Phase 3: Oma writes poetry and Germans sniff lettuce

You may think I’m joking about the lettuce part. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well. Germans aren’t known for being normal. But I’ll come back to that later.

The last time we spoke, I think I disappeared into a memory food coma. Those pancakes were SO GOOD.

Anyway. We were in Munich. So – once we dropped Sheridan off at the airport on that last afternoon so that she could catch her flight back to the quaint British countryside city of Oxford, Tyson, Maren and I hit the road for Oehningen, a very small village about 30 minutes past Oma and Opa’s house in Gottmadingen, Southern Germany (don’t feel bad – no one else has ever heard of these places either). When we got there, mum – who hadn’t seen Tyson and I in a year since her and dad left to go traipsing around the world last December – nearly jumped through the car window in excitement at having us back.

Small talk, informalities and mum trying to feed us everything in the house aside, we – that is dad, mum, Tyson, Maren, Fynn (who’d arrived a few days earlier) and I soon found ourselves sitting squished together on the amazing Air BnB couch, drinking red wine and talking about life. How blessed I am to have family who loves each other so much!

It wasn’t until the next day that the rest of the relatives trudged on in – aunt Christel, Oma and Opa, and eventually aunt Angela and cousin Niko as well. It was to be a special Christmas this year, a rare occasion to have all of us together that happened the last time back in 2009. Pleasantly, despite increasing age (80+) and their usual loving bickering, Oma and Opa still appeared healthy and happy, pleased to have us all together but definitely glad as well that us “kids” were staying in a separate house and weren’t creating more work for them.

At Christmas, Oma recited self-written poetry of family and love and what it means to be together, and Angela sang a song about God looking out for us no matter where we are. Christel read funny Christmas stories of snow and the meaning of giving, and I tried my best to translate but gave up when Tyson didn’t laugh at my English version of the German jokes.

We didn’t do presents this year, instead playing a game of White Elephant, where everyone had to bring something wrapped up that they didn’t want anymore. Based on how the dice rolled, we were able to open and exchange opened “presents” with those around the table whether they wanted to swap or not. Amazing how attractive a little old Christmas ornament becomes when you compare it to a broken viking hat, a little Greek language dictionary or a notebook and pen someone pinched from a hotel!

The rest of our time in Oehningen was spent relaxing, talking, walking around the area and going on excursions (Tyson, the twins and I took a day out to go to dad’s university city, Freiburg and France’s beautiful city, Strasbourg). We were even brave enough to sweat it out in the private sauna on our last evening, though the amount of times we opened the door to let the crisp outside air in probably reduced the positive health effects this exercise was supposed to achieve.

Finally, it was time to head off to our next destination…. But wait, wasn’t there something about lettuce sniffing?

I kind of hoped you’d forgotten.

You see we Germans, most of the time, give off a pretty clean-cut impression. Good engineering, strong political presence, neat gardens. Sometimes we’re seen as a bit conservative, you could say. We’re strange, but we don’t often show it.

Well – that all goes out the window in the small villages.

All we wanted was a bag of lettuce for dinner. If we’d been the only ones in the corner store, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. But as it turned out, it was rush hour in the otherwise shop-less hamlet when Tyson and I arrived, and we found ourselves in a queue to pay behind a tall, blonde German woman who – without warning – started sniffing at her bag of lettuce. Wrinkling her nose every time she came up for breath, she didn’t wait long – nor ask permission – before sticking her blonde head in our bag too.

“Smells a bit funky, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Umm…” we replied, not sure whether to be more concerned about her head in our plastic bag or the fact that our lettuce might be off.

What made the situation even more bizarre was the man standing in the back corner of the shop, near the lettuce, who had a white, circular-shaped hat on his head that looked like it had been hand made out of cardboard for a game of train conducters with his grandchild.

Neither he, nor anyone else in the queue, seemed to find it strange that blondie was sniffing all the lettuce bags.

To cut a fascinating story short, we ended up buying the lettuce and washing it while the blonde lady did not, instead opting for the popular brussels sprouts also displayed in the greenery corner beside the strange train conductor, no doubt to the overwhelming joy of her children waiting at home.

And that was it. A little insight into the strangeness of Germans.

Welcome to my culture. 🙂

 

 

Phase 2: A road trip adventure and the king of all pancakes

We got distracted.

I blame it on a combination of Tyson’s love for our new hire car and its ability to drive whatever speed we wanted it to on the Autobahn, and our fascination with how close everything is in Europe. We could have taken the more direct route and been in Munich in the afternoon as promised. …But why do that when you can go via Liechtenstein and Austria??

Poor Sheridan.

