Hong Kong – the good, the bad, the ugly and the very ugly!

Wow! The madness continues! Wrapping your head around Hong Kong is like learning Chinese overnight! If Japan has neon or fluorescent pockets, Hong Kong is just one big light bulb! Where did I read that New York is the city that never sleeps, but Hong Kong is the city that never stops! Bingo! We have now been here a little over a week, and not a second goes by without my ceasing to be amazed, due what I see, or more to the point, what is thrust upon me. Hong Kong is everything all at once, and this indeed involves the good, the bad, the ugly and the very ugly! This is “immersion” at its best. Read on.

I must say that Hong Kong has never been on my “I gotta go in a hurry” list, but I am so thankful that I made it here. It has been, and continues to be a lesson in motion. The Hong Kong Airport was a clear indication of what was to come. Both Alex and I were overawed by its opulence. There was not a solitary designer (we are taking Gucci and friends here) that wasn’t represented, and I saw more make-up and cosmetic counters than I could poke a few hundred sticks at. What were we in for? When we arrived, it was absolutely pouring outside. The skies were grey and hazed over, but no use waiting, as it looked relentless and not like it was going to stop in a hurry. So we simply organised to catch a bus into town.

I should mention that Alex and I have decided to let the rest of out ticket around-the-world expire. We had two stops left on it. In theory we were to fly from Hong Kong to Vietnam, make our way overland to Bangkok, and finally fly from Bangkok to Melbourne. Instead, we have decided to go to China, and then through to Vietnam and “parts” (read, we do not know yet!) of South-East Asia. We are still not sure as to exactly when we will be home. Up until now, we have not required visas for any of the countries we have visited (ask Alex how much he LOVES travelling on an Australian passport!), but we do need them for both China and Vietnam, which we are organising from here.

We were headed for Kowloon, which is where the bulk of the budget accommodation is. Hong Kong is actually a series of islands, as well as a portion that goes on to become mainland China. As we crossed several bridges, I figured that, minus the rain, the views would have been spectacular. Once off the bus, the “search” began! Yes, looking for a place to sleep, which may I add, after a year, we are soooooo over doing! But it’s one of those things that has to occur. After hours of searching (and let me tell you, Hong Kong is expensive, and that doesn’t exclude accommodation) we found a tiny but clean room with air-conditioning, TV, and a small bathroom with toilet. OK, so we had two single beds, but for around AUD $30.00 a night, that is a bargain in Hong Kong! It is always a relief when we finally find a place to stay, as the search can often be exhausting. In heat and humidity, it’s even worse.

So, where and how do I begin to describe Hong Kong? Hmm…east meets west? More like west overtakes east! Good shopping? Perhaps, I would say, one big shopping mall! Bargain shopping? Not so easy these days (the fakes are cheaper in Thailand)! Perhaps 20 years ago! Furthermore, I would add that it is often hard to walk solely on the footpaths, and that at some point you will have to walk under, into or through something….that eventually leads you to……more shopping, usually in the form of….another ….. mall! Where else in the world would you see people queuing up to enter a Louis Vuitton store? I have categorically never seen this many designer stores in my life. That is a huge statement, but it’s true! This is a place where Lexus car dealerships sit directly opposite a street full of prostitutes, where clothes advertisements (famous and expensive brands) come in the form of children (white of course!), and where almost every known cosmetic brand has a range which includes a skin whitener! I know, I went in to a pharmacy to check this out. And as if it’s not enough telling an Asian woman that she needs to be white, there are also sanitary pads sporting the word “white” all over them. What message does this convey? Where does the folly stop? It’s a place that makes you believe that your only food option is McDonald’s, and your only coffee option Starbucks! No, no, no…look around, despite the madness, there are other options!

Getting back to the kids in advertising – I wanted to spew each time I saw those advertisements with pouting lips, fingers being licked, breasts (well, whatever exists when you are no older than 14!), and make up packed on so thickly that it makes KISS look like they aren’t even wearing foundation. Again, give me a break! It’s funny how a 23 or 28 or even 35 year old, isn’t going to look like that…ever…..because you know what, REAL women have hips and boobs! Besides, has nobody ever told these advertisers that some of us DON’T want to look like that! I didn’t think it was a good look back when I was 14, and I can assure you that, it certainly does not appeal to me as a 39 year old! What next? Images of an unborn foetus holding an YSL handbag? At least they will have the size right! You don’t get much smaller than a foetus!

For Alex and I, Hong Kong has been about really taking in what human nature is all about, and even where, globally, we are headed. We have been repulsed by the greed, and saddened by both companies’ coercion as well as people’s obvious pressure for the need to conform. For heaven’s sake, I saw a shop sporting “skinny jeans”, with one of the styles called “salad”! It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the image being portrayed here is that if you are thin you are worthwhile! Nothing new here, is it ladies? And I had to laugh when, in another store, I tried on a pair of size 8 shorts which fit me comfortably. Give me (another) break! Huge I am not, but size 8? So, what does that make a real size 8, a minus 4! Again, what image is being portrayed?

Now onto another favourite topic of mine, McDonald’s! I have been to several in Hong Kong. Buy something? You have to be kidding! I used to think that they were great for using the bathroom, but to be perfectly honest, they have been filthy here! On a few occasions I almost passed out when I saw the age of some of the people, or should I say children, working there too. One kid looked so young that I walked out and cried! Ah, and then there is the “set-up”; as soon as you walk in, there is a glass cabinet full of McDonald’s toys, so before your child has had time to say, “Mummy I want a hamburger”, it has probably said, “Mummy I want a toy”. So….one Happy Meal and a toy later……most of the food gets ditched, whilst the toy is the joy of the child’s life! This marketing to youngsters is horrendous! And to be fair, McDonald’s is not the only company who is doing it! Doubly horrendous is the amount of food that gets wasted whilst so many people in the world are starving. In light of our views on this (Alex is in total accordance), we both had to laugh when we saw what somebody had scribbled onto a poster we saw near the ferry terminal, “McDiabetes,McDisease, McObesity”(I promise I didn’t write it). Ironically, it is written under the word fiction? McDonald’s is crap! Is that fact or fiction?

When you are in the thick of it, it’s actually hard to believe that Hong Kong is lush and fertile, but it is. We have visited places with superb viewpoints and vistas, which are testimony to the fact that there is life beyond the buzzing commercial heart-beat for which this “country” is known for (its correct name is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It was actually passed back from British to Chinese “ownership” in 1997). One of these was visiting the Bank of China building, in the area known as Central, and going up to its public viewing gallery on the 43rd floor. The panoramic view over the bay, and from where we could see the area of Tsim Sha Tsui where we are staying, was spectacular. Having said that, the entire central area, on both sides of the bay, and for several kilometres on each side, is covered with skyscrapers. At nighttime, you do not need to be up high to feel like you are in a neon vacuum! We also took the “Peak Tram“, which is a double reversible funicular railway, which takes you 1.4 kilometres up a hill, with a gradient of between 4 and 27 degrees. Some 7 minutes and 396 metres above sea level later, voila, there is a 360 degree view of Hong Kong! And spectacular it was! I hate to harp on, but the final and eventual view can only be obtained by going up several escalators, which pass yet more shops and commercial garbage. Yes, you can ignore them….but the point is, that you have to pass through them. We stayed at the top for several hours, and watched as day turned into night. It was breathtaking to see the lights on all the skyscrapers come on slowly, until the sky was completely black, and below was a sea of lights. And they say that New York has skyscrapers! I tell you what, it has some competition here. It is up here that we met Chris and Rita, a lovely Austrian/ Indonesian couple who live in Vienna. We exchanged e-mails and Rita told us to look them up when we go to Austria. I told her that we had only been there recently. Chris also told us how beautiful Indonesia was and that we should consider going there. I am not sure if I need any more encouragement. My quest to see the entire world seems to be insatiable!

