Tag Archives: backpacking

Halfway across the world, and back again

I logged onto my wordpress account recently, and saw the date of my last post glaring back at me: October 26th, almost than a month ago.

The last time I let such a time pass between posts was during IFSS, when my three weeks in Spain marked the gap between London and Berlin.

This time, looking at my photos and words from my last post, it feels like an age has passed since that time, like my three weeks in Sri Lanka were a whole ‘nother world, another trip apart from my cosy guesthouse in Chiang Mai where I am writing this now.

From quiet Mirissa to the tourist beat of Unawatuna, where Clare and I passed three nights and four days in a blur of finding (and fighting for) a beautiful blue shack above a bar on the beach, falling in with a group of English guys who worked anti-pirate security on high risk shipping runs, drinking beer and going for midnight swims in the warm tropical sea, and seeing more sunrises than I had in the past month.

From Sri Lanka, and my farewell to Clare, I caught a plane to Singapore, where the clean streets, quiet hostel, and perfectly functioning public transport were a stark but welcome contrast to the relentless noise, chaos, and stares that follow and surround you in Sri Lanka. Then from Singapore, the leg of my trip that, when outlined to fellow travellers, had never failed to produce a confused stare and a series of questions: New Zealand, and the Asia Pacific Forestry Commission in Rotorua. This trip deserves (and hopefully will be, when I get around to it!) a post of its own – as does the sneaky stop-over in Melbourne on my way back to Singapore, and the subsequent week in Java, Indonesia.

But for now I’ll jump forward, to Thailand – the beginning of the final stage of my nine month adventure. I’m here to lead a series of student volunteer projects, with a company I worked a season for in Australia last year. My first project was supposed to start tomorrow, and I was supposed to have spent the last week in Chiang Mai for training. Instead, my first project was cancelled, and I found myself with a week to kill in Bangkok.

I have a sort of love hate relationship with that city. Like most Asian cities, it can come as a shock; the noise, pollution, traffic and general chaos can be overwhelming. That was my experience the first time I went to Bangkok, back in 2009, and it was less than 24 hours before I was headed north on a bus to Chiang Mai.

And yet there are things I love about Bangkok too: the cheap and delicious food, the wonderful shopping,the easiness of it all, as a city used to hordes of tourists.

After six days in the city, my love hate relationship had been even more (ill)defined.

Arriving at Don Mueang airport, I realised it was not the main airport I was familiar with, and that I had no idea how to get into town and my hostel. Then felt a sense of relief and gratitude when I was directed by a friendly security guard to the bus stand up the road, and approached by a series of concerned locals eager to help me find my way.

On my second morning, running late for a workshop on the other side of town, I reached a peak of frustration when almost no taxis would pick me up due to traffic, and those that would – along with the tuk tuk drivers I approached – wanted to charge a small fortune to do so. Then I found a bus that travelled my exact route, and one that was free (that’s right, free!) at that.

After three nights in Khao San area, I realised I couldn’t take the crowds of drunk tourists and heckling touts anymore. So I found a beautiful boutique hostel near Victory Monument, an area full of cheap street food and bustling, local night markets.

Still, after six days, I was more than ready to leave the (big) city, and to jump on a plane heading north.

I’m in Chiang Mai for the next two weeks, being put up by the volunteer company in exchange for a few days a week helping out in the office. I’m currently staying in a beautiful, bustling guesthouse – the same guesthouse I stayed in all those years ago. Tomorrow I’m moving further west to be closer to the office, and then I’ll settle in for my stay. I can already feel the chaos of Bangkok slipping away, with the honking traffic jams replaced by the odd scooter rushing past, the drunken mess of Khao San replaced by a chilled backpacker vibe, and the high rises replaced by the low buildings and leafy streets of the old town.

Not a bad place to get stuck for two more weeks.

Changing seasons/transition time

September came and went, and with it, the four month marker of me being away. Four months since I handed in my thesis, packed up my room, and left Melbourne to commence this epic trip of mine.

On the one hand, that date – the 23rd of May – when I got on a plane with my parents and sister and, 30 hours later, got off in Rome to begin our two week family holiday, seems like only yesterday. Time flies hey? But on the other hand, it really does feel like four (plus) months have passed. It’s a long time to be on the road, living out of a backpack, constantly changing cities and figuring out bus timetables and getting up at the crack of dawn for red eye flights with Ryan Air.

