Saturday, 7 January 2012

What could you offer the gods?

There are other some really interesting things about Bali I wanted to tell you about. When I think of Ubud I instantly think of rich colours, lush greenery, weather so humid it's almost swamp-like and Balinese music, which is traditionally played on an instrument called a gamelan. It sounded vaguely familiar to me at first and you may also think it is repetitive, but it's not. There is, however, something a bit creepy about it for me (I mean that with no offence intended at all). The actual sound of the gamelan is pleasant, but the music it makes is... I can't put my finger on it. They play it in a lot of places - even the arrivals "hall" (basically a small room) at the airport.

Have a listen and tell me what you think, or if it reminds you of anything. Feel free to skip this step by the way! I'm just trying to fully get across what my experience in this lovely place was like.

The next thing that was new to me in Bali was the Canang - or daily offerings - that turn every street into a colourful symbol of faith. These are basically little handmade baskets containing flowers, rice, incense and a variety of other presents for the gods. I saw different offerings include sweets, cigarettes, biscuits and even money! There are many reasons why these baskets amazed me; they're intricately woven and involve quite a bit of handiwork, they're beautiful, they're placed on pavements, doorsteps and even supermarket tills, and they are a sometimes thrice-daily ritual for Balinese Hindus (the majority of Balinese people follow this type of the religion) who believe that the gifts will appease the gods and help to keep demons and evil spirits at bay (there is a bit more to it than that, but that's the gist. The video below also explains it a little more).

The sad thing is, once the baskets are put in their place, it's not long until they blow away, get trampled on or a dog eats them. Apparently though, this doesn't matter, because by then the energy from the offering has done its job. For some reason this ritual fascinated me - especially when at the supermarket I was paying for some things and a woman comes over, puts a basket on the receipt printer, lights some incense, then recites some words while flicking water and flowers over the rice! You can see exactly what I'm talking about in the video below - it's at about the 4.30 mark. It's just so peaceful and serene, and beats being asked if I have a Nectar Card.

One of my favourite pictures from my whole trip is this one. It's a collection of the baskets on a pavement one afternoon.


And here's the video... definitely worth a watch!

Comments encouraged as always!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Ubud, Bali

Bali is an Indonesian island located about a six-hour flight from Sydney. It's really popular with Aussies as a sunny holiday destination; although I knew this already after my hairdresser who had been there once said to me: "You know how Brits go to Magaluf? Aussies go to Kuta [a beach town in Bali]." Cue me making a mental note never to go to Kuta.

When I booked my trip I was given the option on my ticket of going to Bali or Fiji. To be honest, I didn't put a lot of thought into it, but a friend had been to the latter and said it was unequivocally "shit". Fair enough, Bali it is! I was pretty excited to start the Asia part of my trip and I would recommend Bali as a good introduction to this part of the world. No, I'm not saying it's all the same... it most certainly is not. But compared to where I had visited so far on my journey - North America and Australia - it was very different, yet easy enough to get around, not quite as chaotic as I was to find other parts of south-east Asia were, and really lovely and friendly.

View Larger Map

So, whereabouts in Bali should I start? This is actually a pretty difficult question, because while travelling gives you certain milestones to hit e.g. flights to catch, countries to leave and enter, it's totally up to you what you do inbetween. I can imagine that if you travel with a friend, it's fairly simple to bounce around a few ideas, read a few guides and just make a decision. But I found this part of the process quite tough! It definitely forced me to rely on my own instincts more and really weigh up the various choices, considering what I wanted and needed out of a destination, what I wanted to see or do, or simply where I liked the name of (ahem, I'd never rely on that method though, honest). Also, it's crucial when making this kind of decision to think about the practicalities. For example, my flight from Sydney (I had flown from Cairns to Sydney and then to Bali) didn't reach the capital, Denpasar, until 11pm at night. Call me a scaredy cat but as I was on my own this somewhat limited the amount of places I wanted to connect to that late.

I'm just going to take a break from writing this for a moment as I want to eat some Twiglets and don't want to get crumbs all over my new computer.

I'm back. I've pretty much demolished half a tub of them. Oops.