Hong Kong has 6.9 million people packed into a land area of about 1,100 square kilometres, but those people are squeezed onto only about 10% of the available land space. The problems this has produced are many, including smog, smells (some identified, and some not), clutter and clangor! We have first hand experience, waking up at 8.00am sharp each morning to the tunes of a multitude of jack hammers, as they paved the way, for what looks like yet another shopping area! Also, Hong Kong is hot but more so, it’s humid. All of this together can be both draining and taxing on the system. It is imperative to drink copious amounts of water here, in order to stay hydrated. At first, even that did not seem to help. I got a ripper of a migraine on our second day, to the point of vomiting. In general I in particular have felt quite affected by the climate changes on this trip, and in a year, we have had several.

The food has been OK, but I must confess that I find the food a tad bland and oily after other Asian cuisines such as Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese. Having just come from Japan, we have been a little disappointed. The noodle soups have been fine, although I have to “pretend” that I do not know that they are cooked in some type of animal broth…noodles and veggies for me, broth for Alex! Seriously, if you are travelling for as long as we are, there has to be some leeway on the “vegetarian path” otherwise it becomes impossible. When trying to make my vegetarianism understood, Alex has devised the, “My wife doesn’t eat anything with eyes!”. They seem to get that concept, well kind of, anyway! We have also found a great coffee place, which supports the local community, makes great coffee as well as the fact that it costs half the price of Starbucks. Red Moment Coffee Express is literally a hole in the wall in an area called Wan Chai. Mok (who is from Hong Kong) and his staff are always friendly and helpful, and we have become “locals” frequenting the place most days to buy a coffee, or two! They have a variety of different coffees from around the globe, as well as snacks and sandwiches, at very reasonable prices. If you come to Hong Kong, ask around for this tiny place, you will pleasantly rewarded! Let’s support the locals!

Despite passing through several shopping areas which, as mentioned prior, often happens by default as you must pass through them, we have also enjoyed visiting several of the night markets, such as the Temple St Night Market and the Ladies’ Night Market. These are all great people-watching places, and it’s interesting to see individuals buying up like there’s no tomorrow. And I am talking locals as well as foreigners, actually, possibly more locals. Hong Kong truly comes alive at night, and it is fascinating to see people shopping obsessively and compulsively…..everything, anything, things that they need and things that they don’t!

Each night the HK’s Victoria Harbour comes alive with “A Symphony of Lights“, which is the largest permanent light and sound show in the world. I must admit that it is truly impressive, with buildings on both sides of the harbour lighting up, and laser beams and lights flickering all over the place. As we are staying close by, we have seen it both in its entirety, as well as in bits and pieces on several other occasions. It’s always full of people, as well as a multitude of photographers ready to take a snap (with their wide angled cameras of course!) of you up against the infamous backdrop of the harbour. Another Hong Kong landmark is the Star Ferry, which takes you across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island in around 7 minutes. Alex and I have used it almost daily. Naturally, the views of both sides of the harbour are pretty impressive, as seen from the water.

We have also done several other things. We visited the Museum of Art, with Hong Kong and Chinese art as its core, as well as the Space Museum, which was fascinating. What lies”beyond us” never ceases to amaze as well as perplex me. We visited both of these places on a rainy day. As it is the rainy season here at present, when it rains, although it may not last for long, it pours! We also did a cruise of the harbour on an old Chinese junk (ship or a large vessel), called the Dukling. These one hour tours of Hong Kong’s infamous bay are free, and are organised by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The particular junk we were on, complete with red sails, is the last sailing junk in Hong Kong, and is one of the country’s most famous icons. Here I met a group of Aussie sisters-in-law, Lee, Janet, Jeanette, Joy and her daughter Emily. What a great bunch. It was great having a chin-wag with some people from the home-land!

Now, it just wouldn’t be fair to say that HK is just one big shopping mall, without at least venturing out to see what lies beyond all of this. So, we decided to do a day trip out to Lamma Island, and were suitably impressed. No skyscrapers here, and only a short ferry ride away it was like another world. It is actually Hong Kong’s third largest island, although it’s only 13.6 square kilometres. The island abounds with seafood restaurants, but also has some great walking and hiking trail. We landed at Yung Shue Wan, and walked the 4 kilometre” family trail” to Sok Kwu Wan where you can then take the ferry back to Hong Kong Island. It was a very pretty and scenic walk. Along the way, we met, and continued to walk with Irina, a Russian/ American working in Hong Kong. It was interesting to hear her point of view on Hong Kong, and the lifestyle one lives here. Along the way we stopped at a shack along the trail selling a tofu dessert. Made by Lamma’s “tofu grandma”, the “Ah Por Fu” (literally, Grandma’s mean curd) was sensational!

As if our short 4 kilometre hike wasn’t enough, we decided to do another trail, which was supposed to be 2 hours round-trip, beginning and culminating at Sok Kwu Wan (which is where the other trail had finished). About 40 minutes into the walk (which was deserted, tranquil and peaceful, as it was 5.00pm and there was nobody else around), we saw another sign saying Ling Kok Shan, and pointing upwards. No heights or times were mentioned, but it couldn’t be that far up….or could it? We began walking, up, and up, and up, and some 20 minutes later, we realised that this was no 2 minutes away lookout. Having said that, we were on the trail now, and as Alex said to me, “You just love a challenge, don’t you Ombs!”. He knows me only too well! I wasn’t going to stop until I hit the peak, which in all fairness was not too far away. As we walked higher and higher, the views over the lush and undulating little island, totally surrounded by water were arresting. Some 40 minutes later we hit the peak (which was 250 above sea level), sweating like we’d run a marathon. The only ones up there, we were presented with a sumptuous sunset, with the sun appearing like an orange ball of fire. I felt so at peace, and once again, I felt like we were being shown a little bit of paradise! As we started to descend, in the other direction, we realised that the trail did not go back down and join onto the original one. As it was getting dark, our only option was to go down the same way we came up. OK, so we did not have a flashlight when we should have, but hey, there’s nothing like an adventure, so we powered down that hill like nobody’s business. Once down, we walked back to the ferry terminal. Easy peasy! Actually, we were knackered! It feels so amazing to be fit and healthy enough to do this! Our bodies are our temples, and we should treat them as such! More than often, we do not. After this, it was a ferry ride back and to bed!

Onto some practical things. We have managed to organise a Vietnamese visa by going directly to the Vietnamese Embassy, and we are now waiting to collect our Chinese one, which we also organised by going directly to the Embassy. We also both managed to get a haircut too. Mine was just a trim, to give it some style, and Alex’s was to reshape his wig! It should be illegal for men to have hair that thick! If I could only have 10% of the hair that Alex has! We found a place called Hair Spa, which looked modern, professional and funky. Sunky did a great job on my hair! (Thanks Sunky, this is the best cut I have had in ages), and Angel an equally good job on Alex’s.

Alex has also finally bought a new pair of hiking shoes. Without going into specifics, he bought a pair of Hi-Tec hiking shoes back in Costa Rica, which pretty much began falling apart from day dot. They came with a company guarantee, regarding what to do should they be defective, complete with a message from a Mr Frank van Wezel, who is the chairman of Hi-Tec Sports, stating that he stands behind this pledge. What a load of hocus pocus! Despite several e-mails to this man about the rapidly deteriorating state of Alex’s shoes, we really got no help whatsoever. I lie, he did say that we could change them in the USA! And of course, we would fly there just to do this. My ensuing e-mails to him were useless, and we got no help or assistance at all. The bottom line is that the care factor was zero! Please take the time to look at the state of Alex’s shoes, and when choosing a brand of footwear, ask yourself if this is what you want! Boo and hiss to Hi – Tec! Frank van Wesel, if you cannot stand behind a promise, don’t make it in the first place!

