Farewell

The last few weeks in Shenzhen were…. actually rather enjoyable. Refusing to allow the only activities on offer in this Godforsaken city roll us out chubbier, defeated and a little bit dead inside, we decided to look beyond the 8 month routine of shopping, eating and drinking.

The first excitement came in the form of a Hip Hop Festival . Yes you read that correctly, a hip hop festival. In Shenzhen. After a long trek on the metro up to the outer regions of Shenzhen, we arrived in what could be termed an art district. Tucked behind streets swamped with outdoor local restaurants of the kind where you sit on a plastic stool and drink a warm beer, was a cobble stone street decorated with modern-art sculptures. Up from the uneven surface rose buildings that resembled disused factories. Inside, cafes and boutiques had staged an occupation and were frequented by Chinese people dressed with the freshness seen more frequently on the other side of the border. There was a real mix of characters at the festival and I could not fathom where they had been hiding all year, it was like a cross-section of London all under one roof. The performance of the night came from 2 beat boxing Chinese high schoolers followed by a ring of break dancers that broke into a mass free for all groove on stage.

The following weekend we attended a beach party. We chilled out on the beach during the day, attending various activities such as a rap improvisation workshop led, ironically, by a control freak. When night fell, the party began. The beach shack was filled with happy party goers shaking to the rhythms of talented Djs. I practised my French over a barbecue with a group of people from various African countries who currently reside and study in Guangzhou before bedding down in a tent on the beach. As idyllic as it sounds, it was not the most comfortable night of my life. In the middle of the night it started to rain. It wasn’t the gentle pitter patter of raindrops on canvas that informed me of the change in the weather but rather my increasingly moist face which was pressed up against the side of the tent. I tried to move but the first obstacle I faced was the mound of sand beneath the groundsheet which had created a concave hump in my spine. Once I had unattached myself the next obstacle was Leslie who, due to our tent being pitched on a slope, had made me her little spoon for the night. Faced with these insurmountable challenges I decided to just accept the wet face and enjoy the sounds of the sea lapping the shore as day broke. It could have been worse, I could have been in the shack.

The following weekend we took a trip up to the botanical gardens. Braving the humidity and nearly losing an eye to the umbrella of a Chinese man hiding from the sun, we made it to the lake where we sat and enjoyed a civilised picnic under a tree. We enjoyed bread, crisps, beers and after months of neglect, Isla’s gym card finally got some use as our makeshift cheese knife. We revisited our childhood by playing classic games such as Grandmother’s Footsteps, What’s the time Mr Wolf?, and cartwheeling much to the amusement of the large crowd of Chinese spectators that had paused to watch the antics of these crazy wai guo ren.

I then had a last week of what I would loosely call teaching. My lessons involved playing games, taking photos and watching a ridiculous amount of Mr Bean. I bid farewell to my private classes and received a beautiful decorative box and bracelet from one of my adult students and had a sad final dinner with my adopted Chinese family who, through their kindness, have changed my opinion of their entire nation and have achieved the impossible in giving me an appetite for Chinese food! After my final class the whole family came home and presented me with a porcelain Gong Fu Tea set in a decorative wooden and leather box to bid farewell to the Lao Shi.

After what has been the one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging years of my life, I can say with immense pride that….I Did It! Several times I prepared myself to quit but the love and support of my family, old friends and my Shenzhen British Council family gave me the strength I needed to persevere. So family and friends, thank you. And to the wanderers, thank you for reading.

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So a Black Girl walks into a Chinese Hairdresser’s and….

In China, you can pay someone to do almost any task you don’t particularly want to do yourself. Due to the increasingly insufferable 99% humidity, the thought of washing my hair and blasting my head with hot air for an hour is enough to make me consider adopting dreadlocks. As such I decided to present a challenge to an unsuspecting Chinese hairdresser, justifying it as an excuse to practice my Chinese.

I went along to my friend’s local where I explained that I wished to have my hair washed and only washed. Since I do not possess enough vocabulary to communicate ‘give me a Rihanna Umbrella do’ I thought it best to not take such a risk on my first ever cut. I was lead upstairs to the hair washing area which consisted of a long row of massage tables with sinks attached to the end. The boss called to one of the several women sat chatting in a small room. I explained to her how to use the last of the KeraCare products with which I had loaded my suitcase before I left home and then lay down on the bed placing my head on the headrest that bridged the sink. Many of my Caucasian friends speak of the joy of visiting the hairdresser precisely for the head massage you receive that gently floats you into a calm slumber. Having afro hair, I only ever associate a trip to the hairdresser with either ferocious combing that feels like your skin may be separated from your skull at any given moment or scalp burns depending on what form of torture I have opted for on that occasion. However on this day I feel I crossed that racial barrier and had a taste of the good life for an hour or so.

The good woman set to work, lathering, rinsing and repeating, repeating, repeating. The massage however was not limited to the scalp. After a lot of motioning I realized that the hair wash included a back, neck, shoulder, arm and hand massage too. She placed one hot towel over my eyes and another behind my neck and then commenced the oil massage. She even threw in an ear cleaning as well! The entire hair washing experience lasted about an hour and by the end she had to shake me awake to inform me that it was time for my blow dry.

I descended to the ground floor where, interestingly, all the hairdressers were male. One tall fellow sauntered over, took the towel off my head, ruffled my hair in a confident manner and then grabbed the hairdryer like he was grabbing a pistol from a holster. I watched for about 5 minutes as he attempted to dry the encroaching Afro in the same way that he dries a Chinese person’s bone-straight locks. I noticed his arrogance slowly slipping as the ruffling grew less and less and he had stopped glancing around the room to actually look at the tangled mess in front of him. I gave him a hint before he lost all face in front of his colleagues and pointing to the brush draw I communicated how to attack this mop.

Once he was back on track we had a lovely conversation in Chinese about England, my job, my family, and the cost of getting your hair done in the UK of which I feel I painted a rather racially segregated picture. He nearly fell over when I told him how far I travel to get my hair done and how much it costs for Black people or people with black hair – I obviously meant the former but given his reaction and the hair colour of the majority of Chinese people, I think it may have got lost in translation and mutated into the latter. Intermittently, his colleagues would come over to touch my hair and provide insightful commentary such as: ‘Oh so dry, so dry! Mate come and cop a feel of this!’

