Travel

The Humble Life

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My parents have never been to Europe. They’ve never backpacked around South East Asia, or toured down the Nile, or seen the white thumbprint of Mount Fuji on the horizon. They’ve never set foot in the United States, even though they have siblings there. My parents grew up in a world where travel was a luxury, and luxuries were not a habit.

They bear only good cheer, well wishes and excitement for my globetrotting adventures, though I imagine if I were in their shoes, I would judge my travels to be excessive and gluttonous. I blow a grand or two on plane tickets, and then spend several weeks dashing madly from city to city, attempting to absorb culture. I come back with a pile of dirty clothes and badly shot photos. It’s just so easy to travel nowadays. And not only that–it’s the done thing.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the phenomenon. Holidays between semesters and annual leave from work beget the inevitable wide-eyed question: “Where are you going?”

And if you answer, “Nowhere, I’m just staying at home,” you trigger the cry of, “What? Why? You should go somewhere!”

You should go somewhere. It’s a bit of a mantra for us Gen-Yers. While our parents idealised owning a home and having a cushy job, we crave experience and adventure and all those other wild things that we imagine equate to really being alive. We see other countries as wildernesses to be explored. We find lists of places you MUST visit and foods you MUST try. You just must, must, must, before you die, otherwise you haven’t really lived.

My Facebook news feed has become a dizzying display of exotic locales. It seems half my friends are climbing mountains and the other half are skiing down them. I’m not saying that I am blameless, either. I started travelling in university. At first, the summer holidays meant giant group road trips. We rented a big house down in Lorne. The next year, we flew up to Queensland. Then I ventured overseas–an overambitious, five-week romp through Europe. The following year, Malaysia/Hong Kong and then Samoa. Then Japan and New Zealand. Then China. Soon it became almost expected that a break from study or work meant leaving the country. I haven’t spent Christmas in Melbourne for years.

The adventures we embark on are indeed amazing, and many friends have had much more amazing adventures than I have. But I suppose this essay is a little reminder to myself to remain grateful. It is a privilege–no, even a miracle–that we can buy airplane tickets at the click of a button, step onto a flight, and, a few hours later, disembark into a whole different country, on the other side of the bloody world. Is that not mind-blowing? It is a privilege that I have been born into a family, a society, and an education that has allowed me to afford such luxuries.

My mum’s idea of happiness is coffee, a good book and a bed. She hardly ever spends any money on herself. She buys dresses for fancy dinners from the Salvation Army and makes them look stunning. She saves plastic bags, rubber bands, tofu food containers and scraps of paper so that we can reuse them. She has mentioned, on and off, for years, that she’d like to go to America someday, to visit her sister, or maybe Scotland, to see the castles.

My dad’s idea of happiness is a safe and secure home, eating together with the family, and a beanbag in front of the television. He drives more than an hour each way, in heavy traffic, to work. I can’t recall a single time he’s taken a sick day. He wore the same hat for years and years, until I bought him a new one. He is delighted by a bargain.

I can’t help but feel there is something valuable and precious in the humble life. It shines in its simplicity. Keeping an orderly home, looking after your family, finding peace in being alone or being quiet or being still…perhaps these things aren’t as breathtaking as sky-diving, but neither do they mean that you haven’t lived life to the fullest.

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Two Days in Xi’an

From Beijing we took an overnight train down to the old capital of China: Xi’an.

Here’s what the terminal at the train station looked like:

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The train we took was a twelve-hour overnight trip. We paid about $150 AUD for a first class cabin, which means you get a tiny bathroom (no shower), you don’t have to share with strangers, and the bunks are marginally wider.

Xi’an was smothered in smog. Coming from modern Beijing, Xi’an seemed rambling and old, painted in shades of dirt and camouflage. Buses and cars charged down cramped streets, ignoring traffic lights and pedestrians, burping clouds of carbon monoxide. Crowds of urban schoolkids scampered along the sidewalk, pausing to gawk over magazine stalls and food shops. And overlooking the heart of the city, the stony face of the City Wall.

