Wednesday, 30 May 2012

It's all there, the earth and the ocean...

There are things you do or see while travelling that you don't expect to get a big reaction about from those at home. However, as soon as I hit the road and descended upon the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia and started sharing Instagrams on Facebook and Twitter I felt as though many of good friends from home (UK) were with me, such was their applause, enthusiasm and downright jealousy for this stretch of road. "The best road trip in the world!" one messaged me. "I'm so glad you're doing that. It's stunning," tweeted another. It seems this particular drive and its scenery stays with many people.

And I'm not to be excluded from that number...

I could write about getting up early, about listening to my friend and chauffeur tell me brilliant childhood stories about growing up in Melbourne's suburbs and escaping to the farms in the nearby country where they used to hunt and go fishing (occasionally with the farmers permission... ahem) and I could tell you precisely where we stopped for toilet breaks, fish and chips as well as a flat white on the way home. It would be nice to tell you how I saw galahs and parakeets, how I watched surfers battle waves and how I've never seen so many parachutists in one single day. Oh and I could explain how that peskily persistent Australian sun was blisteringly hot but we didn't notice because of the charming ocean breeze and I could then describe how I never knew that just driving, walking along beaches and taking photographs all day could be so exhausting.

Seeing as I'm not going to tell you all these things, maybe the photos will tell the story.

As I look at these photos again and I recall that day, arguably one of my favourite days in Australia, I am struck by a gentle realisation. I always thought it slightly obnoxious that the Americans and Australians call their coastal waters "the ocean" while us Brits simply call it "the sea". But looking at the photos and being reminded of the power and size of "the sea" that lapped along the side of the Great Ocean Road, I can absolutely see and understand why Australians call it "the ocean" or maybe even "The Ocean".

You will notice that these photos don't include the famous Twelve Apostles. Sadly our time ran out and we had to return to Melbourne but I'm getting strangely used to leaving things on the other side of the world undone. I see it as a way to collect reasons to return to these places I only just started to love.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Wow, wow, wow, WOW!: Lake Tekapo

Of course, there are many "wow" moments when you are a perpetual traveller and as I'm often reminded, I'm easily pleased. I'll wow a pad thai if it tastes good enough, a sunset if I'm simply facing in the right direction and an ice cold beer simply because the day has been a long hot sweaty one. I give away many "wow"s.

What I do not give away flippantly are "Wow"s. And hardly ever do I grant a moment a well-rounded "WOW!".

That was until I travelled around New Zealand.

The first "Wow" came as we drove across the South Island and as the ever-changing horizon altered once more we glanced upon a blue I don't think I'd ever seen before. It's name was Lake Tekapo.

Touring the lakes of South Island wasn't something we'd planned on, they just happened to be on our way as we headed to Milford Sound from Christchurch via Queenstown. But I wasn't disappointed by their presence.

As soon our eyes settled on Lake Tekapo on the horizon we felt forced to stop, get closer, so we did. Betty even dipped her toes in the water.

We then learnt there was a Japanese restaurant in the very nearby town with views over the lake. It was a bizarre and unexpected juxtaposition but it made me very happy to enjoy one of my favourite foods with one of my new favourite views. We then returned to a look out point where a small chapel sits watching over Lake Tekapo.

Leaving Tekapo we cris-crossed with rivers of the same colour. They warranted some "Wow"s and smiles too though Lake Tekapo will always hold a special place in my memory and heart thanks to that first "Wow" moment.

For the same reason Lake Pukaki overlooked by the majestically pointed Mount Cook will too. Lake Pukaki earned us our first "WOW!" moment. After Lake Tekapo, I just didn't think the colour of a lake could get any more, well, ridiculous. But it did. (I love this second photo which shows Betty biting her lip - a clear reaction to our disbelief at how awesome it all just got)

And this is what having a "WOW!" moment looks like.

If you're interested, the reason these lakes are the colour they are is because of the "glacial flour" that has long, long, long flown into the lakes, feeding them this distinctive cloudy, bluey-green colour. Glacial flour is created by the grinding down of bedrock in glaciers and mountains, which then flows into rivers and lakes. At least this is my understanding, and I never really did like geography, but later on in our trip we saw the icey turquoise of Fox Glacier and only too easily understood how this influenced the appearance of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, aka Lake Wow and Lake WOW!.

Monday, 28 May 2012

I got work to do...

And I suppose that title sums it up. Sometimes you just gotta put your head down, laptop lid up and get on with some work. But it's also the perfect excuse to feature one of my very favourite bands, The Isleys or The Isley Brothers. I could listen to their soulful distinctive voices all day and all night. In fact the all night part is more likely when they are most often listened too!

Anyway, back to work. Luckily for me, the work I am currently doing is the work I love to do and is work that I can do anywhere in the world so most of the time I do get on with it with a smile. And lots of tea. I can't do anything without a cup of tea or three.

