Sunday, 6 January 2013

Christmas and New Year in Melbourne

After the excitement of my Great Ocean Road trip I'm currently in Melbourne and plan to settle here for at least a few months. This is partly from necessity seeing as everything is SO expensive I need a job ASAP, but also because I've really found that I feel at home here and love everything about the place. Compared to Perth which I found to be quite boring after coming from Asia, there is just so much going on in Melbourne. I've been here 2 and a half weeks now and I can still walk around and see something new and interesting. There are little 'laneways' or alleys coming off the main streets where there is usually always some trendy bars or shops or pop up stalls to look at or even some cool graffiti. One of the first couple of nights I arrived, I went out to the night market right next to my hostel for some food, drink and music (which was amazing!) and just happened to walk past one of these where there was an artists street market going on and people playing live music. In the day time you would just walk past without giving it a second glance! I've also been exploring the nightlife out in China town and down by the river on the south bank which is really pretty, had a wander around the botanical gardens and docklands areas. There are loads of weird and funky architecture or modern sculptures in the middle of the street; always something to look at, so its a great place just to have a walk around (perfect for people like me on an almost non existent budget..!).

Despite loving life here in the run up to the Christmas festivities I was feeling really low. Christmas is just not the same down under, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees centigrade, and being without friends and family was a real downer. I didn't even know what I was doing for Christmas day right up until the morning of the 25th, and decided to have zero expectations so I wouldn't be disappointed. It's so difficult to feel Christmassy in this weather and I'm not sure the whole holiday is celebrated as much over here, at least obviously not in the traditional British way I'm used to. It didn't help that every time I did do something Christmassy it just reminded me of how much better everything would be at home. I think I embarrassed myself by being the girl that cried at Home Alone, and then again at It's a Wonderful Life, when it was screened in the hostel - all Christmas films/music are about family and being HOME at Christmas, it's so depressing when you're not! And it didn't help at all that written on the stairs up to my room was a daily reminder of how far away London is from here (16,920 km to be precise). Talk about rubbing it in...   

After opening my Christmas gifts and cards sent from home I was feeling even more homesick, but really appreciated the Christmassy bits that I was sent. I was on a mission to feel festive and after dressing up in tinsel, Santa hat, christmas headband, a flashing brooch, eating mince pies and pulling a Christmas cracker, I think I finally managed to achieve it. At night walking around Melbourne, when the sun isn't so distracting, I noticed all the lights and Christmas displays and music playing and it started to feel a lot more like it should at this time of year! The light show on the town hall especially brought a lot of oohing and ahhing from the crowd, and even though I was homesick I appreciated how much I love this city and the fact that there's so much to see everywhere you go. It's not London, no, but it's definitely on a par!

Sharing my room with 3 Germans and 1 Swede I learnt that a lot of Europeans celebrate Christmas on the 24th (who knew..?!). So this year I had two Christmasses. On the 24th I went with the girls from my room to the park, had a picnic and a sunbathe and took a lot of pictures of us wearing Santa hats in order to make people at home jealous of us in the good weather! The next day I spoke to my family in the morning (who were still on Christmas Eve... I still can't really get my head around the time difference) which made me a bit teary - as can be expected - but ended up having a great day. Think stereotypical Australian Christmas - beach, booze, barbie - and that's exactly how I spent my afternoon. Throw in a stereo cranked to full blast, lots of Christmas accessories, good company, some hilarious Chinese tourists that took a billion photos of us and watching the sun set over the ocean and you've got a brilliant day.

Having Christmas (so far) away from home for the first time has shown me what travelling is all about - stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new experiences. At times it's tough when you're away from your support network at home and I ask myself what am I actually doing here?! But it's all worth it for those little moments of pure happiness that remind me why I came travelling in the first place and I just think "I'm really glad I made this decision!". I got the feeling when I woke up staring at the mountains in the floating bungalows in Thailand; when I was watching the sunset with a cocktail on Koh Tao; when I was being chased by monkeys around the Batu caves in Malaysia; and when I saw my first koala just a few weeks ago. And I got the same feeling at 12 o'clock on New Years Eve when I was watching the fireworks in Federation Square in Melbourne and reflecting on how far I have come and all the things I have done in the last 6 months. I'm having the time of my life and definitely caught the travel bug. I can't wait to see what 2013 brings.

