It’s a European Thing

A trip around Europe is a backpacker right of passage, especially if you’re an Aussie. Staying in hostels, bumping into the same people on same route and exploring the other side of the world.

Most enter through the gateway of Amsterdam, a city whose liberal attitude may appear shocking to most, intriguing to some and even normal to others.

I remember the flatness of Holland and the smallness of Belgium where you could pass through it and be in 3 countries in one day. There is the beauty of the canals of Bruges and the discovery of Italy, where every city is different.

There is the history of Rome and Pompeii, the craziness of Venice and the little gems you find along the way, like Verona. And then there are more ruins in Athens.

It’s the Asian culture of Istanbul that leaves you wanting more and the bleakness of Eastern Europe on the cusp of Russia. Closely followed by the opulence of Vienna.

Then there is the gothic wonderland of Prague, before finishing off with party time in Berlin.

My first trip to Europe still lives brightly in my memory, even though it was taken a lifetime ago. Each country had a different culture, language and even a different currency.

No matter how many times I go to Europe, there always seems to be more to see.

I have never been to Scandinavia, Liechtenstein or Poland. I missed Ghent in Belgium and countless other places in Italy.

Like Cinque Terre, Siena and the Amalfi coast. I never got to properly taste wine in Tuscany, see the fountains at Tivoli or go to the island of Sicily.

I missed out on visiting an island in Greece, I’m sure Eastern Europe is quite different now to what it was then; and the Cesky Kromlov seems to be the place to go now instead of Prague.

I know there is more to Germany than just Berlin, like Dresden, seeing Sleeping Beauty’s castle and shopping at a Christmas market.

I can’t wait for my next magical European experience even if it is not in the near future, because a continent this diverse is definitely worth waiting for.

Related posts: It’s an English Thing, It’s a Spanish Thing, It’s a water thing, It’s a French Thing, Europe, 2006, Europe, 2003, England, 2002, Berlin, 1997, Part 2: To the East

Chichen Itza, 2011

I didn’t really know what a cenote was when we arrived in Chichen Itza in the middle of the Yucatan. I had skimmed over a mention of them in the Mexico guide book and dismissed it as something we wouldn’t have time for. My husband and I were here to explore the ruins after all.

We visited Chichen Itza early in the morning which was perfect as there was no one else around and we also avoided the midday heat this way.

The Group of the Thousand Columns was very impressive as well as the iconic El Castillo with serpants at its feet.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited the ruins. I have a photo of me as a toddler at the top of the Templo de Chac Mool, sitting on his statue. This time, the temple was roped off so I was unable to climb to the top to replicate the picture.

I liked the platform of the Jaguars and Eagles and the stone ring in the ball court was huge. We found noughts and crosses made out of stones, the Market and the High Priest’s grave.

The crumbling roof of the Observatory was a sight to see and the Church was very interesting as it had the most detailed stone carvings.

After half a day in the heat walking the ruins, the tour buses arrived and we decided it was time to vacate.

Back at the hotel swimming pool, we met an American couple travelling with their grandson. Starved for younger conversation, the boy started telling us about this fantastic cenote over the road that was featured on the Red Bull high diving competitions- and you could even swim in it.

You can swim in cenotes?! This idea was getting more appealing, especially now that we had half a day to spare. So we thanked him for his advice and gathered our bathing attire.

Paying our entry fee at the Cenote Ik Kil main gates, we realised that there were lots of locals around too- always a good sign that it must be good!

We walked down to the top of the cenote and peeked down into the largest gaping hole in the ground I have ever seen. Vines were growing around the circumference of the hole, reaching down towards the dark waters below.

Excited, we started climbing down the long windy staircase into the cenote.

Reaching the bottom, we disrobed and got in line to go in. American boys were ogling Brazilian girls in their g-strings and trying to pretend they weren’t looking, not very successfully.

To get into the cenote, you could take a ladder or climb up a shorter staircase to jump in. Remembering that I had read that cenote’s are very deep, I opted for the ladder.

The water was beautifully cold and clear and there were many black fishes swimming around exploring.

It was a great way to cool off after our day of sight-seeing and I am so glad that we found time to go in depth for this amazing experience.

