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Vietnam gets under your skin 30 April 2013

Posted by uggclogs in only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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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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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…

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.

Mud, mud, glorious mud 16 June 2011

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Today’s adventure started in Bao Lac, a small border town with a surprising amount of new houses, and looking less poor than other towns in the region.

The drive started well, and by lunch we had covered half of the 131 km to Cao Bang. Cao Bang province so far is beautiful, with rice paddies and limestone mountains in the distance.

The sun was also out, blue skies as far as the eyes could see.

Then, about 45 km out, we had to wait in line for some road works. Fair enough, we think. Just a bit of mud, slippery as anything, but it won’t slow us down.

How wrong were we. Firstly, road works are the name of the game. Planning clearly isn’t. So instead of having a kilometer or so of inconvenience, we soon come to realise that pretty much all of the road from here on in is completely torn up. And most of it seems to just have been torn up, without anyone actually working on it.

And with the great amount of rain that we have had every night, the whole lot has turned into slippery, soppy, deep mud. Or sludge.

And then my partner also gets a flat tire. If I thought I was having trouble staying up, I don’t want to imagine his struggles, as he swaggers all over the place.

Twice, I wipe out. It is just impossible to keep the bike on its course – accelerating and breaking both just takes it off into the opposite direction I was heading. I’m wiped out twice, and three more times, I keep it standing, but I am perpendicular to the road.

Add huge trucks. That splatter muddy goo up to your helmet as they pass.

For a little while there I was not having any fun, I was just so scared.

Luckily, after ten kilometres or so, we found a little shack with a young man, his son and mother, who fixes tires. My partner and I got to play with the two year old while dad fixed the bike.

We kept going through mud all the way down the mountain (at least 25 km or more) completely muddy from head to toe.

Interestingly, I have learnt more about mud in one day than I ever thought I would. I could soon spot the most treacherous mud flats, and how to get out of them. When the mud is so thick it cakes onto your tires is the worst, because you lose all traction. Puddles tend to be deeper than you think. Glossy mud is liquid, whereas darker mud is drying.

Also, I learnt that chickens do not tend to change direction. If you can, pass behind it. If not, you better break, as it will run out in front of your wheels.

And soon I was having fun again despite my thumbs hurting from gripping on to the handle bars too tightly, and my shoulders aching from concentration.

Also, mud is strangely colourful (yes, I spent hours staring 5 metres before me, and could not look around at the scenery much). It comes in yellow, red, orange, black, grey, light brown and dark brown. And every shade in between.

The shower that followed that epic ride was well deserved and extremely welcome. I still have mud on the back pack and my rain coat, but the bike and me were thoroughly hosed down (not at the same time, mind).

Ready for tomorrow’s (last) adventure.

Good night Cao Bang.

Ha Giang to Cao Bang 14 June 2011

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Today started off with a bit of a downer. My bike had a flat tire. Luckily, this being Vietnam, there was a bike repair shop only 20 meters down the road.

So I rolled the bike there, had it fixed for $2.50, then rode it back to the hotel to load everything back on.

Within 15 minutes, we were on the road again, only to discover the temperamental side of Ha Giang. The mountains were again shrouded in mist, and a few specks of rain came down as we set off.

Within the first 15 km, I am finding the bike hard to control, and a strange, rhythmic squeaky sound is telling me why: another flat. And 8 km out from the nearest town. And out of range, so I can’t call my partner.

So, I decide to drive the bike at about 10-15 km an hour towards Meo Vac. I finally get within range, and can call my partner, so he won’t worry.

Then, at the nearest repair place, it gets fixed again, at $3.00 this time. But I am nervous, as he hasn’t found the cause of both flats. I am picturing a stop very 10 km to fix the stupid tire.

So, setting off on our detour, I stop often to check the bike. Am I going ok? Luckily, as the day wears on, nothing happens. So I am cruising.

The ride from Meo Vac to Bao Lac, where we are now, is very different, mostly warm and sunny, along the rivers in deep valleys.

The ride is tiring and beautiful.

Loved the day!

Ha Giang is good for your soul 13 June 2011

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Yes, we are back in Ha Giang. This is my third time. And I still haven’t had enough.

Last time we were in Ha Giang, I had a lot of things to deal with. I felt devastated and fragile. But the mountain passes shrouded in mist gave me time and space to process my emotions.

Today, we are back. And this time, the mist, which made everything mystical, beautiful, heavy and wet (and freaking scary when buses popped out of the mist in front of you) had lifted.

Imagine valleys stretching one after the other, each as different as the one before. One moon landscape, the next rice paddies. The next again limestone mountains full of caves, then valleys of corn waist high.

Meandering along steep mountain paths, alongside rivers bursting at the seams with clear, frothing water. Playful shades of fresh green mingling with more established leaves from yesteryear, fading into blue in the distance.

Hairpin turns along breathtaking drop-offs into nothingness.

Buffaloes and little black piglets keeping you on your toes.

And that does not even begin to describe Ha Giang.

Today, we rode 160 kilometres through cool, clean air, which after Hanoi onset of summer was a marvelous relief.

And then there’s the people. Little half-naked urchins with gigantic, black eyes, women in flashy coloured minority costumes with hoes slung nonchalantly over their shoulders, elderly men with missing teeth lounging on a plastic chair at the front of their house. And each one of them smiling, welcoming. Nods, smiles and waves.

The children sometimes run to the road when they see you coming, yelling “bye!!” as you pass.

How could this be but soothing?

I will never get enough of this place. It wins hands down every time. We discussed whether we should see a place we hadn’t been yet for our last domestic holiday in Vietnam, but the pull of the clear, tall mountains was irresistible.

If you get the chance, go to Ha Giang. It is not really on the tourist trail yet. And you might be better off with a motorbike, as it is so much fun. But if you are ok with that, and relatively hard beds, Vietnamese style, it is amazing.

Signing off from Dong Van. Keep an eye out for tomorrow’s installment, as we will attempt to move on to the next province, Cao Bang.