Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - the Year of Crazy

It's been a wonderful, crazy, challenging, frustrating and eye-opening year.

I know I said that I was finishing up with this blog, but it's NYE, and this seemed like as good as any place for an annual recap on the year that was. Incidentally, this is my 100th post on this blog, which seems like a nice round number to finish up on!

January started with unemployment and an uncertain future. As good a reason as any to splurge all of my savings on a week-long dance camp, a month-long backpacking / swing dancing trip around South East Asia, and to try out a new cabaret show at the Adelaide Fringe. The rest of the month involved tearing my hair out getting the show written.

February saw my return to the Adelaide Fringe, which was what I thought was my best show to date, with mostly positive reviews, and small-but-appreciative audiences. I also lost a heap of money, and started to age prematurely as a result, but these things are all learning experiences. I may have sworn that I would never perform a show at a festival ever again. Several times.

March started in another country, having touched down in Kuala Lumpur the day before, preparing for a weekend of dance workshops and socials. In the tropical Malaysian heat. Multiple showers and changes of clothes a day were necessary. This was followed by four weeks of backpacking through Thailand, Vietnam (with another weekend of social dancing at the Vietnam Lindy Exchange), and Cambodia. I was bedridden in Saigon with an awful sinus infection when I received the news that I was successful in an application to go to Alotau in Papua New Guinea for two months with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program.

April consisted mostly of mentally preparing myself for PNG, with various training courses, a lot of injections, and working out if I could still do my Masters coursework online whilst in PNG. By the end of the month, I was touching down in Port Moresby. Definitely new territory, both terrifying but also beautiful and fascinating.

May flew by in Alotau, adjusting to a new lifestyle of being home before dark, working out PMV routes, teaching myself how to use a card catalogue, and taking boat trips to weird colonial island outposts. I also learned to live with limited internet access - which was insufficient for online research and study. I also found out that I'd been accepted into another assignment in Rabaul, beginning in July.

June finally saw the arrival of some new friends in Alotau, which made the stay more comfortable, but also more bittersweet when the time came to leave. Gifts were exchanged, and for the first time in a while, I felt truly appreciated for the work I'd been doing, yet humbled by the simple grace and love with which my host organisation expressed their thanks. Then another flight back to Australia, with a few days in Melbourne, and a couple of days in frosty Hobart for a swing dance exchange, before flying out on the last day of the month...

The first of July saw me arrive in Rabaul - a relatively isolated town in East New Britain, wedged between an active volcano, and a dormant one. There was a lot of rumbling, and even more internet-related frustration. However, I also attended the National Mask Festival, which was definitely one of the cultural highlights of my year.

And then July was over, and August flew in, and before I knew it, I was thrust back into Melbourne's winter. Facing unemployment all over again, I rewrote a chunk of my show, to perform in Melbourne and Sydney, and vaguely considered my future. Fortunately I also had the Melbourne Writers Festival to keep me occupied and entertained.

September saw the remount of my cabaret show at the Kew Court House, Darebin Music Feast, and Sydney Fringe. I also found out that I was going to Hoi An for three months, on another volunteer assignment. More injections were required. I also turned 35. There was an election, and the result made me happy that I was leaving the country again.

October started with being burnt-out at the Sydney Fringe, but glad that I went. It saw me run my first 10km run at the Melbourne Marathon, where I surprised even myself by actually enjoying it. A few days later, I found myself broken-hearted at the airport before 12 hours of flights from Melbourne to Hanoi. The rest of the month is a bit of a blur, to be honest, but I recall a lot of rain, and making new friends. November brought more weather warnings, with a near miss from Typhoon Haiyan, and widespread flooding in Central Vietnam. It otherwise involved discovering the cultural and culinary delights of Hoi An, of which there are many. It also ended with a permanent job offer, to start in Melbourne in January.

And so, finally, in December, the rain mostly stopped, and though the sun came out from time to time, it was still on the cold side - perhaps a case of nature mirroring my emotional state. It began with a festive weekend in Saigon, with Christmassy goodness and lots of swing dancing about town. There was a somewhat indulgent but much-needed relaxing weekend at the Nam Hai resort. A weekend in Hue ensured full of dreary weather but wonderful food and company, ending with an epic motorcycle ride over the Hai Van Pass. I've somehow managed to amass a new wardrobe full of tailored clothes, ready to break out when the time comes to hit the fashionable streets of Melbourne next year.

