Words Fail Me

Opps. I can’t seem to figure out what to do with this blog. I go through such ups and downs, wanting to have a great blog, yet really uncertain of putting so much of myself out there.

And being far too lazy to write.

I have long since come to the conclusion that whilst I love reading about other people’s adventures, I’m not so good at recording my own. Something to work on I guess.

At any rate I’m back again, optimistic about giving it another go around. I’m thinking of making this a personal blog, rather than the travel blog I originally intended. We’ll see how we go, and take it as it comes.

 

The Pack-xperiment: In which I become a hard core backpacker

I stared in horror up the steep stairs of the unmoving escalator in Paris’ Châtelet des Halles metro. Pausing to exchange a sympathetic look with an equally horrified pram-totting mother, I grabbed by 37 kilo suitcase and started to haul it up the stairs.

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At the top, I shoved my sweaty hair out of my face and started across the cobblestones cursing. How much easier would this be if I had a backpack? I fumed to myself. For one, I’ll bet I would be much less inclined to carry 37 kilos if I had to carry it on my back. (I have to interject here to reassure you all that I do not usually travel like this. On that particular day, I was moving a years worth of stuff from my studio to the apartment where my family were staying, and believe me, there was a lot more than 37 kilos when I started packing.)

Once I returned home, I started to think about better ways to transport my things. From stairs (Europe does love their staircases!), to high overhead storage in trains, I was ready to break off my relationship with the suitcase. Given my love of travel, a backpack seemed like an excellent investment. However, after a quick browse of my local outdoor store found the travel packs to start at around $350. You know that moment when the sales assistant tells you how much something costs and you can hardly stop yourself from passing out cold? That was what I experienced. A pack was astronomically out of budget.

However, last week I lucked out. I happened to be passing by Kathmandu, where I noticed they were having a huge sale. The pack I had been eyeing had gone down from $600, to right inside my price range. So, it is with great pride that I join the army of backpack totting travellers world wide.

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Now, I will save final judgement for after my next trip, during which my pack is making it’s debut. I’ve heard mixed reviews about how accessible a pack is, whether it is as versatile as a suitcase. I also have concerns about how I am going to lock up the pockets and keep everything safe.

But this pack is more to me than my luggage container, my way of getting things from A to Z and everywhere in between. This pack is an investment in my love of travel, and my commitment to my dreams. This pack makes me feel like a traveller, not a tourist. So for now it sits in my closet, waiting for its time. I can hardly stop myself from continuing to steal glances, as it calls to me with the promise of new adventure, calling me back to the road once again.

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A different kind of passport

Recently, I have discovered a blog that has spawned a little bit of an obsession. Alex in Wanderland is a travel blogger, who is one of those people who I love and admire so much through her posts alone, that I feel like I actually know her.  Anyway, Alex is a scuba diver who has spent time living in South East Asia, and shares many of her underwater adventures through her blog.

Enter obsession.

Now I am an absolute water baby, and since being introduced to Alex’s blog I have been harbouring fantasies of becoming the next little mermaid, frolicking under the sea, befriending manta rays and schools of fish.

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So recently I have been researching how best to achieve these dreams. To become a scuba diver, I need to get an open water certification. For the moment, the only thing holding me back is that scuba diving is not a cheap recreation. And given my current travel plans (coming soon!) I am a little tight on the old bob.

However, I got my dive medical a few weeks ago (which was surprisingly thorough – but I can now happily report I  do not have any hernias!), so I will be taking the course within the next few months. I’m hoping to hold out a little longer for some better visibility, and calmer conditions.

Look out for the posts, coming from an underwater location soon!

Deux: To Le Cinque Terre with love

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Oh Northern Italy. Beautiful does not even begin to describe the costal stretch that is the Cinque Terre. It is one of those place which I remember for the absolute serenity it brought me. Maybe this is the thing about being an island girl all my life, the smell of the sea and the warmth of the sun make me feel like I’m home.

As I walked along the costal track, I found a length of fencing decorated with tokens from all over the world. Signatures, padlocks, hair ribbons… And then I saw it amongst all the other tributes. A furry little face that looked back at me.

“Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.” 
~Sarah Dessen
You carry home with you, no matter where you go.

How to choose a hostel that won’t give you bed bugs

I think the title of this post may have been one of the first things I typed into google when I first began to stay in hostels. I was on an exchange year in France at this point, and had already done a bit of travel. However, dire warnings of unsanitary conditions and lecherous travellers from my mother had seen me stay in single rooms of bed and breakfasts and hotels thus far. But as you can imagine, there was no way my student budget would hold up to this long term.

Thus I ventured into the world of hostel travel.

Firstly and most importantly, decide on your bottom line. By this I mean, what are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of your budget? Amongst my friends at my host university, there was often talk of “the time I went to Greece and spent 7 euro on a hostel”, and other such saving tips. However I for one see such prices listed, and the first thing to cross my mind is what the hell is wrong with this place?? Quite honestly, if a place can charge so little per night for accommodation, I don’t think I want to stay there.