Speaking of tea, I've included in this week's Instagrams of Amsterdam some tea bags. Yes, really. A local supermarket brand of tea bags feature different messages written on the labels. I've been collecting photos of them as they're helping me to learn little scraps of Dutch. Sometimes it's the simplest of things that help a day go by.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

People Help The People

It seems fitting to follow up my review of The Slap with a review of The Help, another literary global success. I've not seen the film (I'll always be a read-the-book-first kinda girl) and I was dubious about how well I'd get on with the book seeing as I don't usually go straight to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. However I enjoyed the time I spent with The Help, here's why.

What's it all about? The Help by Kathryn Stockett (interestingly, a white woman from Mississippi) follows a section in the lives of two black domestic servants and one white young female graduate in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. It captures all that was unjust about that time and that situation - segregation, racism, inequality - but through these women working together on a special project, The Help aims to also share the hope and the love that existed in spite of it all.

What's so good about it? I couldn't stop reading it, and not all books have that effect on me these days. I was drawn in by the characters, fascinated by the issues, distraught at the powerlessness and disturbed that the saddest stories were loosely based on true events. The characters are full, the prose sharp and the story, which is ultimately one of hope, though controversial is worthy of everyone's time and consideration. I felt frustrated and saddened by some of the final turns in the plot, but would have been surprised had they not developed that way and ultimately this reflected the difficult and controversial time in the US civil rights movement.

Who, me? Predominantly written for women (I imagine) The Help will pull at the heart strings of anyone who has understood, experienced or encountered struggle. I advise you NOT to Google the author, the book or any of the media which surrounded the novel but just to read it for what it is; a heartfelt tale of hope and hardship.

Read more of my Short & Sweet Book Reviews here. (Please note any links to Amazon are through my Amazon Associates account, which means I make a little money (less than 5%) from any purchases made after clicking through these links. Thank you, please.)

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Queen for a day

Queen’s Day. You’ve probably seen the same photos I have; big blurs of orange sailing down the canals drinking Heineken and demonstrating why they’re often referred to as the “Crazshee Dutsch”. 

I was half looking forward to this, half dreading it, because I didn’t want to get swept away, drunk on Dutch lager and think that this was what Queen’s Day was all about, in the same way that I wanted to ensure that Australia Day was about more than just partying anddrinking for (some!) Australians while I was in Melbourne.

For the Dutch, Queen’s Day is a national holiday celebrating their current Queen Beatrice’s birthday. Except that’s not quite true, 30th April is actually her mother’s birthday and Beatrice blows out her candles in January. But some wise soul realised that January doesn’t always mean outdoors crazy Dutch canal cruising weather so they optimistically kept celebrations in April.

This year was particularly optimistic as in the two weeks running up to Queen’s Day the weather was cold, grey and more often than not wet. I feared a familiar British style bank holiday wash out. However, Beatrice must have more influence over the Gods than our Betty because it was a beautifully warm, sunny and blue skied day.
We did see the canal cruising boozers and we were blinded by the orange, but what I loved most was exploring my new suburb and seeing all the vrijmarkten, the free markets. 

For one day only Dutch councils relax their trading laws and people flock on to the streets to sell their unwanted possessions - books, clothes, toys, trinkets, junk - as the saying goes one man's trash is another man's treasure. 

I'd seen preludes to the free markets all across Amsterdam where people had written "bezet" in chalk or in duct tape on the floor, marking that this pitch was taken. Amsterdam was basically one big giant car boot sale for a day, just without the car boots because we'd all got there on our bikes.

Except this isn't actually true. Queen's Day must be the only day in Amsterdam when it is all but impossible to move around the city on two wheels. Thanks to pavements, roads and cycle lanes being over populated by vrijmarkten sellers and orange revellers it's the only time when pedestrians move to the top of the food chain. We naively hopped on our bikes and headed to Vondelpark, a quick sprint which normally takes 2 minutes, however it took us nearly ten on Queen's Day and then it took us over 30 minutes to extricate ourselves and our two-wheeled friends from the park, which I noticed was especially popular for families and children selling toys and children's clothes.
Not too far away on Kinkerstraat, a busy and very cosmopolitan road boasting the same mix of cultures and shops as I used to find on Shepherd's Bush's Uxbridge Road, the vrijmarkten were very different. There were Arabic families selling impressive collections of bronze and gold trinkets, there were Vietnamese cooking street food and a group of musicians from different backgrounds having a jamming session. 
I could have stayed and explored here all day but it was just too busy for our bikes so there was nothing else for it. We had to find a pub, which we did back at the top of Vondelpark. From here we watched the partying orange world go by, talked to some very friendly young Amsterdamers and saw large groups of families and friends share what I can only describe as a "village spirit" as everyone enjoyed each other's passing company. 

I know that Amsterdam isn't a big city like London, but it's size and well contained suburbs clearly allow for a happy home. Seeing as we are only here for a limited period of time I don't expect that we will settle in and enjoy quite the same intimacy with my neighbours, however I take a great amount of pleasure it watching it around me. 

I hope to be in Amsterdam for Queen's Day again one day... even if just to join in one of the biggest and best city wide jumble sales.