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Japan 2016 – Part 1

Tokyo is basically the world’s most immersive and expansive video game.

This thought occurred to me as I stood in the queue for train tickets at Narita Airport. Above me, a huge screen broadcast a cartoon depicting the dangers of selfie sticks (e.g. if they touch the overhead electrified train lines, you die). To the left, people bustled in a store that sold nothing but underwear in bizarre prints (popcorn, kitten faces etc). Over to the right, several cartoon characters wandered around clumsily, guided by very serious men in suits… which I realised is because the costumes have no eye-holes, so the grave-faced suit-men would whisper to the poor bastards inside when to stop and wave for photo ops with eager kids and amused tourists.

It has to be said, Japanese people love a queue. Whether for something as tedious as train tickets, or the latest wasabi-spiced Hello Kitty-endorsed rainbow-coloured sultanas (or whatever), they will happily line up for it… Not only that, but people are actually employed whose sole job it is to manage the line, ensuring it doesn’t take up the wrong bit of pavement or whatever.

Which is very Japanese in itself. If you’re familiar with their tea ceremonies, you’d know it’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture to manage things down to the most granular movements and gestures – very politely, very gently, but also with utmost seriousness. Hence why here, you even line up for the train, instead of just crowding around the nearest door… Because in Japan, door finds you – you line up at the designated marker and voila, there it is right in front of you, sliding open with an elegant smoothness as if to say ‘welcome sir to my carriage’.

So what am I doing here in Tokyo? Basically, I’m part of a group that’s gathered here to celebrate my sister’s 30th in her all-time favourite country. And I do mean ‘all-time favourite’ – she and her boyfriend Shane have been here SIX TIMES since popping their cherry-blossom cherry some years ago. Me, this is my third time. For the other people in our group – and I’ll introduce the whole cast shortly – this is their virginal visit to the Land of the Rising Toilet Seat.

Now, back to Narita.

Our first action upon collecting our luggage was to make a beeline for Lawson’s. Lawson’s is basically a Japanese 7-Eleven but better. We were on a very specific mission: to locate a decidedly Western foodstuff with a Japanese twist. The twist comes in the form of special mayonnaise, known as kewpie, that must tap with great force & immediacy into the dopamine-pumpers of the brain, because god DAMN – one bite of this stuff and it’s like your taste buds are getting oral sex. The legendary snack I’m referring to is Egg Sandwiches – or as my sister likes to call them, with mock Japanese accent, egg sand-he-wicho.

I don’t know why purchasing egg sandwiches at Lawson’s merits a mention, but the truth is not a day went by during our time in Japan that we did not pay our daily pilgrimage to a conveni (convenience store) for this ever-tasty, ever-ready snack… that flavour-bomb mayonnaise encased between two of the lightest, fluffiest, whitest (and no doubt nutrition-freest) slices of bread you’ve ever held in your soft, trembling hands… All for a loose-change price tag of about 200 yen (~AU$1).

But enough about egg sandwiches. We need to press on.

Right now I’m on the train to Tokyo proper and feel, once again, like I’m in a video game. Every little development along this journey – train arrives at station; train doors open; train is now departing – is accompanied by a little chiptune ditty straight out of The Legend of Zelda. Whoever made those top-loader washing machines that play a sea shanty once they’ve finished – that person was surely Japanese, coz they live and breathe that kinda stuff. And I’ve just noticed – to make things even more interesting – that there’s actually a different ditty for every station. My sister tells me this is so that Japanese salarymen who use their commute to sleep – so ~90% of them – train their brains to recognise & wake up to their station’s particular melody.

Ahhh, the Japanese. Are they actually a race of cyborgs, powered by gluteinous rice? Perhaps they are.

I should probably introduce you now to this gang of five I’m travelling with. Like I said, I’m here with my sister Matylda, her boyfriend Shane, another couple – Stef and Nicki (keep in mind Stef’s a dude – this initially threw me too) – and James, or ‘The James/TJ Bones’ as my sister refers to him with a mixture of amusement and affection.

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I quickly learned why. James is a heart-of-gold kind of guy who has a refreshingly undeveloped self-consciousness – one of those characters who’ll happily say whatever pops into his head, appropriateness filter be damned. It’d only be a few more hours until I was acquainted with his left testicle, which he popped out of his jim-jams for a giggle… But what really defined TJ on this trip though was his addiction to food. I’m not saying this guy’s a foodie, coz that’s half of Melbourne these days… I’m saying he has a mental disorder; the gastronomic equivalent of a crack addiction. On more than one occasion The James put us in real threat of missing a train, coz he’d gotten a whiff of something on the way and just had to stop and try it… Usually catching up with us at the last second, clutching a paper tray of octopus balls or whatever, half-apologising, half-eating, and mostly not giving a fuck coz he got the food and that’s all that really matters. James isn’t fat by the way – just standard-issue post-30-year-old dadbod – which makes this all the more extraordinary.

To be honest though you can’t blame him. Cheap, quick, delicious food is abundant in Nippon. Pokey little ramen bars with a curtain for the front door, emanating tantilising smells and noise… Little katsu don eateries, ‘katsu’ being (as far as I can tell) some form of meat on rice (inagi, or eel, being my favourite)… And even littler sushi outlets without a single seat, coz frankly the sushi is so fucking amazing you WILL be happy to stand while you eat it, the immaculately fresh, tender morsels melting in your mouth like butter. You eventually leave not so much coz you’ve had enough, but only to be fair to the inevitable gaggle of people gathered outside, awaiting their turn to intake some of this shiny, briny mouth heroin.

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These things are never mixed, mind you. The Melbourne thing of selling sushi and hot food at the same place, for example, is a big no-no in Japan. Every type of food – ramen, katsu, sushi, teppenyaki – is an art and you specialise in one only. There’s a place near where I live called ‘Wong’s Café’ that sells sushi rolls and Chinese food. To a Jap, that’s basically like having a combined brothel/ library – madness. And I tend to agree.

I should mention that the alcohol here is likewise top-notch. Most of the mainstream brews are made by Suntory – that’s the same Suntory that Bill Murray/Bob Harris advertises for in Lost in Translation – and it’s probably the best beer I’ve had outside of Poland and the Czech Republic. Now that I think about it, it’s weird we don’t get Suntory beers in Aus given Asahi’s so prominent… Asahi’s not bad by any standard, but it’s really just a Japanese Crown Lager. Suntory’s brews, on the other hand, are deliciously smooth, even slightly creamy in the way that Polish beers are… and, like Polish beers, they’re dirt cheap.