Finally, we have had a few laughs at some of the wording on different signage we have seen. Rather than being misspelt, it is the way that they actually read in English. You have to appreciate a fashion store being called “Wanko” and a restaurant called “Fu Kee”. What about “Wah Kee” snacks, Pui Kee Arts, and a head lice remover whose brand is “Falic”? But my favourite has got to be the words “Wan Kee” directly beneath a Nike sign! Ya gotta love that! Many of you know only how much that one floated mine (and Alex’s ) boat! So what you have is wanko clothes, wankee shoes and fukee food! I hope no offence is taken here, as I am sure that there are words in English which read in an equally ridiculous manner in some other languages.

A few more days in Hong Kong, and off to China we will go.

Ombi

“I went into a McDonald’s yesterday and said, ‘I’d like some fries’. The girl at the counter said, ‘Would you like some fries with that?’ ” (Jay Leno 1950 – )………I know I am a shit-stirrer, but I just could not resist this one!

NOTE 1: If you have not seen the movie Super Size Me , take a look at it. It chronicles the adventures of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eating nothing but McDonalds for a month. Click onto the McDonalds link here to see what he has to say about his experience! I also recommend a book called Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, which examines the history and growth of fast food restaurants in American culture. Both Alex and I have read it, and admit that it is an intoxicating read!

NOTE 2: It is totally unethical to use children to sell products which are designed for adults, especially cosmetics and clothes. Many well-known brands and companies do this. Of course a child will look “slim” in the clothes……she has neither boobs, hips nor rear! PLEASE say no! Do not buy or support brands that use children to sell their products!

NOTE 3: Although I did not want to make it a focal point of this blog, I would like to add something rather disturbing. Whilst on Lamma Island we saw two ugly, grotesque, obese and brutish men courting two lovely, gorgeous and frighteningly young local girls. These men, obviously cannot “get it” in their own country, so have gone elsewhere to prey on girls who will do anything for that little bit extra…a meal, some jewellery, a pair of shoes perhaps. They almost looked “proud” of their accomplishments. I had to walk away, as I felt so repulsed. It’s times like these that I truly want to turn around, be verbally abusive and/or throw a punch. This vile behaviour is intolerable and nauseating! Maybe I should have said something!!!!!

(Photos: 1.- Man Ho temple, built in 1847. 2.- Anybody for Wanko clothes? Mong Kok. 3.- Wanko clothes part II. 4.- Salad Jeans ….you just can’t see the dressing, so to speak! 5.- Macca’s is crap? Fact or fiction! 6.- Hong Kong harbour, as seen from The Peak. 7.- Shopping spree in Causeway Bay. 8.- Red Moment Coffee Express, Wan Chai. L to R: Dianne, Alex, Ombi, Ivy & Mok. 9.- Calling a spade a spade! The Hong Kong Haemorrhoid Centre. 10.- Symphony of Lights, Victoria Harbour. 11.- The Dukling on Victoria Harbour. 12.- House front on Lamma Island. 13.- Climbing Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island. 14.- Boooooooooo!!!!!!!! Don’t buy Hi-Tecs!. 15.- Who’s up for some fu kee food? 16.- McDonald’s in the park! Where next?)

Our whirlwhind Japanese tour.

We made it back to Paris safely and easily, after which we went “straight” back to the the hotel close to the airport (we had stayed there the night before flying out to Germany). Well “straight” as in all the way back into the centre of Paris, and then straight back to the hotel! Why? Well, it should only have been one stop from the airport, but as we failed to see the “express” sign on the train, we had no choice but to go ALL the way back in, to then have to come ALL the way back out! Neither of us were in the mood for a free joy ride, and adding on more than an hour when you are tired is just plain boring! We were both p!*@! d off, to say the very least. We finally make it though! Needless to say, it was shower and beddy-bye!

From 1997 to 1998 I worked in Japan as an English teacher, first in a place called Tsuchiura (about 60 kilometres south-east of Tokyo) and then in central Tokyo. My dearest friends were, without a doubt, made when I worked in Tsuchiura. Amongst them are Yuko & Yuji
( “Nashville”) Mizushima, the parents of my dear friend Sayuri, who now lives with her husband, Tony, and little boy Kai (with Alyssa on the way!) in Hawaii. Sayuri was one of the Japanese staff at Nova, the English school I worked at, and Tony worked there as a teacher. Some of you may recall that I was in their bridal party in Hawaii, in 2002, just after my own marriage in New York (both happened on the same trip). All of these people constitute yet another one of my special overseas families and yes, we do manage to stay in touch.
We would be arriving in Japan on the evening of the 10th August (Alex’s birthday) and flying out on the 16th. Yes, I know, that is so little time! Unfortunately, we did not have much choice here. We were wait-listed for ages on the Paris to Hong Kong flight (which we had to take in order to proceed on to Japan), but it was fully booked out. Not much leeway on the other side either, as our ticket expires on the 18th August. Decisions, decisions! Alex and I had figured that the easiest way out of this was to do a “whirlwind tour” of Japan, and make it back to Hong Kong, before the expiration date of our one-year ticket. Remember that theoretically we still had Vietnam to Bangkok and Bangkok to Melbourne sectors “to use” which had to be included within that time frame. For all of that to take place, we could leave Japan no later than the 16th. So six days it would be!
I had called Yuko from Morocco a couple of weeks earlier, and told her of our exact plans, and she was so excited. She immediately told us that she and Yuji (Nashville San) would pick us up from Narita Airport. Needless to say, we would be staying at “Bed & Breakfast Mizushima“. Takayuki Okada was one of my old (and favourite!) students in Tsuchiura and we have also remained good friends and in touch over the years. He too would be there to greet us at the airport. It was so good to see the three of them on our exit, and there were hugs all around.
I cannot even begin to tell you how hot and sticky it was during our short sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun. Imagine hot (as in 40 degrees celsius) combined with extremely high humidity. I felt like I was perpetually wet. If I was 20 kilos lighter, I would have considered entering a few wet t-shirt competitions. Of course, I jest, but I am sure you are conjuring up the picture I wish to portray!
On the night of our arrival, we were driven back to Yuko and Yuji’s. On this trip I truly understood why it was so important to worship the air-conditioning god, who would be our saving grace several times over in so few days! If you think air-con is useless (and I too have indeed muttered these words on several occasions), come to Japan in August! Blessed be the air-con god! Before arriving home, we stopped at a place called Coco’s , where we also met Taka (Takayuki), where we had a little snack. It was lovely just to sit down and relax, and once again I felt like no time had passed between us. Whilst it was 5 years since Alex and I had seen Yuko and Yuji, I had not seen Taka since I left Japan 10 years ago. It was after midnight when we finally parted company.
Yuko and Yuji live in Otto-Minami, only kilometres from Tsuchiura, in a typical Japanese house. Most houses in Japan usually have at least one or two rooms with tatami mats (originally made from woven straw) on the floor, and many people sleep on mattresses on the floor called futons, which although appear to be quite thin, are surprisingly comfortable. Alex and I got to experience both the tatami mats as well as the futons at “Bed & Breakfast Mizushima“. The air-con god also played a big role in our room. Again we felt blessed, as the only other time I have felt humidity quite this bad, was when I lived in Japan 10 years ago. It is all devouring, and makes you feel listless.
We had been spoilt in both France and Germany, and this continued in Japan. On a serious note here, I feel so incredibly blessed to have such wonderful and special friends, many of whom have become my family. I personally do not believe at all in the saying that blood is thicker than water. You can choose your friends but not your family! For me, many of these friends have become my “family of choice”, which they have achieved by merit and by choice, and not merely by “chance”. Visiting the many members of my extended family, and which have subsequently become part of Alex’s, has been the highlight of our journey. I can close my eyes and recall so many fabulous times with so many of these amazing people!
After a great night’s sleep we awoke to the buffet breakfast of the century! Yuko truly gave a new twist to the saying, “putting on a spread”! It was indeed such a spread, that you could barely see the tablecloth – miso soup, nori (seaweed sheets), natto (fermented soya beans), bread, pastries, fruit (including blueberries from the garden), vegetables, omelet, yoghurt, tea, coffee……our eyes ogled! Where did we start? And Yuko was the perfect hostess, encouraging us to try everything. I gave it my best shot, but there is only so much that one can fit into “her” stomach. Now, referring to “his” stomach (please step in Alex), a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do. It was a pleasure to watch Alex going hammer ‘n’ tongs and trying everything, and an even greater pleasure watching the complete and utter look of satisfaction on his face. And no, I am NOT jealous that Alex has lost 7 kilos on this trip DESPITE the amount he sometimes eats! Genuinely, Japanese food is sooooooooooooooo good. The flavours are sublime yet tasty, and the Japanese really do understand the concept that you do not have to drench everything in either fat or sugar for it to taste good!
From what Yuko cooked up at home, which was always a culinary delight, both she and Nashville (the Nashville story is coming up soon) spoiled us rotten with constantly taking us out for meals. We ate, amongst many other things, soba noodles, tempura, sashimi and sushi (all traditional Japanese dishes), and even some mighty fine Italian (it was right up there, let me tell you). I told you, those Italians pop up everywhere! I must be honest, despite the fact that I did not have very high expectations of good Italian food in Japan, I was proved very wrong! What we had was excellent!
Yuko and Nashville also took us out on a couple of day trips. The countryside around where they live in beautiful, with lots of Shinto shrines dotting the place. We also visited the Tamatsukuri Rainbow Tower, which ascends 60 metres above above Lake Kasumigaura, which has a superb 360 degree view. Not only can you see Lake Kasumigaura (part of which I used to go walking or jogging around when I lived in Tsuchiura) and Ibaraki’s famous Mt Tsukuba, but on a clear day, you can see Mt Fuji too! (By the way, I climbed Mt Fuji all the way to the top with Tony, Sayuri’s husband 10 years ago).

