Thursday, June 26, 2014

63 Lessons and Ramblings of a 2 year (and more) adventure around the world

Life is crazy and can take you to all different ends of the Earth if you let it. I woke up this morning wondering what had really happened in the last over two years since I left home. 

I guess if I had to sum it up; "It's not the destination, it's the glory of the ride."

Beginning of October 2011 I boarded a plane with an overpacked backpack and an air of excitement, landing in Indonesia for a nice two weeks vacation with the family until I went off into the big wide world of India. One week in I realised I hadn't got myself an Indian visa (I thought I was invincible at this stage. Lesson one learnt; get Indian visa before leaving Australia next time). 

So I spent the next week running round organising a new one and begging the lady at the embassy to rush the visa process so I could catch my flight in time. Luckily everything worked out and after a few days sleeping in a cock roach infested bed on the floor of a local's home on a remote island off Jakarta, I was ready to face India. But not without a quick stop to the hairdressers, where I told the barber to lop it all off and make me look like a boy (much to his disgust). With my locks in my backpack I jumped on a plane and headed off to India. 

India was a blur of colour, metre long masala dosais, rat temples, vomit, diahhorea, curry, poverty, long uncomfortable train rides, more diahorrea, amazing scenery, amusing people and just an eye opener of life outside of the Western World. Indians are a group of people who have their own culture and are proud of it, and for good reason.

Honestly, most of the time in India I spent eating as much Indian food as I could possibly fit into my stomach for just $1 per plate, and then practising the squatting position an hour later wondering “why-oh-why did I eat from that street vendor with the kids shitting beside it”. Lesson number two learnt. 

In between bouts of food poisoning I still managed to spend far too long on overcrowded Indian trains getting groped by men (the haircut didn’t work), riding on camels in the desert near the Pakistani border, visiting forts, camel festivals, rat temples where it is “good-luck” if the thousands and thousands of rats decide to scurry over your feet, volunteering by washing cutlery in a Sikh temple that feeds 10,000+ meals per day, going white water rafting, learning yoga, climbing mountains next to the Dalai Lama’s home, dodging fireworks at Diwali Festival, sampling bhang lassis, attending an intense meditation course and somehow getting swept into Indian hospitals, visiting the burning ghats, eating the world's largest masala dosai and of course loosing a lot of weight due to India’s awesome eat food-get food poisoning diet.

After travelling the north of India I was ready to head to Nepal, but not after learning my third lesson; "when they find prostitutes in India, they cut off all her hair." Oops. I dropped my lopped off locks in the nearest charity store where they said they could sell it for something, and jumped on a bus to Nepal. 

I must admit I didnt properly see Nepal until we finally arrived in the town of Pokhara. Big steep mountains, winding narrow dirt roads that fall abruptly off cliff faces into nothingness, over enthusiastic bus drivers and a reputation for being some of the most dangerous roads in the world, were not a good combination! After relaxing and trying parahawking (where you feed an eygyptian vulture mid flight whilst paragliding) I was ready to tackle the Himalayas, despite constant advice against it from the locals as it was the middle of winter. Lesson 4 learnt; always trust the locals if they advise you against climbing one of the world's tallest moutains in the dead of winter. 

Nevertheless up I went and started the Annapurna circuit, racing against dynamite explosions the military had set off to create a new road, getting stuck between donkey trains and getting passed by sherpas carrying fridges on their back just wearing flip flops on their feet! On New Years Eve I saw my very first snow fall, which as exciting as it was for the first day then meant that I had to struggle through knee deep snow for the rest of the trek! Lesson 5; get waterproof treking boots when trudging through snow! 

After Nepal, I then made my way to Cambodia to visit some friends, and little did I know as I arrived that I would soon call Phnom Penh home for the next 3 months as I began to set up my own hostel and business. As soon as I was about to sign the papers, something told me to hold off, pack my bags and hit the road. So I did, saying goodbye to my temporary home, regulars at the "Top Banana Bar" and the awesome friends I made and hit the road, and I haven't looked back.

I had an interesting introduction to Myanmar where on my second day there I rode the local train round the city, trying to see more local life. The train suddenly stopped and everyone climbed out, inspecting the cause for the disruption. I followed behind. Under my carriage was a man who had chosen to end his life on those train tracks. This was probably the most shocking thing I had seen up till then. But what I found more sobering was how accepting the locals were of this, almost as if it occurred every week. The children jumped off and poked the body, the women stood around inspecting it, all before the train conductor rolled the body off the tracks, and the train was on its way once again. 

After the shakey initial days Myanmar turned into one of my favourite destinations. The amazing diverse scenery from thousands of pagodas to picturesque white sandy beaches, to bustling market places selling anything from sheep brains to sex toys and of course the dazzling amd blinding gold and ruby crusted pagoda standing tall and bold against the poor slums surrounding it. 

After getting lost in the friendly and almost untouched world of Myanmar, my visa was finished and it was time to move on, but not after a little celebration on Ang Sung Su Chi 's behalf (HOWdoyouspellit?)after she won the by election, much to the joy of all the locals. It was out celebrating that night that I learnt my lesson number 6 (the hard way); Karaoke bars also serve as Brothels where it is very rude to decline offers made by your hosts!

And so jumping from one extreme to the other, I swapped simple squat toilets for futuristic ones with more buttons than my remote control at home and entered the world of Japan. Not the usual travel route, I do admit but Japan was a world I was so eager to explore, a place full of manga, vending machines with women's used underwear, maid cafes where the waitresses sing and jump on trampolines for your enjoyment and of course as many udon noodle stalls as my stomach could handle. 

