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Category Archives: Katyness

Appreciate the humdrum

We all know time is precious, a limited, one-use only resource which should be treasured. But to know something, and to live by it are two very different beasts, so no one can be blamed for slipping into a regular rhythm which doesn’t necessarily encourage moments to stop and smell the roses…after all you see those roses every day, why pause? In the rush of the waking day it’s often hard to find time to to reflect, observe an appreciate, but every now and again life offers a pass to something supremely special…extra time, unexpected time, time which should have been taken up by regularity but suddenly all plans go to the dogs and you’re left with a void. Usually I have all my time planned to the last hour, desperate to make the most of it, but not today. Today the electricity went off at work, it was a planned outage, so everyone knew they would have the morning off; a blissful few hours in which to lie in, read a chapter or two of a book, catch up on that Amazon prime series you’re hooked on, and get chores done. I managed all four before my leisurely stroll to the office via a coffee shop just in case the kettles were still out of action once I arrived. They were. As were the lights, heat and computers. Voila, the morning off became a day off, but now rather than being home with a list of things I ‘should’ be doing, I found myself in town with the blissful possibility of an afternoon of unexpected time. 
There’s almost always something going on in Oxford; this is one of the key benefits of living in a tourist destination. Luckily, as part of a plan to spend each day in this city as though it were the last I had already checked the listings of what was going on this week…the trouble was they were almost all 10-5, there was no way I’d get there after work. But now, free time, no barriers, bliss.

An afternoon of meandering, drinking in, stopping to watch the guy chiselling a piece of stone to go into the floor of the museum…right in the middle of everyone watching the exhibits, I wonder how many people saw him. An hour to appreciate local photographers, time to read the blurb about seeking new members, time to enjoy a coffee and read the last of chapters of that book. Moments to pause and wonder how these buildings came to be…they’re so higgildy piggildy and non-uniform, who designed them? Why so narrow? I visited a college for the first time, Bailiol, and spent time chatting to Alan the porter, a really lovely guy who was filled with stories and random facts about the place. He makes it his task to know all 400 undergraduates by name, so they always have a friendly face to come home to. Porters are some of the best things about a college I’ve found, they’re what students and visitors remember. Alan was certainly LMH quality, and that’s a sincere compliment to both! 

One of my plans for 2017 is to spend more time appreciating this city, live each day in it like it may be the last one of that date spent here. I feel like January 5th 2017 was spent enjoying some of the best of Oxford. Tomorrow the power is off again, I wonder what I’ll get up to this time. 

Let’s get cultured

Thursday afternoon was spent trying to make the most of our Salzburg card, which offers free entry to the majority of museums and sights in Salzburg.

 It’s also valid on the many buses and trams around the city, so the first thing we did was hop on one of those to the central station to sort out my travel to Bordeaux. We all know how well that went, so the next step was back aboard the number 2 to the centre of the city and the many. It was a lot quieter today, without the casual army amassed in the centre. Jen pointed out how many cities we’ve visited have vast expanses of space in the centre of them, without being over crowded by hoards of tourists. She makes a good point…I know it’s autumn, but when was the last time you remember the centre of London being this empty? I’m sure I can’t think of a time at all. 

Our first stop was the Hohensalzburg Fortress, an impressive looking building which sits atop the highest point in the city. The walls are painted an imposing white so they can be seen from miles around. They’re even visible from Hitler’s Eagles nest across the mountains in Germany. Quite the sight!  There has been a structure on this hill since the year 180, with each ruler adding onto it in the architecture of the time. The result is a bizarre mishmash of styles spanning some 600 years. Still quite impressive though don’t you think? To get to the fortress you can either take a winding road, or the more direct funicular route (which is included in the Salzburg card) Jen and I opted for the latter, and were soon jetting almost vertically up the rock face to the gates. The view from the top was spectacular too, you could really see the whole city and the mountains beyond. Wow! 


We opted against the tour, preferring to meander around for an hour or so. I really like a tour sometimes, but when you’re pressed for time the last thing you want is to be herded around whilst people take selfies with suits of armour. My favourite rooms were the kitchens (the fire was huge, must have been the warmest place in the castle!) and this amazing battle scene…


By this time it was gone 3pm and we were both more than ready for something to eat. Luckily at the bottom of the funicular there was a market (the oldest bread market in Salzburg I think, it was all in German!) selling cheesey olive loafs and twists of apple strudel. Delicious! 