We stayed at the 7 Sages International Youth Hostel, an easy ten-minute walk from the main train station. Again, this is a pretty popular hostel that has got good reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites. The rooms are single-storey stone buildings arranged around miniature courtyards: traditional architecture on the outside, modern wood panelling and glass accents on the inside with blown up movie posters over the bed.

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We didn’t get to enjoy the courtyards much during our time there given that the average outdoor temperature was around minus two degrees Celcius, but I’d imagine they’d create a nice atmosphere in the summertime. The staff speak English and are very helpful. There’s wifi in the restaurant/lounge area, which is super comfy and tastefully decorated. The in house food is a bit on the pricey side compared to local fare but there’s a large range.

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They had a dumpling making night at the hostel. Free dumplings for meee! I stuffed myself.

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Wintry gardens on the walk to the Terracotta Warriors

We visited the terracotta warriors (one hour bus ride from the main train station) which I enjoyed despite the freezing temperatures. The whole museum complex has been recently renovated and you can get some great views strolling along the well-placed walkways. I would advise bringing your own food/lunch because we were starving by 2pm and despite following the signs pointing towards a “restaurant,” we found that said restaurant proved illusory and were forced to make a measly meal out of a packet of Ritz crackers. Also, the coffees cost like $5. No thanks.

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A magnificent description of a piece of history at the Terracotta Warriors Museum

We trekked the several kilometres from the terracotta warriors to the Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang only to discover later that there was a free shuttle bus. So yes–take advantage of the free shuttle bus!

We also discovered that you can’t actually go inside the Mausoleum. The Emperor’s grave is under a big hill which has not been opened because it would be bad fengshui (says the BF’s dad, anyway).

The next day we climbed up onto the City Wall and walked from the North to the South Gate. I was surprised by how peaceful and amazing it was up there. I’d imagined it to be crowded and full of people shouting, but the top of the wall was almost completely empty, apart from a few cyclists (tandem bikes are funny), and transported me back several hundred years in time.

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I’d also recommend wandering through the Muslim District of Xi’an, where you can try different foods including the famous rou jia mo, which is minced and marinaded lamb, beef or pork pressed between two pieces of pan-fried flatbread. Other foods to try in Xi’an include Biang Biang Mian and Yang Rou Pao Mo, which is a shredded bread and mutton stew. Oh, and if you’re sick of the Chinese fare…grab a banana pie from Maccas :D

Yang Rou Pao Mo on the far side of the photo

Yang Rou Pao Mo on the far side of the photo

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Biang biang mian. We wandered into a dirty looking local stall. Cost me about $2 AUD.

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Beijing + Great Wall of China Hike – 6km from JinShanling to Simatai West

Hellooo, interwebs!

I have returned and will, hopefully, now that it is a fresh new year, and my second year of working life, be blogging with greater intensity and regularity. Yes! I can do this!

I’ve recently returned from a wintry twelve-day trip to China and Hong Kong. I had my annual leave in mid-December, which meant that I had to wait pretty much the whole year before having time off, and that unfortunately I missed Christmas with family. I realised recently that I haven’t spent Christmas in Melbourne for, like, three or four years now. So I will definitely aim to be in my beloved hometown this year.

It also meant that travelling pretty much anywhere in the northern hemisphere = COLD.

We spent our first five nights in Beijing. We booked ourselves into a little hostel that got decent reviews on TripAdvisor: Beijing Downtown Backpacker Hostel. The place was simple but clean (which, to me, is the most important thing!), with big comfy beds and warm heaters. We stayed in a private double room which was a bit on the small side, similar to rooms in Japan, but nothing unmanageable. The Wifi was a bit spotty and slow and there’s no hairdryer or towel, so bring your own. The staff are helpful and speak a little English. The place also offers free breakfast daily, which we only found out on the last day…! (d’oh!)