By the time we’d navigated our way through the roundabouts of Liechtenstein’s capital, Vaduz, to take a selfie in front of the cathedral, got stuck in small-town after-school traffic jams in the back streets of some random Austrian villages and found our way back to the main road, it was late afternoon, and Sheridan had been waiting in Munich for hours.

Quickly dropping off our luggage in the Air BnB with mismatched furniture and the broken door that was not to be opened, we picked Sheridan up and drove straight on to Munich central station to pick up Maren and find some traditional, hearty German food for dinner.

The next morning, it was time to explore Munich, ‘the city that loves you’. In between trudging after Maren down random back streets to find the city’s best coffee according to Bean Hunter (favourite app of all self-declared hipster coffee connoisseurs) and looking for waffles for Sheridan, who seemed to have developed a sudden craving, we did actually see a fair bit of the city pedestrian shopping mall. (I may have gotten distracted again, this time with shoe shops.)

After plenty of caffeine (not great – Bean Hunter does get it wrong from time to time), a waffle experience (craving satisfied!) and some Gluehwein at the Christmas markets, it was time to find some dinner again. Tyson’s dream came true when we got a table at the renowned Augustiner Brewery, at which Dirndl-clad women with varying bust sizes served up beer in 1L Steins and plates of sausages and pork knuckle to your heart’s content. This evening would be, as it turned out, Tyson’s favourite dining experience of our whole trip.

The next day, wanting to make use of the nice blue sky and flexibility offered by our hire car, we decided we’d take a day trip to Neuschwanstein Casle (Tyson had never been to this famous German landmark that inspired the Disney castle) and Austrian alpine city, Innsbruck. It was a beautiful day, if long, and we were all happy to be out of the city and exploring the region. We were even lucky enough to experience some snow along the way!

The next day, our last day in Munich, we had the privilege of experiencing Mr Pancake – a tiny café in a trendy suburb close to the centre of town. Run by two ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Romanian immigrants and serving up plates of the most incredible pancakes we’d ever eaten, we felt refreshed being inside, not only because of the delicious aromas coming from the fying pans in the miniature kitchen, but also because of the Hillsong album playing in the background. God, it seems, really is everywhere.

 

Phase 1: Cloudy mountain peaks and deer sausage.

When the weather is bad in Switzerland, people head to the mountains.

I mean, they do that anyway, but as it turns out, the bad weather makes such a trek even more worth it, because the higher you go, the better your chance of getting above the weather.

This was definitely the case during our visit to Lucerne – stop no. 1 on this year’s European Christmas adventure. Knowing that ahead of us were two weeks of intense family time, Tyson and I had booked an Air BnB for a couple of nights in this Swiss city, just over an hour away from Zurich airport. I’d come here 5 years earlier to attend the World Tourism Forum, and having celebrated a major academic success here, I was keen to show Tyson all the places I’d been.

After picking up our hire car (a Mercedes! What else would you drive on an autobahn?!) and having a rather overpriced plate of service-station Spaetzle (oh, Switzerland), we were welcomed by our Air BnB host Brigitte with a bottle of wine and by her husband, Bruno about 15 minutes later with two half-litre cans of beer (“I’m sorry, my wife forgot the most important thing – you need these after such a long trip.”)

Having not thought ahead a great deal (we were flat out for weeks before we left home), we hadn’t made any plans for our first day in Europe, nor had we remembered that European cities do not follow Sunday trading. As fate would have it, we thus ended up at the top of a 1,798m high mountain with a view over the incredible Swiss Alps, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zug and Lake Lauerz – Mount Rigi had been recommended to us by our host Brigitte not only because it was a great Sunday activity, but because we woke up that first Sunday morning to miserable, cloudy, grey winter weather.

“You will have blue sky up there,” she’d said, pointing up at the grey, hazy sky as if we could look through it to some magical sunny place above. Though I wasn’t sure I believed her, heading up the mountain and getting some fresh air seemed like a good idea after 24+ hours of travel.

And so, there we were, taking pictures of snow patches and the top side of the clouds, eating deer sausage (a local specialty, apparently) and drinking terrible coffee. Luckily, the negativity of the coffee and lack of alternative lunch options was far outweighed by the truthfulness of Brigitte’s weather predictions, and we were able to sit outside in the sun, breathe in the crisp winter air and enjoy the fact that we were on holidays – at last.

Twenty-four hours, a small Christmas market, a quick whisk around Lucerne and some Swiss cheese later, we were on our way to Munich to meet my sister Maren and our friend Sheridan for a few days in Germany’s pretty, proud, Bavarian capital.

Autobahn driving… wheeee!

 

Airport Musings

I love airports.

Not the standing-in-line-waiting-to-get-my-passport-stamped, endlessly-slow-baggage-carousel-waiting parts.

No, I love the human part.