Japanese whiskey – again, dominated by the omnipresent Suntory label – is also top notch. Later in the trip I bought a fine-looking bottle of rum at a bottle shop which I thought was authentically South American, given it had a Spanish name and palm trees on the label, with no sign of that quintessential Asian tendency to misconstrue any culture outside of their own… Only to realise later it was produced in Japan. It was the best rum I’ve had to date.

The only alcohol category that the Japs fail at is vodka. There’s only one Japanese vodka label – basically an acknowledgement that they suck in this area – and instead of at least giving it a pseudo-Slavic name (like the pseudo-Spanish name for the rum), they just call it ‘Gibley’s’, as if vodka originated in fucking Wales or something. With its text-only white-and-navy label, it’s definitely no Belvedere – but this didn’t stop me and my sister from mixing generous quantities with fruit juice & downing it with Polish gusto on several occasions… For the vitamin C content, of course.

Wow. I’ve written extensively about egg sandwiches and liquor and haven’t even made it off the train to Tokyo yet. So yes, indeed – we’re all sitting in these big Gold Class-style seats whizzing at high speed through a semi-rural landscape – and speaking of alcohol, we’re all happily sipping cans of booze nestled on our fold-out trays. I’ve got a can of frothy Yebisu beer – another excellent & popular brand here – and my sister’s enthusiastically tucking into a can of ‘Strong’, a lemon-gin premix that lives up to its name in both flavour and potency. In Melbourne, of course, we’d all be issued $200+ fines and muscled off at the next station for doing this, but in Japan – completely acceptable. And they give you your change back like it’s a piece of the True Cross.

There’s actually an entire blog entry one could write about that fact – why DO we have such fascist drinking laws in Australia, and why, admittedly, are we so bad as a collective at drinking? Because don’t get me wrong: the Japanese get smashed. There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to the phenomenon of uber-pissed Japanese salarymen passed out on in public places and transport – I saw it first-hand on a previous trip; a group of middle-aged men in impeccable business suits, faces flushed, laughing all with their ties inexplicably tied around their heads. The difference is they didn’t cause anyone any trouble. My sister told me a story, also from a previous trip, of a businessman so drunk that he had no choice but to puke… So what did he do? Opened up his suitcase and vomited all over his work papers. Not one globule of half-digested rice made it onto the floor of the train.

Whereas Down Under, getting drunk too often means acting like a moron – trying to draw as much attention as possible to you and your mates; hitting on women who don’t want a bar of you; and, depending on how the night pans out, perhaps starting a fight or destroying some property depending on what’s around. “This is why we can’t have nice things”, as the saying goes… While here in Japan, women literally walk up and down the train carriages with a cart offering you half a bar’s worth of liquor.

Yet it’s funny that here we are, all Aussies, all drinking yet behaving with utmost civility and self-control. Maybe the Japs have sent off all their fuckwit drunks to hard labour in Okinawan quarries or something, and left the rest of their citizens alone… Which, if true, I couldn’t applaud more. We should do the same instead of punishing everyone – coz who doesn’t feel like a bit of a drinky on a long, boring commute?

Anyway. Our first proper taste of Tokyo came with a stop in Shibuya. Shibuya is what probably comes to most people’s minds when they think ‘Tokyo’: it’s the district with that massive Times Square-esque intersection where, in Lost In Translation, Charlotte is lost in a sea of colourful umbrellas and looks up to see a huge projection of a brontosaurus saunter by. Me, I saw a bunch of men in suits ice-skating in ridiculous formations, for what seemed to be an ad for fruit juice. Who knows. At first you laugh, then you try to figure it out, then you give up trying to figure it out and just enjoy the surrealism. This is a country that, I think, knows it’s weird by other people’s standards and revels in it. The bizarre ads; the anthropomorphised ambulances with cat and dog faces; the eyebrow-raising Jinglish (everywhere I saw an ad featuring nothing but a woman and the words “Moist Diane” – again, who knows)… Collectively it says something pretty clear: This is Japan, and ordinary notions of ‘normal’ do not apply or matter. Reverence and irreverence, what’s important and what isn’t, is very different in the brilliant, quirky land that gave us samurai, sake and Sonic the Hedgehog.

One example that randomly comes to mind is how in Melbourne, you’ll grab a $2 sushi roll from any old joint (usually Chinese-owned) but you’d spend that lunch break catching up with someone, running errands or hitting the gym – being ‘productive’. In Japan, an adult might waste an entire lunch break reading semi-pornographic comics at a 7-Eleven or sleeping in a car, but the sushi consumption would be undertaken with the sort of thoughtfulness you’d reserve for a trip to the art gallery – careful consideration of the menu followed by full, devoted attention on the flavours in play. Sushi is not something you shove into a plastic box with a tiny plastic fish of soy sauce and scoff down at your desk while reading clickbait news on the web. It’s serious business.

And takeaway sushi is exactly what we had in Shibuya. We decided to ‘camp’ for a while at a statue of a dog that, no joke, has a photograph taken of it probably every 10 seconds during daylight hours. The dog, called Hachikō, used to leave home and make its way to Shibuya station every day to wait for the arrival of his owner, a uni professor. One day the professor died and never came home, but the dog continued the ritual every single day for almost 10 years until his own death – a moving example of dogs’ unrelenting loyalty to their master. It’s no surprise that the Japanese were impressed by this and in the words of the Wikipedia page I just brought up, to remind myself of the dog’s name –  “Hachikō’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty, particularly to the person and institution of the Emperor.”

After our own obligatory group shot, complete with peace signs, the girls went off to a sushi outlet we’d seen on the way out of the station, while us guys guarded the luggage, observing the insane level of public excitement at this otherwise unexceptional bit of bronze, while tentatively sipping on cans of beer/Strong. I say ‘tentatively’ coz at this point, it still seemed weird to be able to drink anything alcoholic in public. The Great Southern Nanny State had indoctrinated us deeply.

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Anyway, at one point I attempted to balance a pile of sushi and soy sauce on one of the backpacks and it promptly fell over, leaving a massive dark-brown stain on the hallowed ground surrounding Hachikō’s likeness… So we decided this was our cue to leave.  We each grabbed our respective luggage and once again, began dragging it noisily along the concrete and bitumen onto another train, and finally – after some assistance from a traffic controller, spiffily dressed in what looked like a crisp Navy uniform – made it to our flat.

The problems started as soon as we stepped through the door. The flat, an AirBnB owned by some expat Yank, was tiny. There were two very small bedrooms – one of which smelled bad, due (we surmised) to an uncleaned tatami mat – and five of us. After much deliberation and back-of-head scratching , the pieces settled thus: Stef & Nicki in the stale-smelling room; me, Matylda & Shane in the other room (I had a mattress on the floor – #luxury); and TJ on the couch in a ‘room’ that was just a cramped walkway between the kitchen and balcony. Not quite the Sofitel Deluxe Suites, and there was a serious lack of bedding to boot – at least justifying my decision to bring my own pillow, as I’m rather fussy in the evening headrest area.

