Archives for the month of: January, 2013

The first thing(s) you notice when you arrive in Bali are the mopeds. Hundreds of the bastards everywhere you go. They far outnumber the cars here and a lot of the time they seem to outnumber the people. That is until you count the number of people on each moped and realise that a whole family can fit on one if enterprising enough. We thought it was quite exciting on our way from the airport when we saw a man taking his three children to school on one, until we got to our hotel where just outside we saw one woman with five children all aboard, most of whom seemed to be having a great time while mummy overtook a lorry doing 50mph with a bus load of scuba diving equipment overtaking her on the outside. On a single lane road. In to a blind hairpin turn. Being chased by monkeys. On fire.

However because we are intrepid explorers and are not afraid of anything at all we went ahead and rented ourselves a wee scooter for a couple of days and tried not to get killed out on the roads.

On our first day we drove to the rather wonderfully named Git Git. So horrible they called it a git twice. But actually it wasn’t so horrible at all. After a brief admonishment from the local police in Singaraja – none too impressed that we had attempted to drive the wrong way down a one way street, apparently the only traffic offence that is deemed worthy of police time while school children whizzed past on their 500cc motorcycles – we carried on to Git Git, found what looked like a good place to stop, parked our little bike and followed the signs; ‘to the waterfall.’ Yes Git Git is home to a waterfall that is apparently very beautiful and high and impressive and where you can go swimming as long as there aren’t too many other tourists crowding the pool at the bottom. So we were a little uncertain as we set off in to the rainforest, still following directions to the falls but increasingly coming across reasons to believe that this was not the main tourist trail. Take this bridge as an example. A few lengths of bamboo laid across a ravine, only one of which seemed fit to support a human’s body weight, the rest bowing ominously towards the abyss if you so much as grazed a toe over them.

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Nevertheless we hacked our way on, coming face to face with horrifically enormous and almost certainly quite deadly spiders, while the intensity of noise from the rest of the jungle wildlife grew to an uncomfortable and disorienting din, the sort of sound effect used in films to tell the audience they’re going the wrong way and someone is about to get eaten by something you can’t quite see yet!

But get eaten we did not. We soldiered on, following the sound of streaming water, and soon realised why no other tourists were following this path. If you went swimming in the water at this end of the falls the most you could expect to get was your 20m Freestyle Death badge.

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Still, the view from the top was quite magnificent even if you don’t actually get to see the waterfall itself. Eventually after much backtracking, conversing in very broken english with a hundred year old woman who was up a ladder building her retirement home, and paying what turned out to be way over the odds for parking our moped for the second time that day (the parking attendants only ask for a donation but with no recommendation as to how much one should donate. We paid 5000 Indonesian Rupiah twice before someone told us that the most you should ever pay is 2000) we arrived at the bottom of the same waterfall, with all the splashy falling watery photo opportunities that we had hoped for in the first place.

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At least that tree appears to have earned its swimming badge.

With the wet season in full swing, the flow of water had been turned up to 11 making the prospect of a gentle paddle or cooling dip in the pool at the foot of the falls a rather more perilous one than it might be for the rest of the year. Instead we got back on our bike and started for home.

A few miles along the increasingly foggy mountain road, our bike came to a sudden halt. Immediately I knew something was wrong. We had left it too late to top up the petrol, an armed gang had created a road block and were going to spring out of the forest to rob the bloody hell out of us while we pathetically attempted to push ourselves back uphill to safety. Or Lovisa had spotted a family of monkeys having a picnic by the side of the road and wanted to take some pictures.

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If you’ve grown up and spent most of your life in south east England things like this don’t happen to you ever. You might go to Woburn safari park and have a monkey climb on your car if you are very lucky, but you will be surrounded by signs telling you not to encourage them and certainly not to open your bloody windows. Well here there were no bloody windows. There was no car. It was just man (and woman) and monkey (and monkey woman) and it was at once both brilliant and quite terrifying. Seeing proper wild animals up close and personal is really something that can’t be replicated in a zoo and I was loving the exhilaration of being there and trying to interact with these vaguely human but completely uncommunicative little animals. And then as if to show me what an arrogant, presumptuous, walking, talking, human bastard I was, I got legitimately eye-balled by a crazed looking little macaque, a look that said “I promise if you take one more fucking picture of my wife and kids having a nice day out, I will scratch out each and every one of your four eyes, you Harry Potter twat.” And realising that communication in the jungle was alive and well but not a business I wanted to be involved in, I made a point of how I thought it was time that we were leaving.

