like the whispering in a library. I loved the boring seconds. A train is a vacuum. Nothing happens; it's passive, dreamy, private. And I loved stepping outside on to the viewing platform - a thin, shuddering floor between two carriages, open to wind and rain, to the scent of river and soil. Summer turned to autumn, the light faded; I always took my seat in the buffet car, in the soft, red seats designed by Lazzarini; I faded on every journey, and dozed.
Along the road, villagers seek shelter from the heat. A woman sits smiling in a shaded stream, splashing water on her children. Two young girls push sand and sticks together on a beach as the tide washes white foam over their dark feet. Groups of men wearing traditional sulu skirts sit cross-legged in circles behind homes and under trees, drinking from a bowl of muddied liquid. The ritual drinking of kava, a non-alcoholic but otherwise intoxicating root beverage, permeates nearly every aspect of Fijian society. It's drunk in official ceremonies, to consummate deals, welcome visitors or socialise with each other.
Farther on, at a natural water slide hidden a few miles off the road behind thickets of bush, an Indian mother in a red sari and her two young boys giggle and hoot as they slip and splash down the stream.
* Home & Away: Award-winning Travel Stories by New Zealand Writers
Edited by Graeme Lay
New Holland Publishers