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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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.