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This is a day earlier than I figured, but I'm lying on a beach surrounded by half naked French women and want to clear the decks (so to speak):

My wife asked me this morning “what is the opposite of home sick”?

OK – so the original question was “Could I survive a 10 week vacation with lousy communications”? The answer seems to be a resounding “yes”. Was a cruise the optimal way to do this? Not really. It wasn’t bad and, under the circumstances and self imposed time constraints a pretty good solution but, given some time to plan, traveling on land exposes you to far more in the way of local experiences than a cruise does. That said, it is also true that for a given level of luxury (including food and entertainment), a cruise is frequently cost effective. I figure some combination of land and sea might make most sense.

I am trying to figure out the nuances of living "off the grid". Trying to handle phone/fax/internet/mail/taxes with no schedule of returning home. I think I've figured out the phone and fax (Skype with a local NYC number for $4 a month forwarded to either voicemail and my current home land line number ported to an on-line fax service. US cell, since mine has no contract, can be turned on/off while retaining my phone number. I currently get my TV over the air anyway (I’m high enough in NYC to get about 20 HDTV stations – many of them various PBS), so the remaining challenge is an internet connection. There is a library with free Wi-Fi on my block, but I don’t have line of sight. I’ll be experimenting with high gain wireless antennas to see if I can set up a bridge. That will reduce my “away from home” recurring expenses to pretty much rent and insurances. Using a VPN and Log-Me-In seems to be able to reduce the bandwidth enough to let my local PC use my remote one even under adverse circumstances.

With somewhat more effort much of the tax stuff is doable. I'm still trying to deal with my mail (and some of the more esoteric tax documentation) without depending on the good nature of human friends. The long term travelers I’ve asked about this say they use a private post office box (such as run by UPS) and have their mail periodically sent en-mass to agents at ports of call or hotels they will be staying at. That said, in a perfect world, I am going to try to travel (generally not by cruise except for convenience) 8-10 months next year (I find it fascinating and, in fact, useful as an investor to better understand what's going on). The challenge will be to remain locatable in an emergency, but be free to move around at will. Additionally, while I have forgone any investment activity during this trip, at some point I have to make arraignments to be able to keep the game going while I travel.

So one solution is to work around the status-quo. Another would be to change my residence of record to a lower taxed part of the country (Florida comes to mind) with the justification that we won’t be around much anyway (and can always stay in a hotel if we visit NYC). A more extreme solution would be to go completely expat and move to one or more places outside of the US. Some places are cheaper and can provide a life of luxury. Other places are sophisticated and populated by pleasing people (Sydney, Paris, Singapore, Auckland, Vienna, Southern France and a number of other places come to mind). The jury is still out.

November 13, 2011 – Melbourne, Australia:
I have to admit that I’ve always been fond of both Australia and Australians. The country is beautiful and its population, regardless of age, seems to maintain the enthusiasm and sense of humor of teenagers. The ship has been presenting Aussie entertainers (singers, dancers, magicians, etc.) and all of them are not only talented, but exhibit enthusiasm, extroverted personalities and humor (though hearing Waltzing Matilda, Under the Gum Tree and I Call Australia Home all seem to be part of each singer’s repertoire). If I ever decided to relocate from the US, Australia would be way up there on the list.

Australia has a negligible “black” population (in the African sense of the word), but does, of course have a small, but noticeable – even in the cities - proportion of its population made up of Aborigines. Slavery was not practiced and because of various restrictions (social or legal) and there was apparently no influx from this racial group. That said, a fairly large part of the population in non-British European (Italian, Greek, etc.) and, more recently, Asian (Chinese/Hong Kong, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.). The current generation seems to have a greater percentage of inter-ethnic marriages than we have in the States. This has led to not only to a demographics on the street which feels a bit “unbalanced” to an American, but also to what we might call “fusion” cuisine being common enough to be the expected default in some classes of restaurant. The food in restaurants is substantially more expensive than in most parts of the US (only a place like Manhattan is likely to compete). An example – in a Melbourne shopping area, in one of a number of side-by-side crowded small (not fancy) restaurants lunch consisted of:
Personal pizza - $16 (AUD)
Hamburger & fries - $20
Soda - $4.50
Beer - $9.00
It takes a bit of thought to even come close to justifying them. Tipping is not done in Australia (and waiters are paid a living wage/national benefits by the restaurant) and there is no sales tax. In my case, this would mean approximately 30% of the menu price in the States would have been added. But despite the rationalization, the prices were still very high. Missing in almost all stores was any semblance of “SALE” signs. While I guess there are seasonal sales, apparently they are not happening now and the philosophy of always running promotional discount sales seems to be missing.