But Japan not only had mystic, curiosity and well, bizarreness (is that even a word), but it also had my parents who I hadn’t seen in months. Lesson 7; Japan I must say is probably the best place in the world to crash your parent’s romantic holiday. Not only is it a great way to save money (thanks guys!) but it is a place where you feel so alien and out of any reality you know, that it is nice to be able to share the experience with someone as confused and hopeless as myself.

And so after just over a month I said goodbye to Japan, it's amazing cherry blossoms, 100 yen shop, sushi, okonomyaki, tempura udon noodles you can buy from a vending machine, incredibly relaxing Japanese onsen, Mt Fuji, karaoke clubs, sleeping in internet cafes, cycling across 6 islands, 7 bridges covering 70kms from one of Japan’s major islands to the other and hello to South Korea. But I didnt leave without learning lesson 8; if your going to get caught sleeping in a train station by the police it's best not to be found as you are unplugging the vending machine to charge your laptop, and lesson 9; when a kind man who you have just hitch hiked with offers to buy you a ferry ticket to your next destination make sure its the right one before you arrive a little confused in the middle of nowhere.

South Korea was only ever meant to be a little stop along the way, but as soon as I arrived in Ed House, a hostel in Hongdae in Seoul, my plans changed completely. Thanks to Ed who took me in as one of his family making me feel like a real local in the bustling city of Seoul. After travelling south to the amazing Busan beach and to the world expo in Yeosu with my awesome friend Axel, we learnt two important lessons. Lesson 10; the beaches have free wifi (!) And lesson 11; casinos are an awesome place for free drinks, but more importantly as many free sandwiches as you can eat, and if your sneaky its not a bad place for a quick sleep either!  After a quick 20 minute stop in North Korea, my feet started to get itchy I had Europe on my mind and so, looking at a map, I drew a squiggly line from Hong Kong to England which eventually became my travel route. 

Not having done any research I soon found out along the way just how difficult a route I chose. I spent the next week in Hong Kong waiting for Chinese visa and then another month waiting on my Russian visa to be processed, where I soon learnt number 12; that the russian visa is not something you should forge any documents for, as they will spend nearly a month checking everything and will issue you a visa with incorrect entry dates as a consequence. (Served me right really.)

From there it was onto China where together with my friend Doug we spent 1/3rd of our time on long train rides crammed into blindingly lit packed carriages, full of curious locals who didnt seem to have a volume control, where chicken feet bones and toe nails were scattered around the floor and entrepreneurs tried to sell you gimmicks at every hour of the night ("no, I do not want a rubber band closer for a loaf of bread, especially at 3am!"). 

We soon learnt the hard way, as usual, lesson 13; to avoid children at all costs when travelling on trains in China unless you want to either sit next to a pile of fresh vomit for a 24hr journey or (as Doug experienced) wake up to a boy pee-ing on your leg. Filled up on msg and great memories of the amazing great wall of China I hitch hiked into Mongolia squashed in a van of very large Mongols and my backpack sitting untied on the roof of the van (which was luckily still there when we arrived).

I had entered a new world, where the people were a lot larger than their neighbours from the south and, after I discovered whilst almost being mugged walking down the street in ulaan bataar, were somewhat more intimidating. I spent the next amazing month on horseback in the Mongol mountains galloping through the valleys and steppes and living off wild onions and rhubarb, visiting hot springs and enjoying the warm  hospitality of the locals who were only to eager to fill you up on arak HOW DO YOU SPELL IT? Which as I discovered tasted disgusting because it was fermented horse milk and was their local liquor, and unfortunately was rude to refuse (lesson 14). 

I then spent the last half of the month unshowered, dusty, hungry, cold and sitting on various road sides (even though there aren't actually any roads) holding up handmade signs written in my attempted cyrillic trying to hitch hike west into China. I was regretting the line I had drawn back in South Korea where I dreamt up this silly travel route as I learnt lesson 15; that hitch hiking west across Mongolia is virtually impossible as a) there is no one or nothing there and b) anyone or anything that was there was moving East for the winter. Which brings me to lesson 16; squiggly lines are a bad idea.

Finally after days waiting, lifts in cars crammed full of people, screaming babies and various pets and rides on the tops of bags of onions and ammonia drenched gers (their houses) I was getting close to the border, but not before another little lesson. Lesson 17; hitch hiking with a policeman in Mongolia will no doubt end in many bare back horseriding and plenty of vodka and arak stops, where you are suddenly grateful that there are no roads as no one can keep a straight line anymore and lesson 18; never touch a Mongol's hat. Ever. 

Finally I arrived once again in China in a world different to the one I had left. Western China (or Xinjiang) is full of suppressed ethnic minorities heavily controlled by the government and full of police that watch any foreigner with regarded suspicion.

After traveling across the very hot vast desert of Xinjiang I reached the border to Kyrgyzstan and was stopped by officials and kept there overnight as they didn't want me to hitch hike across the border. Finally after much pleading they let me go the next day after I signed a disclaimer saying that if anything happened to me it wasn't their fault. Lesson 19; It's best to trust an official's advice. 

Turns out I should have listened to the officials as I then had to endure a rather horrible Kyrgyz truck driver who gave me a lift across the border. After quickly escaping his truck and his wandering hands I then entered a picturesque ex-soviet world of Kyrgyzstan full of inspiring travellers and amazing treks in the mountains. I then continued onto Kazakhstan where I was adopted by a beautiful local family and I spent days gorging myself on the fresh apples weighing down the trees in Almaty, celebrating my newly made friends Grandma's birthday and people watching under the nice shady trees at the relaxing trendy cafes.

