Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I Amsterdam

I missed my first flight. And hopefully it will be the last. After waving goodbye to Jacqui and Sam at the border of Malaysia and Singapore, I thought the 3 hours I had allowed myself to get to Changi Airport in Singapore was a pretty generous margin. Turns out I was wrong. The bus took an eon to get there, and then about ten eons to get to the train station. I then had to catch a train, fretting all the way only to arrive at the airport at 10:15pm (my flight was at 10:55) at which time I had to catch a shuttle bus to another terminal. Running through the airport with 18kg on my back and probably about 6kg on my front I arrived breathless at the desk only to be told "Sorry, that flight closed about 30 minutes ago". Major bummer. But the ladies at the desk nicely arranged for me to get on the midnight flight to Heathrow (no extra charge) and after a 5 hour layover I arrived in Amsterdam, city of canals, coffee shops and one other thing starting with c...

I was set to have an early night, I really was. After roughly a 13 hour flight (not including the layover) and not so much sleep and another case of cankles (why does this always happen to me on long flights...) I thought it inevitable I would have an early night. But then I met these friendly Texans who insisted on buying me Jagerbombs and beers all night and of course who can refuse a friendly Texan (they probably have a gun...) so I had a massive night discovering Amsterdam. Yes, I went to a "coffee shop". No I didn't have any coffee. Yes, I walked through the red light district. No, I did not particularly enjoy seeing beautiful, young girls standing in red-lit windows with nothing but underwear on. There was something a little unsettling about girls being put on display in shop windows like merchandise. Not cool.

So after my big night out, I was wrecked for the next two. So I hired a bike and did my own little tour of Amsterdam's cobblestone streets, canals and museums. All the buildings are so old and quaint, tall skinny brick things poised on the edge of canals crossed by arched bridges, it's everything I imagined a European city to be. I have had more art education since I arrived in Holland than in all my years at school and university. I have seen paintings from the best that Holland has to offer, from Vermeer (yes, I saw the Girl with the Pearl Earring and she was more beautiful than Scarlett Johanssen) to Van Gogh to Rembrandt. And I've already had a taste of the European male attention... just walking down the street, guys will call out to you on their scooters or just strike up random conversations with you outside shops, hoping it will lead to you spending the whole night at a bar with them... this doesn't happen to me in Australia. Well, apart from wolf whistling from construction workers... I think guys here are just a little too confident. It's an expensive place though, I think I spent more in a few days in Amsterdam than in two weeks in Malaysia.

So after exploring every nook and cranny of Amsterdam I hopped on a train down to Rotterdam, which is the modern sister of Amsterdam. The whole place was bombed flat in the war, so now they have gone crazy with all sorts of weird architecture. I stayed in these "cube Houses" which were basically big Rubiks Cube looking buildings poised diagonally in the air. I did a day trip to Den Haag (The Hague) which was also a nice quaint old city with the palace where Queen Beatrix lives and some more art museums. Everyone was outside drinking al fresco, as it was a beautiful Spring day. How very European.

So the plan after Rotterdam was to head down to Vorstenbosch where my relatives live. Then I get this email from my crazy cousin Paul saying he was in Amsterdam; I didn't even realise was in Europe, let alone Amsterdam. Naturally I couldn't let this opportunity slide, so I went back to Amsterdam for another crazy night. The place was packed with people catching international trains after the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Nature wins again.

Saturday, I catch a train to Den Bosch to see my relatives. One hour on the train is all it takes (to pretty much go from one end of Holland to the other, haha... well almost) and I am met at the station by my very pregnant cousin Eefje. Her baby is due in just over a week. I arrived to a warm welcome from my relatives Jan and Ine, with the assurance that I really will only be staying for a week or two, and had my first delicious home cooked meal in a while. So now I have been doing a round robin of dinners and outings with relatives and various other people in the neighbourhood. What a hard life! The countryside here is very picturesque and green, but it's not like Australia where you can drive for 2 hours and not see a town, there is a town every 2 minutes. The people here are so lovely, everyone knows everyone and they are so welcoming.

Yesterday Jan took me on a tour of Dinther, the place where my Oma lived and where my dad was born. The old farmhouse they lived in is still there, albeit a little changed (it's all renovated inside and the stable is now a car dealer). For those of you who don't know, a quick rundown on family history: my Opa and his wife lived in Dinther with seven children. During World War II, a bomb meant for the Germans exploded in the farmhouse and killed his wife and 3 of their children. My Opa then married my Oma and they lived there for another few years (during which time they had my dad) and then when he was 4, they migrated to Australia for a better life.