Once the oldest and most senior hairdresser had finished with his client he took the reins of our small talk and proceeded to play subtle matchmaker: first question, do you have a boyfriend? Second question, this guy is fit right? You’re hot too by the way. Once he had ascertained that we were both of the same age a lot of eyebrow raising, winking, and laughing ensued peppered with several suggestions of which my favourite was: ‘You can take him back to England hao bu hao? LOL!’ Once he was satisfied he had found his young friend a potential wife – in China things move fast between couples. It’s entirely possible that him doing my hair that day would count as date number one – he tentatively asked questions I’m sure many have been too afraid to pose:

 Cupid: So… you are from England, yes?

Me: Yes.

Cupid: And your friends that come here are from England too, yes?

Me: Yes.

Cupid: But you don’t look the same. Your skin is different…. Um…colour.

Me: Yes

Cupid: But your skin is a different colour….

Me: Yes. My parents come from Uganda; a country in Africa.

Cupid: (Jumping up) I knew it! (Turning to my hairdresser) I knew it, didn’t I tell you mate?! Man I nailed it! (Now back to me following a brief jig of elation) But still you are from England?

 At this moment words failed me. I had no idea how to say in Chinese that my parents had emigrated and I had been born in the UK. Drawing inspiration from Bridget Jones, I performed a small mime: Africa no baby, England mit kinder in here (pointing to my stomach). Bebe in here, me. On the second try he cracked it – the guy was evidently on top form that day!

30 minutes later, my hairdresser had just about managed to dry my hair. I paid my £2.60 and left with relaxed shoulders, clean flowing hair, and the hairdresser’s business card. However since he thought Africa was just one country, I think I’ll give date number two a miss. You however should not miss this.

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what a privilege it is to be alive…

Life in the shack has made me appreciate the essentials. Take a minute tomorrow to do the same.

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Bears, Public Baths and Love Hotels – The Long Overdue Japan part 2!

So last October [I know I’ve been so lazy!], I was boarding the super speedy Shinkansen, a.k.a the Bullet Train from Kyoto to Hiroshima where I was met by Sarah. Having not seen her for almost two years and the fact that our long-awaited reunion was happening in Japan, I could not contain my excitement. She drove us the long journey back to her cosy little home in a small village surrounded by mountains, woods, a river and a couple of neighbours; a stark contrast to the cramped style of living in Shenzhen.


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On the way home we stopped for some sushi which was obviously the best I have ever had. Ever. I also witnessed further examples of the kindness of the Japanese. An old man and his wife were having dinner and sent a waiter over to ask if we could eat fish. An odd question to ask someone sat in a sushi restaurant. A few minutes later, some beautifully fresh Salmon sushi arrived in front of us, sent over by the old couple! As they departed there was a lot of bowing, arigatos and general joy in the couple’s face from sharing their culture with foreigners. However, since he asked the Japanese boy and his friend sat next to us who were conversing in Japanese, where they were from and if they could speak Japanese, I suspect the glow was more from the Sake than anything else. Soon after, Sarah’s supervisor joined us. She was incredibly sweet and pulled the smallest dish off the conveyor belt to feign joining us for dinner and then rushed to pay our bill before we left.

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The next day was my birthday and after opening my handmade card from Alex that he had sent from England to Japan I went for a trip to the sacred island of Miyajima off the coast of Hiroshima. It was a beautiful and calming experience to wander around the island and the various temples and shrines that populate it. I then decided to make the climb up to the summit of Mount Misen. Although I had been told to continue the ‘tradition’ set by my two university friends Kieran and Tom who, both thoroughly ill prepared and in the dark, climbed the most challenging route I decided now was not the time to ‘chop suffer’. The sign at the bottom of the medium route said it was 1.5 hours to the top. Thinking that the sign was intended for the older tourists I scoffed and set off aiming to get there in about 45 minutes. However I was terribly wrong and after the second set of 100 or so steps, I was searching desperately for a bench and downing my bottle of water – evidently my diet in China that consisted solely of beer and dumplings was doing me no good! The views from the top were spectacular and put into perspective the geographical truth which is easy to forget about Japan – it is comprised of lots and lots and lots of islands!

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That evening I met Sarah after work in Hiroshima for a barbecue dinner, lychee and gin cocktails and donuts on the banks of the river as we contemplated the remains of the A-Dome.

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Despite my father’s email warnings – beware of the radiation! I found myself strolling the streets of Hiroshima trying to imagine its harrowing past. The museum was very informative. The displays of personal artefacts from those who perished and the volunteers on hand to help you understand the human side of what happened added to the solemnity of the exhibits in a way the audio guide could not. This was complemented by a lot of information on nuclear-energy and the current international debate. The way in which past, present, and future are sewn together under one roof leaves a pertinent impression on the visitor.

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That evening, I retreated back to Sarah’s small village for a pancake dinner with her neighbour and to join in the weekly dance class she organises for some of the local kids. I jumped and twirled and laughed and boogied as they put the final touches onto their dance routine in preparation for the annual village performance. It was so great to see how Sarah had become a part of the community and how well she had taken to life in Japan. An inspiration to me at the start of my time in China.