I then pushed onto West Kazakhstan into the desert, not knowing what awaited me as I lay in my small bunk on a 72 hour train ride in a small hot carriage with another 100 people, only one of which had minimal English and all of which were curious to know how I had ended up there (none more curious than myself though!) Lesson 20; chocolates, a mini phrasebook, a pack of cards and a bag of koala souvenirs makes friends for life.

And so after the officials boarded the train and added my new entry stamp for Russia into my passport from the comfort of my bunk I arrived lost and confused in the Russian city of Astrakhan. I was thankfully greeted by a beautiful Russian girl and her boyfriend who was dressed up as a clown and was whisked away into his hotted up Lada (Russian car) and into a world of exotic dancing in night clubs, buck's nights, weddings, birthday parties and more.

I then reluctantly left my new friends behind and much against their wishes, headed into the dangerous war torn Chechnyan region that is well known for kidnapping foreigners and taking them as hostages for ransom. I escaped the kidnapping but was greeted at the border of Georgia by Russian tanks as the Georgian elections were on that day. Lesson 21; best to fly into Georgia as you get a complementary bottle of red wine upon arrival, rather than Russian tanks. 

Entering Georgia after soaking in the beautiful mountainous scenery bordering Russia was like stepping into another season. I was joined by a friend, Darcy, who I met in Kyrgyzstan, and we hitch hiked with couple of Israeli friends. We ventured on road trip up the mountain passes, the amazing flame orange colour covering the tree tops like a blanket as the season changes to Autumn. Despite many burst tyres and getting stuck in the mud we made it to Tbilisi where it was even harder to leave due to copious amounts of nice Georgian hospitality. This usually includes many cha cha shots and even more local wine, which brings me to Lesson 22; you cannot avoid any shots even under the seemingly unwatchful eye of your host, they always notice and Lesson 23; you will wake up every morning with a hangover in Georgia, it's unavoidable.

Moving further west we ventured out determined and excited to finally see the sea after so many months travelling in baren and sea deprived parts of the world, stopping along the way to camp out with awesome groups of young locals at hot springs. But still despite the constant late nights, day by day, hangover followed by hangover we finally made it to the Black Sea, where I glimpsed the sea for the first time since leaving Hong Kong.

The Black Sea continues out into the horizon, flat as any sea I have seen before, lined with pebbled beaches and people awkwardly sun bathing on the uneven ground beneath them. It’s a welcome familiarity, especially after almost 100 days without seeing the sea. It is something I never realised I missed so much until I saw it again. Almost like breathing the first breath of fresh air in quite some time. Refreshing and invigorating.

After the filling our lungs with the fresh sea air, it was off to the big city smoke, to Turkey’s capital city; Ankara on route to the famous Cappadocia.The town was beautiful, surrounded by rocky mountains all dotted with little black holes, showing where the caves were carved out for people homes many thousands of years ago. As the sun rose, so did the hot air balloons. Some swooping almost low enough for us to try and catch a ride up. Hundreds of balloons of varying colours, carrying varying company names stamped on the sides all bopping up and down narrowly missing Cappadocia’s famous rock formations sharp enough to pop the side of a balloon for sure.This was definitely a sight worth getting up at 5am for.

We then made our way south and learnt Lesson 24; take a chance when a black van with tinted windows pulls over and a guy with a turban steps out and offers you a ride, it might just be carrying a whole Iranian family who are singing to and partying to Beyonce in the back, “Your so sexy, tonight I am all yours boy / The way your body moves across the floor”, and performing some sexy moves, smiling cheekily from under their traditional Hijab. 

After being in the desert we had the Mediterranean on our minds. We'd heard about a great secluded beach town on the coast and would let nothing stand in our way, so we endured hitch hiking ride after another until we could feel the sand between our toes. Destination: Kabak Beach.

Picture this; two grubby backpackers who hadn’t showered or slept in a couple of days miserably using every ounce of energy they had to simply hold out their thumbs, standing by the side of the road waiting for next generous driver with a terrible sense of smell.

Just our luck, not only did we manage to get a ride in a BMW with its soft leather seats and new car smell but we had managed to secure a ride with a lovely Swiss couple and their driver, who was giving them a guided tour around the south of Turkey. Free ride and tour.

After our beach fix it was back to the road where we passed through Denizli, to see the Calcium steps in Pamukkale, and even managed to hitch hike on a pomegranate pile on the back of a tractor! Next the historical sight of Ephesus where we learnt Lesson 25; even if its only 100 metres away, stick out your thumb and see who stops to offer a lift, you might just meet the chief restoration dude, Siobhan. He not only drove us to the entrance, but then gave us a free tour behind the scenes of the sight and then treated us to sheesha that night AND organised us a lift with his friend to our next destination the next day. 

Now it was time to get our hands a little dirty where we helped out on our friend's beautiful olive farm picking olives, and I learnt 26; raw olives don't taste very nice. After the little stint of work we made our way to Gallipoli to pay our respects to the ANZACs then it was on to the bustling and magnificent Istanbul that always continued to impress.

Turkey was a blast! It was a whole lot of awesome hitch hiking rides with even more impressive destinations and friends made along the way.  

Sad to leave Turkey and the beautiful friends we had made, the clock was ticking and we had to get moving west. So we treated ourselves to a bus trip (with wifi onboard!) and left for Bulgaria. There we spent a total of 30 minutes before catching local trains and buses to the outermost roads of the capital, Sophia, in hope to hitch a ride. Unfortunately after waiting two hours it looked like we would be stuck there overnight, until an enthusiastic Turkish truck driver picked us up.