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The front of our hostel

Hutong outside Beijing Downtown Backpackers

Hutong outside Beijing Downtown Backpackers

The best thing about this hostel was definitely the location. The hostel is located in the DongCheng district, in a hutong (definition: ‘a narrow lane or alleyway in a traditional residential area of a Chinese city’) that has been glammed up into a bustling alleyway chock full of milk tea shops, dumpling bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and snack stalls. You can find street food from fried bugs to custard puffs to takoyaki to egg tarts, right outside your doorstep. Plus, you’re only a 5-10 minute walk from the nearest train station, and from there you can subway to pretty much anywhere in Beijing.

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On the second day of our trip we did a Great Wall tour with our hostel group. They took us to a more deserted part of the wall, about 2.5 hours’ drive out of the town. Our tour guide dropped us off at the entrance and we hiked  along 22 towers, from JinShanLing to Simatai West – 6km in total. There was virtually no one on the wall, apart from the locals who followed us, pointing out the obvious (“this is where they shot arrows from!”) and trying to sell us stuff. Otherwise, we were left to ourselves to explore the turrets and stairwells, and scramble up and down the steep steps, and gawk at the rolling hills of old Mongolia. We breathed crisp air and picnicked on a crumbly tower. It was breathtaking.

I would definitely recommend avoiding the touristy parts of the wall and checking out this hike. A few tour groups do this section of the wall. You also get a decent quadriceps workout from all those steps, so…if you’re after thunder thighs, this is clearly the place to be.

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We later stuffed our faces at the Beijing Night Market. This is a strip of red, brightly-lit stalls where shopkeepers will dangle squid legs and candied fruits in front of you and yell at you to try their delicious morsels. We walked along and pointed at whatever looked tasty: lamb skewers, fried prawn skewers, squid skewers, dan dan noodles, pork buns, fluffy sugar doughnuts. And for the piece de resistance…

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Fried crickets…and in the background, silkworm, scorpion and…other goodies

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Fried cricket. Yummo. The feel of those crunchy little legs going down my throat…

Hope my first post of 2014 didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth :)

Obligatory food porn photos. Unfortunately all the photos of me are on the BF’s phone, so you don’t get to see my dazzling bespectacled beanie-wearing face this time.

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Zhajiangmian – delicious carbs

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Macau style Portuguese egg tarts

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Macau style pork roll

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Gotta have me some Peking duck

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Lau sar bao. Heaven in your mouth.

Boort: Day One

Today was my first full day in the rural town of Boort, and it started with a 20 minute roll-around in my cosy electric-blanketed double bed.

Once I persuaded myself to get up, I had a lazy breakfast before John and I walked round the corner in the fog-soaked morning to Boort District Health. We were assigned to Boort for our three-week rural placement, and I arrived knowing nothing about the town except that it was far, sounded funny, had a population of 700, and was good for a spot of bird-watching.

In the short time I’ve been here, I have been warmly welcomed, fed, fed again, offered many cups of tea, and generally asked loads of questions about where I live and what I do and wow isn’t it great you’re going to be a doctor? (*insert much undeserved admiration and applause*)

Only one day in I can already feel that powerful sense of community that people from the country always talk about. It’s warm and fuzzy as a big hug. It’s wonderful.

We had lunch at the hostel-on-the-hill, where we sat around a giant table with a bunch of elderly folk and ate homemade scalloped potatoes, beef patties, sausage, coleslaw, onions, salad and buttered bread. We met a 95 year old lady who lives independently, walks around town, exercises weekly and only gave up her driving license last year. I only hope to be like her when I’m 95. At the end they brought out vanilla ice cream in cones and it was quite a sight seeing rows of white-haired ladies licking enthusiastically at their ice creams!

Another lady talked about going down into Melbourne and how ridiculously busy it was. She said, “It’s so busy down there, everyone must feel like a loner. There must be a lot of lonely people in Melbourne.”

