All the same and all new

All the same and all new

A flat brown English field out a train windowReverse cultureshock is one way to describe that feeling of coming to somewhere you consider home, only to realise that it has changed (or perhaps you have changed, and are seeing it differently). The familiar is suddenly unfamiliar. The returnee feels unsettled, alien in their own place, and frequently heads back out into the world with a sigh of relief.

I’m not going to say I’ve never felt it. Heck, I grew up feeling this – as a third culture kid, I was constantly told I was ‘British’ and Britain was ‘home’ (one home, at least) yet visiting Britain felt so strange. Even now I have a mismatch on some basic assumptions, and those trip me up.

(Immigration is perhaps a good example – until I was 20, Britain was somewhere you emigrated from not immigrated to, and I still assume the traffic flows both ways, and we (Brits) must keep welcoming EU nurses if want to be allowed to retire to sunny Spain.)

Coming back from travelling for six months, stuff had changed. There are new buildings, the one-way systems in Bath, Cambridge and Oxford seem to have been rearranged, friends have moved, grown beards, changed their hair colour… all the usual stuff.

K and I at Doncaster station
But what really made it hard to adjust (apart from the weather, let’s be honest) was people. I love so many brilliant people, and K is very social, so we had a bit of a whirl. And it was exhausting. People change plans! People are late (often us, I’m sorry to say)! People say yes, when they mean no, and no when they mean ‘let me text you on the night and we’ll sort it out then’. People fail to give you all the information. People have needs, desires, other friends, kids, all that stuff.

Planning a night out is like juggling cats, and I was really out of practice. I’m not going to pretend that aerial feline manipulation has ever been my forte, but in the 6 months we were away, we stayed with friends and family for about 4 weeks, total, and they were all pretty well organized so mostly we just let ourselves be taken around and about. Turns out when you get back to ‘real life’ you have to be a little more self-propelled. It was fun, but knackering and strange. And the strangeness was strange.

Now that we’ve been back for 3 months, Christmas is over and I’m starting to settle down. Things have gone quiet, and I’m getting used to all the Englishness around me. Our village is very pretty (very small and very pretty) and it’s good. But strange, in its goodness. We had a house party, and it went well. I’ve remembered how this social thing works, I think.

So what I’m saying is, I’m ready for people again. Shall we go out for coffee, you and I?

A new year, a new(ish) adventure

A new year, a new(ish) adventure
A new year, a new(ish) adventure

Red kite (bird of prey) in a blue sky

I completely dropped this blog in the last quarter of the year, so thank you for waiting out the drought.

As usual, in the last three months my life has shifted course. We got back to the UK on 2 November, but didn’t stop travelling until mid-December. We spent the first month shooting around the country, trying to see people we missed, make it to important events and pull the threads of a settled life together.

We’re making our home in Oxfordshire again. I DID NOT see that coming at all, but we’ve had a couple of lucky breaks so hopefully this winter will be a good one. Although I love the caravan to bits, last winter was very wet, which made getting out harder and it did get lonely. A lack of both public and private transport made it hard to get to events and meet new people (or just buy groceries). Distance kept us from the people we already know and like, so it was an isolating experience.

Trees and boats reflected in the River Thames at sunset in winter

This winter looks to be very different. It’s already drier, we have a working car, a regular bus service and good train connections. we’re based in a pretty village, instead of on an isolated farm, and have WALLS. Yep – one of our pieces of luck means we have a lovely house to live in. K has work in an office, and I’ve got plenty of freelance work.

We’re close to the Thames and are enjoying walks by the river, visiting local pubs (there are 5 within a 15-minute walk!) and spotting local wildlife. There is a lot of bird life here – I’m not going to say I’ve seen a flock of cockatoos, but I’ve seen hundreds of water birds, gulls, pigeons, a few song birds (they’re harder to spot) and up to 8 red kites in one go.

Red kites (birds of prey) swirl against a blue sky

 

The kites are absolutely beautiful birds, and the way they fly is amazing. They have such elegant control over their trajectories. Watching them makes me cross about the mechanistic descriptions of flight in Jonathan Livingston Seagull all over again… I love that I can sit at my desk and see them out the window. It’s even better on a sunny, blue-sky day, but those are in somewhat short supply during an English winter.