Lesson 27; Turkish truck drivers are the most hospitable to bum a hitch hiking ride off. Not only do you get a constant supply of sweets and beer but he'll stop off to cook you a fresh kebab on the roadside! 

Lesson 28; Turkish truck drivers have also learnt a way to alter the odometer on the truck by a magnet meaning they can now drive hours and hours without "legally" having to stop, meaning you have to keep poking them every few minutes to make sure they're awake.

After that tiring hitch we quickly jumped out just near Serbia's capitol, Belgrade, and in the early hours of the morning tried to find our next ride into town. Lesson 29; If your struggling to find a hitch hiking ride as a girl guy couple, get the guy to hide then when a car pulls over and offers you a ride he can come out of hiding. Hey, when your stuck at a toll booth at 3am you have to pull out some tricks.

We then got dropped at one end of town and spent the rest of the early morning trying to find a place to rest, finally finding a guest house that was open just as the sun came up. We then met up with some awesome locals who showed us a different side to Belgrade, we didn't expect. Lesson 30; THE place to hangout if your a tough looking political badass activist is an underground secret karaoke bar, where you have to wait 4 hours before you can get a shot at the spotlight! 

Sad to say goodbye to our new friends and nights of drinking in the park it was time to move on. Lesson 31; Don't leave it till the last minute to catch your train, as you risk getting stuck in a train carriage with a guy who sucks his own toes trying to impress you. After that, um, entertaining trip I was more than happy arriving in Budapest, Hungary, ready meet back with Darcy who managed to get ready in time for their train. 

Budapest was many lazy days spent in good company exploring the back streets of Budapest and sampling as much good coffee during the day, and as many bars during the night as we could find. Before I could get too comfortable I said my farewells to Darcy and it was off to Brno in the Czech Republic to meet a familiar face, Arek, a friend I had travelled with in Japan, but not before a quick stop in Vienna absorbing the incredible old architecture, visiting the cafes with their rude waiters and trying to learn just the name of my sunway stop, which was like 20 letters long!

Brno was a bustling student town full of young people from all around the world, but all excited about Friday nights. Lesson 32; if you manage to sneak into a bar that excludes foreigners its best not to talk loudly in English. (This can be hard to remember after a few drinks). 

Saying goodbye to one friend, and off to "hello" another I packed my backpack and headed off to Amsterdam to surprise my good friends Axel, who was my partner in crime in South Korea and Cheese, my awesome mate from my days living in Cambodia. 

Amsterdam was a swirl of coffee shops, underground electronic clubs and plenty of early mornings spent in great company with close friends. But with time running out before I had to be in England I quickly popped over to Cologne to see some more friends and learnt Lesson 33; The best friends to have are the ones who work in ghluvein HOW DO YOU SPELL IT stalls at Christmas markets. 

And so after my little Europe reunion tour of too many drinks and too many late nights visiting friends it was time for the big reunion meet up, my family. Fed up that it was my third Christmas away from home, they all flew to England to meet me! So I hitch hiked to a little town in the south of Germany with a business guy in a flash car who didn't care for speed limits and then scored a ride with a nice German lady who was driving to London to meet her daughter. 

Lesson 34; Hitch hiking from France to England via the ferry does not look good to English border officials when your passport is full and says you've been travelling for over a year, especially when you cannot explain how you came to know the lady who was in the driver's seat.

And so I had finally made it. Hong Kong to England overland. I never was sure if I would make it, especially in time to meet my family for Christmas in England. But there I was right on time to greet them as they hoped off the plane, and ready to jump into the van for a little family roadtrip through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Lesson 35; I guess squiggly lines on a map are possible after all.

We had a perfct white Christmas sitting by the fireplace in England but all decided that we prefer our beach celebrations and the surfing Santa in board shorts, and I learnt lesson 36; not everyone appreciates Chinese chicken feet as a gift.

Tearing round the countryside of Bath, Oxford, Henly, and other towns that reflected our childhood ideas of English landscape; rolling green hills, dark brick identical houses lined up neatly with smoke billowing from the chimneys and plenty of little pubs all with personality, we headed across the English channel to France where dad had to learn a new set of road rules and switch to the right (wrong) side of the road as well as Lesson 37; just because you think the minivan might fit in the tunnel, even if it clearly hits the warning sign overhead, doesn't mean you can. 

After spending New Year's Eve on a house boat on the sien HOW DO YOU SPELL IT? river (doesn't get much better than that!) we continued on through the beautiful French countryside and the Liorre Valley visiting chateaux after chateaux and listening to far too much Black Keys before we knew it we had arrived in Switzerland ready to meet our friends, try sledding and of course learn Lesson 38; There is such a thing as eating too much fondue.

Surprised we hadn't all killed each other yet we headed south to Italy where we all gained a few kilos I'm sure! Through Venice, Florence, Milan and down to Rome and before we knew it I was farewelling them at the airport and was back on my own again.

After saying goodbye to the family I set off to find the cheapest hostel in town "thousand sunny hostel." It was here I found home in Rome. The owner straight away after hearing my journey offered me a job and discounts, and I was immediately taken under their wing and shown the real Italian lifestyle of Campari Soda, aperitifs and football. But I had to choose my next location. 

I remembered that I had a sore tooth and thought that I should probably get it checked up, so upon googling "Cheapest place in Europe to see a dentist" I had decided the next destination- Poland. So I said Ciao to Rome and its beautiful buildings, amazing culture, awesome friends, and sunny days lying in the park soaking up the sun, and decided to brave the cold in the North.