Now before you accuse me of being a princess, let me explain. After a long day of travelling, I value nothing more than a hot shower in a clean(ish) bathroom and a decent place to lay my head for the night. Now, my standards are not so high. As long as I don’t find hairs that are not mine on the shower walls, and so long as I am not itching in my sleep; I’m satisfied.

Furthermore, when I travel alone, security is tantamount. I will always choice places close to the general hub and within easy access on public transport.

Now on to the practical advice. The first thing I do when I go to book a hostel, is check and compare the reviews. To do this I search the name of my destination, and then look at the highest ranking places. Hostel World, Hostel Bookers, Booking, and Trip Advisor are my usual haunts. I look at the hostels with the highest rankings and then I quickly skim through the reviews.

Don’t bother reading them word for word, I usually look to where the majority of the reviews fall and see what the general consensus is. Then I look at the worst reviews and do the same. I tend to take bad reviews with a grain of salt, as I have seen reviewers give a hostel a low rating (less than 5/10) and then comment with things such as “Nice facilities, enjoyed our stay. However, we found the room badly lit”. Such things would not concern me, whilst tales of dirty bathrooms and lack of security certainly would.

Once I’ve singled out 3-4 hostels based on their reviews, I go through and cull based on location. First off, the hostel must be in close proximity to a main transport line, and preferably close to the centre as well. As I previously said, I often travel alone and thus do not want to lug my suitcase full of shoes for a long way. This is also a safety issue as when I return to my hostel at the end of the day, I don’t want to have to walk a long way by myself. You’ll find that the hostels with the highest reviews tend to be centrally located and well positioned in relation to airports, train, and bus terminals.

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One of the biggest things to do when checking out location, is to input the distance you’ll have to walk (from the train station to the hostel, for example) into Google Maps. A hostel may market itself as only being 10 minutes away from the central station, only for it to mean 10 minutes drive. Which is a 30 minute walk. Uphill. All in all, it’s the last thing you want to find out when you arrive in at midnight on your budget flight.

Due to a careful selection process, and a bit of luck, I have never had a terrible hostel experience. There was however, one time where I encountered a hostel in Naples that looked so terrifying from outside, that I could have run away screaming. But that is a story for another day. Whilst I have stayed in a variety of hostels ranging from homely and comforting, to a nightclub with beds, they have all been good experiences. Or at the very least, an interesting story to tell back home.

I am not so naive to think I will never have a bad experience, however I think there are certain steps you can take when choosing a hostel that will make your stay all the more comfortable, and reduce the possibility of any nasty shocks in the form of nighttime itching.

So, now that you’ve heard my hostel criteria, what’s your bottom line for accommodation?

When the sausage isn’t sausage

Several years ago on my first trip to France, my French was still a work in progress. A group of 15 classmates and I were spending two weeks in the Poitou-Charentes region, whilst staying with host families and attending the local lycée. 

Now, I wouldn’t call myself a fussy eater. I eat just about anything, and am willing to try new foods as well. Although I have to say, I’ve yet to come face to face with some of the world’s more exotic cuisine. Donkey testicles, I’m talking about you.

I am also a very firm believer, that is extremely rude, and makes you look like a giant foreign ass if you refuse the local food and make comments about how “that’s disgusting”. I have dined with people who snub beans that are cooked differently. Beans. There are few things that rile me more than this attitude.

So having said that, I came home to lunch one day to find my lovely host family have an anxious discussion around the table. Looking around at me, they enquired whether I liked boudin. Not understanding the word, I looked quickly at the table for my cue. Upon seeing the plate of sausages, I smiled and reassured them that of course I ate this! The looks of surprise on their faces should have tipped me off. However, as I cut into the plate of food, it quickly became apparent that the sausage, was not sausage. Blood sausage. Now, I sure plenty of veteran travellers will smirk at this. I mean, it’s hardly rare or exotic. But for my yet unchallenged 16 year old palate, it was a big deal.

However, with the thought of being a good guest, and representative of my country, I fixed a rather forced smile of my face and chewed up every last bite. And guess what? It wasn’t half bad was entirely edible.

So there you have it. When dining in another country, it is always important to give the cuisine a chance, as it is one of the best ways to experience a new culture. Also, if you’re learning another language, chances are you won’t have the vocabulary to discuss the  free market system, or the European Union’s stance on immigration.

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But you sure can run a pretty decent conversation talking about food! Although that may stem from my own personal interest in the subject, I’m not entirely sure… Just remember to be polite, and please don’t turn up your nose at the food someone has worked hard to for you! You never know what you might end up liking, and even if you don’t, the best travel stories all begin with: “When I was in Cambodia, I ate fried spiders…”

Un: To Paris with Love

Almost all Francophiles will be able to instantly recognise this photos. Paris. The bistro sign with the curly writing, the red potted flowers… I can close my eyes and hear the clack of heels, striding down the streets, effortless in their negotiation of the uneven footpaths.

This photo was taken during one of the first few weeks of my exchange in Paris. As a friend and I stood fumbling with a map, our quick english giving us away, a woman approached to help us. She pointed us to Ile St Louis, a tiny island just behind Notre Dame.

“Go there to see Paris”, she told us.

And we smiled. Because the French are kind and helpful, you just have to be willing to see beyond what you are told.