ANYWAY. Back to me deciding where to go in Bali. I chose Ubud, which is in the centre of the island and about a 45-minute drive from the airport. There were two reasons why I went for Ubud; a friend went there on her honeymoon and said it was gorgeous and I'd heard it was full of arts and crafts, which I love. I have to admit I didn't do masses of research before going (I never really do), but I found these things called home stays, which are very informal sort of apartment-type things in a bit of land usually owned and run by a family. Suffice to say Bali is very cheap (but actually not that cheap compared to the rest of Asia) and I emailed a family who said for the equivalent of about £12 I could stay in one of their rooms for a few days, plus they'd pick me up from the airport. Lovely!

I was a little worried when I got to the airport and got in a van with a guy who said he was there to pick me up (he had my details and name so I wasn't suspicious or anything, but it felt a bit weird). It's dark, I'm in the middle of an island very far from home, I have no working phone and I'm alone with a stranger in a van. Bit odd. But he was super chatty, whacked a bit of Bob Marley on the stereo and everything worked out just fine. He also offered me some weird cigarettes (not anything dodgy - I later found out they were clove cigarettes... they smell very sweet) but I obviously didn't take one. We arrived, and I was shown my room, which was basically AWESOME after living in hostels for three months.


And here's my balcony - behind the trees was a big rice paddy.


The trees outside were home to some of the loudest frogs and crickets I have EVER HEARD. It was very amusing. Then a rooster would start up about 8am... although that's hardly a Bali-specific thing, as here in Sale some right joker has got a rooster and it starts barking every morning while I'm trying to enjoy my coffee and watching the previous night's episode of Teen Mom (kidding... sort of, but oh my god has anyone watched it lately?). So, when I sat on the balcony in the evenings reading, this was my view:


Pretty sweet.

Breakfast was included. Basically you wake up, walk down to this outdoor patio type-thing (surrounded by a little waterfall and stream, I mean come on I hate cliches but this was pretty amazing), take your shoes off (you have to take your shoes off in a lot of shops, obviously all temples, most people's homes etc) and sit down. Then, about one minute later, someone arrives with whatever breakfast is that day. Most of the time it involved bananas. A lot of the time it was unrecognisable. All of the time it tasted phenomenal. And the family were just SO NICE. I caught the dad snoozing in front of the TV a few times snoring like a beast, but hey, he made good banana pancakes, so you know, swings and roundabouts.

This is a long blog post so far. I won't keep you much longer, because to be honest, my days in Ubud were full of long walks, checking out all of the local arts and crafts, eating amazing food, reading and just straight relaxing. There isn't much else to say about it.

Oh yeah, apart from one thing.

I had forgotten that in that GOD AWFUL book Eat, Pray, Love the main character (played by Julia Roberts in a movie whose only redeeming feature is Javier Bardem, check out the poster for the film by the way in that link, Julia is LICKING A SPOON for crying out loud, BECAUSE APPARENTLY THAT'S WHAT SINGLE WOMEN DO WHEN THEY ARE THINKING AND THEREFORE OBVIOUSLY IMAGINING THEIR NEXT WEDDING DAY) goes to Bali as part of her quest to "find herself" after a divorce and, guess what, when she's in Bali she meets a Brazilian painter and they fall in love I MEAN COME ON that's just so stupid and cliched and makes every solo woman in Bali (the movie was filmed in Ubud) look like they are SUPER DESPERATE and the more I think about it now the more women I saw in cafes looking wistful and attempting to seem nonchalant yet SUPER AVAILABLE should a DASHING ARTIST happen to need to borrow some sugar. Please.

The other thing to say is that Ubud is very, very beautiful and colourful, although there is a monkey forest, which freaked me out. Not keen on monkeys, although this little guy was a cutie.


Here is a small selection of my pictures... including one at the bottom, which I saw the first morning I was in Ubud. Yes, it's a Starbucks camouflaged to fit in with Ubud's aesthetic. I thought this was a bit of a shame, as it's contrived and also pointless; Balinese coffee is very tasty and different to many other types so there is no reason to pay massively jacked-up prices for something you can get at home.






Beautiful food! Almost everything, including some breakfasts, is served with rice in Bali.



As always, comments are encouraged! I have to go now because Masterchef is on.


