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Vietnam gets under your skin 30 April 2013

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I saw Anh Do’s stand up show last night, in which he draws on his experiences to make an audience laugh and choke up in equal amounts. It was a rather strange experience to see a comedy show (?) where the comedian himself was touched to tears talking about his family. It was strange, but warm and close. And strangely familiar.

Anh Do came to Australia from Vietnam as a refugee many years ago. He identifies as Australian, and is proud of Australians that faught, but his story is so interwoven with Vietnam that he is still distinctly ‘immigrant’, too. His accent is but faint, but still very much there.

Snapshots from Vietnam were shown on a screen behind him, and at one stage he played a traditional Vietnamese song over the top of some images. Instantly, I could feel the oppressive heat, the smells (and stenches), the blossoms. The noise, the motorbikes, the food, the language.

Vietnam has got under my skin. And I missed it so much last night.

It is indescribable. I have been thinking about it all day – that longing that Vietnam conjures up in me that I had never envisioned. Never.

I now have a fascination with the country that I never thought I would have. I devour all news related to Vietnam, I read books about it. Books I never read leading up to going there or while I was there.

What a mysterious, magical country. No wonder the Vietnamese are so proud to show it to you.

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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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San Francisco 6 January 2013

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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I am on the road again.

2012 was a busy year for me, tourism-wise.

At the end of November I had a family occasion in San Francisco, and another one lined up in the middle of January in London. I could thus either fly from Australia, where I am currently based, to San Francisco, stay for a week, fly back, then fly to London in January and then back, or, travel around the world.

After a slight moment of hesitation (slight in this case being about a split second) I thus chose to take six weeks off and travel. As you do.

First stop San Francisco!

I have always wanted to see San Francisco, but instead of flowers, I spent most of it with rain in my hair. I have a few friends there, although they conveniently were away while I was in town… Apparently, Ghana and Japan are far more interesting than sticking around to show me around.

But, having said that, San Francisco was magnificent. It had everything to tickle my fancy.

I went to the cable car museum for the nerd in me. It is a small, central museum where the engine rooms for the cables that run the famous cable cars are. It stunk like engines and oil the moment we walked in, but the massive cogs and wheels turning and the sheer old school awesomeness of the place made it completely worth it! If you are into steam punk, cogs and old school, this is totally up your ally. If you are not into that, you should still go.

I went to Alcatraz because of the must-see nature of the place. I was a bit worried that I might be disappointed, as everyone was talking it up so much, but the morning that I decided to go, the sun came up and it was a glorious day. And frankly, I would recommend it myself. The prison part is really well done, with an audio guide literally telling you where to go and what you are looking at. It does create a weird non-interaction between the tourists who all walk around intently listening and looking, with only footsteps heard when you take the headphones off. I also experienced that if you, like me, run off to look at something outside of the audio tour, the tour was inflexible and didn’t really allow any fast forwarding or rewinding. Stick to the script and you won’t get lost! The surrounds are also worth having a look at, and the historic occupation of the island by Indian tribes had a special interest for me, as I am currently working on Indigenous issues in Australia. All in all, it was a really nice morning.

I also was lucky enough to be asked along to a bike ride of the bay, which went across the Golden Gate Bridge. Yay for lovely people who take pitty on a lone traveller, and invite them to things. It is one of my absolute top advice if you travel: when travelling alone, be open for experiences when they arise, or if travelling with people, take heed of the lone traveller and befriend them! Again, we had amazing weather that day, and cycling across the bridge was an experience I will not soon forget. It was leisurely, but with amazing views.

Food-wise, San Francisco did not disappoint. I went down memory lane with fantastic Vietnamese banh mi (sandwiches), Argentinian steaks that melt in the mouth and wash down well with Argentinian wine, and a Dutch pancake cafe. I tried Asian fusion and a wonderful 7 course meal with great company and wine.

All in all, I think I drank as much in San Francisco as I probably have for a long time. But holidays must be kicked off in style, right?

So I recommend the hilly city. Walk it as much as you can. Jump on a cable car even though it is horrendously tacky and touristy. Go for a bike ride and eat. Then eat some more.

Next stop – Washington DC.

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Buenos Aires 18 May 2012

Posted by uggclogs in Argentina, Travelling, Travels.
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Today, I had a chance to discover some of the city that is Buenos Aires. I’ll just leave the pictures I took.

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Cemeteries in BsAs 17 May 2012

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Buenos Aires is a hustling and bustling city, with people everywhere. There’s also a healthy fascination with death here, which means cemeteries are a centra part of the city.