We’re settling in nicely, and even bought some furniture. I don’t know how long this phase will last – I’ll let you know what new adventures turn up, in Oxfordshire and beyond!

150 days on the road

150 days on the road

Denpasar monument usToday is our 150th day on the road, and we have exactly 30 left. We’ll be back in the UK on 2 November (late) after a round 180 days away. We didn’t plan it like that – our main goal was to get back before my birthday which is also when our travel insurance runs out.

Anyway, this week, we’re in Kuta, the backpacker / surfer / clubber capital of Bali, Indonesia. It’s like staying in a bar, honestly, but one with a great beach. And tiny sea turtles.

We went into Denpasar today, using the entertaining local bus service. It’s not so much a bus service as random minibus drivers who are probably going in the direction they say they are. It’s like hitchhiking but (a) you pay for it (pence!) and (b) the bus is full of school kids and grandmothers and market produce.

To celebrate 150 days on the road, a few bits of trivia about our trip:

  • Indonesia is our 9th country
  • Denpasar is our 33rd city
  • Our shortest stop was 28 hours in Singapore (we’re going back, though)
  • Our longest stop was 6 weeks in the US (it’s a little bigger than Singapore)
  • Our longest time in one place was 18 nights in Nha Trang, Vietnam (which was nice but kind of dull)
  • We’ve travelled on 14 planes, 9 trains, 3 ferries, 1 campervan and an uncountable number of taxis, cars, buses and metros.

We’re spending this last month travelling from Bali to Bangkok, mostly overland. As it’s quite on-the-go, the-journey-is-the-trip sort of travel it feels like we’re heading home already. I feel like the apex of our trip, the point we were working towards was seeing family in Oz. After Melbourne, we were definitely on the return leg of the trip.

Bird watching in Canberra

Bird watching in Canberra

Yellow-crested white cockatoo perched on a bar against a blue sky

It’s nearly the end of September, and I’ve only got one post up. One! I have no excuse, either – I had good wifi, plenty of time, plenty of things to write about – in fact, too many. I’m getting a bit frozen trying to figure out how to give you a fair treatment of any of these places, as there’s so much to say.

Red and blue parrot in the bare branches of a tree

Flicking through my photos, I realised that I took more photos of birds than anything else in Australia. I was so impressed by how many different brightly coloured birds there were everywhere, particularly because species that are really exotic pets in the UK are more common than sparrows down under.

Three yellow-crested white cockatoos on the grass

Yellow-crested cockatoos are incredibly common. We saw dozens of flocks of dozens of birds. They’re pretty noisy, too, so the locals aren’t so fond of them as I was.

spike pigeon

I took all these photos wandering around Canberra. It’s an incredibly green city, particularly given that it’s the nation’s capital. The original plan was to integrate the city with the natural environment, and I think it’s worked pretty well. It’s called the bush capital, which seems fair enough when you can see kangaroos and galahs within a few hundred meters of the parliament.

pink parrot

After leaving New Zealand, we had a bit of a stop-and-go tour of south eastern Australia. We had a few days in Sydney, where we celebrated our 10th anniversary and had a proper Aussie BBQ with friends. Then off to Canberra, where my rellies generously hosted us for 2 weeks, taking us to great restaurants and lots of tourist stuff too. A few days at the coast, and a final hop (8h by bus and train) to Melbourne to see my cousin and suddenly our the Australian leg of our journey was over.

Green parrot against green grass

We flew to Bali a couple of days ago, and although we’ve got plenty of trip left (just over a month) it feels like we’re heading home. We’ll be travelling mostly overland through bits of South East Asia, then flying back to Europe in time for my birthday in November.

Home sweet home-away-from-home

Home sweet home-away-from-home

I started this blog post a couple of days after we arrived in New Zealand. Here’s how far I got in the last almost 3 weeks:

We’re in New Zealand and it is BRILLIANT. Really, it is ALL CAPS good.

It turns out that if you’re staying in a campervan (we are!) driving around a lot (we are!) and freedom camping (cheap and legal, hurray NZ) you don’t get much online time. Sorry guys! I have lots of thoughts I want to share about this part of the trip, but in the interests of posting at all before we leave, I’ll hang fire. Instead, here are 6 pictures that show some of the things I love about this part of our trip.

