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Awesome Warsaw.

Hello!

This is nearly a 2 month belated post! It’s been a rather busy year. I’ve started my own business which has taken off well and consequently taken up a lot of time! I’ve also spent the year learning more French and Italian as part of my degree. I finished this in October and am now working on a comparatively easy German course before starting Spanish again in February next year.

So with all this language learning going on in my life, what would seem a good place to go for a weekend break back in November? Paris? Barcelona? Rome? Berlin? Nah, we went to Warsaw.

It was a very last minute decision so our choice was mainly based on price seeing as we booked very late on a Tuesday night to fly out Friday morning!

Last minute Eastern Europe = budget airline = paying for every possible thing considered an extra. So off we trotted with our French exchange student style rucksack. Woop!

Now, I’d visited Poland once before, I say Poland, I mean Auschwitz, it hardly seems fair to consider that part of the country. Although everything else about Poland had been a bit gritty in my memories…crossing the smooth Autobahn at the German border to be greeted by a rickety rockety pot-hole laden track, to shortly being stopped by a man waving frantically by the side of the road meaning my granddad stopping to help, only to have him claim to be out of petrol and offering his Argos chains in exchange for petrol money. Where he was gong to find petrol in the forest I still don’t know, needless to say we drove off.

Landing with these memories was a little nerve-racking, especially considering the airport was half build. However, within seconds of getting off the airport bus in the city centre, me and Ashley looked at each other with the same thought.

“I, err, it sounds mean, but I feel safer than I did in Budapest all ready!” I said.

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, I was about to say that.”

And as it goes, first impressions do count for a lot. Not once did either of us feel remotely unsafe during our time in Warsaw.

Not once did either of us go hungry either. With the most incredible Singaporean style glass shopping mall minutes from our hotel, finding food was never an issue. I’d been advised by my good friend Hannah, who speaks pretty niffy Polish and has spent a lot of time in Poland, that we must try “pierogi”. Everyday we passed many a chain restaurant selling this mysterious word, but that wasn’t good enough, we wanted the real deal. Imagine a Pole coming to England and having a Roast in a Little Chef not a pub and going home and telling all his mates it was “just alright”. This was not what we wanted, we knew there must be better, and so we waited.

On the Saturday, we headed into a “milk bar” which is a traditional canteen style place serving home cooked meals by a group of old women heating their story filled faces from the giant bubbling vats of sauces and broths. But alas, pierogi was all sold out. Thankfully, on the last day, a moving yet inspiring visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum provided us with the goods just in time before we left Poland! They were delicious! Thank you for the advice Hannah!

The last day also happened to be Independence Day as in-keeping with my unexpected and unplanned visits to countries on their Independence Days. Although Indonesian Independence Day was also the saddest birthday of my life due to being treated as a Couchsurfing pet, this foreign Independence Day was the scariest. Yes, I know I said we never once felt unsafe…maybe once. After a morning of contemplation and appreciation for a nation so brave and strong, we headed back to Homage To A Singapore Shopping Mall (name as decided by myself, right now.) which was conveniently next to the bus stop. But we weren’t the only ones, there was a small crowd near the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a gift from the Soviet Union. I think socks would have done the trick, but they was feeling generous I guess.

“That’s nice! Nobody does anything on St George’s Day!” (That’s the closest thing us English have to an Independence Day for any international readers!)

“I know right! Loads of flags, loads of support. I’m glad we went to that museum this morning.”

And in we went to the glass dome for some food before the flight. Or should that be food before the fight?

As we wandered the mega dome we began to hear some rather loud bangs. We decided to check it out so made our way to the glass, which wasn’t difficult in a snow globe. Wow. Just wow. Each time we headed back to sneak a peek, the crowd had multiplied like bacteria in a Petri dish. That’s right, I know science. What’s more, each time we headed away from the glass again, the bangs became more frequent and interluded with sirens.

As we walked to the bus stop, I felt like I was in the midst of a war torn city but still felt relatively safe standing in the middle of a car park about 500 metres from the protests.

Still, with all of that taken into account, Poland remains a fond memory. It’s quite interesting writing about it so far after it happened, because I was quite literally reliving the Independence Day tales I’ve just told for the first time as I wrote them. That’s not actually what stuck with me at all.

I’m currently teaching various groups of immigrant workers, the majority of whom are from Poland, and not only do I now feel less naive about their history and country, but I also feel better prepared to engage with them on a personal level and have even ventured into a couple of Polish shops since our return for a sneaky packet or two of pierogi.