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Australia's Glass House Mountains

I couldn't finish my Australia posts without sharing these lovely pictures of the Glass House Mountains with you. The area is about 60 miles north of Brisbane so, yes, I should have mentioned them ages ago!

Guess what? Our friend James Cook discovered them! The little scallywag, hogging Oz's debut for himself. And being a complete genius, he named them the Glass House Mountains because their elevation reminded him of a glass house. No, I don't get it either.

Anyway, my camera is only average, but I hope the photos really convey just how empty - physically, at least - Australia can be. Although it's not completely my cup of tea, there are parts of the country that are very beautiful and steeped in intriguing history.

The mountains are basically what's left over from volcanoes millions of years ago. But indigenous Australians view them as an important part of the Dreamtime, which refers partly to what they believe to be the time of creation, but also represents a complex set of spiritual beliefs. A good resource if you want to learn more about this important and interesting facet of the country's culture can be found here.





You're also likely to spot some roos lazing around the mountains. Gorgeous.



Rafting, AKA the day I may have confused whiplash with a near-death experience

Once upon a time, there was a girl who could not swim very well. She decided to go rafting down the Tully River in Australia. Her and a friend booked in for what is known as "extreme rafting", which means the boat leaders do all they can to get participants in the water screaming their dear heads off. Why the girl decided to go extreme rafting is a mystery to this very day. She obviously never looked at footnotes four and five of this Wikipedia entry.

They were taken, along with about 15 other fair maidens and town folk, to the river, which is in northern Queensland. They were given all the right equipment for the voyage. A man, who in retrospect may have been mentally unhinged, gave them instructions for the day ahead. It all sounded like jolly good fun, the girl thought.

The water was very cold and the rapids were furious. Shivering was constant and the ongoing, immediate threat of having her teeth knocked out by a fellow rafter was a little burdensome. Such buffoonery was taking place in the other boats. But hey ho! She thought. The inpatient on day release who had distributed the rules was mischievous, pushing people off the sides of the dinghies when they were not looking and giving the local court jester a run for his money.

After lunch of some hearty cow and meaningless grog, the rafters set upon their journey once again. The crazy fellow leading the group pointed to a giant rock. Look! It's a giant rock from which we can jump! The whole group was mightily enthused. And little did she know, the girl was about five minutes away from what later turned out to be really rather bad whiplash and a hard lesson in never giving into peer pressure.

She jumped. Being only quite small, the height of the rock was frightening. And by accident, she jumped in a somewhat odd position, hitting the surface of the water with a loud - so loud it is possible the next town heard - smack. This is odd, she thought. There is severe pain in my shoulder and head. Be there a brick wall, rather than water, she pondered? No, it is water, and she faked wellness while climbing back on to the raft. Dizziness and intense throbbing followed all day and throughout the twilight hours. Be this my last sleep, she wondered? After all, concussion has been known to silently precede an even quieter death. With no method of telegram or carrier pigeon, she set her rooster to wake her up in the small hours of the morning, to check death had not arrived. But thankfully it had not, and she lived to see another day.

Cairns, Queensland

My last stop in Australia was Cairns. This is very common, as it's one of the furthest north places on the east coast that's "worth visiting" and has a "major" airport. I use "speech marks" rather than 'inverted commas' as I'm actually quoting what somebody told me about the "city". As you can tell, I've come to regard their opinions as somewhat flawed. The fact it's the last stop on many travellers' Oz adventure means you end up having numerous versions of the conversation mentioned in this post.

In the universe where I grew up, Cairns isn't a city. It's a town. It's small, full of very short buildings and may have got stuck in a time-space wormhole at some point during the 1970s, because a lot of it doesn't look like it has progressed since then.


Regardless. I actually had a lot of fun there! I learned a valuable lesson; enjoyment isn't always about where you are and the tools or money at your disposal. It's who you're with. This isn't always true and, yes, it seems like a really obvious thing to say. But I stayed at a really rundown, odd little hostel (about a 15-minute walk from the town centre), that turned out to be awesome! And all of a sudden I just relaxed again. Lovely.

Here is a delightful picture of the slightly odd room I shared for eight nights with three girls and two complete legends. Thanks to Emma for the massively unflattering photo.


