Oui Paris!

Much to my excitement, Paris was next on the map. I have always had (as I think everyone does) a romanticised idea of Paris in my head. From bicycles to baguettes and croissants to fine wines, Paris was always going to leave an impression.img_1521_fotor

We arrived at our aire which is located just outside the airport (location, location right?) and only cost five euro a night. Score! Even though the planes were a little noisy, they also zipped amazing pastel contrails across the setting sky in the late afternoons. Unfortunately, we didn’t realise that the aire had over 800 camper van parks on site AND there was a campervan show on that same weekend. To say it was busy was an understatement of epic proportions. Every serious campervanner or wannabe campervanner was there with kids, dogs, cats, trailers and smart cars in tow. Sassy was easily dwarfed and we felt like instant outsiders knowing our van’s worth versus the worth of these monstrous motorhomes and huge pop out loungeroom/bedroom buses. The monetary value was definitely no object for some of these people and it was pretty crazy to see just how far the home on wheels idea could be pushed. In the aire, there was no view, no facilities and it was a 10km+ ride to the centre of Paris through what can only be described as the ghetto suburbs but, we happily paid the cashier and spent a couple of days enjoying all that the city of love had to offer.

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Luckily, Sassy was a stand out with her blue/purple tones and distinctive butterfly designs.

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A romantic, outdoors dinner with views of about 12 other caravan butts. This is living!

On our ride in and out of the city centre, we noticed that we passed whole neighbourhoods which were almost like little countries all of their own. There were distinguishable differences in the culture, decor, food and people as we progressed every couple of blocks. This was the first thing I did not really expect: the huge cultural diversity in Paris’ outer ‘burbs. The inner suburbs were very much what I expected to find and the French people that we engaged with unfortunately inclined towards living up to their snobby status, not that we minded at all, we were in Paris!

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Looking out across the Seine.

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Padlocks of love.

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Street Performers

We meandered through the streets, picked through second hand clothes and food markets, marvelled at street performers, discovered trendy shops and drooled over delicious smelling restaurants all on day one.

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Pretty stoked with my Eiffel Tower views.

The second day we purchased one of the hop on hop off bus tours to allow ourselves to get more acquainted with the history and architecture of the city, helping us efficiently tick off all of the main attractions before lunchtime.

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Then we walked back to the Eiffel tower with locally made wine and cheese in hand to enjoy the view of the sunset before bicycling home to find Sassy amongst the motorhome maze once again.

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Joining the crowds for a sunny afternoon of wine and cheese on the iconic Eiffel Tower lawn.

Day three was spent back in the city, suburb hopping on the trains as we tried to secure cheaper tickets for one of the cabaret shows from the kiosk vendors unfortunately, we just missed out. We rescued Sassy from her maze of campervan terror that night and free camped outside one of the expensive campgrounds instead. It was quite fancy inside and we creeped in late at night for a cheeky shower, (after extensive baby wipe showers for three days) before heading off the next morning in search of the coastline and waves.

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble

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An introduction to France: Reims

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Hanging on the steps of the Cathedral.

Reims was the first French city we visited and it did not disappoint. We scored a coveted carpark in an aire just outside of the CBD and rode in on our bikes to roam around. The place was buzzing with people rushing everywhere, all going about their business not at all concerned with two Australian travelers standing in the middle of the tram line, breathing it all in. 

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The architecture in Reims super impressive, from the gargoyles on the gothic to the streamline angles of the modern. Maybe it’s charm had more of an effect on us as it was our first introduction to the country of love.

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Glorious Gothic architecture.

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Better than the architecture, was the music festival being set up nestled under the Notre Dame cathedral. The sound test was blaring out of the speakers as crowds gathered, curious to see what all the noise was about. While watching on, we also witnessed a rather hilarious (for us anyway) situation where a man’s dog soiled the middle of the busy street and he had a lot of trouble awkwardly trying to pick it up while his large pooch pulled eagerly on the lead while continually walking through the mess making it much worse. Poor guy.

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The lineup.

