Catching up with old friends in Buenos Aires

Protest in Buenos Aires.

Argentina certainly ain’t the cheap place it used to be … well it was expensive, then cheap, and now, well it’s certainly not the place to get your bargains! Argentina has had a tumultuous last ten or fifteen years, but I do not even want to get into the politics. The last time Alex and I had been to Buenos Aires (apart from overnight a few weeks back) was in 2000 on our way back ‘home’ when Alex had decided to come and live with me in Australia. We were arriving early on Monday morning and would be leaving the following Saturday. I know, not a lot of time, but we were here on a mission – to catch up with three sets of very, very dear friends.

Market in San Telmo.

The flight from Quito to Buenos Aires (BA) was rather uneventful, in that all went well and we arrived safely. Leaving Ecuador always has me reflecting on my time there, Alex’s time there and life in general, and it’s always hard. I have, over the years, come to terms with the fact that I will always straddle the two continents in which I live and visit frequently. It’s just the way it is! We arrived in BA early on Monday morning, and we now knew exactly how to get to Charo’s house in the beautiful and historic San Telmo … fork out $40.00 for a taxi.  Too expensive?  The only option, unless of course you want to spend two and a half hours on a bus (instead of half an hour in a taxi) with copious lugguge. Not an option.

Charito & Ombi in BA.

Although it was just after 9.00am when we arrived, Charo (very dear friend number 1!) was at work. We had already organised with her to get the key from the porter of the building when we arrived. We were both knackered and so we took ourselves upstairs and had a rest … well, a few hours of sleep. Charo only works half days so that afternoon was a very lazy one; shooting the breeze and talking about times gone by. How did we know Charo? I met Charo in 1999 in Colonia Suiza (Uriguay) when I was backpacking through South America. She was there with her late husband, Piero, a gem of a man. I was sitting at the table of the gorgeous hostel we were staying in and writing furiously. Not sure how it happened, but I soon started chatting to Charo, or Charito as we fondly call her, and we realised that we had a lot in common, including that we could both speak the same three languages; English, Italian and Spanish (although how well I could actually speak Spanish only a couple of months into my South American sojourn remains debatable). Before I knew it, I had met Piero (who had migrated to Argentina from Naples many years ago) and we started to talk in all three languages … about everything and anything. As the saying goes, the rest is history! From that day on I kept in touch with both Piero and Charo, and Alex was able to meet them both as we passed through BA in August 2000 on our way back to Melbourne. Soooooo many good memories!

Musicians in Parque Lezama.

Alex and I both felt tired on that first day in Buenos Aires, so we took it really easy. San Telmo is the oldest barrio, or neighbourhood, in BA. Set around Plaza Dorrego, it’s a gorgeous place and characterised by its colonial buildings, cafes, tango parlours and antique shops. Its cobblestone streets make it all the more atmospheric; lots of artists and artisans and great for people watching (a renowned favourite pastime of mine). Charo and I also walked through the very picturesque Parque Lezama (Lezama Park). Again, a great experiment in people-watching; we saw everything from skate boarders to artists to guitar players to homeless people. I want to add here that the economic situation in Argentina is dire at the moment and that there is thus a huge problem with homeless people.

L to R: Gaby, Nico, Alex, Gonzy, Flopy & Faby.

Mid-week we would be going out to visit my friend Fabiana (very dear friend number 2!) and her family who live about 40 kilometres from the city centre. I met Faby when I was backpacking in Europe when I was twenty-something (only a few years ago!). We travelled through parts of Europe together and had a blast! We have remained friends ever since!

As with all of my Argentine friends, the last time I saw Faby was in 2000, when we also met her husband Gabriel (Gaby) and son Nicolas (Nico). At the time they were living in Palermo, in the centre of BA. Since then they have added Gonzalo (Gonzy) and Florencia (Flopy) to their brood.  What a wonderful family! They live on a spacious property in the country, which we easily accessed by bus. Faby came to pick us up from the bus stop with her youngest, Flopy, and it was as though no time had passed. We only stayed an afternoon and a night but we really made the most of it. We went to the local park with the kids, played outside, had afternoon snacks in their backyard, had a great dinner with the family, and Faby and I reminisced about old times. Just not long enough!  Before we knew it, the next morning we were back on the bus making our way to BA.

L to R: Brenda, Julian, Charo, Julia, Ombi & Nico.

That night Charo organised an impromptu dinner at her place with some of her nieces and nephews, Julia, Juliana and Brenda. It was great … everyone simply rocked up with some food and started cooking.  I felt right at home! We ate, chatted and chilled out, but like all good things the night came to an end all too quickly!

Tango in La Boca.

As Alex and I love walking and exploring we still managed to do a bit of that, including Puerto Madero (like a Southbank meets Docklands) and La Boca, a colourful neighbourhood which has its roots in the settlement of Italian immigrants. It’s not the safest neighbourhood in BA (I was mugged there in 1999 … but I chased my muggers and got most of my things back!  As you do!) and I could not believe how over-touristy and commercial it had become.  It was OTT and streaming with tourist buses, as people crowded the streets to get a glimpse of the colourful houses and couples dancing tango. It’s also known to soccer-mad fans as the home to the Boca Juniors, one of the world’s best known soccer clubs.

Un besote para mi Diego!

Along with Charo, we also caught up with Diego (very dear friend number 3!) and had a great coffee at El Gato Negro. I had I met Argentine Diego when we were both living in Quito in 1999–2000. My fondest memories of Diego are of us dancing together (many, many times!) Again, it was like no time had ever passed, as we talked about, well, what we had been doing for the last ten years or so!  We organised to go out for dinner, along with his partner Federico (whom I’d not met before) on Friday night.

With Caro & Luis at Cafe Oui Oui.

Time was simply going too quickly, and I still had to catch up with Carolina (very dear friend number 4!) I also met Carolina on my European backpacking trip, but not at the same time as I met Fabiana (they actually met each other through me in 2000). Hope I have not confused you. Luckily we got to meet up a couple of times as well as meeting her lovely and kind-spirited partner, Luis. Again, not enough time!  Caro took us to a gorgeous cafe called Oui Oui in a neighbourhood called Palermo Hollywood, and yes, the coffee as well as the company was excellent. We both had tears in our eyes as we said goodbye.  This is the thing that I like least about travelling. Having said that, when I think about the calibre of some of the people I have met on my travels, I feel very lucky. It’s not quantity, but quality.

L to R: Alex, Diego & Fede.

I could feel this trip quickly coming to an end and before we knew it we were catching up with Diego and his partner Federico on the Friday night. We had a relaxed night chatting but we were accutely aware that tomorrow it would be all over red rover! Federico and Diego live in a fantastic little place in San Telmo, overlooking all the action.  I loved it!

Having a coffee with Roberto, Gladys & Charo.

Ah, last but not least, I want to mention Charo’s parents, Roberto and Gladys.  They live in the same apartment as Charo in San Telmo, so we saw them frequently in our week there. What wonderful people.  They made us laugh and kept us entertained and Gladys, you are a great cook!  Roberto had us keeling over with some of his expressions and anecdotes. Highly intelligent and not backwards in coming forwards. Both in their 80s … I want to be like them when I grow up!

Saturday morning had arrived. We went out with Charito to do some last minute shopping; we bought some alfajores (sweet biscuits filled with caramelised milk – there are a number of variations) and dulce de leche (caramelised milk), which in my opinion is the pinnacle of culinary utopia. Bags packed, we said our goodbyes to Charo, Gladys, Roberto and Nico (Charo’s nephew who was also living in the house). I would miss them all.

Yep, I had to bin it!

The ride to the airport on a Saturday morning with minimal traffic hardly took any time at all. All went smoothly, and we made it through all the filters with our newly purchased goods … until … just before we boarded the plane. For some unknown reason they have an extra check point at the airport in BA. What, we could not take on our 500 gram jar of dulce de leche (sweetened caramelised milk)! It was over the maximum allowance (50 grams max, I think). I am going to say it as it is … I was spewing! Could I … perhaps, open it up, and smear it into a few zip lock bags? No!!! I could eat it, right? Yes!!!  Sigh! I ripped it open and had a few mouthfuls before ditching it. I mean how many spoonfuls of caramelised milk can one have in a single hit?  I think I made it to three!  Yeh, I suppose worse things really could happen in life!  Can you tell that I REALLY love dulce de leche?

The flight back home was tranquil, but this time I did not sleep much as we were flying early afternoon and would be arriving  in Melbourne at 9.30pm. As it worked out we got into Sydney a little later, which meant that we missed our connecting flight to Melbourne. No biggie, we just caught the next available flight and got in to Melbourne at 10.30pm. We had already cleared customs in Sydney, so we were ready to go when we landed in Melbourne!  Dad’s taxi service was there to pick us up, as always.  Thanks Dad.

Dad dropped us off and we went straight to bed.  We were exhausted! Poor Alex had to go to work the next day!

Ombi

View from Charo’s apartment window in san Telmo.

Dedication: To my wonderful Argentine friends whom I have come to know and love: Charito, Piero (not with us physically but always in our hearts), Gladys, Roberto, Carolina, Fabiana and Diego. Thank you for your love and friendship – you all mean the world to us and occupy a very special place in our hearts.

Dedicacion: Para mis amigos argentinos maravillosos, quien he podido conocer y amar: Charito, Piero (no esta con nosotros fisicamente pero siempre esta en nuestros corazones), Gladys, Roberto, Carolina, Fabiana y Diego. Gracias a todos ustedes por su amor y amistad – cada uno de ustedes es muy importante para nosotros y ocupan un  lugar muy especial en nuestros corazones.

Books read:


Outrageous Fortunes – The Twelve Surprising Trends that will Reshape the Global Economy by Daniel Altman

“Don’t be dismayed at goodbyes, a farewell is necessary before you can meet again and meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends” – Richard Bach.

Next: Ecuador’s turn to ‘visit’ Australia – our niece comes to Australia.

Who counts in Argentina?

Ombi with Florencia (Flopy) outside her home.

Alex and Roberto.

With Faby drinking mate (pronounced ma-tay).
Drinking mate at Faby’s place.
Picturesque window in La Boca.
Ombi and Charo in downtown BA.

Philosophising at El Gato Negro with Diego and Charo.
With Caro … just like old times.
Ombi and Gladys.
Alex in La Boca.
In the streets of Buenos Aires.

Ecuador, Ecuador and more Ecuador.

Our niece Isabella … cute as a button!
Alex and our nephew Axel.

We had so much fun in the ‘full house’ we stayed in for three and a half weeks in Ecuador. We laughed, we cried, we shared and I fell more in love with my new little niece, Isabella, by the day. I love all my nieces and nephews equally, but it was the first time we ‘met’ Isabella (as opposed to goo and gaa at her over skype). Whilst it made me happy to see that little bundle of joy giggling and smiling at me, I was also accutely aware that it would end soon enough, and that I would have to revert back to watching her grow over Face Book and skype.  How things have changed!  (Geez, now I sound like my mother). I love Ecuador and I love my family there.

Ombi and Axel.

What didn’t we do whilst we were there?  Apart from lots of socialising, eating and doing things such as visiting the dentist (way cheaper than back at home) we spent lots of quality time just hanging out.  On our second weekend in Ecuador, all of Alex’s family on his mum’s side was invited to go to Ibarra to a party that Humberto (Alex’s mum’s first cousin) and his wife would be hosting. The idea was that various groups would go in several cars or vans and meet up there.  We would be going with Tio (uncle) Gustavo and his family in his van. We were supposed to get picked up early Saturday morning … did you hear that ….’early’ … well, early for Ecuador was around 10.00am.  Not bad I thought! And off we went, van chockers!