I thought I would visit the most famous one, the Ricoleta cemetery on my first day out and about. It is a tiny city within the city, the place where the rich and the noble bury their dead. The tombs are elaborate with statues and ornate glass windows, sometimes covered in cobwebs or in states of disrepair.

Apparently, the per square metre prices for a plot of land in this cemetery far outstrips the real estate prices elsewhere in this most expensive suburb.

The rich and the famous have been laid to rest here, which sadly showed my lack of knowledge on the subject of the rich and famous of Argentina. I found the final resting place of Evita, which was the only name I recognized.

But the walk through the streets lined with death was fascinating and even slightly creepy. I’m just not used to this much death in one place, and after a while I felt I had seen more than enough coffins and memorials for the day.

That did not, however, stop me from walking to the far larger cemetery in Chacarita the next day. This one had been established when yellow fever swept the city, and was less crowded (the streets between graves had car traffic going through it) but far, far larger.

One part almost matched Ricoleta in opulence, with tombs the size of houses. But then there were the far larger areas with simple wooden crosses, and the ‘pigeon hole’ graves along the back wall. Underneath the cemetery was also a type of catacombs, sometimes up to four stories down. On the surface, all you could see were the air vents servicing the graves below.

Much of the fascination with death escapes me. But it was very clear that to have such a large population in one area, which seems to favour some sort of monument in the afterlife, does create a very lovely area in the middle of cities.

If you plan a trip to Argentina, swing by some of the cemeteries to see them for yourself.

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Argentine staples 12 May 2012

Posted by uggclogs in Argentina, food, Travelling, Travels.
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Before arriving, I knew Argentina was famous for beef. So my first night here, I was taken to a regular restaurant, where the pride of the country was grilled and served.

And it truly is amazing; succulent and flavorsome. And getting the right cut is (apparently) quite important, with restaurants serving pretty much every part of the cow you might like. Argentina certainly is not the place to be for staunch vegetarians who can’t even stomach other people eating meat!

The next night, we went on a wine tasting adventure at a local wine merchant in Palermo. Absolutely wonderful wine from Mendoza (a region in west Argentina) including the famous Malbec wine, which is expensive, but heavenly. It was absolutely worth it, and a most cordial of evenings.

I also discovered I understand quite a lot more Spanish than I had expected. Bonus!

After wine, we ordered delivery of Empanadas (hot pockets of meat in pastry) which is another Argentina must-have.

I am so far loving the cuisine, and am dying to try more. I think brorsan’s fiancée said it best when describing the local cuisine as an enormous kids’ menu: everything is grilled and fried, delicious and unchallenging (so far)! But perhaps not exactly the healthiest.

But I am sure I will have a chance to find something more challenging soon (like vegetables?) so we’ll see. But good holiday so far.

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Airport pickup 12 May 2012

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So, after yesterday’s predictions of a bumpy ride, I have been off to a fine start. On my way to the airport, I realized that I did not know whether my brother would pick me up at the other end. Having neglected to have that conversation, I sent off a text in the hope that he would still get it before I boarded my flight.

Lo and behold, it being in the middle of the night in Argentina, I was not that lucky. So I set out on my holidays not knowing whether the excellent brother, who I know is majorly run off his feet at the moment, would be there at the other end. Or whether I needed an address to get through immigration. Something I did not have either.

The flight was delayed quite a bit in Sydney, as a passenger fell ill and needed to disembark the aircraft. In the mean time, I am hopefully staring at my phone waiting for a sign of life from my brother. When we finally take off, I still don’t have an address or a confirmation that he will be there.

Silly me.

To top it off, when I finally arrive in Santiago de Chile, I realize that probably should have brushed up on the old Spanish skills, as I cannot communicate with anyone. I feel like a total noob as I try to explain to a restaurant that I want a chicken sandwich. I end up with a chicken sandwich (score) and a strawberry juice (what the? But delicious! So double score!). Then onwards to Argentina.

At the airport, I had the most painful immigration officer who had no sense o humor and no patience. Luckily, I had plenty of both, despite having travelled for about 24 hours by this point. And no need for an address to get through (phew)!

Bag arrives without drama. Through security, and voila, I am in Argentina.

¡Hola!

Hopeful, I train my little neck to look around.

No insanely tall person is visible above the crowds. I take a little turn around the entrance. Hope is fading fast. No brother. I even check the seats in case he is sitting.

Nope.

So plan B – I must find a phone to call him.