And so, 2014 awaits. It will be a very different year - perhaps the year of becoming somewhat more settled and sensible about my future. I'm looking forward to the responsibility of taking on a permanent role again, which promises to have its share of interesting projects and challenges. But there are already new adventures planned, starting with a brief trip to Dalat, my return to Melbourne, and 10 days in Adelaide to get my swing dance mojo back up to speed (I'm definitely rusty after three months!). I'm putting on my show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I'm also about to submit an abstract for a conference paper - my first in three years - and actually finishing off my Masters. Actually, that already sounds like enough to keep me busy for a while!

Ultimately, this time next year, I want to be celebrating New Years Eve somewhere in Europe. I've yet to travel beyond the Asia-Pacific region, and by then I'll be sure to be yearning new horizons...

To the future.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

New beginnings...

Well, the times are changing, and this chapter in my life is coming to a close.

I've been in Vietnam for two months now, and it's been yet another extraordinary experience. But the time has come to prepare to return to the real world. Or maybe this is the real world, and the time has come to prepare to return to the fantasy realm from whence I came. I don't know anymore.

So, henceforth, I will be blogging at Bibliotheque Bound.

However, I do still have many adventures planned for the near and distant future, and this will continue to be my dedicated travel blog, on those occasions!

Until then!

- A.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On the semi-nomadic life...

Well, it's been two months since my last post. I have returned to Melbourne, on what has been a bit of a whirlwind of activity. Upon my return, I've been doing some work at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and remounting my show from the Adelaide Fringe, "Songs from the End of the World", performing it at the Kew Court House, the Darebin Music Feast, and the Sydney Fringe Festival. Unsurprisingly, this has been physically and emotionally exhausting, but also a wonderful reaffirmation of the kinds of things I want to do with my life, and a reminder of why Melbourne is still my favourite place in the world (although, admittedly, Sydney is also starting to catch up in the coffee and brunch stakes...)

But now, I sit here amongst boxes as, once again, I pack up my life. I seem to be doing this every couple of months - uprooting my life, and taking myself to a new place to challenge myself in new ways. For almost a year... well, let me recap:

January / February - three and a half weeks in Adelaide, with Swing Camp Oz, Kangaroo Island, and my show at the Adelaide Fringe.
March - a month of backpacking and swing dancing around Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
April - A month back in Melbourne, preparing for...
May / June - Two months in Alotau, Milne Bay Province, PNG, ending with a long weekend in Hobart, via Melbourne, and then back to PNG on the 30th of June for...
July / August - Six weeks living next to a volcano in Rabaul, East New Britain, PNG. Returning to Melbourne on the 13th of August.

And now, two months later, I'll be flying back to Vietnam. I'm going to be spending three months in one of the most awesome locations - Hoi An. Home of many tailors, a 500-year old Japanese Bridge, and some of the best cuisine in Vietnam, including the banh mi that Anthony Bourdain ate and declared the best in the world. To say that I'm excited would be an understatement.

But I also confess that this lifestyle doesn't feel sustainable. I'm trying to bridge two lives - the life of the perennial traveller, and the life of the career-minded worker, and soon I think I'm going to have to make a decision to put down roots somewhere, at least for a couple of years. And although I haven't left year, I also feel like I need to be putting plans in place for January when I return.

And so, I wait for the stars to finally align, and set me on a new, more permanent path. But until then.... Hoi An awaits!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lukim yu, PNG...

Well, today is my second-last working day in PNG. I'll be flying back to Melbourne next Tuesday. But not before eating all of these mangoes, which just came into season a few days ago.

I am definitely glad that I was able to spend another six weeks in this country - my experiences in Alotau and Rabaul have been vastly different, but still overwhelmingly positive, and it's provided me with the scope to experience a wider range of what this country has to offer. And still, I can't help but feel that I've only merely scratched the surface of what this country's culture, history and people are all about.

I do hope that I'll be able to visit again. One of the unfortunate realities of most of Pacific Island nations is that it's an expensive place to visit - especially compared to their Asian neighbours. Combined with PNG's unfortunate international reputation, I have to admit that I would never have considered visiting in the past. However, the people here have been far more friendly than most places that I've travelled, and whilst it's true that there are sometimes security concerns, it's by no means any more dangerous than some of Melbourne's suburbs.

Given Australia's interests in Papua New Guinea, and my current career trajectory into international development work, I don't think it's the last I'll be seeing of the Land of the Unexpected.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Life in Volcano Town

So, yesterday I reached the halfway point for my time here in Rabaul - three weeks down, three weeks to go. It seemed as good a reason as any to reflect on my time here so far.