The Middle of the World.

Ah, the beauty of my second home never ceases to amaze me. After getting through the (normal) and ridiculous amount of inner city traffic, we started to weave in and around the mountains, which is what you need to do to get anywhere in a mountainous country. The visuals are always breathtaking and rarely disappointing! We would pass through the ‘middle of the world’ as well as the famous Otavalo market, but not before a pit-stop in Cayambe, which is renowned for its queso de hoja y biscochos (cheese wrapped in leaves and crumbly, savoury biscuits). Trust me, they are delish! We finally made it to Otavalo, and all the memories came

Freshly made bizcochos, Cayambe.

flooding back. I was transported to 1999 and my travels around South America, of which I have a multitude of poignant memories. I first came here as a ‘gringa’ (foreigner) and now some twelve years later, here I was with my Ecuadorian family.  I was now on the other side of the fence, a defector!? Who would have thought all those years ago that Ecuador would become such a huge part of my life. Amidst the hustle and bustle, I pondered and absorbed … life, hey!

An Otavalena selling her wares.

I love Otavalo, I really do.  Boasting one of the best handicrafts and textile markets in the world, its bright and colourful goods and people hold a very special place in my heart. Although goods are sold every day the market days are officially Wednesdays and Saturdays, especially Saturdays, where the central Plaza de Ponchos fills up with people from all over the world haggling for a bargain. It’s mostly all good-natured though, and the vendors will usually give you a rebaja (discount), unless your request is totally unreasonable. Over the years I have come to know what things are worth, and so I am able to get a reasonable price pretty much off the bat. Age and

Otavalena food vendor.

maturity, however, have also also taught me that that last dollar means far more to the vendor than the buyer, so whilst an ‘amicable haggle’ is fun, I am always very aware that that last dollar means far more to the vendor than the buyer. We all had fun and bought lots of bits and bobs.

Peguche Waterfalls.
The family at Humberto & Karina’s house, Ibarra.

Time to move on, but not before a brief stop to the Peguche Waterfalls only a couple of kilometres from Otavalo . We made it to Ibarra by just after 6.00pm, where we were warmly greeted by Humberto and his wife Karina. What ensued was a night of feasting and merriment. We ate, we drank, we danced, and … drank and ate and danced some more! I was even given a special vegetarian plate. I was particularly exhausted, but even between power-naps on the couch, I was up and dancing. There was a massive congregation and the partying went on until the wee hours of the morning; I am sure that I did not get to bed before 4.00am. Humberto’s house is quite large, and we slept wherever we could find a bed or a spot … somehow, we all found a spot! In the morning we were all treated to a cooked breakfast. We had all been treated like royalty. And like all good things our fun came to an end, and we had to all go back home. Needless to say that Sunday night was a very early night.

Alex’s Uncle Gustavo and Auntie Marcia have a beach house on the coast in Rio Verde, and we were invited to go. Again, it would be a family affair with quite a number of us going up. Unfortunately Alex’s sister, Karen, and husband, Christian, could not go as they had to work, but Alex and I went with Rocio (Alex’s mum), sister Angie and niece and nephew Denisse and Axel. We took an overnight bus and were greeted in the early hours of the morning by Alex’s uncle Gustavo. What a great place!  It was like something out of the movies. Gustavo had built it himself out of timber. It had that really relaxed and isolated feel about it. Despite my many trips to Ecuador over the past ten years, it was the first time I had ever been here. And yet again (as often

Outside the beach house, buying some fish from the locals.

happens in Ecuador) I fell in love with the place! We all put in some money which went towards having three home cooked meals a day. Fabiola was a local and our ‘master chef’ … I had patacones (fried green plantains) coming out of my ears by the end of our five day stay there, but … I was not complaining.  I love patacones and always ensure that I get as many into me as I can in Ecuador, as plantains are not that easy to find in Australia.

Five days of sleeping, eating, going to the beach, going to various watering holes, sunbaking and going for runs along the beach. Ah, this is the life! What I loved most about Rio Verde was how unassuming it was; rather than a bustling tourist metropolis, it was a quiet and local backwater. This is MY kind of tourism.

L to R: Dad Hugo and Alex with brothers Piero & Rodrigo.
With Daniel and Dani and baby Felipe.

Time was going by way, way too quickly. We managed to see Alex’s dad, Hugo, a couple of times, but unfortunately he was busy working interstate a lot of the time. We also caught up with his brother Rodrigo, his grandad, Papa Jacinto, and a number of other family members on his dad’s side. Time is NEVER our best friend in Ecuador, and it’s hard to pack it all in in such a short amount of time. We gave it our best though. Even catching up with many of our friends proved impossible, but we did have a night out with our very dear friends, Edison (Eddy) and Belen, finding out that they are pregnant with their first child. Eddy used to work with Alex when I met him all those years ago and we have all remained very good friends since. Eddy and Belen, you hold a very special place in our hearts! (Eddy y Belen ocupen un espacio muy especial en nuestros corazones!) We also caught up with Dani, her beautiful mum Martha, her partner Daniel and their gorgeous little boy Felipe.

With Mel and Dan ‘on top of’ The Basilica.

We also caught up with our friends Mel and Dan who are backpacking through South and Central America. I used to work with Mel and Dan is her value-for-money-partner (we love you Dan!) It just so happened that they would be in Ecuador at the same time we would be and we managed to spend a entire day with them. We had so much fun, being led by Alex, our personal Ecuadorian tour guide. Even I got to do things that I had never done before! We met in the historical centre of Quito, and took it from there. It’s always fun and exciting when you get to meet up with friends in a totally different country.

Crossin’ the plank; The Basilica, Quito.

Our morning started with some decent coffee (Ecuador has gotten much better at this over the years) and lots of chit-chat about the highlights of their journey. In my case, as I was doing that exact trip when I met Alex some 12 years ago, there was also a lot of reminiscing. We visited (I for the first time) La Compania Church, which was physically spectacular, but it was the Basilica that I thought was most impressive … for a number of reasons. In Australia we’d probably say, “Only half built mate!” Its construction began in 1926, and it was clearly never finished.
The highlight is the basilica’s towers, some of which I had the nerve to climb and others not. To get to the towers however  you need to actually cross a rickety wooden plank inside the main roof and  THEN climb steep stairs and ladders to the top (with nothing on either side except for some thin metal rails and fresh air). Hmmmmm! You can also climb the spiral staircase and three sets of ladders into and above the clock tower. I was so not going to do that!  So, whilst Dan, Mel and Alex climbed, I stayed on the ‘lower rungs’ and made some new friends, whom also had no intention of going any higher. I believe the views were arresting!  I will simply have to take their word for it!

“La gente es una puta …solo jode “

Meanwhile, back at base camp (ground level that is) we saw a man sitting down in the grounds of the Basilica with a sign saying, ‘La gente es una puta – solo jode’, which loosely translates to ‘People are arseholes – all they do is bust chops’. Very interesting. We went up and had a chat to him. Whilst it appeared that he was indeed a little senile, there was a method to his madness and he made some very poignant comments. I questioned him about his sign and he kept repeating that people did not care about each other or treat each other with respect anymore and that their only focus seemed to be around themselves, material wealth and money. He was not too off the mark. He was also a painter and gave us a self-portrait (Mel and Dan we are looking after this for you until you get back). As we all waved and said goodbye, I could not help thinking who was really mad, him or the ‘others’?

Itchimbia, with Mel, Dan, Axel & Angie (Alex’s sister).

Our day finished off with a spectacular night at Cafe Mosaico in Itchimbia. We went with a whole bunch of Alex’s family and Mel and Dan came too. The food was  great, but the views even better. Itchimbia is very close to the historical centre of Quito and as it sits up on a hill the views are amazing. The view at night with all of the lights over the old town was very pretty, and a good time was had by all. What more can you ask for, good food, good company and great views! We had had a fantastic day and we were glad that we had been able to show Mel and Dan a part of ‘our’ world! Looking forward to reminiscing about this when you are back in Melbourne guys!

With Byron’s kids, L to R: Dylan, Amy & Mishell.

We also managed to catch up with our special friends Byron and Alexa, who live out in Sangolqui, about 20 kilometres from Quito’s old or historical town. Many of you may recall that when Alex and I had our fair-trade import business that they were our first suppliers. They have their own wholesale business called Ushina Jewelers, but also have a beautiful gallery, Ari Gallery, in the Plaza San Francisco, in Quito’s historical centre. As always, a night at their place in the countryside not only provides a tranquil getaway from the buzz of the city, but Alexa always cooks up a storm (her home made aji di mani, or chilli sauce with peanuts is to die for!) We spent the night chatting away to them and also spent some time with their three children Mishell, Amy and Dylan, who are delightful. Clearly a night was nowhere near enough, but no time ever is.

Catching up with Carola.

Fortunately, we also caught up with Carola, our Ecuadorian friend who stayed with us when she came to Australia a few months back. We had lunch and a couple of hours together … not long enough, but better than nothing. We know that we have made a lifelong friend in you Carola!

Our time in Ecuador was clearly coming to an end, and I am never a good one for endings. Alex’s mum and sister would be flying back to New York on the Saturday, the day before us, so Friday night at Karen’s house was FULL, FULL house with all the relatives coming to  say goodbye. Alex and I both went to the airport the next day. Life certainly can be interesting – whilst I have the honour of living with my soul mate and the love of my life on ‘the other side of the world’, I have fleeting moments of sadness as I realise that Alex is unable to spend more time with the rest of his family that he so dearly loves.

Christian cooking up a storm!

Next day was our turn; we would be leaving later on Sunday night. Karen and Christian cooked up a parillada or BBQ and also some yummy vegetarian food. Everyone was in a sombre mood as we knew that sooner, rather than later, we would all be saying goodbye. I felt particularly sad. My gorgeous nephew, Thomas, had grown so much since I last met him as a baby more than two years ago and as I watched tiny Isabella gurgle and giggle I wondered when I would see her again, and how much of her growing up I would miss. My nephew Axel was now 14, and no longer the little two and half year old I met 12 years ago. It was a very emotional day. Boly and Lily (Christian’s parents) and Jonathan and Naty (Chris’ brother and girlfriend) also came over to say goodbye. Tick, tick, tick … so did Carola and her husband Jorge (first time we met him and what a great guy). Alex’s Dad and Rodrigo were there also.

Isabella.

The time had arrived and we had to go to the airport. Hugs and tears all around. My last goodbye was to little six month Isabella, who I gave one more hug and kiss to before I left. She was too little to understand the bond I had formed with her in only a few weeks and how much I would miss her! The person I had least trouble saying goodbye to was Denisse, as we had just submitted (after days and days of work!) the paperwork for her to study in Australia for six months to the Australian Embassy in Chile (there isn’t one in Ecuador). We would hopefully soon have a little piece of Ecuador with us in Australia!

Before we knew it, we were on the plane flying to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where we would spend the last week of our holidays. I closed my eyes, and sighed deeply … when you gain something you lose something, and when you lose something you gain something!

Ombi

Denisse and Axel.

Dedication: To my nieces and nephews in Ecuador, Denisse, Axel, Thomas and Isabella. Although you live far away you occupy a very special place in my heart and I love you all very much. Distance is no barrier to the great love and pride I have for all of you. I want you to know that you can always count on me – your auntie, La Gringa Loca.

PS  And Angie, my beautiful American sister-in-law, who isn’t so little anymore … love you too precious!