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Categories: Europe, Poland | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tokyo Bites.

I didn’t really want to do a standard day 1 we went here, day 2 we did this blog for Tokyo. Why?

A – because we’re here so long, we’re going back to a lot of areas more than once and I imagine that would get rather boring to read (and write).

B – because I wouldn’t know where to start. There’s just so much going on and it would all get in a big word jumble and turn out like alphabet soup. And nobody wants that.

So I’m just going to write about a certain aspect each time. Today I think I’m going to talk about the food. Let’s not beat around the bush here: food is expensive in Tokyo compared to most of Asia. At first, we thought it wasn’t too bad and it can be a little cheaper than London and the UK but as the week has gone on, the wallet has gotten lighter and our bodies have probably gotten heavier.

I think our most authentic meal was the day we went to Tsukiji Fish Market and had some sushi. Made fresh and served with wasabi, soy sauce etc – it was very cool. Cutting sushi in half with chopsticks however, is not as easy as you may first think.

Another stand out meal, if you can call it a meal, was at the 100% Chocolate Cafe in the Ginza area. I’d seen an advert for the place on a Metro billboard and had been intrigued ever since. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t cheap, but it was quite gourmet. To drink, we had a mug of hot, frothy milk served with a ball of chocolate mousse and caramel or strawberry sauce to drop in, which was delicious and very filling. And how could you not eat anything in a Chocolate Cafe?! There were 6 “fresh chocolates” on display and 3 ways to have them served: in a croissant style cornet, in a “wafflette” or on cake. We both opted for the cornet and ordered one with Kirsch White chocolate and one with Crushed Macademia. Of course, they were both delicious!

Alas, this and the sushi were one off occasions. Most of the time, mainly to save money, we ate at what I imagine are the Japanese equivalents of fast food restaurants. In some you order and pay at a vending machine and then take your ticket to the counter, in some  they come and take your order and in one we even had a touchscreen built into our table to order from. Amazing. What is similar with most of them is that you tend to be given a mug of green tea and/or a glass of cold water. If you’re not given one, a water machine is normally available, which for me is an instant win because I’m a water glugger.

Breakfast was difficult to find on the go because most places don’t seem to open until 10/11am so it was often a 7/11 stop for a bread roll of some description and a jazzy drink.

Speaking of drinks…wow. How many varieties of drink does one country need?! There are so many brands, variations and just plain weird looking ones that we decided to try a new drink everyday. My favourite was Calpis. I think Pungency cold milk tea came a close second for Ashley.

I think that if you go to Tokyo, or even Japan, the food and drinks are half of the fun. Just don’t get too addicted to the Calpis, I wouldn’t want to cause you any embarrassment asking for it in Tesco when you get back home.

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Categories: East Asia, Japan | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Observations On Malaysia

I’m gonna throw it out there, no backlash please, but Malaysia is nicer than Indonesia. It feels safer, friendlier and just generally a nicer place to be. Here’s why…

  • ANGRY BIRDS.  This isn’t why Malaysia is better than Indonesia, it’s just an observation. Malaysia loves Angry Birds. You can buy Angry Birds fans, t-shirts, balloons, cakes, lanyards, iPhone cases and even toothbrush holders. I know because my sister has one.

 

 

 

 

  • ROADS. Malaysia’s roads are a much more pleasant experience than those in Indonesia. Not only are then generally well surfaced, but drivers don’t overtake for no apparent reason. To top it all off, their CAUTION signs remind me of one of my favourite films…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • CELEBRATIONS. Maybe I just got lucky with this one but Malaysia seems to always have a reason to celebrate. I think having so many different religions helps, but since being in Malaysia, I’ve seen the National Day, Hari Raya (end of Ramadan), World Wakeboarding Championships, Sarawak Independence Day and some people standing very still to Scotland The Brave…

 

 

 

 

  • FOOD. I hate to sound like I’m comparing Malaysia and Indonesia all the time, but in Indonesia, most food is goreng. Fried. In Malaysia, however, you can get plenty of fried food if that’s your thing, but you can also get curries, laksa, Chinese and Indian more so than in Indonesia.

 

 

 

 

  • FRIENDLY. I’ve given up now, it’s impossible not to compare. In Indonesia, people see your white skin and their eyes go ker-ching. In Malaysia, people are just generally more friendly and willing to help. Or wanting to take your photo, like this lot last night who had more cameras than an Argos stockroom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like Malaysia. It’s a welcoming country with plenty to see and do, and despite being one of the more expensive destinations in South East Asia, it’s still possible to live for a tenner a day. I don’t mind that I didn’t climb Mount Kinabalu, or dive Sipidan, or see sea turtles because I know that Malaysia is one place I’ll be visiting again.