Mostly, it’s the arrivals and departures halls I find fascinating. There’s nothing quite like seeing the pure and uninhibited joy of friends, families or couples reuniting after a long absence, sometimes with flowers; sometimes with balloons; sometimes with a hand-written sign and a big shriek of excitement; sometimes just with a long embrace or a kiss.

I love how the little children forget all parental instruction and run toward their arriving relatives as they walk through the glass sliding doors leading from customs, and I love how everyone walks away holding hands, helping each other with luggage, laughing and talking about how the flight and the trip was. Though I’ve always found it sad to arrive somewhere alone, I also enjoy the opportunity this gives me to observe those around me and be joyful in their joy.

I also love airport fashion. This is particularly evident at the gates where flights have just landed and passengers are disembarking, and it is often easy to see where people have come from. Bintang singlets and a tan? You’ve just been to Bali. Outrageously hippie-looking elephant print pants? I promise you, despite what you think now, 20-something university male, you won’t wear those again, even if they were fashionable for the backpacker crowd in Koh Samui. Pointy, straw hat? Been to Vietnam, I take it? And then you see the traditional clothing – burquas, stark white Indian dress for men, checkered headscarves in the middle east, puffy-sleeved, colourful print dresses to match extraordinarily white teeth and dark skin in Africa.

I also like guessing how long people have been away – the colour (i.e. fadedness) of their clothing, amount of leather bracelets and state of their luggage is usually a pretty decent indicator.

Most of all though, I love the diversity. All cultures, colours, races and walks of life gather together at airports, not being given much of a choice when everyone bar a lucky few have to line up in the ‘foreign passports’ queue. You overhear conversations – some you can understand, most you can’t.

Whilst you do get the occasional few travellers that get grumbly about something (like the nasally American lady at Honolulu airport who was aghast at her husband when Starbucks didn’t have salt (“Can you believe it, the lady at the counter said they don’t carry salt!”), airports are mostly peaceful places.

Why can’t we be like this in normal life?

Here we are, 200 people from probably 100 countries packed as closely together as if we were standing in a rush hour London tube carriage, and we are all OK with each other. No hatred, no disapproving glances, no vilification, no separation.

Everyone – though on their own – is together in their plight of being stuck in a line that the law requires them to be in.

At times, people even talk. A quick question (“where have you just come from?” or “your baby is so cute, how old is she?”) is all it takes for a smile; a cultural interaction.

Humanity is designed to live together in community, in harmony. To take joy in each other, laugh together, cry together, go through the good and bad together. We are all one and the same, even if we appear so different from the outside.

How much we can learn from airports.

Photo credit: Tyson Cronin 

 

Giants sent us to the ocean

In the wise words of a Hawaiian proverb, ‘a’ohe pu’u ki’eki’e ke ho’a’o ‘ia e pi’i. In English: no cliff is so tall it cannot be climbed.

Well. I don’t know about that.

The Hawaiian Archipelago, the 130 islands scattered smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, are topped by what is known as the Hawaiian Ridge, a mountain range standing in seawater about 5 miles (8km) deep. Snow sometimes settles on its 13,000 foot (3,962.4m)  peaks, and if you were to consider the top to bottom height of these mountains, the Hawaiian Ridge would be the tallest mountain range on earth.

I don’t know about you, but those Hawaiian proverb-writers seem to me just a tad too optimistic.

Regardless, after 3 days of driving through all of Kauai’s unique little towns* and not before cruising along the spectacular Waimea Canyon drive, it was time for us to attack some of these famed mountains.

We started small, don’t worry.

Whilst officially called the Sleeping Giant (or Nounou), mountain # 1 was less than humongous. Hawaiian legend has it that this giant was once tricked into eating too many rocks by local villagers and then lay down to have a food-coma nap, from which he is yet to awaken (a bit how I’ve felt after almost every dinner on this island!). The 3-mile return hike to a 180 degree view of the valley below was somewhat strenuous, though the red mud that covered my bright pink ASICS shoes afterwards was the thing that caused me the most anguish.

The next day, it was time to get serious.

The Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Falls trail at the far northern end of Kauai is divided into two parts – a 2 mile (3.2km) treck to a beach at the edge of the Nā Pali Coast (this is the coast’s most crowded and popular hike) and then another 2 mile journey into the valley behind to reach a spectacular 92m high waterfall. This trail was muddy in a lot of places (I gave up on my shoes), up and down rock faces, through numerous streams and across smaller waterfalls. It was a serious hike, and one that caused our legs to ache, but one that was also completely worth the 7.5 hours it took. And oh how we enjoyed a dip at Ke’e Beach at the end, as well as a cold beer!