I’m starting to love the way people in rural Victoria talk. You don’t need fluff and nonsense to say something. Often simplicity conveys the most truth and power.

In the afternoon we went to a nearby place called Barraport, which was a town a long time ago but has now dissolved. We visited the property of John Piccoli, a retired farmer and artist who now makes amazing metal-welded sculptures out of antique spanners. He and his wife Sonya also share their home with countless animals including exotic birds and ducks, deer, alpacas and dogs.

An old man today asked me where I was from and whether I grew up in Australia, but he was so apologetic and nervous about it that I couldn’t help but reassure him I wasn’t offended…:-P

My experience of country Victoria has been great so far. I still can’t shake the image of zooming down a straight road between dark, grassy flatlands, with the night sky spread out overhead, driving straight ahead into the Belt of Orion. I felt like the Millenium Falcon about to make the jump to hyperspace :-P

It’s not you, it’s me…

Oh dear. I’ve been absent lately. I haven’t been paying much attention to you. I’ve neglected you, forgotten you, and hardly visited. I’m sorry, Blog. It’s not you, it’s me.

Unfortunately, I’ve been a bit caught up with job applications and clinical placements. The interruptions of real life have meant that reading and watching stuff has slowed down a little, which makes for a Grumpy Grace. But don’t despair. I’m behind on a bunch of posts and reviews, but they are on the way!

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve been doing!

1. Skydiving

If I had to describe it in three words: Cold. Windy. Surreal.

Didn’t get a photo, but here’s a generic one where you can pretend it’s me :-P

For the record, Sydney Skydivers is a pretty decent place to do a tandem skydive if you’re looking. They were super friendly and easygoing. We rocked up to inquire about availability and as it was nearing the end of the day, they insisted on taking us up right there and then. Training was simple (almost non-existent…), and we were up in the air in less than half an hour. With the special deal it was only $255 per person but their regular prices are not much steeper. Photos or a video are $99.

Goal #31 completed!

2. Eating

1 & 2. Pancakes at Pancakes on the Rocks. The savoury ones were great (I liked the potato pancake!) and very affordable. We totally over-ordered and couldn’t finish our drinks.

3. Hot Cross Bun and Gin & Tonic Macarons from Zumbo’s in Pyrmont

4. Mango Beer at Bavarian Bier Cafe

5. The famous meatballs at Cafe Sopra in Potts Point!

6. Risotto with mussels at Cafe Sopra

7 & 8. Din Tai Fung: Hot and sour soup, tofu with pork floss and century egg, xiao long bao

9. Green tea soft serve at some random bar!

10. Gourmet hot dogs at Stitch Bar

11. Red wine and pretzels at the Baxter Inn, a cosy hidden place behind an alleyway. Felt like we’d stepped through into the 1800s

12. Chocolate souffle!

3. Walking – Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk


This was a great way to spend an afternoon in Sydney! I highly recommend it. Start at Bondi Beach and just follow the boardwalk along the cliffs as far as you like. You can stop wherever and lie in the grass for a bit, as we did. Heaps of joggers and walkers use the walk but it’s never squashy and the views are excellent. Allow half an hour by train + bus from the city and then at least 2 hours for the walk, depending on whether you’re going to do a return walk.

We stayed 4 nights in Sydney at Original Backpacker’s in Kings Cross–a busy area but not as dodgy as people made it out to be. Accommodation was affordable and clean, but a little noisy. It was easy to get around the city…we mostly walked everywhere, even all the way to Chinatown.

Reviews to come in upcoming posts. Stay tuned :)

This picture irritates me.