Categories: Malaysia, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

One journey, two countries, eight stamps.

From Penang, I flew to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on Borneo. It’s still part of Malaysia, but because it’s semi autonomous, you get a little “entered Sabah on…” stamp. Initially, I was thinking of spending a couple of days here, one of which I would go to Mount Kinabalu National Park – not to climb the mountain, just to do some trails around the park itself and then head back. I though from there I’d then head down to Sandakan for a couple of nights as this is near one of four orang-utan sanctuaries in the world! After this, I was planning on Semporna, which is apparently home to some of the best dive spots in the world.

However! Things have changed slightly since that plan…I’m writing this from a different country. I was in two different countries today, yet I had my passport stamped eight times. I’m now in Brunei. If that means nothing to you, Brunei is a tiny country on the top of Borneo and it looks a little like this:


 

 

 

 

 

This means that when you go on a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Bandar Seri Begawan, this happens:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, let’s add something else to the perfectly to scale diagram, Malaysian Borneo is split into Sabah and Sarawak, both of which are semi autonomous:

So altogether the journey involves going in and out of two different countries, and two different states of one of those countries, a grand total of eight times! My passport now looks a little like this:

At border control number five (or four, they all became a bit of a blur), I had a brief chat with one of the drivers who told me that he has to get a new passport every two months because he racks up seven stamps each day! I checked, his work pays for the passports!

I was quite looking forward to the journey, well, as much as you can be looking forward to an eight hour bus journey. Within minutes of me sitting down and whipping out Sons and Lovers, Justin Bieber Never Say Never The Movie was on! Well, Sons and Lovers could wait. Plus reading on a moving vehicle makes me feel a bit sick, whereas watching Justin Bieber on a moving vehicle? That just makes me laugh. Unfortunately, we went over a speed bump after 15 minutes and “The Beebs” was gone. However, my personal favourite quote from what I saw was his vocal coach’s response when “JB” asked for a razor – “Really? A razor?”

The DVD player was off until we stopped at the first border and the drivers had a chance to play with the wires. Only to put on AWFUL karaoke tracks. The lyrics were rolling across the bottom of the screen in front of cheesy images edited on Windows Movie Maker. URGH. I whipped out the iPod. But the karaoke was loud, and it was about to get a whole lot louder…

On the seat opposite me was an adorably bizarre old woman, wearing a batik dress held on with a bumbag, thrown over pyjama bottoms with little wintery bears dotted on them. She had a pink quilted jacket and green thing that was on and off her head more times than I thought about Rick Astley during the bus ride. She must not like karaoke, because not long after the karaoke started, she whipped out her own entertainment device, presumably to block out the noise. She had a little portable DVD player and a carrier bag full of DVDs. Only problem was, she didn’t appear to have any headphones. I wouldn’t have minded too much if she was watching something I could sneak a peek at. However, when the films started, it soon became clear that she was watching home videos of herself. Mainly of herself singing. To a duck. Seeing as she clearly didn’t seem to care about her volume, I put mine up to block out the crooning “lay lay lays” to the duck. At times, I was literally clutching my ear to block out the sound. Especially when KL Gangster came on after the drivers got bored of the karaoke DVD. It started with a man getting a beating on the road outside the entrance arch to Petaling Street, yards from where we stayed in Kuala Lumpur! They also threw in lots of night shots of the Petronas Towers for good measure. I wouldn’t recommend they add it to the in-flight movie list, people would be landing and going straight back out.

As for Brunei now I’ve finally arrived, well! It’s a fascinating little place.

I set out to stay at the “Youth Centre” for B$10 a night (5GBP) as opposed to B$30 (15GBP), which was the next lowest price I’d managed to find. I found the Youth Centre no problem; Bandar Seri Begawan is very small. There was a man stood at the entrance to what I assumed to be the Youth Centre.

“Pusat Belia?” I asked.

“Yes, but the manager has now gone. I am also wait here and he say he come back soon. You come in, come sit. He is here soon. You can have bed.” replied the man, ushering me to sit down. I hadn’t fully understood what he was trying to tell me, mind you.

“Well, I think..so, what? Do you work here? Can you give me a bed? Or do I go in and wait for him?”

“You can wait here. I am customer also. I do not work here. I am here on business but I ring him and he say to me that he is here soon.”

“Right, err, ok.” I sit down.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“England. And you?”

