Archive | December, 2012

Should you clean someone else’s skid marks off the toilet bowl?… And other quandaries.

24 Dec

I’M GOING to say all that needs to be said about the four days we spent in Italy at the beginning of November by talking about something else entirely.

Well actually, I’ll say two things. Venice = €7 coffee and… On what planet?

Oh wait, also… Croutons are not toast. Never ever. No matter how big they are.

Instead, as I sit in the beautifully temperate common room of our Kuala Lumpur hostel, knowing that the outside humidity of 99% is going to hit me like a ton of bricks – even worse than the sticky heat, the reality of going home is starting to sink in.

I’m being plagued by first world problems.

So as 2012 reaches its pointy end, so do our four months of (mostly) European travel, and if these crossroads weren’t difficult enough to navigate, we’ve just narrowly avoided being drowned/obliterated by world’s end.

It makes you think about a few things, no?

But instead of burdening you with my own woe-filled quandaries including debt, impending unemployment, a stupendous amount of weight gain and the fact that the European autumn has turned my skin so pale it is almost translucent, (see what I did there?) I will talk about another set of dilemmas – a more lighthearted kind.

FIRST WORLD MORAL QUANDARIES we have encountered during the last four months.

1. When you’re in a hostel/public toilet and someone before you has left skid marks in the bowl, do you clean them off so the person waiting doesn’t think it was you, or do you leave them there?
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2. When you’re borrowing Internet at [insert fast food chain name], is it okay to download the last four episodes of Family Guy as well as three seasons of Fresh Prince and Skyfall 007, thus disallowing everyone else in the restaurant from being able to load their Facebook pages for five hours?
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3. How do you decide which, if any, beggars you should give change to whilst travelling? Should you reward the guy playing the recorder for his incentive? Or how about the trio with the ‘For Beer’ sign, for their honesty? Or there’s the guy with the dog that’s just had puppies. Or the lady sitting right underneath the ATM you’ve just withdrawn cash from for a boozy night? Or to the street-kid that looks like he should still be having his school sandwiches made by his mum? Should you just give the money to a local charity that purports it will help the homeless? Or spend it on more alcohol so you can forget that these problems exist in the world?

Beggars in Krakow, Poland
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4. On long train journeys, is it okay to take up three seats in a cabin so you can sleep, when people around you are crammed together, when you know that if they had got there first, they would be doing exactly the same thing?

Nic on the train from Krakow to Budapest.
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5. Should you have a poo in your dorm room bathroom and risk stinking out the whole room for hours, affecting, possibly killing the other occupants by asphyxiation, or should you make the extra effort to climb down four flights of stairs to use the public loo?

Dorm in Bled, Slovenia.
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6. At the end of your meal when dining out, even if the service/food was very average, should you still tip? Should you have let them know during the meal, so they could rectify any problems, or does that just make you a whinging, difficult customer?

Mouldy bread on the train from Zagreb to Prague.
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7. When reviewing stays on Hostelworld, should you give a glowing review or should you tell the truth, that the hostel receptionist tried to bribe you into giving their filthy, creepy hostel with exceedingly rude staff a high rating in return for letting you sleep in a dodgy bed in a massive, full dorm for a few hours after checkout while you are sick and throwing up with a migraine?

One hostel in Prague was appalling.
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If you can help us solve any of these dilemmas or have any others to add to the list, please let us know!

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The day a packet of Mentos saved our lives (well, not really). Thessaloniki, Greece. November 2-4, 2012

21 Dec

ATTEMPTING to climb a three-kilometre high mountain, Greece’s highest peak in fact, with an ascent most tackle over two days in seven-plus hours – with no torch and only a packet of fruity Mentos as sustenance, is a really fucking bad idea.

Okay, perhaps not just a fucking bad idea, but a falling down-a-sheer-cliff face-and-bleeding-to-death-with-bones-protruding-from-skin bad idea, or perhaps a getting-stuck-and-dying-in-a-state-of-undress-resultant-from-end-stage-hypothermia bad idea. Notice how I mentioned dying twice there? Well let me reiterate. If you try to go up something that is very steep for a long time and has a lot of obstacles, when it is cold and dark and you don’t have any food, warm clothes or light, then you might well die.

But I don’t need to tell anyone else this, because clearly, Nic and I are the only two utter numpties who would think such a feat was a) possible in the first place, and b) a good idea.

But thankfully (or not, depending on whether you think people who do things like this should be naturally removed from the gene pool), we survived one freezing night on Mount Olympus and in actual fact didn’t come that close to dying at all… apart from the bit where we were almost eaten by wild dogs.