Related posts: Campeche and Merida, 2011, Palenque, 2011, Oaxaca, 2011, Mexico City, 2011

Having it all?

The concept of having it all is nothing new. We are all told as young girls that we can have it all- the handsome prince, the massive castle, 2.2 kids and the brilliant career.

But in today’s time poor society, is there room to have it all?

Being in a relationship takes work, having a big house costs money, the kids need a bit of both and the career takes up 8 hours plus a day. Factor in family, friends and finding time for yourself and it all can be a little overwhelming. Most of us, having all these things to juggle will find that one thing or the other suffers at some point.

I recently heard from a wiser woman, that what it really is about is choosing what’s important to you. But that is easier said than done. It takes time to figure out what the highest priority is and this can also change from time to time.

So what do you do?

Realise that you can’t please everyone. Sometimes that work deadline will have to be delayed so that you can pick up the kids from daycare, and the world won’t end if it does. On the flipside, maybe you are lucky enough to have a husband that can pick up the kids so that you can stay late at work if you have to.

It’s about choosing your battles. There are some wars that are not negotiable. Your husband may have to wait for their quality time until the kids go to bed, but that’s ok, as long as you don’t forget about him completely of course. Maybe you will have to take a step back from your career, but make sure you leave your options open in case you ever want to return. The grass is always greener right?

Sometimes an earlier than normal start or a later than normal finish to get in some exercise or spend time on a hobby are a necessity to feed your body and your soul. Yes, it’s time away from the family, but won’t you be happier and more present when you have been able to find this time for yourself?

Me, I’m still figuring it all out. Sometimes, that concept of work life balance and following my dreams seems very far away, but on my more positive days it feels like a distinct possibility. All I can do is make the most of what I have and not regret the decisions I have made that seemed like the best ones at the time.

Oh, and the battle about what’s more important- a big house or travel experiences- that one can wait for another day. When I’m not so busy.

Related posts: Reinvention, New Beginnings, Emotion vs Logic,  Good vs Evil, Pride vs The FallDreams vs Reality

Campeche and Merida, 2011

After Palenque, my husband and I headed to the coastal town of Campeche in the Yucatan peninsula where we stayed in a cute hotel with a small pool.

Our first stop was the restaurant at the Campeche City Hall. From the first floor balcony, we could see over the top of Plaza Principal central square which had a bandstand in middle, surrounded by churches, all enclosed by a city wall with arched gates. It was fun watching the band play and all the locals milling about.

Campeche was filled with bright murals, bronze statues, colourful houses and round towers. It really was a pretty little place. We saw the old lighthouse, a street of wedding dress shops and got a great viewpoint of the town from Baluarte de San Carlos.

My favorite part was walking along the Malecon waterfront promenade at sunset past all the modern statues and bars- mostly closed for the off-season. The Cathedral de la Purisma in the main square also looked pretty spectacular lit up at night.

A little outside of town up a hill, we went to the yellow Fuerte Museo San Jose del Alto, which overlooked the Gulf of Mexico. The fort even had a drawbridge and I loved the rounded turrets.

The rest of the day was one of my husband’s favorite times of the trip. We sat in a seafood restaurant on the water drinking, playing cards and eating the best free fish ceviche for whole afternoon. We had the restaurant to ourselves so were able to watch the cormorants fishing nearby and soak in the atmosphere for as long as we wanted.

Next stop was inland to Merida. Merida was hot. So hot, that my husband felt sick. So sick, that he didn’t have the strength to protest when I got ripped off by a Mayan hammock seller that we had met in a café. He took us back to his shop and sold me a bracelet and an overpriced picture after I flat out refused to buy a hammock for a ridiculous price. At the time I figured it was the lesser of two evils, but I still got scammed in the end.

After this disappointing episode, I ate the largest burrito I have ever seen and we retired to the air conditioning of a Frida themed hotel.

The next day, we discovered that cruise ship visitors had invaded the city. So after a quick spin around the main plaza with it’s Cathedral, the old Bishops residence and the red city hall with black and white checkered balcony, we left as soon as possible.