After a day of rest at our cosy little Air BnB, it was time to attack serious hike #2: the Awa’awapuhi Trail, on the other side of the Nā Pali cliffs (in Koke NP in western Kauai). A much more temperate part of the island, this 10.5km hike took in misty views of the surrounding mountains, dry eucalyptus forests and much less mud (hooray!). The hike down to the amazing view of the cliffs and ocean was fairly easy, but the route back was almost completely uphill, and seriously strenuous. In true Cronin fashion, we followed this one up with yet another cold, Hawaiian beer and a dip in the ocean.

Cheers, and mahalo (thank you) for the beautiful views, Hawaii!

*Kauai’s Amazing Little Towns: Ka’apa, where we are staying, is the biggest, and most alternative town; Lihue is the business centre and location of the airport and Walmart; Hanalei is the main town along the north coast and has a very relaxed, surfie vibe; Hanapepe is a little artsy community and home of the most Western bookstore in the USA; Poipu is the touristy beach haven; Koloa is the old sugar industry centre; and Waimea is the desert-like Western side’s main town and a place that looks more like the wild west than Hawaii. All of these make for great little stops along the way as you drive Kauai’s highways north/east and south/west.

P.S. For those of you who read my last blog post… we have uncovered the mystery behind all the chickens! Apparently during Hurricane Iniki in 1992 lots of domestic chicken coups were destroyed and chickens escaped. Indeed, they have few predators on the island of Kauai, thus they have multiplied by the hundreds and roam freely. Fun fact: Kauai’s Wild Jungle Fowl (i.e. fancy word for wild chicken) is even protected by law nowadays! It seems these birds are here to stay. Just one of the many things that make Kauai unique… 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

More than just hula skirts and coconuts

It all turned out this way because Tyson didn’t want to go to New Zealand.

I’d imagined hiring a motorhome, staying at cute little B&Bs in the mountains, sitting by a fireplace with hot chocolate and a good book. Instead, I find myself on a tropical island, staying in a B&B in the jungle, sitting on the beach with a cold beer and said good book.

It’s funny how we ended up here, really. My dislike of Hawaiian shirts and frangipani accessories (unfortunately both made tacky by my own nation’s people) has never placed Hawaii at the top of my ‘Must Visit’ list. In fact, it was never on my ‘Might Visit’ or even ‘Am Moderately Interested In Visiting’ list.

Until I saw pictures of the mountains.

Jurassic Park was filmed here, did you know? Right here on Kauai, the island on which we agreed to spend our 2nd wedding anniversary. You can really imagine it too – the jungle is dense, the mountains intimidating. There’s lots of rain, which creates lots of mist… you can just imagine gorillas poking their heads out… oh wait, that was a different movie.

Anyway, as it turns out, this small island (Hawaii’s oldest) actually has quite a bit more to offer than hula skirts and coconuts (though the latter are everywhere and the former can be purchased, wrapped in plastic, at the supermarket down the road).

I don’t mean really tourist things – though there are a lot of sailing tours available for the famed Nā Pali Coast and a few cool tourist attractions like a coffee plantation and a blowhole. But that’s not what’s really stuck out to me these first few days.

Rather, it’s the chickens, and the Mexicans.

You may think I’m joking about the chickens. I’m not. They are everywhere. If I could count how many chickens I’ve seen in Kauai and saved a dollar for every one of them, I’d quit my job today and write blog posts for a living.

But seriously. Chickens – on the beach, on the road, crossing the road (don’t ask why), in the garden, beside the restaurant, under the car. Scratching around like they own the place, clearly with not enough predators here as they are not usually the top of the food chain!

The other thing that’s stuck out to me is the Mexicans.

I don’t mean Mexican people, though with the amount of Mexican restaurants here you’d think it was Mexicans who colonised Hawaii. There are literally about 3 Mexican restaurants in every small town, and for a population of only 67,512 people, that’s a lot of Mexicans. Not only restaurants either – Mexican food trucks, Fish Taco stands, often pulled right up beside a more permanently erected Mexican restaurant. It’s bizarre, but obviously the locals love it. After eating it twice, I’ve had enough.

So, those are my first impressions of Kauai – all 1430 square kms of it. It’s lush, green, beautiful, and somewhat similar to our local beach Bargara in the town we grew up in, and there are chickens and Mexicans everywhere.

I wonder what more I’ll discover over the coming days…

 

When your alter ego cooks you breakfast.

I’m not a fan of fad foods.

Judgemental as I may sound, I’ll be so frank to admit (we’re friends here, right?) that whenever someone mentions a kale smoothie or a brownie made with black beans and lentils instead of flour, or when I see yet another 1950s-dressed, beard-clad, trousers-rolled-up man sitting with his legs crossed tucking into a quinoa salad, I internally roll my eyes.