We also spent a full day with Taka, who drove us around to see some more of the beautiful countryside around Tsuchiura, some old friends as well as new, as well as checking out some of my “old turf”. We passed by Nova in Tsuchiura, where I used to work as an English teacher, as well as the apartment blocks close by where I used to live! So many memories! I had forgotten so much, but the memories came rushing back, quickly and furiously! Alex could only stare at me as I stared at those apartment blocks! A big slab of concrete? Perhaps to some, but this multi-level concrete slab was yet another one of the many reminders of what an extraordinary life I have lived, and indeed continue to live. Whilst I do believe in destiny, I also believe that each person creates her or his own. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the destiny which I had created for myself. And suddenly I felt both very humbled and very proud by what I had and continue to be able to see in this lifetime! My passion for the world, its people and their cultures is innate. I now simply accept the fact that I will never get “rid” of the travel bug. This is the one bug that my system is over “fighting with”, and has learnt to live harmoniously with. It lives in my bloodstream, my heart and my soul, and it does not affect my health. Sometimes it lies dormant, and at other times it vociferously springs back to life, but it is always there!
Taka took us to see Norio, another one of my ex-Nova students from Tsuchiura. He is now married to Yukako, and they have a little baby boy called Yasuke. We had a tranquil couple of hours together, sipping on ice-cold green tea, then coffee as well as Japanese sweets. Later, we all went to Norio’s ranch, as he and his wife are into horse riding and have a few horses of their own. The Japanese countryside is so picturesque, and for some reason the energy so serene.
Later in the day, Taka took us to visit some other friends, the Nitta family. Hotaka and his wife, Mitsuko, are journalists, and they have two beautiful and creative children (a dying breed!), Ayuko (their daughter) and Toya (their son). They live in the countryside of Ishioka, in a gorgeous and traditional Japanese house. An intelligent and vibrant couple, they have shunned “the modern Japanese life” for the simple life, which Hotaka has also written a book about…….maybe Paris (Hilton) should take a leaf out of it! Ha, ha! Their car is not new (uncommon in Japan!), they do not have mobile phones (what, are they freaks?), they do not have a television and the young children do not own Play Stations or X-boxes (is that what they are called, as I am not at all clued up on these things). Our visit with the family was based around Mitsuko pulling out a big map, and having us physically draw on and explain to them all the countries we had visited. The children were not agitated or fidgety at all and asked us lots of questions about our travels. Toya even pulled out a book on animals, and asked Alex to how him all the animals we had seen on our travels. I was flabbergasted! And when we left, both children gave us gifts of origami (traditional Japanese paper folding) which they had personally made . I would be hard pressed to be able to pick even a couple of kids in Australia who might perhaps act in this manner, or do something so imaginative! (Laura and Kylie, you have done a brilliant job with your girls Isabella and Marley. I believe that they would do something like this.Congratulations!)
Although time was limited, we had to visit Tokyo. I mean, how could you possibly come to Japan and not see it? We caught a train in, and spent one long and excessively hot day there, and least managed to see some of it. We got off at Ueno station, and again, the memories came flooding back. Ueno park, close by, had been another former stomping ground, and during the Sakura, or Cherry Blossom season it looks spectacular. As prior mentioned, I was grateful to the air-con god, who greeted us each time we stepped into a station, shop, or enclosed space. The heat outside was stifling and exhausting. Whilst we were in Japan, Tokyo reached its peak highest temperature for that summer, which was was over 43 degrees celsius plus an obscenely high humidity factor. Walking outside was like being in a sauna!
We also spent several hours in Akihabara (a Tokyo suburb) with shops selling everything from mobile phones, to computers, to gadgets that I could not even put a name to. Alex, being a bit of a computer and electronics buff, was in utopia! I was over it by the second or third shop, but hey, it’s all about give and take! I seriously could not cope with all those fluorescent lights, they made me feel druggy and drowsy. Towards the end, even the searing heat of the outdoors was better than those lights. As Alex continued to look at computers and the likes, I tried to “entertain myself” by people watching and observing. I wondered if we were on the brink of an apocalypse, because people were buying as if the world was about to end! Where does it stop? Who has created this “unnecessary need”?
As for the publicity and advertisements…….I asked myself the same question that I had asked myself a million times over whilst living in Japan 10 years ago, ” WHY are the majority of models (in advertisements) caucasian, and IF they are Asian, WHY are they white, and WHY do their eyes look ALMOST like ours?”. This is craziness! Not only are we fed the lie that if we do not buy until we drop (literally!) that we are useless, but people across the world are being told that if they are not caucasian that they just do not cut it! Who, when and why decided this? I think that Asian people are beautiful exactly the way they are! Whatever happened to loving yourself for who you are? I expect and suspect that this must be an extremely difficult task to undertake, when everything around points to the very fact that you are NOT good enough as you are! I am horrified by the number of “whitening creams” (you heard that correctly!), that exist not only in Japan, but in the Asian market…….yes, pop some moisturiser on your face, and get that added bonus of whitening your skin! I am not willing to name the brands, but they include many, from the cheaper to the more costly. I repeat, we are being sold a lie!
I should mention that we also went through Shinjuku (another Tokyo suburb)….more shopping, shops, people, advertising and lies being sold! Where does the madness stop? When do we stop believing that a Gucci handbag or an obscenely priced Lacoste t-shirt is not the ultimate expression of success, or personal freedom, for that matter? And just when you thought the cola “fight” was was over; first there was Coke, then Pepsi, followed by Diet (or Light, depending on your country) Coke and then Diet (or Light) Pepsi. But of course, we then have the whole “my brand’s better then your brand “deal happening, so Pepsi follows with Pepsi Max. Not to be outdone, out comes Coke with its new Coke Zero bandanna! What’s next? Yeh that…….Pepsi “Nex”? (Does this even exist in Australia yet?) Give me a break! Who buys (physically as well as metaphorically) this crap (again, physically as well as metaphorically)!? Same shit (similar, anyway), different brand. Who just got sucked in big time?