Dedicacion: Para mis sobrinos en Ecuador, Denisse, Axel, Thomas y Isabella. Aunque viven tan lejos ocupan un espacio muy especial en mi corazon y les amo montones. La distancia no es una barrera para el gran amor y orgullo que tengo para cada uno de ustedes. Quiero que sepan que siempre pueden contar conmigo – tu tia, La Gringa Loca.

PD  Y Angie, mi cunada americana linda, que ya no es tan pequena … te amo tambien preciosa!

Books read:
Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Next blog: One week in Buenos Aires.

Flying into Quito from Santiago.
Our nephew Thomas hangin’ out in the kitchen cupboard.
This is what happens when you hang out in kitchen cupboard for too long!
Fruit and veggie market – Quito.


Do you think Isabella looks like her Dad, Christian?
Chocotos rule!
L to R: Jean Pierre, Axel & Alex.
The beautiful countryside on the way to Ibarra.

Rocio (Alex’s mum) dancing with Humberto.
L to R: Paty, Maricela, Humberto, Rocio & Marcia.
Humberto and Alex at Party Central!
Futbol (soccer) on the beach at Rio Verde.

The way to Alex’s heart … it’s no secret, food!!!

Fun in the sun in Rio Verde.

Downtown Quito. Cotopaxi Volcano 

Alex with his Grandpa, Papa Jacinto.

At the Basilica, Quito.

Colourful scarves at Otavalo market.

Lunch at a seafood restaurant in Quito with Alex’s family.
Thomas with Naty.
Alex’s sister, Angie, with Isabella and Thomas.
Diego and Christina.

This is what cute looks like … Isabella.

The Andes as seen from Karen and Christian’s house, Quito.
Paty Lu y yo (Alex) cerca de Rio Verde – Esmeraldas Ecuador
Quito by night.
Faces of Quito.
Aunts, uncles & cousins at crazy Uncle Raul’s.

L t R: Piero, Angie, Oscar, Rocio, Alex, Geno, Thomas, Ombi , Karina & Rodri.

The ‘farra” … Alex’s birthday party.

Back ‘home’ … hello Ecuador!

Alex with siblings Karen and Jean Pierre.

It is no longer a secret that my ‘home’ now lies between two continents … I live in Australia but frequently visit, and think about, Ecuador. Having met and married an Ecuadorian and having returned more times than I can remember in the last 13 years, it is a country that I have grown to love on so many levels and for so many reasons. Primarily a huge portion of my family lives there and they play a huge part in my life … not to mention Alex’s. This was a very special trip as Alex’s mum, Rocio, and 13 year old sister Angie who live in New York would also be meeting us over there. It would be the first time that Alex’s mum would be with all of her children in the same place, at the same time, in over 20 years. How do you put a price on that? Needless to say, we were all extremely excited!

Dad takes us to the airport, as usual.

The trip over would be a long one … a particularly long one! We had managed to purchase some ridiculously cheap flights over but with lots of  stop-overs. Lan Chile and Qantas would code share and get us from Melbourne to Buenos Aires (BA) in Argentina and then Lan Chile would get us from Buenos Aires to Quito. The flight was leaving early and luckily we were organised (for once) as the alarm had been set incorrectly and so we did not get up when planned. Having said that we did make it to the airport on time, courtesy of Dad’s taxi service, and we even all had time for a cuppa together once we got there. We eventually said our goodbyes and we were off. Nothing unfamiliar to my Dad!

Pizza at Pedro Telmo with Charito.

Our flight across would be Melbourne–Sydney–Santiago (Chile)–Buenos Aires … overnight in Buenos Aires … and then Buenos Aires–Lima(Peru)–Quito. The flight to Buenos Aires was fine; as I usually sleep most of the way long flights for me do not usually seem so long anyway. We had to spend a night in BA as the BA-Quito return portion had been bought separately and we were afraid that we would not make the connection to Quito if we did not do it this way. We were excited anyway as we would be spending the night with our very special friend Charo, who I actually met in Uruguay way back in early 1999, before I met Alex. The last time we saw her was in 2000 when Alex and I passed through BA on our way back to Australia; the year when Alex moved to Australia and made it his ‘home’. Over the years we have always kept in close contact.

Alex and I with Nico at Pedro Telmo.

Charo lives in the heart of Buenos Aires in a gorgeous suburb called San Telmo. It is renowned as the tango capital of Argentina. We were surprised at how expensive BA had become since we’d last been here. The airport is around 35 kilometres from the city centre and a taxi ride in costs AUD $40.00. Whilst the bus is way cheaper, the ride in would take around two and a half hours … with or without suitcases this is not an option, unless you particularly want to spend that amount of time on a bus and especially after such a lengthy flight. It was soooooooo lovely to see Charo again after such a long time. Hugs all around and in seconds it was as if no time had passed at all. We briefly went to visit Charo’s parents Gladys and Roberto who live in the same apartment block but on a different floor, and then went off to have some pizza. Nico, Charo’s nephew who is staying with her at present, also came along. I must say that we were rather tired so despite the fact that we had lots to catch up on it wasn’t a late night. Besides, on the way back we would be spending a week in Buenos Aires, which would give us proper catch up time.

L to R: Aunty Marcia, Uncle Ruben, Rocio (Alex’s mum) and Alex.

Up early the next morning we had a quick breakfast with Charo and before we knew it we were back in a taxi on our way back to the airport. Our flight to Quito was via Lima, Peru. We were due to arrive in Quito at 3.30pm on Friday 19 August. The view as the plane descends into Quito, surrounded by the Andes Mountains, is always spectacularly breathtaking either by day or night. And then for Alex and I there’s always that heart-flutter moment of … we’re home! The plane landed on time, and as we disembarked, collected our luggage and went through immigration we could see Alex’s mum and sister waving at us through the glass at the level above us. More heart-fluttering! Before we knew it we were through the doors and hugging Rocio and Angie. Alex’s aunt Patty, cousin Samy, sister Karen, niece Denisse and dad Hugo were also there. Those first few moments always offer a mix of emotions; we felt excited and overwhelmed but also very happy. Alex and I also felt knackered! There simply ain’t a ‘quick way’ to get to Ecuador.

Alex with his mum and siblings; Angie, Karen & Jean Pierre.

We would all be staying with Alex’s sister, Karen, and her family in Ecuador’s capital Quito. Let me introduce you: Karen, husband Christian, Alex’s brother Jean-Pierre (who we also call Piero) and our nieces and nephews Denisse (18), Axel (14), Thomas (2.5) and Isabella (7 months). In addition Alex’s mum and younger sister were staying there as well as us. Talk about a full house! Karen lives in the north of the city in an area called El Condado, which is perched up on one of Quito’s many hills. Consider that Quito, at approximately 2800 metres above sea level is the world’s second-highest capital after La Paz, Bolivia, we were pretty high up. At this altitude breathing is a tad more difficult as the air is thinner due to less oxygen. We had to walk up a flight of stairs to get to Karen’s apartment and we were gasping for air, and feeling like we had run a marathon. High altitude is tough and acclimatisation can take several days if not longer.

L to R: Denisse, Axel, Jonathan (Christian’s brother), Isabella and Piero.

That first night was great although we were tired. We met our little niece Isabella for the first time, and I instantly fell in love with her. Of course we all keep in touch via skype, but face-to-face is another story. Unbeknownst, to Alex I had been communicating with Karen to organise a surprise birthday party for him with all of his cousins and relatives on his mum’s side. His birthday was on 10 August and his party would be on 20 August. Karen had effectively organised everything. The POA (plan of action) was that Karen would pretend to have a work appointment on Saturday morning and that I would go with her so that we could get everything set up and organised, whilst Alex hung out with Christian and Jean Pierre. Alex’s Aunt Maricela and Uncle Reuben would have the party at their house, which is quite large and on the outskirts of Quito.

La Banda del Pueblo.

Karen had organised a ‘banda del pueblo’ (village band) which is effectively a local band playing local music, some mime artists, a DJ and the food. Maricela had organised the marquee, tables and chairs. When Karen and I got up on Saturday morning (I was still exhausted!) we still had some running around to do. The morning began with us going to the hairdresser to get our hair straightened and styled (a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!), which put us out of pocket a whole $3.00 each. We then had to go and pick up the cake, some balloons, a few other bits and pieces and then go to Maricela’s to get everything organised. The guests had been told that it was a surprise birthday party and that they had to to be there at 10.00am promptly … yeh right, in South America, fat chance!  The birthday boy was to arrive at 11.00am on the premise of visiting a cousin. Karen and I worked furiously to get things organised. As it worked out most of the guests were late but then so was Alex (we kept calling Christian and told him to delay their arrival). The band arrived and set themselves up by just after 11.30am, and most of the guests were there by just before midday. Alex was fortunately the last to arrive and did indeed get a huge surprise.

The mime artist wish Alex a Happy Birthday.
Alex gives thanks to the Chocotos in his birthday speech!

With Alex’s arrival the village band started to play, and with this the party went off! After hugging all of his family, the party got into full swing; we danced to the local band, ate local food, were entertained by mime artists, did some pole-dancing and danced to the rhythms of the DJ. Adults and kids alike had so much fun. That’s what a party is like in Ecuador … fun, fun, fun!!! Karen had organised for people to bring gifts for Alex which had to be hand-made and have some personal significance. Each person presented their gift with a short speech on its significance. His Aunt Gladys got him a huge canvas print of the both of us in Machu Picchu several years ago and his Aunt Patty put together a photo album of all the cousins … there were both tears and laughter as we all reminisced about how and when the photos were taken. We cried as we recalled Santiago, Patty’s 26-year-old son, who died earlier this year! I cried because I was so happy to have been able to give my husband, partner, confidante and love-of-my-life the present of a lifetime, the gift of his family!

Ombi pole dancing with Mr Paparazzi.

Alex’s brother, Jean Pierre, also gave him an amazing gift; he put together a video of Alex growing up, including pictures of him as a little boy right through to the present day. It was really touching and we all found ourselves crying once again. The only other time we stopped was for a delicious locally made lunch. The rest of the time was party central, which even included a bit of pole dancing! Alex’s Uncle Gustavo, with his video camera, was the official paparazzi, and his mum with her roving iPad was the official ‘mamarazzi’. The ‘day’ ended after 10.00pm. Slowly, slowly everyone went home and we stayed back to clean up. It had been such a good day, despite the fact that by this stage Alex and I were totally exhausted!  Adrenalin was our saviour! We went home and flaked it! Thank goodness the next day was Sunday … nobody would be getting up for anyone or anything!

Ombi

Family shot … far left Samuel (Santi’s son) and mum Andrea.

Dedication: To our cousin Santiago. You were the only one physically missing at Alex’s party, but we know that  you were with us in spirit. We will always remember you with much love. You will never be forgotten.

Dedicacion: Para nuestro primo Santiago. Estuviste la unica persona que no estuve fisicamente presente en la fiesta de Alex pero sabemos que estuviste con nosotros en espiritu. Siempre nos acordamonos de ti con mucho amor. Nunca nos vamos a olvidarnos de ti.

Books read:
“Belching out the Devil – Global Adventures with Coca Cola” by Mark Thomas
“The Link – Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor” by Colin Tudge


“Change your thoughts and you change your world” – Norman Vincent Peale.

Next: What we did in our three weeks in Ecuador.

Alex with Tio Chucha on left and brother-in-law Christian.

Alex with mum Rocio and sister Angie.

Alex with nephew Thomas and Boly (Thomas’ grandpa).
Alex with his mum and younger cousins.

Alex and sister Karen during ‘la hora loca’ (the crazy hour).

More fun during the crazy hour.

It’s Uncle Gustavo, the official paparazzi!