We felt it was going to be a serious party later that night, so we headed back to Sassy to eat, change and enjoy some French wine and cheese before we came back to see the live performance in full swing from our free vantage point outside the barriers, standing on rubbish bins, much to the security guard’s disapproval. After our legs wore weary, we wandered towards a hot chocolate on our way home and crashed for the night keen to head off early the next day.

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I love gargoyles!

 

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble

Purchasing ‘Sassy’ the van

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She looked pretty good when we inspected her. She is not quite this clean anymore.

We knew before we left on our around the world trip that we wanted to travel Europe by campervan rather than backpack or by flying between big cities. We started researching the associated costs of renting versus buying a couple of months out from our departure date.

Though renting a van seemed more safe, simple and organised we also felt that it was more restricting (not allowed in certain countries, extra costs, season price changes, time restrictions) and would impede on our desired travel plans, especially because our plans were very open. The vans that we truly loved (check out @vanlifediaries or Quirky Campers for some serious van-spiration) were pushing our budget to the limit and the vans within our price range were quite basic and didn’t quite feel like ‘us’.

We were also unsure of where we wanted to go or how long we would be gone for which made hiring all the more difficult. It was way more exciting thinking that we could buy our van, extra responsibilities and all but  it would at least be ours to do with what we wanted. Repairs, breakdowns, modifications, restorations and all. A reassuring thought was that if we did buy, we might even manage to get some money back at the end of our trip when we sold it on to someone else so they could start their own adVANture.

The process for Australian and New Zealand citizens is not as straight forward as you might think (even with a UK working visa), but it is totally doable once you know what you are trying to get done. Some key terms for your consideration:

MOT= a roadworthy certificate done every year to check for basic safety – every car needs to have an up to date one.

Road tax = Registration costs – must be paid by the new owner

V5 form = Name transfer form – must be completed once there is a new owner. A new one will be sent to the UK address you provide.

Green Card= Comprehensive car insurance receipt

The MOST USEFUL INFORMATION EVER was from The Macadames blog. They explained everything in beautifully organised detail (way more than I will below) and I am eternally grateful for their information. Most importantly, you will need to swindle a UK address to attach the car to and a friendly someone who will happily receive any mail related to the vehicle for you (not much after the initial transfer forms). We also found that down under insurance seemed to be the only option for insuring vehicles across multiple countries if you are NOT a UK resident. They do offer travel insurance as well for combination discounts but I cannot confirm if they deliver on claims as we are yet to put one in (touch wood). We also didn’t opt for breakdown assist, though in hindsight it probably would have been worth it. I’ll talk about our many engine mishaps another time. All I can say is that any payment in British pounds hurts a whole lot more when you are an Aussie because of the currency exchange rate at the moment.

We used Gumtree and auto search sites as our main form of research and contact. Though I have heard renting and buying vans in other European countries such as Germany or France can prove cheaper, we decided that the language barrier would be too big of an issue for us. We were a little concerned about the right hand drive versus left hand drive factor, but now that we are doing it, it hasn’t been an issue at all. The only disadvantage is checking oncoming traffic when overtaking (which Sassy doesn’t do much of) and some corners or roundabouts where the driver has to rely on the passenger a little more for giveway clearance. We inquired about many vans, but actually inspected only 5. We had our hearts set on one particularly awesome van, our money at the ready only to be told we were the second to see it and that the first group had already bought it. Spewing!

Next up was Gene, an older gentleman who continually told us about his heart condition and the the good times he had spent in his van. We spent a lot of time testing it out while he spilled his wealth of knowledge about vans and engines. We felt that his van was great but a little too small for our needs and left saying we would let him know after we viewed a couple more for comparison. We contacted him after deciding on a different van and he unleashed quite a scathing text attack on us wishing poor fortune with our future van which was a little shocking from such a seemingly kind and gentle man. Perhaps he felt we had swindled him in some way. I am still unsure but try to laugh about it instead and hope that his words aren’t the reason we ended up breaking down as much as we did in the beginning.

