Posts Tagged ‘travel’

As I sat with coffee and cookie in hand beneath the broad blue sky in the garden of The Velvet Cafe, Cygnet, Tasmania last Monday, I looked around at that bohemian-flavoured town and wished I had more time to spend there.  Be careful what you wish for.

I travelled from Cygnet on the remarkably well priced local bus winding through an hour and a half of forested mountains and chameleon sky.  I found my hostel for the night with ease, already knowing my way confidently around the compact city of Hobart.  I packed a small rucksack with books, notepad and water and set off for an exceptionally relaxed day in the city before waving a fond farewell to Tassie and jumping on a plane to Sydney the following morning.

Two coffees, a small chocolate brownie, a superbly relaxed and purposeless browse through some shops and a couple of parks later, I laid out my coat under the dappled shade of a tree in the park nearest the water and settled down for an afternoon read before maybe treating myself to a pie and beer situation in the Irish bar across the road.  I read in comfort and dosed a little, content and relaxed, enjoying the gentle, lush surroundings.  I read a little more.  Inevitably, my mind wandered from time to time.  On one occasion, it strayed to how best to pack my bags for the flight tomorrow (what exciting thoughts I have).  Now, I usually start the smaller rucksack with my notepad at the bottom, followed by my laptop, my raincoat, any food, my…hold on.  My raincoat.  Where…oh no…no…tell me no…I haven’t?! Oh, I have.

I’m always faintly amused how well my calm and reasoned approach to things stands up even against what could be a moment of panic.  It’s a calmness I sometimes feel is detrimental…it takes a lot to draw external displays of excitement/shock/anger from me (except dogs…dogs always do it).  A student I used to teach in deepest darkest behaviourally nightmarish Croydon still laughs over facebook with me about the time a fight broke out between two of his friends and I sat with raised eyebrow and asked him to ‘sort those two out will you’.  And here, sitting in this park, 5pm nearing on the clock, realising I had just over 12 hours to instigate a raincoat-retrieval mission, the calm remained and instantly I was planning take-off. 

First port of call, phone the farm where I’d left it.  Robynne already knew and suggested she post it.  Problem: the parcel would arrive to an empty house in Sydney, I would not be there for another six days when I’d have one afternoon only to find the depot where it had inevitably be returned…without any transport.  Couldn’t ask brother and family (whose house it is) to sort it – they had enough on with moving house, getting two children up to the Bluesfest etc. Also, bloody expensive coat – risky business sending it through the post untracked.  By 5.05pm, I was determined to get the coat myself that evening.

Checked bus timetable.  I could get to Cygnet that evening (bus due to arrive in 24 minutes) but could not get back to Hobart until the one single bus leaving Cygnet the following morning – which would just, just get me to the airport in time.  Which would mean I’d need to take all my luggage.  I can’t say my internal calm quite extended to external niceties when I barged into the dorm room having sprinted across town, piled all my belongings into my two rucksacks and belted from the room, leaving an alarmed fellow-traveller staring in my wake.   I may even have tiptoed into the realm of sighing impatiently when the French speaking hostel manager failed to understand my explanation for leaving and somewhat half-hearted request for a refund – which I totally did not expect to get but did (60% of it – nice one Hobart Hostel).  There was definitely a moment whilst running with one rucksack loaded on my back and another on my front where I actually laughed aloud, considering from the perspective of amused/concerned looking passers-by how absurd an image I must have given.  After google maps could not recognise ‘Treasury Building’ where my bus left from and I had to take three re-directions, I arrived at my bus stop four minutes late.

Defeated, sweaty, slightly dizzy but ready for round two, I collapsed onto a nearby bench.  Here, neatly positioned at a time of brief pause, there were two minutes where there was a real possibility of giving up and sinking into a tired heap of tears.  Only reminder of how in just a matter of hours, I’d have this sorted kept me together.  Plus a few well-placed words expressing non-too-politely my disdain at the lack of bus timetable presented at the stop.

And so I began phoning Huonville – the nearest town I could now reach – taxis for price estimations to Cygnet.  $40.  Fine.  Next: phone Cygnet hostels.  There aren’t many.  Make that any.  Hotel accommodation was looking to be costing me an extra $80 when I remembered camping.  I think my exact words when I rang up were ‘I have no tent but wondered if you have any form of shelter I can sleep beneath in exchange for money’.  He did.  A caravan, $30, second on your right when you enter the park, he’d leave the keys in the door.  Brilliant! I’ve actually always wanted to stay in a van.  Things were looking up!