Maybe I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for healthy food. Those who have seen my recent Instagram photos will probably be rolling their eyes at the moment as they think of my repetitive posting of oat-yoghurt-fruit breakfast combinations. I love eating wholesome food, I love experimenting with fresh ingredients, I love cooking and knowing exactly what I’m putting into my body. I won’t even go so far as denying that I have a slight hipster tinge (don’t we all?). I like artisanal bread, I don’t mind avocado on toast, and – though it’s not my favourite vessel of choice – I’ll even drink out of the occasional mason jar.

I just don’t quite understand the trend of ‘let’s turn a delicious, developed-over-generations sweet recipe into something filled with grains and vegetables and take out anything that makes it what it is.’

Alright alright -before you attack me (I feel I may be making some enemies with this post – but alas – it gets better if you stay with me until the end!), I have to say also that I am very blessed to not suffer from any food allergies or irritations. Thanks to lucky genes, I have a strong metabolism, and I can happily eat gluten, dairy, sugar, salt and nuts. For this, without a doubt, I am extraordinarily grateful. It makes cooking – and travelling – a lot easier than I’m sure it is for some of you who have to be more careful! I also want to take my hat off to you if you are someone that has had to adjust your  diet to suit your body. This is not a post about me being judgemental about your food choices. If anything, it’s a post about me being judgemental of my own food choices.

To get to the point, then, I have a confession to make: I MADE MYSELF A GLUTEN FREE, (ALMOST) DAIRY FREE BREAKFAST THIS WEEK.

You’re probably wondering what got into me, or how many secret naughty ingredients I added to make it less healthy.

None!

Indeed, though it was partly out of a lack of ingredients available in our house, I have also been doing a lot of exercise lately and have been trying to have a really healthy breakfast. So when I had 2 eggs and an old banana in the fridge, this recipe came in rather handy.

Banana-blueberry pancakes. 2 eggs, one banana, a handful of frozen berries. That’s it! Interested? Scroll down for the recipe!

 

Quick & Easy Gluten Free, Dairy Free* Banana-Blueberry Pancakes

 

Ingredients

  • 1 medium ripe banana
  • 2 large eggs
  • Handful of frozen or fresh blueberries
  • A little bit of oil to cook in (I used butter – use oil if you want to make it dairy free)

Method

  1. Mash the banana in a bowl using a fork. Continue mashing until the banana has a pudding-like consistency, with no big lumps.
  2. Whisk up the eggs in a separate bowl, again using a fork. Whisk until egg yolks and whites are completely combined.
  3. Stir banana and eggs together. The mixture will be very runny, more like a scrambled egg mixture than a regular pancake batter. Add the blueberries. (If you’re using frozen blueberries, like I did, don’t stir the mixture too much after you’ve added these or they will start to melt and will turn the batter purple!)
  4. Heat up a flat frying pan on the stove at medium heat. Melt some oil (I used butter) and wait until it bubbles when you hold a wooden spoon in it.
  5. Put some of the batter into the frying pan. Because of the runny texture, it’s best to do small pancakes – I used about 2 tablespoons of the batter for each and placed them close to the side of the frying pan so that they wouldn’t run into each other.
  6. Cook the pancakes until the bottoms look browned and the edges start to change colour.
  7. Flip carefully by pushing a spatula halfway under the pancake and then lifting it away from you. If you lose some of the mixture or your pancake folds in half, don’t worry! Try to push any stray pancake splatters back underneath the pancake, and keep cooking mushed up ones as they are, they still taste good! Feel free to flip the pancakes multiple times to get the same colouring on both sides – this will be easier once you have done the first flip.
  8. Stack your pancakes and drizzle with honey. If you have nuts (or, in my case, chia seeds – see, this is the hipster in me coming out!), feel free to sprinkle some of those on as well.
  9. Bon appetite!

 

Comments:

  • Don’t expect these to taste like normal pancakes. The consistency, as described so perfectly in the original recipe is more like the inside of a piece of French toast.
  • These are yummy, but not as filling as regular pancakes. Great for a light breakfast or brunch, but if you’re anything like me you’ll be needing a more substantial snack again a few hours later!

 

THINK YOU CAN CHANGE MY MIND ON HEALTHY RECIPE ALTERNATIVES? Try me. Comment below and let me know what new fangled recipes are a hit in your household. I’d love to hear them!

 

image
Just a few simple ingredients…
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Mash the banana
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Mash until you have no more lumps
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Mix together banana and beaten eggs
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Add frozen blueberries
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Melt some oil or butter in the pan until it bubbles when you touch it with the tip of a wooden spoon

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Carefully lift and flip pancakes
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They should get to a golden colour on both sides

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Drizzle with honey, extra blueberries, chia seeds, etc. and enjoy!