Alex and Angie.
Band members.

Mr Paparazzi with his wife ‘la tigressa’ (the tigress, Marcia).

Family shot.
Happy Birthday Alex!
L to R: Aunty Gladys, Isabella, Alex and cousin Valeria.
Sisters L tio R: Marcia, Maricela, Rocio, Patty & Gladys.

The good time crew, L to R: Ronnald, Gladys, Volney & moi!

Getting up to speed and on the Beaton track

A ship on the sea in Portarlington.

Singapore in a flash was our last blog, and in a flash seems to aptly describe the velocity at which this year seems to be flying by. See the theme here? Flash, velocity, flying? In lay person’s English …where has this year gone … well, going? It’s July!

A lot has happened since our trip to Thailand and Singapore over Christmas, but we’re hoping that August will also arrive in a flash, so to speak, as Alex and I are off to Ecuador and Argentina for almost five weeks.  Whilst the bulk will be spent with family in Ecuador, we will also make some time, on the way home, to see some very dear friends, all of whom Alex has met, but whom I have met on my travels over the years. Not surprisingly, none of them in Ecuador.

Ombi and Alex with ‘Doobie’ at Portarlington.

Rewind … after such a relaxing and wonderful trip to Thailand, it was back to the grindstone in Melbourne. Yes, we work to live and not live to work, so we always try and do different things on the weekend, which often includes planning our next trip. Our activities often seem to involve being around foreigners or multicultural events.

The weekend after we returned from Thailand we went to Portalington for the day to enjoy the Port Arlington Mussel Festival with Dad. The festival is a community event showcasing the prosperity of the Bellarine Peninsula, local food and wine and of course, the wonderful Aussie Blue Mussel. It was a great way to spend some time relaxing with Dad and taking in some more sun and sea … like Thailand hadn’t been enough!

Having a bite to eat at our place with (L to R): Ina, Clara and Jochen.

In January we also had the great pleasure of meeting our wonderful friend Jochen’s new wife Ina. They were on a road trip and spending some time in Melbourne. I met Jochen, who is originally from Germany, in Ecuador (as you do!) many years ago, and we just hit it off. He and Ina decided to do a bit of an Aussie road trip, which took them through Melbourne. With their huge caravan, they ended up in the caravan park (literally) just down the road from us, so apart from spending a bit of time at our place we also went to ‘theirs’ … Jochen even organised a great Aussie outdoor BBQ! I must note that Jochen and his daughter Clara started the trip in Western Australia and upon arriving in Melbourne picked Ina up, who had flown in from Germany, from Melbourne airport!  The last time I saw Clara was more than ten years ago before she, her Dad and Mum moved to Western Australia.

The salsa experts, Aida and Octavio Garcia.

The Australia Day long weekend now seems like ages ago, but along with Jochen and Ina and a whole group of other friends, we went to ‘Mambo at the Bowl’, where we were entertained by New York’s Tito Puente Jr. The free concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was packed with exciting Latin rhythms and scintillating salsa dance performances by local and international artists. We all had a great time, which of course included some boogying.

Camping at Inverloch. L to R: Alex, Sandra, Santi and Jeh.

Sometime in July we also went camping … yes, in tents …  at Inverloch with a small group of friends, and as usual it was a multicultural affair.  This was organised by Jeh. I met Jehvangir (Jeh) a few years back when I was working at Vision Australia, and over time I also got to meet his beautiful wife Faiza, and gorgeous kids Mohammed and Amina. They also invited some friends and we invited Sandra and her little boy Santi.  We ate, went to the beach, and Jeh showed us his kite-boarding prowess, just to name a few of the things that kept us occupied. A good, fun and relaxing time was had by all.


The road map for the road trip.

Lots of events came and went in the months that followed, but over the Easter break in April, it was our turn to go on a road trip. I had been thinking about it for a while … a ‘let’s get up and go’ style trip (yeh, for something different!), but as usual we made no firm plans. I had also been telling Dad about my idea, but I don’t think he was too keen on my leave it till the last minute attitude. Alex and I finally coaxed him, and early on the morning of Good Friday, we took off. We had promised Dad that we’d be ready for pick-up at 7.30am, and …. yes, I was ready!

A living bust … bras on tree near Colac!

It was just before 8.00am that we took off in Dad’s car, which was packed to the rafters, mainly with food! The idea was to come back the following Tuesday, enabling us to all have a decent break. Very loosely, we had decided to go via Colac and Hamilton, on to Mt Gambier, Adelaide and possibly Kangaroo Island.  So there was a loose plan, we’d just have to see how it all turned out. The only plans we’d made for accommodation was our first night in Hamilton.

Extinct volcanic craters, Red Rock, Colac.

In no rush, we made our way towards Colac, a beautiful and tranquil place only two hours from Melbourne renowned for its magnificent southern coastline, the Otway rainforests and the northern lakes and craters district. There is so much to see and do, but we ended up at Red Rock. The Red Rock Volcanic Complex was the site of many violent volcanic eruptions which resulted in the craters and lakes found in the area. Although it was cold (thanks for your jacket dad!) the views were arresting. We all felt, literally, like we were on top of the world! After some snack and lunch stops we made it to Hamilton by around 5.30pm. Ah yes, there was an ulterior motive and reason why we ended up in Hamilton!

Hamilton is the home of the Beatons, with whom we would be spending Good Friday. Who are the Beatons? Big breath … Jarrod is my second cousin (son of my cousin Moz), and Kari is his gorgeous girlfriend (we ALL love you Kari!!!!!) … they both live in Melbourne … Rob and Stewart are Kari’s parents (they live in Hamilton), and Ebony her sister (who currently lives in Sydney) … everybody was congregating in Hamilton for Easter, so we thought we’d join them … breathe out!! Geez, sounds like my big fat Greek wedding, Aussie style!!

With the Beatons. L to R: Rob, Ombi, Dino, Jarrod, Kari, Ebony, Stewart.

We had a fantastic night, and for the first time ever, I thought how much more fun it was being ON the Beaton track rather than OFF it!  Robyn and Stewart made us feel right at home, with both wonderful food and company. We were treated to local wine (well Dad and Alex), Robyn’s relish (amazing!) and  Stewie’s pickled gherkins … nah, I don’t do pickled gherkins! But Kari assured me that even hard-core pickled gherkin-haters like Stewie’s gherkins. Not convinced! The relish was amazing, and Stewie, your gherkins rock! The Beatons gave us a couple of jars each to take home, which we gracefully accepted.


The beautiful Limestone Coast.

Over the next few days we explored Mt Gambier and surrounds as well as South Australia’s Limestone Coast. Dare I say  as beautiful as the Great Ocean Road is, the Limestone Coast is as beautiful, if not more so, minus the throngs of tourists. We would do various things during the day, and by late afternoon start looking for a place to stay.  It was only on the Saturday night that we ran into  a spot of bother; there was absolutely nothing available in Mt Gambier, so we had to drive to Millicent about half an hour away. We did find a comfortable little motel in the end and I think Dad was relieved. Whilst Alex and I are accustomed to winging it, I don’t think it’s really Dad’s thing.

Port Nelson Lighthouse, Portland Victoria.

We had a wonderful time over the next few days exploring the nooks and crannies of the Limestone Coast, and like all destinations, we liked some places more than others. As we were on the coast, I also went for some wonderful runs on the beach, which always make me feel re-energised; it’s something about the water, sea and sunshine. We particularly liked Southend, which is a sleepy lobster fishing port. Much to Dad’s dismay, it wasn’t lobster season, so he never did get to eat that lobster he was craving! We also visited Robe, which really did nothing for us at all. Robe is like the Limestone Coast’s Portsea, very upmarket, yuppie and overpriced! Not our deal at all! Kingston, a little further up the coast was also lovely. Another fishing port, but much more tranquil and far less touristy than Robe.

Victoria Fossil Cave, Naracoorte.

We simply did not have enough time to go to Adelaide or Kangaroo Island and spent Easter Monday checking Naracoorte and then made our way back to Mt Gambier. Naracoorte, which is exactly half way between Adelaide and Melbourne, is famous for the Naracoorte Caves National Park, which covers approximately 600 hectares of limestone ranges.  The area is World Heritage Listed and includes a number of caves, with vertebrae fossil material dating back perhaps 500 000 years. With so much to see and do we had to choose so we ended up doing a one hour tour of the Victoria Fossil Cave, which descends into a beautifully decorated chamber and then winds through 250 metres of passages and chambers to a large fossil deposit. Caves really are something else. It’s another world all that way beneath the surface of the earth. Makes you think about what else is there below us that we don’t know about?

Ombi and Alex at the Blue Lake, Mt Gambier

Back in Mt Gambier we went and had a look at the famous Blue Lake. It had been years since my last visit here, but I remembered it well. Situated in one of three extinct volcanic craters, the Blue Lake exposes the crystal clear water that has filtered underground through the limestone, passing slowly beneath the city. Each year in November the lake starts its colour change from winter steel blue to brilliant turquoise blue and then in March changes back to steel blue. Whilst not in its ‘prime’ it was still spectacular! We also drove around to see the other water-filled craters, which were also beautiful. Our ‘tour’ included the Centenary Tower, which at192 metres above sea level, is the town’s highest point. Again, spectacular views were afforded.

Centenary Tower, Mt Gambier.

Like most holidays, regardless of how long or short they are, for me they are never long enough!  After four days of exploration, relaxation and fun, it was time to drive back to Melbourne. We had all had a fantastic time, made all the more relaxing for me as Dad drove for the entire trip, as he says he finds driving very relaxing. Whilst in no hurry to get back home, Alex and I both had to work on the Wednesday, so we had to get ourselves organised.

Dad dropped us off home late-afternoon, and Alex and I did what we had to do! We had had a truly wonderful time, and the break had done us all well!

Ombi

Dad and Alex enjoying mussels, Portarlington Mussel Festival.
Dedication: To the best Dad in the world … our Dad!  Dad, you are the BEST Dad and father-in-law in the world! Thanks for your love, support and friendship. Thanks for always being there for us. You mean the world to us! We had such a good time travelling with you, and hope to do it again – Ombi and Alex.
Books read:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” Aristotle

Melinda, this one’s for you!
Doobie enjoying calamari at the Mussel Festival with Alex and Linda.
Ombi and Linda at the Mussel Festival.
Karen’s birthday. L to R: Karen, Ombi, Linda and Cathy (Karen’s sis).
Ombi and Clara digging into some pizza.

South End, South Australia.
L to R: With good friends Jo and Kristy at Kristy’s farewell – off to Paraguay.
Ombi and Ina, picnic at Arthur’s Seat, Mornington Peninsula.
Doobie … on the way back from our road trip.

Sunset at Kingston, South Australia.

Cave Gardens, Mt. Gambier, South Australia.
Free roadside coffee stop on the way back from our road trip.

Singapore in a flash

 Changi Airport

We did Singapore in such a flash that I almost forgot that we had done it. You have to love airlines such as Jetstar for their capacity to be able to offer such cheap flights. It does come at a cost sometimes, however, which is not necessarily financial. We did not really want to hang around an airport for almost a day (as we were arriving mid morning and would be leaving later in the evening). Would we leave the airport? Would it cost to get out? Was it worth the cost? Could we store our backpacks somewhere? Could we find something to do for a few hours? We had done no research on this at all, as we simply had not made it our priority. I figured that we’d work it out!