My highlight was the discovery of some interesting modern murals inside the green Government offices at the top of a large staircase that ran from the courtyard.

I never realized how much of a coastal dweller I was until I was in the middle of the Mexican heat of Merida. I longed for the relief of a sea breeze once again, but first it was off to the to see the desert ruins of Chichen Itza.

Related posts: Palenque, 2011, Oaxaca, 2011, Mexico City, 2011

Sydney vs Melbourne

It’s not as simple as the Harbour vs the River, because you can’t beat Sydney Harbour with its Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It’s not as easy as AFL vs Rugby League, because there’s a reason it’s called the Australian Football League.

Melbourne has the original Luna Park and a prettier central train station. Sydney has the better airport and a more predictable climate.

Both have world class fine dining and scrumptious popular Italian restaurants.

Sydney has the giraffes at Tarongo Zoo and Melbourne has the penguins at the Aquarium. Melbourne has the beachfront of St Kilda and Sydney has Balmoral.

Melbourne had the better casino until Star City renovated in Sydney, perhaps the same will also be said of the convention centres once Sydney finally completes theirs.

Sydney has the iconic Botanic Gardens and Melbourne has the historic Fitzroy Gardens. Melbourne has better shops, but Sydney has better markets.

In Melbourne, the people are nicer, the coffee shops are varied and the laneway bars are intriguing.

In Sydney, the water is more sparkly, yum cha is offered at all times of the day or night and the underground speak easies are atmospheric.

I had the pleasure of living in St Kilda for a week and near the convention centre many times for work and found Melbourne to be a very livable city. It has been known to have the lower property prices and I have often thought about moving there for a better deal in a city that has just as much to offer as Sydney.

However, with the way costs are rising at the moment, we may all be better off moving to Brisbane.

Related posts: Kid at Heart, Degustation Delights, Cocktail Hour in Sydneytown, Home is where you make it

Palenque, 2011

At the end of the longest bus trip I’ve ever been on, my husband and I arrived at Palenque. I was glad that we hadn’t decided to include Guatemala and Belize into our trip as originally planned, as we definitely wouldn’t have had enough time.

We were so tired after the overnight bus trip in temperatures that could only be described as fridge like, where I was still cold despite having two backpacks on top of me for warmth. If you did actually get warm enough to sleep, there was always the loud snoring local to disturb your sleep further, the speed bumps as we went through each small town and the fact that they had filmed us on when we got on the bus as this was a notorious kidnapping route.

When we got there in the morning, we discovered that it was too early to check in. And in typical Mexican- time- style, noon check in became 2pm check in, and I resorted to snoozing on the reception couch. When we were finally permitted to check in, we were happy to discover that we were in our own private house with the luxury of a TV with movies in English.

The hotel also had a swimming pool and a restaurant on the river overlooking now flooded river bars. We were in the middle of the jungle and the only reason most people come here is to to see the ruins.

The ruins of Palenque themselves were amazing. The towering Templo de las Inscripciones greeted you as soon as you entered the compound and was just as awe inspiring as expected.

The Palacio was the largest building with many structures, lots of steps and a big indoor courtyard with surrounding patios. We saw the Tomb of Red Queen inside one of the many temples and the Temple of the Sun with its stone panels.

I climbed up Temple of the Cross which had a fantastic view of all the ruins. After that we saw the large ball court in Group Norte and went for a walk into the jungle to see the Queens Bath of limestone waterfalls and the Bat Group of buried ruined houses.

Seeing ruins in the jungle was an amazing experience where I could really imagine what it must have been like back when the people lived here. I was so glad we had made the long trip to see it all.

Related posts: Oaxaca, 2011, Mexico City, 2011

It’s an American Thing

My favorite city in America is San Francisco with its Golden Gate Bridge. I can image myself living in one of the city’s terraces on a steep hill. A New York loft in Soho comes in a close second, just a short subway ride from Central Park.

And then there is Las Vegas, where you can see the whole world in one place, San Diego where you can see all the animals in the whole world in one place and Los Angeles where you can see all the stars in the whole world in one place.