So – tell me about Brisbane. Well, that’s a funny story.

[Also, erzählen Sie mir doch mal etwas über Brisbane. Tja, das ist eine lustige Geschichte…]

I don’t really know what I’d expected. That I could just wing it? Read notes off a piece of paper and expect it to work? Who did I think I was?

I really should have seen it coming.

I mean, it was a city tour. City tour guides need to know STUFF. Stuff like dates and names of buildings and funny stories about historical landmarks. I didn’t know anything about Brisbane, even though I’ve lived here for seven years. And I’m not good with dates.

It really shouldn’t have been a shock when the advice of a well-seasoned Brisbane guide came through the phone: Oh gosh no, you can’t just read off a piece of paper! They expect you to know all of the information. They will mark you badly if you just read. Oh well, you have a couple of days. You’ll have to learn.

Oh dear.

I know I’m passing the blame here, but I kind of got roped into this. My editor from Our Planet Travel was supposed to lead the tour, a bus-driven German cruise ship trip around Brisbane, Mount Coot-tha and Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, but couldn’t – so I agreed to step in. The money sounded good, particularly as I have been in-between jobs. And besides, it was tourism! I know tourism, I’ll be fine. Yes, it required me to speak German all day, and to remember a few facts, but surely it couldn’t be that difficult, right?

Sure.

When it became clear that I had a lot of studying to do (after talking with Waltraud, the expert tour guide who spoke so fast about the route my bus should take and made me feel completely inadequate for NOT knowing every single historical landmark in Brisbane), I went into a 2-day lockdown. The process went something like this: Google – Mental translate – German dot points. Google – Mental translate – German dot points. [Coffee break.] Google – Mental translate… you get the idea.

It was a good system, in essence, as I learnt while I was writing, but it was so time consuming. I created a table with pictures, names and key interesting facts about each local landmark, though as it turned out there are landmarks that we drove past on the tour that I didn’t even know existed in Brisbane, let alone had I studied for them. Nevertheless, I did my table. I revised.

What wasn’t ideal was that we had a wedding to attend at the Gold Coast the night before I was due to be a tour guide. The wedding was absolutely beautiful, and very enjoyable. It also lasted until 11:30pm. I was due to be up at 5am, out the door by 5:30am and ready to meet the other guides at 6:30am. Do the calculations if you like; that’s not much sleep. Worse yet, I woke up at 4am that morning in a panic. Why did I agree to this?!?

Yes, I know – I can be a little dramatic. But when you’re operating on 4.5 hours’ sleep and you’re about to conduct 11+ hours of tours without having memorised lots of dates (and with the demanding tone of Waltraud in the back of your head), it’s a little daunting.

Alas, I made it to the port on time. And there she was, in all her multileveled cruise ship glory: the MS Artania, on her tour around the world.

These passengers would have been on dozens of city tours. They had a lot to compare me to. I was scared.

On my first bus, I had 46 German pensioners and a random Asian man. To this day I don’t know why the Asian man was there, as he didn’t seem to speak any German. The group also had an escort – a lady named Diddi whose bleached blonde hair and pumped up lips were complimented by her holiday-blue polo and chirpy, husky voice.

Diddi didn’t know that it was my first time as a tour leader, not from the start anyway. She looked somewhat critical of my constant flipping of papers to find my notes, and kept encouraging me to talk about random things such as school uniforms, car registration plates and the Brisbane climate. I hadn’t realised how much down time there would be between the port and the inner city, so she was right in encouraging me to be chatty. I wasn’t prepared, but I managed. In my nervousness, I think I made up a few dates and names along the way, but given that I didn’t notice any of the oldies head-down on their mobile phones checking the information on google, I assume I got away with it.

My second tour was much better. Knowing what to expect this time, I chatted happily away about whatever came to mind, intermittently texting Tyson to send me some interesting facts about Brisbane that I could mention. At one stage I proudly told the group that Brisbane had about 380 days of sunshine a year (instead of 280) and that made for an amusing moment for everyone on the bus. The group was chattier; more involved – one man asked me about luxury car import taxes in Australia and another told me half his life story including that he used to be fluent in Russian. The second best reaction I got (after the sunny days) was when I mentioned that there are now over 400 Aldi stores in Australia. Germans! Everyone seemed happier on this second tour – perhaps more relaxed because I was more relaxed. I even ended up with about $150 worth of tips (albeit some of it was in US Dollars, Euros and Barbados Dollars)!

At the end of the day, I was exhausted. I’d managed the tours, despite my fears; I’d learnt some information about my own city and I’d challenged myself. In the end, I guess it’s that last bit that counts.