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On my final day in Sarah’s neighbourhood I had a day that diminished my feelings of homesickness – I went for a long walk in Sandankyo. However, this turned out to be rather less relaxing than a stroll in the English countryside. Over dinner one evening, Sarah casually mentioned that the area was supposedly inhabited by bears and despite one of her colleagues’ husband being employed by the local council to scare away the bears, she regarded the idea as more here-say than fact. When her colleagues found out that I was planning to go walking there alone, each of them in turn exclaimed ‘but the bears!’ which progressively made me more and more nervous. The night before my walk, Sarah returned home with a small golden bell similar to one you would decorate a Christmas tree with. A colleague had told her to give it to me with instructions to attach it to my bag as a defense mechanism! The big day arrived and shaking like a leaf I set out for Sandankyo. The place was breathtakingly beautiful:

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It had the tallest trees I had ever seen and a large river running through the gorge with several waterfalls scattered about. It was also deserted! Just me and the bears I thought. I found myself walking at a rather accelerated pace which quickened still when I spotted a long green snake slithering next to my foot when I paused on a bench to quench my thirst, subsequently spilling the entire contents of the bottle down my front. Although I did not see any bears, the torn barbed wire and scratched wooden sign that separated the woods from a café told me to side with Sarah’s colleagues as I did an about-turn and hastily made my way back out of the woods! Before heading home, I decided to try out a typically Japanese experience: a trip to the public baths. I hesitantly approached a dark hotel built from wooden panels. Leaving my shoes at the door, I approached the old unimpressed looking woman at the reception and somehow remembered the necessary Japanese word Sarah had taught me that morning. With a slight nod of the head she motioned me towards a steep staircase that descended into a dark corridor. Feeling pleased with myself I bounded down and was faced with two doors with barely legible characters differentiating the male from the female changing room. I was stumped and felt like Neo; red or blue, red or blue? After about a minute I decided to follow what I assumed were international stereotypes and entered the red door. Once again it was deserted. I stripped down to my birthday suit, took a deep breath and slid the next door that led to the bath. Again it was deserted, much to my relief. I took a brief mandatory squat-shower under the faucets that were placed in the catwalk-like stage between the baths and the door and then slid into the tingling hot water. My content contemplation of the forest and the novelty of bathing in the nude in public were abruptly disturbed when I heard male voices the other side of the door. Struck with panic at having chosen the wrong door and without a towel I was frozen to the spot as I waited for the most awkward moment of my life to arrive. The voices drew louder and closer. I closed my eyes as I heard a door slide open expecting a ghastly scream. Eyes still closed I heard someone enter the water but felt no movement. Peaking one eye open, I found I was still alone and the walls of the building were just extremely thin. The gamble had paid off. Phew!

Osaka by night!!! And what a sight it was to behold! I stood doe-eyed, blinking in the bright headlights. There were more lights than you could imagine and they illuminated the Dotonbori stage upon which male hosts rocking creatively crafted hair-dos held together with wax that had built up over the years in their once flowing locks contrasted with groups of Gothic life-hating teenagers who slumped on the concrete tiles of the bridge. We set off in search of a club/bar called ‘Sam and Dave’. Since dancing in clubs is banned in Japan, several establishments go under the guise of bars with really loud music and strategically placed tables which, I imagine, one could casually pose at should there be a raid. Readopting our first year of university tradition, Sarah and I soon cleared a space on the floor with people looking at our shapes in awe.

We made a host of international friends who felt compelled to join in the crazy dancing that evening. First was an Australian policeman who skulked off when he realised the dancing would not be paused for a convo. We were then joined by a chubby bespectacled western man who added a dose of dad-dancing to the mix. After that a group of three prepubescent-looking Japanese teenagers joined in. It soon became apparent that one of the three liked Sarah and had convinced his pals to come with him to divert me. However one look at their matching Prada man bags and manicured nails assured that they were soon dispensed with. The snubbed teen spent the rest of the night stalking past us a little too often, shielding his eyes with his hand and feigning a disgust so great that he could not bear to look at us. We were then joined by a group of friendly travelling Canadians one bought us Kamikazi cocktails and another, a bottle of Moet in celebration of my birthday. However the night was stolen by a man named Taku. He appeared out of nowhere and integrated his fancy footwork perfectly into our sphere of dancing with a massive smile, pierced eyebrow and perfectly gelled hair. His signature move of shaking his blazer off one shoulder and making his snake tattoo dance epitomized the good-times vibes he exuded. It also, somehow, had a great effect on the ladies and he disappeared at various occasions to be found with 4 different women! We were lastly joined by a 54 year old yoga teacher who lives in a temple up a mountain outside Osaka and had just come out for a ‘lovely evening’ as he put it.

The big contrast I found between my clubbing experiences in Japan and China was namely that the former lacked the sleazy mid-late 40 year old men, racial segregation and general sullen expression of the revelers  Here, everyone was out to share a good time, smiling, dancing and they were mostly in their mid-20s to mid-30s. However when Taku put forward the proposition of Sarah and I simultaneously joining him for the Japanese experience of a Love Hotel, we knew it was time to call it. Laughing and joking about Taku’s gusto and audacity we wandered back to our hostel at 7:30 in the morning.

The next day we inadvertently stumbled upon what must have been the usual Saturday brunch spot of the trendy locals after a heavy Friday night. Men and women with pasty green-ish complexions hidden by flat caps and oversize sunglasses propped themselves up against the bar seeking solace in the steaming hot bowls of ramen that sat before them. That afternoon, we sat in the October sun people-watching in Amerikamura were we saw the most extravagant fashion demonstrations of Japanese pop culture. There were matching mother/daughter combos, Bo-peeps, Goth guys and doll-like girls with enlarged eyes and umbrellas that matched their outfits. All were out to see and be seen on a casual Saturday afternoon.

After a brief and sad goodbye I set out for the airport to catch my flight back to China. I had loved every minute of my time in Japan so it was with a great sense of melancholy and a heavy heart that I headed back west. It was 1am and I was feeling morose when the plane landed in Hong Kong where, however, I received this incredible welcome to ease the blow:

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Livin’ in a Land Down Under – Final Part

This week I went from reclining on the beach all day to possibly the most adventurous 7 days of my entire life.

On Monday I went on a trip to the Blue Mountains where, unfortunately due to the worst fog seen in 5 years, I saw little else other than my cup of tea in the dreary tourist centre. We then moved on to the Jenolan caves which more than made up for our irritating guide who kept providing us with useless information such as, ‘Most people in our city take the bus to work, if you look to your right you will see some people on the public bus to work,’ narrated in a very thick Yorkshire accent.