Having finally caught the bus, I phoned Robynne who said she could meet me in Cygnet with the coat.  Only, she could not longer meet me.  The taxi would have to take me to the house – another twenty minutes in total.  My saving grace – the Steve Irwin-like energy of Stuart, my taxi driver who, whilst speeding through the moonlit lanes of Tasmania’s coastline, detailed the peaking and troughing industries of Tasmania and the changing climate of the past two decades…together with the prank he was playing on his mate in the pub later on.  Total cost: $70. 

And so I arrived back in Cygnet, van exactly where the man on the phone said it would be, key in door as promised.  Rowan, the owner’s son, came to take my money and amused me further with a thorough run-down of all the places that would no longer be open serving food.  Well I’d got what I wished for…and, despite the $100+, my extra night in Cygnet beneath the moon full, star-littered sky was well worth the trouble.

When greeted by a seemingly solitary airport worker with a limp, a lopsided grin and the answer ‘it arrives when it arrives’ in reference to the apparently sporadic airport shuttle bus, I knew Launceston would live up to all my high expectations of quirky little Tasmania. 

Entirely fed-up of Australia’s carbon cut-out cities and characterless dwellers of these urban duplicates, I’ve been relying on Tassie to give me something to smile about.  The very fact that it is littered with names from Devon and Cornwall is a pretty good start but the immediate encounter with so many eyebrow raising eccentrics made it quite impossible for me to keep a straight face for my first half an hour in this land.

Firstly, the aforementioned airport worker, his limp drawing particular attention due to his first words being ‘follow me’, an action difficult to execute due to his gammy leg having rendered him just a shuffle shy of immobile.  When ‘it arrives when it arrives’ materialised into an actual shuttle bus fifteen minutes later, the first chap to unload, seeing me looking at my phone (checking shuttle bus times, needless to say), before even stepping from the bus grins and says ‘You texting me?’ and scampers off chuckling to himself.  

 The drawled accent of the bus driver was enough to make me doubt the judgement of anyone who says Australia doesn’t have regional accents.  It took the best part of a minute for him to deliver the message that he wouldn’t take just one customer back as it wasn’t economic (much like his rambling choice of words to explain this matter).  Accompanying this remarkable Australian drawl was a tendency to repeat back entire sentences as way of confirmation, a tendency which is like to render the recipient somewhat speechless.  As way of example, when his question ‘How long are you in Launy (Launceston) for?’ met my reply ‘Until Sunday’, he thought it best to go the long way round: ‘Ahhh, so you’re here ‘til Sunday?’…”Um…yep.”  This was not an isolated case.

Despite his speech ‘characteristics’, the driver was another delightfully upbeat colourful Tasmanian, leading me quite successfully down the path of delusion that all Tasmanians would be the same.  Not for long.  The hostel manager, was there to check my rocketing optimism.  Upon entry to the perfectly tatty and characterful ‘Launceston backpackers’, I popped my head into the office and offered a cheery ‘hello’ to the bald head of said manager.  I mention the bald head as I feel that, to date, I’ve had greater conversation with it than the face immediately below it. Given that this gentleman failed to grace me with his name, he shall be called ‘Bald Headed One’ henceforth.  Bald Headed One is one of those overly officious little men who deliver clipped answers, often clad in pedantry and the type who like to conjure the impression that they perennially have something more important than talking to you to do.  Bald Headed One seemed at best ‘put out’ at my arrival and waited in silence until I delivered the seemingly obvious explanation of the situation ‘I’ve booked in for a couple of nights’.  “Are you here for a reason?” he answered, failing miserably to make eye contact. I laughed out loud.  With such exceptional contrast to the warmth and vitality of the people I had just minutes before been speaking with, Balded Headed On, in just a few short seconds, had me wondering whether my arrival in Tasmania was indeed all it was cracked up to be.  At least, that would have been my response should I not have been so amused by this peculiar little man. 

“Um…,” I began, beaming with what I can only imagine was an expression of amused disbelief.  He apparently may have retained just enough social grace to recognise the need for further explanation. “Are you here for the walk tomorrow?” 

“Yes, yes I am.  The cradle mountain walk.”  He still hadn’t looked up.  He turned to his notebook, a well-guarded companion in a much rehearsed double-act I can only imagine.  “Nope, I don’t think so!” he delivered triumphantly. 