Never be afraid to embrace a new challenge. Even if it’s terrifying. Even if it’s out of your comfort zone. You may make new friends, you will definitely learn something, and you will realise that the only person stopping you from being successful at something is you.

Take it from me. I’m an expert Brisbane city tour guide now. Watch out, Waltraud!

 

 

 

It’s all a little bit peculiar

It’s a peculiar place, Vietnam.

Not in an obvious way though. The strangeness doesn’t jump out at you and slap you in the face. It only becomes clear when you look out of the taxi window at the life going on outside, focus a little longer on the little old lady standing by the street or the items sold by the shops on the main road.

You need to give yourself time to let the weirdness sink in.

Firstly, people walk around in their pyjamas here. Not just at home. I’m talking about people on the street, in the middle of Hanoi, or the middle of Ho Chi Minh city. They walk around the lake, which is surrounded by restaurants, as if pyjamas are the new jogging gear, and then stand for a while holding on to the railing, swinging their arms back and forth in some kind of tai chi exercise. Here in Ho Chi Minh, I’ve seen grandmas wearing pyjamas pushing their grandchildren along the road in prams, and even shop keepers dressed in pyjamas taking coffee orders.

You might think I’m joking – I’m not. I’m talking about silky pyjamas, striped Mr Bean pyjamas and soft winter pyjamas with small cute animals and hearts on them. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the city.

It’s peculiar.

Equally peculiar I find the size of furniture here. I love the street food culture – there’s a certain grubbiness too it, an Asia feel. Restaurants facing out onto the street, chairs and tables strewn across the footpath, with a direct view of the hectic traffic of scooters, bicycles, tuc tucs and cars in front. Women washing dishes by the drain beside bowls of green herbs, and men welding pieces of old cars back together. Children running around, laughing; tourists peering curiously into shops as they step over the activity of day to day business on the streets of Vietnam. But everywhere, it seems, there’s a children’s tea party going on. The furniture looks like it came out of a toy shop, and I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more people snapping the legs off chairs.

Peculiar.

A third peculiarity lies in the ability of the Vietnamese to plant vegetable gardens everywhere. Naturally exceptional gardeners (even at Australian markets the Vietnamese sell the best fruit and vegetables), the Vietnamese have seemingly not only mastered the soil, sun and water requirements of producing top-quality green leafy vegetables and herbs, they’ve also managed to overcome all logistical obstacles a horticulturalist might usually face and started planting things on traffic islands, among the concrete retaining walls of man-made lakes and inside water-filled rice paddies. There they squat, among their coriander and lettuce leaves, wearing pointy cane hats and pruning away at dinner. It’s pretty amazing really.

And a little peculiar.

Another sign of the Vietnamese ability to think outside the box and deal with difficult situations is their method of crossing the road. To put it into context, I should mention that Vietnam’s roads are distinctively chaotic. While there may be designated lanes, no one sticks to them. Nor do drivers obey zebra crossings, red traffic lights, or any other type of human/vehicle intersection. Scooters and motorbikes are particular offenders, but buses and cars add their bit to the mayhem. So what do the innovative Vietnamese do? Shuffle. Yep, no joke. They shuffle. One foot in front of the other, they step out onto the busy six-lane motorway with no hint of fear, not waiting for the traffic to stop but letting it go around them. We’ve been practicing this technique, and I’m happy to report that there have been no accidents thus far. The trick, we’ve realised, is to make no sudden movement. You need to be 100% aware at all times of what’s going on around you, so woe to anyone who thinks they can cross the street without concentrating! It’s an art, no doubt, but a peculiar one.

There are many more peculiarities worth mentioning – the fact that people sleep on their motorbikes for example; head on the seat, legs draped over the handlebars. Somehow, they balance. Some of them even look quite comfortable. Very peculiar.

And the street side hair salons! No matter where you are, you will always find a barber ready to give you a quick chop by the roadside, with a mirror leant up against the outside wall of a building and nothing but a chair in front of it. Not a bad business model really… no overheads, no staffing costs, no rent… But getting your hair cut beside a motorbike parking area, underneath a grubby overpass – it’s a little unusual.

Then there’s the fact that throughout Vietnam you will find hidden remnants of European influence – the coffee culture, the French patisseries, the cathedrals with church bells ringing every hour. And, rather than going into a shopping mall to find what you need, you just need to know which city street to venture into, and you will find tiny stores packed to the roof with everything from soft toys to toiletries to biscuits to selfie sticks. Yes, that’s right – selfie stick stores. Don’t tell me that’s not a little peculiar.

I wanted to take note of these peculiarities this time, because if I ever come back to Vietnam, I’ll no longer notice them. These are the little snippets of a culture that only strike you as unusual the first time you see them – after even a few weeks in the country these peculiarities have become almost normal.