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Sassy has truly become our home away from home.

Eventually we found Sassy who was at the lower end of our budget which we decided could be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on which way you looked at it. She was fully stocked and ready to go (cutlery, kitchenware, bedding and a chemical toilet) and lastly, she was already owned by an Australian couple who were just wrapping up their own Eurotrip (they provided a wealth of information and tips). We caught a train out to see her and after a lengthy conversation with her owners, lunch and a couple of beers at the closest pub we decided she would do and we began to prepare for our next leg with much excitement.

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-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble #rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Unawatuna (July-August 2015)

Unawatuna is a popular beach destination during peak season, but I found it had a bit of a ‘tired’ vibe. A lot of the restaurants we tried really lacked compared to the delicious Sri Lankan food we had come to expect. The only place I remember fully enjoying the food was at a poorly lit burger place tucked in with all of the other beach restaurants (I think it was this one). It boasted huge burgers with chunky cut chips and a variety of condiments (the way to my heart is condiments). We did discover a prettier beach a couple of minutes east along the coastline (behind the aeroplane playground) that had white sand, no rubbish and glorious warm, blue water. It was definitely worth the tuk tuk trip (or scooter ride) away from the standard tourist hub.

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Safety first?

 

From Unawatuna, we did a day trip to investigate the city of Galle, which is about 20 minutes drive away. We hired a scooter with helmets from our accomodation for AU$8 per day and were hyper vigilant about keeping our distance from everyone else on the road. Our mindset was to just expect everybody to do the most unpredictable thing ever and that seemed to keep us safe. (To read about Sri Lankans and their love of horns, go here.) The scooter meant absolute freedom to travel at our own pace without having to hail and barter with tuk tuk drivers all the way. From the fort’s walls, we spectated the local spectators of a Sri Lanka versus India cricket game at the stadium. Afterwards, we wandered around and stumbled upon markets before hunting down street food for lunch and then devouring ice cream later on. I am not much of a history buff, so though the fort was cool to see, what came next was the highlight of the day for me.

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Galle Fort.

 

After swerving through the frantic traffic of Galle and along the main coastal road for another 15 minutes, we arrived at our next destination: a turtle hatchery! I researched a couple in the area on trip advisor to make sure they seemed legit and were not exploiting the animals for the tourist dollar. The reviews I read were vital for informing which hatchery to choose and which ones to avoid.

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Rhys and I happily handed over the AUS$5 donation at the door and walked in to volunteer some of our time cleaning the tanks and feeding the turtles. It warmed my animal loving heart to see the good work that the hatchery was doing in an effort to protect the turtle’s breeding grounds and help injured (usually due to rubbish, boats or fishing nets) turtles recuperate. I was very conscious of a tourist scam which might result in further animal captivity, but the owner’s authenticity was clear from his first hello. He explained that he had actually inherited the hatchery from his father and was trying his best to keep it operational with help from volunteers. He outlined the story of each of the captive turtles and how every day was spent caring for them, helping hatchlings or releasing the older ones back into the wild. I loved every minute of splashing around in the pools with the bigger turtles, learning about the different species and going crazy over the cuteness of the newly hatched babies. It was a pretty awesome day for any animal lover. Afterwards, we cruised back to Unawatuna as the sun went down and dined on delicious, fresh fish for dinner.

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Aren’t they just the cutest?

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This guy lost his leg in a boating accident.

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Even Rhys couldn’t deny the babies and their cuteness.

 

Another highlight from our time in Unwatauna was our search for the (not so) mysterious Jungle Beach. We had heard about this particular beach and people had told us of the adventure to get there. As it turned out, the track was fairly well signed, but it still seemed to elude us for quite some time. The 45 minute walk included tropical forest, beaches, crossing streams, muddy slopes, spiders and a hilly decline down to the beach itself. This is really one of those cliche times where the journey was more fun than the final destination. The beach is not all that fabulous (there is a restaurant that offer a decent meal with bathrooms and a few cabanas) but the walk was a fun venture through scenic surroundings as we wove our way through people’s backyards and soaked up the nature all around us.