First of all, we didn’t really mean to climb Mount Olympus at all. We only gave ourselves one full day in Thessaloniki, the northern Greek city closest to small town Litochoro, home of the fated geographical protrusion, in northern Greece, because we had found a cheap flight from there to Rome. Of course, we meant to go out and have a quick bask in the air of the twelve Olympian Gods, maybe even go for a little hike just around the base, especially as high season had finished and we weren’t sure what, if any amenities would be available to us when we arrived, even if we wished to climb further.

When Nic mentioned to the manager of the hotel we were staying at for two nights in Thessaloniki that he might be interested in climbing Mount Olympus the next day, he just laughed at us and said it was too dangerous because we wouldn’t have enough light and it was too hard a climb for one day anyway. He advised us that if we got there early enough in the morning we might get in a few hours of hiking and then come back to Saloniki on the last bus, at around 9 pm.

So the next day we slept in.

Then on top of that, we missed the 10.30 am bus to Litochoro by about two minutes, making it after 1 pm by the time we got to the town, with an extra 18 kilometres uphill still to cover before we reached the base of the mountain.

A lady working at a souvenir shop we stopped at to ask for advice also laughed at us, saying there was no way we would make it up and down by nightfall.

A pattern was emerging.

We half resigned ourselves to just going out there anyway and having a look and a wander around, as was the original plan, if you could call anything we talked about in the last 24 hours a plan. We had been told by a few people that one refuge at 1400 metres was still open, but others told us it was closed for winter.

So a €25 taxi (the taxi driver may also have told us attempting the climb was a bad idea) and a couple of hours of hiking later, we were somehow a quarter of the way up the mountain (gorgeous scenery and we even saw a wild mountain goat!) and had been passed by a fair few people going in the opposite direction, the right direction, the safe direction – down. No one mentioned the refuge. At the base of the mountain, we had spoken to another couple, a Polish girl and Italian guy, who were also preparing to climb. They had hiking boots and a map but so far, they hadn’t passed us on the way up.

To the refuge!
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A lone mountain goat.
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To cut a long story short, after about three and-a-half hours we got to the refuge at half way to find it was indeed shut. Windows and doors padlocked, metal shutters, bolted up for winter shut. There was not even a small crevice or cavern for shelter in sight. Our emotions went from pure elation at the first sight of the pitched roof of the thing a few kilometres in the distance just half an hour prior, to stomach-dropping disappointment and dread when we arrived to this hopeless reality. The last couple of hours had been spent talking about what we would do when we reached half way – and in keeping with the way things had been going, we hadn’t bothered to consider what we would do if the refuge was closed.

We were also on the wrong side of daylight and as previously mentioned had clearly put a lot of thought into the trip, bringing with us our coats and little else. We had water, that roll of Mentos and a Kellog’s cereal bar, oh and two tiny key ring LED lights, one of which would fade to next to useless after the first ten minutes of use.

Seriously. WTF.

Before long the other couple caught up to us at the refuge. They had food, wind-proof mountaineering clothes and a tent. I could tell that internally, they were just shaking their heads at our stupidity. They offered us food and shelter but I could tell they were glad when we said we were going back down. They would stay the night and hopefully reach the summit the next morning.

So with the light fading and the cold encroaching we turned and left, thinking we would make it down in about half the time it had taken us to get to 1400m.

About four hours later the pitch black mountain spat us out, sans dignity and our Mentos packet, into an almost as dark car park. The last few hours had been extremely shit. It’s hard to explain, but trying to climb down 1400 vertical metres that were really hard to climb up with full light, in the dark with a key ring LED light that looked like it had come from a 20 cent machine, knowing there are vertical drops of more than ten metres less than a metre from where you are (hopefully) walking, is not particularly cool. I might have cried.

After recovering from our excitement at still being in one piece, we could see a fire still burning in the closed restaurant and some cars (presumably with people preparing to climb the next day) but the occupants were either asleep or pretending to be. 18 kilometres of unlit cliff-side road still lay between us and our salvation.

Oh and it was about 8 pm and we had a flight out of Thessaloniki the next day, for which we had not packed, nor checked in online or printed our boarding passes, which had to be done by 8am.

The decision whether or not to try to walk the 18 kilometres back to Litochoro was made for us as we could not even see the exit to the car park.

With a small (maybe large) amount of manual labour and Nic’s dedication to squeezing through the tiniest hole, about an hour and a ripped jumper later we had shelter in a small hut,the last occupants of which had kindly left us a camp bed and a blanket. We were saved!

We must have drifted off to sleep at some point, because we were awoken by the sound of a dog howling in the distance. We were woken again a short time later, but this time the dog was right outside our hut, howling very loudly. So having survived all we had in the last hours, we were about to be savaged by wild dogs. That made me very sad face.

Our hut.
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After that narrow escape, we emerged into the daylight at about 7 am to find that still, no one was about. Except for a large black, menacingly barking, snarling dog (the wild dog from the night before? We will never know.) that was guarding two jewellery-adorned horses and at the same time blocking the only path to town. Albeit with a love of canines of the waggy-tailed domesticated kind, neither of us was game to try to pass this one.