Upon disembarking, we walked around the airport like Alice of Alice in Wonderland …eyes wide and mouth gaping! Well, Singapore and its airport were not quite what I had expected, although I must be fair and say that I am not sure what my expectations really were. Singapore’s Changi Airport is a destination unto itself! Apart from the fact that it’s enormous, it felt like one big entertainment centre offering everything from free internet usage to computer gaming areas and free massage (OK, so they were chairs and not people). We certainly made use of a number of these free options.

A bus with a view 

After a few minutes of wide-eyed stares, looking around an airport that looked more like an entertainment centre than an airport, we came across a tourist information desk, offering free Singapore City tours. Free? What? WHAT is for free these days? I thought “no way, this can’t be”! Well, apparently in Singapore it can! There were actually two tours available, the Cultural Tour and the Coloniol Tour. I wanted to do both! We ended up doing the Cultural Tour. Clearly one can only get a snapshot in two hours, but it was a great ‘taster’ of what the city had to offer.

Singaporean architecture

Due to the tours being free, they clearly filled up quickly. We had a meeting point at the airport, and we were then whisked away for two hours in a luxury coach. What were our observations and what did we see? My over-riding sense of the city was that it was so clean that it looked sterile. Like most people, we’d heard all of the stories about how clean it was, and from what we could see it was true. The tour guide was most informative, and gave us some interesting facts and figures. I kind of got the feeling that he too thought his system was a bit ‘anal’ … I tried not to form my opinion in so little time!

Thian Hock Keng Temp

To be honest, it felt like information overload. And in true Ombi style … I was trying to suck in as much informaton as I could … my head was swinging left-right-left-right. Whilst there was a lot to take in, the
thing I remembered most was our quick stop in Chinatown, including the oldest temple in Singaore, 160-year-old Thian Hock Keng Temple. It was indeed a beautiful and impressive temple. We were told that we had 15 minutes to look around it. Alex and I decided that we would leave the temple and see if we could see even a little of the surrounding area. It is on the famous Telok Ayer Street which is one of the earliest thoroughfares in downtown Singapore. Whilst we could not explore in detail, it still gave us a bit of a feel for the Chinese part of the city. Running back to the bus, we were the last ones on! Some things never change!

Ayer St!

We were delivered back to the airport as promptly and efficiently as we’d been taken away. The tour had been short but great! We used the internet once again as well as the massage chairs, and before we knew it, we were back on a plane and flying home. We had certainly filled in our time at our day in Singapore. Did I enjoy it? Well, yes. Would I go back? Not sure. Perhaps as a stopover I might, but it did not strike me as an absolute must-see destination!

Another day, another country added to our list!

Ombi

NOTE: The last few blog entries were a bit jumbled. Sorry! This day in Singaore was actually the last day of our two week trip to Thailand over Christmas and the New Year.

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pretty shutters
Inside Thian Hock Keng Temple

The locals doing their thing
It has the word coffee in it!

Modern Singapore
Proof of our brief rendevous with Singapore
Singaporean skyline

Paradise Updated

Making our way to Ko Kood

Oops, mixed up our entries. This post should have actually come before the last one (Bangkok) … enjoy!

We had no option but to get up early, as the fast boat we had chosen to Ko Kood was leaving early (being someone who likes to sleep in, and especially whilst on holiday, this was much to Alex’s chagrin). We had an idea of where we might stay as we’d been there before. We met a lovely young Swedish couple on the boat, Johanna and Thomas and they asked if they could get off with us and check out the place that we were possibly going to stay at. Of course! As we got closer to the island and dropped people off at their various destinations, we admired the beauty of the island and its clear, sparkling turquoise waters. Now THIS was the paradise that we had been wanting to see. Ko Kood is still scarcely developed, and those of us who make it here, spread ourselves out over a small number of places to stay. The most amazing thing is that most of the places have their own private beach so that it feels like you have the island to yourself. Maybe this is why we struggled with Ko Chang!

The beach infront of our accomodation

We got dropped off close to Mark House Bungalows and made our way directly there. It was exactly as I had remembered it.  Despite looking around at a few other places close by, we ended up at Mark’s, because it was well-priced, clean, comfortable and close to the beach. Johanna and Thomas decided to stay there too. Once we settled in, we went for a walk and reacquainted ourselves with the area. Had it changed? Well, yes … there was more construction going on, there was now a road with a few cars (as opposed to no road and no cars a few years earlier), some restaurants had disappeared whilst new ones had appeared … but it was still as relaxing and beautiful as I had remembered it. That first afternoon was spent at the beach, a five minute walk away, and directly in front of Peter Pan Resort. Ah, relaxing, reading, sunbaking, running … all my dreams rolled into one! Although we had taken neither a laptop or mobile phone with us, the resort had a computer for its guests to use, which was outside, in an open space. In my ‘more front than Myers’ kind of way, I frequently went along and used it. Not as many stilettos and sequins here, so I did not look so out of place! Despite the fact that we did not stay here, the seaside accommodation was gorgeous. Next door was the ‘new kid on the block’, Tinkerbell Resort … we popped in to take a look … ooh, la, la! Exy but gorgeous! We basically went to the beach in front of these resorts daily, as it was the closest one to where we were staying.

Beautiful waterfall

These few days here were really laid back. Apart from relaxing at the beach close by, we went out for a few longer walks, taking us to other beaches, as well as a day kayaking, which proved to be eventful to say the least. Mark House Bungalows were on a canal, and close to some waterfalls. We thought that we’d take advantage of their free kayaks, and go to the waterfalls. On our last trip we had hiked to the falls so we knew they weren’t far. So, off we went … we had not checked the kayak and we took no life jackets (due to my having worked as a swimming teacher and lifeguard, I am sometimes not vigilant enough, due to my overconfidence). It was a lovely ride down the canal; peaceful and tranquil, taking in all the sights and sounds. I vaguely recalled Johanna and Thomas telling me about some huge jelly fish they’d seen the day prior. Not a problem, we were in the kayak, not out of it! We soon came to a tiny rickety pier, where we ‘parked’ our canoe, and walked a further 10 minutes to the falls. Despite the many people there, locals and foreigners alike, we spent a fun  hour there. The water was fresh (as opposed to salty) and bloody freezing; some would say refreshing! After a splash and a play, we made our way back to the kayak. This where the REAL adventure began!

The view behind Mark House Bungalows

Back in the kayak, we seemed to have the wobbles! We were rowing in unison, but balance seemed lacking. At first I was not overly concerned, but five minutes into our trip, we were struggling for balance and as we rowed, the kayak was tipping and the lip of each side touching the water. I suddenly felt like we were going to go over, and no sooner uttered, over rolled the kayak … there was nothing around! Not even a shore! Only mangroves! If any of you have seen or been through mangroves, you will understand that … well, there isn’t anything to stand on as there is no shore! Was I concerned? Well, by now, yes! My main concern was Alex, my second was the jelly fish! I told Alex to grab the edge of the boat and we paddled the short distance to the side of the … mangroves! Safe and sound, figuratively speaking, I ignored any notion that I may have been surrounded by a thousand jelly fish. Survival first, digital camera second! That little baby wrapped around Alex’s neck (luckily the smaller and less expensive of our two cameras), was kaput! Water plus digital equals all over red rover! The screen looked hammered, but we pulled the card out – with any luck we may not have lost our pictures …

It’s a tough life!

… so, we’d survived the roll-over and now we needed to be ‘rescued’. All of my years and experience as a lifeguard kicked in…with not a solitary person or boat in sight, I took off my shoes and stripped off to my bikinis. I then swam into the middle of the canal, and started calling for help. It was not so much that I was afraid, but there was no way that we were going to be able to swim kilometres down the canal lugging all of our stuff. No one around! I was not going to wait till next Christmas, we’d just had it! I told Alex that I was going to swim and get someone. Would I be OK? Yep! We’ve all got our strengths, and I am very fit and an exceptionally strong swimmer. So off I set…after almost a kilometre I came across a local in a kayak, and although he had marginal English, I was able to explain that we had tipped over and that Alex was waiting in the water by the kayak. Whilst he made his way towards Alex, and eventually got him into the kayak, I made my way towards a pier on the canal and waited there. By this time, I , and later we, had an audience, and questions were being asked. Soon after picking up Alex, I was picked up too, and we made our way back to Mark House Bungalows. We looked like a sad and sorry version of Hawaii-5-0!

Having dinner with Johanna and Thomas

I must say, I was furious, as this could have been a potentially very dangerous situation. I told the lady at the bungalows what I thought, including that I thought she should have at least given us life jackets! To this, she pointed to the life jackets and told us that we had not asked! Suddenly my anger subsided, as I realised that not all countries take safety as seriously as we do in Australia. As it worked out, the kayak had not been checked, and some plug or other had not been replaced!  I also realised then, that we should have taken some responsibility and checked things out ourselves. One can never be too complacent. The camera was seriously dead, but the card had been saved and we were able to retrieve the photos. No jelly fish stings and Alex and I were both alive and well. Overall, it was a pretty good scenario! Ticked off at first, we were over it by dinner time, and able to laugh about it! What else could we do? At the end of the day nothing important was lost – goods can always be replaced, lives cannot!

Going on a fishing trip

That night Alex, Johanna, Thomas and a few others went on a fishing trip. I was umm-ing and aah-ing about whether or not I’d go. I went to look at the boat and decided, after its lack of a sun deck, that I would pass. No thanks, I’ll take the beach! Apparently, it was a fun few hours … I will have to take Alex’ s word for it.

Over the next few days, we continued to laze around, yet fit in a few walks. It had always been our intention to take it easy here, before going to meet Daniel in Bangkok, where we would catch up for the New Year together. Some of you may recall that we met Daniel whilst in Laos in 2005, we then went to visit him in Quebec, Canada, a few years later. We have always remained good friends. Dan has been teaching English in north-eastern Thailand, and is actually just about to come out to Australia to study for a year. Although he will be studying in the ‘opposition town’ (aka Sydney), he will come and spent a few days with us in Melbourne, in mid February, before he begins.

One of the many spectacular views on the island

We’d had a marvellous time on Ko Kood, but it was soon time to go. Due to ensuring connections with buses and the like back on the mainland, we caught a bus to the Ko Kood port, and then a ferry on to Trat, from where we would then catch a bus directly back to Bangkok. The almost one hour ride to the Ko Kood port presented us with more lovely views of the island, and the ferry ride across was pleasant and calm (which is great for a person that suffers from motion sickness). As I looked looked back at the spectacular views, I was both sentimental and sad to see the island go. Despite the fact that it had been beautiful and idyllic, things had changed, our paradise had been updated…

Ombi

PS  Dear Lonely Planet your Thailand’s Islands and Beaches book sucks!  If you can’t muster up an adequate amount of information, don’t put a book out! It’s more like a note book…you know, decent cover, nothing inside!

“I took some time out for life” – James L. Brooks

Books read:

The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Ko Kood sunset
Seriously delicious mango!
Where the beach meets the canal 

Hanging out with ‘the boys’ at the waterfall
The offending kayak …
One more gorgeous view

Another day …yet another gorgeous view!
Temple out at sea
What part of ‘don’t do drugs’ isn’t clear?


5,4,3,2,1 … Happy New Year …in Bangkok

Alex ‘n’ Dan on Khao San Rd

The week had flown, but we’d had so much fun. Unfortunately, time usually goes go all too quickly when on holidays. We were very excited; we were going back to our beloved Bangkok (people either love it or hate it … we love it!), where amongst many things, we would also be hanging out with our very special friend Dan.We had met Dan in Laos six years ago, but had then also visited him in his native Canada three years ago. He’d been teaching English in Thailand for the last year. He was coming from up north, where he was teaching, and we from the islands in the south … our meeting date was the day before new year.