The caves were spectacular limestone formations with ancient stalagmites, precious sparkling gems in some rocks and million year old fossils in others. The entire circuit was tricky to navigate and required you to scurry along on all fours in parts. It was hard to imagine how the gentry of the 1800s used to manage in their Sunday best of petticoats and tails holding candles as they went. However, it was all the more surprising to watch the ease with which our septuagenarian 5ft2 guide casually made his way through after having held the rope for all 5 of us to abseil 10 feet into the cave. Over the course of about 1.5 hours we scrambled and squeezed our way through various gaps in the rocks. One was called the s-bend and it could only be navigated head first lying on your side whilst wriggling like a worm. Another required a blind drop feet first down a shaft as wide as my hips in the hope that your feet would find the right rocks as you came in to land. Another still required you to slide down on your back and follow the curve of the rock with your spine in order to come out on another level of the caves. It was all a bit Super Mario but without the cool costume, I looked more like this:

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The next day Doreen and I had a pampah! (pamper) day as she had managed to wrangle the day off work. Forget a lie-in; we started our day early doors with an aqua zumba class taught by a tiny Asian-Aussie with heaps of energy and incongruously large lungs. Despite being grumpy to begin with as I had dragged her out of bed, Doreen was soon leading the charge. She was front and centre, pumping underwater (foam) iron to Staying Alive whilst I was laughing with the old dears of Sydney at the back of the class, trying my best not to drown when one of them sarcastically muttered; “Forget Staying Alive, we’ll barely be breathing after this!” We then went for a spot of successful vintage shopping in Newtown and got the loser cruiser back into town to finish our day in what was quickly becoming my local; Orbit bar

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The next day it became apparent that the syndrome TMB (Too Much Beach) had got to my head when I found myself rethinking my snap-purchase as I dangled out of a helicopter at 14,000 feet strapped to a burly Irishman. All this evaporated when I felt an incredible sense of weightlessness because for a split second we seemed to defy gravity as we barrel rolled in the air. Then came the breathlessness as we plummeted back to earth through the clouds at breakneck speed for the longest minute of my life. This was replaced by raucous laughter as the parachute thankfully jerked us back upwards. Landing back on earth I could not contain myself, jumping around and excitedly exchanging stories with those who had jumped in the same load. We all wore grins from ear to ear as we waded back triumphantly like veterans, our instructors leading us across the field parachutes in hand. It was simply one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

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I spent the rest of the day with Melpo and Chiara who had come to visit for a couple of days on their OZ and NZ backpacking adventure. As we lay on Manly beach in the afternoon sun, we recalled the last time we had all been together was during the dark period of revision for finals in Warwick University library. If only we could have seen then what life had in store a mere 7 months down the line! The next day we made a trip up to the Blue Mountains and this time it was a great success! It’s a mountain rage divided by rainforest filled gorges. The way the sun reflects off the mountains gives the entire area a hypnotic blue haze. We did the typical touristy strike-a-pose take a photo and were mortally embarrassed when a Japanese couple, who were taking our photo in front of The Three Sisters, complimented us on our matching blue outfits for our day at the Blue Mountains. Somehow we had failed to notice our poor wardrobe choice until that moment.

Blue Sisters

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We then descended the Giant Stairway into the gorge, a rickety staircase of 900 steps embedded into the side of the mountain which became treacherously slippery when the heavens decided to open as we were two thirds of the way down. At the bottom we sought shelter under a rock and shared a small tupperware box of pasta for lunch between the three of us like true backpackers. Deciding we would be there all night if we waited in the rainforest for the rain to ease up, we made the climb back up. Chiara, fresh from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro the month before was striding ahead as Melpo and I brought up the rear, panting and shaky legged. Looking like drowned rats, we made our way back to the train station where we were told it was to be another hour until the next train by a man who looked at us ‘city types’ like idiots for expecting a regular train service! We hung out in a dreary pub and bought souvenirs from a shop that was just as weird as Snooper’s Paradise in Brighton, run by a man who was the spitting image of Leo from That 70s Show. Katoomba was an odd and eerie place that we were glad to escape from as night began to fall!

The next day we had a relaxing coffee in Badde Manors home to the only good cup of coffee I had in Syndey before perusing the Glebe Saturday Market. We strolled the shores of Bondi, chatting to the lifeguards and darting between the hundreds of blue bottle jelly fish that had washed up onto the shore during a storm as the loud speaker explained how to deal with a sting with the same casual tones one would adopt when telling someone how to crack an egg! We met Doreen, Malky and some more of their pals in The Forresters – a kooky, hotchpotch maze of a pub – before the backpackers caught the Greyhound up the coast for their next adventure.

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My last few days in Sydney were bittersweet. I was coming to the end of what had been one of the best holidays of my life keenly conscious of the fact that life back in the shack awaited me. I finally made it along the Bondi to Coogee walk – a walk along the coastline that passes beautiful beach after beautiful beach. The blazing sun shone hard upon the dancing sea whose waters were bluer than any I had ever seen. With the help of yet another old man, I found my way to Watson’s Bay which gave photogenic views over the iconic Sydney skyline. I sat in the sand and watched the sun go down feeling blissfully content for the first time in many, many months.

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Needless to say, that was one depressing 9.5 hour flight back to Asia. I am already counting down the days until I return Down Under.

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Livin’ in a Land Down Under – Part 2

Back in Sydney, some of Doreen and Malcolm’s friends had arrived so I had a like-minded travel companion for the week – partial to the ‘when-on-holiday- mid-afternoon beverage and fine food’ kind of thinking. Continuing on this theme, we toured the Hunter Valley, sampling some of the finest Australian drops in several vineyards whose fields were populated with wild kangaroos.

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Onto the sights of Sydney, we took the iconic ferry to the golden sandy shores of Manly. Despite the name conjuring images of Hitchcock’s Manderley every time it was mentioned, this place was more haven than haunted house. The ferry took half an hour and although Manly is actually situated a bus ride away from our house, it felt like we had traded in the city for a sleepy seaside resort. The main road between the ferry pier and the beach was exactly like Terminus Road in Eastbourne if you swapped the pramfaces and chavs for flat-stomached beach babes and bronzed Adonises. We ambled along the length of the promenade, spotting surfers, snorkelers, paddle boarders and the odd water dragon, whilst picking out our dream waterside home from the array of impressive mansions.