“Oh, um…” I began peering over the notebook in an attempt to appear to be contributing to solving a problem that really I felt was entirely his given I’d spoken to another member of staff only yesterday to book the walk.

“Ah, yes, no, there you are,” he finally said, locating the pencilled in details towards the bottom of the page.  And as if to prove his own triumph in this discover, much like the one before, he efficiently summarised how all my contact details were in place, before asking me whether I had my key.

“Uh…” racking my brains to see if my travel-addled memory had somehow erased receipt of a key in the last three minutes, “no.”

“Well, you’ve just walked right past it!”

Of course.  Of course I had.  Silly me.  Two rucksacks still in hand, I backed out of the door and back through the main door.  “To your right!” he hollered from his throne behind the desk.  Sure enough, inside an envelope complete with my name, a key had been sticky-taped to the window beside the door.  By this point, I was actively working to contain a snigger at the absurdity of this individual.  It’s just as well he kept his head down as I’m not entirely sure what he would have made of my open amusement at his collection of anti-social idiosyncrasies. 

Just before pointing me in the general direction of my dorm room, Bald Headed One plonked three heavy blankets in my one free arm, seemingly oblivious to the luggage juggling act I had already been battling with for the best part of five minutes.  “Have a great stay,” were his parting words, words that uttered by almost anyone other human would indicate at least a partial desire for the other person to enjoy themselves but by this creature were administered with such a meaningless shade of monotone that again I laughed aloud before repaying him with an exaggerated ‘Thank you so much’ and opened the door to my dorm, keen for some privacy in which to freely air my amusement.

It’s hard to say whether it was the monotonous grinding of an industrial machine or the slurs of a rudely-awoken Australian hollering ‘Shut that fucking thing up!’ that brought me crashing from slumber into reality at 6.15am this morning.  Either way, it wasn’t with complete satisfaction that I recalled my location: Newcastle, New South Wales.

I flew here from Brisbane two days ago, on the winds of various different people espousing the glories of this gorgeous town, complete with stunning foreshore and attractive town centre.  I nearly choked when I first caught sight of the harbour, my driver proudly championing its beauty.  Whether it’s that these people have never seen true beauty or it’s that I have been spoiled rotten by the countryside and coastlines of England remains to be seen.  But Newcastle harbour is not beautiful.  That evening, I saw a flat expanse of grey water bordered entirely with giant industrial monstrosities. 

My hotel, chosen for its proximity to the harbour and foreshore, was in what my companion described as a ‘rugged’ part of town after a certain hour.  I had some difficulty computing what I saw as we approached: a solid grey block surrounded by little other than a KFC, a Pizza Hut and a Macdonalds, the latter referred to as a particularly notorious spot for trouble late at night. 

I’d adopted a quiet half-smiling acceptance of my fate by the time I exited the lift on the second floor and was welcomed by the stench of red bull and cheap aftershave.  Sure enough, just around the corner stood a hoard of young men, talking loudly and all too ready with the quips about the amount of luggage I had.  After dumping said luggage on the first available floor space in my hotel room, I crossed to the window and had nothing left but a bitter laugh as I pulled the curtains to see the back of a deserted building complete with scrawling graffiti and no less than three burnt out cars.  Perfect.  Welcome to Newcastle.

A mere half an hour after I’d blogged my potentially offensive summary of Brisbane’s shortfallings, I had a phone-call inviting me for an interview at the English school I’ve been training at.  I saw it as a sign.  Having all but booked my ticket out of Brisbane, I felt a truthful account – warts n’ all – of the place would be the right thing to post.  But I was rushed and even as I pressed ‘publish’, I knew I’d probably not seen some of the more positive aspects of Brisbane and secretly hoped no Brisbanites would alight upon the blog and feel offended.  And so the job interview was a wake-up call to look properly at what is around and pull out the positives.

Today, I had the interview…with some success (another story) and have the day to explore the city and focus on some of the more positive aspects of the place.  Almost before consciously beginning this task, I looked up whilst waiting to cross the road at one of the busy inner-city junctions and saw a statue of a koala mum and her young – the building, quite aptly, named ‘Koala House’.  I’d just last night watched a documentary about the survival adaptations of koalas living on the outskirts of Brisbane’s suburbs.  Last Friday, I saw and stroked my first koala of Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo.  I like koalas.  The statue made me smile. 