I currently live down the road from an active volcano - Mt Tarvurvur.

My time is spent mostly either in my room or in the office at the Rabaul Hotel - situated in what the owner Susie jokingly refers to as “the Paris end” of Mango Avenue. Once the bustling main street of Rabaul, the hotel - formerly called the Hamamas Hotel - is the only building at this end of the street. The locals still call it the Hamamas Hotel, and I can’t help but feel a sense of irony (Hamamas is Tok Pisin for "Happy"), as it stoicly stands tall amongst growing mounds of volcanic ash and overgrowth.

Hamamas tru!
The first thing I notice when I step outside is the misty mountains that surround the former town of Rabaul - reminding me of my previous months living in Alotau. And then the dragon deep without the mountains lets out an intermittent roar - not unlike a jetplane circling above - and I remember that it isn’t mist, but volcanic ash. If the wind is unkind, which I’m told it is at this time of the year, the whole area is veiled in a grey cloud of ash, which inevitably gets into everything. Not that there's much to see - most of the buildings have been torn down, and all that remain are vacant lots, piled high with ash and overgrown with greenery. My eyes sting, my nose clogs up, and I can feel the silty grit between my fingers and toes, in my ears - even between my teeth. That’s just part of the experience, I keep telling myself - but I can't help but feel like Mother Nature is telling me something else.

Of course, there is a lot of history - and emotion - tied to this town. Established by the Germans in 1884, taken by the Australians in 1914, then later taken by the Japanese in 1942, and then taken again by the Australians in 1945, and eventually returned to the local people in 1975, the town was once known as the Pearl of the Pacific. And although there has always been a volcano nearby, it only caused serious problems every 50 years or so. However, in 1994, the volcano on the other side of the harbour (aptly named Mt Vulcan) joined in on the eruptions, and everybody packed up and moved to Kokopo. Well, most people. A stoic few are working hard to keep both the history - and the future - alive in this place. There's the hotel here, and down the road there's the Rabaul Yacht Club and the Travelodge Hotel. Further away, on the other side of the harbour is "new" Rabaul, where the shipping industry, soft drink production, and half a dozen supermarkets (no, really!) keep many of the local village residents employed.

Meanwhile, the daily life has definitely been a challenge for me - moreso than my time in Alotau, where I had a regular social life and reliable communications access. I’ve come to appreciate how much I rely on social interaction to maintain my sanity, and I worry that my desperation to connect with people is coming off a little creepy. Like when I was recently in a supermarket in Kokopo, and I saw a couple of young kiwis, and waited for the opportune moment to jump behind them and say “Oh, hey! You’re volunteers from New Zealand, right? I saw your photos on the VSA Facebook Page!”

Nope, not at all stalkerish, right?

Still, as the philosopher Bon Jovi once said, “Woah, we’re halfway there.” I’ve come this far, and I’m slowly but surely getting some good work done. And despite the challenges, I’ve also had some amazing experiences. Last week, the National Mask Festival was in Kokopo, which I used as an excuse to get out of Rabaul for a couple of half-days. And with only three weeks remaining, I’m definitely feeling the pressure to explore some of the other attractions of the region before my time is up. Maybe some exploring of the Duke of York Islands, or a weekend over in New Ireland and Kavieng. Papua New Guinea is such a beautiful and diverse place that I still feel lucky to be here, and whilst Rabaul hasn’t been the easiest of places to live, there are certainly far worse places I could be.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Going through the emotions...

So, I'm six days into my second assignment - this time in Rabaul, East New Britain. A town surrounded by volcanos with a fascinating colonial and military history, it has much of the beauty that I enjoyed in Alotau, but a completely different place in other respects.

The town of Rabaul, with Mt Tavurvur smoking away in the distance.

I've been a little apprehensive, to be honest - not because of the location, or the people, but because of myself. Last time, I found that being on a short-term assignment was somewhat emotionally turbulent. To be given 6-8 weeks to settle into a town, develop relationships with counterparts and stakeholders, build local support networks, and address various personal challenges such as cultural barriers, social isolation and technological shortcomings is quite an undertaking. And it can be overwhelming at the best of times.

So, I was definitely hitting the one-week blues today. The last five days have been wonderful - I'm in a fascinating place, and have met an array of interesting, enthusiastic and supportive people, and starting to get a sense of where all the action is happening in order to have a stable and regular social routine. But last night I definitely hit the wall, and this morning I was miserable. I just wanted to be back home, see my girlfriend, eat mexican food, and wake up in my own room. I wanted to ride my bike around town, walk the streets at night, and go swing dancing in Brunswick Street.