Soon, I’ve got him on the phone. I am thrilled that I actually have a number for him, because this could have got ugly. And sure enough, dear brorsan is not at the airport. He’s sent the details on how to take a taxi to me after take off. So taxi it is.

When I finally get to brorsan’s apartment, I’m exhausted. Door to door, the trip took 26 hours. But I’m here! And I’m glad to see my brother, finally!

Now for the jet lag…

Travel hiccups 11 May 2012

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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.

Coming back 22 August 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Life, Travelling, Travels.
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Travelling is amazing. And interesting. And fulfilling.

I love travelling, and I intend to keep doing so for as long as I can.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to travelling, which are largely based on the personal relationships that you have around you – friends, colleagues, acquaintances.

The first downside is obvious and glaring: travelling means leaving places and people behind. It means saying goodbye to good friends and loved ones. Sometimes, you do not know if you will ever see them again. And sometimes, you don’t. Leaving a place can be emotional and teary, partly because of the memories and people left behind, and the uncertainty about things to come.

I was not there for the passing of my grandmother two years ago. Being far away meant that I had to make that choice: will I go now, or will I go for the funeral? Will I go at all? These are terrible choices to have to make. For one of my grandmothers, I chose to wait for her passing, and then flew back for my parents, to be there for them. For the other one, I chose to fly back slightly earlier, to catch her just before passing away, and then being there for her death and her funeral. But the flight was so long, that I did not know if I would make it in time.

Being so far away meant that for every visit in the five years or so leading up to their passing, I would say goodbye as if it would be for ever. In the cases of my Duracell bunny grandmothers that meant saying goodbye often. And it takes its toll emotionally.

The second downside to travelling is that every moment has to matter. Going back to see family and friends, you try to fit everyone in to a tight schedule. You want to connect, immediately. You need to make those memories. You must say yes to all opportunities. Being back with family for one week sometimes means you feel you cannot just sit and hang out, watch TV, read a book. Because time is prescious; you feel that you must fill it. It all must matter.

And seeing parents, cousins, friends, aunts and uncles as you race around the neighbourhood can be exhaustive. I know many people that come back from family holidays utterly exhausted. So the solution is to let people come to you.

I normally tell people that I will plonk myself down in the cafe I used to frequent (Nicholl’s and Co., here’s looking at you, even though you no longer exist) from 2pm until 6pm and that I will go for dinner across the street at the pizza place afterwards, and that they are welcome to come and see me there between those times. I do reserve some time for those most special people on another day, and limit myself to that, socially.

Obviously, this means that you will lose some friends, but, honestly, when I last went back after five years of being away, and told all my friends where I would be, only two of them could not make it either to the cafe, or to come to me in some other way. Their excuses were (and I am not kidding or exaggerating): 

“I am in a pub ten minutes away drinking with my mates, I don’t want to leave, so come to me!” (I was in the cafe with loads of friends) and

“I don’t think I can come to you that early on that day, because I will probably go out drinking the night before and will probably be hung over. Can’t you come to my house, it’s only an hour away?” (emphasis added by me)

Needless to say, sometimes, you separate the chaff from the wheat in this manner.

But the most surprising thing about travelling is the impact it can have on the people that stay behind. I know this to be true, yet it still surprises me.

After travelling for a year in her youth, my mother was asked what it was like to be back by her eldest sister. “Boring” my mother replied, “nothing has changed.” Her sister became annoyed and angry with my mother for saying this.

You see, when travelling, you meet yourself. You see sides to yourself that you have never before encountered. You learn that you can be resilient or tolerant, you can be spontaneous or uncomfortable, you start seeing more points of view, and question your own beliefs. You push your boundaries, and find the ones that you cannot cross. You lose your temper and find yourself. Sometimes, your opinions are cemented, other times, they are completely toppled.

For example, when I was fourteen, I thought I was awkward and, socially, a bit of a recluse. Through school and my peer group, I had been conditioned to believe that I was not interesting and had little to contribute, so I generally tended to shut up in groups of people. I was told I was too smart and uncool. My grades were too good to be accepted as one of the cool kids. I had no or few friends, and made due.

Then, I went to France.

For a whole year, I was the exotic exchange student. Certainly quirky, and different, but fun. And I soon made a lot of friends. It was only when I counted my friends and came to 65 (notice that this was prior to FaceBook) that I understood that it was not necessarily me: maybe my surroundings just had not let me blossom. I was able to make friends. And they liked me. (*shock*)

Making these kinds of discoveries, and understanding yourself, seeing the world, makes you grow.

