Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Inside, outside, puppy dogs tails

If you measure how extreme an adventure is by how many thongs you go through, then I think my adventure is pretty extreme (except Ash already knew that after our bungee jumping/white water rafting/speed dating adventures in New Zealand...). And to avoid any confusion for any Americans out there reading this, I mean those things you wear on your feet, not any other type of thong (man, that would be scary if I was breaking a lot of those...). I am now up to my fourth pair of thongs. When I am at home, one pair of thongs will last me like five years. Average life span of my thongs on this trip... 63.5 days. And they always seem to break in the most annoying places... like walking in Mykonos when the bitumen road is 100 degrees, or traipsing the streets of Berlin when it's raining (and let me tell you, the ground in the metro there is far from clean). And they were all Havaianas (apart from the ones I bought in Thailand, I think they were fake) which is why I will never be buying Havaianas again. They simply aren't extreme enough to keep up with me.

So anyway, enough about thongs. My mum also says she can't keep up with me, and I can see why, as I have been in five different countries (Spain, England, Wales, Ireland, Germany, for those keeping score) within the space of about two weeks. I touched down in London town a couple of weeks ago to some rather pleasant weather, actually. I was getting pretty sick of the 40 degree days in Spain, so a balmy 20 degrees was okay with me for a while (be careful what you wish for...). I found Beth working in her pub on Goodge Street (funniest street name ever) then did a spot of shopping on Oxford Street. That night Beth and I lazed around her room and watched movies and ate weirdly flavoured "crisps" with a bottle of rose. Before we went to her room, Beth warned me "Ok, well it's a bit ghetto..." It was a shoebox with four beds in it and just enough room to walk between them. She was living the cliche of a starving artist (or bartender) trying to make ends meet in the big city. It was worse than a hostel, but literally two doors down from her pub. And only temporary. The next day we went to the Notting Hill Carnival, which was actually really disappointing. What I expected was colourful Caribbean floats and costumes and music everywhere, with activities etc. What I got was drunken people everywhere, a few crappy DJs, long queues for the toilets and lots and lots of crowds. The highlight of my day was the African food and this old lady juggling:

So then I caught up with my cousin Kate, who also happened to be in London (the Dortmans invasion of Europe... it's beginning to gather momentum). We did the touristy thing cruising around Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, getting corny photos in red phone booths and double decker buses. Then we went to Covent Gardens for a beer or two, which turned into an afternoon drinking session watching street performers below and our group kept growing bigger and bigger. After a bite to eat in Soho, I was home in bed by midnight, the beauty of starting in the afternoon.

I ticked off a few more sights in London, like the Tower of London, Natural History Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, changing of the guard, then at night I went to see Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" at the Globe (replica of the original) for five pounds! Only downside being that I had to stand like a peasant for the whole show. But I do think we had the best non-seats in the house, right in amongst the action. The performance was awesome, and actually was hilarious. The next night I rocked up to a West End ticket booth at 6pm, bought a half-price ticket in a great seat to see "Oliver!" (very appropriate for London) and by 7pm was sitting in the Theatre Royal watching a great show. Try doing that in Australia!

After that I spontaneously decided to go to Ireland and hopped on a train and ferry to Dublin. It wasn't quite the quaint old city I'd been led to believe from the books of James Joyce and others, but a lot to see nonetheless. The sun didn't come out for the two days I was there, so I rugged up in my jeans and jacket for the first time in a while and cruised the streets. That night I went out with some Germans to a cool little pub called "The Stag's Head" where a little three piece band were playing old Irish ballads and the intimate crowd was getting right into it, dancing and singing along. I'd had my first taste of traditional Irish music, and disenchanted by the touristy clubs and bars that were taking over Dublin, I decided to head west, the home of trad Irish music. I caught a bus to Galway and was instantly greeted by Irish music pouring from bar doors and buskers on the street trying to earn a euro. I liked it better already. My first night there I met three hilarious Alaskan guys and a fellow Aussie girl doing the same thing as me, and between the five of us we ploughed through seven bottles of wine and laughed about George Bush, Sarah Palin and the weird things that Colombian men do with donkeys. I don't remember much of the rest of that night, except that I am pretty sure I resprained my ankle trying to wrestle someone and got REALLY lost (in Galway! The place is tiny!) after losing the others in a bar. I woke up the next morning pretty sore.

I then joined a tour to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, which looked like the beautiful magical Ireland you imagine, only crawling with tourists. The cliffs were spectacular and I finished off the day with a hearty Irish stew and a pint of Guinness (yes it does taste better in Ireland... something about the pipes, someone told me) then watched a five piece Irish band at the Spanish Arch, where an old man performed a spontaneous Irish jig on his way out the door, to the joy of all the onlookers. The guy playing the tinwhistle looked like a rockstar, he was very handsome. The tinwhistle is a sexy instrument, don't you think? Then with the accent... well, need I say more.