So this morning was a struggle, but I forced myself out the door by 9:30am. Down the main street to the centre of town. Onto a PMV to take me on the 30 minute ride to Kokopo, and then another PMV to Rapopo Plantation Resort, where I had hoped to go yesterday, but ran out of time (I need to leave by 4:30pm if I want to safely make it home by sundown!).

And I'm so glad I did. Rapopo turned out to be Kokopo's equivalent to Driftwood in Alotau - but with a pool! Barely had I swum a dozen laps, when a couple of other familiar faces arrived for a swim. This was followed by a much-needed pot of coffee and a fantastic meal, with friendly company. Three hours later, my morning's angst had become a distant memory.

It's exhausting, but I know that I can do this - especially as I've done it before, and I know that I'll do it again. I just have to remember to keep moving, take every opportunity to connect with others, and not to shut myself in. As tempting as it feels to let myself get down, I must always remember that things will get better so long as I let it. It's the key to survival in these situations.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


So, I'm back in Melbourne.

It's safe, but cold. Familiar, but different. Friendly, but intimidating.

I'm feeling grateful for being home, but also yearning to fly the coop once again - which I'll get to do soon enough.

Sitting here in my room, I feel overwhelmed by the weight of all my possessions scattered about, and towering above me. I guess after two months of living out of a backpack, I have a newfound understanding of what is essential, and what isn't.

And yet, I return from Papua New Guinea with various gifts of carvings and knick-knacks. It's only human nature to want to cling onto mementos of the past - the reminders of our life-changing experiences.

So, I've taken the opportunity to do some weeding of my various boxes of stuff that I seem to have accumulated through my life, whilst I'm in this current headspace. Separate the essential memories from the ones that seemed so important at the time, but are trivial in hindsight.

I discover:

- Many many photos, from the days before Facebook, Flickr and digital cameras.
- Flyers, handbills and programs from numerous plays, and concerts.
- Years of tax packs and receipts (I believe we're meant to keep seven years' worth?)
- Badges. So many badges.
- Postcards, birthday cards, and letters.
- Mementos from the university club days.
- Ticket stubs from films, plays, overseas flights and train journeys.

Every one of them stimulated memories almost-forgotten, and I can't help but worry that if I discard these things, then the memories will eventually disappear with them. This makes me anxious - worrying about losing these newfound memories all over again. It seems absurd.

It's hard. I need to take a leap of faith - throw out the physical things, and hope that the memories remain - at least, the most important ones.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

One month in Alotau!

So, it's been a month since I arrived in the town of Alotau, the capital of the Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea. It's a beautiful place, as you can see.

Normally, in these tropics, it would be the dry season. However, around this region, the wet and dry seasons are reversed, and so I have arrived in their rainy season, which doesn't bother me so much, as it means that the temperature stays more or less tolerable - even if my clothes do go a little mouldy if I leave them in the wardrobe for too long!

The name "Alotau" means "a safe place", and this town certainly does have that reputation. Even so, the usual safety precautions are advised, and it's taken me this long to start to feel familiar enough with the town and its daily goings-on without feeling too much out of control of my personal safety. However, I'm finally making friends - which can be harder than you think without the right introductions or stumbling into the right networks. I've also manage to suss out little things that I used to take for granted - things like internet, which is now a hundred times more expensive, and thus something that I need to wean myself off. There is also a significant lack of chocolate, which I'd like to think I can live without at the best of times, but also find myself craving at times.

Emotionally, it's been a bit of a rollercoaster. The first weekend was the worst - I found myself well out of my comfort zone wandering around town after dark, and ended up getting seriously spooked and feeling socially isolated. The second weekend I tagged along with some British medical students and went island hopping, which was exhausting but filled with beautiful beaches, sunburn and mosquito bites. In the following weeks, I oscillated between being somewhat reclusive in my bungalow with books, and forcing myself outdoors, and taking opportunities to meet new people. Even if it meant participating in boot-camp style cardio exercise. Which it did.

I don't know if it was the added exercise, or my slowly-growing social circle, but in this past week I've definitely feeling far more stable now. I'm buying more fresh vegetables and cooking properly again - much better than the rice and baked beans, 2-minute noodles or dry biscuits which were becoming my staples. A few weeks ago, I told a friend back home that I certainly didn't think I could spend a year here. Now I'm starting to feel like eight weeks isn't going to be long enough.