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Finally, it was time to hitch our train from Galle to Colombo in preparation of our departure. We had heard that the trains get packed very quickly, especially in economy class (only a couple of dollars per ticket). We waited with our backpacks at the ready in an attempt to beat some people to the few free seats. Unfortunately, most were much pushier than we were jumping on before the train had even pulled into the station (it was clear it wasn’t their first time) and instead we spent 3 hours taking turns sitting on our bags in the walkway as salesmen stepped over us to sell their refreshments and trinkets. It was a unique and somewhat funny experience, but not necessarily the most comfortable position for the 3 hour journey.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Maldives: Thulusdhoo II (Aug 2015)

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As we flew through the clouds, snippets of the turquoise water and sandy island atolls confirmed we had made the right decision. After the stress of the previous week, I could not wait to lay on the beach in my bikini, soak up the sunshine and sip on a cocktail until I remembered that the island Rhys and I had chosen was a surf camp on an inhabited island. This meant no bikinis and definitely no alcohol due to the strict Muslim culture. My visions of decadent resort living with manta rays swimming under the glass floor of my private bungalow began to quickly disintegrate.

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No decadent beach bungalows and swimming pools but this did happen, so close enough for me.

As we walked out of airport, we noticed a distinct divide between the type of travellers arriving. There are those that arrive in large groups trailing designer luggage who have booked lavish packages through Maldivian resort companies. They dash quickly from customs to their air-conditioned glass boxes for refreshments often involving cocktails and canapés as they await the arrival of their seaplane so they can be promptly whisked away to their island utopia.  And then there are people like us. We look for directions to the local ferries, then stand in line in the humidity holding our backpacks and boards just hoping to catch the right one for a budget price. We are travellers on the hunt for surf, sea life and adventure trying to get wherever we can for as cheap as we can and that is just the way I like it.

Our ‘fancy’ waiting area.

We paid for the ferry and settled in for the short ride to Male (from Hulhule) in order to catch a connecting ferry to our island of choice Thulusdhoo. All up our trip would take around 2 hours but only cost a couple of dollars. Little did we (or the other Australian couple we met on the ferry going to the same place) know, the ocean had been deemed ‘too rough’ for the ferries and an expensive speedboat was our only other option if we wanted to arrive on the island that day. We tried to wait out Mother Nature in the hope that the last ferry of the day would run if the weather calmed. Meanwhile, we walked around town, purchased some very cheap thongs to replace a plugger blow out, surfed in rough, sloppy waves while watching planes land on the runway as our backdrop and then waited some more until it was confirmed: no ferries would run until tomorrow. Mother Nature had won yet again.

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Our choices were: stay on Male and catch the ferry the next day which meant we would be forfeiting our accommodation or, split the cost of the speedboat between the four of us. We bartered a little and managed to get the US$200 cost down to US$160 but it still hurt the hip-pocket. I tried to console myself with the image of the four of us, bikini and board short clad standing on our sleek, black and white luxury speedboat as the wind swept my hair and we raced across the waves to our destination and the shirtless, handsome captain waved at me. Thirty minutes later we were indeed making our way across the waves but at more of a mild speed in our fairly average fishing boat with two scrawny but smiling locals at the helm as we sat in the back getting splashed in the face with sea water. Finally, we arrived at Thulusdhoo and departed the boat with our luggage ready to try and find the guesthouse we had booked just the night before. Unfortuantely for us, the clouds began to roll in and looked a little angry.

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-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Maldives: Thulusdhoo I (Aug 2015)

It wasn’t until the The Great Indian Visa Debacle (read about that shmozzle here) that we seriously considered the Maldives as a possible destination of our around the world trip. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are practically neighbours and after some intense researching, Rhys and I decided it was going to be worth our while booking a new adventure after the stress of missing our flight to India and connecting flight to England.