En-route to Karkow in Poland I decided to pop in and say a little hello to some friendly faces in Austria and Czech Republic. I stopped into Vienna for a night saying hi to Maurice, my lovely couch surfing host from my first visit and good friend. I saw Vienna transformed from the autumn scene to a snowy winter, which was magical. The orange leaves had disappeared under the veil of white that had taken over the city and (even though I thought this impossible) had made it even more beautiful and romantic. 

On my way again I said farewell to Maurice and Vienna and headed off to the next stop off on my way to Krakow- Brno in the Czech Republic. Being met at the bus station by my Polish/Irish friend Arek we headed straight for the pub (as expected from someone of that international mix!) and spent the time filling each other in on our recent adventures before I bid farewell and left for Krakow, hitching a ride with a rather nice Polish man who then kindly dropped me straight to my next host's door in Krakow, Poland. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect in Poland, only that I had a dental appointment, of which people were offering me words of encouragement like "make sure you have all your teeth when you leave," so even though I was sure that the dentist would be fine, a part of me was a little scared! I was only going to stay a few days in Krakow and then move onto Berlin, but like many places I visit I fall in love. Krakow was so beautiful. The town square with its old buildings, the Jewish quarter, narrow cobbled streets, sobering Auschwitz and of course rich history. 

My time in Krakow was, well, rather chaotic. I settled into my host's place, a really nice Portugese guy who had moved to Krakow and got a job after falling for the city's charm (like I myself had), and was getting quite comfortable when I experienced the politics and untrustworthy nature of Polish Landlords. We were woken one morning to a rather angry Landlady who had given my friend 24 hours notice of eviction from his flat. She had claimed that my friend had breached his contract by having someone stay at his flat after 10pm, and as she watched the surveillance cameras outside his front door all the time, she had found a reason to evict him. 

Sure enough when we pulled out the contract and with the aid of one of his Polish speaking friends had seen that there was indeed a restriction of what time you can have friends around. The lady was brash and stubborn and stood by her eviction time, kicking me out of the house with all my belongings into the snow and freezing -10C. I watched on from the outside of the property, gaining a nice pile of snow on my head and shoulders, as my friend tried to reason with her. Unfortunately her son then started a fight and in no time the police had rushed around the corner to find a miserable looking cold foreigner and a heated discussion happening inside. And this was my third day in Poland. 

Lesson 39; whilst Google will give you a great dental recommendation, it doesn't forsee or forewarn about possible homeless situations in the dead of winter and Lesson 40; don't trust Polish landlords.

Luckily my dental appointment went a little more smoothly and I managed to leave with all my teeth, thankfully! Had a check up, filling and xwray for $20AUD, not bad at all! And so it was time to leave all the chaos and head to Berlin. 

Before arriving in Berlin I already loved it. Berlin is a mix of cultures, street art and rich history. It is a place of opportunity where anything you set your mind to is possible, even just to try. People really push their creativity and come up with awesome projects that are really inspirational.

It was here in Berlin that I stayed in a traveler's squat house. This particular space was one where any travelers could stay in this communal place free, and were immediately made to feel at home. Together we dumpster dived (here's a description of what it is... for food, cooking amazing meals using some of the huge waste that supermarkets throw out every day. We visited old abandoned factories, and I even got to practice a little of my street art. 

In those couple of weeks at the "travel pad" I spent next to nothing, but learnt my lesson 41; Learn from your mistakes, after getting caught once without a subway ticket and charged with a 40 euro fine, don't get caught the next day in the same situation. 

After the commune, I met a nice Berliner, Jascha, who then showed me another side of Berlin, the student's life. And so I stayed an extra week absorbing all I could about Berlin, the culture, the music, the people, the art, until my visa decided for me that I had to move on. 

I hitch hiked with an eccentric artist couple who lived in Amsterdam and were returning home after filming some soviet-related footage for some artistic clip, very vague but interesting none-the-less. I arrived very late and was greated by a different Amsterdam to what I left behind last time. Like Vienna, Amsterdam under its new dusting of snow also looked like a completely different city. It had a different energy to it, the snow seemed to absorb the noise so it seemed less hectic and more calm than the last time I stopped by. 

I met with some lovely friends there and meant to pick up the things that I dumped at my friends house, such as trekking boots, a large tent and the ukelele that I had carried all the way from Beijing where I bought it. (Lesson 42; if your going to buy a ukulele and carry it all the way overland from China only to pluck a few chords on a couple of occasions, its best not to bother next time.) These items are still in my friends closet (sorry Axel!)

One odd thing that happened to me in Amsterdam this time around happened on the morning before I left. I spent the day in the national library (who everyone should visit, if you ever get the chance) and whilst walking out the building I was stopped by a guy who was running after me yelling something in Dutch. Being polite I thought I had better wait for him to finish before telling him I did not understand one word of what he had just said. However, upon finishing his sentence he then grabbed me and kissed me on the steps of the building. A little startled I then broke the news to him that he would have to repeat everything he had just said, but now in English. Lesson 43; Sometimes things don't make sense even when translated. 

So on that bizarre ending I said another farewell to Amsterdam and headed to London, just in time to meet a good American friend of mine, Kien, and depart for a road trip up to Scoltand to try and find Nessy the Lochness monster.

We were joined by two of his friends and their comfortable Volvo and headed up north on our tour to see Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Inverness, Isle Of Skye, Liverpool, York, Oxford and even a place called Perth! Lesson 44; Apparently the Lochness monster can be coaxed out by shortbread cookies and whisky. I wish I had known this at the time.