Australians are generally friendly and pleasant. They help us in our military adventures (sane or insane) so that we will “owe them one” should they ever need assistance in defending against an invasion from Asia. While we living in the States would never characterize this as a risk, it is very much on Australia’s mind (and has precedence in the 1940’s). One wonders if they have our promise of assistance in writing (bearing in mind Charles de Gaul’s statement that “Nations do not have allies. Nations have interests”).

Written a few days later (on Nov. 17, 2011): The POTUS, according to the NY Times is in Canberra (pronounced “Canbra” here) and promised to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia to shore up alliances in Asia (despite impending cuts to the military budget). Previously (in posts) I had mentioned that China was accomplishing through purchase of mines and mineral rights what Japan had attempted to capture militarily during the 1930’s. This has gone hand in hand with China’s building a blue water navy and building bases in areas of the Pacific where they have interests. This includes the archipelagos of islands north of Australia and bridges the shipping lanes to and from Australia. The small forced is obviously not tactically important, so it is symbolic from a strategic standpoint and is meant comfort Australia and stand as a warning to China. This is the first long term expansion of the US military presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War and could signal the beginning of a cold war type relationship between the US and China. As all nations have interests which transcend friendship these movements are best carefully tracked and studied.

Back to base story:

Well, it’s Sunday but at least we have a full day in Melbourne. While not as charismatic as Sydney (with its harbor full of icons), Melbourne is a pleasant, sophisticated city. We have visited here before and therefore bypassed the “must-see” zoo and botanical gardens. While these are truly worthwhile, the frustrating imposed limit of one day means making compromises. Also passed up was St. Kilda with its beach, Sunday market and Luna Park amusements. We started by buying a Sunday discount full day tram ticket for $4.50 each. Similar to other such systems, the ticket is stamped in a machine upon entering the tram which starts the clock running and the retained in case an inspector asks to see it. In addition to a number of regular “paid” tram lines, Melbourne (again typical of Australian cities) has a free step-on step-off loop tram around its commercial district. It also has a number of restaurant trams which circle the city. We took the “109” tram in from the Port of Melbourne an d got off at the Town Hall (Collins Street). This allowed us to walk a couple of blocks to the bridge over the Yarra River (further up the river is one of Australia’s prime wine growing areas, but down in Melbourne on Sunday it’s host to racing shells) to the Victorian Arts Center which has a Sunday crafts market. This consists of about 60 booths filled with all manner of eclectic homemade items (our take was a cute but expensive - $3 – refrigerator magnet. By the time we were done it was about 1:30 and, even though we had tram passes, since stores close at 4PM on Sunday, we decided to take a taxi (time being money) to the Victoria Market – a 200 x 300 meter covered market. While this was an impressive array of booths and products much of it (other than seeing the display itself) was simply of minor interest. On leaving the market, we were intrigued by a guy selling mesh and canvas “Aussie” hats which could be crushed and packet and still come out of the bag unwrinkled. After a bit of haggling we got the price down to about $22 each (from $28) and bought one for each of us. Someone wisecracked on the street later that we were the only ones on the street who looked Australian :-(. My “I AM CANADIAN” baseball hat has provided a bunch of laughs as most Australians can’t tell the difference between USians and Canadians except by observing that USians tend to talk louder.

We walked from Victoria Market to the series of late 19th century covered shopping arcades which stretch through entire blocks between Bourke Street and Collins Street and are bracketed by Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street. Most of these consist of small stores and boutiques, but some house Australia’s major departments stores (Davey Jones, Myers, etc.). Davey Jones is large enough to have large, block long buildings facing each other across Little Collins Street. We tracked down an Australian meat pie shop for lunch into an alley way near the Block Arcade, but it was closed. Instead we ate at a small place in the same alley (see above). Afterwards, wandering through one of the nearby arcades, (remembering that the woman that we were walking with was always expressing horror and occasional disgust with the street food I tend to select), I bought dark chocolate tree frogs at a chocolatier for everyone as a desert (offering hers head first for her convenience, but suggesting that it could be enjoyed equally well if eaten from either end). On the way back I found a pie shop and had a minced meat and chutney pie (not exactly a traditional Aussie recipe, but what the heck). Went back to the ship and was playing WII Bowling (first time I’ve played this –embarrassed that wife beat me) when it pulled away from the dock. The channel lit up with blinking red and green lights like a runway fir sea planes as we departed.

November 15, 16, 2011 – Sydney, Australia:
We entered Sydney harbor at around 6AM and spent the next couple of hours watching from our veranda as we cruised past Manly Beach at the harbor entrance, Taranga Zoo and the Opera House with the Sydney Harbor Bridge (the Coat Hanger in local slang) ahead. The ship docked at The Rocks on the edge of Circular Quay in the center of Sydney. The view through our window and from the veranda is filled with the Sydney Opera House. Leaning over the railing lets me star down on ferries and water taxis of all kinds. I could not ask for a better view.

This is going to be a busy day. We’ve been to Sydney a number of times before and therefore did not feel pressured to see the worthy zoo, aquarium or take the long ferry ride to Manly Beach. Instead we took a shorter ferry ride under the Sydney Harbor Bridge to Darling Harbor. On the ferry I saw a guy wearing Vibram Five Fingers (figured out what they were later – sort of water shoes with separate toes which looks pretty cool – to me at least) and decided to track them down. Turns out they (like most other items) cost far more in Oz than in the States. Walked across a few blocks (past the Apple store) to the Queen Victoria Building – one of a few late 19th century glitzy shopping malls. We killed some time shopping and I figured out that one reason the Aussie diamonds cost so much is that the material is sent outside of Australia for cutting and then brought back in – I suspect like most things here, they are cheaper in NYC.

I had an appointment for lunch witch the Westpac banking guy I’ve been dealing with (but never met) for the past few years. He turned out to be (not really a surprise) an “ultra-cool” late 20’s Asian with a spiky hairdo. He took us to a sushi place and had fun ordering some of the more esoteric stuff on the menu. Then we took a high speed walk through Sydney (looking for who carried the toe shoesie thingies) while he talked a mixture of finance and food. After parting company, we coordinated a central Sydney pickup by a couple of friends of ours who live in the suburbs. They drove us out to Bondi Beach to watch the surfers. We spread a blanket and then had a champagne and camembert picnic. Afterwards, we drove to the ship and everyone changed into fancy duds. I had booked a table at the elegant restaurant on the ship and we took some time to listen to the string quartet and the piano bar singer (who had moved his venue to the fantail for the evening) before dinner. I figured I owed them that as last time I had visited Sidney they had treated me to an “Aussie platter” of kangaroo, crocodile and emu. I figured fillet mignon, prawns, foi-gras, etc. was a reasonable trade. Fortunately we got to the ship at 5:45 and the parking lot was a flat $20 (it would have cost close to $50 if it had been earlier). The night was fine.

The following day was spent walking around Sidney. Opals are very pretty but for some reason my wife has never liked them. OTOH, she doesn't feel the same way about diamonds ;-( Australia is the leading source for opals and of colored diamond varieties (from the Argyle mines in the Kimberly area of northwestern Australia). Originally these largely beige and brown stones were used exclusively for industrial purposes until some enterprising Aussie invented the “champagne” and “cognac” colors and started to market them as gem stones a couple of decades ago (more recently joined by “chocolate” diamonds from other parts of the world – turning trash into valuables). Incidentally, as in the case of many other gem stones, good opals are easy to counterfeit so it’s important to either know a lot about them (especially if you can’t see their back) or buy from a reputable jeweler. We did some pricing of opals (wife seems to have softened her position on these), but prices were ridiculous for the nifty colored pebbles. Looked at more colored diamonds but decided that since they were not generally cut in Australia, the pricing would probably be better in NYC’s 47th Street diamond district (the stones I looked at were slightly over .5 carat, saturated yellow, excellent cut, round, VS1, but were about twice the price I expected them to be about $11K a carat).