I even surprised myself today by saying that there was no way I could go back to doing what I was doing before. That has to be an indication that I'm finally headed in the right direction.

Monday, April 29, 2013

New Adventures...

Well, it's been a little over a month since I returned to Melbourne, and now I'm sitting in a Brisbane motel, preparing for an early morning flight overseas.

I won't elaborate on details, but I'll be going into full-time volunteer work in a nearby developing country for the next few months. As much as I love travelling, I also miss using my professional skills, and so this will be an opportunity to do both!

However, in the interests of maintaining the reputation of the program that I will be involved with, as well as maintaining good relations with the organisation and the country that I'll be working in, this blog may fall into a temporary hiatus.

But one thing is for sure - it'll be an adventure! Hopefully, I'll be able to tell you more about it later!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Holiday in Cambodia

So, I arrived at Nha Trang for the Vietnam Lindy Exchange, which was definitely a highlight of my month overseas. A weekend of dancing, swimming and hanging out with 80 or so other dancers from all over Asia and beyond. Then on Monday, I travelled through to Saigon, and succumbed to bit of a nasty cold, which is not the most fun in the soaring heat that I encountered there. After a few restful days, I boarded the bus, which took me over the border to Cambodia, and on Thursday evening I arrived in Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh is definitely a very charming city, with beautiful architecture and friendly smiles everywhere I went. I couchsurfed for a couple of nights with some young engineers, and in one of those freak coincidences, found out that their team leader was a former librarian whom I worked with in Darwin about five years ago! On the Friday evening, we all headed up to the city stadium, and joined in on the public khmer-pop aerobics, which was, strangely enough, one of the most awesome things I did in Phnom Penh.

Saturday morning took me on another bus to Siem Reap, and once I checked into my hotel, I jumped on a hire bike, and took myself to Angkor Wat. The temple region is a lot bigger than it looked on the map, and it was a good half hour or so before I reached anything resembling an ancient temple, but it was a lovely way to experience the grounds. Being late in the afternoon, it wasn't so hot, and I could avoid the bustle and pollution of roaring around in a tuk-tuk.

Then, the next morning, I rose at 5:30am-ish to make the obligatory visit to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Along with hundreds of other people. It was still worth it, and once the sun was up, it was the perfect opportunity to ride around to some more temples whilst the morning air was still cool. Three hours later, it was starting to heat up, and I started peddling back into town - past the dozens of tuk-tuks all queued up on the narrow streets, waiting to take their passengers in.

With my flight leaving that evening, I found a nice hotel that had a swimming pool that they allowed casual visitors into, and relaxed with some much-needed relief from the afternoon heat. One last mango smoothie later, the time came to bid farewell to Cambodia, and bring an end to my month of travelling around South East Asia.

Ahoy, Hoi An!

So, I arrived in Hoi An, and almost immediately I have that overwhelmingly disappointing sense of being caught in a tourist trap. Pretty much everybody who wasn't in a store or pushing a hawker stall was white. Fortunately, I'd only committed myself to being there for a day and a half, so I made the most of it, and strolled around town, trying the local food, including some Banh Mi that was made famous by an Anthony Bourdain documentary. It was pretty good, actually!

The next morning, I made the most of the local bicycle hire, and braved the traffic, once I was out of the old town area, it became a little more picturesque, and it wasn't far until I'd reached the nearby beach. I knew that this day would be my last opportunity to appreciate the cooler climates of Northern Vietnam, and weather-wise, I couldn't have asked for a more glorious day for cycling around the Vietnamese countryside.

It didn't start bucketing down until I arrived back at Da Nang station that evening, ready to travel on to Nha Trang...

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The last train out of Hanoi's almost gone...

So, the next day, I caught the 11pm train from Ha Noi to Da Nang (SE3). It was my first time on a sleeper train, and it was surprisingly comfortable.

The next day, everybody in my carriage got out at Hue, and I was left with my sleeper cabin all to myself, which was a lovely way to spend the next couple of hours, with spectacular views outside. Eventually, I arrived at Da Nang, where I caught a taxi to take me to Hoi An......

Friday, April 19, 2013


So, I went to Ha Long Bay, which was kinda obligatory since I was in Northern Vietnam. However, I only had one day to fit it in, which involved a two and a half hour drive each way.

If I'd been travelling with friends, I would definitely have wanted to spend longer there, but to be honest, there's only so much natural beauty I can take, and after a few hours of cruising around the islands, I was ready to move on to the next stage of my adventure...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hello Hanoi!