I would have loved to spend more time exploring the west, however, London was calling, as I had a flight to catch to Berlin in a few days time. I spent one more night in Dublin on my way through and gave it another chance, and this time it came up with the goods. The sun even came out for a while! I tried to walk to the port to buy a ferry ticket and got a bit lost. An old guy called Lawrence took pity on me standing on the street with my map offered to drive me there (it was so far away, glad I didn't walk!). Then he waited for me to buy the ticket and drove me back to where he picked me up! How cool is Irish hospitality? These random acts of kindness always keep me smiling for the rest of the day. That night I walked into a cosy little pub with a three piece band playing American folk music and started talking to a friend of the band who told me that Guinness had so much iron in it, you could live on a diet of 24 pints a day without eating anything else. I think a lot of Irish people live on this diet. So I hung out with these guys for the rest of the night as we went from little alternative bar to little alternative bar and they decided I was "intrepid" and I almost felt like I could be in Melbourne.

Then back to London where I caught up with Beth after her first week of having a real job... teaching! She was exhausted, but we reflected on our weeks over some good Indian food and pints of Guinness. The next day we did the London Dungeon, a kitschy mixture of London history and gore... the only time I genuinely got scared was when Jack the Ripper jumped out with a knife... oh and on the giant drop, of which I bought a priceless photo of the look on my face, which I will treasure forever. Then I said farewell to Beth, not knowing when and where we would see each other again, after randomly bumping into each other all over Europe. Sniff. Then I hopped on a plane to Berlin. Three days until Oktoberfest, bring it on Dortos!

Love Megan
Intrepid traveller

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I'm a gypsy... are you coming with me?

Well it's been quite some time since my last blog, and now it's time to talk about Spain, which is where I flew to after Turkey. (Incidentally, did you know it was cheaper to fly from Istanbul to Barcelona than it was for me to catch a train from Barcelona to Madrid?) Anyway... Barcelona was a nice city, if rather touristy. So I did lots of touristy things... I did a "free" walking tour (hot tip, those things are never free; there is always an awkward moment at the end where the guide asks for tips and nobody knows how much to give) which covered the history of Catalonia (the state that Barcelona is in... they see themselves as separate from the Spanish, they even have their own language) and Picasso and Dali's absinthe drinking days. Then I went to see the Sagrada Familia, which is a cathedral worth seeing for it's unique architecture by Gaudi. I had a wander down La Rambla, a street full of pickpockets and street performers (I saw people doing the weirdest things for money) then bought a strawberry and coconut juice from "La Boqueria", a fruit and fish market that was as colourful as it was crowded. On the metro a lady pointed out that my handbag was unzipped... I always have my handbag unzipped, but she was Spanish and I am sure she knew a lot more about what the notorious Barcelona pickpockets were capable of, so I zipped it up. I also perused the Picasso museum before hopping on a train to Madrid, for which I paid an arm and a leg and a torso too for the privilege.

Madrid was a city with more character... I consoled myself after the expensive train trip by nabbing a room in an old University Residence for 9 euros a night. I got in late at night and went for a walk to find some food, only to find we were round the corner from prostitute central. There were also these Asian guys sitting on the footpaths with cardboard boxes in front of them selling cheap beer, soft drink, chocolate bars. I think they were probably illegal though, because as soon as a cop car drove by, they disappeared into thin air, like magic. These guys do come in handy, though, when you're walking from bar to bar... you can't beat a one euro traveller! The next day I went to the Museo del Prado, a fantastic collection of Spanish and Flemish art; even after all the art galleries I've seen, this one had a good variety, not just your typical religious paintings of simpering Madonnas and haloed Jesuses. I went to a restaurant for lunch and paid too much for what was basically battered eggplant. It sounded more fancy in Spanish, I'm sure. My whole time in Spain I have to say, I was not impressed with the food... tapas is good, if you're drinking beer and want something light, but they have no good dishes to speak of, apart from paella, which is basically saffron fried rice. So anyway, I met two friendly Indian guys at the restaurant who told me they were driving down to Granada in a few days if I wanted a lift. I got their numbers and said I would think about it.

That night I went on a "pub crawl" which was basically a group of us drinking in the basement of the hostel restaurant and playing drinking games. There was a very multicultural mix of people which was cool and one absolute moron who certainly didn't need to be drinking, but kept us entertained all night. We went to one "pub", then went to a Spanish fiesta where everyone drinks and dances on the street to some traditional Spanish songs that everyone seems to know. So then the moron spewed all over his shoes and I agreed to put him in a taxi and take him back to the hostel, as I was pretty tired anyway and he passed out in the back of the cab. So I took his last five euros, paid for the fare and went to bed. The next day I met Leah, a friendly Australian girl whose multilingualism made me insanely jealous... she could speak fluent German and pretty good Spanish and French. She asked me if I wanted to go to Toledo with her. We went to the train station and bought a ticket, then had an hour and a half to kill, so we went to the Australian Embassy to vote. They even had little cardboard boxes and a stunning view of Madrid. We went back to the train station, only to find it was the wrong station to get our train, so we missed it, then had a half hour argument with the meanie pants station workers in Leah's broken Spanish, but they wouldn't refund or transfer the ticket. So we had waited two hours for the privilege of not going to Toledo. We consoled ourselves over some greasy Spanish food, then as we were walking through the Plaza de Espana, I bumped into those Indian guys again. Madrid is a big place, so it was pretty uncanny. I took it as a sign and agreed to get a lift with them to Granada the next day. That night Leah and I stayed up until 3am talking to A South African and a Brazilian about the three things that you're apparently not suppoed to talk about with strangers; religion, politics and football. But it was one of the better conversations I have had with people in a hostel, considering you usually never get below the surface of "Hi, my name is Confucius, I've been travelling for this long, my favourite place has been...". I have even considered making up a whole new persona for myself because I get so bored saying the same thing all the time... "Hi, my name is Gertrude, I am a circus freak who can dislocate my own arms and I am currently on the run from the law because I robbed a convenience store..." then watch them back away!