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That evening I met a friend of my neighbour here in China. Not knowing what to expect and slightly dreading a very awkward drink for an hour I went down to Darling Harbour to meet her. The one drink turned into a few, which turned into a stroll down to the rocks as the sun set, which turned into pie and mash (for $7!!) in the oldest pub in Sydney, which turned into coffee and desert in Max Brenner’s back in town. Five hours later I strolled home after the most interesting, fun and engaging date I’d had in years!

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Wednesday evening was girls’ night so Doreen, Rachel and I went to the open air cinema to watch The Sweeney. Seeing others with giant hampers in the queue Rachel and I panicked and urged Doreen to massively stock up, apocalypse-style, on her way down. However, we should have known the Aussies would know how to put on an outdoor event. Inside were comfy director-style chairs that you could reserve with a civilised name tag. No need to elbow past grandma to spread the entire contents of your bag across a row of chairs and then proceed to give the stink eye in the manner of a territorial bulldog to anyone who so much as looks at them as is the norm at home. Further in were several picnic tables with parasols, a fully stocked bar offering Oyster Bay wine complete with ice bucket and a mobile food vendor selling pulled pork pitas, Mexican-style wraps with homemade salsa, and cheese boxes with an assortment of local chutney. A far cry from the usual extortionately priced greasy sausage plonked in an oversized bun smothered with ketchup and, if you are feeling fancy, charred onions to garnish all washed down with a slightly warm Carlsberg. The whole affair really put Blighty to shame and Doreen, with a gigantic hamper in tow, arrived to find us tucking in to lightly battered fish and hand cut chips. The film, however, restored the balance as it was actually pretty funny. Judging by the deathly silence that emanated from the person sat next to me, a lot of the British humour was lost on the crowd. At least they could enjoy the view if nothing else; the cinema was located just off the Botanical Garden and the screen was flanked on one side by the skyscrapers of the city’s skyline and the Bridge and the Opera House on the other.

The rest of the week was spent reclining on an assortment of Sydney’s beaches. First was Bondi. The water was a beautiful blue, shallow for miles out which made it perfect for a casual mum-style breaststroke but that was about it. The famous gym is not that impressive and its style is ubiquitous in China where old people would give some of the weeds I saw a run for their money. The beach itself was littered with cigarette butts, rubbish, and Bogans (Chavs). I didn’t stay long and instead enjoyed a coffee and banana bread in a café at the Icebergs Swimming Pool which offered a much better view. I then wandered around the charity shops and boutiques whose owners exuded that quintessential laid-back Aussie vibe; one shopkeeper upon seeing my skin called to her pal in the shop next door to come and have a stroke. Excitedly they asked if they could do my eye make-up but considering my shabby clothes and sandy hair I politely declined their enthusiastic offer for fear of looking like a prostitute on my journey home. The next beach was Palm Beach a.k.a Summer Bay. There was no filming but I did watch an over-the-top rescue performed by a 15 year old life guard to save the board of a kite-surfer who had lost his battle with the wind and the sea – a dramatic yet elegant performance. The next day was spent racing Doreen in the gentle waves of Balmoral beach rounded off with a classic Aussie Barbie and THE best steak sandwich ever made nom nom nom.

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Now that’s a lovely surprise!

The shack has been privy to a deluge of unexpected visitors which has made me immeasurably happy.

First was my brother Mark who (almost) made it to Shenzhen, refusing to cross the border we had a grand old time in my much preferred back yard of Hong Kong.

Next was Alex, one of my closest friends from university. He had been travelling around China for the past two weeks and made the shack his final stop. He looked like China had taken a few pounds off of him – I just became used to feeling hungry most of the time, he said. His concise evaluation of China? It’s just weird. See, it’s not just me! We had a lovely afternoon the next day taking in the delights of Stanley, running away from snakes and enjoying a cheeky afternoon beer.

Next was another best pal from university, my blue sister Melpo. After reuniting in Sydney she came across to Shenzhen for a weekend. We then had a day of chilling in Pacific coffee watching the world go by in the Hong Kong downpour, followed by dinner with Charlie in my favourite Italian restaurant – Posto Pubblico.

Almost simultaneously, Arvin came to visit Shenzhen. We first met in China in 2009 on the Study China Programme and it was great to catch up on each other’s endeavors of the last 4 years over a delicious Muslim Chinese food feast!

The final visitor to lord it up in the kafunda was Doreen and Malky who came across for a day’s jollies with their Hong Kong friends Gia and (fit) Martin. After their traumatic experience at the border we went for the only suitable remedy this side of the divide: Korean barbecue.

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I showed them around my school and to the shack, where due to its reasonable size, Doreen admitted she was disappointed that it wasn’t as funny as she had hoped (!)

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We then spent the evening in Coco Park, of course, and had a few drinks with my China Besties. We were reunited once more two days later over dim sum and foot massages in Hong Kong before the happy couple retired from their tour of duty on a plane bound for Sydney.

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YOU MEAN THAT’S A UTERUS IN A BAG?!?!

Ovens are few and far between in China so everything you eat is inevitable fried in horrendous amounts of oil and drenched in soy sauce to add ‘flavour’. In a sad attempt to counteract the less than desirable effects all this fried food is having on my skin and waistline I decided, for the first time in my life, to join a gym. It was all going so well, I was pounding out the Ks on the treadmill, gradually increasing time and intensity with every visit. These hard sessions were interspersed with yoga classes with a teacher that kept trying to push me further into the box-splits every week.  I felt like I would be able to rival Rocky’s fitness in just a matter of days. Then I decided to branch out and take on the cross-trainer – a big mistake that ended with a dodgy knee and body parts in transparent bags.

After 2 weeks of hobbling I decided to see a doctor. The concept of a GP’s surgery is non-existent here so everyone’s first port of call is the hospital. Before I realised this, I always just assumed my contact teacher was a hypochondriac when she used to suggest a hospital visit for a simple migraine. Thankfully I did not have to attempt to visit a hospital on my own as a Chinese friend offered to take me over the weekend.