Heavy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (That’s what Neil from the Young Ones would have said!) Now onto something lighter. The story of Nashville San. Whilst I was working in Tsuchiura some 10 years ago, Sayuri (who worked at Nova, and is Yuko and Yuji’s daughter) organised a dinner at her house. We all had a great night, and a great spread was put on, with the expected fantastic food and beverages. At first, we were all a little surprised when Yuji came out with a western style shirt, full-on western boots, jeans, ranch hat, guitar, followed by his singing a country and western repertoire, and in English! Brilliant! Encore, encore! He then took us upstairs to show us “the collection”, which included more boots, jeans, shirts and other “western” paraphenalia than you could poke a stick at. He and Yuko had also visited the USA several times, including all of the prime country and westen sites, and he had photos to prove it! In Japanese, the word San is used like Mr or Ms (Mrs or Miss) in English, the difference being that they nearly always use it between each other, as a sign of respect. They do not expect this of foreigners, as they know that our customs are different. On that night, however, I decided that “Nashville San” was a name that suited Yuji perfectly, as it was both playful and respectful. And so, the name Nashville San was both born and coined, and this is what he has gone by eversince. Even his wife and son-in-law, Tony, call him by this name!
We managed to catch up with Taka one more time, and meet his lovely elderly mother too. She was so cute! You will have to take my word on this, as I do not have a picture of her. She told me that she did not like the way she looked on that day! Taka was our translator, as his mum spoke no English, and my Japanese (shamefully, after living there for almost a year) does not go beyond a few basic words. Let’s say that it is non-existant! Saying goodbye to Taka, was also sad, but I know that we will always remain friends.
No sooner had we arrived, than it was time to leave. As we were leaving early on the morning of the 9th (August), Yuko and Nashville San had graciously organised for us to stay at a hotel virtually on the grounds of Narita Airport, where they insisted on driving us the night before. Again, I felt so blessed to have such amazing friends! Not only did they drive us there, but they also took us out for dinner, yet again! This time we went to a sushi bar, you know, where all the little bits and pieces pass you by on conveyor belt type contraption, and you can grab to your heart’s content, until you are full…….and keep going, even if you are are full, just because you can and the taste is so good ! I simply must mention the fact that powdered Japanese green tea is yummy, here or elsewhere.
After dinner, we were dropped off at Narita Airport Rest House, where it was time to say goodbye. We hugged and waved, and hugged again, and thanked Yuko and Nashville San for our memorable few days in Japan. But we will see each other again soon, as they will be visiting Australia next year. Alex and I are looking forward to showing them our beautiful country, as well as returning some of the outstanding hospitality they showed us.
The Rest House was very convenient and comfortable, and I highly recommend it if you have an early morning flight. Needless to say, “getting to the airport” the next morning was a breeze.
August 16th – bound for Hong Kong, and only two days off having completed one year of travelling! Where will we be and what will we do when the ticket expires?
Ombi
Note: Although it’s in Japanese, Taka has a blog too! Check it out and see if you can find a photo of someone you know!

Dedication: Nashville San, Yuko San and Taka, you are all exemplarary friends. Thank you for your hospitality and kindness, which you gave us so freely and openly. Thank you also for enabling us to see, experience and understand a part of the Japanese culture that many foreigners never will. You are very special people, and all hold a very special place in our hearts. Yuko and Nashville San, we await you in Australia with open arms. Taka, you too will always be welcome. May the goodness of the world always surround you. Arrigato for everything!

“Look at what your idea of success would be. The more that you take inexternal motivators, the more it reduces your ultimate satisfaction because it doesn’t come from inside.” – Chris Messina.
(Photos: 1.- Tsuchiura, that’s the place I used to work. 2.- Alex in Hong Kong Airport, opening the gift Michaela gave him in Germany. 3.- Ombi with Yuko San and Nashville San, at “Bed & Breakfast Mizushima”. 4.- Ombi and Takayuki Okada. 5.- Campai! (cheers) Alex and Nashville San enjoying a beer together at home. 6.- The breakfast spread! 7.- Ombi and Yuko “slurping” soba noodles at a soba noodle restaurant, which, by the way, is quite acceptable to do in Japan. 8.- Shinto temple, near Tsuchiura. 9.- “Look Taka and Alex, that’s where I used to live”, Tsuchiura. 10.- L to R: Norio (with baby Yasuke), Yukako, Ombi and Taka. 11.- The simple life! L to R: Hotaka, Toya, Ombi, Ayuko, Mitsuko and Alex. 12.- In a market near Ueno station. 13.- What can I say? ONLY in Japan! Akihabara. 14.- This is what’s “nex”! 15.- Nashville San singing for Alex, surrounded by all his country ‘n’ western paraphernalia. 16.- Ombi and Taka eating dango , a favourite Japanese sweet of mine. 17.- Our last night with the Mizushimas, eating sushi. 18.- Saying our last goodbyes, after we got dropped off at Rest House, Narita Airport. 19.- Catch us we’re falling! Alex and Nashville San at the “bottom” of the Tamatsukuri Rainbow Tower, Ibaraki Prefecture.)

Destiny – seeing Michaela in Germany after 18 years.

I cannot recall at what point we decided that we would visit Germany, or to be exact, visit one of my dearest friends, Michaela. Michaela and I met in Indiana in the USA some 18 years ago, way back when I worked on a summer camp in Indiana. We hit it off from day dot. At the time, Michaela was 19 years old and studying to become a translator. Apart from her effervescent and bubbly personality (you can just imagine how we were drawn to each other), I was stunned at how well she spoke both English and Italian….to the point where I felt her Italian was better than mine! This was the beginning of a very special friendship! I would go and visit her in Germany a few years later, in 1992, but after that it was letters (which eventually morphed into e-mails) and the occasional phone call. Communication was not always necessarily frequent, but we never lost touch!

Before I left Australia, around a year ago, I called Michaela and told her of my forthcoming trip around-the-world. I also told her how how I really wanted to visit, but that I could make no promises, as I simply did not know how much time we would have by the time we reached Europe. I always hoped, but could not see how it could possibly eventuate! I later found out that Michaela always knew in her heart that it would eventuate, and continued to hold on to this belief. I believe that this is a large portion of the reason that we were reunited again, after 18 years!

This is a story about love, friendship and commitment. It reads like something out of a book or a movie, but it is the real-life tale of how a “novel” became a reality. Across the miles, neither Michaela nor I ever lost contact, and our friendship grew stronger. On this trip, hope eventuated into something tangible and real.

I am not sure at what point it happened, but Alex and I started discussing a potential flight to Germany, to visit my long-time friend Michaela. It could not have been much longer than a week before booking the flight! We had originally wanted to spend some 12 days in Japan, leaving Paris, and going via Hong Kong around the 4th of August, but all flights between Paris and Hong Kong were fully booked, our scheduled flight being for the 9th of August. As the time grew closer, although we were wait-listed for the Paris to Hong Kong sector, it was becoming increasingly evident that it was not going to happen. What to do with all those “extra” days then? The solution seemed simple. Why not visit Michaela? I must confess that this had crossed my mind a few times prior, but I pushed it to the back….I mean, we were on a waitlist that would eventuate, right? Wrong! I told Alex of my plan, and we immediately began an internet search for a potentially cheap flight. I would like to say that Lady Luck was on our side, but I truly believe it was destiny. Yes, some really terrific deals were indeed available. It seemed as though the planets were aligned, and ready to offer Michaela and I a gift. Bursting at the seams with excitement, I promptly e-mailed Michaela, and asked her how she felt about receiving some visitors IN a few days FOR a few! Needless to say, the answer was affirmative, but I cannot even begin to imagine what Michaela thought when she received that e-mail.