The room/bed allocation process had gotten us all a bit tense, so we did what anyone would do in that situation – step out onto the balcony and have a smoke and beer. By the time we were done, with malty breath and tar-infused jackets, watching cherry blossoms flutter off a tree like pink confetti, we felt much better. Hey, we were in Japan. Everything’s gonna be cool.

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Me & Matylda at the cherry blossom tree on our street. Part 2 will come eventually – in the meantime check out my Instagram for more Japan pics!

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Outback Adventure – Part 2

Part 1 hopefully set the stage for what the Australian Outback is like, so now I’m gonna turn to what Catalina and I actually did over our 4.5 days there.

Jetstar flight JQ664 to Ayers Rock was scheduled for 9:20am, and we got to the airport at around quarter to – cutting it fine, but in a matter of minutes we’d checked in our luggage, shuffled through security and found ourselves in the brand-new Terminal 4 with 30 minutes or so still to go. So of course we did what anyone else does upon arriving at an airport in the morning: have breakfast at Macca’s.

Catalina had her first McMuffin ever that day – the first of several firsts on this trip, not all of them as benign as an egg & bacon roll unfortunately. We scoffed down our greasy deliciousness, scrunched up & disposed of the paper bag, and began strolling towards the gate, my McCoffee or whatever in hand. At one point I spotted our plane through a window so stopped to take a couple of photos – something to post on the ol’ IG/Fb while it taxis up to the runway, seconds before obeying the instructions to turn on Flight Mode…

We kept going and it was then that we happened to pass by a monitor listing all upcoming flights, and realised we’d fucked up royally:

GATE 49: CLOSED.

I looked at Catalina, looked down at my ticket – yep, that says ‘Gate 49’ – and back up to the screen.

GATE 49: CLOSED.

Boy did we run.

Coffee was erupting out of my McCup all over my hand but ain’t nobody got time for that when your plane’s about to shoot off into the sky without you – all because we decided to stop for some shitty McBreakfast.

Of course our gate was right at the far end of the terminal. People at other gates stared at us careening up the walkway as if we were being shot at – until we arrived at the uninhabited Gate 49, where two women in uniform awaited us, their faces securely locked to Bitch Mode as we came to a pathetic halt before them, panting and flustered, trying to look sorry and innocent and desperate at the same time.

“You can only board if they haven’t taken your luggage off yet,” one of them declared in a Pauline Hanson-esque monotone. “Wait here while we check.”

She did and praise the Lord, our stuff was still on board. We were handed our tickets with a stern reprimand and, feeling like told-off first-graders, released out onto the tarmac to power-walk to the plane and up the steps for a final walk of shame to our seats. At least we’d made it on board.

After another 15 minutes’ delay (nothing to do with us) the plane roared off into the clouds, and once it’d leveled out and the seatbelt sign switched off, we were informed we both had a $5 in-flight voucher to use – which was just as well since I’d already pressed the assistance button for some beer. Minutes later a couple of Pure Blondes were placed in front of us complete with cups of ice. I felt at ease again. Things were back on track.

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Some 3 hours later – a mere smoko by Australian flight standards – we landed at Ayers Rock. It’s worth mentioning at this point that 3 or 4 years earlier I’d gone on a similar trip to Darwin, and still vividly remember stepping off the air-conditioned cabin into what literally felt like a blast furnace – the contrast so sudden and extreme it was like walking into something solid; a thick, invisible padded wall of roasting heat.

Alas, no such thing this time. Overcast grey sky and if anything, the temperature was actually cooler outside thanks to a mild breeze. It was like we’d never left Melbourne.

You can probably imagine that Ayers Rock regional airport isn’t exactly a bustling mini-city of PA announcements, upmarket duty-free goods and immaculately dressed multinational flight crews walking around like prim cyborgs. You just hop off the plane, walk a few metres to a sliding door, step through, and find yourself in a space that’s probably smaller than the inside of Flinders St station. There’s the one luggage carousel, there’s the toilets, here are some rental car counters, and there’s the exit. So naturally, we went to the toilet, picked up our luggage (first off the carousel – almost missing flights does have its perks), and picked up our rental car – a little Mitsubishi Something, ketchup-red to go with the desert soil.

A short drive later we pulled into Ayers Rock Resort, a big loop of road around which there’s a fancy hotel, serviced ‘Emu Walk’ apartments, a campground, a Shell servo, and a ‘town square’ with a few shops and eateries. And let me tell you now – if ever you wanted to emulate ‘Humans of New York’ and set up a ‘Bogans and Retirees of Aus’ Facebook page, Ayers Rock town square would be a rich fountain of content indeed.

We turned right into the campground and within minutes were standing inside a little reception building in front of a big, unsmiling, mumbling Indigenous guy who informed us we were on lawn 14 then gave us one of those “OK to drink alcohol” passes I mentioned. Catalina took the opportunity to ask him whether Uluru’s open for climbing today, and I think it’s safe to say that if he wasn’t exactly winning the Excellence in Customer Service Award to begin with – and he wasn’t – he certainly wasn’t interested in even acknowledging her presence after that. We hastily took our maps and alcohol pass and left.

Happily, lawn 14 was at the far edge of the campground and devoid of campers – we had the whole grassy patch to ourselves. Nearby was a surprisingly clean and functional toilet block/showers/laundry/mosquito sanctuary, and each lawn came with power sockets so you could charge your phone… Coz let’s face it, if you’re under 35 and you’re on holiday, if there’s no pics it didn’t happen.

We set up our tent (another first for Cata, who’d never so much as been in one) and finally it was time to do the fun stuff. It was time to see the Rock.

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Uluru – or ‘Ayers Rock’ as it used to be more commonly known – is pretty much to Aboriginal culture what the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to Christians. It’s a very old, very sacred site – which is why our Indigenous friend at reception did not take well to Catalina’s query, since although tourists are permitted to climb the Rock (bar certain conditions – strong winds, extreme heat etc), it’s simultaneously discouraged as a disrespectful act. At any rate, the climb was closed that day so after poring over the map we’d been given, we decided to be ambitious and do the full 10km ‘base walk’ around the perimetre – an undertaking estimated to take 3.5 hours, but which I figured we could do in one less.