It’s this progression that I find fascinating about travel. The initial amusement and bewilderment at a different culture’s habits, the gradual getting used to the way things are done in the new place, and the eventual fondness of all that makes a culture unique and peculiar. The world is a fascinating place, and I am thankful to have yet again been given the opportunity to visit somewhere brand new.

In all of this, I am so thankful to God, our loving father, for blessing me (undeservedly) with such opportunities. My prayer is that they continue to mould me into a more appreciative, tolerant and loving person, and one who can share these experiences – through words – with those who may never get the chance to visit these places themselves.

 

A social media campaign and the hospitality of strangers

It’s been two weeks today since we first landed in Hanoi. When we arrived and drove through the Old Quarter, Tyson said that this may just turn out to be his favourite new city in Asia. The atmosphere was fantastic – cars, scooters and bicycles everywhere, people on the street wearing Vietnamese straw hats and selling fruit, flowers, donuts or socks out of cane baskets tied to the end of a broomstick carried across their shoulders. Old, tall, skinny buildings lined the streets, authentically run-down and housing a mixture of apartments and small businesses. Wide avenues, lakes and parks were reminiscent of the French influence of days gone by.

We’ve lived in four places in Hanoi now. At first, we spent a night at Luan’s Homestay, which we found on Air BnB. Family-run and located smack-bang in the middle of the Old Quarter, it was the perfect spot from which to explore the city during our first day.

After our trip to Halong Bay, we were moved just two houses down the street to an old hotel in need of love and attention, whose main characteristics were its thin walls and mattresses whose springs dug into your back. On our first night, a bunch of what sounded like 20 young Vietnamese people kept us awake until past midnight with drunken shouts up and down the stairwell and banging as they carried their passed-out friend to the room opposite ours.

Our third accommodation was where we spent the majority of our time, and it was also the furthest from the city centre – about a 45-minute bus ride away. It was here, in an apartment attached to a mall and adjacent to a main road, that we spent a week with YESD (Youth Employment and Society Development), a social enterprise founded by three young Vietnamese women whose aim is to help fight unemployment among university graduates in Hanoi, preserve the Vietnamese culture and provide authentic Vietnamese travel experiences for tourists. With a focus on organising responsible tours in Vietnam and creating positive change in a country still in the early stages of its tourism development (in comparison to some of its South-East Asian neighbours), we were there to volunteer, along with two Americans, a French girl, a Brazilian/British couple and a Mexican.

While Tyson had the opportunity to teach two English classes, our main focus was to help YESD with their tourism marketing. Wanting to start and finish a project in the short time we had, we decided early to design and launch a social media campaign to promote responsible tourism in Vietnam. And so, in just over a week, we designed a questionnaire, interviewed about 50 random tourists about their views on responsible tourism, collaborated with the Brazilian/British couple on a promotional video and launched a campaign to encourage travellers to be more conscious of how their actions when travelling can help create positive change. Needless to say, we were pretty proud of our efforts. Check out the final results here.

During our time with YESD, we were also blessed to be able to join a spontaneous two-day tour to Ninh Binh province, home of UNESCO World Heritage Listed Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam’s ‘inland Halong Bay’. What a spectacular spot! Limestone mountains covered in jungle alternate with partially submerged valleys and steep, sheer cliffs to form a natural area like something out of a Jurassic Park film. Below, a river meanders through caves and past rice paddies, and women who, before tourists arrived, were dependent on fishing for a meagre income, row visitors around using a combination of both their hands and their feet. I have never seen anywhere quite like it. This was definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip so far, with Tyson and I agreeing that it was even more beautiful than Halong Bay. It was great to be out of the city, away from the terrible pollution, loud noise and busyness of Hanoi, and the experiences we had in Ninh Binh – cycling, hiking up mountains, riding motorbikes along the motorway, riding in an overnight lay-flat bus and staying with a local family – made the trip a unique and very authentically Vietnamese experience.

And here we are, back at No Bai International Airport, having just left our fourth accommodation near the West Lake of Hanoi. We spent two days here working on the YESD video with Roni and Hester, the Brazilian/English YESD volunteers. Our host was Robert, a gracious Canadian expat and the creator of his own English teaching programs for various groups of disadvantaged children in Hanoi. Robert is also a Workaway host (Workaway is the organisation through which we have been volunteering), and his apartment was the perfect spot from which to enjoy our last two nights in Hanoi. We were even fed Western food and wine – a pleasant alternative to the Vietnamese food we have been eating every other day and which has unfortunately caused Tyson and I to be sick a total of three times on this holiday!

Now we’re off to revisit our first Air BnB host Thong in Ho Chi Minh City, for a couple of days of exploring the south before making our way back through Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane.