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Washington D. C. 9 January 2013

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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After San Francisco, I started my trip towards London. Having a bit of time six weeks before the next engagement there, however, I decided to meander my way via a few places I always really wanted to see. First stop, Washington DC.

I conveniently know a couple of people there, which I sincerely recommend. Travel to places where you know someone. And I don’t say this to make you all into moochers, because I don’t mean for free accommodation. But experience tells me that even in cities like Warsaw, which can be cold and its history sad and oppressing, you can end up with fantastic memories if you have someone to show you the sights, tell you what they like about it, and feed you in their favourite restaurants.

And ask questions – about their lives, what it’s like to live there, where to go. If they know you, they are also able to recommend things specifically for you.

And if you know people somewhere, contact them on advance and tell them you’d like to take them out for a coffee/ beer/ meal (depending on their budget) to pick their brains. I have found this to be a more valuable investment than a Lonely Planet. Although of I travel somewhere where I don’t know someone, I don’t go without one, of course.

So, Washington was… At the risk of sounding corny… Grand.

There’s a real sense of the importance of politics, democracy, and the people behind it all in the capital. The wonderful sense of the processes and indeed the celebrations of freedom.

The massive buildings, the memorials. The institutions (I took a picture of the IRS offices for a friend, as I think she’s spoken to every single person in that building at one point) and museums.

I was lucky with the weather, too. Mild, almost warm. Blue skies. And grey squirrels everywhere.

One of the highlights for me was Alexandria, an old town outside of Washington which was supposed to have been part of District of Columbia, but ended up as part of Virginia. It is quaint, pretty, and somehow quintessentially American. I enjoyed walking the little streets with my friends, soaking up the Christmas atmosphere. I had Mac and cheese for the first time in my life and felt like I was having an all round American experience.

I also loved walking everywhere. I thought the city very manageable, and although the distances are not for the faint hearted (the mall is 3 km from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol) there is plenty to see. I took lots of photos, and simply enjoyed seeing all those sights I have seen in movies; Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Forrest Gump where Jenny runs through the water in the mall.

The museums are clearly among the best in the world and far too plentiful for me to sample all of them. So, I simply chose things that sounded interesting to me. I went to a miniature train exhibition at the Botanical Gardens which was probably meant for kids more than me. Little train sets were set up in a fairy land with mosses and mushrooms. I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but I loved it.

I also went to the Museum of Natural History for the dinosaurs and got completely drawn in by their gems and precious stones exhibit. And the Air and Space Museum! I swear I should have been born a boy, because between the trains, dinosaurs, fossils, rocks and space shuttles, I was in heaven. I could have spent days in these museums alone, so I only scratched the surface of what was on offer.

The nerd in me also had its fancy tickled as I went to the National Archives and saw the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its many amendments.

I loved Washington. It was a fun, manageable city. I had delicious winter cocktails with Asian-Mexican fusion food (it strangely worked really well) and good friends to keep me company in the evenings. I went to an improv theatre performance and generally had a wonderful time.

As I left on the train to go to New York, I genuinely wanted to come back to Washington some time. Perhaps even to live!

These holidays were going well indeed.

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Travel hiccups 11 May 2012

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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When travelling, there’s bound to be a few hiccups. Things don’t go to plan, or simply don’t work out. Sometimes, though, it can feel like things have simply got off the wrong foot, and that nothing could possibly go right.

As I prepared for my sojourn to Argentina, it has become apparent that I may cause some unnecessary trouble for myself. Hopefully, this will not become a sign of what is to come for these holidays…

Firstly, I managed to walk away from my handbag with my wallet, credit cards, money and iPhone in it in a restaurant the night before flying out of Canberra. I did not even notice, until the police contacted the person I was with at the time (having contacted the last few recently called people on my list, including dad). Luckily, and to the credit of the police, they were not only able to reach me, but also able to return all my stuff (without anything missing from the bag) that very same night. Thanks goes out to “Matt” who found the bag and took it to the police station intact.

Then, the next morning, I had to take a train to commute from the domestic to the international terminal in Sydney. Dragging two bags with me is not usually my forte, and getting through a turnstile with one bag in front and the other behind while putting my ticket through the ticket reader caused the turnstile to close with one bag and one leg on either side of it. My reaction was

“well, that went well!”

Which caused a lady nearby who was trying her best not to laugh, to snort loudly. She was embarrassed to find so much mirth in my misfortune, although I was giggling, too.

Hopefully, these events are not an indication of my holidays to come.

Thanh Hoa Adventure 22 June 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Travelling, Vietnam.
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So, we rented a car for the weekend, and drove south.

Hanoi has been hot and sticky all week, with brilliant days of sunshine, and blackouts plaguing the office. So we decided that on a fantastic weekend like this, we might as well try to find a beach to hide away at. Taking an extra day made us able to make it into a longer trip, too.

We drove south past the city of Thanh Hoa, to a little beach called Hai Hoa. The directions we had were “drive until you were in this and this town, then take the first left after the post office”. The post office was spotted, and we took a left, but unfortunately it was the second left, not the first, which we had missed.

But the second turn off led us south along the coast for about 10-15 kilometres, into a fishing village where we got to see the locals make dried fish and fish sauce. If you have ever been anywhere that makes fish sauce, by the way, you will instantly recognise the smell of fermenting fish – slightly repugnant, and incredibly strong.

The locals were clearly not used to seeing foreigners, and it was fun to see their reactions, we were waved at, and laughed at, lots of people would have a chat, and it was generally quite a welcoming feeling. The village had little windy roads along the coast, but no real beaches to speak of. We eventually asked about the way to Hai Hoa, and realised that we had gone the wrong way, so we turned back.

Back at the town, we realised we had overshot the turnoff by ten metres, so we had not been that far off.

Hai Hoa has a beautiful little beach, with fishing boats dragged onto the sand, and two main hotels on the ‘strip’. We ended up going for walks, eating lunch in deckchairs on the beach, napping during the hottest part of the day, and reading our books. When the day wore on and the harshest sting was out of the sunlight, we ended up strolling along the beach and starting up a conversation with a group of local fishermen.

They were assembled to head out to sea, where they spend their nights from 6 at night until 6 in the morning, working. They offered us their special brew (some sort of alcohol which we politely refused, as it looked a bit like moonshine, despite the assurances from the fishermen that it was fine French champagne) and spent loads of time chatting with us. They were friendly and open, and all of them loved the fact that my partner speaks Vietnamese so well.

We sat at the beach with a beer watching them go out to sea, and as it got darker, the entire horizon was dotted with squid lamps. We headed back to the hotel to try and find a place to watch our respective teams play football, but could not find anywhere showing it apart from the reception. So we watched it in our room.

Strangely, we could not get the aircon to work, so we ended up trying to keep the windows open for a draft to come through. Sadly, our idea worked, and it ended up slamming one of the windows into the wall outside, breaking the glass. So by that stage, the aircon would not have actually been very effective anyway.

We had a most wonderful spread for dinner on the beach, including huge prawns, mackerel fish, squid, morning glory and deep fried corn. Then, after an extremely hot sleep, and mosquitoes biting me to death, strange sounds and a touch of karaoke, we decided to move along to another destination.

Driving north, we took a random right turn off the highway in search of an adventure. The first turn was a bit of a sad one – after only a couple of hundred metres, the road just ended into a dirt track, meaning that we had to back the car up past the rice fields and the skittish cows again. The locals here just stared – they must have thought we were insane.

The next right turn was a much bigger success, it led to the delta of a small river, and lovely landscape and houses that we passed. But the most wonderful was the beach that we found. Not a single building on the beach, and the only other people we saw were two fishermen and two ladies walking in opposite directions. The fishermen were happy to have a chat, too, and show us how to fish. They showed us their catch, and told us why they did not keep certain fish. The water was cool, and it felt like summer in so many ways – nowhere to be, nothing to do, having a yack with randoms.

We ended up driving a little further north to Sam Son after that – a beach touted as the second nicest beach in Vietnam. (Something I may have to disagree with, especially due to having just seen that wonderful, deserted beach just above.) It was all very Vietnamese, and some of the things offered there for ‘entertainment’ were not after my taste (down to the little white horses painted with black stripes, which you could get a photo with dressed as a cowboy…) but it certainly had a bit of a ‘Miami’ feel to it – a strip of hotels, food stalls and stalls selling knick-knacks that no one really wants. It also had cyclos and golf carts to ship the (Vietnamese) tourists around, and ice cream on every corner.

There was also a little temple on top of a cliff, and it was quite a neat little set-up. We stayed at a beautiful resort way up the other end, which allows for some more privacy if you wanted it, as well as a walk along the beach going north, where there were no more buildings. We swam in the ocean, then went for a dip in the pool. I spent time walking up the beach with the camera, trying to capture the lives of the local children and women looking for clams in the sand.

The next day, we walked along the beach and struck up conversations with the local women peddling wonderfully colourful crabs, and learnt that they go out at 3 in the morning on their boats, and return at 7. Somehow crab fishing must be more lucrative than squid fishing further south. The lady told us she makes about 100,000 dong per day (about 6 dollars) selling her crabs, which is probably why she was so keen on selling them to us.

We headed north to Hanoi again before lunch, to avoid driving after dark. All in all, quite the adventure, and I must admit, I feel like I have been on holidays!

Not for the faint-hearted 22 June 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Life, Travelling, Vietnam.
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I have started and re-started a blog post about driving my motorbike in the streets of Hanoi many a time, but have always been foiled by cliches – nothing I could come up with was new, it had all been said before. There are just so many cliches:

– There are the traffic jams – ever present and sometimes infuriating. Ever expanding in their number and size with no respite visible in the near future.

– There are the count-down clocks on the traffic lights – causing drivers to start their engines and drive when there is 3 seconds left on the counter, and make them keep driving 3 seconds after the light has turned red, creating what a friend of my recently coined as “the four second window of death”.

– There are the accidents – including the minor bumps into the bike in front on busy streets, and the many fatalities which happen every day which I count my lucky stars that I have not yet witnessed a single one of.

– There is the pollution.

– There is the impossibility of crossing the road when you first arrive.

– There are the masks and the helmets that make it impossible to recognise anyone, but which often provide you with something to look at on your way home, including the matching “Burberry” helmets on the young, affluent couple, or the pink pooh bear helmet on the guy in front of you, the cowboy helmets and helmets of any other shape and size (except for yours). There are the slightly unsettling masks with the giant kissy lips or the big grin, which make the wearer look like a cross of a clown and creepy skeleton.

– There’s the embarrassing expat burn on your calf – caused by the inexperience of the poor schmuck who did not know that exhaust pipes are hot, and you need to step off on the left hand side of the bike for that very reason.

– And there are the ‘bikes of burden’ – those overladen bikes that transport everything from live buffaloes and other live stock to cases of beer and mattresses, and the occasional fridge that is not secured. I have even seen full-length railway sleepers being transported by motorbike here.

But as I said – nothing new! Any expat in Vietnam with a blog will have mentioned all of the above.

But there is one thing that I can now say for myself – driving a car in Vietnam is a completely different kettle of fish, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Much of it is the same as a motorbike – if your car can fit into a space on the road, you fill it. But at the same time, you need to be so much more aware of everything that is happening around you, and you must assume that people will not act the way that you expect them to. Swerving is a national sport, so driving a car means that you might actually kill someone on a motorbike who does not know you are there. You are big compared to all of them.

On the motorbike, I find that I read traffic like water flow – I do not keep an eye on each individual motorbike around me. It would be nearly impossible to do so anyway, but that is also the way that you can avoid most of the obstacles around. If all the bikes swerve at a certain point, you know a pot hole is coming up. If there is a disturbance in the flow, it gives you clues. Someone might be crossing, or driving up the wrong way on a one-way street. There may be a rubbish collector there, or a taxi is picking up a customer. If you see break lights ahead, you break.

But in the car, you have to be so much more vigilant, and keep track of those bikes around you. There were two behind me, one beside the bus in front. If any go missing, they are probably in your blind spot. You must assume that the people around you on bikes do not know how to drive cars, and will never have heard of a blind spot. And most bikes on the road have no mirrors, so if you are not in front of them, you are in their blind spot!

So beeping is the name of the game. You beep when someone is coming down the wrong way on the high way (and that includes trucks) and you beep when you overtake a bus, so it won’t swerve into your lane. You flash your lights at oncoming traffic to make them move out of the way, or they might not budge. You get stuck behind buses and trucks that think nothing of driving in the middle of the road all the time, only getting into their own lane to let the oncoming traffic pass. Which means you are stuck behind them.

Buses swish past with minimal clearance, with the drivers leaning on their horns. Cars will overtake with no space to do so, ending up with traffic three wide on a two-lane country road. No courtesy is expected, and none is extended.

Strangely, driving was an incredible amount of fun. Another extreme sport to tick off my list. And we both did incredibly well, mainly due to being used to the motorbike in this traffic.

I miss having a car.