 I met her early on Saturday and as we set out for the hospital she chose this moment to inform me that she had changed her mind about the course of treatment. Deciding the queue would be too long at the ‘normal’ hospital she thought it better that we went to a Chinese Medicine hospital. My face literally hit the pavement. She assured me that they had western medicine too as we approached the hospital doors.

 We were met by a very pungent smell, the smell of the various natural ingredients that go into Chinese medicine. It was a cross between woodland, rusks, and the fish section of Pets at Home. Despite expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the hospital especially since I was in, medicated and out in a grand total of 30 minutes. The hospital is organised in the manner of one large conveyor belt which aids it’s efficiency; you pay upon entry at reception, visit a doctor on the 7th floor, back down to reception to pay for your medicine, then back up to the 2nd floor to collect said medicine and you’re done! I guess with a population this large I should have expected China to have got such a system down by now. On our way to collect my medication, I spotted an obscure looking item in a bag of murky liquid on a table in the waiting area. I stopped and turned to my Chinese friend and asked,

Me: Hey, what’s that?

Chinese Friend: That?

(she moves in for closer inspection, nose is now centimetres from the bag)

Chinese Friends: Oh, it’s an organ. What is the name again of the organ that holds the baby?

Me: You mean that’s a uterus in a bag?!?!?!?

Chinese Friend: *triumphant smile on face* Yes that’s it, a uterus.

Me:*fighting gag reflex* Why is it just on a table in….. Never mind.

The doctor prescribed me some regular pills and a funky looking tube of brown paste with instructions to massage it into my knee for ten minutes and then proceed to kick my leg violently and repeatedly at a right-angle karate-style for a further minute! The packaging has a picture of a fierce looking dragon on the front. After what I saw, I thought it best not to inquire as to what it contained. Here goes nothing!

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Dancing with Death and Other Short Stories

4th-6th April was a national holiday in China: Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Festival. It is a festival that is centred on paying one’s respects to one’s ancestors. Many Chinese return to their hometowns to visit the tombs of those who have gone before them to tidy them up, give offerings and burn incense. During this holiday that focuses on those who have passed, I had my own brush with death. Thrice.

A few of the other foreign teachers and I decided to spend the holiday in Yangshuo; a fabled beauty spot of China. We did as the locals and all our other friends who have visited Yangshuo do and booked our beds on the sleeper bus. Excited by the adventure that lay ahead and amused by the three rows of precariously narrow beds crammed into a regular-sized coach, we settled in for a long drive.

On the road

On the road

At about 5:30 the next morning I was woken up by the sound of the bus skidding on the wet tarmac of the road as the driver slammed on his brakes, I opened my eyes and looked out of the window next to my top-bunk bed and saw the bright headlights of another coach coming straight towards my window. I screamed, the bus swerved and I steeled myself in anticipation of the loud crack that followed as the other coach ploughed into the back of our bus three beds behind mine. Just in front of me, the air-con started to leak and I watched for a moment, frozen, as a choking gas filled the cabin. All of a sudden I heard myself scream ‘EVERYBODY UP!’ and in one swift swoop, I was out from under my sleeping bag and seatbelt. One of my friends shouted for us to grab our things and frantically I searched for my shoes and bags. Confused and in tears I eventually found them towards the front of the bus and scrambled out. This being my third bus crash, I was quite simply hysterical. My friends were a lot calmer and noticed a woman trapped at the back of the bus. They called to the male passengers to help them help her but none of them moved. One even raised a finger to his lips motioning them to keep quiet. They bravely went back to the bus and helped her out. She had gone into shock and several shards of glass had embedded themselves into her face but she was alive and, after a while, able to walk. Looking at the scene of the accident it became apparent just how lucky we had been. On our side of the road was a large truck carrying a load that cushioned the blow. On the other side of this truck was a concrete barrier which stopped one metre in front of where the bus had stopped. On the other side of this concrete barrier was a steep drop to the river running adjacent to the road. The thing that struck me the most was the steeliness of the Chinese passengers. No one seemed perturbed by what had happened. Everyone was very calm, as if we had just casually knocked the fender against the curb when in fact the entire back of the bus had been destroyed. There was nothing but daylight all the way through. We were helped by a kind family who spoke English and translated what was happening and other such details. We waited in a small village for 4 hours for a replacement bus. The last 5 hours of our journey were spent in complete silence save for quietly muttered prayers and sharp inhalations every time the driver beeped his horn.

Our bus

Our bus. The other coach ended up in  a tree

We arrived bruised but alive in Yangshuo. That evening we had our first meal in 32 hours and it was incredible. We sampled a local dish called beer fish. I don’t know whether it was the hunger talking or if the fish really was that good but we wolfed it down.

Mmm beer fish

Mmm beer fish

The next day we took a bamboo raft along the Li River, pausing to see the birds that fishermen use to catch fish and the iconic Yangshuo scene that adorns every 20 Yuan note. The scenery really was beautiful and worth the long journey. In Shenzhen I am constantly surrounded by people, malls and other ghastly man-made creations such as this. So it was such a relief to get out and see the wonders of nature that, although it is trying, China has not succeeded to completely bulldozer with what they think tourists want: tack, rows of identical shops, a guy selling Disney merchandise, rocks built to look like real rocks and more general tack. That evening we went back to Monkey Jane’s bar, which deserves the reputation it has amongst backpackers. Monkey Jane is indeed crazy but the convivial atmosphere in her little rooftop bar is second to none. People perch on the end of each other’s tables, flitting between conversations, inventing ultimate drinking games with rules pooled from at least 3 continents and generally have a great time. I left with several offers of tour guide services from people living all over China.

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Yangshuo 041

The next day was spent relaxing in the town and most importantly indulging in my first proper breakfast in China. I had eggs, TOAST, granola, yogurt, fresh juice and it was incredible. Even better considering I had not hauled it across the border myself like some sort of mule which has become the norm every time I return from Hong Kong. We took the time to wander the streets, do a spot of shopping and hang out in our hostel, Number 11. We chilled out with the owner, an extremely hospitable bloke, who chatted with us in Chinese, made tasty vegetable soup and kicked all our asses at table football all afternoon.