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The Rock itself is striking. Like most famous monuments – the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji – the first moment you see it with your own eyes you’re kind of caught by surprise, like “OMG there it is”, and it looks even grander than you’d imagined: larger than life, radiating an energy generated as much by its renown as by its sheer scale. Even against the dreary, colourless sky that afternoon, it was an impressive sight: this massive, brooding edifice the colour of dried blood standing guard over the surrounding desert… A silent, powerful sentinel of this ageless Dreamtime landscape.

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For those who don’t know, the Dreamtime is the Aboriginal version of Genesis – a Creation myth of how the world came to be. The way it goes rings somewhat familiar: The world used be a featureless void, until a time – the Dreamtime – when giant, magical beings emerged and began wandering the land, and through their actions (playing, fighting, love-making etc) they transformed the world into a rich, vibrant environment teeming with animals, plants and landmarks – Uluru being a crowning example of the latter.

There seem to be varying accounts of how Uluru itself came to be. A series of signs near the car park tell a bizarre tale involving ‘Sleeping Lizard Women’ and pissed-off tribesmen who summon an evil dingo from mud, but its ending – that the earth rose in grief at the bloodshed between two warring tribes, forming Uluru – was quite poignant, and makes all the more sense once you explore the Rock and notice how it resembles scarred, petrified flesh in many places. According to another Dreamtime story, the grooves running up and down Uluru are the legacy of a struggle between two huge serpents wrestling on top of the monolith.

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Of course, these grooves were actually created by rainwater, and there are black streaks all over the Rock that show where the water flows down during the wet season. The scientific explanation for this remarkable piece of geology is, naturally, less colourful than the myth, but still fascinating, as it reveals that the vast bulk of Uluru is actually underground. What we see looming over the desert is merely the tip of a vast sandstone iceberg… The fin of a colossal subterranean megalodon of which the Olgas is another component.

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In his excellent Australian travelogue ‘In A Sunburned Country’, Bill Bryson quips that this “big red rock” would be a brilliant navigational marker should a spaceship ever need to land and wait for interstellar roadside assistance:

the obvious directions to rescuers would be: ‘Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can’t miss it.’

I’d go one further and say that the Rock itself is so bizarre, so seemingly out of place in this otherwise flat, relatively featureless terrain, that you could almost imagine it as the façade for some sort of gigantic military facility – an Australian Area 51, with a secret opening somewhere that slides sideways to reveal a high-tech UFO hangar inside… Ripe fodder for a David Icke conspiracy theory if there ever was one.

But I digress.

We set off on the base walk and walked… and walked… and walked. The first third of the walk is actually some distance away from the Rock itself (possibly to hide that secret entrance) but happily, it gets closer and closer until you’re walking right up alongside it, able to appreciate its multifarious surface up close. It really is visually captivating – far from having the usual jagged/smooth rock texture you’ve seen on countless cliffs, it’s patterned with all sorts of random caves and curves and cuts, some of which you’d swear were indeed sculpted or inflicted by conscious entities rather than natural processes. Signs around the walk inform you of ‘sensitive sites’ – a particular part of the rock associated with a Dreamtime story – and they tend to coincide with a particularly striking feature in the rock wall, resembling the lips of a titanic sea creature or, dare I say it, a giant vagina.

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Up close Uluru has such a variety of form and texture… At times resembling a soft cheese or a mousse that’s been scooped in parts with a spoon… Other times the rock wall is smooth and looms up high and straight like a stone tsunami… Some parts have bizarre markings resembling scars and orifices on some gigantic organic entity… Others contain curious collections of boulders as if they’ve actually gathered there to form still, silent communities of their own. Had he ever seen it, I’ve no doubt Salvador Dali would’ve been obsessed with this incredible landform and its multitude of faces, accentuated all the more at the sunset by black shadows and deep red luminescence.

That’s a caption for one of my Instagram videos, which I think sums it up nicely.

As we traversed the final part of the walk, our feet getting sore, the sun finally broke through the grey sheets that had been curtaining the sky all day and set its spotlight directly on our side of the rock. It was like a lava lamp being switched on – the rock, which by now had been looking rather dull and lifeless under the darkening sky, was suddenly brought to life, glowing hot-sauce red, its weird pockmarks and protrusions made all the more dramatic by the stark contrast of light and shadow…

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Finally, we arrived back at the car, still patiently waiting for us in the parking lot, its compatriots long gone. We drove back to the campground tired but satisfied, had dinner at a box noodle place called Ayers Wok (geddit?), showered, and consummated our brand-new double air mattress in the cold but cosy confines of our portable home.

Day one was over… Three glorious more to go.

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Outback Adventure – Part 1

I just got back from a whirlwind trip around the Outback and gotta say, it was amazing. The ‘Outback’ – that vast swath of flat, dry, rust-coloured territory across central Australia – is like being on another planet: looking out the airplane window as you touch down, you could swear you’re landing on the barren red surface of Mars, albeit it at a colony settled by white and black Australians.

Much of this world is familiar to anyone coming from any other part of Australia, yet at the same time it’s markedly different. The beer selections, for example, are same-old: Carlton Draught, XXXX, Cooper’s, Heineken… Yet to buy a beer at any campground/resort, you need to produce a little piece of paper you’re given upon arriving there – at least in theory, since I was never asked, since (I suspect) I don’t look overly Aboriginal. The road signs, too, come in familiar formats – e.g. the trusty black-on-yellow triangles that tell you what to expect ahead – but instead of heralding a T-junction or people crossing, they warn you to ‘BEWARE OF WANDERING STOCK’, ‘WATCH FOR WILDLIFE’ and, most commonly, to flag an upcoming ‘floodway’ – a low point in the road where rainwater accumulates during the brief but intense wet season.

There are also the usual white-on-green billboards displaying how far to go until the next few towns – the numbers usually in triple figures, reinforcing the ‘tyranny of distance’ that characterizes this wide brown land. Visiting just three places in four days – Uluru, King’s Canyon, Alice Springs then back to Uluru – my girlfriend and I racked up more than 1,000 kilometres of road travel, which cost us a pretty penny in petrol and extra mileage charges. But it was totes worth it.

Driving is really the way to ‘do’ the Outback – just you and the open road, metallic pools shimmering in the distance as the heat plays tricks on your eyes. Speed cameras are absent along these remote stretches of tarmac so you can move at a nice brisk speed – 130, 140 kilometres an hour… Occasionally a vehicle will appear in the opposite direction, a tiny speck that within seconds becomes a clearly discernible tour bus or camper van or road train that in another few seconds roars by with a ferocious rush of air, and is suddenly gone – an insignificant speck in the rear-view mirror, leaving you alone and intimate with the landscape once more… Just you, your music, the sun-cooked dashboard and the faint, constant whoosh of air con.