My chrissy pressie from Dan

Dan had organised for us to stay at The Suan Dusit Place, and whilst we thought it was lovely and both clean and friendly, we felt that it was a ‘little far from the action’. So … we decided to hit our famous (and old stomping ground) Khao San Road (or as Dan likes to call it Khao San ‘freak’ Road), also known as the backpacker’s mecca!  Dan is the easiest person to travel with – we left a note telling him we were making our way there and that we would call tomorrow and let him know where we were staying as he was not due to arrive until late afternoon on New Year’s Eve.

Nothin’ like a few electricity lines!

Khao San Road was only a short taxi ride away, and despite beiing crazy and busy and packed and mad, we felt at home right away.  We headed
straight towards our old favourite, Lamphu House, but that was packed to the rafters! Pensiri recognised us straight away and told us that we should have booked! C’est la vie! So, we did what we normally do … walked around, checked places, checked prices, and chose! We ended up at the New Siam 3, very close to Lamphu House. It was comfortable, clean and friendly; all that we needed. We got ourselves organised in no time at all, and soon ‘hit’ Khao San Road. Although it was mostly as we remembered it (we had only been here a couple of years ago), we were still able to observe how much it had grown, so to speak; more food places, more restaurants, more food vendors and certainly more tourists!  My little Asian backwater was gone! What was once intrepid travel, was now open slather. Whilst the essence of the place was still there, I cringed at a number of things … the locals ‘dressed up’ in hilltribe clothing and selling trinkets on the street in order to make a living, kids and teenagers holding up signs urging ‘falang’ (foreigners) to drink (obviously we have a reputation … like you can’t buy alcohol or get tanked at home!) and both women and men dressed up in THE most inappropriate clothing. But clearly the circus, oops show, must go on!


Does this even require a comment?!

The first hour was spent walking up and down that famous road observing; I am sure that I was a social anthropologist in my last life! I am probably secretly one in this life too! Human behaviour fascinates me; actually humans fascinate me. Dinner time – that’d be Pad Thai, street style. Cheap (very) and cheerful! Without a doubt, the best food I have tried in Thailand is the street food. You might get sick! You might get food poisoning! Yeh, I might get hit by a car too! I want to live my life to the max and savour every little bit of it, including food! It had been a pretty huge day, from leaving the island to munching on street food late at night … that night our sleep was well-deserved.

Food time is always a good time for Alex
Street food

Friday 31 December 2010, New Year’s Eve day we woke up, and were on a mission … well, at least I was. Alex and I had written a list of the things we had to do. Going to the dentist, having a massage (well, several!) and going shopping (for both clothes and ‘computery’ type stuff) were on top of the list. We would try and get some of this done before meeting Dan and Ku (Dan’s girlfriend) later that day. We had a relaxing day and fitting a lot of this in was not a problem. We later came home and got ready to end the ‘noughties’. We met Dan and Ku at their hotel. It was like meeting up with a long lost friend; Dan has become one of those special people one meets on their travels and I know that we will always be friends. When we hugged, it was like no time had passed at all. After a decent round of hugs we made our way to the area around Sukhumvit Road where apparently there were to be fireworks. Dan suggested that we eat in the area of Sukhumvit that was effectively Little Arabia  – why not, always willing to give something different a go! We had a lovely meal in a small Arabic restaurant; the hummous was particularly good!  And I must say, yes it did feel like little Arabia, as people from all parts of the Middle East and northern Africa appeared to congregate there. Globalisation has done many things to many people. In a world where everyone seems  to live everywhere, racism seems like a ridiculous concept, the comedy of the absurd! I have never really understood the concept of racism, and often wonder why people struggle to accept each human being for who they are. I had better not even get onto this bandwagon, otherwise I’ll never get off (another blog, another day)!

New year’s fireworks

It was almost 11.00pm when we left the restaurant, and the idea was to walk towards the area of Sukhumvit where the people and fireworks would be. As the biggest countdown in Bangkok happens in Central World Square, we made our way towards it. It was, in good ol’ Aussie lingo, absolutely chockers!  If there were rafters, they would have collapsed! If getting up close and personal ain’t your thing, this certainly wasn’t the place to be!  It was bumper to bumper, with locals and foreigners alike. The countdown was quite tame, I thought, and then off went the fireworks, which I must say were pretty impressive. I pondered on all the places I had had the good fortune to wrap up the new year in … and there have been many, including Christchurch, Quito (Ecuador), Samoa and Nicaragua. I have definitely had, and continue to have a good life! Not luck, just choice! After the last snap, crackle and pop everyone started to disperse, and I suddenly felt extremely thankful that we were leaving a celebration and not some disaster, as a quick getaway would have been impossible! There were people moving in every which direction! It is here that we parted ways with Dan, and agreed to meet tomorrow. Alex and I had to walk quite a way (it was so packed I felt like bleating) before then having to wait a long time for a taxi, and then … that taxi ride seemed to take forever as there were people and cars everywhere …

Welcome to Bogan central!

… Meanwhile back at the ranch, that’d be Khao San Road, the drunken and disorderlies, injected with alcohol and probably a plethora of other substances, were being their OTT (over the top) obnoxious, loud, bogan and inappropriate selves. As they say in Spanish ‘tierra tragame’, or ‘earth, swallow me up’! At that moment (and there have been many), I was SO embarrassed to be a foreigner! We watched the circus for a while and then slinked away, back to our rooms. If tourists and travellers have ever wondered why some people from some countries think that foreigners are inappropriate, all of their questions would have been answered on this night.

Good morning … Bangkok!

New Year’s Day was a relaxing day; we got up late, had some breakfast, wandered around Khao San Rd and Banglamphu to do some shopping, and later met Dan and Ku. Yes, I do occasionally relax! Sunday was the Chatachuk Market. I just love this place! Thirty five hectares and 8000 stalls, this market sees some 20,000 people pass through it every weekend. There is not a solitary thing that cannot be found here. We went early, and finished late! Dan and Ku came for a while and then left. I was, more than a woman on a mission, I was on a marathon. Alex is a pretty patient person, but almost eight hours later, he was totally over it!  Armed with all I’d set out to buy, I was a happy camper!  That night we caught up with Dan and said our goodbyes as he was going back up north the next day, where he works as an English teacher. We were not so sad, as he will soon be in Australia to do a Master’s in Education (teaching English as a second language).

More street food

As would be expected, we spent our last two days packing it all in, both metaphorically as well as physically. We went to the dentist (sooooooo much cheaper than Australia, although it has gone up in the last few years) where we had our teeth cleaned, and in my case, I had a filling (which had, strangely enough, fallen out on the morning of our appointments). A few more massages, street food, some roti at a small Muslim restaurant we have been going to for years … the usual. We have been to Bangkok so many times now, that we just know what to do and how to do it. Ho-hum? Never!

Saying goodbye, Bangkok airport

And so, as the old adage goes, ‘All good things must come to an end’. We had to get up early to catch our flight and so the night before saw us packing our backpacks. I first looked at what we had bought, and then I looked at our backpacks. I really could not see how all that was sprawled all over our double bed and on the floor was going to fit in. Amongst all the stuff we had bought  there were no nick-knacks or dust-collectors (we only buy clothes and things that we can use … I made this decision years ago, as I am not a hoarder and I do not like clutter).  Included were six cushions for our benches (our table at home has two benches and not chairs) – I seriously could not see where they were going to go, or how they were going to fit in. Somehow, however, in true backpacker form, we filled EVERY tiny little bit of our backpacks, to the point where we thought we were going to bust the zips, yet still managed to be under the weight required. I should not have been so surprised; it’s an artform that we have perfected over the years.

One last meal before boarding the plane

An organised taxi to the airport? Nah! We got up, armed with our (by now) very heavy backpacks, and flagged a taxi down! We’ve done this a million times, and doing it ourselves has become second nature. The rest is the same old … arrive at the airport, check in, board the plane, in my case sleep, arrive home … and then start planning the next trip. And there’s always a ‘next trip’ looming on the horizon …. who said you ‘work to live’ not ‘live to work’? Welcome to our world!

Ombi

“Religion  is the opiate of the people”
– Karl Marx

Next: Our stopover in Singapore before touching back down in Melbourne.

Beer Lao, Alex’s pressie … in house joke
New friends Lili & Jaime from Brazil
Local transport
I always knew Ronnie was evil!
My obsession with Ronnie
I love this!
Welcoming 2011 Thai style

Happy New Year with Ku and Dan

How to beat the consumerist Christmas debacle

Back in the land of smiles!

That’s easy… run away!  And where to?  Who cares!  Overseas is always a good option!  It’s quite funny, when people see me after not having seen me for a while, I usually get asked, “So, where are you going to next?” It’s usually said tongue in cheek, but the ironic thing is that I usually HAVE booked a holiday to … somewhere!  We knew months ago that we wanted to spend Christmas overseas, and so we diligently plowed through our options.  We also knew that it had to be something relatively cheap, as we would like to go to Ecuador some time in the not too distant future, and getting to South America isn’t ever on the cheap side.  It was in September or so that we stared scouring for cheap destinations and flights.  We ended up finding a pretty good deal with Jetstar to Thailand … no food included, no screens for movies, basic … yes, yes, yes … who said it’s about the journey and not the destination? They got it all wrong, it’s the destination that counts! We ended up booking a two week holiday…Thailand here we come!

Happy to be back!

Alex and I have both been to Thailand several times.  I, in fact, have been so many times that I have lost count (I should do what our friends Richard and Jo do, which is keep a table of ‘where, what, when’).  I must say that it still remains one of my favourite countries – I love the food, culture, people and shopping (yes you heard correctly, ‘shopping’!  For those of you know that know me well, you would also know that normally I despise this pastime.) Where would we go and what would we do?  With such a short time away, we decided that we’d spent the first week or so on an island (which one?) and the other in Bangkok.  Many people do not like Bangkok, but once you acquaint yourself with her and get to know her well, she really is lots of fun!  We would also be meeting our very special friend Daniel there.  We met Dan backpacking through Laos in 2005, and later went to visit him in his native Quebec, Canada, a few years later.  He is one of those truly  special people you meet on your travels, in the  ‘I know that we are going to be friends for a long time’ league.  Daniel has been teaching English in the north of Thailand for a couple of years, so we thought that spending New Year’s in Bangkok together would be loads of fun.

Ko Chang sunset

We had booked our flight for the 22 December, and I should add here that I had only recently started a new job.  In late November I started at Diabetes Australia – Vic as Media and Communications Co-ordinator.  Funnily enough, I work a block and a half away from Alex, so we are able to travel into work together.  Technically, I am in the CBD and Alex is in Carlton, but we are both on the edge (of the suburbs in which we work), so to speak … probably on ‘the edge’ in many other ways too, ha, ha!  So three weeks in, we were off to Thailand.  As usual, packing occurred virtually on the last night.  With a new job, that had taken up a lot of my time and focus, there was not a lot of time to think about our upcoming trip.  When I sat down in that plane, I was exhausted. Who needed food and movies?  I slept most of the way!

Monkeying around on Ko Chang

The only thing we had booked was our first night in Bangkok (which actually means ‘City of Angels’).  It had to be close to the airport, as the next morning we had to catch  a bus from the airport which would take us (coupled with a ferry) straight to the island of Ko Chang, which is on the eastern side of Thailand, near the Cambodian border. How had we picked which island to go to?  Well, we knew that we did not want anything commercial or touristy (Like Phuket, Pattaya or Ko Samui) but we also wanted something relatively close to Bangkok and where we had not been before.  A few years back we had been to Ko Kood (or Kut), very close to Ko Chang, and had loved it.  We had heard, back then, that Ko Chang, had become commercial over the years, but we thought we’d give it a go. Bad move!