Funnily enough, we had entertained this idea only a week before while feeling a little silly after a couple of cocktails. The weather forecast began to look bleak for our remaining time in Sri Lanka, so we began daydreaming about alternative plans. As the rain remained (mainly on the plane of Spain?), we fantasised about spending a couple of days on a scenic Maldivian island basking in the warm sun, but after our alcoholic haze wore off, we realised it would be an expensive venture for only a couple of days and not really the best use of our time or money. We hadn’t given Sri Lanka the chance it deserved to impress us. Fortunately, the weather cleared and we enjoyed the rest of our Sri Lankan escapade. Little did we know, the Mystical Fate God’s of Destiny (depending on what your beliefs are) worked their magic and we ended up there anyway. Theose celestial beings do work in mysterious ways.

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This was my  imagined ‘happy place’ while on hold. Turns out it does actually exist.

During The Great Indian Visa Debacle, it became clear that we couldn’t simply change or cancel our flight to England (that would just be TOO easy), so we attempted to forget about the money we were rapidly losing and instead booked a flight to the Male airport on Hulhule with Korean Air for less than AU$200 (Score!). We then secured a connecting flight for seven days later with Qatar Air to England so we could land on our original date and enter the United Kingdom on our working visa as we had hoped. We arrived at the Sri Lankan airport (again) after spending six days hanging around Negombo. We had wasted our week calling customer service representatives, sitting on hold to multiple airlines (while freaking out about our credit running out before we got through with every passing moment) and our travel insurance company trying to get answers and information. After all the stress, I’d say I was truly ready to depart for my impromptu island paradise escape.

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Our future island home.

When people mention the Maldives I tend to conjure images of underwater playgrounds teeming with amazing, aquatic wildlife. The Maldives are an array of stunning islands surrounded by bountiful reefs and recently the government permitted locals to open their own guesthouses removing the elitist resorts-only mantra of previous decades and instead providing a plethora of affordable options for those of us with a more ‘sustainable’ budget. With hundreds of islands to choose from, there are a numerous possibilities for every traveller’s style. Islands inhabited by locals contain schools, mosques and corner stores, whereas others are man-made for the sole purpose of hosting fancy pants 5 star resorts with multiple restaurants, cocktail bars and seaplane airstrips.

There are a variety of ways to plan your Maldivian trip too from surf camps, surf charters, luxury live-aboard boats, to long term stays in local guesthouses or resort hopping by speedboat and seaplane. Due to the misconception about affordability, the Maldives had never really made it onto my possible travel list (which gets longer every day). A flight from Australia is particularly expensive and arduous and I was under the presumption that it was well outside my monetary limit, but if you have an opportunity to visit the Maldives as a stop over or final destination, you won’t regret it. It is truly as stunning as any scene you can imagine.

– rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Maldives: Thulusdhoo Part III

The thing I noticed first when we stepped off the boat is the unbelievable, turquoise water lapping at the white sandy shores, the second thing I noticed was the rubbish in the water and strewn across the beach. It is such a pity that nature’s beauty can so easily be scarred by mankind’s touch.

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After walking across Thulusdhoo (it isn’t very big) to the surf side and desperately asking people of they had ever heard of our accommodation name, it became clear that there had been a double booking and we were out of luck as an older couple had already moved into our room. Thankfully, a lovely local called Thol (from Isola Maldives) saw us looking a little distressed and took pity on us as the rain began to fall from the clouds overhead. He ushered us into his guesthouse for a cold drink and to help sort out what had happened by ringing the owner of our guesthouse. Our fears were confirmed, we had been double booked but fortunately Thol did have a spare room available and it was the best decision we made. Thol’s new guesthouse has four rooms with ensuites for US$80 a night including all meals. It was a little more expensive than our original place, but by this stage we were thankful for a bed! The facilities were brand new and quite luxurious (if luxury had a slightly tighter budget) and Thol made us feel very comfortable.