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And what a landscape it is! Contrary to what I imagined, the Outback is actually covered in vegetation, albeit of a semi-arid variety… Low-growing, thin, with the bleached greens and browns of old army disposals apparel, all growing somehow out of the fine, bone-dry red dust. Far from being monotonous, this primitive but striking flora changes markedly every half-hour or so, as if you’re time-travelling through the great eras of prehistory – now Cretaceous, then Jurassic, then the other one… At times the orange-red ground is barely visible for all the dense shrubbery and tussocks of spiky grass; then you notice it’s become mostly bare and exposed but populated by black-stumped trees with limp branches and long, wispy leaves like green hair.

You also see the occasional animal – most of them dead; unlucky critters who chose the wrong moment to cross the road. Within our first hour of driving down the Lasseter Highway we came across a fly-bitten red kangaroo corpse with empty eye sockets, then a stinking big lump of a cow, then a poor lizard still strangely intact with blood around its mouth:

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By far the most common encounters are with birds – cute, fluttery little things that swoop in front of your vehicle like acrobats. No joke, these little thrill-seekers actually dive into the middle of the tarmac to let the car pass over them – the first time it happened I thought I’d hit one, then realised when I watched in the rear-view mirror that the little blighters take off again once we’d whooshed right over the top of them. Gotta get your kicks in the desert somehow, I guess.

Not all the birds are cute and fluttery though. Every now and then you see the broad wingspan of a much larger bird silhouetted against the shining blue sky… Carnivorous scavengers scouring the ground from high up for something dead or dying to pick at, their shadow slowly swirling across the road, a subtly ominous element in the otherwise bright and radiant day.

On foot, your boots dusted with what looks like dried paprika powder, you experience some of Australia’s less endearing animals. Flies are a serious pest in the Outback, and the hotter the day, the more numerous they are, relentlessly bullying you until you become one sweaty, swatting, swearing epitome of futility and frustration. Cata and I experienced this on our last full day, bushwalking up the Olgas on what was the warmest afternoon of our trip, and it was like the worst summer barbeque you’ve ever had – a merciless barrage of buzzing that simply wouldn’t let up, the little black vermin honing in on our faces again and again as if compelled by some magnetic force. Selfies had to be retaken several times as one of us would inevitably turn away or pull a face at the critical moment, thanks to a fly shooting up a nostril or into an ear… And I’ve been told not to share those dud pics under threat of death. So bad was it that many of the older (and obviously wiser) hikers we passed wore beekeeper-style netted hats over their heads, wandering the desert like women in an Islamic theocracy… So yeah – if persistence is a virtue, flies are its most fanatical disciples… And indeed we wondered, as we retraced our steps back to the car park, swinging at the air in vain with folded maps, whether it’s the same group of flies the whole time or new ones coming and going. But that’s another subject for another time.

Of course ants, spiders and snakes also made an appearance. Luckily I noticed the little huntsman when I did, scurrying across one side of Catalina’s suitcase when I flung it into the back seat of the car – which, of course, saw said suitcase immediately hurled back out of the car onto the red dirt. I say ‘luckily’ because if I’d felt that thing crawling up my leg 20 minutes later, hurtling along Lasseter Highway at Formula One speeds… Well, let’s just say there’s been a long history of unexplained car crashes in Australia. God bless ’em for keeping the flies in check but let’s face it, nobody likes a hairy eight-legged arachnid upon their person, at any time or place.

The snake, on the other hand, was actually kind of cute – clearly an infant, about 50cm long, frantically wriggling across the walking path and disappearing into the undergrowth just as I’d rushed up to it with my smartphone camera at the ready.

Ever-present, of course, were Nature’s tireless little toilers, the ants – forming dotted black lines that criss-crossed all the walking tracks, carrying little bits of whatever down into their underground kingdom of tunnels. Catalina was quite smitten with this particular lot at Uluru, their pretty blue-black exoskeletons giving them the appearance of nanobots:

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Finally, of course, there were dingos. The ‘resort’ we stayed in at King’s Canyon was rife with these, as suggested from the outset by signs imploring visitors to ‘keep dingos wild’ and not leave food lying around. Although long tarnished with a negative reputation, dingos are actually pretty tame, casually trotting around the edges of car parks and campgrounds without any apparent fear of or aggression towards humans. Where we stayed, every toilet block had a gate you had to swing open to enter and on the first night we discovered why – as I parked the car, a dingo suddenly scampered out of the shadows, made its way briskly across the lawn and without hesitation let itself through the ajar gate into the brightly lit Gents, emerging a few seconds later to return to the bush as though this was perfectly standard procedure. When I went inside later I discovered why – the bin, filled with paper towel and food scraps, had been tipped over. It made me wonder how many unwitting campers have copped a shock as a result of these shenanigans… Quietly brushing their teeth in their jim-jams only to have a wild dog burst in and start rifling through the garbage. Later that night another dingo (or perhaps the same cheeky bugger) wandered right past our tent, his four-legged silhouette clearly visible through the fabric… But there were no babies around so all good.

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Basically, when it comes to the wildlife in Australia, the usual logic is reversed. Our answer to the wolf/coyote is basically a Bangkok street dog, and our bears are little more than perpetually sleepy soft toys… While our pint-sized critters – the spiders, snakes and jellyfish – can kill you in an hour flat.

Well, them and the crocs I guess.

Note: This is the first part of what I hope will be a broader piece about me and my girlfriend’s 4-day tour of the Outback – part 2 will focus less on road signage and insects and more on what we actually did and saw. In the meantime, you can check out some of the photos from our trip on Instagram.

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 5

COLOGNE / AMSTERDAM / WROCLAW – 16 November

Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.

I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.

At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.

Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.

It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.

The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.

There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.

KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November

“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll

Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.

Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.

In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.

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(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)

Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.

So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.

(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November

That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.

EPILOGUE – 3 December

So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.

The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.

I feel, therefore I am.

It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.

This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”

We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.

The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success🙂

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 4

KITZEGEN / ROTHENBURG – 10 November

The Ama Reina is currently sailing through Franconia, land of the Franks, a province in the south of Germany. Franconians still identify strongly with their region – in shop windows and building doorways you see the red-and-white Franconian flag alongside the red-yellow-black German one… A reminder that unlike, say, France or Poland, Germany as a single entity is a relatively new concept, the territory now known ’Germany’ historically consisting of a conglomerate of separate states.

Unlike the steiner-guzzling, lederhosen-donning Bavarians, Franks have a reputation as a serious, grumpy people imbued with the Protestant work ethic. Nuremberg, for example, is a typical Franconian city. Yesterday we saw two more: Kitzegen and Rothenburg.