“Oh England. I have been three times to London on business.”

“Right. What did you think? Did you see Big Ben? Buckingham Palace?” I was struggling to think of monuments for a few seconds after that. Isn’t that awful?!

“Yes yes. I see all these things. It is very nice. You are very nice. You travel alone?”

“Yes.”

“And where is your husband?”

I’d decided at this point it was best to go with the fact that yes, I do have a husband. I don’t.

“He is working. In England. But he will come and meet me soon.”

“And does he work or do business?

“Sorry?”

“Does he work or do business? Business is better. You can get lots of money and then not a lot of money. But with work always the same amount each month.” Surely, he’s just talked up the benefits of work as opposed to ‘business’?

“Right. Yeah. He works. And does business too. So where are you from?”

“Bangladesh. Have you been?”

“No, not yet!” And I probably never will! But I didn’t tell him that bit.

“You must come. You can stay at my house. I live 20 minutes from the airport. I will give you my address. And you can stay in my bed. In my house.”

“Right. Maybe one day!” A very polite way of saying never.

“And next time I come to England, I can stay at your house. You give me your address and I will come.”

“Hmm. I live a long way from London!” I don’t. “Way up north!”

Thankfully, someone arrived at the Youth Centre. He headed towards the swimming pool. I went to ask if he knew any more than we did. He was very nice and from Sudan. And he did know more than us. Apparently they are closed for a few days after Hari Raya (the end of Ramadhan). B$30 a night it was then. I started to head back into town.

“My friend! Wait! Where do you go? I ring him now! And he says he comes! He will be here very soon! My friend!” Mr Bangladesh did not want me to leave. Even if the Sudanese man had only meant that the swimming pool was closed after Hari Raya, I wasn’t waiting any longer with this guy to find out.

I arrived at my 15GBP a night room (the most expensive so far!), showered and headed out for food. Thankfully, I found a hawker market very close to where I’m staying as shown on the map in Lonely Planet. Only, it was very quiet. Once I finished my chicken and rice, I discovered the rest of Brunei was also very quiet. This is the capital city! And it feels deserted! It is remarkably clean though and it does feel very safe. I took myself on a little stroll around the main hub of the city, passing Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and the call to prayer on the way. One of the better “singers” for the call to prayer I’ve heard.

This morning I set off nice and early, thinking I could make the 3km walk to the Palace and another mosque before it got too hot. I think I got about half way and was sweltering! So I gave up on that idea and instead went straight to the Royal Regalia Museum, which is full of gifts given to the Sultan by presidents, prime ministers and other royal families from across the world. Personally, I couldn’t help but think it led me to understand a little further as to why we’re having a global economic crisis.

“What shall I send the dear old Sultan of Brunei for his birthday, Phillip? Ooo, I know, a big glass vase with my initials on it. That’ll come in handy for him.”

No it won’t Lizzie, it’ll end up in a museum. I’d feel slightly insulted if I spent that much money on a gift and it wasn’t even in his house. Especially when his palace is three times bigger than Buckingham Palace!!Even if he put it in one of the 257 bathrooms I’d be happy.

I’ve only been here less than 24 hours, but I’m mesmerized by the place. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and if you come to Borneo, it’s definitely worth adding a day or two here to your itinerary. The wealth is evident but not in the sense of skyscrapers or amazing monuments, the money has been put into religion, royalty and roads. I’m also quite fond of the fact that for the first time in over a month, zebra crossings mean something.

My only negative of Brunei is that I can’t send text messages – so apologies if you’ve text me over the past couple of days and I haven’t replied! I’m still alive! I suppose this is good practice though because tomorrow I’m heading back into Sarawak to a town called Miri. This is the base for flights to Gunung Mulu National Park and the Kelabit Highlands. I’m hoping to spend a couple of nights at Mulu exploring the caves and a couple of nights in the Kelabit Highlands, perhaps doing a longhouse visit if it can be arranged! If I get to Mulu and the Kelabit Highlands, I’ll also be phone (and Internet) free, but I’ll report back as soon as I can!

Categories: Brunei, Malaysia, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Observations on Indonesia

Indonesia may consist of a hell of a lot of islands, of which I have only explored two, but there’s a few things in common I have noticed so far…

1. Rules of the Road

When driving in Indonesia, you should overtake and hoot everything, road signs hold no meaning and when crossing the road as a pedestrian, you are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Even on a crossing, even if the little man is green.

