Saturday, 10 February 2018

Month One

Ever since I was a little girl with dreams as big as my cheeks, I’ve wanted to visit Australia. My childhood best friend went on holiday with her family one year, and I remember memorising their anecdotes and the photos framed on their wall. Today it’s been a month since I landed in Sydney, Australia, where I’ll be studying for a semester at Macquarie University. One month down, six to go.

And what a month it's been.

Sydney is a city of internationals. In fact, I can’t think of one person I’ve met who was born and raised in the city. After thirty hours of travelling, my first form of human interaction was with the driver who picked me up from the airport, who was from Nepal. The girl who gave me my keys was Indian. The girl who first showed me the harbour bridge and opera house was Norwegian, and the one who walked me round Darling Harbour was French. If all of these people had found a home in the city, I knew I would too. For once, my Russian/English/Spanish background fit right in. 

When I travelled up the East Coast for a week, it was a similar story. The Australians were few and far between. Australia Day was spent on the beach in Byron Bay with two Brits, one Canadian, one American, and one Scot. We could’ve been an ad for sun cream or for cider, which struggled to stay cold but which we drank anyway. Byron Bay is a breath of fresh air you won’t know you needed until you inhale. Within seconds, you’ll become another barefoot wanderer. You’ll lie on the beach with sand in every crevice of your body and bathe in live music as the sun goes down and realise that life is about simplicity.

As much as I love meeting internationals, there are perks to travelling with locals too. When my friend, Christina, and I worked out our schedules, we realised we had just one day in Brisbane. We arrived without any sort of plan, and I imagined we’d mooch through the day somehow before flying back to Sydney the next morning. Christina soon remembered she knew a local from Brisbane, Gage. Thank goodness she did. We surrundered all control of our bodies and let ourselves be led. The tour began with lunch looking out over the cloud-covered city, followed by a spontaneous drive to a wildlife sanctuary. The fur on kangaroos is softer than koalas, in case you were wondering. Also, watch out for the rainbow lorikeets. One second you’ll be distracted by their colourful feathers, and the next their claws will be digging into your scalp. Our day in Brisbane ended with stacked plates and stomachs full of sushi, before being led into a dim cocktail bar concealed behind a red curtain. A secret gem we’d have never even known about if we hadn’t been shown. 

Speaking of travelling with locals, I was lucky enough to go on a couple of tours with a company called Coast Warriors. Within a week of being in Sydney, I’d found their website through Facebook. They run three tours weekly, one of which is around the Blue Mountains. Although only an hour from the city, I couldn’t imagine getting to the Blue Mountains by myself, but it was an area I wanted to see. According to the reviews, the tour was run by two local Aussie guides who would show me around the Blue Mountains and throw in an authentic BBQ, all for an affordable price. I woke up on Wednesday, tour day, to blue skies. Something told me it would be a day to remember, and I wasn’t wrong. At 7:30am, I got into a bus full of strangers who became fast friends. Together, we climbed down countless steps to gasp at untouched waterfalls, ran out of breath climbing back up steps which were half my height, and guessed Aussie slang on the bus ride back to the city. Out of 40 words, we got about 10 right. It’s much harder than you’d think.

Not only did I see my first kangaroo in the Blue Mountains, but I ate a few pieces of kangaroo later that same day. I won’t lie, it felt a little wrong, but it’s all part of one, big Australian bucket list. Other than that, I’ve eaten anything and everything, from pink prawns to barbequed snags (sausages) lathered in dead horse (tomato sauce). I’ve had a coffee flavoured smoothie on Bondi Beach, eaten my weight in free breakfast cornflakes in Surfers Paradise, and been to two Taco Tuesdays in The Rocks (I recommend the beef). Here’s my official verdict: vegemite is pretty much exactly the same as marmite. And a Tim Tam is a Penguin bar without the joke.

In a month, I’ve visited the beach with the whitest sand in the world, swam in water clear enough to see my toenails, spotted dolphins, improved my social skills, tanned enough to expose the freckles on my face, spent too much money, tried sandboarding, failed at sandboarding, learned the best experiences are born from spontaneity, sang karaoke until my throat hurt, and woken up every morning wondering what I ever did to deserve such an experience. I couldn’t be more grateful. 

Thank you to every person I’ve met along the way who has made this month so memorable. And a special thank you to Abe. In three weeks, you’ve shown me more than I could’ve imagined and made Sydney feel like home. Thank you for being you.

If the next six months are a fraction of what this one has been, I will consider myself very lucky. Even more than I already do.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Bali is...

A foodie’s paradise: ripe, pink dragon fruits and peppers that could slip past your eyes but won’t escape your tongue. Bananas break stereotypes, either palm-size or thick as a forearm. Fruits you’ve never heard of, flavours you might not taste again. If you can’t choose what to go for, rice is always an option – breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Mazes of motorbikes and cars too large for the island’s streets. The roads make music, all drive to the rhythm of beeps and tourist squeals. Traffic is a constant; a journey of just three kilometres can last an hour. Not recommended for those who get carsick.

For morning people. 6am alarms and 7am starts, sips of iced coffee with sleepy eyes and slow thoughts, all to beat the afternoon tide that recedes to leave the shores bare.

A world of contrasts. On your left, a five-star hotel, guests sipping orange-infused gin tonics on their sea-view balconies. On your right, a mismatched mound of bricks someone is proud to call home. Glimpses of golden temples between wooden ruins. A place where one’s mindless spending can feed another’s chubby-cheeked new-born.

Learning to nap in any position and waking up to embarrassing photos of yourself, wide mouth and eyes half open.

The ‘good morning’ of locals with palms pressed together and white flowers tucked behind their ears. Their mouths are moulded into smiles, even if they lack a full set of teeth.