The best day of all was the 43 kilometre off-road mountain biking tour. My two friends and I had the pleasure of the company of Farmer Tang a.k.a FT, our tour guide for the day and a Yangshuo-er born and bred who knew all the back routes, which I’m sure were the most challenging, of the local countryside.

Farmer Tang

Farmer Tang

He took us on a tour that involved cycling through the mountains, up and down steep rocky inclines where with one foolish flick of the wrist you could crack your head open on a rock. We were wading through mud, steaming through shallow streams, crossing 700 year old bridges, and riding along precarious narrow planks where if you lost your balance you could face-plant either into a boggy rice field or a river. The waters were a clear jade-blue, the fields were a lush fertile green and the mountains seemed to have popped up in spontaneous locations – think acne outbreak as opposed to mountain range but better looking. Moreover, for the first time, the air was FRESH! So fresh it almost hurt my lungs! We cycled through small traditional villages where the lifestyle and people, the youngsters on scooters and iPhones aside, reminded me a lot of what I have seen in Rukungiri. Living was simple, there were small kadookas selling a random assortment of goods and sweets you haven’t seen since you were knee-high to a grasshopper and old people being scared by chickens that moved too quickly. It was a world away from the bustling city I have known for the last 8 months and the striking difference in wealth and living standard was food for thought. With all the talk of China’s economic growth and the bright lights and malls of Shenzhen it’s easy to forget that this side of China does still exist. After all, China is very much still a developing country.

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7 hours later…

We finished the day exhausted, sore bottomed and shaky legged with the only appropriate remedy in Asia – a full body massage. It was extremely relaxing although my friend who was massaged by a young man who held his head at highly unnecessary angles whilst massaging her thighs thought rather differently of the whole experience. Add to that the jokes we were cracking at her expense, which, when we translated them to Chinese, the two ladies that were massaging my friend and I took to a whole new level. The poor lad was beetroot by the end of it all and probably partially deaf from our cackling.

That evening we said goodbye to the manager over one final defeat at table football and being too scared to get a bus back home we took a taxi to the airport to catch our last minute flight. However, this is when my life started to feel more like Final Destination than reality. One hour into the journey I caught the driver closing his eyes periodically at the wheel. I pointed it out to my friends who brushed it off as paranoia. After another hour we were on the final approach to the airport. The driver had gone into the wrong lane and despite the bus that was coming directly at us, flashing its headlights repeatedly, the driver didn’t respond. I turned to look at him and the dude was ASLEEP! I shook him violently by the arm and he casually slipped into the right lane as if he had staged the whole charade. By this point I was incredulous and just shook my head as I climbed out at departures.

Then our flight, due to depart at midnight, was delayed indefinitely and there was a serious lack of information from the airline. I have never seen Chinese people get so passionate about anything but the screams that were being hurled at the airline desk girls merited the presence of 3 security guards who then wheeled an old lady off in a wheelchair, grimacing in pain as she had given herself a hernia from shouting. Again, relying on the kindness of English speaking strangers it transpired that the flight was delayed because the wheels of the plane had broken upon landing. I’m serious. 3 hours later we were in the air, praying our way through turbulence and then grabbing each other by the hand as we came in for the roughest landing I have ever experienced. When we got out of the plane it became clear why, the tires had broken again. Exhausted and saved once again by strangers I made it back to my shack at 5:30 am and have never been so happy to see these cursed four walls.

Although in many respects it is very touristy and in some parts westernised, I thoroughly enjoyed Yangshuo for two reasons that no amount of man-made substitutes could hope to emulate – the scenery and the people. It really does deserve the reputation that precedes it.

As for my stint as an extra in Final Destination I have learnt three key lessons. One, keep your standards. If it looks like a death trap, that’s because it probably is. It does not matter that this is how everybody does it, do what’s right for you. By all means, ‘when in Rome…’ but there has to be a limit. Two, don’t travel at night on roads in Asia. Three, make friends with your fellow passengers, especially if you are travelling alone. That grumpy looking giant or the couple with the annoying kid may just save your life.

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Livin’ in a Land Down Under…

As soon as the plane hit the tarmac, I could no longer contain my excitement. I raced off the aircraft and through the world’s most intimidating immigration, having watched many an episode of Border Police, to find my sister on the other side, beaming as we had not seen each other for over a year. To boot, I was the first in the family to make the trip Down Under. Granted, being in China I was already half-way there but it was also obviously because I am the most dedicated of the bunch! Excitedly chatting away we almost walked into a glass door and then Doreen could not remember where she had parked the car. Eventually we made it out of the airport and I was given a grand tour of the neighbourhood and the city. I was taken down to the ‘money shot’ overlooking the Bridge and the Opera House and it felt so surreal to be there. I had never really considered visiting Australia before they had moved, thinking it would be much the same as England. Everybody speaks English after all so it would not be enough of a challenge. But being in China has taught me that you do not have to constantly push your limits in life and it’s OK to sit and enjoy the easy life every once in a while. So I did, and loved every minute. That evening, I was thoroughly spoiled by my Sister and Brother-in-law with a welcome drink in the early evening sun down in the harbour overlooking the Bridge and the Dirty Projectors’ gig in the Sydney Opera House. It was a beautiful welcome.

Sisters reunited

Sisters reunited

My first few days were filled with wandering around Sydney, getting a feel for the place and befriending strangers of all ages. These included a retired Serbian man who talked about how he earned $50 dollars a week when he first arrived in Oz and the subsequent effect of inflation on his ability to purchase tickets back to his homeland and another clucky 40-odd man who tried (and failed) to entice me with coffee after he welled up at seeing me chase an inflatable ball down the beach to give it back to a distraught toddler. Sydney’s finest were out in force it would seem! Thankfully, Friday was Burns’ Supper and I was introduced to Doreen and Malcolm’s buddies. After an emergency haggis run to David Jones, we had a hilarious evening of kilts and flip-flops, a Quaich full of whiskey, dancing and poetry, tatties and tennis as the Australian minority and I weathered the banter of the Scots during the Federer-Murray semi-final. It was a fantastic event, which gave me a heartwarming glimpse of their life on the other side of the world which really isn’t bad at all!