2. The Village Gates

I’ve noticed across Bali and Java that when a village or community stems off from a main road, there tends to be an arch, or at least some pillars to let you know where you’re heading into. I quite like the idea. They are all quite personal – some are, I assume, sponsored by mobile phone networks, some display the date of independence and some are painted beautifully. These are my favourites, they look very grand, like you’ll be greeted by Mickey Mouse at the other end with Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder and magic in the air. On the other hand, the worst ones look like the gate into Auschwitz. They may as well draw up a sign, “You don’t wanna be passing through here. Rape, pillage, murder, we’ve had it all ‘ere”.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, after all you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, so why judge a village by it’s entrance arch? Who knows, behind the bright green one decorated with the independence date some twisted Walt Hitler could be waiting to attack.

3. No Smoke Without Smoke.

I hate smoking. Literally hate it. However, here in Indonesia, I would estimate maybe 80% of the population smoke. I think you can even buy chocolate cigarettes if my weak Bahasa Indonesian has taught me anything. And if there’s no-one smoking around you, then don’t worry, there’ll be a plastic fire not too far away to fill your lungs instead.

4. Double Standards.

This could be interpreted in a few ways. Number one; Indonesians are very house proud and will spend LOADS of time sweeping dead leaves from their porch….but the toilet may leave much to be desired. Number two; You could be driving through what appears to be a run down ol’ town full of shacks and bamboo hut houses…and suddenly pass the most amazing looking Mosque. Number three; Remember, the white people are infinite pits of money, this means tourists pay more!! I understand this isn’t exclusive to Indonesia but it’s very annoying.

Indonesia is like a really annoying friend. A bit smelly, might creep up on you and scare you for no reason, but you always have fun together so you keep seeing each other. (Don’t worry, I’m not thinking of anyone I know/have known/will know!) This is why I’m planning on coming back. I know, right?!

“But you hated Bali!”

“And that Couchsurfing girl!”

“And there’s rubbish everywhere!”

Yes, I know. But I want to like Indonesia. I think now, I’m half way there! I’m hoping Sumatra will make us friends for life. Maybe we’ll get those half heart necklaces to prove it.

Categories: Indonesia, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

So long, Singapore!

So tomorrow I head off to Bali and leave Singapore. Having been here 2 days longer than originally planned, it’s beginning to feel quite comfortable.Singapore really is the perfect place for first time Asia. I think! Remember, this is my first visit to Asia! I am expecting things to get a little tougher from here though – visas being stricter, transport being less frequent etc…but we shall see.

Yesterday I headed down to East Coast Park. In an attempt to save my MRT money to leave me enough (including the $5 deposit that I can get back and spend on a cheaper ticket) to take me back to the airport, I decided to walk it. It didn’t look too far on the map from my hostel – but that was the country map, not the city map. Either way, I decided it’s not a big country, it’s only 5 MRT stations, and because they’re raised overground and not underground this far out of the city, it would be easy enough to follow the track and then turn right, keep going right and eventually hit the beach. And it worked!

It’s a really cool place. The beach itself isn’t worth writing home about, but what they’ve done with it is respectable. There’s plenty of bike hire, inline skate hire and weird two board scooter hire. There’s a cable water ski, an amazing and very clean “emo”-free skate park and a great hawker centre. It’s not very easy to get to even from the MRT closest it’s a little walk but it’s worth it for a relaxing afternoon.

Here’s my overall opinion of Singapore:

  • Clean. If you were getting fined $500, you wouldn’t eat or drink on the MRT either. Although it’s not an overly helpful rule when you’re having a coughing fit on a train.
  • Less people speak English then you would think from the signage. And unleash the linguist in me, if language is boring to you, skip to the next bullet point now…..Most signs are at least bilingual, (even quadlingual in some cases!) which is what I was expecting from what I’d studied about Singapore’s linguistic ratio. However, sometimes, they’re not. Sometimes, the signage is just in English, or just Chinese if you’re in a Chinese community area. This would be fine, but then from the locals I’ve needed to speak to, I can’t recall more than 5 who have been completely fluent in English. Proving that Singapore is not as bilingual as I thought. If you don’t speak English, it would be hard living here in my opinion unless you were in a Chinese/Malay/Tamil etc community. If you do speak English, you’ve got a great advantage. Essay over.
  • Safe. Even roaming the big sights in the city at night, Singapore feels very safe.
  • Just. Plain. Awesome. Singapore is cool. There’s no denying it.

And so, my Singapore fling is over. (Geddit? Singapore Sling/fling?…It was weak, forgive me.) Tomorrow brings Bali and I’m preparing myself for a very different experience…

Categories: Singapore, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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