So, I'd foolishly booked an early flight to Hanoi, leaving Bangkok at 7am, without first thinking of the logistics of getting to the airport. This, of course, meant setting my alarm clock for 4am, actually waking up at 4am, checking out of my hostel, spending ten minutes in a sleep deprived state haggling with taxi drivers who were unwilling to put their meter on to take me to the airport, and then getting to the airport with enough time to be checked in by 6am.

This was not fun.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to pre-organise a hotel transfer from Hanoi airport, as I was getting pretty fed up with taxi drivers by this stage, and the hotel was even kind enough to check me in early, at about 10am. Naps ensued, followed by spending the day wandering around the Old Town of Hanoi.

Hanoi definitely made an impression right from the start. I don't know if it was the colourful narrow streets, the bustle of busy shop owners, or the fact that I was in a much more bearable climate without the heat and humidity of the previous week and a half, but I felt much happier in this city - it just felt full of life. Yes, I got ripped off by a nice old lady selling donuts out of a basket, but the donuts were good, as was the Bun Cha that I had later in the day.

That evening, I went on a street food tour of the city, and discovered the wonders of Banh Cuon, Banh Mi (of the miniature variety), milk fruit (wow!), various barbecued things, and ended the evening with an intriguing coffee that had a meringue-like topping made from whipped egg white. It was interesting, but I don't think I'd have it again.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two nights in Bangkok

So, after some relaxing days in Phuket, it was time for a change of pace, arriving in Bangkok late in the evening. Fortunately, this time the taxis were well-regulated at the airport, and before long I was on a meter taxi on the way into town.

After checking into my hostel, I wandered down to the local bar where I knew there would be a local rockabilly band, and possibly some dancers. However, to my surprise, I ran into a friend from my university days, who happened to be living in Bangkok. The world gets smaller, indeed.

A few other dancers arrived, and eventually a couple of us wandered down to the Patpong area of Silom - more out of an idle curiosity than anything else. And there it was, in all of its neon glory with, strangely enough, a touristy market right in the middle of it. Apparently this was introduced in recent years to make the area more family friendly, but unfortunately it's just made it more weird and creepy. I definitely felt conflicted and uncomfortable - even though I didn't pay to see any shows or anything - like just being in the area was contributing to the Thai sex industry.

The next day was one of idle wandering. I was definitely starting to feel a little culture shock and homesickness by this time, being ten days into my month away, and I was decidedly grumpy. Still, I made the most of some of the local street food, and visited Siam Square, which turned out to be a giant construction site. However, wandering into the food hall at the Siam Paragon department store, I was overjoyed to find a CoCo Ichibanya restaurant, and got my curry rice fix (although I was disappointed that they had no katsu sauce - nor did they know what katsu sauce was!).

Finally, that evening, I headed in to The Hop for some swing dancing. And it was a huge night, with a great local crowd plus quite a few international visitors passing through after SEA Jam and before VLX. I would have loved to have stayed on into the early hours, but I had a 7am flight to Hanoi to look forward to...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Don't you Phuket about me...

So much has happened in the last five weeks since my last blog entry! I suppose I'll start there...

I "went travelling" for four weeks around South East Asia - or as others put it - I went "on holiday" although, as enjoyable as it was, there were definitely times when I felt far more exhausted than relaxed.

Anyway, five weeks ago, I boarded my AirAsia flight, and endured the eight-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, where I spent the weekend taking part in SEA Jam - a weekend of swing dance workshops during the day with some of the best teachers in the world, followed by social dancing late into the night. It was definitely the sweatiest dance weekend I've been to - I was running out of clean dry clothes by Saturday evening - but I learned plenty of new moves, and met a whole new scene of awesome dancers from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, plus a substantial number of expats from Australia, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden!

On the Monday, I headed on to the island of Phuket, Thailand, where I was to meet up with a group of Swedish dancers for a few days of beach-going, banana-pancake-munching, exploring and - of course - dancing. After having adjusted to the humid bustle of Malaysia, Thailand was definitely something else. Stepping out at the airport, I was immediately accosted by a number of enthusiastic taxi drivers, who I had the common sense to ignore. Unfortunately, these cabbies have definitely collaborated in finding a consistent rate for fleecing bewildered tourists, and the standard government rate which was publicly listed on the billboard next to the cab rank held no authority, as the drivers insisted on a substantially inflated price. I instead moved across to the "Taxi-Meter" rank, hoping to get a taxi that would put me on the meter. Clearly, I was naive in this approach. Eventually, I found a mini-van that would take me to Karon at a price substantially less than the taxis - though, admittedly they took twice as long to get me there! Welcome to Thailand.