So we knocked on the door and the nice people who live there let us come inside and look around. The spookiest part was going under the house into the cellar... you can just imagine the family huddling under there while bombs exploded above ground. They then made a fatal decision to run to the bomb shelter in the backyward, which was when the bomb hit. The bomb shelter is filled in now, but it was surreal being there in the very spot. We then went to the church where my Oma got married and next door was a cemetery where the grave of my Opa's first wife and three kids were buried.

The Catholic church just made me sad. People used to put so much value in religion, as you can see from the massive amount of time and money they have put into their places of worship. I'm not saying the size of the church is a measure of your faith, but it was obviously a big part of their daily lives back in the day. You can't go anywhere here without hearing the church bells ring or where you don't have a view of the church steeple. It was the centre of every town. But every day in the paper here there is talk about the demise of the Catholic church. Not many people actually attend church here, especially not young people and a lot of the churches are closing down. I guess religion isn't so relevant to people any more. I don't find the Catholic church all that relevant either, but man they built some fantastic buildings and funded some amazing artwork. I almost feel like we're coming to the end of an era. I just hope that God doesn't get lost in the confusion.

I visited my first Dutch school on Monday, as I went to Jan's class (10-12 year olds) to talk about Australia. They bombarded me with questions for one hour, which was fun, especially ones like "Do you have a boyfriend?" and "Do people eat cactuses in Australia?" and "Do kangaroos really box?" Haha. Tomorrow I go to another school where they are learning about Australia and want me to talk about it. I'm like a touring circus act.

Today my cousins Ilse and Mieke took me on a tour of Den Bosch, an old 17th century town near here. We did a boat tour of the canals that go underneath the city, did a historical tour and I got to eat the famous Bosche Bolle that everyone keeps talking about. It was a delicious combination of chocolate, cream, custard and pastry. Lekker! Then I went to the windmill in Dinther and got some obligatory photos of a windmill in Holland. Come on, it's like getting a photo of a koala in Australia - it has to be done!

Trying (very hard) to learn some Dutch while I'm here, but every time I try to make a g sound (you know, the sound like you have some phlegm stuck in the back of your throat) I sound ridiculous. But I will persist!

Groetjes! (YOU try pronouncing it - it's easy, [phlegm sound ]+[rolllling rrr sound] + oot + yez)

Friday, April 9, 2010


I'm just going to say from the start, 6 days was not nearly enough time in Borneo. Beth, Jacq and I flew into a hole of a town called Miri without a plan and a purpose and from the start it was our downfall. It seemed everything we wanted to do involved booking way in advance, getting a permit or paying ridiculous airfares.

When we gave the name of the backpackers we had booked in Miri to our taxi driver he dropped us off outside a bustling pub with loud music blaring. Next door were some stairs. We went up the stairs to find a dingy backpackers infested with cats and we were greeted warmly by the Chinese proprietor with "Shoes off please!" After a late night trying to book the first flight out of Miri, we went to bed only to be kept up until 3am by the pumping music coming from the pub downstairs. Beth had to stuff her ears with toilet paper and all we could do was laugh because of the crazy situation.

So not a fantastic start. The next morning we also spent the whole day travelling - a flight to Kota Kinabalu and a nail-biting, gut-churning 6 hour drive to Sepilok. The roads were very windy and wet and our bus driver clearly was impatient, as he would overtake around bends, pretty much anywhere he wanted and tailgated and honked anyone that got in his way. He even overtook the bus that left for the same destination 30 minutes before us. We arrived in Sepilok to a beautiful oasis of a place hidden in the bush with friendly staff and massive dorms. We had a few much needed beers then fell asleep to the sound of jungle insects and animals coming through the mesh walls.

The next day we went down to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre where they rescue orphaned orang utans from the wild and raise them in the reserve until they set them free in the wild. They were gorgeous, and after feeding time one cheeky monkey dropped down onto the boardwalk right in front of us and stole someone's water bottle. The rangers had to lock all the buildings so he didn't go inside and trash the place. That afternoon we went to Sandakan for dinner on the bay before a very interesting taxi ride home with a driver who made us laugh, offended us then nearly killed us by overtaking at the wrong time. Crazy man.