1. The van

White campervan under a rainbow

I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect, but it’s great to be back on wheels again. I was really stoked to try campervan life, after the caravan (trailer, for the Americans). It’s been a brilliant way to get about and has meant we could afford food and petrol (not much else though, first world prices are a bit of a shock after Vietnam).

2. The beaches

Long sandy beach with islands in the distance, sun and clouds in the sky

Even I’m not quite mad enough to swim when the air is below 10C and I’ve no hot shower (otherwise, sure, obvs), but they are thrillingly gorgeous. And everywhere.

3. Doing random stuff with K

K and I in front of a sign that says welcome to cambridge town centre

It’s a little hard to explain to other people (sane, rational people with jobs and mortgages and whatnot) why we’re on this trip, or why we’re going so far out of our way to do a particular thing. The only real answer is ‘because we want to’. We’re having a lot of fun, even if it seems a bit mad!

4. Geography

Sun is behind a mountain with hot spring steam in the foreground

This one’s a bit of a cheat because there’s a sunset and a volcano and a hot spring and a public park in there. Anyway, I’m enjoying all the geography they’ve got here!

5. Skiing

Ski slopes in the foreground with a brown and green valley and distant peaks

Skiing in August! The snow was good and I was enormously entertained by the piste names. We skiied ‘The M1′ and ‘Ego Alley’ and ‘Greengates’ among others. Oh, and you know those bits of just-off-the-piste that everyone skis? Yeah, here they name them and stick a black diamond on them. Random.

6. Bird watching

A black bird perched on a beige cliff face

I know, I know: it’s not a penguin or a kiwi. (We did see penguins. I’ll let K tell you about those since he’s still hugely excited by them!) I’m really enjoying all the wild birds we’ve seen around. I know that New Zealand is famous for ‘drab, ground dwelling and dull’ birds but we’ve seen lots of really fun ones. One fantail followed us half way home, and a green one gave us a full concert clearly inspired by a fax-modem combo! It’s bizarre to look at the rest of the wildlife (bats are the only indigenous mammals, e.g.) & plants and realise just how much of an impact humans have had in the last 200 years. More on that another time – the library closes soon!

Discovering the benefits of boredom in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Discovering the benefits of boredom in Nha Trang, Vietnam

If I say ‘tropical paradise’ do you have a clear picture in mind? I do. It’s the one where I’m lying in a hammock, shaded by palm trees with a cold drink in one hand, eyes resting on a white sand beach or drifting the clear blue waters that stretch to the horizon. Everything is quiet and serene. After 3 weeks (or 3 minutes, depending on your temperament) you might well get bored of the perfection.

Nha Trang isn’t like that.

It’s got a lot of the right elements (beach, palm trees, blue waters) but it’s a much more industrial kind of seaside. It’s like the well-established UK or Mediterranean holiday resorts. A grubby, going up or going down one without the gloss, chain stores and health-and-safety regulations of the big places. I’ve been thinking of it as Torquay in the Tropics.

Roofs and a big hotel against Vietnamese mountains

The hotels are all big, or at least tall. Ours is 8 stories, and we’re on the 7th which is why we’ve got such great views over the technical college (which has ostriches, for some reason), the local sports centre and the apartment block in front. But we can see the sea, and from this height you can’t see all the rubbish on the beach or the rubble on the pavement (better than it being on the road, I suppose).

We decided that we wanted a break from rushing around, a little bit of luxury and to try scuba. With unrest in the Philippines and Indonesia when we were booking, Nha Trang seemed like a good choice.

It kind of wasn’t.

I feel bad every time I suggest to anyone that this trip has been less than blissfully, perfectly wonderful in every single way, but actually we’ve made several mistakes, and some places just weren’t as interesting as we thought they would be. LA was one, Nha Trang is another. We’re learning as we go.

As an example, we’re used to travelling in Europe, where if you turn up on the day and look for a hotel you pay twice the price and may well get told they’re fully booked. On the backpacker trail, however, you pay the highest price if you book online, as you can’t bargain, and – most importantly – you can’t inspect the room before you fork over the cash. And you certainly can’t get a refund if you decide to leave early.