The next stop was Mozart’s Birthplace, a humble little yellow (so much yellow here!) house in the centre of the city. Top tip for this place, if you read English or German don’t bother with the free app which tells you about the places as you go around, most of it is written on the walls anyway and the wifi dropped out after the second room so it was a complete waste of time. It was far more fun to take time walking around the rooms which once housed a musical genius. It was very fun having Jen there for that too, as she has read and watched quite a few plays and films about Mozart and so could plump up the impersonal stories and facts etched on the walls with snippets from films which bring the people to life far more effectively. I think it was thanks to Jen that I found the little silk purse he apparently carried with him every day of his life so fascinating, and spent a good few minutes taking in the details of the tiny violin he received when he was five. I’m planning to watch Amadeus when I get home now, and Jen recommends you do too, especially if you’re planning a trip to Salzburg any time soon!


Being the last day of our tour the next stop was a shop to pick up a few souvenirs for friends and colleagues at home. I love wandering around European supermarkets, even though they sell everything you get at home, it’s always more interesting when it’s not in English. Sweets and such purchased we headed back to pack and check trip advisor recommendations for somewhere to enjoy our last meal. We’d heard great things about the beerhalls of Salzburg and so were keen to find somewhere of that ilk. Luckily trip advisor never disappoints, and within 5 minutes walk from our hotel was Die Wisse (lit. The White Woman), a restaurant serving traditional Austrian dishes, beers and wines. They even had a gluten free home brew for Jen, win! 


So ends part 3 of my European tour, it’s been so much fun interailing around with Jen seeing some amazing cities and countrysides together. I’m sure the journey was very different to one we’d have taken as 19 year olds in 2006, but I enjoyed it, probably more for having our own rooms rather than dorms! Man I’m getting old ūüėõ


Anyway, next stop, the vineyards of Bordeaux, what a final act!!

‘The cure for anything is salt water…sweat, tears or the sea’

After days of early starts and Czocha madness we decided to spend a leisurely morning in Krak√≥w, meandering our way across the city comparing prices on salt mine tours and generally taking in the daytime atmosphere. We visited the historic cloth hall by day, enjoyed a stroll in the ‘planty garden’ and met a random American guy who was working for a bike rental place down a tiny backalley. I would seriously love to know how many people he actually speaks to each day!
Eventually we found ourselves at the station where a train to the mining town of Wieliczka was leaving in 10 minutes. One thing striking us about Poland so far, almost everyone we speak to seems deeply sad. There are no easy smiles or friendly customer service. When we’re seen to be making an effort with poor pigeon Polish the smiles come more readily, and usually by the time we’re saying goodbye we’ve managed to extract at least one or two, but it does make me wonder why they’re so sad. Full of adventure to be doing this solo rather than through an organised bus tour, the 20 minute journey sped by and we had tickets for the 12.30 entry to the mine. The mines have been open since the 13th century and on the tourist route you visit depths of around 440ft, beginning with a 378 step wooden stairway which left me feeling quite dizzy! 
Well, the things I now know about salt! For starters, everything in the mine which was not wood was salt, seriously! Even the walls, ceilings and walkways, of course we had to taste it to make sure. There are huge structures of criss crossed trees used to support the mine, as the salt penetrates and petrifies the wood lending it strength and making it virtually indestructible. When the nazis took over the mine in the 1930’s they laid metal tracks for the underground carts and trains, only for these tracks to last mere months before cracking and disintegrating from the sodium levels in the air. Amazing.

Along the route there were also several statues and scenes also carved from salt, which takes on a granite grey colour in its raw form. When chipped away and ground it is almost 100% pure white table salt, with very little more needing to be done to it to make it fit for sale. One of these scenes showed Princess Kinga, a Hungarian noble woman who married the prince of Krak√≥w. As part of her dowry she was given salt, which was worth a lot in those days, and legend has it she through her engagement ring into a salt mine at home before leaving for Poland. On her arrival here she instructed miners to dig for salt, and when the first lump was found and cracked open they found her engagement ring inside. That’s how Kinga became the patron saint of salt miners. Clever trick!