Over the next few days, I tried to change the date we were flying from Casablanca to Paris. This involved making Madrid only a quick stop-over (originally, we were supposed to be flying from Casablanca to Madrid, stopping for a few days, and then continuing onto Paris). A few e-mails to the Flight Centre in Australia to change the dates on our around-the-world ticket, working out when Michaela was available, and getting a super cheap deal from an airline company called German Wings (2 euros return trip, Paris – Stuttgart plus taxes)……it all seemed to work out, and before we knew it, we had booked a flight to Stuttgart on the 4th August, coming back on the 8th. I couldn’t believe it, and I am not sure that Michaela could either!

Whilst Michaela is not your typical stereotypical German, in that she is very relaxed and easy going, she definitely has that brilliant German attention to detail. She sent me a wonderfully detailed agenda of how and where to go on reaching Stuttgart Airport (that only a German could). We were to catch a train from the airport to the central Stuttgart station, and then another to Karlsruhe. From there she would be waiting “with my arms wide open” ( I have quoted her here) for us. Herxheim, where she and Matthias live is then a half hour car ride away. Too easy!

The flight over was short and comfortable, and I would highly recommend German Wings. On landing, I could hardly contain my excitement, and Alex could clearly see this. Despite Michaela’s detailed information on how and when we would arrive at Karlsruhe, we actually arrived at the Stuttgart central station earlier than anticipated (as we had left the airport earlier…….Michaela had not calculated on us getting our bags so quickly), and thus we could get an earlier train to Karlsruhe, which would arrive an hour earlier. I stumbled over my own feet, in order to get to a phone, and ask Michaela is this was OK. Needless to say it was.

The train ride to Karlsruhe, as expected, was efficient and fast, and needless to say, clean! No need to sit on magazines and cover the headrest with a plastic bag here! Alex could sense my excitement. The hour flew by, so to speak! The train had arrived, on time and to the minute! The people in front of us seemed to take forever to get off! I wanted to push them off! Alex was looking at me, and his eyes said what his mind was possibly thinking, which was that I would be off soon enough! It wasn’t soon enough for me!Finally, we were off, and as I walked with my two backpacks, and with my chest thrust forward, I scanned and strained my eyes until I saw Michaela, waiting with Mathias, her husband. As we screamed (and I do mean screamed, with not the slightest exaggeration) out each other’s names, I hurled my small back pack into Alex’s (waiting!) arms and we ran towards each other, and hugged, and hugged and cried and hugged some more! We were both so emotional! The two husbands stood there and watched, and more importantly, understood! After a few more hugs, and kisses, and certainly more tears, Michaela introduced Mathias to me, I introduced Alex to her, and we introduced the boys to each other! It was like no time had ever lapsed, and I believe that in a true friendship, you can always take up where you left off! Michaela and I looked into each others eyes in a way that belies words. Our hearts and souls captured the moment beautifully!

It was a truly emotional welcome”, and Michaela made us feel at home from the second we reconnected. Our time in Germany was short, but it was a precious reminder that what truly counts in life is quality and not quantity! Michaela and Matthias, live in a typical little “gingerbread house” village, called Herxheim, in the beautiful German countryside. In this neck of the woods there is no smog or pollution, just lots of green rolling hills, vineyards and tranquility! Just what the doctor ordered! (or in my case, perhaps, just what the naturopath ordered…or the chiropractor!). Michaela and I chatted all the way back to Karlsruhe, which was half an hour nonstop…..oh yes, the trip was half an hour, but I am referring to the talking here! The guys did not get a word in sideways! No sooner had we arrived than we were being treated to brunch, including various cheeses, breads, sweet pastries, and excellent coffee (which we continued to indulge on for our entire duration with Michaela). It was good to be “home”; when travelling, special friends, special moments (and Alex would argue, special food!) is the closest we get! The rest of that afternoon was spent on chatting, relaxing and walking around the gingerbread village, with a stopover at “Enzo Tornatore Gelateria”…..those Italians get around! Whilst the others opted for various shades of ice-cream (including milkshakes), I went for, you guessed it, (more!) coffee!

As our next day was a Sunday, we were all able to spend it together. We had two excellent tour guides, and were “escorted” in a personal vehicle. I must say, after months and months of lugging backpacks and food, and jumping from one form of transport to another, this was a refreshing change! First we visited Speyer, and its famous Imperial Cathedral, which is the greatest Roman Church in the world, with construction dating back to approximately 1030 to 1124. The township is another gorgeous little gingerbread village, right on the river Rhine, which we took the time to walk along, but not before stopping for a snack at one of the several eateries, close to the plaza on which the cathedral sits. Later, back in Herxheim, it was snack time again, this time at “Eiscafe Venezia”, this placed owned by Renzo, a Venetian. I told you, they are everywhere those Italians. But as long as they take their good food and drinks with them, that’s mighty fine by me! Here we were joined by Michaela’s parents, who both speak English and Rosemarie speaks Italian too. Again, although it was the first time I had met Rosemarie and Dirk, I felt like I had known them all my life.

On the Monday we were able to catch up on answering some e -mails and other bits and bobs, as Michaela and Mathias were both busy for the day. That night was dinner at “Brauhof” in Landau, some 10 kilometres from Herxheim. It brought back so many good memories, as it is one of the places I had come to eat with Michaela, all those years ago (at the time she was living in Landau). Alex tells me that the beer was excellent! It would want to be! This IS Germany! My enormous baked potato, was bursting at the seams with a variety of different veggies and cheese. No skimpy portions in this country!

Our second last day (minus Mathias, unfortunately) we were treated to a phenomenal breakfast at Cafe Ruelzheim in Landau, by Dirk and Rosemarie. It was almost like an English breakfast with tea….but this was a German breakfast with coffee…..as well as bread, fresh pretzels, home-made marmalade, a variety of cheese, cut meats, and fruit. We have been so spoiled lately. This would be the last time I would see Dirk and Rosemarie. What truly wonderful people! When my mum was alive she would say, “Dimmi con chi vai, e ti dico chi sei”, which loosely translates to, Tell me with whom you go and I will tell you who you are. In those days, I would scoff a little, as mum was always full of anecdotes and sayings with meanings and morals…… probably because she was nearly always right! But as I hugged them both before we parted company, and cried, I told them that it was clearly evident why Michaela was such a wonderful human being. Travelling can sometimes bring sad moments, but they are without a doubt overshadowed by the happy ones. I have so many special “footprints” in my heart. I hope it’s big enough to hold them all. I think so!

Later that afternoon, it was on to visit a “shoe city” (Hauenstein). It had more shoe shops in a solitary area than I had ever seen. We also passed some very impressive castle on clifftops, including Trifels Castle. From the distance, it looked exactly as a medieval German Castle should, large and imposing. Later, some more sightseeing around the region where Michaela lives, including Leinsweiler, located in the German wine district (Weinstrasse). Again, more gingerbread houses…..I was waiting for Hansel and Gretel to pop out of one of them! There is something serenely tranquil and soul-lifting to be amongst such lushness and greenery, with so few people, with spectacular vistas and to not only be in the moment, but to be part of that moment.

Our few days in Germany were going far too quickly. We had all bonded so well, and both Mathias and I as well as Michaela and Alex, had some long and interesting conversations, well into the early hours of the morning. On Wednesday, our last morning, we got up at 7.00am so that we could have breakfast with Mathias, as he was leaving early, and it would be the last time we saw him. Mathias and I had become firm friends over the last few days, and I was so incredibly happy that Michaela had met somebody who was her soul-mate and such a terrific person.

Oh, and somewhere in amongst the eating, eating and more eating, we went to Alexandros Greek restaurant in Herxheim. It was run by a Greek family, whose four sons all played a part, from cooking, to waitering to being behind the bar and serving terrific espresso coffee (you Greeks are catching up on how to create a good shot of liquid gold, hey!). It was exactly like watching a Greek family in Australia, but here Greek was interspersed with German rather than English. That old adage is so true: “You know where you are born, but not where you will die!” Efcharisto for a delicious meal, and all that ouzo and espresso!