Karon was an interesting place - down the road from the infamous party town of Patong, this was much more family-friendly, and the preferred destination for middle-aged Russians and Swedes. Wandering around, there were times where it seemed like there were more fair-haired tattooed westerners than locals. The days were hot and sunny, and I cursed my negligence in packing sunscreen - and then cursed the local price for sunscreen. Afternoons were spent in the pool, and in the evening I joined my fellow travellers for some social dancing, as we took over the floor of a local Korean restaurant, and then revelled late into the night at the nearby Reggae bar. Clearly we were getting into the local culture.

After a few days of tuk-tuk travelling, reading, swimming, and unsuccessful haggling at the market, it was time to return to the airport and fly to my next destination - Bangkok!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

My life as a human brochure...

So, some time last year (I forget exactly) I saw somewhere on my social networks (again, I can't recall) that Australian Capital Tourism were running a project called the 500 Humans - in which they would take 500 humans and give them an all-expenses-paid weekend trip to Canberra, to experience all that our nation's capital had to offer. The catch? These 500 humans would need to record their experiences, be it through tweeting, instagramming, video'ing or blogging, and broadcast it through social networks so that everybody could be jealous of them, and presumably re-think their attitudes about Canberra being a less-than-thrilling choice for a holiday. Ultimately, by creating online content and sharing it with our networks, we would be "Human Brochures". Marketing genius, right? 'Cos everybody wins.

So, as I do with many competitions, I took the 5 minutes or so to enter. It was the usual questions of "Why do you want to participate?" as well as some information on one's social media usage. I submitted my entry, and then promptly forgot about it.

That is, until the beginning of October, whereby I was informed that I had been successful in gaining a place in the Arts & Culture stream on the February trip.

Flash-forward to February 15th, and there we were...

Video: Day 1

So, we were flown to Canberra, picked up at the airport, and taken to our very-classy hotel, and left to our own devices until it was time for the evening reception at the Australian War Memorial. We chose to hire the free bikes that the hotel offered, and rode around the lake. By "around" I actually mean we cheated and used the bridges. The evening was somewhat reminiscent of school excursions, where we were keen to get to the wine and finger-food, but first we had to go on the tour and look at dioramas of battle scenes. Still, the big planes were cool. When we returned to the hotel, ready to sleep, we were pleasantly surprised to find a couple of complementary beroccas waiting for us, to aid us in the next morning.

The next morning, we were keen to get to the restaurant for our buffet continental breakfast. Unfortunately, we were anticipating the buffet, not realising that "continental" basically means toast, cereal and juice. Still, some of the bread looked pretty fancy, and when you've got an all-expenses paid trip for the weekend, there's no sense in complaining about such things.

And so we headed off. We went to Parliament House, which I thought would be boring, as I'd already been there, but it turned out to be quite interesting, and we visited the PM's office (I hadn't already been there).

Video: Day Two 

Then we were taken to lunch at Two Before Ten, if for no other reason, so that Canberra could show us Melburnians (there were quite a few in our group) that they could roast, blend and brew some decent coffee. And decent it was - sure, it was no St Ali or Seven Seeds, but it was still pleasant. After a break, we went to the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, where Margaret, our awesome tour guide, told us many interesting things about French society during the Bohemian Revolution. After a few glasses of bubbly in the sculpture garden, it was off to Mezzalira Ristorante for a five-course degustation, which was pretty awesome. A few of us kicked on to Honkytonks, and then we remembered that there had been surprise bottles of wine in our hotel rooms, so we headed back to enjoy them...

On Sunday, a few of us were a little worse for wear, but we headed to the Museum of Australian Democracy (aka Old Parliament House) for brunch and tours. Here, we were reunited with the other streams (Adventure, Food & Wine, Families) who had been staying at other hotels. After some cringe-worthy political entertainment, we headed off to the Kingston Markets.

Video: Day Three

As a pleasant surprise, the Jumptown Swing crew were doing a swing-dancing demonstration, so we jumped in for a bit of a social dance and a shim-sham. Then, it was time to head to the Glassworks for a tour and a crafty session, where we created a glass tile. Once that was done, it was time to part ways with our newfound friends - although many were actually flying back to Melbourne anyway.