Arriving on Ko Chang by ferry

Upon arriving to the airport we made our way to the Orchid Resort.  It was very close by, which is just what we needed, as we had to be back at the airport the next morning, to catch a bus at 7.00am.  It was quaint, and clean and quiet; just what we needed, as we were exhausted.  We were each given a voucher for a free ten minute foot massage (massages of ANY description are to die for in Thailand), which we took, laying by the poolside at almost midnight, after we had dumped our backpacks upstairs.  It was bliss!  After that it was a quick shower, and we were ready to hit the sack.  I think I was out in under ten seconds.

Streets of Ko Chang
Not too impressed with Ko Chang, hey?!

The next morning we were up before 6.00am getting ourselves organised, and back at the airport in order to catch catch our 7.00am bus. Before we knew it, we were on the bus, making our way to Ko Chang. As I looked around I felt comfortable and at home. The sights, feel, sounds and ambiance of Thailand, over the years, have become comfortably familiar.  It’s possibly one of the few countries outside of the Latin countries (for which I have a passion, and some say addiction to!) that I can keep coming back to and never get sick of. The bus ride was several hours, and then we were on the ferry… bus and all. Luckily the sea was not choppy, as I am prone to motion-sickness. It’s always a lovely feeling as a boat rocks up to an island with azure waters and swaying palms; it’s that wonderful feeling of isolation, secret get-away and bliss rolled into one. Of course, we had not organised a place to stay (normal for us), but we had kind of chosen an area that we’d start looking in. We had not had that much time to do research, but figured we’d go somewhere on the central west-coast of the island.  We asked around when we got there and were told that Kaibae was a nice little place, with a nice beach.  As we jumped in the songthaew (which is basically a small pick-up truck), and started to make our way to Kaibae, I had a sinking feeling in my gut!  Whilst I understand that even developing countries have the right to ‘develop’, I could not help but be somewhat mortified by all the construction, development and rubble lying around. This was NOT the island bliss I had been expecting!  We got off at Kaibae, and walked around looking for a place to stay.  It looked OK (just!) but as it was only a couple of days before Christmas, most places were booked out.  I can’t say that the beach blew me away either.  There was lots of rubbish lying around and it just didn’t look clean.  Nope, not staying here!

Gu’s Bay … tranquil and relaxing

We jumped back onto another songthaew and made our way a little further south to the infamous Lonely Beach.  This place, unfortunately, is not so lonely anymore and has been overrun by backpackers.  We were totally unimpressed with the almost one kilometre strip of virtually bumper-to-bumper bars and tacky souvenir shops, completely over-run by foreigners.  Alex looked after the backpacks whilst I trawled the strip looking for a place to stay.  Apart from the fact that almost everything was booked out, the little that was left was overpriced and/or close to more rubbish than a tip!  This was not looking good, and I was starting to feel like Ko Chang was one big mistake!

Accommodation at Gu’s Bay

I made my way back to Alex and the backpacks, and was about to tell him that the news regarding accommodation was not good, when he introduced me to a local, who suggested a place to stay on Ao Bai Lan, which was the next spot down from Lonely Beach. So, this is how we came to stay at Gu’s Bay, a gorgeous, non pretentious place, with everything we needed  as well as being extremely well priced and it was not overrun with bars and a million people.  What a relief!  It had such a serene feel, and whilst the beach immediately in front of us was rather rocky, the swimming pool made up for it!  We made ourselves at home immediately.  That night (24th December) we walked to Lonely Beach for a bite to eat, as there really weren’t many options in the food department where we were.  We picked a seafood place with lots of locals, and I must say, the food was brilliant.  On the way home we found a massage place that was still open – what an excellent massage!  The Thais are masters at this.  Despite it not being a long way back to our accommodation, the road was windy and unlit, so we had to catch a songthaew.  So what does one do when she/he does not want to be amongst a multitude of loud and drunk foreigners…

Sunset on Ko Chang

… We had walked back to Gu’s Bay and could hear some music wafting over, so we decided to make our way towards it.  It was coming from the Dusit Princess, an upmarket hotel close to where we were staying. As we got closer, so did the music. With more front than Myers, we walked straight through the hotel to the area where they were having a Christmas spectacle and whilst we did not join in the buffet meal, we did get a few decent hours of entertainment.  Apart from my shorts and singlet, I felt like a queen! We had a great time actually, and the concert was most enjoyable, hosting dancers and singers alike.  Being the past life social anthropologist (people watcher!) that I am, I was entertained (from all angles!) for hours … stilettos, sequined tops, bouffant hairstyles … really, a whole other world!  It ended just after midnight, and I waltzed out as gracefully as I had waltzed in…with crocs, shorts and a singlet top! Gotta love it!

On the pier at Ban Bang Bao

Apart from being woken by a disorderly bunch in the swimming pool in the early hours of Christmas morning (which I got up and addressed!), we had a great night’s sleep. After a lazy breakfast, we made our way down south to Ban Bang Bao.  Once home to a quaint fishing village, it has now become one of the island’s major tourist attractions, with a pier stretching well out into the sea.   This pier is home to a plethora of seafood restaurants, which are well frequented by visitors. This fascinating place is where local residents have built their houses with poles pitched into the sea and the bridge linking every house is set up to join the community together. Although hot, it was lovely to wander around, observe and try some of the local delicacies. After a couple of hours we made our way to the beach close by, and unlike the central part of the Ko Chang coast, where the beaches were infiltrated with multitudes, this was just lovely and relaxing. Sunbaking, reading, relaxing, running on the beach at dusk … what more could one ask for?

Time to go to Ko Kood

The next day, we decided to move on. Although we had had fun, Ko Chang was not really us. We wanted and had expected something a little more idyllic. Having said that, as places become more popular, things change, and I am all too aware that even I am part of that change! With fond memories of our time in Ko Kood and Ko Mak, islands close by, a few years earlier, we decided that we would revisit Ko Kood. With such little time, we wanted to come back and say that we had ‘really’ enjoyed ourselves. With this, we had a relaxing last night in Ko Chang, and organised to catch a ferry to Ko Kood the next morning.

Ombi

Next: A few days on (truly) idyllic Ko Kood, before we hit Bangkok.

Paradise Updated!

Books read:Paradise Updated by Mic Looby (Thanks for this book Vick…I cannot tell you HOW appropriate it was given where we were staying and what we were doing!)

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are” – Bertolt Brecht

Dedication: For my maaaaaaate Rozzie!  This one’s for you! Who would have thought that meeting some cool chick on one of Brazil’s most spectacular beaches some 11 years ago would lead to this … one seriously cool friendship! The world’s people are broken up into two groups … those who get it and those who don’t!  You are soooooooo going to get this (please refer to Ping-Pong shot below) … LY(very)LT!!!! Ombs

This one’s for you Rozzie!

‘Pier food’ – Ban Bang Bao








The way to Alex’s heart? His stomach!










A housewarming and birthday all rolled into one

At Dad’s for dinner with Yuko and Yuji

I cannot believe that it has already been over three months since we came back from Malaysia.  So much has happened in that time.  Alex had his birthday, I resigned from my job and we moved into our new little place in Coburg North.

I should mention that we also had our dear friends Yuko San and Nashville San visit us, literally two days before we flew out to Malaysia, at the end of June.  Really, it was hardly enough time, but unfortunately, we had all booked our tickets way in advance, getting us cheap flights that neither of us was able to change.  We definitely made the best of those two days however, and crammed in as much as we could.  After picking them up from the airport, we

Got to have pizza in Carlton!

dropped them off at their hotel, and later it was dinner at Dad’s.  The next day we visited the Melbourne Museum, followed by a typical Italian lunch in Lygon Street.  Yuko and Yuji (who we fondly refer to as Shopping San and Nashville San; Yuko because she likes shopping and Yuji as he plays the guitar really well and loves country and western music) have become truly special friends, and if you recall came out to Australia only a year ago.  On this trip, they also visited the Gold Coast.  Unfortunately, our time with them on this trip was short and sweet, but Dad got to spend some time with them after we left for Malaysia.

Our humble abode

Upon our return from Malaysia, in mid-July, Alex and I started to get ourselves organised and move into our new place.  It did take us a little longer than expected…thank goodness for Dad!  Whilst I am not the home-renovating queen (let alone type!) nor a Ms Match-It…those white floor tiles had to go!  Alex and I have a rather ethnic and eclectic style, so we knew what we needed and wanted, including polished floor boards.  We knew that we needed the warmth of the colour of wood, to go with everything we had.  A little bit of research later, we decided on bamboo flooring, as it looks earthy, is more durable than wood, and is eco-friendly (consider killing a forest as opposed to using bamboo, which regrows quickly and is sustainable).  I must say, it made all the difference, and was all the “renovating” we required.  Over the next few weeks, we moved our stuff in, and on the 22 August we were officially in our new little town house.

James (my nephew) sleeps over

Slowly, slowly we have been adding things, and fixing things to our liking.  I believe that creating an environment that you love and feel comfortable in is an organic process.  It might be “finished” in a month, in a year, or never…it’s that organic process I was speaking about!  Slowly, slowly we have also been inviting different groups over for dinner, who in the past have had us over.  It’s a lovely feeling to be able to repay the favour, so to speak.  Having said that, we still have not got around to everyone…slowly, slowly.

Amongst all of this, I also resigned from my job only days before we moved into our place.  Essentially, it’s something that I needed to do, in order to be true to myself, my values and what I feel I am worth.  Everything happens for a reason and so now I am again on the hunt for a new job.

Carn’ the Pies…Fuzz and Gazza in the centre

Alex’s birthday was on August 10th and we had a small gathering with friends and family at Dad’s house.  It was also Fulvio, my brother’s, birthday on the 26th September, and as all good Aussies would know this is virtually like an Australia Day for us…the football (well Aussie footy anyway!) Grand Final.  So Fuzz, as Fulvio is also known, threw a combined birthday/footy bash at his place…lots of laughing and lots of screaming.  And I must say, that even I (who doesn’t follow footy at all) was getting into the spirit.

Ombi with Mali (L) and sister Teah

My birthday was on the 14th October, and we decided to have a dual celebration, combining my birthday with our housewarming.  Due to the multitude of friends that we have we decided on an open-house style affair, which was held on the 16th October.  The time was listed as “anywhere between midday and 8.00pm”, as we wanted the opportunity to be able to chat to everyone.  The weather was supposed to be shocking, with both rain and hail predicted (thanks Melbourne). Luckily, apart from a morning shower, the weather held out, so all of the kids were able to run around and play outside.  About 60 people came over the course of the day, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  The last guests didn’t leave until after midnight, and although it had been a long day, it had also been an enjoyable one.  My aim had been accomplished, and I was able to speak to everyone.  Thank you to all of you who came – you are all a special part of mine and Alex’s lives.

With Rozzie and Ida

I had another guest over for my birthday – my friend Rozzie from Cairns.  She was coming down for her grandmother’s 100th birthday.  Pretty fine effort, I might say! I went to pick her up the morning before my birthday.  It was great to see her again, as the last time had been in Melbourne, almost two years ago.  Rozzie only had a week and had to divide her time amongst a few people here, but we still managed some quality time together.  On her first night here, we got Ida over for dinner.  Many of you would recall that I worked with people with disabilities for many years and Ida was one of the residents.  We still stay in touch.  Some 10 years ago, however, on one of Rozzie’s trips to Melbourne, she met Ida and Ida has never forgotten her. In fact, whenever I speak to Ida, the three people she always asks me about are my Dad, Alex and Rozzie.  Why does she ask about them?  Quite simply because each of them have shown her, over the years, that they care.  At the end of the day, what one is remembered for is whether they were kind or not, not whether they owned a mansion in Toorak or not!  Ida, thanks for being a gentle reminder as to what is and is not important in life!