Mmmm haggis

Mmmm haggis

The next week was spent in Melbourne. After an hour’s flight I arrived into what felt like an altogether different world as I had gone from scorching sunshine to blustery winds and a dreary seafront in St Kilda. Shivering in my summer dress and sandals, I could not see the hype and likened this new place to Peacehaven with a dodgy accent. However, the old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ could not have rung more true and as I slowly got under Melbourne’s skin it grew on me, being upgraded to a Brighton by the end of the week. We met a couple of their friends who owned a dog who gave you a high-five on your way out of their apartment and we had dinner and a dance in St Kilda. As I had placed a UN-esque sanction on all Chinese food and a total ban on rice, Ichi Ni, a delicious Japanese teppanyaki was as close to the line as they dared to get. Moving on to another establishment that was reminiscent of a cross between Warwick SU (during it’s ‘The Graduate’ phase) and Eastbourne’s Weatherspoons just with more dreadlocks and less chav, we threw some (dangerous) shapes on the dance floor as Vicky set about potential husband-hunting on my behalf. A great night out!

 The next morning I set about discovering Melbourne’s version of Brighton’s lanes and had probably the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Melbourne is famous for its coffee culture and for just cause. Dozens of off-beat coffee shops so small that proprietors can only afford to hire the ‘so cool I look malnourished’ types, jostle for space but not for customers in narrow backstreets. The effortlessly cool vibe they exude, no doubt entirely due to the staff, ensures that they are all packed to the rafters with a suitably hip-crowd at all hours of the day. Add to this the Yarra River that runs through the heart of the city and whose banks are populated by street Picassos, parcour artists, and swanky bars and it’s easy to see how Melbourne has been voted the most livable city in the world.

Melbourne

Melbourne

That afternoon, I was the envy of at least two of my tennis-mad friends here in Asia as I went to the Australian Open Final to watch Murray battle it out with Djokovic. This was my second tournament on my second continent this year. The sun was blazing and we soaked up the festival atmosphere in the grounds before taking our seats in the stadium. We were completely surrounded by Djokovic fans of Asian origin that kept waving their Serbian flags in the face of the only Scot among us. I do enjoy watching sport but I am by no means a dedicated fan. I have never understood the rationale behind those who spend their lives following a particular football team, grieving when a player is lost to another side or crying in the arms of another man when their hopeless team inevitably loses in the first round of what they lead you to believe is a life-changing tournament, incomparable to the other 200 that happen during the season. However, as the excitement built in the stadium I felt myself get carried along. I cheered merrily as Murray powered through to take the first set. My cries grew louder as Djokovic held fast and took the second set. Then as Djokovic grew stronger I felt myself become nervous, crying out desperately in an attempt to block Djokovic’s strikes that eventually broke Murray. As the game progressed my cries grew louder still as my brow furrowed further and my hands gradually clenched into  defiant fists. Then, as the match started to slip beyond Murray’s grasp I felt the dreaded ache of impending defeat stir deep in my belly until finally I was awash with despair as I watched Djokovic raise the cup to his lips to mark his victory. The rationale is that there is no rationale. It was totally irrational but incredibly exhilarating. A match and a feeling I shall never forget. To lift our spirits the party continued in Windsor but, despite being the youngest by at least 12 years, I made a run for a taxi after the first bar as I felt my ‘sleep immediately’ instinct kick-in leaving the others in search of a Souvlaki bar.

Come on Andaaaay!!

Come on Andaaaay!!

So Close!

So Close!

After all this fun, it was time to go it alone as, being grown-ups with proper jobs, they felt the need to return to Sydney in time for work. The last few days in Melbourne were taken up with experiencing the backpacker lifestyle as I made friends with some people in my hostel and went on a couple of excursions. My first tour was to Philip Island to watch ‘the penguin parade’. On the way we stopped at a wildlife park where I saw several native Australian animals including koalas, kookaburras, wallabies, dingoes and I even fed a kangaroo or two.

Feeding time

Feeding time

On Philip Island, which is oddly twined with the Isle of Wight, we sat in little stands on the beach and waited for the sun to set. Once it was sufficiently dark, several rafts of penguins swam up onto the shore and hurriedly made the long journey from the water, across the wide open and thus dangerous beach to the cover of the bush and all the way to their little shelters to nest for the night. They were small penguins, barely 30cm tall, and some had eaten so many fish that day they could barely waddle. Several times, they fell flat on their large bellies as they tried to run fast enough to catch up with the rest of the raft. They were just adorable and judging by the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the spectators, I wasn’t the only one that thought so. Another day and another excursion, this time it was the length of the Great Ocean Road up to the Twelve Apostles. This is essentially a road that runs along the coast, hugging the cliff in some parts and winding through rainforest in other parts. The views were breathtaking and the beaches were some of the most beautiful I have seen where multiple grey-haired Sandy Cohens in wetsuits dashed past me down the beach with their surfboards under one arm, ready for an early morning session. One of my favourite parts was the story that accompanied our trip to a bay a few kilometers along from the Twelve Apostles. It was a picturesque bay where, in 1878 the Loch Ard had shipwrecked. Busy celebrating their arrival in Australia, they had failed to see the rocks in the thick fog and only two people survived the disaster; a man and a woman. They sheltered in the bay overnight and the man went to look for help. He was successful and as soon as possible the woman set sail again for England, vowing never to return. The lucky or perhaps unlucky man went on to survive a further 3 shipwrecks. You would think one would never set foot on a boat again after just one bad experience! The two survivors unfortunately never saw each other again.

The Bay

The Bay

I learnt two things from my time in Melbourne. The first is to stop passing judgment instantly (an unfortunate habit I have picked up living in China). And the second was how easy it is to travel alone. One of the best aspects of my excursions was meeting people from all walks of like. I met many people around my age, living the dream on a work-holiday visa. I met others who were fulfilling a life-long dream by journeying to Australia. I found that Germans and Swiss-Germans are amongst the most friendly and engaging travelers. I found that everybody had a unique and interesting story to tell and that travel helps you appreciate just how incredible human beings can be. Clichés aside I made my way back to Sydney, happy to swap dorm-life for a double bed and home cooking.

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