All in all, it was a positive experience. It gave new perspectives on places that I'd already visited, and highlighted a few things that I possibly hadn't considered or been aware of. It also reminded me that Canberra is definitely close enough to go away for a weekend, and have an enjoyable time. If it had been a week, then the experience might be something different. But personally, I would certainly consider a weekend trip to Canberra, if it were to coincide with a touring exhibition, for example. And with the city's celebrating its centenary this year, there would be many reasons to pop up for a couple of days.

Of course, it was by no means the perfect trip. Personally, considering that we were guests on an free holiday, I never felt any need to complain, nor did I feel that my time was being wasted at all. However, there were definitely a few participants who felt entitled to their every need, desire and expectation being met, and when they weren't the grumbling ensued.

Furthermore, the trip exposed us to a few things that we might not experience on an average holiday to Canberra. I don't imagine I'll be able to afford a weekend at a 4.5 Star hotel any time soon. Nor will I be treating myself to a fine dining degustation meal in the near future. And I don't think I'll be sitting in Julia Gillard's chair ever again. In these respects, we were real VIPs, which takes the experience far beyond the average vacation.

Still, I'm glad I went. We had an awesome time. It was great to tune out (mostly) before heading to Adelaide for the Fringe, and take a much-needed vacation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Greetings from the End of the World...

Well, it's a busy time at the moment. Last weekend, I went to Canberra to participate as a Human Brochure, which was a lovely experience - definitely highlights all of the things I like about Canberra, along with a few hidden gems (that I might not necessarily be able to afford, as a tourist...). However, I haven't had time to blog about that, because...

I'm in Adelaide! For one week only at the Adelaide Fringe. I'm performing a show, called "Songs from the End of the World"...

It's basically a solo cabaret show, and I'm performing it at La Boheme, which is a beautiful little cabaret cocktail bar on Grote St. There's already been a review published, which you can read... I tend to avoid reviews until after the show is over, as they make me a little neurotic, but I believe that it is on the positive side!

So, if you're in Adelaide, I'd love it if you came and saw the show. I'd say it's definitely my best show so far - it keeps a lot of the quirkiness of my previous stuff, but I like to think it's also matured a little, like fine cheese.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On Being a Tourist in Australia

Recently, I had a friend visit Melbourne from overseas, and the question was posed "What should I do in or around Melbourne?"

My initial response was along the lines of, "Well, there's always some festival around town. Or you could go and see a film at the Rooftop or Moonlight cinemas, or go have coffee in St Kilda or Fitzroy. Or go op-shopping, or go to the cricket or the tennis, or go find some obscure alleyway bar in the city."

Then I realised - these are the kinds of things that I associate with being in Melbourne - because it's my home town. They're not necessarily things that a tourist visiting Melbourne would necessarily want to do - probably because these are the kinds of things that tourists would do in *their* home town.

Instead, folks go on bus tours to the Great Ocean Road, or head up to Ballarat and wander about Sovereign Hill, or down to Phillip Island to see the Penguins. Or, closer to home, they'll go to the Melbourne Aquarium or the Melbourne Observation Deck - two things that I can't say I've really gotten around to doing, despite the fact that I live here.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, S & I bought tickets to go see Sharon Jones perform at the Summer of Soul festival in Mossvale Park, near Leongatha. As it was on a Sunday, we decided to make a weekend of it, and head off to Wilson's Promontory on Saturday. Here's what ensued:

All in all, a very pleasant weekend. At Wilson's Prom, we crossed paths with a wide range of local beach-goers and bushwalkers, as well as plenty of overseas visitors. The scenery was beautiful, and it only cost us the expense of driving a car there and back.

However, last weekend, we were in Adelaide, and decided to head down to Kangaroo Island (or as the locals call it, "K.I.") for the first time. We were astonished at the cost of catching a 45 minute ferry across to the island (about $90 return), but figured that it'd be worthwhile once we got there. However, once we got there, we discovered that it was pretty much impossible to get around the island unless we'd booked a guided tour with the bus touring company. We also had the option of getting an expensive hire car, which only included 100km before we'd have to pay extra. The island is over 150km long.

Fortunately, we were able to get some mildly expensive standby tickets for the tour, and saw everything there was to see on the island. It was nice, especially seeing some of the wildlife, and I'm glad that we went, but at the same time it was definitely a tourist trap - quite literally - as we were stranded in a situation where we had to spend lots of money to make it worth the expense we'd already paid to get there!

But it also opened my eyes a little more on what many others might experience when they come visiting Australia. My backpacker travel instincts have generally been along the lines of "show up, check in, and then have a look around and see what's worth doing". It's always worked out for me in the past, travelling around Asia.