With our family at our housewarming

My friend Bec also came down to Melbourne in August for our friend Vickie’s birthday.  It’s always great to catch up with you too Bec.  Bec’s from Canberra but is now living in Brisbane.  Way back in 1999, I met Bec in Bolivia (a couple of months before I met Alex), and then the two of us met some months later on to cruise the length of the Amazon River, from Iquitos in Peru to Belen in Brazil.  There’s a whooooooooole other story that goes with this tale! Remember our Hawaii 5-0 moment Becs? We would eventually end up in Porto de Galhinas, where we met Rozzie.  Now that was a beach to die for!  And coming from an Aussie, that’s saying something!

Rita, Harry (her father in law) and moi!

My friend Rita, who lives in Dubai with her husband Graham, and two young boys, Sam and Darcy, have also been here a few times this year, and are actually here right now (late October).  Rita is effectively my sister, and I became the 4th adopted Garcia girl a very long time ago now.  When Reet’s around, I make the effort to see her as often as I can.

Wow, it has taken me a couple of days of “full-time writing” to get up to speed on my blog, but I think I have managed it.  I can’t beleive that we are breathing down the neck of Christmas now.  In true Ombi and Alex style, we have booked a trip to Thailand…where we will spend Christmas and the New Year.

Ombi

Dedication: For my “sister” Rita.  You have been there for me though the highs and the lows, and through thick and thin.  You have never judged me and always supported me.  Thank you for your constant love and support.  You are one in a billion and you know that I am always here for you, as you have been and continue to be for me.  Our friendship is eternal.


“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are” – John Wooden (I think this aptly sums real friends and friendships).

Yuko and Yuji give the tram a go!
Ombi with ‘special friend’ Judy Genge
With the love of my life at Sorrento Beach
On the beach…
At a festival in Hurstbridge with friend SAndra
Yuji chills at Dad’s place
Special friends forever
Happy Birthday Ben! (my spunky godson)
L to R: Lola, Sonya, Anne, Joan and Alex…dinner at our place
Dad and Aunty Lori
With Michelle and Steve at the housewarming
SAndra, Dad and Alex work on restoring the table for our new home
With Yuji and Yuko at Dad’s
With my cousins Carol and Glenn and Carol’s daughter Caitlin

Last but not least, Penang

Inside a Penang temple

Where was I?  Oh yes, we were flying to Penang at some ungodly hour, and were hoping to rock up at the Oriental Hotel in its capital Georgetown, and find a spare room or two.  We arrived in Penang, picked up our luggage and caught a taxi to the Oriental Hotel.  We got out of the cab, paid the taxi driver and looked at the hotel.  It definitely looked dodgy brothers, but hey, it was after 2.00am, and how bad could it be…all we needed was a few hours sleep and then we could move, right?   Geez, we missed the signs again, the warning bells should have been louder than tinnitus, but no, it was late, and clearly desperation had taken a grip, a firm grip!  We walked in and organised and paid for a room to stay in; I have to say, none of us were feeling warm and fuzzy about any of this!  Time was a tickin’…in the lift we go, and reach our floor.  The corridor felt like a fridge and our room like a freezer.  Add to that that it didn’t pass the Ombi “clean test” ( I admit to being anal about cleanliness)…we all looked at each other, and shook our heads! We all thought it,  I verbalised it, “No way!  Let’s get outta here!”  As we made our way back to the lift, we noticed a few women being followed by some dodgy brothers kind of guys.  I got the veeery distinct impression that they had not all gotten up simultaneously to go to the loo!  Couldn’t make a booking we had been told…it all seemed to be falling into place now.  Back downstairs in a heartbeat, we asked for a refund, telling the guy that it just wasn’t “our kinda room”.  He looked a little baffled (not quite sure WHAT he thought the three of us had planned to do/ done in that room!!) and said that once the room was checked that we could have our money back!  The three of us were equally as baffled as we did not know what we COULD have done in that room in what amounted to a nano-second.  We literally flew out of there!  Suddenly, we did not feel so bad that we had nowhere to sleep, despite the fact that it was almost 3.00am!

An interesting way to dry clothes – Penang

Where would we go?  We saw a place across the road called Banana Guesthouse.  Alex and Linda waited whilst I went and checked it out.  It was clean, safe, un-sleazy and the guy who opened the door was very helpful.  In no time at all, we were in bed, fast asleep.  Needless to say, we did not get up, or off, to an eight o’clock start.  I was the first one up, however, and went for a bit of an exploratory walk.  I also found another Banana Guest House (owned by the same people), a little closer to the action, so to speak, so later that morning we all moved across and settled in.  We would stay there for the remainder of our time in Penang.

Candle burning inside a Penang temple

Georgetown is Penang’s historical capital; it’s interesting, exciting and eclectic, all rolled into one. It’s where cultures meet and merge.  It’s where you can find Chinese food on one side of the street and Indian on the other (a bit like Melbourne, hey!)  It’s where, if you take the time to explore its nooks and crannies, you can find some veritable treasures.  And…..it has truly wonderful food…much to Alex’s delight! As per usual, some of the best food was the street food! 

We did lots in those few days (just ask Linda), and whilst the idea of relaxing always seems appealing to me, when I find myself thrown into a different atmosphere and culture, my desire to “suck in” as much information as I can is voracious, and I end up leaving the place, more tired than I arrived there.  This is exactly what happened in Penang.  We mixed historical sight-seeing with shopping with eating in a manner that even I thought was impressive.

Fort Cornwallis – Penang

Penang’s highlights are indeed many.  Penang (this is often used interchangeably with Georgetown) has one of the greatest concentrations of colonial architecture in Asia.  Fort Cornwallis, on the waterfront, provided us with a great starting point for exploration of the colonial area.  It was very hot the entire time that we were there, so we kept ourselves hydrated with lots of water.  We checked out China Town and Little India; in the latter Linda and I gave Alex some “breathing space” (read – saved him from torture!) and wandered around doing some shopping.  Yes, me, shopping!  I may not be the shopping centre kind of gal, but when it comes to shopping in other countries, where I can purchase unusual or different things, I am in!

As a bit of an aside…this is what I am NOT into: shopping overseas for cheap, fake, designer stuff!  The reason I don’t buy it or pay full-price here in Australia has nothing to do with the monetary value, and everything to do with the fact that I categorically refuse to pay some exorbitant fee because someone, somewhere has deemed that brand “in”. So, why would I buy it if it was cheap?  So that people back in Australia think that I have an original Gucci and think I am (A) “cool” or (B) well-off enough to afford it?  No, no, no!  OK, stepping down off my soap box now…

Food, food and more food!

Batu Ferringhi, or Foreigner’s Rock, is only 14 kilometres away from the centre of Georgetown, and is effectively the town’s resort area.  Indeed it could be Surfer’s Paradise, and based on this, I was not keen to stay there. Having said that, we did go to its famous night market, which actually had some beautiful wares from many parts of Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam.  I love markets – they are always a great place to people watch.  Like the rest of Penang, it also had great food.

Coming to Penang and not trying the multitude of different food available is like going to India and not visiting the Taj Mahal.  There are some things
that one just has to do!  One of the most famous
dishes is Asam Laksa, or Penang Laksa.  Whilst I normally love laksa, this variety was a bit too fishy for me.  One of my favourites was Char Koay Teow, which means “stir-fried rice cake strips”, and is one of Penang’s most popular hawker dishes. And the list goes on…Hokkien Mee, Ice Kacang, Cendol, Curry Mee, Mee Goreng…look some of these up, and tantalise your taste buds.

Traditional food – Penang


At the Rainforest Festival, Alex had shared a room with a Malaysian called Azahar.  What a great (and intelligent!) man.  Whilst he works in Sarawak, his family live in Georgetown, and he was going to be there for a few days, right when 

Fantastic Indian food – thanks Azahar!

we were.  We swapped numbers and he told us that he would give us a “local’s tour” of Georgetown for a day.  And that is exactly what he did!  He picked us all up one morning and took us places, and showed us things that a tourist would normally never have seen.  We also got to go to his mum’s place and meet his mum, and nephew.  He drove us around and showed us places, giving us an insight to how the locals live, and he got us to try food and drinks from local spots/ markets that we normally would not have thought to try.  I tried a drink that was made from some type of cane sugar, and was truly delicious.  We also went across the bridge to Butterworth, and came back (in the car) on the ferry, just for a different view.  At some point we stopped at an Indian roadside restaurant…Azahar ordered and we ate!  The food was super-cheap and so extremely tasty.  We had roti with a range of topping and sauces; probably one of the best meals we had in Malaysia! And before we knew it, we were back in Georgetown.  Azahar had given us a taste of the real Penang, in more ways than one!

Pinang Peranakan Mansion – Penang

Our trip was slowly coming to an end, and we only had one more day to go.  We’d all hit the wall!  In an attempt for our last cultural fix, we thought we’d visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion; this mansion depicts a typical home of a rich Baba (descendants of 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants of more than a hundred years ago).  Whilst it was very interesting, we were all struggling to give it the time it deserved.  Linda and I sat down on some chairs inside, and it was then that I realised that I was at the end of my battery life -not even water and food seemed to be saving me.  With this, we all decided to walk home.  We managed it, but I must say (in my case) just!  It was only mid-afternoon; I had a shower to freshen up, and went to bed for a “short” nap.  As Alex often says to me , “When you shut-up, you shut down”.  That about sums it up!  I’d even used the reserve fuel in my tank, and my body needed to replenish.

The best food is nearly always street food

Upon waking up, we got Linda, and went for our last street-food experience.  We did not have to go far as there were a multitude of places and all very close to our hotel.  Linda and Alex then had their last local beer, again close by.  Wow, our trip had come to an end…well not quite, we still had to pack, and fly home, but that was only hours away.  We had all had such a good time, and Malaysia and Borneo had provided us all with lots of new experiences, cultural exchanges and friendships.  This is my passion, and this is my joy!

Does returning home merit writing about?  Back at the hotel, we slept for a few hours, woke up, caught a taxi to the airport and flew to Kuala Lumpur, before changing flights and flying onto Melbourne.  Again, it was an uneventful flight, in as far as all went well.  My Dad (who we fondly refer to as Mr Doo Bee, Doobie, or Doobs…long story) was there, as always, to pick us up.  How many airport runs have you done in your life Dad?  And as you know, I am as grateful as ever.


Another trip down, and a plethora more to go!  Where to next?

(NOTE: 2010 proved to be a very busy year; as I write this it’s mid January 2011, and in actual fact Alex and I have just come back from two weeks in Thailand).

Ombi

Dedication:  This one is for you Azahar.  Thanks for taking Alex, Linda and I out for a day, and showing us the ‘real’ Penang.  These memories will live with us forever.  You are an open-hearted and open-minded individual; such admirable traits which so few seem to have.  We hope that one day we can offer you the same hospitality in our country, Australia. Terima kasih!

“Let us be grateful to those people who make us happy…they are charming gardeners who make our souls blossom” – Proust (on a card that Alex bought me for my birthday recently)

Chinese quarter – Penang
We have the world in our hands!

Taken inside a Chinese temple???
Indian quarter – Penang
Indian food – Azahar’s pick

Colonial houses as seen all over Penang
Colourful Chinese lanterns – Penang

Now THIS is what I call food!
A Penang local