Over these months in Europe, I have seen summer come and go. I have caught up with old friends who I never knew if I would see again, and I have met so many amazing new people. I have been overwhelmed by peoples’ hospitality, friends and family who have given me a room/bed/couch/floor to crash on for a night or two, sometimes many more, and who have taken time out of their busy lives to show me around their cities, take me out for drinks or dinner, introduce me to their friends, and generally take me into their lives for just a short time.

And yet, as I have alluded to in past posts, this constant moving, and constantly being around people, has been tiring. As I felt the seasons turning, and watched the leaves around me changing colour and the German skies becoming more and more grey, I was beginning to feel a sense of travel fatigue.

But I had one stop left in Europe. Originally my plan was to fly out from Rome, but I decided to end my trip in the city that still feels, after all these years, almost as my second home: Copenhagen.

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I left Dresden in the pouring rain, but almost as soon as we boarded the ferry the clouds seemed to clear, and there was nothing but (albeit still cold) sunshine and blue skies ahead. When my bus finally arrived in Copenhagen that night, I was met by Mikkel, and we made our way back to his apartment where I would again be staying for the next ten days.

When I left Denmark after my exchange in 2009, it felt like really saying goodbye – when would I ever possibly be back, when would I see all these friends again? In fact I was back only the following year with my then (Danish) boyfriend, and although it was an amazing month, it was a completely different experience. Roskilde festival, camping with his friends; staying outside of Copenhagen with his family; a few crazy days and nights partying in town.

This time, this visit, seems almost like my entire collection of experiences, friends, histories in this city, blurred into one.

I caught up with two old exchange friends – Jamie, who I’d met up with a few times in London and who was visiting Copenhagen for the weekend, and James, a fellow Australian, who had moved to Copenhagen a few years ago and was about to embark on another huge move, to Aarhus to study (in Danish!).

I partied through the night at KB18, an old favourite from when I lived there, and at PB43, a new space right near where I was staying on Amager.

I drank coffee and Baileys with my old friend Christopher, who is the reason I have such a great group of Danish friends to begin with, and stayed up late drinking beer in Eiffel bar in Christianshavn, another regular hangout of ours.

I went out to a party in nordvest with Christopher, the birthday and housewarming of someone I vaguely knew. And I walked in the door to come face to face with so many familiar faces, friends old and new, and ended up staying until I was one of the last three stragglers reluctant to admit that the party was over.

I spent many a day/evening/night on the couch at Signe and Joakim’s (and now, their beautiful son John’s), having their post-wedding celebrations, going to the zoo, watching stupid movies, and staying up late talking and playing card games in their old caravan out the back of their house.

I went for coffee all over Vesterbro, my original neighbourhood, rediscovering old favourites and being introduced to the new.

And I finally did what was missing from my last two visits – I found a bike, and rode (and rode and rode) around town, over the bridges, along the canal, criss crossing from one side of the city to another. You haven’t experienced Copenhagen until you’ve experienced it by bike.

The ten days passed so quickly, but in the end I was ready to leave, and begin the next chapter of this adventure: Sri Lanka, and south east Asia. Even though I was sad to say goodbye to Copenhagen, and all my friends again, I now know it won’t be the last time I go back, and that my friendships won’t disappear in my absence.

So Europe, this was not goodbye, but rather ci vediamo/hasta luego/vi ses…until next time.

A week in Granada (or, a reminder of what I love about travelling)

People travel for different reasons.

For many young backpackers, it’s about taking a ‘gap year’ – from school or uni, or the responsibilities of real life in general – and taking off overseas, a chance to gain some independence or just an excuse to party 24/7 for a few months.

For others, it’s about getting out of a comfort zone and jumping head first into a new culture, a new language, a new way of life that is at once both daunting and exciting.

For some, as my friend Luke of Here Comes the Planet put so well, it’s about seeking those ‘moments’, when it suddenly hits you that ‘I’m actually here‘; that wow moment when you first catch a glimpse of the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea or a spectacular new landscape, or fully realise you’re in very different place to home.