The scenery was just incredible (and the company even better!) But filled up on haggis, scones, shortbread cookies and before we could book ourselves in for another whisky tour it was time to head back to London so the boys could compete in their "Tough mudders" ridiculous cold, muddy, hay ball climbing, barbed wire avoiding obstacle race where everyone starts clean and smiling, and emerges at the end covered head to toe in mud, sweat, leaves and hay, still with a smile on their faces. 

I then found myself in England for the first time with no real plan. I had just crossed a huge continent always moving West with some sort of destination in mind and now, any further west and I'd be swimming. 

Up until then the ocean had just been a huge gap on a map with nothing in it. I had never given those huge vast blue spaces any thought up until receiving an email from 60 foot steel yacht called Fiddler, offering me a crew position onboard from South Africa to Brazil. Well, I didn't really have much else on, and after checking my bank account I realised I had JUST enough to fly to South Africa, so after a few drinks this really didn't seem like such a bad plan, and hitch hiking by boat- it was something I had to try out for myself! Lesson 45; After a couple of drinks you'll always choose the more "out there" option.

Flights booked and before I knew it I was in another hemisphere and a completely different climate in Cape Town getting ready to meet up with my new boat and crew mates. 

Captained by a man whose beard was older than I am and called Captain Kirk along with his nephew, Fiddler became a home away from home. I met them in Knysna, in South Africa, with no real previous sailing experience and an optimisitic outlook on what sailing across an ocean might be. How I was wrong. And here's where I learnt lesson number 46; For your first ocean sailing passage DO NOT go round the Cape of Good Hope. This passage amongst yachties is thought to be one of the most boisterous and dangerous of the many passages in the world! 

I spent those two days looking into the bottom of a toilet bowl or at the ceiling of my bunk trying not to vomit again. It was not the greatest way to start a long sailing passage across an ocean, that's for sure! But as soon learnt lesson 47; that fresh air always does you good, I got used to the motions of the boat and I fell in love with sailing. There's nothing like looking out across at the vast blue horizon knowing that your destination lies ahead, even if you can't see it yet.

The days roll into each other like the waves the boat gets carried on. Occasionally school of flying fish appear catching the sun on their wings as they dive back into the water after a tiring 50 metre flight. At night the scene transforms from blue all around you to glowing phosphorescents that light up and dance in the trailing waves that seem to mirror the night's sky as you gaze up at the extremely clear milkyway above. Millions of stars overhead, millions of glowing phytoplankton underneath, it doesn't get much better than this.

To pass the time you read, eat, dream of what you would eat as soon as you get to land, then eat some more. Sometimes the ocean is all too inviting, but you soon learn Lesson 48; if you wear your bathers whilst hanging off the boat, clutching for dear life going 7 knots, you will loose them. 

And there is always a moment somewhere, midpassage that you think to yourself, "how on earth did I get myself onboard a boat in the middle of the ocean with two strangers and no contact with the outside world! How did I get myself into this situation!?"

But when you reach land its a feeling I cannot describe. Before you see it, you can smell it. That sweet musty smell of earth and trees. And then you see it emerge over the horizon, like a mirage, and suddenly all you can think about is that small shape in the distance peaking just above the horizon inviting you to come and visit. Welcome to Saint Helena, "The most extraordinary place on Earth."

Saint Helena was an amazing island. Being one of the most remote islands in the world, 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass off the west coast of Africa and nestled halfway between South Africa and South America makes it a destination not many people have the opportunity to visit. With no airport and a population of only 4,000 people this island remains almost untouched and has a really unique character that charms you as soon as you arrive.

The biggest city on the island, Jamestown, is gorgeously nestled in between two large cliffs and has around 5 restuarants, a couple of pubs, a small tourist centre, a post office, 4 telephone boxes in the centre of town and surprisingly an olympic sized swimming pool.

Everyone knows everyone and there is a very familiar friendly atmosphere on the island where all the saints (as they like to call themselves) on the island have a nickname and if your lucky you soon gain one and are part of the family, even if you are cheekily named "horrible Hannah" by a guy who called himself "terrible Terrance". 

Infact, the island is so small that any arrests made on the island are written up in the local paper, and a judge comes over once a year to preside over the cases! Any of the local's who have been suspended from the pub have their photos posted up on the entrance warning that they are not allowed to enter (there were three photos when I visited the pub). There are even so few cars that the number plates range from two digit to three digit numbers! 

But I think the nature of the locals can be described by one comment Terrible Terrance told me, lesson 49; "You can arrive in a pub with no money and you will always come out drunk!"

Back out to sea, and another two weeks, we were elated when we first saw the industrial looking skyline of Jaoa Pessoa as we pulled into the harbour. The skyscrapper buildings seemed to stand out like a sore thumb against the vast blue around us that we were used to, but we were ready for the city, ready for reality. 

We pulled into the port of Cabedelo and were surprised at the complete contrast to the last land we had seen. The local fishing men, the colourful little concrete houses with metal bars in the doorways, the green lushious vegetation, the smell of smoke and the sounds of cars. All the sensations you are so used to in normal everyday life seem odd and its as though you are experiencing them for the first time, once again. Even just putting your shoes back on seemed like a foreign thing!

We spent only a few days in Cabedelo checking in to the port captain's office and making sure that the authorities knew we had arrived. Lesson 50; it's best not to fake your bank statement that you need to present when getting your visa stamped on initial arrival in Brazil. (Lucky for me, when they called my bank to check, it was within the closing hours so they had to take my word that the fabricated digits that I didn't have on the piece of paper in front of them were true. Thank god for inconvenient banking hours!) 