We had lunch in the food court in the basement of Meyer’s (sort of the equivalent of a large Macy’s in the States) department store. This place seats a couple thousand people (at least) and has about 20 assorted ethnic restaurants. The food we shared (large toasted whole wheat roll veggie and cheese sandwich) was tasty and a bit expensive ($10) for what it was. We roamed through the store (looking for travel soap) and ended at a café on the fifth floor for an excellent nut torte a cappuccino (her) and a black coffee (me). I roamed around checking prices on pots/pans, knifes, whisks, food processors and so on. There was nothing lower than double the cost of the same item in the States and many items were three or four times the price. As many of these items were the same brands of Chinese manufactured goods as we get and considering the higher Aussie dollar (when looking at US or European goods), I don’t understand the difference. I guess it’s a combination of lower volume not giving pricing leverage, the Canadian complex (keeping prices higher than in US dollars despite current parity), higher margin, some GST (value added tax) and so on. I would call it inflation if looked at from a single currency point of view, but that would not explain the increase in price in terms of US dollars. I chatted with a young lady who had just returned from a year in London and who confirmed that Sydney was substantially more expensive than that city (with its reputation of high cost of living). All I can say is someone is making a lot of money somewhere.

There is a real estate bubble from the standpoint of pricing with many homes near Sydney priced in the millions of dollars. OTOH, the banks require at least a 20% down payment and seem to take a traditional approach from the standpoint of valuation (and apparently keep their own paper rather than sell them to those who securitize them. Rents seem to be on a weekly (rather than monthly) basis and the two prices I heard were for a two bedroom apartment near Bondi Beach (seemingly cheap to me at $280 per month) and for a prime retail location ($7K a week for 200 square meters on the ground floor of the Queen Victoria Building). Also, while I’m not an expert on the subject (while not as expensive as Singapore-the world’s most expensive car market), it was pointed out that autos cost substantially more in Australia than in the States. Most cars are imported, but Holden is still built in Oz. Presumably wages have gone up since our last visit (about a decade ago) to compensate for much of the price increase, but from the standpoint of an American the “Zurich like” pricing for food, clothing, housing and good in general (presumably services as well) despite a love for Australia in general and Sydney in particular, relocating here would be far more expensive than almost any place in Europe (or of course much of the rest of the world). That said, based on my completely unscientific questions, most Australians earn more (in terms of Aussie dollars) than Americans in equivalent jobs earn (in terms of US ones). I heard that waiters in neighborhood restaurants made about $28 an hour and a couple of young lifeguards I met made $20 an hour. Presumably they pay higher tax rates but of course benefit from nationalized medicine, low cost of higher education, etc. It’s hard to tell because most Aussies don’t seem to try to show off their wealth by the brand of car they drive. In fact, I’ve rarely heard any Aussie bragging about their wealth or material possessions in the fashion popular among many Americans. Their lack of flaunting does not mean that they are poor, but does make it difficult to tell which one owns a “decent sized” cattle station and which merely owns a 20,000 acre ranch.

As we ate dinner, we cruised past the opera house on our way towards the head of Sydney Harbor. As we leave Sydney I have “fond” memories of a previous trip from here to New Caledonia which was, by far, the roughest weather we have ever encountered on a cruise (a day and a half of cyclone with 50 foot waves and 80 mph winds). Tonight’s show was aboriginal dancing, didgeridoo playing, etc. Tomorrow is mambo lessons (I have decided that I will never be called twinkle toes, but may as well take advantage of the free lessons).

November 19 - Iles de Pin, New Caledonia:
Well, despite the reputation of the Tasman Sea crossing, the seas have been as smooth as glass the whole way. (When we rounded the Horn at the tip of South America a few years ago, again despite its reputation, the seas were smooth, so if taking a cruise be prepared for rough seas but don’t particularly expect them. Things may get rough from time to time – though it’s not that often – but generally you won’t feel much movement in a modern ship). It ruined my pending quip about playing bridge over troubled waters.

This former French penal colony is small and beautiful. More than 2,000 deported prisoners were housed here in the 1870’s (many had not committed a crime at all and many others only minor infractions). New Caledonia is, like Australia and New Zealand a chunk of the original Gondwana supercontinent and has been isolated from the first or 85 million years and the second for 30 million years (unlike most Pacific islands which are recent coral and/or volcanic in origin). As such, its flora and fauna are diverse and unique.

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