The complexity and detail of the spaces we saw underground were incredible. Salt mining, as with all types of mining, is dangerous work, so miners were deeply religious. We saw several small chapels were miners would pray before and after their shifts, but nothing prepared me for the cathedral. A huge cavern with intricate and ornate carvings along each side, and stunning chandeliers made from (you guessed it!) salt crystals. What was truly mind boggling though is that this place was the work of just three men…one after the other. Imagine being down here in the dark, alone, spending each day carving this incredible room. It’s just astounding.

The next stop on our tour was a series of underground lakes and rivers, where the water is so buoyant it is impossible to dive in it. The water was such an eerie shade of green, I really wonder what it was like to swim in! Historically they would offer boat rides through the caverns, until 7 German soldiers capsized their boat trapping them underneath. Being unable to lift the boat and unable to dive underneath they eventually suffocated. This was the last time boat rides were offered at Wieliczka. 

Our tour ended soon after, something we were both glad of as the cornflakes at the hostel was beginning to feel like years ago. Luckily right there 125m underground there was an option to try some traditional polish food, which of course we did.

Heading back to Krak√≥w, with night train tickets to Budapest and bus tickets to Auschwitz purchased, we had time for a spot of shopping and a chilli coffee (highly recommended) before our dinner reservations in the Russian restaurant just off the square. To our disappointment our waitress (dressed like Heidi) led us away from the fur lined benches overlooking the bustling streets and down a wooden staircase to a cavernous room reminiscent of an alpine chalet. Our table was in the corridor between the secluded spots for two to our right which were backed by a water feature consisting of a pool and huge water wheel, and the main eaterie to our left where the walls were adorned with old style skis and musical instruments. However, before long it became apparent we had the best seats in the house, as a musical trio sat themselves right opposite us and began playing a lyrical concophony of Russian and Polish folk tunes. Apparently they were from the mountains, and this music is traditional amongst those that lived up there. We were in heaven, sipping honey and ginger vodkas with a delicious stew of beef (I know), vegetables and potato pancakes. 

With a 5am start and day Auschwitz ahead of us our evening here had to come to an end all to soon, but needless to say it’s definitely been one of the most memorable and fun days of the trip so far. Hopefully it’s warmed the cockles of our hearts enough to get us through tomorrow.

Looking back

Over my shoulder…dum de de, de de dum dum dum…just me?Do you ever look back sometimes and think ‘wow, I really did all that?!’ I’m not sure we do it enough. Life is such a winding and varied road that sometimes you really do need to pause for a minute and take stock of everything that’s happened, the things you’ve achieved, places you’ve seen, people you’ve met…I remember reading a post once about how much can change in a year, and it’s so true. Look back to February 2015, are there people there who aren’t here now? Are there people here you didn’t know then? The world around us is forever shifting and changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much, but it’s hard to get too bogged down in the present when the future is within touching distance and anything can happen. 

Attempting some Instagram challenges recently has encouraged lots of revisiting old photo albums and computer folders in search of suitable snaps. Last year I visited 9 counties; 5 of which I had never set foot on before. I met many amazing and unique people, went on new adventures, tried some crazy (and often delicious) foods, saw incredible sights ranging from a hundred thousand bats leaving a Cambodian cave, to the old cars of Havana. I spent time with wonderful people, met some crazy new friends and said goodbye to some old ones. I left a job, gained a job, left that one and gained another. There were some exhilarating highs and some severely crashing lows, but I think for the most part everything has worked out for the best. So far 2016 has been the year of smiles, of new challenges, looking forward and a life without too much stress. I know I was not the only one who found 2015 a tough pill to swallow, but I hope that everyone who struggled through it has also found 2016 to be a kinder time. Try to take a moment this weekend to think about some of the good times, something you’re proud of, people you like to be with…I bet there’ll be more good memories hiding away there than you expect!

Is it just me…

…or is everything a little bit crap at the moment?

Seriously.

Any¬†time I mention my woes to someone they present me with a tirade of issues they’re bravely soldiering on through¬†which, quite frankly, cause my troubles to pale into insignificance. It feels like there’s not one person who isn’t having a bad time of it. Deaths, break ups, depression, disease, worries about jobs, affairs, family fueds, money troubles, bad grades…the list goes on.