The next day we reluctantly left our jungle haven to hop on another bus to Bilit where we had booked a tour for a 3 day cruise down the Kinabatangan River where a lot of cool animals hang out. Unfortunately this is because surrounding the jungle on all sides are evil money-making palm plantations that have confined the animals to the thin strips of jungle still standing by the river, which is great for snap-happy tourists like us, but sucks for the animals who would probably like to have their homes back. It makes me think humans are the worst animals of them all. But we did get to see some really unique wildlife such as proboscis monkeys (ugliest monkeys ever, they have pot bellies and massive noses), hornbills, a freshwater croc (when it slid into the water and disappeared right near our boat I thought we were all going to die like in that movie Rogue), a western tarsier (little possum-like nocturnal creature which looks a bit like a gremlin/furby; its head rotates 360 degrees which makes it look like something out of the Exorcist), and too many species of bird and macaques to mention. It was amazing. And every cruise on the river was all the more entertaining thanks to an old British couple who reminded me of Hyacinth and Richard Bucket from Keeping up Appearances. An example of the type of thing you could expect from these two - during a night hike, the woman grabbed a young guy she had just met and said "Come here, I need a tripod!" and rested her camera on his shoulder to take a photo of a sleeping bird. Thus she had her arms around his neck to keep the camera still. So Jacqui says "Oh, was she taking a photo? I thought she was getting a leech off his neck or something!" to which the woman's husband replied "She's the leech". Classic.

After the tour we eventually caught a bus back to Kota Kinabalu after a run-in with some crazy entrepeneurs at the bus stop who felt they were entitled to charge us extra for the bus because they "helped" us to catch it. Beth described the bus ride as "being stuck in a portaloo on wheels for 6 hours" because the bus had a toilet which emitted some pungent smells every time someone went. Then that night we went out for dinner at a Chinese place where Beth knocked a whole plate of bok choy on the ground. Considering we were the only whities in the place we were already getting funny looks, but you could imagine what it was like after that. Hilarious. Beth has been an endless source of amusement the whole trip because of her clumsiness. She's always bound to trip over her own feet or knock the runniest plate of food into her lap/the ground.

So now we're back in Johor Bahru. Tomorrow Beth leaves for Laos, and I leave for the Netherlands. I am sort of ready to leave Asia now... although I have been here for 3 months, frankly I am getting a little over rice and the delightful aroma you get every time you pass a dirty drain on the street. I will miss the cheap, delicious food and the friendly people and scenery. But Europe, bring it on.

Until next time,


Friday, April 2, 2010


I flew into Singapore about a week ago and after a long day that involved train + shuttle bus (because I got off at the wrong terminal) + plane + train + bus + bus (because I got off at the wrong stop) I finally made it to Johor Bahru to see both my sisters and my brother waiting for me. It was about 9pm, so we all went down to a hawker street food place and I had my first introduction to Malaysian food... in case you didn't know, Malaysian food and drink is delicious and at $2 for a decent sized meal, you can afford to eat everything on the menu.

Johor Bahru is quite a large city in Malaysia and compared to other cities I've been to in South East Asia, quite developed. Everyone says hello as you pass and most people are quite friendly, even the taxi drivers for a change. That weekend the 4 of us decided to spend the weekend in Tioman Islands, which is a 3 hour bus and 2 hour ferry from here. But we got a taste of Malay "island" time here, because the ferry left 2 hours late and ours was the last stop. But we saw a nice sunset as we came in and had a nice meal and game of 500 by the beach. The next day we did a hike through the jungle to Monkey Bay to do some snorkelling. The hike was fairly steep and after 5 minutes we were all dripping with sweat. Thongs was not a good choice. So we turfed the thongs and stripped down to bathers like real jungle people and made the two hour walk. It was definitely worth it - we came upon a glistening, deserted beach full of colourful fish and coral and a few turtles. We snorkelled for a few hours before embarking on the journey back, followed by monkeys. It was just getting dark when we finally got back and we were all exhausted.

We have spent the last few days back in Johor Bahru, sampling the local cuisine and shopping. We also spent a day in Singapore where we rode on the largest observation wheel in the world, ate the best Indian meal I have ever eaten in Little India (which was almost enough to convert me to vegetarianism... almost), did some shopping on Orchard Road, then did a Night Safari at the zoo. Another exhausting day.

Yesterday was Sam's birthday, so when he finished uni we did a tour of the hospital with him (massive place, pretty old and run down though) then went out for dinner at a seafood restaurant on stilts over the water. Then we came home and had some cake and watched a movie. The other night we also heard a massive BANG as we were sitting in Sam's apartment and rushed out to the balcony to see a cloud of grey smoke rising in the air a few kms from the apartment. We weren't sure what it was (Beth: "You don't get bombs here do you?) but the next day we were in a taxi and drove past a burnt out oil tanker which explained that.

So tomorrow Jacqui, Beth and I fly to Borneo to do some jungle treks and see some orang utans. Sam will probably be grateful to have a break from us for the week, as we have made a fair mess in his apartment and our 3 strong personalities have sometimes clashed... I hope we don't kill each other on this week in Borneo...

Love Meg... xo