Happy New Year everyone!

Jem xx

Sunday, 30 December 2012

From Adelaide to Melbourne: Kangaroos, Koalas and Coastline

I never thought I'd say this but I actually am learning to ENJOY flying! Usually I'm the sort of person that screws their eyes shut and holds their breath on take off and landing but the journey from Perth to Adelaide was so stunning I had to look out the window for practically the whole journey. I wish I'd taken more photos of the scenery but I was a bit scared of using my camera (electronic equipment messes up something right..?) so this is the only one I got...

Not bad for a plane window view!

After touching down in Adelaide I got my backpack from the luggage carousel and headed out to the bus station. My first impression of Adelaide was that everyone was so friendly - a woman on the bus helped me find my stop and then another person even walked me to my hostel when I asked directions! I dumped my stuff and went to find something to eat in the main shopping area where my opinion of Adelaiders was evened out as some bloke clutching a bible shouted at me that I was going to hell through a megaphone. I guess you can't generalize!

I was only in Adelaide three days but it's quite small so got a good feel for the city. I think it's a nice place just to walk around, visiting a couple of museums and sitting in the park and beach. The Adelaide Central Market is also really cool and definitely worth a look around. I bought my lunch of fresh bread and hummus there for about $3!

Central Market

Glenelg Beach

As I was only in Adelaide a short amount of time and in a small hostel I didn't meet many other backpackers. However on my second night I ventured out to a local bar with an Irish guy from the hostel where we ended up meeting a group of locals that invited me to their friends' gig. Turns out is was a group of sweaty teenagers in leather trousers playing to a crowd of about ten people who were swinging their hair around. Entertaining but maybe not in the way intended...

The next morning I joined my first organized tour group of my Australian trip to do something properly touristy: driving down the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne. The first day was spent doing a lot of driving as the more interesting parts of the route are all towards the Melbourne end. We eventually arrived at our first stop which was the Grampians National Park in Victoria. It is so named because the first European person to discover it thought it reminded him of Scotland. We went for a long walk (more than I imagined to be honest - the tour guide mentioned the word 'hiking shoes' and I almost wanted to cry) and saw a lot of stunning scenery. 


The best part however was after 3 months in Australia seeing my first real-life, in-the-wild, full-size kangaroo... I was so excited! Not only just one but loads of them, and we even saw a couple boxing. They weren't scared at all and we stayed for ages just watching them.

The next morning we went for another walk with our tour guide and saw loads more kangaroos, including one with a joey in her pouch as well as a kookaburra (in a gum tree..of course).


Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree...
The next day we were woken at 6am for a "morning hike" - yes, I didn't really know I had signed up for this! - and headed over to Otway National Park. I have to admit I didn't enjoy this at all. It was FREEZING even though I was wearing a t shirt, a jumper and a massive hoody, and I kept getting attacked by horrible green worm things that I was praying weren't poisonous. To top it off, the famous "tall tree" that we were trekking through the jungle to see turned out to have fallen down a couple of years ago and in it's place was just a hole. I didn't even bother taking a picture. I know I sound like Karl Pilkington moaning, but seriously it was just a hole in the ground?! Definitely not worth the effort of the trek and to make matters worse my flip flop broke on the way back to the coach and I had to walk barefoot through the mud.

I cheered up a lot once I'd changed shoes and when we stopped for lunch we saw emus and a koala! The koala looked almost fake it was just like a fluffy toy.  

The next part of the trip was the best part - finally the Great Ocean Road. There was so much dramatic coastline to see we stopped every few hundred metres to go for walks along the cliffs and take photos of the most famous formations.