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We sometimes¬†played a game, around the dinner table at home, of ‘best bit, worst bit’, where everyone would share the best bit and worst bit of their day. I still attempt this with the housies from time to time, but recently I’ve been trying to focus on the ‘best bit’ only, sometimes it helps to review the day and realise it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

So here’s a plea for some good news, from you…yes you reading this! Take a moment to leave a comment on the best bit, from today, from this week, or even this year if you’re really struggling. Even if you’re reading this post a week after it was written, if it’s been a month or a year…overload me with your best bits, and lets see if we can share some smiles to make these grey clouds bugger off!

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And if you’re one of the many having a bad time of it at the moment, please know you’re not alone and it’s going to be ok. We’ve all made it this far, survived 100% of what life has thrown at us, so why should this be any different? One step, one breath, one day at a time. That’s my manta, you’re more than welcome to share it x

The best day?

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My final day in Indonesia probably seems unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t do or see anything I haven’t done before, but still I think it may have been my favourite day so far.  
Wiebke wanted her ears candled in the hopes it would help her be able to dive when she got to her next destination. We set off down the beach front to a massage place and were introduced to Ani, a small, sunshiney Indonesian lady who ran the place. Whilst Wiebke disappeared to sort her ears out, I opted for a sasak massage with Ani’s sister, which is something akin to being beaten up by a small Asian lady who doesn’t look like she should be up to the task. I can’t abide massages where you come out feeling like you’ve essentially been stroked for an hour, so for me this was perfect!  

 Massages take place in little bamboo huts, shaded by woven walls and beautiful sarongs. There are flowers growing in bamboo hangers all around and, just as my massage began, someone somewhere started playing the guitar. Heaven. 

  
The mysterious guitar player turned out to be Kevin, a guitar teacher. So Ani’s sister handles the massage side of things..Kevin offers guitar lessons…what does Ani do? She teaches people to cook! Wiebke and I booked ourselves in for a class that evening. 

Wiebke disappeared back to our homestay to call home, whilst I stayed to speak to Rei (like Rhea, roll the r), Ani’s 18 year old niece who was staying for the holidays, who wanted to practice her English. Like almost every Indonesian I’ve come across, Rei is also pretty darned good on the guitar. ‘Do you play?’ Kevin asked. ‘No.’ I replied ‘I owned a guitar for 3 years and never managed to play a song’. 2 hours later and I could play not 1 song…but 2!!! Hotel California and Imagine. So exciting! Trouble is I just sold my guitar…

  
We spent the rest of the day at Sama Sama (it means you’re welcome) cafe by the beach, soaking up the last of the sun before I head back to England where, I hear, it’s cold and raining. Something to look forward to!   

That evening, our cooking class with Ani was more of a lesson in how to keep up than anything, as she bustled around creating three dishes at once and not entirely explaining what she was doing or the quantities in which she was doing it. Luckily between a diligent German and well, me, we were able to ask enough questions have her repeat everything 10x over until we were sure we had everything just right! So hopefully I’ll be able to recreate the Gado Gado (a kind of spicey peanut sauce) and Urap Urap (Lombok salad) when I get home! 

  
Though I can’t imagine they’ll ever be as good as here, with fresh tamarind, onions and lemons the size of my thumb nail but with more flavour than 10 of the same back home, and all crushed together using a stone mortar and pestle which felt like it was probably one of the original designs. 

  We got to sample our creations, which were darned good even if I do say so myself! Though three dinners (there was a chicken curry too, which was just ok) is enough for anyone! 

Many hours, and more guitar lessons and singalongs later it was time to say goodbye. 
Kevin and Ani have invited me to stay with them if ever I return to Lombok, which I really hope to do! Next time maybe I’ll even finally conquer my fear of riding a scooter. I’m not sure I’ve done the best job in communicating why the day was so wonderful…maybe because it’s the last day I just appreciated everything that much more. But I went for a walk and ended up having a massage, guitar lesson, cooking lesson and meeting a wonderful family who completely welcomed me into their world. I visited a beautiful beach, laughed with new friends and ate delicious meals. Lombok is such a unique and special place, next time I’m coming for a month!

Next (and final) stop, Singapore! 