Ahem, anyway. So I sadly said farewell to Leah and met up with my Indian friends, Reuben and Umesh. It turns out they couldn't hire a car without me anyway, because neither of them had a credit card, so they needed me (or my credit card) as much as I needed them. Oh, and we stopped at Toledo on the way to Granada, so I got there in the end. It wasn't that much chop anyway. It took about five hours to get to Granada, most of which I slept. Granada was a cute little University city, with the massive Muslim fortress of the Alhambra looming over the city night and day. But getting inside that thing was more complicated than it seems... you have to get up at 7am and queue for two hours to even get a look in. It took me four or five mornings of turning off my 7am alarm before I finally made it up there, but it was pretty amazing. It was the last Muslim fortress in Spain at the time when Queen Isabella was killing anyone who wasn't Catholic, and what a beautiful fortress it was. The palaces were ornately carved and mosaiced on every square inch and the view of Granada was amazing. I also went to see a fantastic flamenco show in the gypsy quarter, where the gypsies used to live in caves. I had a chat to the barman who told me a brief history of the gypsies and how flamenco originated, then sat down with a glass of sangria in a front row seat. There were four female dancers and a male guitarist and singer/clapper. I liked that the women ranged in age from 20 up to about 45 or older, and they each had their own style as they furiously stomped, clapped, clicked and twirled their way across the wooden stage. I actually thought they were going to stomp a hole in the floor. Each one would sit down afterwards, dripping with sweat and then I realised why flamenco dancers always have those polka dot fans. The musicians were also fabulous.

After Granada I caught a bus to Seville, which is the home of flamenco. It is a beautiful old town with little cobblestone streets and flowers hanging over every balcony and a long history. I went to a museum about Spain's discovery of the Caribbean islands and all the piracy etc. that went on during the 16th-18th centuries. It was very interesting and I walked out thinking that maybe I was born in the dullest century in history... why couldn't I have been born in the 1500s when there were still undiscovered corners of the globe waiting to be explored? Well, every day I went out and explored the little nooks and crannies of Seville anyway, even if they had already been discovered by thousands of feet already, but it was so hot I could only manage a few hours before I wanted to lie down underneath an air conditioner and not budge. I swear the mercury never went below 35 degrees the whole time I was in Spain. I went to see another flamenco show (it's addictive) which wasn't as good as the Granada one, but still fantastic. There was a guy and a girl dancer this time. After Seville I caught an overnight bus to Valencia, where I was meeting up with two other Aussie girls I met in Italy for LA TOMATINA, a big tomato fight. We had booked a hotel because everything cheaper was booked out, but it turned out to be a good decision, as you get a little sick of hostels after a while. We all put on our whitest clothes and caught a train to Bunol, where the fight was to begin. We were well prepared with our money in ziplock bags and tucked into our bather tops (or strapped to my arm) and we bought a disposable camera on the way to capture some priceless shots. So, the festival kicks off with people trying to climb a greasy pole to get a leg of ham. Yes, a greasy pole. When someone gets the ham, you hear a loud BANG and then a few minutes later the ominous sound of trucks. About five trucks come through and dump a whole load of tomatoes in the street, and then it is bedlam. Tomatoes are flying everywhere, you're trying to stay on your feet, people are rubbing tomato in your hair and guys are trying to rip your clothes off, everyone is pushing and shoving, guards are trying to move people so they don't get run over by trucks, the smell of off tomatoes makes you dry wretch and basically it is just crazy. Both the girls I was with lost their thongs in the fray and one had her top ripped, but miraculously the camera and our money survived. We pushed our way to a side street at the risk of being suffocated, then got a whole bucket of water on our heads by the friendly locals on their balconies. And that was it. All over. We went back to the top of the hill where a DJ was playing some tunes, so everyone got half naked and started a dance party in the street... I felt like I was in the Real Cancun or something. Then we were exhausted and took our stinky selves home for a much needed shower and I said farewell to my trusty Dunlop Volleys which was indeed a sad moment. The next day we got our photos developed on the way to the Aquarium in Valencia, from the disposable camera that was covered in tomatoes and the cardboard covering the open holes had become soggy and fallen off, so we were sure the photos wouldn't turn out. But they did, and we sat on a deck chair in a department store crying with laughter over some of the photos we had managed to take amidst the battlefield.

Wow, this was a really long blog, so I might finish there. Next destination: London. Watch out Queen, here starts the Dortmans invasion!

Thanks for reading,