Bay of Islands

The main points we stopped off at were the Bay of Islands, London Bridge and the Twelve Apostles. Apparently London Bridge used to be attached to the mainland but part of it collapsed twenty years ago leaving a couple stranded on the new island for hours before they were airlifted to safety. Rather them than me!

London Bridge

We were meant to go and watch the sunset at the Twelve Apostles - the main tourist attraction along this stretch of the road. However, as is always the case you can never predict the weather and we were really unlucky because it was SO windy and rainy that night. You'll also notice that there's only four visible rocks - that's because the others have fallen into the sea over the years. With this and the tall tree, I think the Australian Tourist Board should probably reconsider their marketing strategy. Anyway, here is a picture of the "four" apostles under a cloudy sky!

Twelve Apostles
Our final day on the road was spent stopping off at various beaches and villages along the way to Melbourne. It was too cold to stay too long on the beach or go swimming in the sea but we did a lot of walking and photo-taking!
Cockatoos - the new seagulls

Our final stop before we got to Melbourne was at Split Point lighthouse which was where the 90s TV series Round the Twist was filmed. I vaguely remember this being on when I was little but couldn't tell you what it was about, I don't even remember it being Australian! Only thing is it has a very annoying theme tune that was stuck in everyone's heads for the remainder of the day.

Split Point Lighthouse - Round The Twist

At Split Point

After that we headed straight on to Melbourne and I got dropped off outside my hostel. Absolutely love it here and I'll write another post in the next couple of days about my Christmas and New Year!

Jem x

Thursday, 6 December 2012

"A Pommie Sheila in Oz"

I've been in Australia now for almost 3 months and after the excitement of backpacking around Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have to say I've had a COMPLETELY different experience. It's like finally reality hit and I wasn't on holiday anymore. Things like getting a job and a house and sorting out tax file numbers and Medicare cards quickly filled up my to-do list and that is nowhere near as fun as lying on a Thai beach! Also, the hostels, here in Perth at least, have such a different atmosphere. Everybody is here on a working holiday rather than just passing through and so you get groups of long-timers who are all friends already and it can be quite intimidating when you first get there alone.

Plus, everything is so expensive here! Even though people warned me when I met other backpackers in Asia I thought that they meant in comparison to there where you can get a bed for a fiver a night. Nope, even London looks reasonable compared to Oz prices, especially in Western Australia so I'm told. I really struggled for the first few weeks not being able to find a job and not being able to afford to do anything interesting. The weather was even bad. I was expecting bright sunshine but I had to go and buy a jumper in the first week and practically lived in my jeans - not what I was expecting at all! Perth is OK but just not exciting enough for me - it's the sort of place you might come to live because of the standard of living, wages etc but in my opinion not somewhere you'd stop off as a tourist. At first it just reminded me of somewhere like Croydon to be perfectly honest!

I have learned to love it though after the weather got better and I spent a few days at the beach (even though my sunbathing was interrupted by five separate shark sirens - they actually make you feel like you're in Jaws!). I spent a bit of time in Fremantle which is just outside Perth and has so much more personality than Perth City it's like you're on another planet. There's lots of old buildings and you can wander around the markets and the harbour, where you can get yummy fish and chips if you can avoid the seagulls.

After a few days I also made a really great group of friends and settled in a lot, the hostel really started to feel like home. Even so, I never really felt like I was in Australia, just stuck in the city. It probably also had something to do with the fact that 90% of the people I knew were Irish, English or Kiwi and I'd only spoken to about 3 Ozzies. So after 4 weeks in Perth I thought I'd do something completely different, packed up my bags again and headed to a little outback town called Meekatharra, 775km north. I was going to work in a pub and save some money for 6 weeks and also catch up with my friend Charlotte who lived there.