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Not a very good quality photograph, I know–sorry! This is the cover of The Age’s Good Weekend last weekend (March 31, 2012). Normally I love flipping lazily through the Good Weekend on Saturdays and this travel edition was no exception. I was most excited to discover Crumpled City Maps–how did this go un-invented for so long?! Then I spent a good hour poring over the list of 100 Extraordinary Travel Experiences compiled by proficient globetrotters, which included the Papase’ea Sliding Rocks in Samoa :-D Plus a whole bunch of things I can’t yet afford.

But was I the only one who felt irked by the cover photo? Blonde lady in white capris and tanned, long-haired lover are led down a tide-washed beach by a compliant escort of local Fijians who lug their Louis Vuitton bags whilst bearing winning smiles…

Not really my idea of a holiday.

Last Saturday was also my mum’s birthday, which warranted a brunch and some pampering!

Happy birthday Mum!

We brunched at Cafe Moretti in Glen Waverley, which is one of my favourite places for a coffee and catch-up. It’s affordable, has a bountiful menu, and the ambience is modern and unpretentious. The only downside I’ve found is that a few of the wait staff are a bit abrupt. We ordered the Eggs Atlantic and the Fluffy Pancakes with Berry and Vanilla Ice Cream, and two lattes–one regular, one green tea. The green tea was interesting but I’ve had it twice and I think that’ll do me for a long time. It’s very sweet :-P

Then we both got manicures and pedicures for the very first time, which means I can cross off items #39 and #56 on my list!

39. Get a manicure and pedicure for the first time. (31/2/2012)

56. Take my mum out somewhere to get pampered. (31/3/2012)

Feels a little cheap to be ticking off two in one go, so I’ll take my mum out for some more pampering next year. Totally not an excuse to get myself a massage too…!

My hand looks a little…weird. I picked a dusky rose pink sort of colour. It was Betty Draper inspired :-)

A month in Samoa

Hi! In January of this hallowed Twenty Twelve I spent 4 weeks in the humble, humid country of Samoa. We spent most weekday mornings at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital, Samoa’s main hospital. The rest of our time was divided between visiting the markets, cooking curries for dinner, riding utes and vans and taxis to so many beautiful beaches and waterfalls, taking a ferry to Savai’i island, dancing on a rockin’ boat, eating at the only Chinese restaurant in town, singing, and sneaking into resorts for some poolside lazing.

Samoans are known for their relaxed way of life, their strong family bonds, and their friendliness. Every time I got into a taxi, the driver asked me enough questions to find out where I was born, how old I was when I moved to Australia, what I studied and how many siblings I had. People smile and nod on the street. Whole families camp out next to the hospital bed of their sick relative. The whole town shuts down on a Sunday–you can’t exchange money, top up your sim card, or even visit a bank. It was bizarre and refreshing.

I learnt so many things from Samoa, medical and non-medical. My skin discovered a new dimension of blackness. I was inspired by the internal medicine doctors. I was forced to slaughter cockroaches (equipped with a thong, a can of Mortein, and wads of toilet paper…with large quantities of screaming, trembling and wailing). I survived some of the worst gastro I’ve ever experienced. And I was able to glimpse a very different way of life: a people who’ve never known any other way to spend their Sunday afternoons than sitting in the grass, watching the odd car pass through their quiet village. Bet they’ve never heard of Mark Zuckerberg…and they’re better off for it.

^ Traditional-style Samoan huts, known as fale–open to the air on all sides, but with curtains that you can pull down.

^ Veggie market. They had weird-shaped lettuce!

To Sua Ocean Trench: climb down the ladder and swim in the brilliant saltwater pool that shifts with the tides!

^ Lalomanu Beach. Postcard perfect beauty.

^ You can’t visit Samoa without watching a fafafine (ladyboy) show. Classic!

^ Getting lost in the wilderness on Savai’i island. I think we were trying to find a dormant volcano. We never found it.

^ One of the famous pork buns sold at the hospital. Pretty similar to the Chinese BBQ pork bun, and almost as tasty. I hope it wasn’t this that gave me gastro. In hindsight, it looks a bit dodge.

^ Even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I am a lady.