Skin sticky with sun cream, mosquito repellent, and a permanent layer of sweat.

Monkeys treated like citizens. They have pedestrian priorities; make way for the families crossing the street. If you dare to feed them, you can marvel as they peel bananas with human hands and chew on the fruit with teeth, although a little less white, otherwise identical to yours and mine. Direct eye contact is considered a sign of aggression. Avoid it.

Footprints left by Brits, Australians, Chinese, Argentinians. A multi-cultural hub, something for everyone.

Fast-paced card games with rules that distract from the mosquitoes and competitive cries deafen their hum.

Pocketing your phone and looking up, down and around. Your camera roll has seen enough sunsets. Let your eyes be the lens - focus and capture. Not every moment needs to become an immediate memory.

Getting lost in temples, listening to the stories of barefoot Hindu men, those that wear sarongs and have spiritual traditions engraved into their bones.

Midnight conversations that turn friends into family.

Market stalls that mirror each other; every street a mosaic of elephant prints and wooden carvings. Each vendor fights for the optimal bargain – a compromise between you and them.

Google Images in reality. Beaches where the sand glistens and the water is turquoise no matter the colour of the sky. Other shores have waves double, triple your size, ready to wrestle in a fight they’ll always win. The ocean is dotted with speedboats and jet skis, surfboards and parasails, activities on every end of the adrenalin spectrum.

Palm trees that act as skyscrapers, trunks so skinny it’s a wonder they survive monsoon season.

Every spare minute spent being grateful for whatever it is that got you there.   

Open-air yoga classes taught by a local whose limbs bend in what seem like impossible directions. As you inhale and exhale the million shades of green, let your body adopt the flow of the nearby waterfall to become that little bit more flexible.

Care, tradition, respect, positivity. Where being kind matters far more than being right. An island we could, and should, all learn a lesson from.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Budapest is...

High expectations. Every neighbour and chubby bartender and fellow morning dog-walker giving recommendations, predicting you’ll have the time of your life.

Waking up surrounded by strangers in the same hostel room, travellers from cities you’ve only heard of. And yet, you cross paths, each assigned an old metal bunk with what you can only hope are fresh sheets.

Pints for pennies.

A capital city with the air of a suburban village, bare boulevards and space to walk, talk, laugh, dream.

Midnight boat rides; parliament buildings that sparkle like the champagne swallowed. Corks float on the river, lingers of a night worth remembering.

Decades of history, sad, sad history, disguised with a breath of modernity. A museum making a tourist attraction out of torture chambers. A Starbucks on the exact corner a man was shot dead. A Burger King marking the spot tanks parked before their massacre.

Constant calculator use, checking and rechecking conversion rates to confirm that an entire meal costs a quarter of what you would pay at home. It does.

Free walking tours with guides that grin as they spill secrets that, for them, are obvious, guide you down avenues they could walk with their eyes closed. You keep yours wide open, staring at that which is at once so new for some and old for others.

Clubs in caves, dancing with sweaty strangers to music that you don’t remember knowing the lyrics to. And yet you scream every word.

Locals who smile despite your obvious confusion, or perhaps because of your obvious confusion. They point and gesture while you utter hello instead of thank you, swap yes for no because that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

Late nights that lighten into lazy mornings of mild headaches, fresh coffee and wandering without direction.

Snippets of Vienna, Paris, London, Barcelona: a city that borrows the best from others and moulds it into its own.

Finding familiarity in the unfamiliar. Planning another visit to remedy the first having ended. Having the time of your life.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Lives apart

He sat on the opposite aisle, one row in front of me. The bald patch on his head had the same shape and shine as a ceramic plate fresh out of the dishwasher. Around circled patches of hair that seemed to have grown grey from the scalp, rather than whitened with age. As if he were a boy born with the wisdom of a man. And, though he can’t have been born with the earring (a silver disk in the lobe of his left ear), he wore it like it was second nature. A personality trait, not an accessory.


The earring didn’t look like it had been his mother’s idea. Perhaps it was a secret kept from her, a tired and wrinkled woman waiting for her son to come home, olive eyes a magnet to the kitchen window. She’d been baking all afternoon – warm wafts of bread lined the cracks in the walls and holes in the ceiling.

“What took you so long?” She asked with open arms. He came closer - her rosy cheeks paled as his white ears crimsoned. “What do you call that?” The silver disk was as much of a staple as her son’s smile: both gleamed with mischief.  

“A fashion statement,” he said.

Burnt bread has a very distinctive smell.


Perhaps it had been peer pressure - the cigarettes and vodka shots of forty years ago. In a group of three friends, one always feels like they have to prove themselves.

“Not afraid of a needle are you?”

“I’ll do it if you do it first.”

“We’ll be like the Three Musketeers.”

Teenage boys are all talk. Their words inflated like balloons, popped by the mere stab of a needle. Two friends unsure what to do with themselves. The third still didn’t belong.

“We didn’t think you’d actually agree to it.”


Perhaps he was trying to bond with his daughter, searching for his feminine side to disguise his disappointment in his first-born not being a son.

“Daddy, will you get one too?”

“I don’t think Daddy would suit an earring very well, darling.”

Little girls always get what they want. Twenty minutes later, daddy and daughter walked out with three piercings, her two silver stars centred, his slightly lower, somewhat crooked. He had an odd earlobe, he’d learnt.


There we both sat, hungry yet bloated from travelling, coffee-breathed but craving more caffeine. Not just a row but an entire lifetime apart. Passengers of the same low budget airline whose paths happened to coincide. His earring twinkled under the plane’s artificial lights. His smile, directed at his daughter, did too.