Moving on to the Queen Street Mall area, despite a host of overpriced clothes shops and grim-looking fast food chains, the reception at the shops I browsed was none other than first class.  Bright, positive, upbeat and doing a very good impression of actually being interested in whether or not the potential customer is having a good day.  What’s more, outside the mall, the street is lined with musicians: a oboe player slumped moodily in a exit door alcove, eyes closed and melody soaring; an accordion player looking much like the sea-shanty singers of a good old English seaside shindig: full white beard and colourful waistcoat and an ukulele-player: crisp sound bubbling onto the city streets. 

I’ve now taken a seat at the river-side bar/coffee shop, attempting to find some solace in this river in the way I do with my river at home.  The sun is sporadically shining, interspersed with a welcome breeze; CityCat ferries glide past, some stopping to unload passengers; passers-by seem relaxed, content, not friendly but certainly not hostile.

So between the koala statue, the musicians, the friendly shop-service and the pleasant river setting, I’m doing my best to pull out the positives of this ‘soft city’.  Now, I just need to decide whether to stay here or move on.

Brisbane: the soft city?

Posted: January 31, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Every six months or so when I remember the existence of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Sunscreen’, I listen to it and smile at the lyrics: ‘Live in New York City once but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern Carolina once but leave before i makes you soft’.  I’ve lived in neither New York City nor Northern Carolina.  But I have lived in London and I have lived in Devon.  I’ve also visited a number of other places most of which I’ve been able, at least loosely, to place into one of these two categories.  Brisbane, however, has me stumped! 

Before coming here, I might have assumed that a city which does not threaten to instil ice in your heart and hatred in your eyes would be a blessing.  But somehow this city manages to evade all a city’s usual rudeness, pollution and cynicism and yet has replaced in with a sort of indescriminate void. 

I’ve been challenged a number of times over the past weeks to offer my opinion of my new temporary home.  Try though I have to spare the feelings of these rather friendly individuals, and indeed maintain at least a sheen of credibility in the ‘decent sociable human being’ ranks, I’m afraid I’ve invariably answered with phrases such as ‘it’s a bit soft’; ‘it’s lacking something’ and on one particularly downtrodden day, ‘I just look around and think…really?!!’.  I hear myself saying these things and generally attempt some form of back-peddle, offering either placatory anecdotes such as ‘but one woman did smile at me yesterday’ or else aim to even the scoreboard by insulting my own country, ‘If only England didn’t have such god awful rain’ (not even true). 

But most remarkably, most people at least partially agree with my somewhat underwhelming assessment of this city, adding such things as ‘yeah, it doesn’t look that great does it’ and ‘yeah, you need to get away from here quite often’.

Now, I say ‘you need to get away sometimes’ about my town of Dartmouth in the UK – an infinitely smaller (three-streets-big smaller) and, in my opinion, infinitely more beautiful and charismatic place.  I can cope with the insularity, occasional gossip-mongering and limited entertainment options because it means I get to live by the beautiful River Dart, a short country-lane walk away from the beach ad surrounded by luscious green countryside and woodlands.  Most importantly, it’s crammed with charismatic people waving and shouting greetings across the road and welcoming you with a pint in the pub. That’s why I ‘sacrifice’ to live in a place you ‘need to get away from now and then’.  What on earth possesses people to do the same for Brisbane.

Trust me to find the negative as I embark on an eighteen month sabbatical adventure, beginning in Sydney, Australia.  But seriously…what in the world is this country thinking when it comes to price! I’m all too familiar with Australia’s reputation as being an expensive place to visit but somehow being faced with a $30 bag of muesli in the local corner shop really brings home how absurd things here are.

 I am particularly disgruntled with the price of two favourites of mine: a hearty pint of beer and a generous mug of steaming coffee.  With a miniature replica of a coffee costing around $4 (£3 ish) and a ‘schooner’ (somewhere between a half pint and a pint) of lager costing around $7 (£5 ish), I have resorted to staring glumly at other – evidently more wealthy – people merrily consuming these over-priced beverages.  Either that or, on the rare occasion I fork out for such luxury, sipping tentatively in a bid to make this rarest of treats last a sociable amount of time along with absent-mindedly sliding a hand up alongside these tiny drink containers and muttering under my breath something along the lines of ‘absurd country’ or ‘what were they thinking’…something I probably need to curb if I intend to make any friends at all.