The journey took me 13 hours on 2 buses and I couldn't help thinking that if I was on a plane for that amount of time I'd have been well on my way home. Anyway, as the bus went further north the scenery out the window changed completely - every time we stopped there seemed to be less and less greenery and more red dust and flies, let alone the heat increasing by about 15 degrees. There was also less and less people and buildings around until eventually we were just driving on one remote road with nothing to see for miles apart from flat red earth and the odd dead kangaroo. I did think to myself - what am I doing? - especially when we stopped for a break and some of the other passengers started talking to me. One of them warned me that if I upset any of the locals I'd be 'run out of town'...! I also kept thinking back to when I'd told the woman who worked in the medicare centre at Perth city where I was going and she genuinely burst out laughing at me for a full 2 minutes before saying "You poor girl". So you can imagine I was bit apprehensive, but also really looking forward to getting out of Perth and doing something different.

Where I lived and worked for 6 weeks
We eventually arrived and I got off the bus and was met by Bob, one of the managers at the pub. He took me in to meet everybody and showed me my room - an actual room to myself after sharing for so long = amazing! Meekatharra was just what I expected I guess - it's the most isolated place I've ever been to. On one of my first days I decided to go and explore and I was done in ten minutes. There is two pubs/hotels (the one I worked at and one other) plus a post office, chemist, supermarket, bank, service staion and caravan park. That's pretty much it! I've got to admit my heart sank when I heard the nearest clothes shops were a 5 hour drive away. I saw a cinema but was told that it had been shut for years because the guy who ran it used to get robbed every time he put a film on because people would know he wasn't at home. Lovely... ! I got the impression that Meekatharra used to be a lot busier but a lot of the shops had shut and were empty, and people told me the population had decreased a lot over the last few decades because mines nearby had closed down. Now most people that come to town are just passing through (the town is a mid way point between the north and south on the main Great Northern highway), or working on sites out of town temporarily on contract work. You also get a lot of people coming for prospecting trips, hunting for gold and a few people that stayed in the pub showed me what they found. Too bad I didn't find anything! So as you can imagine there was not a lot to do when you weren't working, and especially without a car, but I did get taken to a few local places while I was there. Five Mile is an old mine site filled with water and really impressive actually, and the Granites are some rock formations where we went out and had some drinks and a BBQ one night. I saw my first shooting star there which was amazing. I've never seen so many stars, you could even pick out some shapes because the sky is so clear from city pollution.

Five Mile

The Granites
I met some real outback characters anyway, with people coming in actually wearing cowboy hats, with various missing teeth and without any hint of irony calling me a "pommie sheila". My first day at the bar I was pointed at by a bloke from the other side of the room who announced "I don't like you!" and the proceeded to ask me who I was every time I tried to serve him for the rest of the night. I later learned that he was basically the town crazy who annoyed everyone by telling them he was their boyfriend... most other people were lovely to me. One of them even bought me a present when I left! It's the sort of place that everyone knows everyone and by the end of my first couple of days working in the bar people would come in and say hello and know my name even though I was sure I'd never met them before. You have to get used to the fact that everybody has crazy nicknames too (Splinter, Funky..?!) and try to remember not only what people are called but what they drink and how they like it served before they even ask for it. For example, there was one woman who'd come in every day and get served in a special glass just for her, with ice all the way to the top and half a shot of vodka with Diet Coke. If you got any of these components wrong you'd be in trouble! And I thought city types were meant to be fussy...It seems the outback lot don't like change and definitely don't like waiting for a beer.

Talking of which, I've never seen so many types of beer in a pub. At home you'd have maybe 4 or 5 and either a pint or a bottle right? Well, here you have to know not only all the different types of beer, but if they're light, mid-strength, full strength or if they want a stubby (bottle), can, middy glass, pint glass, schooner glass.. it's enough to make your head explode. Don't even get me started on the fact that people don't even call them by their proper names - a Red Can is an Emu Export or a TEDS is a Toohey's Extra Dry etc. There was a lot to learn...! I also got a few comments from people at my attempts to pull a pint ("What's that? I didn't ask for an ice cream") but I have to say I think I got a lot better after a bit of practice - that's a life skill learned! 