Josh and I opted out of the Kitzegen walking tour to go on a bike ride through the city – a thoroughly pleasant thing to do on a cool, melancholic grey day as the last of the autumn leaves fluttered to the ground. At one point we passed a small courtyard known as the Yard of Suffering, where in the 1500s a local governor of sorts ordered more than 50 citizens to be blinded with red-hot iron rods and cast out of the city – for reasons that weren’t clear in the brochure I read, though again, a horrific reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and the often bloody, brutish nature of life in the Middle Ages.

We saw the bright side of medieval life in Rothenburg, one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Parts of the city look like a set for a Disney movie, but it never crosses the line into cliché/fakeness – and the authenticity of the city is apparent when you look closely, in the eroded stones and ancient, creaking wood. Rothenburg is full of the combination stone/painted timber houses that Germany’s renowned for, as well as mouth-watering apple strudel and schnapps – which is actually extremely strong and horrible stuff, very different to the sweet, fruity schnapps we know back in Australia.

It’s been interesting traveling through Europe 11 years on. Smartphones have completely changed the nature of sight-seeing – people now sight-see through their phones rather than their own senses. Nothing made this clearer than what I saw back at St Stephen’s in Vienna – there’s a grill you walk up to beyond which is the altar, and when I first visited there in 2004, most people would simply stand at the grill and look up and around in wonder, taking it all in. This time, everyone was just holding up their phones snapping photos as if they’re at a concert… Some of them literally stepped up to the grill, took a few pics, then, satisfied they’d captured something worth uploading to Instagram, ambled off – having never seen anything through their own eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the tech we have now, and I wish me and Paul had such devices when we did our trip… But this trip’s made me wonder if it hasn’t also taken something away from the sight-seeing experience, as we obsessively document our travel experiences rather than simply enjoying them.

Then there are the funny little things you forget – like how the Europeans call toilets ‘water closets’ (WC for short), and the fact you’re expected to tip at bars and restaurants – which I found kind of awkward and irritating at first, though I’m used to it now. Of course there’s also the driving on the right side of the road – easy to forget when you’re crossing the road and especially on our bike ride yesterday, where old habits could’ve put a quick and gruesome end to our adventures. The ship company even makes you sign a waiver before handing over the bikes, pretty much saying that if you get hit by a bus/fall into a canal/whatever, it’s your own goddamn fault.

MORE GERMAN TOWNS – 12 November

Been a big last few days. Wednesday night was a ‘dance night’ on board the ship which a bunch of us young people hijacked for our own partying purposes. There were long lines of shots; shirts wet with spilled alcohol; horrible photos that will hopefully never make it to the light of day… I even realised the burning sensation I’ve had in my throat all day is from the copious amount of cigarettes I smoked on the deck into the early hours. A floating retirement home by day, these occasional boozey nights are the Gen Y-ers time to make the ship their own – thoroughly enjoyable but also thoroughly exhausting, so that today was pretty much spent napping, wallowing in the pool and taking in the amazing sights as we sailed along the Rhine Gorge. Then recover just in time to attend an elegant dinner at the residence of Princess Heide von Hohenzollern, in her big royal mansion which devoid of people would have a bit of an Overlook Hotel feel… Stag heads on the walls, old paintings that look straight at you, and even a room painted top to bottom in deep, blood-gushing-out-of-an-elevator red.

My favourite part of the night was two piano interludes in between the three courses. To my delight the pianist chose to play mazurkas (Polish dances) and did so with exquisite skill, ‘exquisite’ not being a word I’d use normally but totally warranted in this instance. Listening to Chopin’s heart-tugging melodies in an elegant dining hall brought home the degree to which culture can permeate into one’s soul… Mazurkas in particular resonate with me in a way that’s difficult to explain for someone who’s spent practically his entire life in Melbourne, and it’s a powerful example of how an entire culture can be expressed through art… Because make no mistake, when you listen to Chopin – especially a mazurka or polonaise – you are listening to the sound of Poland. And however strange it may sound, it made me realise that whoever I end up marrying needn’t dig The Prodigy or enjoy driving to trance music, but she should definitely appreciate the delicate but profound beauty of a mazurka.

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Last night was the Captain’s Dinner, the second-last night on the ship and easily the most rowdy to date. This time the crew – consisting almost entirely of Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians – were allowed to join us in the partying and man, they didn’t hold back. Initially me and Josh were not in the mood for any more festivities and even got as far as retreating to our cabin after dinner and changing into our jim-jams, but were eventually coaxed into the lounge where the party was already well underway, promising ourselves we’d have “just one or two drinks”. I then promptly plunged into Full Inebriation Mode, hit the dancefloor, downed a series of Jager-based drinks with one of the young Hungarian crew members then took her outside to the front deck for a prolonged pash in the freezing dark… With the consequence that I can now feel the first symptoms of a cold coming on just as we’ve arrived in rain-soaked Amsterdam. But the show must go on, and with Poland just around the corner, by God it will.

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 3

DURNSTEIN / MELK / SALZBURG / PASSAU / NUREMBERG – 7 November

Current location: At the back of a coach cruising along an autobahn through Bavaria. Time: 9:20am. Weather conditions: Grey, foggy and wet – ironic given a lack of rain is exactly why we’re all piled on a bus right now instead of reclining in the luxurious lounge/private cabins of a five-star cruise ship.

If you’ve seen my Instagram pics from the trip so far, you might’ve noticed that the weather’s been stunning: everything bathed in sunlight with a clear blue sky overhead. This is extremely unusual because we’re in November – deep into autumn, less than a month out from winter – and while it’s great for sight-seeing/photography, it’s bad news for cruise operators who rely on Nature to keep the river topped up. As it happens, it’s barely rained since July and there’s evidence of this everywhere: fountains switched off, ponds dried up, and all along the Danube, embankment walls lined with dried moss and rust where there’s usually water.

And so here we are. After a couple of warnings that this might happen, the final call was made last night that we’d have to swap ships – the river’s simply too low between Passau and Nuremberg for the Ama Verde to get through, so we’d catch the bus to Nuremberg instead, spend the day there then board a new ship, the Ama Reina. Which is a major pain in the arse but what can you do? Just suck it up, get out your laptop and use the coach time to do some typing.

The last few days have been a blitz tour of Austria/Germany. Our next stop after the hustle and bustle of Vienna was Durnstein – a quiet, quaint little village that felt like the set of an Austrian remake of Heartbeat. While most of the group was happy to shuffle in and out of shops selling overpriced marmalade, Josh and I set about finding a path to access the mysterious castle ruins perched on top of a hill far above the town. We eventually succeeded and after much upward hiking, found ourselves among fragments of stone wall surrounded by densely forested mountains, morning mist still rising from the trees, the big blue Danube now far below us, winding its way to the horizon… An epic scene that immediately transported us to the world of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart, and made the modern world seem like a strange and vivid dream we’d left behind.