  

Meeting the locals 

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Travelling, for me, is mainly about people. Sure there is beautiful scenery, delicious food and fun things to do, but without people all of these things would just be a little bit greyer (thanks DW!). Lombok, it seems, has the best of people. The locals here are as unspoiled as the landscape; the majority still marvel at tourists the way I marvel at seeing the milky way over the ocean from a tropical beach…and you know you’re off the beaten track when you can’t find a postcard for love nor money! Unfortunately this is 2015 so the marvelling is all too often coupled with requests for photos (if you’re lucky, more often than not you turn around to find someone following you as they attempt to take a selfie with you in it completely without your knowledge), or just to sit with you for a while so they can practice their English. In exchange for conversation they will share whatever they have, be that food, their language or stories. 

Getting off the boat from the Gilis, I felt like Leonardo di Caprio returning to the mainland after his time on The Beach. After 6 days of quiet, engineless, existence, the noise and busy-ness of the port was overwhelming. A French couple and I haggled for a taxi and headed to our first destination, Sengiggi. We didn’t even stop there; the ‘quiet village’ was heaving with locals enjoying the last day of the post Ramadan celebrations, so much so that you could barely see the black sand beach, it was so covered in people! Instead we decided to head to Kuta, which is bigger but quieter. Along the way our driver asked if we would like to stop and see a traditional Lombok village…why not?!

  Whilst much of the island is modernising, traditional locals still live in mud houses, making a living from farming, weaving and making jewellery. The houses are simple, one room dwellings where women and boys under 10 sleep on woven blankets inside, whilst the men and older sons sleep outside. Whilst sat on the outer part I spotted a tray with some leaves and a pot on it…can you guess what it was?

   A make up set…of course! The leaves when chewed create a red paste used for colouring the lips and cheeks. The tobacco (in the pot) is then used as a brush to remove the red stains from teeth. Genius huh?

Ok next challenge…what is this?  

 If you said a tomato, take 10 points!

I spent my first few hours in Kuta, Lombok alone, making me an easy target for passing hawkers. But unlike more touristy places the people here don’t seem to mind if you don’t buy. My first exchange was with Julie, Sam and Sunita, three sarong sellers who spend their days walking up and down the beach with a HEAVY bundle of fabrics on their head.  

 Having ascertained I already had a sarong they stopped asking me to buy one of theirs (unheard of anywhere else I’ve been – usually if you have one it means you’ve been worn down before, so they’re determined you can be persuaded to buy again!); instead we spoke about their lives, families, villages etc and I showed them photos of the UK (mainly Glastonbury, Cornwall and Loch Lomond…my phone had limited options!). As the three women continued on their way, two young boys joined me. One selling coconuts and the other bracelets. These two were not so easily placated by ‘no thank you’, but they were fun.  

 The younger one, Sabi, is 7; he goes to school in the mornings and sells bracelets on the beach in the afternoon. At sunset he goes home for dinner and to make more bracelets before hitting the beach bars to gain trade from drunken tourists. The older boy, Jonny, is 15 and already married. He and his wife have their own stall selling coconuts and pineapple to people on the beach. My younger nephews are 6 and 14…and whilst I’m sure N3 would be a dab hand at selling bracelets to people on the beach (or anywhere!) I’m glad he doesn’t have to.

Back at the homestay I met Wiebke, a German girl travelling through Asia on her way to work in Australia. She’d spent 3 weeks in Lombok (it’s easy to see how) and proved to be an invaluable guide during my stay here. Our first stop was the beach, where a Saturday night shindig was in full swing, including bonfire, live band, fire poi and impromptu limbo competitions with bits of palm tree! A few years ago the law was changed disallowing locals to build bars on the beach, but our host had a clever way around that…his bar is a boat, on wheels!  

 The lights, stage and sound system were all portable, set up just for the night, and the tables were lit by sand anchored candles in wax sandwich bags (great as they don’t catch fire). If you ever travel to Lombok be sure to bring a handful of these with you, they can’t be found easily here so they rely on tourists and visitors to provide them. Means a good few free drinks in exchange – more than a fair swap!! 
This is the first destination I’ve been where I’ve had no idea what tomorrow will bring, but I can already feel myself falling in love with Lombok. Wish I was here longer!