It was good to actually see some 'real' Australia after my experience in Perth and speak to some actual Australians. I didn't realise just how different the British and Aussie accents/phrases are and sometimes I literally couldn't understand what people were saying to me; at least I really felt I was in a different country. Some of the things I can remember that got lost in translation are duvet (translation: dooner), skiving (translation: bludging) and a lot more that I just can't remember. I should have started an Ozzie phrase book and written them all down! I also was really looking forward to seeing some Australian animals but apparently you don't see a lot in the town and would have to drive out into the bush to see anything. Luckily though, a woman who rescues animals had a little joey kangaroo she was looking after and brought it into the pub for me to see. So cute! I saw an eagle on the drive back to Perth too which was really impressive - too fast to get a picture though.

After my 6 weeks were up I was quite glad to leave to be perfectly honest. What with the flies and the 40 degree heat (I got severely dehydrated several times - I just can't handle it!) and the lack of shops I couldn't live here permanently. But I did meet some great people and was made to feel at home, and I'm really pleased I went and saw a bit of a different side to Australia before I go back to the cities again. I'm in Perth now, just passing through and catching up on some shopping and sunbathing before I fly to Adelaide on Tuesday. This is when I can start being a proper tourist. I've booked a tour from Adelaide to Melbourne which travels down the great ocean road and visits some national parks etc so I'm looking forward to seeing some interesting things and meeting some more backpackers. After that it'll be Christmas and New Year in Melbourne (so weird to have a sunny one away from home!) and then we shall see... the best things happen when you don't have too many plans!

Miss you all at home! Jem xxx


Monday, 1 October 2012

Stop Off in Singapore

Ok, yes I know I've been really rubbish with updating this but it's hard to find the time now I'm in Australia. It's been a bit hectic with sorting stuff out and trying to find a job but I think I'm getting sorted now. Anyway back to two weeks ago (seems like much longer now)....

The journey from Malaysia to Singapore started well but ended up being a nightmare. I managed to get on a really nice coach heading south and was enjoying the journey when we had almost got to the Singapore border and everyone else got off the coach. I was waiting for the bus to start up again when another coach reversed straight into the side of the one I was on shaking the entire thing and leaving a massive dent in the side. So the drivers of both of the buses started shouting and waving bits of paper around and trying to take photos of each other. I poked my head round the side of the door to see what was going on and one of the men from my bus told me I'd have to wait for a replacement which would take another 2 hours to get there! By this time it was already late and getting dark so I didn't want to wait that long. Luckily he was really nice and bought me a ticket for a local bus that was apparently going into Singapore (I had no Malaysian money left). Going through Singapore/Malaysia immigration was really confusing too, I had to get off the bus twice with all my luggage and fill out a form. The second time I couldn't find the bus again so I was hanging around lost for about twenty minutes. I had met an English guy, Sid, who was another backpacker so at least I wasn't on my own and we just waited for a while before realising it had probably gone without us! EVENTUALLY after catching a different bus (my third of the journey) we got to Singapore city, a full three hours behind schedule. By this time it was about 11pm and I was starving so we went in search of food and found a food hall place taht was still open serving Chinese/Korean etc. I know I had promised to try to be adventurous but all these stalls were selling things like chicken intestines, feet, livers... any part of a chicken you can think of they were serving it up on rice! It's enough to turn you vegetarian... After another trek looking for a taxi we eventually got to the hostel and went straight to sleep.

The next day was a lot better after my eventful journey of the day before. I was raelly glad to have met Sid on the bus because the hostel I was in wasn't exactly very friendly - nobody spoke English and everyone ignored me. It was really different to everywhere I had stayed before. Anyway we headed over to Clarke Quay and walked around to the Marina Bay Sands hotel. This is one of the highest points in Singapore and the hotel is built like three towers with a platform connecting the tops of all of them, it's really cool and futuristic. It was really nice just to do some sightseeing and look at all the crazy architecture and to take lots of photos. Even the benches were bits of modern art! This part of Singapore is so modern I can't imagine what it would have looked like even 20 years ago. We had to pay $20 to go up to the top of the hotel (which I thought was ridiculous but figured I was 'on holiday' so I'd push the boat out) and even then we were kept in a really small area at the front with the rest of the commoners, away from the hotel guests who got to use the rooftop pool and the rest of the space! Another thing - everything is so commericalised. When we got to the top of the lift the staff took photos of us in front of a CGI image of the hotel, then tried to sell it to us for about $40! And people were actually buying it!