That night we docked a little further up the river in a town called Melk, famous for its massive Benedictine Abbey. The tour group was wowed above all by the vast dining room, with a ceiling brilliantly painted to appear curved even though it’s perfectly flat. For me though the most fascinating room was the library, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with big dusty old books dating back hundreds of years. A few were on display under glass, their pages open to display Gothic text so meticulously scribed you’d swear it was done by a printing press… Yet also strangely formatted to my modern mind, with abrupt margins and random text boxes within the body content (and yes using desktop publishing speak to talk about 800-year-old manuscripts feels wrong).

The following day was Salzburg, home of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music – a movie I’ve never seen but which was heavily referenced throughout our walking tour. Salzburg is overlooked by a huge white fortress, Hohenzollern, which apparently has never been taken – and going up there I could see why. Stone walls the size of tidal waves; rows of funnel-shaped brick windows for firing crossbows at attackers; and multiple lines of defence so that even if you penetrated the outer courtyard, you’d still have to fight your way into the next, Russian doll-style. Various rooms in the fortress had authentic Middle Ages paraphernalia on display – weaponry, cooking utensils, an incredibly huge and ornate porcelain stove, and of course it just wouldn’t be complete without a handful of torture devices: various wooden stocks, a spiked chair, bizarre bondage-style masks designed to degrade and humiliate, and a chastity belt designed to make any knob that comes too close shrink back like a snail… With great effectiveness. All apt reminders that for all his feats of engineering and artistry, Man can also be a strange, brutal and perverted creature.

The next destination was one we never meant to have on our agenda: Passau. The plan was to use Passau as a base for a morning tour of nearby Regensburg, then jump back on the boat and promptly sail on. But the low water level meant we were stuck, and a walking tour of Passau was added to fill the afternoon. Buggered from a string of brutally early starts, intensive exploration/sight-seeing, heavy drinking and heavy eating, Josh and I opted out of the Regensbruck trip to give ourselves a bit of a sleep-in, then set about exploring Passau at our own leisure – in what turned out to be an excellent decision. Passau is beautiful. Its main cathedral – yet another St Stephen’s – is a triumph of Baroque architecture and contains the biggest organ in Europe, so that when you walk up to the altar with your jaw dropped taking it all in, then turn around, you’re awed all over again. It also has a crypt below the altar – basically a stone subterranean room with metal coffins, welded shut, surrounded by spiky black wrought iron and red candles… Very heavy metal.

Today was Nuremberg – Nurnberg in German – infamous for being the site of the Nazis’ biggest rallies and later, the war trials following their downfall. A picture of Nuremberg is pretty much what you should see when you look up the word ‘Germanic’ – a city of dark stone, red brick and red-tiled roofs, sombre and sturdy, like something out of WarCraft. Josh and I escaped the formal walking tour to do our own, climbing up battlements and towers and enjoying some local bratwurst for lunch – then caught to a taxi to what the locals call the ‘Documentation Centre’: the Nazi rally grounds, as well as a nearby congress hall (never completed) which was intended to host the once-a-year Nazi Party congress. It is fitting that the sun disappeared behind grim grey clouds by the time we found the grounds, situated next to a lake that was now (thanks to the lack of rain) a miserable swamp. The lectern structure where Hitler delivered his speeches is unmistakable to anyone familiar with Nazi history – it was the setting for the Nazi-sponsored propaganda film Triumph of the Will, its footage heavily re-used in scores of subsequent History Channel documentaries – now reduced to an eerie edifice, the carved stone swastikas scraped off, the steps all around the grounds blackened and overgrown with weeds. Indeed most of the space is actually fenced off, with trees planted across the halfway point and buses parked in front of them, making it difficult to fully capture the scale of the grounds… Probably a deliberate move to euthanise the place of its former glory. But as you look back at the lectern structure against the darkening late-afternoon sky, the place still feels haunted by its founders, and you can almost hear Hitler’s raucous yelling still echoing in the air.

BAMBURG – 8 November

Another day, another painfully early start to get on board a bus and check out another city in this ongoing whirlwind tour. Today it was Bamburg, and I’m happy to say it was worth the early rise.

Bamburg is similar to Passau, full of light-coloured Baroque buildings with little flourishes that I find aesthetically preferable to the stern and heavy-set Nuremberg. I haven’t got much say about it to be honest… Josh and I skipped the formal walking tour which meant we didn’t learn much of the history unfortunately, but got to explore more of the city as well as take some time out in a café full of local families out for Sunday lunch.

I mentioned the Syrian immigrants situation previously and it’s been fascinating to see it firsthand, and hear about it from the people affected. “We are worried what will happen,” our German guide mentioned to us on the way to Bamburg today, in response to a question. “These people don’t want to learn German and they form their own areas in the cities.” I saw the situation myself at Salzburg’s central station a few days prior: a teeming mass of Middle Easterners, mostly men, sitting and standing around. The vibe from them was potently unfriendly, borderline menacing: they glared fixedly at our tour group as we passed them by – let’s not forget most of our group is comprised of gentle, fragile elderly men and women – and it made me wonder what they’d do if it weren’t for the dozens of Austrian army personnel patrolling around. Having already transformed a section of the train station into an intimidating ghetto, as they waited for trains to take them from Austria to Germany, their hostility to their new environment was palpable. “But I should not talk about these things,” our German guide remarked at one point, almost cutting himself off. “I was told not to talk about politics or religion… But yes, the reality is we are all talking about it here in Germany. We are worried how the future of our society.”

The heavy sigh he concluded with, before returning to his tour-guide narrative, said it all.

windows

Eurotrip 2015 – Part 2

VIENNA & BRATISLAVA – 4 November

Vienna is a city that radiates elegance – around every corner, cream-coloured buildings with rows of super-shiny windows, the ground level a procession of bakeries and jewellery stores and amazing-smelling coffee houses complete with uniformed waiters. It also has the grandeur one would expect of a former imperial capital, with institutional and cultural residences on a breath-takingly garganutan scale – from the lattice-like spires of the Town Hall to the majestic white columns of Parliament. Perhaps the crown jewel in the city’s spectacular architecture is St Stephen’s Cathedral – a 12th-century Gothic edifice that looks like it’s made of bleached bone, with an interior that’s like finding yourself in the fossilized ribcage of some impossibly gigantic mythological animal. Although crawling with tourists, the sombre beauty of the cathedral still casts a powerful spell, with its brilliantly beaming stained-glass windows, the soft orange glow of candles lit for the dead, and the smell of incense and stone – all inspiring one to hush, put down the phone for a moment and just soak up this otherworldy place with the reverence it deserves.