One of my favorite trips in America was a Californian road trip along Route 66 and Big Sur- seeing the natural beauty of Joshua Tree National Park and the Grand Canyon plus the man made mansion Hearst Castle along the way. California just has so much to offer. There are ghost towns in the desert, seals on the coast and redwoods in Yosemite.

My bestie is from the tiny town of Stuart, Nebraska- a four-hour drive through cornfields from Omaha. I was lucky enough to be included in their annual 4th July celebrations and it was really something special to be welcomed as one of the family.

Of course, my love affair with American culture started early on with Snow White and a trip to Disneyland. I always wondered what it would be like to go to a real American high school like in Buffy, or a real American college like in Beverly Hills 90210 or go to a football game with real American cheerleaders like in Hellcats.

Anne Rice and Twilight peaked my interest in visiting the Deep South and Washington State. The Vampire Diaries and The Originals have made me want to visit Georgia and New Orleans. Gilmore Girls makes me want to go to New England and let’s not forget Sex and the City for New York inspiration, cosmopolitan style.

Which brings me to shopping of course. You can get anything you want at ridiculously low prices compared to Australia, which probably explains why most of us shop online these days.

There is the tasty simplicity of the classic American diner, the best Mexican food and margarita’s outside of Mexico and buffalo ribs smoked the right way. If you have room for desert, there is jello pie, smores and Twizzlers.

The country is so varied, that I can see why you may never want to leave. If you want mountains, you can go to Colorado, if you want water parks, you go to Florida, if you want a history lesson, you go to Washington DC.

I would love to visit a plantation in Louisiana, party for a night in Miami and drift up the coast of Oregon. It would be great to stay in a Boston brownstone, a Chicago skyscraper or a Hampton’s mansion.

The people are friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic about their country. Yes, America has a bit of something for everyone, and I guess that’s what makes the country so great in the first place.

Related posts: It’s a Canadian Thing, San Francisco, 2007- Part 1: Falling in love again, Las Vegas, 2007, USA Road tip, 2007Disneyland, 2007, Los Angeles, 2007New York, 2005, Part 2: Sex and the City Style, TV replays and movie marathons, USA, 1990

Oaxaca, 2011

It was a long bus trip to Oaxaca, distance was a factor I hadn’t thought of fully when we decided to come to Mexico- everything was a little further than I thought. It’s hard to pick a favorite place in in the country, but Oaxaca definitely made the top three, so it was worth it when we got there.

My husband and I stayed in an authentic hotel with gothic style rooms and courtyard gardens. Perhaps it was a mistake to try the local mescal- a moonshine version of tequila- after such a long trip. One shot in the Alice in Wonderland themed bar and it was down the rabbit hole for me.

The next day, we wandered down the Alcala, a closed off walking street lined with buildings, to the main square with the usual Cathedral and state Government palace. The iconic Hotel Monte Alban also overlooked the square that was filled with the sounds of musicians and the sights of the market.

I bought a pair of earrings from a local mountain tribe seller and an Alebrijes lizard. Alebrijes are wooden painted animals, originally made as toys for children, that are unique to Mexico. They were so colourful and beautiful that I wish we had the foresight and luggage space to buy more.

We went to an authentic mole restaurant in the house of a local woman to try mole, as Oaxaca claims to be the originator of the popular Mexican sauce. First time around, I thought it tasted like dirt. Another evening, we had mole with duck in a fine dining restaurant called Los Danazantez that had a lovely open air courtyard of water features and a large wooden bar. It was better second time around, so I can see how the locals have acquired a taste for it.

Oaxaca is a town of colour, flowers, black pottery and pushed tin. At times, I felt like I was on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. It is also a town of churches and temples, so we visited Iglesia de Santa Domingo.

Inside was plethora of gold with the Santa Domingo family tree on the roof. In the grounds of the monastery next door there was elaborate courtyards with marble pillars and lots of painting of monks on the walls.

The view over the cactus garden to the mountains from one of the arched windows was beautiful. Also housed here the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca with many statues, gold painted balconies and saints on cornices.

That evening we visited a rooftop bar overlooking Iglesia de Santa Domingo and felt like we were on top of the world.

Related posts: Mexico City, 2011