Sid went off to meet his friends then so I went for some lunch and to look around the shopping centre attached to the hotel. There are so many designer shops, including a Louis Vuitton that actually floats in the middle of the lake, and even boats just sailing down the middle of the shops on an inside river - it's crazy. After lunch I visited the Art Science museum next door and went to an Andy Warhol exhibition which was really intersting. The staff in there tried to get me to stick on a blonde wig and take a photo of me to sell me for another $25 - I politlely declined...

In the evening I went for a drink at Raffles, the oldest hotel in Singapore and where a lot of celebrities like Michael Jackson have stayed. It's where the original Singapore Sling was created so of course it'd be rude not to try one! Also traditionally people eat peanuts in the Long Bar and throw the shells on the floor so it was fun to do that. It tasted great and was good to say I've been there but would probably have been better with company, it's not that fun drinking on your own even if it is at Raffles Long Bar.

I had a really nice day and I'd imagine Singapore would be a great place to have fun if you were loaded but I felt like it's way too modern and commerical for me. I didn't really get to see any 'culture' or history like I did in Malaysia and Thailand. Everything seemed a bit synthetic in my opinion. Not sure if that's the right word but I hope you understand the sentiment.

Top of Marina Bay Sands hotel

Clarke Quay

Boat in the middle of a shopping centre... as you do

Pointless bench..

My second day in Singapore I decided to go to Sentosa Island. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this but it turned out to be basically a massive theme park. I got a cable car over there (Angry Birds themed - $30 for the picture they take of you getting in...) and had a wander around. In the cable car picture below you can just make out the Merlion statue which is massive and is half lion, half fish. It's a symbol of Singapore but I couldn't tell youa  lot more as you ahd to pay to get in and read about it. Basically Sentosa is not the best place to be if you're on a budget! I spent the afternoon on one of the (man-made) beaches and sat next to a group of Philippino ladies who kept asking me to pose for photos with them all individually because, quote, "I look so different"! I kind of understand how famous people get annoyed with people taking pictures of them, I kind of wanted to point out that I wasn't a tourist attraction. So I took a photo of them back.. They were really friendly actually, just so weird that people think I'm such a photo opportunity.

My new BFFs
On the third day I had a morning before having to get to the airport so I went to China Town. Finally some culture! I really enjoyed having a wander. I bought some bits from the market and then visited  a couple of temples. There is one Chinese Buddhist temple/museum that I visited where they claim to have a tooth of the actual Buddha which is thousands of years old. I was quite excited to this but when you get to the actual room it's not on display but inside all this gold and behind loads of glass. Plus, you can't take pictures, so it's hard to say if it's actually there or not. The rest of the temple was really interetsing though, it's so elaborate and so much gold everywhere. The picture below is of my protective spirit, having been born in the year of the horse. He is meant to guide me when it comes to leadership and career goals!

I had some lunch at one of the street side restaurants which was really yummy (no chicken body parts) and did some people watching. There was loads of old Chinese men just hanging around the main square playing chequers who looked like they'd all been there for the last 20 years not having moved.

So that was my time in Singapore. The best bit for me was definitely China Town and the temples. You can get a bit lost and lonely in all the glamorous parts if you're a solo traveller I think. Would come back one day to explore more but maybe with somebody else!

I'm now in Perth and have been for the last 2 weeks, which for me is even less like Asia and less "cultural" again. I feel a bit like I'm in Croydon, just with slightly better weather. Then again maybe I'm being too harsh as I haven't had a chance to do the touristy thing yet. It's so different when you are planning to live somewhere rather than travelling through. I'll keep you updated!

Love Jem xxx