I know you want to hear about Cairns, but let's consider what's really important here: Cheesy beans on toast. When I have beans on toast, I just whack a bit of cheese on top. But no. Emma truly changed my life when we were cooking in what alleged to be a hostel kitchen and she explained that you can mix the cheese in with the beans. Here is a picture of her doing what can only be explained as wizardry and/or mind/cheese control.


Just look at my amazed face and her satisfaction at altering the course of my existence forever.



Culinary magic aside, we did the following, among other bits and bobs, in Cairns:

1. Sunbathed - there is no natural beach, so instead, the centre of the city has a manmade lagoon. This is fab, because it's salt water and surrounded by lush grass and some sand, as well as little shops and eateries. The temperature, in Australia's WINTER, was about 31C every day.

2. Came second in a hostel pub-type quiz and lost by one point after I got a question about Manchester wrong. How was I supposed to know City now play at the Etihad Stadium? I said Arsenal. But that's the Emirates Stadium. Whatever.

3. Watched Emma have to get a gone-wrong piercing near-beaten/ripped out of her ear.

4. Said goodbye... to Australia and some amazing people. Despite my weird ol' time there, I'd go back to Oz. I'd like to visit Melbourne, for sure. Just maybe not for a couple of decades.


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Yeah yeah I know quit your whining

So… here I am, more than two months after I got home… and no blog updates to speak of. I still plan to finish it and hope you still want to read it. If you don't, meh, I have it to remind me of everything and you can bet I'll still find a time to bore you with stories and photos one day. But in the meantime, the 30-or-so of you (don't be surprised, I can work Google Analytics) who do check in every time I post… well, I hope you enjoy the rest of it. If you don't, then… just humour me and lie to my face.

Why haven't I updated it? Um, turns out I forgot about a whole heap of allegedly obligatory stuff that constitutes the bulk of 'real life'. That's 'real life' in 'inverted commas' because for the most part, this involves me:

Working freelance

Watching Entourage

Losing my remote control (not a euphemism for marbles, I genuinely always lose my remote)

Moving house

Trying to get music from Mario Kart out of my head


Before I tell you about Cairns, I'll post something I've just found on my computer. I appear to have written it while at Hong Kong airport, right before coming home. I think I was highly caffeinated and needed to kill some time. I'll leave you to read it and then potentially delete my number from your phone.



This is how you kill 15 hours at an airport

I'm going home tomorrow! My last stop, which you'll hear all about in ooh maybe five years when I finally get round to blogging properly again, was Hong Kong - an absolutely fabulous city I had always wanted to visit.

Two small problems made my stop in Hong Kong a little more irritating than I would have liked.

Glitch #1: There are some hostels in Hong Kong and, as usual, I booked a few days in advance. However, using - the site via which I have booked most of my accommodation during my trip - I noticed that the addresses seemed all to be located in the same building, right in the heart of the city. That's weird, I thought. How can 15+ guest houses and hostels be in the same place? Oh look, they've all got different block numbers. I'll Google the building, Chungking Mansions, and see what comes up. Wait, that looks like a really rough council estate crossed with a sweatshop… a really bad sweatshop though, not like the knicker factory in Coronation Street (which was super legit). That can't be it. No, that's it. Weird. And what's this… universally bad reviews of every single hostel? Unsafe… expensive… DO NOT STAY HERE. Hmm. I'll keep on looking. (Roommate enters) Oh hi I don't suppose you've been to Hong Kong have you? You have? Where did you stay? Oh you did? Is it really that bad? You left after 45 minutes? Book a hotel? I guess I'll have to. Rundown I can handle, dirty I can handle, full of complete idiots I can handle, unsafe I refuse to handle. One thing I've learned while travelling is that no price is too high for feeling safe and secure, because I won't be able to spend the money I've saved if I wake up in the boot of a Ford Fiesta (or foreign equivalent) now, will I?

Glitch #2: It turns out there are frequent typhoons and tropical cyclones in Hong Kong and, according to the lovely receptionist at my lovely hotel, the height of the buildings in Hong Kong coupled with its geographic location make it a really unstable place when extreme weather hits. But I didn't know this, and had only booked two nights - the 28th and 29th - at the hotel, because my flight is due to leave at 07:35 September 30th and therefore I'd have to be at the airport at about 04:30ish. I figured meh, check out late on the 29th, do a little more sightseeing and then just kill a few hours at the airport after arriving there about midnight. They have showers and stuff too, so it'll be fine.