If we didn’t check into our flight by 8 am, we weren’t going to Rome. But we were still stuck on the mountain and a taxi and two buses from Saloniki and another bus ride away from the airport.

Miraculously, within minutes, a taxi rolled up with some Asian tourists. We jumped in and another €25 later, we were at an Internet cafe in Litochoro, printing our boarding passes and then on the first bus back to Saloniki.

Ok, so the dog wasn’t so scary.
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The rest, as they say, is history. Litochoro is actually a really nice little town with absolutely gorgeous views of the mountain. As for Thessaloniki, the one night we actually had there was lovely – we had literally the best salad I have ever tasted (one of the few I have actually eaten lately), but the City is pretty obviously affected by the country’s economic situation. We saw a lot of boarded up shops and the restaurants we passed (and the one we ate at) were quiet.

View from Litochoro.
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I don’t know what they did to it, but this salad was the best!
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I could say that we learned a lesson from the whole debacle, but as we came off relatively unscathed, (save my falling on my arse about 50 times on the descent and Nic’s ripped jumper) even catching our plane in perfect time – we probably didn’t.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 26 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 163 hours

If you’re a crazy cat lady… Go here! Istanbul, Turkey. October 25-31.

2 Dec

SENDAR reached down and gently lifted the stray from its makeshift cocoon of white hessian under an old table by the roadside. The wide-eyed chocolate-coloured tabby almost fitted inside his curved palm. Her mother had died giving birth and she was the only surviving kitten of the litter, he said. When the snow came, she would be allowed inside the hostel.

On the third day of our stay at the bottom of the steepest road in Istanbul, Sendar told us he had named the kitten Gül, the Turkish word for Rose.
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The collective care of animals, mainly stray cats in Istanbul was one of the first things that struck us as unique about the Turkish capital. With no RSPCA or similar, there are a lot, and I mean a lot of stray cats around. They are freaking everywhere, which was lucky for me, because I am a crazy cat lady.

A pounce of cats?
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Brothers – Near Arasta Bazaar, Sultanahmet.
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Coming from a media background in Australia, animal cruelty charge statements made a fairly regular appearance in my email inbox, so it was surprising, in a country lambasted for its slaughtering methods last year when activist group Animals Australia released video footage of the mistreatment of Australian live export sheep at Turkish abattoirs, to see an old man breaking off parts of his sandwich to feed to a cat hovering around his feet outside a cafe.

It was equally surprising to see small home made shelters littered along the city’s notoriously winding alleyways with cats lazing in or in top of them to catch a couple of hours of sun, and even more so to watch a fishmonger throw a small fish to a black and white cat that had been eyeing off his day’s live catch, before reaching up and feeding two huge seagulls that had settled on the red awning of his stall at the bustling Karakoy fish market.

Street shelters.
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A scene from Karakoy fish market.
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The seagulls’ rooftop vigil paid off – they were fed by a fishmonger moments after this photo was taken.
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But Istanbul was just full of surprises for us.

Traversing three countries by rail and road, Nic and I stepped off the third bus of a 22 hour journey to Turkey at dusk, finding ourselves at the foot of Istanbul’s most famous road and in the midst of a pulsating crowd of two million people celebrating Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).

I suppose we should have realised something was going on in town when our bus crossed the Bulgarian border into Turkey passing hundreds of commercial trucks backed up for about 6 kilometres. (Check out the video we took!) We had set down in one of the world’s most populated cities at the beginning of a major Islamic holiday, followed directly by Turkish Republic Day.

The start of Istiklal Caddesi near Taksim Square.
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From the subdued hum of weary travellers chatting quietly on the bus, we were thrown headfirst into the myriad of lights, sounds and smells that is Istiklal Avenue.

Kebab cooks in dirtied white aprons called out to us as we squeezed past their gaudily lit shops, laden with 18 kilogram conspicuous backpacks, to enter the main vein of the street. The crowd resembled giant schools of fish guided by invisible currents. Pairs of inebriated men with linked arms stumbled past street vendors spruiking mussels, sizzling chestnuts and pretzel-like bread rings. Families and groups of women in various degrees of hijab moved in tight groups, halting occasionally to look in clothing and sweet-shop windows. A bright red tram periodically parted the masses as it rattled past, gathering barnacles, or numerous young boys who jumped aboard to hang off its back and sides. Yellow taxis, heavily scratched and dented, beeped loudly, nudging their way out of side streets. Before we disappeared down one such alleyway, we soaked up fleeting loud moments of bass-filled dance music from second floor clubs.

From the very beginning, we were in awe of the spectacular energy of Istanbul. Already accommodating a massive 3 million people per day on a regular basis, hostel owner Sendar later told us that during the holiday, up to two million people filled Istiklal Avenue during any one moment.