And, to use my mother’s observation – it makes everyone else look like they have not changed. Obviously, this does not count for everyone, but some friends and family will fall into this category.

Even if they have changed, they are still on the same trajectory as they were before. In the same job, surrounded by the same people, and with the same problems to complain about. To amuze themselves, they are still doing the things they were doing three years prior, and expect you to do the same. They are not really necessarily interested in you and your experiences. Sure, they will ask “how was it?” and “did you enjoy it” but once you have told them “great” and “I loved it”, they have done their duty by you as a friend, and they want to talk about themselves and their lives again. The lives you once fit into.

Unfortunately, having spent a year abroad, seeing poverty in India, learning karaoke in Japan, sleeping under the stars in Uganda or living Sex and the City in New York, there is more to the conversation than “great, I loved it”. And some people will never understand this.

For some friends and family, you will be forgiving and understanding. After all, you can accept that they cannot relate.

But for others, you will start drifting apart. Even people that you were close to before you left can seem too distant and dissimilar when you return. It is a sad realisation upon your return that even ones that you thought you would never grow apart from will no longer be that friend.

So travel. And see new places. Remember that it will affect you, and it will affect the people around you. And not always for the better.

Luckily, there will be plenty of friends and family that do understand.

Cycling the Mountains 5 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Traffic, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Last weekend, I went with a friend into the mountains to see a part of Vietnam that I had already seen, but in a way that I have been wanting to see it since I have arrived.

Disclaimer: I am Dutch. I like bicycles. How stereotypical.

When I was 12, my family went on a cycling holiday (riding from our house to the boat, take a boat to Germany (Kiel) and then cycle through the north of Germany to the Netherlands, covering around 50 – 60 km a day).

Many members of my family cycle for sport, transport and fun.

Several uncles, aunts, and cousins have racing bikes and cycle a lot, including for competitions.

My uncle decided that upon retirement (64 years old) he would join a tour from Istanbul to Beijing, riding a bicycle the whole way. What an awesome thing to do, right?

So I have a very romantic notion of bikes. I have been wanting to explore Vietnam on a bike. But I have not had the guts or the company to try (my partner is more into the motorbikes, which I admit are good fun, and faster, too).

So when my friend called and said that there was a spot that opened up on a tour that she was signed up for, I realised this would probably be my only chance! And having a follow vehicle made it a very good, easy first try, to see if I would even enjoy it.

Friday, we left on the overnight train for Lao Cai.

Once arrived, we were served breakfast, and loaded into the bus to Can Cau (120 km north) to see the local market with the Flower H’Mong. We then cycled back to Bac Ha (about 20 km) which was mostly downhill trough beautiful countryside.

That afternoon, we cycled with our guide through the countryside surrounding Bac Ha, and seeing a local village nearby. (Total of about 6 km).

The weather was glorious, slightly overcast, dry, warm but not hot nor humid.

Sunday, we explored the Bac Ha market (which I have blogged about before), had breakfast, and then set off back to Lao Cai.  By Lunch, I sent my partner a giddy message that I had already done 45 km, and only had 26 to go. The first 30 of those had been mostly downhill, and I only got nearly killed by oncoming traffic once.

After lunch (at some random food stall along the way with a marvellous spread of awesome, wholesome Vietnamese food, which we knocked back in no time) we continued, and about 10 km out from Lao Cai we stopped for pine apples, loaded up the bikes onto the truck, and did the rest of the (more busy) roads in the safety of the car. We stopped off at the river crossing to China to take a photo of us standing in front of China, which was pretty nifty, and obviously a very popular thing to do.

Conclusion? I loved it. But next time, I would want to do it without the guide, as it was like travelling with someone on a schedule, and I often felt pressure to keep going even when I wasn’t ready to.

But what an amazing way to see the country side. Half of the people we encountered smiled and waved. The other half were wondering why on earth we would want to ride a bicycle.

Most of the locals were so welcoming and friendly! A young girl, maybe around 14, decided to ride and chat with us in Vietnamese for a while. Most of them had never seen foreigners that spoke a word of Vietnamese, which was amazing. One lady looked so proud and happy that we had taken the time to learn her language, she clasped her hands together in front of her chest and just asked me lots of questions, then hardly charged us any money for what we wanted to buy.

It was a wonderful adventure, and even though I only rode 80 something kilometres over two days, it is something I really enjoyed doing, and wouldn’t mind doing more of…

Now I just need to convince my boy that he should come with me next time.