Famous last words. My plan has been well and truly foiled by the weather gods.

I checked out this afternoon and headed out to explore Kowloon, which is north of Hong Kong Island and home to lots of things to do. First stop: coffee. My coffee habit has worsened. I keep walking, really just taking in the surroundings, buoyed by a faboosh previous day yesterday during which I did loads of touristy things and marvelled at the city's spectacular scenery, culture and cosmopolitan vibe (and by cosmopolitan vibe, I mean the healthy number of investment bankers in sharp suits). The first thing I notice is that many shops are closed. I figure maybe it's because I'm walking through a market area - maybe the markets open late? I continue walking. Okay, so everything's closed. The ferries are closed. Heck, even tourist information is closed. There are a few bits and bobs open but nothing of interest and I'm gutted to see the Hong Kong Space Museum, which I reeeeeally wanted to visit, is shut. At this point I'm really appreciating the fact I did 90 per cent of my sightseeing yesterday. But I'm mildly panicking, because if everything's closed, how do I get to the airport (located a good 40 minutes away on Lantau Island) and what the frak do I do with the next ten hours?

I find a mall partly open and ask why the city looks like something out of Dawn of the Dead, minus the zombies… although for all I know, they're about to attack.*

Nice mall lady: "The typhoon. There is a typhoon warning."

Me: "But it's not even raining. It's just overcast."

And that is when the heavens open, which is kind of fun given that it's about 28 degrees C as well.

I don't mind, because I have on my funky rain jacket (thanks mum). But then I realise I have no choice other than to investigate getting to the airport and literally wait there. Wait and wait and wait. There is nothing to do if everything is shut and I don't want to risk waiting until dark. A hairy bus ride and an extortionate airport shuttle trip later, I arrive at Hong Kong International Airport… 15 hours prior to take-off.

Laugh all you want. But I'd rather be 15 hours early than a minute late, and unfortunately, I had no choice. There weren't even any cinemas open in the city. There was literally nothing to do except solo rain dancing, and I was way too tired for that.

It is now 18:50. I wonder how long my laptop battery will last? Oh look, the Wi-Fi at the airport isn't working! Fantastic. I have read a good chunk of my current book, even though it's complete rubbish. Heat magazine is HK$48 from the book shop. That's about £4. Is Heat even that good? I might crack and buy it. For now, I'm going to write a bit more of my blog offline. That should take up a little more time.

19:30 – I'm still blogging and the internet still doesn't work. The majority of flights are being cancelled or delayed. Yikes.

20:07 – Still blogging. Texting a few people, even though Vodafone will give me a massive bollocking.

20:22 – Still blogging. The woman next to me has an iPad. I really, really want an iPad, but they're kind of a cross between a laptop and an iPhone, both of which I have. Maybe I'll save up for a proper Mac instead. I wonder if she can get on the Wi-Fi? Or if she can see my screen? Let's see. HELLO iPAD LADY! ARE YOU READING THIS? No, nothing. She's obviously having too much fun on her iPad.

22:45 – I've got the Wi-Fi to work, so I'm catching up on emails, blogging some more, guiltily reading the Daily Mail online even though it's some of the worst journalism on the planet, and bouncing off the ceiling thanks to an ultra-strong coffee. Wheeeee!

23:57 – Skyped my sister and listened to the entire Bruno Mars album, because it's not like I haven't heard it about 40 times in the past month.

02:02 – Played 21 games of solitaire on my iPod. Won: 0 Lost: 21.

02:51 – My flight is delayed by 40 minutes. Brilliant. My mum suggested upgrading to Club and using the lounge. I'm sure Mastercard would have something to say about that.

I have no idea why I stopped writing, but I stayed awake until the plane took off at 08:00. Suggestions as to what you think I got up to in the comments boxes below please.

* This is not the actual phrase I uttered. I'd like to see what would have happened if I did though.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Skydiving in Mission Beach, Queensland

It takes about three hours longer than planned to reach Mission Beach, thanks to a delayed and then broken-down bus. Luckily, I meet some fantastic people on the way, but I'm so tired when I get there, I just want to crash in the nearest bed.

View Larger Map

Mission Beach is yet another place in Oz that is so poorly connected to the rest of the world you'd think you were on Mars. There is no public transport serving the town, no mobile phone service for some networks, no Wi-Fi (AT A HOSTEL, I MEAN FOR GOD'S SAKE THAT IS RIDICULOUS) and one supermarket that is closed on Sundays. It's infuriating. Now that I've been to Asia, I realise I'm perfectly okay without a phone and the web for a bit. But that's because I was in less developed places, where there is more to do. In Mission Beach, however, there is nothing to do. The only reason I went is because it's from there you can skydive over the Great Barrier Reef. I later learned Mission Beach used to be livelier, but a recent hurricane destroyed a huge area and it's taking a while to get back up to speed.

Nevertheless, you can't beat another picture of clear blue sky and deserted sand. So here's one of Mission Beach for you:


It looks a bit like the island from Lost, minus the bad writing, polar bears, rubbish ending and the feeling you've wasted six years watching a show that the writers knew was going nowhere not that I'm digressing or anything but really come on that show could have been so good and they just ruined it RUINED IT all to keep people guessing and there was no conclusion to anything I mean what was that polar bear all about and why did the shark have a Dharma Initiative logo and why when Mr Eko crashed was the land in the shape of a question mark and while we're on the subject did they ever explain why Mr Eko was mute for 42 days no I didn't think so and why did The Others take that kid, you know the one whose dad was Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and then went batshit and killed those two what were their names Ana Lucia and hmm the one that went out with Hurley for a bit ANYWAY BACK TO THE MATTER AT HAND.

The next morning, I go for a run. Four kilometres in the wrong direction. There is no shop from which to buy water so I am a big sweaty heap of a mess when I get back. The hostel, despite its owners clearly living in the dark ages, is lovely, with a pool (!) and gorgeous lawns on which to relax. I finish reading my book and potter about, then meet up with some friends I met a few towns ago. The nice thing about going up the east coast of Oz is that everyone follows the same route (well, mostly everyone), so not only do you often bump into people you've hung around with before, you play the annoying guessing game with a load of others. It goes like this:

"I'm pretty sure we've met before."

"Me too! But I can't place where!"

"I know, it's annoying me. Did you go to [insert Australian location here]?"


"Hmm. Maybe it was there?


Repeat with different person.

Friday - the day after - is skydive day. Skydiving was an unequivocal must-do for me. I even sacrificed going to the Whitsundays so that I could afford it, because the cost for a 14,000 ft dive, with DVD of the whole thing, plus a day of "Extreme Rafting" (more about that terror-filled brush with death later) was getting on for £350. I'll pause while you intake some breath sharply. I wouldn't say I'm a daredevil or anywhere near an adrenaline junkie, but I think years of sitting at a desk have made me want to try riskier stuff, so the day arrives, I sign my name on the dotted line - you know, the one below the sentence saying "you may die and if you do don't even think about suing us" - and meet the people who will be jumping at the same time.

I meet the instructor who will be jumping with me. He's a cutie. Yay! God, I'm so shallow sometimes. He takes me through what can only be described as vague instructions re: what to do when you jump. Basically, you have to push and pull your arms, legs and neck into certain positions before and during the jump. It's pretty straightforward, so on goes the harness and before I know it we're all getting on the plane. Now, when I say "jumping with me", it means this guy (his name escapes me, it was probably something cute and Australian) is literally strapped to me. Or me to him, whichever. It's kind of awkward. The plane is chock full. It's too exciting to be nervous, but I'm jumping out of the plane last, so I get to see eight people go before me. The noise they make when they boing out of the plane is similar to the noise of a wine bottle being uncorked. I'm not sure if they jump, or are pulled by the wind.

It's me next, and before I know it, I'm looking at the Great Barrier Reef from 14,000 feet in the air. I kind of feel like I can't breathe and my heart might explode, but that's okay, because this is exactly the kind of experience I worked my balls off to be able to do. After 60 seconds of freefalling, which feels like ten, the chute opens and we toddle down to the beach in a matter of minutes. It's wonderful. Utterly, utterly wonderful. My eyes are watering and my pulse is thumping and it feels really, really good.