I suppose I shouldn’t be remotely surprised when venues as world-renowned as Bondi make every attempt to flog a shoddy pairs of plastic flip flops for over twenty quid.  Or when a gaudy Australian-animal-print apron costs £40 at the famous Sunday market at The Rocks, central Sydney.  But it took every ounce of restraint not to execute a drama-queen flounce out of the local newsagents when I saw a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar (smallest size available) going for a princely £2! Come on. 

In Sydney’s defence, I have spent my first days here in Australia in Clovelly – renowned sought-after family-based suburb on the outskirts of Sydney costing a mere £1.5 – £2 million for three bedroom semi-detached akin to a pretty bog-standard affair in England costing no more than £300,000.  It is, of course, right next to the sea (though right next to still means a fifteen minute walk) and it appears safe and reasonably friendly.  But cheap it is not.  Tomorrow, I head to Brisbane.  Maybe the river city will offer a more appealing pricing situation.  In the meantime, far from grabbing a sumptuous mug of Costa’s best coffee-bean extravaganza… I’ll put the kettle on.

It’s taken me over a week to decide whether writing about my current situation for my blog is the right thing to do.  My grandma is dying.  I am 27 and have not yet lost anyone this significant to me, something I’ve always felt very lucky about.  But here it is.  And I’ve just realised exactly how much this situation links with my decisions next year – my big year of travel and adventure – which first prompted this blog:

I am currently sitting in a chair at the nursing home where Grandma was taken just over a week ago.  Her decline has been gradual over the past six months or so: first with the discovery of cancer, then the decision not to operate then the gentle loss of independence culminating in full-time carers and, eventually, a respite period in a nursing home when things really became too difficult at home.  Only this respite isn’t a respite.  Although no-one is allowed/encouraged to give exact prognoses, we think it’s days, perhaps a week.  And as Grandma’s vision dims, her speech slurs and she spends less and less time awake, the family have rallied around to spend these precious few days together with her and to keep at least one of us with her at all times.  Tonight is my first night vigil.  It’s actually rather lovely to be with Grandma alone.  I’ve found things difficult the past two days as she seems to recognise me less and less.  But now, alone, I feel perhaps she does know who I am and that I’m here for her.

I could of course continue to explore my own feelings on this sad process or about how wonderful my Grandma is and all the beautiful things I’ve learned from her but I think that belongs elsewhere.  Here, really, there is space to consider what these days have done for the family.  Grandma is my mum’s mum and mum has one brother, Martin – my uncle.  He has two children – my cousins – who despite featuring in a few memories of growing up really haven’t been the extended family that some experience.  In fact, I really grew up wondering why my parents appeared to have such an aversion to their siblings and hoping that’d never happen to me and mine.

But now things are starting to change.  For a couple of months now, Mum has said how Grandma’s illness has allowed her brother and her to talk more than they ever had as adults before.  And now my sister and I too have had the chance to spend time with him and my cousin, Tom.  And it’s really bloody good.  A few days ago, my Grandma was rather distressed and despite muddling and delirium, was repeating several messages about how we must all build houses of love and love each other and take care of each other.  I really hope it is true that the final sense to go is hearing because if Grandma can hear us all together around her bed, getting to know each other, supporting each other, everyone rallying round…well, she would be (in her words) as happy as Larry!

Now, all this brings me to what I’m feeling about next year’s travels.  Yes, it is exciting and I have a lot to be grateful for and proud of and excited about.  But part of these travels are to go and find out whether I, like my brother, want to move to Australia (where my boyfriend is currently living).  I’ve been uncertain about this since he ‘got a head start’ and moved back to Brisbane last April but now…even more so.  I’ve always known family is important and the guilt I feel about being the second child to potentially head off southward and never return has caused more than one sleepless night.  But now more than ever: surely family – and being close to them – is more important than anything else.  Sure, have an adventure, see more, meet people, learn new things…but to never return? To have an annual week with the people that are most important to me rather than being a short drive away and seeing them once every few weeks?!

So, I think Grandma’s passing is timed quite well.  It’s not that it’s made my mind up (that’ll be the day!) but it has given me one hell of a reminder about the power and strength of family and the importance of closeness and shared experience.  I guess it’s just another piece of understanding to add as I meander through 2013 and make some decisions.  And hopefully, when Grandma is finally released from this body, she can be with me too.  Only a few days ago, she was able to communicate with me and she said ‘I think we’ll always be together, won’t we’.  I’m looking forward to it.

(Back dated Friday 30th Nov-Sat 1st Dec)