We knew that our time was wrapping up, and on that last morning, whilst Alex kept himself busy with the computer, Michaela and I had some D ‘n’ M (deep and meaningful) conversations about a number of things, as well as watching “The Secret” together, which was both uplifting and inspiring. We truly can do ANYTHING we want to do, but we need to believe in both ourselves and the fact that it is possible! Lots and lots of food for thought.

Finally, it was time for Michaela to drive us to Karlsruhe, from where we would catch the train back to Stuttgart, and then the plane back to Paris. As we hugged goodbye, we both felt a wave of serenity…….”This is not goodbye, it’s merely until we see each other next time”. And we will see each other “next” time! I await you both in Melbourne….with the exact open arms that you greeted me with on my arrival in Germany! Until we meet again Michaela! And we will meet again!

Ombi

Dedication: To my beautiful and special friend Michaela, and yes, you are indeed my soul sister. Thank you for a brilliant, short but impressionable few days in Herxheim. It was above and beyond a pleasure to connect with you again, and meet your gorgeous husband Mathias, as well as your parents Dirk and Rosemarie. I felt like I had known all of them my entire life. Thank you for believing that reconnecting was possible and part of our destiny. Know that you occupy a very special place in my heart, and that neither distance nor time will ever divide us. It’s “The Secret”…….close your eyes……..and I will be there! – Baccioni carissima amica!

Next: Our fleeting but memorable time in Japan.

” I have found that if you love life, life will love you back”. – Arthur Rubinstein (1886 – 1982)

(Photos: 1.- This is what Michaela had to say about me 18 years ago! 2.- Michaela and Ombi, renited. 3.- What gives you the feeling we were so happy to see each other? 4.- Having a snack on the train from Stuttgart to Karlsruhe. 5.- Did I mention what a great cook Michaela was? Ombi, Michaela and Matthias in their apartment in Herxheim. 6.- Life in Speyer, with the cathedral in the background. 7.- Alex having a beer, Speyer. 8.- Outside Cafe Ruelzheim, with Rosemarie, Dirk and Michaela. 9.- Hansel and Gretel, oops Michaela and Ombi, outside a gingerbread house, German wine district. 10.- Ombi and “the boys” at Alexndros Greek Restaurant. L to R: Theo, Ombi, Dimi and Pasqualis, Herxheim. 11.- Ombi and Mathias relaxing on the Rhine, near Speyer. 12.- A “group” photo…..sorry, someone has to take the photo, this time it was Mathias.)

Our even briefer flirtation with France.

We were arriving to France on the evening of the 1st of August and flying out to Germany on the evening of the 4th. That really was not going to give us much time in the land that made baguettes and camembert cheese famous , but we were about to give it our best shot. It’s the only way we know how!

We were so relieved to see Eva there waiting for us. It had been hard yakka, the last 24 hours! Eva is a lady that we met in Mexico a few months earlier. Alex and I were extremely impressed by the fact that she was travelling alone, and doing things that “people of her age” often don’t do. I had looked at Eva, and figured, as well as hoped, that down the line, I would be doing exactly the same thing as she was………still travelling!

Before we knew it, we had bundled all of our luggage into her car, and were on our way to her house. She lives in Chilly-Mazarin, some 17 kilometres south of Paris, and only some 7 kilometres from the train station where we were being picked up from. The scenery was lush and green and undulating. It felt very peaceful and tranquil. The calm after the storm! In no time at all we had arrived at Eva’s apartment, where we were escorted to “our room”. We then had a delicious dinner that Eva had prepared for us, including baguette, a variety of French cheeses, and a spinach pie. Yum! Did I mention the red wine! What a pleasant change from the monotonous and repetitive tagine and couscous dishes we had had in Morocco.

With only two days in Paris, Eva told us that she would take us sightseeing. Luckily for us, although August is hot in Europe, it is also the month that the locals go away on holiday, which means that one can drive around with relative ease, as opposed to this virtually being an impossibility during the other 11 months. So, we spent two fun filled days, packing in both picnic lunches as well as sights! This is my second time here, but Alex’s first, and so we set out to do, amongst other things, the Parisian “must dos”.

On our first day, we headed into the city, and our first stop was a picnic at Park Monceau, a park which seemed rather more English than French, but nonetheless, a serene spot to have our lunch. Also a fine spot to people watch. Next was the area of Montmarte, perhaps mostly well known for the famous church of Sacre Coeur. The entire area was abuzz with WAY too many tourists paying WAY too much for food and drinks in a very “oh to be seen area”. I can never wrap my head around those tacky “I will paint or draw or make your face into a cartoon” numbers that always ONLY seem to take 5 minutes, and are ALWAYS ludicrously costly! Horses for courses! Sacre Coeur is undoubtedly a Parisian landmark, not only due to its magnificent edifice, but also due to its location, on the highest point in the city. The views are superb; a sentiment undeniably shared by the hordes of other visitors there as well.

Now, what would a trip to Paris be without a visit to the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysees and the ultimate French global icon, the Eiffel Tour? The tower is 324 metres tall and weighs 10 100 tons. Impressive stats, I thought! They are all must dos anyway, and so we did them all! And what a pleasure it was to have a car, as we were able to do them all…cruising! We did stop near the Eiffel Tower, however, and walk around it. Despite all its publicity, and the fact that it has been done to death, it truly is quite a spectacular structure. And to think that when it was first built in 1887, the French thought that it was ugly and an eye-sore! Oh, how things have changed! Say France or French, and the words “Eiffel Tower” will undoubtedly be the next two to tipple off your tongue! We saw Notre Dame too, albeit in the distance. That counts, doesn’t it? Finally, we visited the Les Invalides, which is a complex of buildings and gardens pertaining to France’s military history. It also houses the tomb of Napoleon. This was another pleasant place to stroll through.

After all of this, we were rather tired, and so decided to go back home. Back in Eva’s comfortable apartment, in a serene area, we relaxed, ate, chatted, and used “Internet Eva”.

Day 2 was another fun filled, if not full-on day. After a bit of a sleep in and a blithe breakfast we were off again. Eva had graciously packed us another picnic lunch. Today, we actually went past lots of places, many of which I cannot recall, but I do remember thinking how exclusively French so many of the buildings looked. We went past the Railway Houses, which housed the city’s railway workers in times bygone, as well as visiting the city’s Botanical Gardens, complete with wallabies……for visiting Aussies, no doubt! Here, we strolled around and had a picnic lunch. It was then onto Place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution supposedly took place. We then took a pleasant walk along the Canal St Martin. The last stop on day 2, was the Place des Vosges, with its flamboyant Gothic architecture. The square, surrounded by 36 symmetrical townhouses, was built some 400 years ago. It’s in a rather trendy part of town, and quite pleasant to stroll around, and again, people watch. Paris offers so much in the way of culture, design and history. To say that we did it all in 2 days would be ludicrous, but I think we managed to get a reasonable overview. The insights afforded to those who spend more time in a place, however, were this time not available to us….precisely due to the very fact, that we simply did not have the time!

We finished up our day with a great Indian (or was it Pakistani, Eva?) meal, in a place that was good value and had great tasting food, in humble surroundings. Just the way we like it! By this time, it was almost 8.00pm, and Eva dropped us off at the closest train station, from where we took a train to a hotel we had booked very close to Charles de Gaulle Airport. All we needed was a place to crash for the night, as we had to get up early to fly to Stuttgart, Germany, the next morning.

We arrived at Premier Classe Roissy at around 10.00pm. We checked in, showered and went to bed. Small, clean and extremely cheap by Parisian standards (29 euros), it was really all we needed. If you need a place to stay near Charles de Gaulle Airport, we highly recommend it.

After 2 days of “been there, done that” we fell asleep, totally exhausted!