After we stepped back into the bright, noisy, 21st-century world outside, I realised I had to go to the toilet. I knew the Stefanplatz U-bahn station would have one so I ducked down the escalators, followed the ‘WC’ signs and having found what I was looking for, marched in. I stepped into a cubicle and was about to let it flow when suddenly an old woman bursts in, yelling in German and, to my bewilderment, attempting to force herself into my cubicle even as I’m trying to keep the door shut with one foot while I frantically tuck myself back in. For a moment I was horrified, thinking I must’ve stepped into the ladies by accident to elicit such a violent reaction – but no, I’d simply not paid the 50 Euro cents fee… So there I was, barely zipped up, my bladder in despair, in the middle of a men’s lavatory trying to explain to an angry old Germanic woman that I only had Hungarian forints and Aussie dollars. She shooed me away and so off I went, having experienced what is perhaps the less endearing side of Vienna – that ornung mentality; rules before people.

This difference has been kind of personified by our travel guides so far. The man we had in Budapest was very warm and convivial; in contrast, the two we’ve had in Vienna, while not unfriendly, were much stiffer and pretty much just recited their script. Right now I’m sitting on a bus on the way to Bratislava and an old Slovak man named Miroslav is providing the commentary in a refreshingly light-hearted style; very spontaneous, more than happy to take questions from the oldies or get distracted by things going on outside the bus. He’s also been the first to tell the tale of seasoned Polish arse-kicker Jan Sobieski, a key figure in Vienna’s history, who in a display of Christian solidarity led his winged Hussars over the mountains from Poland and in a daring all-out attack, saved Vienna from certain doom at the hands of the Ottoman Army in 1683. (This solidarity was not returned a century later when Prussia and Russia invited Austria to take part in partitioning Poland.)

Fascinatingly, it turns out this guide used to be an interpreter for Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, and he makes his contempt for their intellectual as well as moral bankruptcy abundantly clear. He just related how he often had to ‘transmodify’ (rather than merely translate) what these “primitive creatures from the Party” told western journalists, as the latter would not otherwise believe the stupidity/crudeness of what was coming out of their mouths… In much the same way we find it difficult to take North Korea’s rhetoric seriously today, even as we recognise they’re legitimately dangerous in their delusions of grandeur and lack of regard for humanity. In Slovakia back then, as in its many neighbouring states, Communism was no joke, with thousands of people imprisoned, tortured and killed by secret-police thugs.

As with most eastern Europeans, it’s apparent that political correctness isn’t high on the agenda for Miroslav. Commentary has already deviated several times to Putin’s ‘imperialist war’ in Ukraine; the “resistance to domestication” of Bratislava’s Gypsies, who consistently destroy the public housing provided to them; and Angela Merkel’s controversial promise to accept 800,000 immigrants from the Middle East, some of which have ended up in Slovakia – “a serious problem,” he explained, “as we are a Christian country and these people demand a different way of life.” In Australia we’ve become disturbingly accustomed to a liberal fascism that shuts down any discussion about cultural issues as ‘racist’, so it was refreshing to hear a man who knows history all too well express his thoughts about the latest threat to show up at his borders.

Anyway – back to Bratislava. Like many former Soviet bloc cities, the outer ring of the city forms a dismal first impression, built as it was during Communism and comprised primarily of featureless grey monoliths with graffiti on the walls and weeds sprouting out of the cracked concrete. Penetrate this though and you discover the opulent old heart of the city, which the famous writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, once described as a fairy tale in itself.

Bratislava is the archetypal gateway between the east and west of Europe, with inhabitants that generally speak three languages – English, German and of course Slovak, which, as the guide pointed out, is virtually interchangeable with Czech and very similar to Polish, as I realised when I could suddenly understand most of the billboards flying past the bus windows. Actually I’ve been surprised at how similar Slovakia is to Poland in all sorts of ways – linguistically, gastronomically, even religiously, Slovak Catholicism tending to focus on the Virgin Mary (rather than the big man Jesus) in much the same way the Polish church does. Of course, as a western-Catholic-Slavic nation, this makes sense – and was driven home at lunch when I ordered the ‘beef brisket’ plus whatever Slovakian beer was on tap at a local tavern. 10 minutes later the buxom blonde waitress delivered a chunky chalice of lager remarkably similar to Okocim (my favourite brew in the world) and an amazing dish swimming in rich onion sauce and accompanied by purple cabbage, roast potatoes and a big dollop of sour cream. I vacuumed it up like a starving Labrador and realised how much I love and miss the hearty food of this region – and how deprived we are of it in Melbourne, for all its culinary cosmopolitanism, unless you happen to be blessed with a babcia.

It’s incredible how much history, both wonderful and tragic, is crammed into this part of Europe – this amazing intersection of Slavic, Germanic and Magyar cultures; of Catholicism and Protestantism and Orthodoxy; this dynamic stew-pot of cabbage, pork, paprika and peppercorns. The bus trip from Vienna to Bratislava is just 60 kilometres – less than Melbourne to Geelong – and there’s not even a checkpoint in-between; one of the benefits of the Schengen Area which also incorporates Poland, Germany and Hungary. History permeates everything here – the very highway we’re driving on used to be a Roman road 2000 years ago, the peaceful fields on either side once the bloody battlefields between Roman legionnaires and the barbarian tribes of the north.

Classical music is of course one of the great exports of this region, every major city having a famous genius to call its own. In Budapest it was all about Fransz List; in Vienna, of course, Mozart is front and centre. No doubt I’ll learn all about Beethoven as we make our way through Germany and in Poland, of course, the star of the show is Chopin. What’s interesting is that these men were far from humourless poonces in big wigs – they were very much the Keith Richards of their day. While we assume that women fainting and screaming in front of pop stars is something that started with Elvis and the Beatles, it predates them by at least 200 years… Liszt, famously, would pull off his white gloves and hurl them into the crowd before bashing out one of his tunes, knowing that women would literally rip them (and each other) apart in the frenzy of trying to get one. Mozart, for his part, died quite poor despite his enormous commissions because of all the money he poured into throwing wild, lavish parties.

Anyway. It’s wonderful being back in Vienna, the first city I ever fell in love with and the city where I met the first girl I fell in love with. As before, I still cherish its blend of Old World glamour and new world modernism: the clattering trams above and slick subways below; huge advertisements for luxury cars and perfume draped over gorgeous Secessionist facades; the surrounding green hills of Austria alive with the graceful motion of wind turbines rising out of the morning fog. There’s no doubt life is lived on a deeper frequency here and temporary though it may be, it is awesome to be able to tune in again and feel the passion and pain of centuries in one’s own soul.