Sailing south to Recife we spent a rough three days sailing to the harbour with big 3 metre swells and thunderstorms. After some time soaking in the culture and sunshine in Recife we headed back out to sail, this time to Salvador, where I then planned to leave the boat and continue exploring Brazil overland. 

Unfortunately whilst travelling, sometimes you reach little hickups along the way and as I made my way out of the marina, backpack on my back, I was confronted by two men who blocked my path and pulled out a knife to my throat, then taking all my valuables from me, leaving me with a small bag of clothes. 

This experience was a little shakey for me as I had just said goodbye to my crew as they sailed off, so was now left alone with no passport, money, bank cards, camera, laptop or phone. Lesson 51; don't carry all your valuables in the one bag and Lesson 52; Next time take a taxi, don't walk by yourself.

But even in bad situations good things come about, and through this I met the most beautiful local Brazillians who took me into their homes, fed me, leant me money, helped take me to the police, and one of my newly made friends even managed to find my passport and bank cards for me, (through some dodgy connections). The generousity and kindness of all those around me really helped me to fall in love with Brazil and the kind nature of the people.

Sad to say goodbye to my new friends and the beautiful beaches of Salvador I then flew out to Sao Paulo to meet a good friend of mine, Victor who then showed me the colour, art and awesome underground culture of one of the world's largest cities. After an amazing couple of months in Brazil, the ocean called again and before I knew it I had arranged to crew the next boat, Cashtoki.

I was contacted by Captain Nigel, an extremely knowledgable sailor who has been involved in the America's Cup, and I thought all my Christmases had come at once! He paid for my flight over to Saint Maarten where I met the boat and after a couple of months fixing it up and getting it into "ship shape" to get it all the way to New Zealand (and a few too many happy hours at Lagoonies bar, a popular watering hole for yachties) we set sail for Panama through the Caribbean Sea. This sail was boisterous with waves rising over the bow so you could look into the crest of the wave and see a brilliant sun shining blue through it.

Then I woke realising that I was in beautiful Panama, again. Out through the amazing locks of the Panama Canal I found myself back on the Pacific side, but with a different goal in mind. I stepped out onto the deck of the boat, had a shower off the back, marvelled at the ever growing modern Panama City skyline thinking to myself how incredily lucky I am to be here, but more importantly wondering how exactly I got there and how I had convinced myself it was a good idea to jump on a 43 foot boat and sail across the Pacific Ocean for the next 5 months with two complete strangers. 

5000 Miles
27 days without land and other life,
100s of shooting stars
100s of suicidal flying fish on deck
100s of curious birds pooping on deck
50+ dolphins jumping out of the water dancing in the bow waves of the boat
27 Bruises from the boat
10 whale sharks
6 whales
2 flying fish hit me
2 fish caught along the way (we didnt try very hard)
1 shark bite in the towed generator

Lesson 53; Even after the fish caught has been killed, it still has the ability to bite, and if your as unlucky as I was, your bum. 

Its hard just to comprehend just how big this distance is. Let me simplify it and make it clearer. The Pacific is so big that if you got all the continents and placed them in the Pacific there would be room for another Africa. So we just crossed over a quarter of the way around the world and we were travelling on average 11 kms per hour!  (5.5nm/hr)

Its a lonely world out in the "big blue." You start to miss life's simplest pleasures, as simple as the colour green or being able to walk more than 5 steps on a stable surface. Lesson 54; don't even bother attempting yoga.

Probably the worst difficulty of all came just over one week into our 27 day crossing from Panama to the marquesas when our toilets stopped working. If theres one way to damage crew moral its blocked toilets. Lesson 55; "the bucket and chuck it" method is an age old trick that serves the purpose just fine when you find yourself stuck in the middle of the ocean without a toilet. So we adopted luxurious bucket facilities on deck, which was rather challenging as the boat surfed waves and pitched up and down, but what a view!

After 27 days at sea we could smell the land before we saw the lush green mound of the Marquesian island Fatu Hiva. It invited us in and tempted us with the local fruits and greenery, but first things first, we had to fix the toilets before entering the anchorage. The bucket could only really work away from the sights of others so in a desperate attempt to get it working we sacrificed a glorious land fall and spent the next three hours pumping the contents of the holding tank onto the deck of the boat to try and fix it, whilst peering out the bathroom window looking out at the inviting island so close, yet so far away. 

Alas, after all that pumping and fiddling the toilets ceased to work, so after protesting against anymore shitty jobs in paradise we agreed to stick with the bucket and chuck it routine for a few more days. Lesson 56; when adopting the bucket facilities one must remember to anchor away from the other boats and at the back of the pack, to allow for some small amount of dignity (whatever we had left at this stage.)

The Marquesian islands are just stunning. They erupt from the ocean and the coastline is rough with striking and sharp cliffs that are met by hungry waves at the bottom. Carved into the sides of the island are protected little bays nestled in amongst coconut plantations and villages that house barely more than five people and curiously (and quite possibly) the most remote telephone booth in the world. 

From the Marquesas we took another week long trip to the Tuamotu islands. The Tuamotus is an island group made up of tiny atolls, which are rings of reef surrounding a lagoon inside with tiny islands, or motus, barely a metre above sea level. These islands, if you can call it that, are so low lying that before you can actually see the land you can see the turquoise blue reflected onto the clouds above from the lagoon water beneath. 