Ombi

NOTE: Alex and I would like to sincerely thank you Eva, for all that you did for us during our brief stay in Paris. We would never have been able to see all that had we tried to do it ourselves. So, thank you, thank you, thank you! We hope we can repay the favour when you come back to visit us in Australia!………Eva actually knows Australia well, having worked there as a nurse….was it in the 6o’s, Eva? She has also revisited Australia on a number of other occasions. Come again, you will always be welcome!

Next: Our brief flirtation with yet another country continues. This time, Germany!

“People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have. ” – Anne Tyler (1941 – ).

(Photos: 1.- Ombi and Eva outside Place des Voges. 2.- The infamous Parisian metro. 3.- Montmatre, with Sacre Coeur in the distance. 4.- The Eiffel Tower, and the throngs who come to visit it. 5.- Reminiscent of years bygone – the area near Place de Vosges. 6.- Again, Place de Vosges – definitely one of Paris’s most romantic spots. It’s exactly what you would expect Paris to be, and exactly as you imagine that it once was!)

At last some R ‘n’ R, and then back to Europe.

Our final stop in Morocco would be Essaouira, a gorgeous and relaxing spot on the Moroccan coast. I never thought I could get so excited by a place which was so windy during the day, and in which you had to cover up at night due to it becoming so cool. Quite a refreshing (ha, ha!) change to the blistering heat we had experienced in the last few weeks. Here we stayed in two great places, each with their own particular charm. The first was “Dar Al Bahar“, which means house by the sea. As its name suggests, it is right on the sea! It is owned by the extremely congenial Lise and Jean-Claude, a spirited Dutch/ French couple, who have travelled the world, and have decided to stop a while in Morocco. For how long? They do not know! That’s the spirit! Breakfast is served on the upstairs open patio, overlooking the sea. What can I say!

The other place we stayed in was “Lalla Mira“, owned and run by another amiable German lady called Fely who fell in love with the town from the first time she visited it. Now, this was a place with a difference. Built from scratch, it was designed from the outset with environmentally-friendly building and living in mind. A buffet breakfast of home made goodies was included, as well as free usage of the hammam (communal washing baths) next door. We also had dinner there, and might I add that it was possibly the best food we had in Morocco. The fact that it had Apart from being such a lovely and luxurious break for Alex and I, it was a pleasure to support a place that really does subscribe to responsible tourism. Please take a look at Lalla’s web site, by clicking on the link above.

We really just took it easy in Essaouira, walked along the beach, caught up on our blogs, wandered through the markets and streets (which was actually possible here, as it predominantly came without the hassle of most of the other places), tried different foods, went to the hammam, did a bit of shopping…….

Speaking about food in this country, I have not really talked much about it, have I? Being on the Mediterranean, fruit, dried fruits & nuts, and olives are in abundance. Prickly pears are absolutely all over the place, as are baguettes and other French pastries (due to the French influence), not to mention roti bread, which is often made fresh, before your very eyes. Whilst couscous ( a carbohydrate dish made from tiny balls of semolina) and tagines ( a bit like the Moroccan version of the Aussie crock pot and stew) are both staples as well as high up on the menu list. Finding them without meat can be a challenge though. So, for a non-meat eater, the cuisine can become tiring. I must say, that some of the best Moroccan food we have tried actually comes from Melbourne, Australia. Hana’s Moroccan Soup Bar, is in Fitzroy. If you haven’t been there, you are definitely missing out! Go there and tell Hana we sent you!

Finally, it was time to leave. Although we were flying out of Casablanca, we decided that, on this trip, we would not actually visit it. We also made a few other changes. The original plan was to fly to Paris, via Madrid, spending a few days in the former as well as a few in the later, before continuing on to Japan via Hong Kong, but, all in the space of a few days, we made lots of changes.

This is what we ended up deciding on (remember D-Day……August 18th): We would fly from Casablanca to Paris on the 1st of August, where we would spend a couple of days with our friend Eva. Then we would visit my friend Michaela in Germany, which would require a Paris-Stuttgart return flight (which we did by organising an extra but promotional fare with German Wings). Back to Paris for a day, and then on to Japan via Hong Kong, leaving on the 9th of August and arriving on the 10th. Finally, we would take a flight back to Hong Kong on the 16th. In theory, we were then supposed to get a connecting flight to Vietnam on that same day, make our way overland to Bangkok, and then fly back to Melbourne on the 18th. Think it sounds impossible? It’s all about strategic manoeuvres, and so needless to say, the buck (well, the one year around-the-world buck anyway!) “stopped” in Hong Kong………….

So, let me show you what 24 hours in the travelling life of Ombi and Alex looked like between the nights of July 30th and the 1st of August……(Big Sigh!!!!!!!)…..here goes:

11.00 pm. Leave Essaouira. Bus stops in a few places, so sleep is disturbed.

4.30 am. Arrive in Casablanca. It’s early, but the place looks huge. We hang around the bus terminal trying to get some information on how to get to the airport.

5.40 am. Catch a taxi from the bus terminal to the train station.

6.10 am. Catch train from station to airport, about 30 kilometres away.

7.00am. Arrive at Casablanca airport.

10.50 am. “Supposed” to leave Casablanca – going to Paris (Airport Charles de Gaulle ) via Madrid.

11.50 am. Plane delayed an hour, new departure time 11.50 am.

……. so we arrive in Madrid an hour late. Madrid airport is a monstrosity……we run like psychos to catch the connecting flight to Paris……………and miss it…….huff, puff, huff, puff…….

3.00 pm. We are told that we have been placed on another flight an hour later…..but that we will be going to another airport, Paris-Orly, which is in the south of Paris (the other airport is in the north). What about our luggage? No problems, it will go to Paris Orly. Phew! And what about meeting Eva (who is coming to pick us up!) at Antony station? Another saving grace…….we are much closer to Antony train station coming in at Paris-Orly than the Charles de Gaulle. Phew…again!

6.30 pm. Arrive at Paris-Orly. Would our bags REALLY be waiting for us? I would believe it when I saw it! Waiting, waiting, waiting……

7.00 pm. Bags arrive! Yay!

7.15 pm. Catch the train to Antony, which only takes 7 minutes (can you believe it!!!!!!) from Paris-Orly. It would have taken well over an hour from the other airport.

7.22 pm. Arrive at Antony , and by the time we walk out of the train station it’s 7.30 pm on the dot, much to Eva’s surprise! How did we do it, she asks….she was expecting us a little later!

Sigh, sigh, sigh………………”It’s a long story, I tell her!”, as we all jump into her car. The French countryside looks gorgeous and we feel our bodies relaxing almost immediately!

Dedication: To our amazing travel agent Jessica Shakespeare, who is based at the Flight Centre in Northland (Melbourne, Australia). She has gone above and beyond the call of duty, by helping us out in whatever way humanely possible. Not only was she brilliant in helping us with the mammoth task of “where to go, what to see and how to do it”, before leaving Australia, but she continued to help us out for the duration of our one-year ticket, and often at very short notice. Thanks a million Jess! You are one in a million, and Alex and I want you to know how very much we appreciate everything you have done for us. It has not gone by unnoticed!

Next: Zipping through France (Paris, to be exact!), Germany and Japan.

Note: Eating so many prickly pears brought so many good memories flooding back. As a child, visiting my (now late) Nonna (grandmother) often involved picking them off the tree in her backyard (when they were in season), and eating them to saturation point. It only seems like yesterday! That phrase alone is proof of how many years have indeed passed since then!

Ombi

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning”. – Albert Einstein. (and I would add “learning onto the end of that).

(Photos: 1.- View of Essaouira, as seen from Dar Al Bahar. 2.- Ombi and Alex wearing jilabas (easy to slip on and off when going to the hammam). 3.- A tagine, which describes both the clay dish and the goodies inside it. 4.- Ombi eating prickly pears…..yum! 5.- Shopping, Essaouira style. 6.- Unlimited sympathy for these creatures – in the last year, we have felt and looked like this many a time. 7.- Ombi and Hassan…..another day, another city!).