K picked a nice hotel in Nha Trang, and booked us in. We needed a couple weeks, as we weren’t sure when we’d be able to do scuba.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City, and took the train up. We checked in, argued with the hotel until they gave us the room we paid for, and went to explore.

We really are out in the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm. The beach is close (and I do love a beach) but the town centre is 5k away. And thanks to the type of building around here (educational/commercial), there are very few market stalls or restaurants or shops. I couldn’t figure out where people bought groceries, until I realised that people don’t really live around here.

Football pitches and school buildings with the sea in the distance

There’s this notion of ‘authentic travel’ prevalent on travel blogs and in guide books. The ideal is to ‘visit the real {whatever country}’ and ‘see the heart of the place’. It’s characterized by deeply meaningful encounters with locals that typically only last 30 seconds. I find it a bit odd. It’s like the ‘travel like a local’ thing. Even if you live somewhere for years and years, you won’t necessarily see behind the scenes, so I don’t see how you could manage it in a week of rushing about.

And if you do spend time somewhere ‘like a local’ you’ll notice that locals are stuck in exactly the boring rut that made you want to travel. They work. They shop for food. They cook the same meal they made the day before yesterday. They buy coffee at Starbucks. (Actually, Nha Trang doesn’t seem to have a Starbucks. It may be the last place on earth not to. I bet Everest has one.) They eat at McDonalds and do all sorts of non-authentic things. They watch TV.

Locals don’t visit tourist attractions. They don’t go to major religious sites, except on the appropriate holidays. If you do a place ‘like a local’ you’ll miss out.

Nha Trang crushes those lovely ‘off the beaten track’ dreams. It’s an entirely ordinary town, where most people seem to have nothing to do with the tourism industry. As a result, they don’t speak English. And if they did learn a tourist language, it would be Russian. There are a lot of Russian tourists. Well, there aren’t a lot of tourists down this end, but the ones there are speak Russian. Or Vietnamese – our hotel seems to be a pretty successful conference center. We’ve already seen the classic ‘egg drop’ team building exercise and there’s 3 nights of corporate functions and weddings every week.

Nha Trang is, in short, boring.

It’s too far away from anything friends with local knowledge or the guidebook recommends to make a day trip. HCMC, Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue are all at least 8h away. Even the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam and Trip Advisor are at a bit of a loss. LP recommends visiting the local medical centre and Trip Advisor is all about the scuba. Pool, beach, sea: that’s it.

That’s not a bad thing though.

Street at night in torrential rain

It took a while to get into the habit of having nothing to do. We visited over 20 cities in the 2 1/2 months it took us to get from the UK to Vietnam. We didn’t really mean to go so many places, it just kind of happened that way. Did you know that it’s only 20 minutes on the metro from Osaka to Kyoto? And the same to Kobe? Me neither, but once you find that out, how could you resist?

The first couple of days, I think we slept and ate pizza. After that, we read books, swam in the pool and the sea, and explored the hotel’s menu. After that, I got bored. I got itchy feet. I complained to K that I wanted to move on. I got cross that the hotel was booked and paid for, so we couldn’t go away or change it without wrecking our budget.

I think at that point, K booked the scuba to distract me. He’s asthmatic, so has to wait for his breathing to be perfect before he can dive. It didn’t happen, but he got me out of the hotel for 3 days. (And then fish! fish fish fish. Seriously, I saw so many cool fish. And a purple slug with a crown of yellow horns on its butt.)

Lit up football pitch at night masked by palm trees and torrential rain

After that, I relaxed. I suddenly realised how lovely it is to have nothing to do. All our successes from Nha Trang are small, things that could have happened anywhere, but they happened here. We planned out a website we’ll probably never build, I started a book I’ll probably never finish. K taught me to play his favourite computer game. We actually watched some TV. I swam 1.5km for the first time this year.

It’s been good.

Now, our time in Nha Trang is coming to an end. We leave on Wednesday and it’s all a rush again. We’ve got things to do today, tomorrow and the next day. After that, we’re in the hands of the airlines. We’ve got a train to HCMC, an overnight layover there then a flight to Singapore. 18h in that city, then on to Brisbane. A weekend there, then on to Auckland. It’s all down to when flights are affordable, and so whoosh we’re off!