Istiklal Caddesi.
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Slipping away down Bogazkesen Avenue to our hostel, Cheers Midtown, we found it was a narrow, undulating road on a steep downhill slope, running almost all the way to the Galata Bridge, which connects the cities two major commercial and tourist districts, Taksim and Sultanahmet, and the Asian and European continents, over the Bosphorous Strait. Closer inspection of our surroundings revealed a ramshackle of convenience stores, a book shop, trendy bars, clothing boutiques, cafe’s, barber shops, bakeries and even homes – from various eras and in various stages of disrepair. A steady stream of taxis shot up the road and a woman stood in the shadows waiting for something or someone. She held the end of a rope that was tied around the neck of a thin sheep laying on the footpath. We later realised the animal was to be sacrificed in religious ritual.

Bogazkasen Caddesi.
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We arrived at the hostel late, but gracious host Sendar put us up in a better room than we had booked for the night anyway.

The next (early) morning we were introduced to the surprisingly soothing call to prayer, met Rose and the dozens of other cats inhabiting Bogazkasen Avenue and found out just how unfit I had become during the past seven weeks of holiday, when tackling the uphill part of that really steep downhill I was talking about earlier.

We could hear the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque from 4 am!
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Rose.
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We ended up staying in restaurant and nightlife district Taksim, or more specifically Beyoglu, for three nights and moved to the tourist-centric Sultanahmet for a further three. It was in Taksim we gained the most cultural insight.

Despite being a republic – with 99.3% of its population Muslim and smack bang in the middle of a religious holiday, we weren’t sure how a night on the town was going to go down. But we needn’t have worried. One day we lunched in a two storey Shisha bar overlooking restaurant alley Nevizade Sokak. Below us, a young Muslim woman sucked on a Shisha pipe the entire time we were there (we saw this a lot) and we could see a few pairs of young guys having lunchtime beers. When we went out that night, to our delight, we found a live music pub scene that could rival that of any openly beer guzzling nation in the world.

While we sat street-side downing a few Efes pints, complimentary beer snacks (yays!) and a pineapple flavoured water pipe, all kinds of debauchery, table dancing included, was going on around us. After soaking up a mixture of live Turkish folk music, some cringeworthy Eurodance tracks and a few plays of Gangam Style we ended up in a really terrible nightclub with really expensive drinks. I hear that there are some great clubs in Istanbul, but the extortionate door fee is a huge turn-off when the pubs are so much fun and are also culturally rewarding.

Everywhere you turn in Istanbul there is something going on. There is a vibrancy there unlike anything I have ever encountered. There is no such thing as a quiet alleyway. Just when you think you have exited one bazaar or market, selling spices, tea sets, glassware and textiles, you turn a corner into an open air market, this time selling tools, kitchenware or knock-off clothing. Then, when you come to the end of that market, there’s a guy selling kofte (meat balls) or fresh fish burgers straight from a rolling grill. And this isn’t even touching on the crowds…

Crazy crowds near Eminonu.
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Spices at the Egyptian Bazaar.
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Fish cook.
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Tobacco seller at Karakoy.
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We arrived in Istanbul at probably its busiest time of year, but with a population of 14 million on a regular day I’m guessing it wouldn’t diminish a lot.

Now, I couldn’t finish a blog post without talking about food. All I can say is that I have a huge appreciation for Turkish tea, coffee and cuisine, fast, street and slow. I didn’t even miss bacon… that much.

Turkish tea and coffee.
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Neither myself nor Nic tried that dodgy looking wet hamburger (Islak Burger) and I will trust anyone who tells me it is awesome. With no kitchen to use at either hostel, unfortunately (Ha! Not!) we had to eat out a lot. Tavuk (chicken) Shish appeared regularly, served with green pepper, salad, chips and rice. We also ate a ton of chicken kebab meat, but found the best 2 am meal to be the not so authentic Patso. Chips, pide bread, mayo, amazing.

Chicken shish and chicken kebab.
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Karniyarik, aubergine stuffed with mincemeat, was my favourite dish from the cafeteria style workers eateries, along with baked beans. But the highlight had to be at Serbethane, this beautifully decorated restaurant inside a 300 year old compound with views of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. We first went for endless cups of Turkish tea with Shisha under the stars and went back for the Testi Kebab. Lamb, chicken and vegetables, cooked over hot coals in a ceramic urn – we were lucky enough to have the restaurant manager bring ours out, still over a flame and smash it open in front of us.

Testi kebab at Serbethane.
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Istanbul deserves a lot longer than the six nights we afforded it and was truly worth every minute of the 22 hour journey it took to reach. Nic even came out of our stay about 5 years younger, thanks to a traditional Turkish cut throat shave and hair cut from the barber on Bogazkesen street!

Cut throat!
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TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 148 hours