Of course as soon as we left the sheltered environs of the monkey’s tree, it started to shit it down with rain, the sort of enormous raindrops that again, one doesn’t see in England. The monsoon lasted for a couple of hours that by the time our shivering, bloodless corpses had found their way back to the hotel, had felt like an eternity standing directly under the thundering waterfall we had earlier deemed too feisty to swim close to.

It almost made this not one of the best days of my life, but of course it was really.

As I write this, I am enjoying my 17th evening in Bali. It’s an incredible island that we have been enjoying a great deal for two weeks, and in due course I will report on the many exciting things we have seen and done before today. However if I may, I would like to skip all that and talk about the cup of cat shit coffee I drank today.

That’s not me doing some creative swearing to emphasise how bad it was. I actually had a coffee that was made with beans that had been passed by a feline-esque jungle dwelling mammal, and apparently it’s the most expensive coffee in the world. The story goes that the little civet (or luwak or weasely/catty/stoat-ish thing) is a very picky animal that has a particular fondness for only the finest coffee berries. It sniffs them out, eats the juicy flesh of the berry but can’t properly digest the bean inside. However some sort of enzyme in its stomach causes a reaction in the beans and removes any hint of bitterness to create a coffee that when brewed tastes smoother than highly polished silk. Because this is rather a long process which relies on wild animals doing their job properly and then local farmers being able to locate their poo and dig through it to find the necessary goodies, the street price of a kilo of this coffee is around $700; coincidentally the exact same amount You Are What You Eat’s Gillian McKeith charges for one of her stool sample sweetcorn fritters. Obviously I’m a fancy pants and I wouldn’t be taking such a ludicrously long holiday if I wasn’t rich beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, but even I have my limits. Fortunately we found ourselves in the cafe of a local cooperative run by a volunteer who is largely motivated by responsible and sustainable farming rather than making a fast buck from excrement, and a cup of his lovely brew cost less than three quid.

Bottom beans apart, the best thing about this cup of coffee was the brewing process. Having ordered a one person pot of coffee I was presented with a sort of Indonesian chemistry set. There was fire, metal, tubes and a big glass with some ground coffee in it. All very exciting but I hadn’t got the slightest idea what I was supposed to do with it.

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After a few minutes and a few words of explanation from the man in charge, things started to happen. The flame heats water in the can above it which, once boiling, overflows through the pipe and into the glass. Then after a few seconds in the ground coffee the water is sucked back up the pipe due to the vacuum created when it left the can. Perhaps. I didn’t really understand what he was saying and I switched off when the explanation became too dependent on science, preferring to put it all down to magic, and I just enjoyed the show instead.

After all the excitement of the brewing process (which you can repeat up to three times depending on your coffee-strength preference; I opted for two because I prefer to sip my coffee rather than eat it with a spoon) the actual drinking of the stuff was going to struggle to keep the momentum of the experience up. It was though a very lovely cup of coffee and was definitely worth the effort of making it. Especially when there are hipsters in New York drinking it for ten times the price I paid. Add to that the fact that they don’t get a plate of the worlds best ever banana fritters with home grown chocolate dipping sauce to go with it, and I’m looking kind of like a freaking genius right now.

To round off our trip to Sydney, we indulged in a bit of high class outdoor summery sophisticated culture. We went to the Moonlight Cinema in Centennial Gardens, where they throw up a screen, project a film on to it as the sun goes down and everyone drinks wine and eats picnics like right smug, self-satisfied Australian bastards whose lives are perfect. What a joy to be one of them for the night. We saw Hitchcock even though its official release date wasn’t for some days yet, which only added to the sense that we were somehow among the privileged and better than the rest of the world. The film was great but for me the best bit of the evening was just before the sun went down, when hundreds of birds migrated from one end of the park to the other. Except they weren’t birds, they were massive bloody bats.

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We had seen them before during the day, roosting in a tree, all balled up like little hanging cats with leather jackets on but as they flew towards at dusk it was like being in a vampire film or a Meat Loaf album cover and it was completely amazing (because the vampire film in question was something really good and not Twilight and because Meat Loaf is a bad ass regardless of his questionable politics).

After a farewell meal of Nepalese curried goat with Angelo and Andrew we took our leave from Sydney and set a course for Bali. Lovely.

Everyone knows that China is at the forefront of the world’s technological and scientific advancement right now and as its population grows, its economy strengthens and its education gets better, the move towards Chinese global domination becomes more and more likely. While the Americans tell each other this is bad and it spells the end for American jobs and American industry and America being the leader of the free world, Australia is merrily embracing Chinese science because in Australia, Chinese science means this:

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Yes, as the photo above appears to illustrate, in Sydney’s China town they have a chemistry lab opened up on to the street where be-goggled ladies mix together liquids from various flasks, pour in some liquid nitrogen and make it look like they’ve set the place on fire. This would all be quite fun if they were just conducting random experiments for the entertainment of passing tourists. However they were actually making ice cream so it was all one hell of a lot of delicious mega fun. You choose your flavour and then they put milk and cream and some pop corn and truffle oil (Lovisa) or burnt butter (me) and probably some sugar and stuff in to a food mixer, pour over the liquid nitrogen and then give you the best ice cream you’ve ever had when it comes out. The place is called N2, it’s on Dixon Street, and if you’re ever in Sydney you have to go there.

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Look at those happy faces. Thanks China.

Australia is a big country, one covered in exciting animals, big rocks, things to do and people to meet. They play a lot of cricket, arguably the greatest sport there is (it’s not an easy argument to win, one that goes “Cricket is the greatest sport there is”, “No it’s really shit and boring”, “No I promise it really is amazing and I can’t really explain why but it just is, ok?”, “No.”) If you are English then you definitely know at least 500 smug people who have been to Australia on their gap year, or just after they finished uni or who emigrated when they retired, and they think its the best place ever in the world. And yet, with respect to all the people that I know and love who have been so fond of it, I have never had any compulsion to go there myself. It always struck me as being just like England but hotter and definitely smugger.

However, as it is very difficult to circumnavigate the globe in this direction without stopping over, and since two of our least smug friends had emigrated a year ago, we gave Sydney the benefit of the doubt and booked ourselves in for two weeks.

Let us begin with a little whining about the downsides of visiting Sydney. It is expensive as a bastard. If you can afford to live here you can afford to be smug. Our budget for two weeks in Sydney was approximately the same as a month in New York. With that in mind, we had to stay in a youth hostel. A very nice youth hostel it must be said, with clean sheets, a more than adequate supply of bread, an excellent toaster, range of cereal, tea, milk and sugar. However, a youth hostel in Australia means being surrounded by English dunderheads, away from mummy and daddy for the first time and not knowing how to behave. They sit in front of the TV all day while the sun is shining outside, then start drinking in the evening and keep everyone awake with the sort of shouty bullshit drunken machismo that they think is going to get them laid by the locals but which is only ever appealing to other English people, the like of which they could have impressed for much less than the cost of a round the world plane ticket. At times it was as though we’d accidentally found ourselves in a TOWIE vs Geordie Shore dick-swinging, tit-flashing, arsehole contest, with the appropriate regional accents for good measure. This though I rather predicted. What I never expected was to leave the confines of the hostel and find myself liking Sydney so very much.

We started off, as one (two?) inevitably does (do?) with seeing the big sites. We walked up to the harbour to see the opera house and the bridge and were delighted to find two properly worthwhile, impressive feats of human engineering and architecture, the first we had seen since leaving New York. Having been so consumed by the natural beauty of the western states in the US and down in New Zealand, it was nice to be reminded that people aren’t that shit after all and can even make things look nice when they try.

As with anything and anywhere else though, the big fat tourist sights are there for the big fat tourists, and once we were done with them, we needed to get the d-low from some locals if we were to get the most out of our stay. Fortunately for us, two of the best locals in town happened to be a couple of very good friends from our Brighton days, Andrew and Angelo.

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Andrew and Angelo know a thing or two about having fun on the beach.

I didn’t even know Sydney had so many beaches. I had heard of Bondi but assumed it was out of town, not a short bus ride away, and not on a bus that takes you past loads of other really lovely walkable coastline. Luckily for us, Angelo and Andrew did know this, so they took us out on a bunch of different amazing coastal walks. Here you can see me and the two of them thinking the warning signs on the beach are a bit lame.

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Fortunately there is no photographic evidence of me, shortly afterwards, fighting for my life, pathetically doggy paddling against the monstrous force of Mother Nature and her massive watery ego.

Aside from that brush with death, we had a most wonderful time at the seaside. Lovisa and Angelo jumped from the rocks like a pair of Chinese synchronised divers:

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We made friends with a french bulldog puppy called Boz:

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And we took ourselves some unashamedly sexy pictures:

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After all that fun we had earned ourselves an ice cream, made of pure science…

New Zealand, beautiful though it unquestionably is, suffers from a particularly ugly blight; every single person there is English. Sort of. Actually they are mostly from New Zealand. However as an English person it is impossible not to notice the proliferation of your fellow countryman/woman in every coffee shop, bar and youth hostel all over the land. While travelling abroad it is discomfiting and more than that, disappointing to hear a Home Counties accent. One hopes to encounter and indulge in foreign culture and rituals while telling interested locals about how you are from St. Albans which is a “really historic city, just outside London. Yeah I live next to the queen, yeah…” and perhaps you might pine a little for home because maybe it wasn’t as bad as you thought when you were booking your flights. When you get to the other side of the world and realise everyone there is also getting the hell away from St. Albans, your heart sinks as you realise you have nothing to share with these people because you’ve already spent 27 years hanging out with middle class wankers from the suburbs.

And so your journey takes you onward if you are lucky, to a strange and tropical island full of eastern promise, spiritual awakenings, otherworldly ceremony and tropical foods. Or you might, as Lovisa and I did, take a plane to Sydney and spend two weeks in the company of the fucking English.

On Boxing Day we bade a tearful farewell to Queenstown. It had been a wonderful three night stay, surrounded by stunning mountains, rivers and lakes, but most heart-breaking of all was that we were to leave behind the first and possibly last 4-star breakfast buffet of our trip.

After stuffing ourselves full of lamb and mint sausages, Danish pastries and banana bread, yoghurt with cinnamon flavoured berries and hot chocolate with marshmallows, we put ourselves on another InterCity coach and headed up to Christchurch.

Sadly we arrived in a ghost town, far more widely damaged by the earthquakes of 2010/11 than I had realised. The whole of the city centre is currently fenced off as a danger zone, with many of the surrounding areas seemingly abandoned and barely any sign of life during what you would think of as the busy holiday period. It was all rather sad, and as if to exacerbate the morose atmosphere, it pissed down the whole time we were there.

We couldn’t leave without finding at least one bright spot though, and find it we did. In amongst the debris of the former town centre is a small shopping precinct constructed from colourfully decorated ex-shipping containers, put together in the aftermath of the earthquakes to try and bring about some regeneration of the area, or at least cling on to what vestiges of city life remained. It is a very small collection of shops, mostly selling postcards or gift-y items, most of which seemed to be imported from the Lanes in Brighton and therefore held little interest to two ex-Brightonians. However it is all worth it (perhaps not all worth it; the two earthquakes, 185 killed, countless more injured, who-knows-how-many lives forever ruined) if you manage to find the butter chicken on sale at the little Indian takeaway tucked in to one of the slimmer containers. Mop up a bit of that with a naan bread and you can’t be faulted for momentarily forgetting that you are in the middle of a crumbling heap of broken dreams. Delicious.

With us barely having noticed, by the time we had got as far south as Queenstown, it was Christmas. For the first 26 years of my life, Christmas had been cold and wet and the weather outside was almost without exception always frightful. The next year I had my first experience of the famed White Christmas, the joy of which was tempered by the fact that it was also the first time I have ever had to work on December 25th, the price one pays for living in a snowy, Norwegian dreamworld.

This year I spent Christmas Day walking around a beachy, boaty, pretty little town, eating ice cream and enjoying all thirty of the degrees that were radiating off the sun all over my face. In truth it didn’t really feel a lot like Christmas, so we went on a jet boat ride to try and make ourselves feel a bit more festive. The results were quite astonishing.


I promise I haven’t made that face since I saw my present stack under the tree in 1994, the year my mum went to the newly opened Sheffield Wednesday Superstore and got me pretty much one of everything. The spirit of the season was clearly very much alive in me. Either that or I was sitting on a boat going 80 km/h with AC/DC and Kenny Loggins turned up to eleven on the stereo, while our grizzly old Kiwi captain Neville made everyone shit themselves with a series of death-defying spins and life-flashing-before-your-eyes scrapes with low bridges and trees.

Not exactly Christmassy but not exactly not life-affirmingly brilliant either.

After 8 hours on the bus with tour guide/driver Dave, a man so obviously in love with his job yet conflicted and saddened by the estrangement of his wife and children, to the extent that he wistfully longed for them aloud, apparently unaware or at least not caring that his microphone was still on, it was with relief that we could disembark in Wellington and think of happier things. With only a few hours in town we didn’t have much time to think at all in fact, which probably explains why, as a British person abroad looking for new experiences and tastes of foreign culture, I found myself eating a large plateful of fish and chips. For what it’s worth, it was jolly good fish and chips and they were served with a very well dressed salad, something one can not get in the average English chippy.

After a night in an utterly pleasant hostel we awoke early to catch the ferry to Picton and the South Island where we would be spending the rest of our time in New Zealand. This trip in itself was extraordinarily pretty but then we would have been disappointed with anything less having gotten to know New Zealand as the best looking place on earth.

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Upon arrival in Picton we jumped straight on to another bus to take us to Kaikoura, a small east coast town famed for its whale and dolphin communities. While we decided against spending over NZ$200 to go on a boat trip where there was an “85% chance” of seeing something big and whale-y, we did rent a couple of bikes and went and found some seals instead.

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Having found seals, we also discovered that a gangly nerd in a cycling helmet is a really effective way of ruining an otherwise lovely photograph of the mountainous coastline.

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I haven’t posted forever. Thank you for your patience. I am now going to proceed as though nothing ever happened and pick up where I left off.

The USA is a wonderful country. We saw a lot of breath-taking scenery, acquainted ourselves with a number of different and interesting cities, ate about 500 delicious hamburgers and generally had a lovely time. However there is only so much waking up to news of a mass shooting that one can take so it was with some relief that we left for New Zealand.

Aside from the murder and obesity, ignorance, religious zealotry, racism, bigotry and war-mongering, the main problem with America is its scale. It is so huge that between all the good looking bits lie an awful lot of boring, ugly bits. The same can not be said of New Zealand. It is a little country but one which wastes no space with anything other than majestic beauty. In New Zealand there are no bad views. In New Zealand every time you turn around there is a mountain or a lake or a rainforest or a beach or something else that you tell yourself was definitely used as a dramatic backdrop for a scene in Lord of the Rings because it looks so fantastical and unlike anywhere else that you ever thought could actually be real.

With all that beautiful nature waiting to be explored, we did what any self-respecting pair would do upon arrival in Auckland; we went to the cinema to watch The Hobbit.

In our defence, the whole country was going bat shit with Hobbit fever when we arrived and it just seemed like a far better deal to actually go and see the film rather than pay $200 for a Hobbit Experience Tour, even if they do let you dress up as a dwarf and swing an axe around some of the locations used in the picture.

With only 12 days to travel north to south, we were restricted to only a night or two in each of our stops so after finding some excellent kebabs for breakfast, we caught the bus from Auckland down to Rotorua.

Apparently this is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations. Unfortunately nobody remembered to tell the tourists. The town was almost completely empty and whether it was the drizzle and fog or the smell of shit from the sulphurous hot springs that kept everyone away, we seemed to have the place to ourselves.

This was mostly a positive thing except that there was no crowd to follow through said hot springs and therefore we quite easily found ourselves on the wrong side of the signs that said ‘WARNING Death by volatile, boiling spring water is imminent if you stray from the path’ or words to that effect. The ground in these danger areas literally flexed beneath your feet as it was only centimetres thick, and while I shit myself knowing I was one heavy step away from a most unpleasant demise in bubbly egg-flavoured water, Lovisa got the camera out and took pictures of me being a terrified little girl.

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After that taste of mortality I needed to unwind so, seeing as we could because as I’ve already tried to establish New Zealand is amazing, we took a walk through the local rainforest. Needless to say it was a very handsome forest indeed.

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The following day we took off for Wellington, home of rubber boots and some very fine fish and chips.