For many people I know, travel is about the people you meet – your room mates in a ten bed dorm in a hostel, the local serving you coffee every morning at your new favourite ‘local’, a fellow backpacker you end up sharing a gruelling overnight train ride with. Five minute friends, holiday friends, and every now and then, those rare few who become lifetime (or at least real life) friends.

And, for those not able to ditch real life and take off for months on end, it’s simply about taking a weekend, a week, or even a month to escape the daily grind and just relax, to lie on a beach or in a hammock and learn that wonderful skill of tuning out for hours to the sound of the ocean.

Travel for me has been about all these and more. But this trip so far, these three months in Europe (apart from IFSS, which was a crazy melting pot of all of these combined) has been different. Yes, I have had my fair share of ‘wow’ moments – camping on the Isle of Skye and driving down to the Piano Grande come to mind – and yes, my original motivation was very much about escaping the decisions of post-Masters-real-life.

But, on the whole, I haven’t been travelling to new places, I have been returning to places I’ve lived or travelled to before. I haven’t been constantly meeting new people, I’ve been visiting old friends from my Denmark exchange or from home, and staying with family. Don’t get me wrong, this has been amazing – it was the reason I planned to spend so long in Europe. But it hasn’t had that same excitement of the new, and constantly catching up with people has left little time to really wind down and feel like I’m on holidays.

Until Granada.

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Ever since I knew that I’d be in Spain for IFSS, I knew that I would spend the next week in Granada. For something so certain and planned so far in advance, you would expect me to have known something about the city and have had an idea of what I’d be doing. In fact, I had nothing more than the impression I had got from Tegan (who has spent many a summer there in a crazy house slash informal hostel), an impression that told me that this would be the place for me, and the perfect post IFSS trip. And, as always with Tegan and travel tips, it was right.

I stayed in a wonderful guesthouse in a narrow cobblestone street high up in the Albayzin, the old Moorish quarter of town that still retains a strong Moroccan feel.

I spent whole days doing little more than lying in a shady hammock reading a book and napping through the afternoon heat, or listening to the sounds of fellow backpackers playing violin or guitar around me.

I purposely got lost in the winding maze of the Albayzin streets, suddenly emerging into one of the many miradors to see the whole city spread out below.

I drank wine and manzanilla in rustic bodegas, and beer in packed bars, just to see what free tapas would come next.

I caught a bus out of town with Maisie, a young Australian girl from my hostel, to the Sierra Nevada. We followed our excuse for a map through shady river gorges and up rocky mountains scented with lavender and rosemary, then down through farmland and villages – picking grapes and plums from overhanging branches – until finally finding our way back and out of the scorching sun.

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I finally made it along on the free walking tour, which took us up through the Albayzin to Santa Fe, to the hollowed out caves where a growing community of Senegalese immigrants live, complete with running water and electricity.

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The next night at their invitation I made the trek back to the caves with Neylan, yet another Australian from the hostel, where we sat and shared our beers in the dark and watched the men singing and dancing themselves into a slow trance-like state to the beating sound of drums. Right on midnight they stopped, so I walked with Neylan and a new friend Ela back down to the mirador de San Nicolas where we sat for hours, Ela talking of his experience making the move from Senegal to Europe, his family at home and his community and customs here, with my Spanish getting better and better with every beer and hour that passed.

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It was a week of meeting new people – from fellow Australian backpackers to a group of wonderful if slightly crazy Austrians intent on camping high in the mountains, from German buskers in the street to Senegalese migrants in the caves.

It was a week of doing exactly what I wanted, even if doing what I wanted to do meant doing nothing at all.

It was a week of exploring – the city, the mountains, and even the beach to the south. Of getting lost just so that I could later find my way, getting to know my little patch of the city yet still every day finding something new.

It was a week of amazing food – not just the free tapas, but enjoying cooking for myself after two weeks of being fed during IFSS.

It was a week that was nowhere near long enough, that I felt should have been a month, or a whole summer in length. It is quite rare that I travel somewhere and know that it is somewhere I will come back. That feeling is one of my versions of a ‘moment’, the ‘wow, there is something special about this place’.

So Granada, I say hasta luego, but I’m not done with you yet.