These places are so exposed to the elements that the fact that anyone is able to survive in these remote islands is a miracle. One local we got to know quite well, Valentin, explained that she isn't really worried about all that stuff. When she seas the hermit crabs crawl up the trees she knows that bad weather is coming. She's been through it all before, one time seeking refuge in concrete water well! 

The Tuamotus are such an amazing place to visit whilst you still can if not for the pearls and extremely friendly locals, but also for the diving and snorkelling. After sitting above the water for so long it was nice to jump in and immerse yourself in the underwater world. 

One thing the Pacific is especially known for are sharks. Lesson 55, The best way to getting over your fear of sharks is not by talking to a man named Alan who was bitten by a shark in Minerva reef. "Don't worry!" He tried to say, "it only managed to get half my bum." Alan boasts to now have one of the most photographed bums in the world and isn't shy to show you (even if you don't ask!)

Next stop and another weeks sail away we reached Tahiti and the Society Islands. These are the most developed out of all the French Polynesian islands, and even though they really are not busy or as populated as even my home town, it felt like being in the big smoke again. Carrefour and toilets and bars! Oh my! (Lesson 56; No matter how many times the toilet is "fixed" don't believe it. The bucket is always the most reliable option, unless you have access to conveniences of the big cities!) 

Tahiti is like a funnel and all the friends you've made along the way all have to stop there at one point, so it ends up being party after party after party almost acting as the belated landfall party we all deserved after the 27 day crossing. By the time our livers could take no more it was off to Moorea to face my fear of sharks. There's a great snorkeling spot there where, if you bring tins of tuna along you can feed the 50 black tip reef sharks swimming around you along with hundreds of sting rays as they rub against your legs and feed from your hands! Lesson 57, Sharks really aren't as scary as what you might think, even after talking to Alan. 

We had a terrible rest of the time in the Society Islands hanging around Ta'aha and Bora Bora visiting amazing shallow coral gardens with fish so tame they will come and nibble you, sipping bloody marys on private resort islands, visiting pearl farms and turtle sanctuarys. But the most beautiful thing I saw on Ta'aha was in a little village nestled alongside an anchorage that cuts quite deep into the island. Walking around town on Sunday morning the streets were dead, but for the angelic sounds that were coming from the church. Beautiful harmonised voices accompanied by a ukulele were so sweet to the ear, and the ladies all dressed in their finest with straw hats they had each intricately weaved themselves made for such a beautiul sight. 

Sad to say goodbye, but excited for the next adventures we provisioned for our next 1,000 mile journey and set off, this time for Tonga. I immediately fell in love with Tonga. This could have been partly to do with the fact that as soon as we arrived we were tied up next to a friend's boat with a huge party, disco lights, plenty of booze and fakaleiti (men who dress and behave like women) all at 1am in the morning! Quite an awesome landfall that's for sure! 

We were lucky enough to encounter 5 different whale sightings, my favorite being when I climbed up the mast to take some photos as we passed out of a lagoon we were anchored in and we were treated to a mother and baby calf playing about in the water, and I had the prime viewing spot!

Vavau is quite simply, paradise. I wake up in the morning wondering whether to go snorkeling, read a book on the white sanded beach, join in a friendly regatta, sail on to another island, go diving in an underwater cave, join in the traditional kava ceremony, enjoy happy hour at the vibrant yachtie bars or eat far too much at one of the local Tongan feasts. Hard life really.

Lesson 58; entering a yacht race, even if you don't win equals a large case of free local beer. Its really a win, win situation!

Lesson 59; There are mysterious islands that do exist disguised as paradise with white sand, coconut trees and crystal clear water that looks like it only belongs on a postcard, but don't be fooled it has the ability to transform itself at night. It will drain all your rum, leave you with a terrible headache in the morning and no recollection of the previous night's activities. 

After a month in paradise, it was time to wait for a good weather window and get ready for the rough passage to New Zealand, the last destination for Cashtoki. This quick passage was a race against the weather, with a low carrying strong winds and rough conditions coming our way we pushed the boat to make sure we arrived to land before it hit us.

Lesson 60; New Zealand takes the cake for the most beautiful land fall. I arrived into the country through the Bay of Islands which were striking New Zealand by far wins the I arrived into New Zealand after a week long sail. I was met in New Zealand by one of my closest friends, Danny, who I started my journey with, and so it was only fitting that it ended with him by my side. We jumped in a wiked van and started a little journey around the north island falling in love with the landscape with every twist and turn of the road. After almost a week of getting lost in the scenery I was spoilt with a visit from my younger sister, Esther, were she chose to spend her 'leavers' celebrations squashed in a van with Dan and I in convoy with a fellow sailors Connolly and Brain who too had a wiked van of their own. 

We ventured out in search of the perfect hot springs, the perfect 'fush n chups' and of course the best free camping spots. Lesson 61; Pretending not to have read the sign "no camping" will not get you out of a $200 fine.

And just like that the road trip's time was up and it was back to Oz, back into the world of thongs, tim tams, vegemite and mullets. After stopping through Melbourne and seeing some familiar faces I was back safe and sound in Perth with my family and friends of Perth. Where I learnt lesson 62; no matter how many different places I have slept in the world, nothing beats sleeping in your own bed.

I had done it, I had completed my adventure around the world. It felt weird to finally have set foot on the ground that I left so long ago after traveling West for over two years and consider all the adventures, experiences, beautiful people I met and things I had learnt. 

But the best lesson I learnt whilst travelling all these thousands and thousands of miles overland and over oceans is lesson 63; the closest way between two languages is always a smile. 

1 comment:

  1. Love this Hannah! Have a amazing time in Pakistan. I hope we get to meet again soon xxx