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My next surprise came when we were heading out the door in just our swimwear and Thol kindly pulled us aside and explained that because we were on an inhabited island with locals, we would need to cover up a little more unless swimming in order to adhere to the strict Muslim standards. Whoops! I had researched enough to realise that the Maldives is a Muslim country (and the call to prayer which goes off multiple times a day was a friendly reminder) but the pin never dropped that I would not be able to lay on the beach in my bikini and soak up the rays without dishonouring their values. I felt a little ashamed of myself for not observing this simple guideline and hurriedly wrapped myself in a sarong and Rhys put on a t-shirt before we went off exploring. It did turn out that there was a 15 metre strip of beach near the boat moorings that tourists were ‘allowed’ to wear bikinis and board shorts. It is acceptable to freely wear togs and boardies on uninhabited islands (or in resorts) or while out on the reef in a boat. The final shock was when Rhys asked if he could purchase beer anywhere on the island and Thol smiled and explained only if he swam out to the surf charter boats that moor off the points during the day. It was like a mini detox from the Australian lifestyle and I was happy to oblige the conservative dress rule in order to be a respectful traveler. Thulusdhoo is a whole community with almost everything you need (except ATMs which are very scarce, bring plenty of cash) and the locals were friendly and curious. They are only just growing used to seeing tourists regularly appreciating the beautiful island they call home as the industry expands.

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Heading out to the reef for a day of snorkeling on the Isola boat.

 

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Spotted something good.

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Chasing a school of fish.

Our time on Thulusdhoo was mostly spent doing one of four things. Surfing, snorkeling, relaxing or eating. There are two close proximity surf spots just off Thulusdhoo. Many of the surf breaks are named after the island’s main industry. So ‘Cokes’ is a right hander with a quick take off which works best with a bigger swell. It is named after the Coke factory that still functions on the island. They encourage recycled bottles and use desalinated water in their recipe. A short boat ride away (around US$10) or a decent paddle across a channel is ‘Chickens’ a slower, but fun left-hander which has long runs and an easy paddle out. Finally, a couple of islands away is ‘Jailbreaks’ named after the old jail, which is not in use and now hosts a unique accommodation experience instead. Rhys surfed both breaks most days depending on the tide and conditions or until his arms gave up. I spent my days reading, writing, relaxing or exploring.

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Exploring ‘Chickens’.

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The bridge to ‘Cokes’.

Isola Maldives organised and ran snorkeling trips so we booked with them the two times we went. The trip cost us US$15 per person and included multiple locations and underwater GoPro footage of us. The first location was only a short distance from our island and offered a stunning underwater display.  ‘Coral Garden’ boasts an array of sea life including huge schools of colourful fish, eels and turtles.

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Can you spot ‘Terry’ the turtle?

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Observing ‘Terry’ during our manta ray hunt.

One of the other spots we tried was a little further away just off one of the resort islands and I even got to glimpse two reef sharks while snorkeling there which was pretty exciting, albeit a little terrifying. I was pretty keen to see if we could find a manta ray even though it was out of season. It is a big selling ticket of the Maldives with video footage and images everywhere. Thol and his crew tried hard to help me out by stopping in known manta spots in deeper water, but to no avail unfortunately. I guess I will just have to go back when it is season to get my manta ray fix next year.

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Working the camera.

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I’m a merMAN, not a mermaid.

 

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-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble #rocketandramble

 

Tangent Time: The Great Indian Visa Debacle (August 2015)

Our last day in Sri Lanka was spent relaxing in Negombo and preparing for our next flight to Mumbai. My pinterest-ing was out of control and I was super excited about our trip to India. I was ready for the country of contrasts, colour and spice. We had booked a two week trip around the Rajasthan area seeing many of the sights India has to offer. I had reservations about the hygiene and unwanted attention from Indian men, but other than that I was really looking forward to my exploring the cities and getting a taste of Indian life. We decided on a  tour with Gecko in order to make our trip as hassle free as possible thinking we would go back another time to explore on our own once we were feeling a little more comfortable.

We intended to stay our last night with Patrick in his quaint guesthouse. We spent the evening having  a few drinks and eating our weight in pasta from the Rodeo Pub. After dinner and a few drinks, I began to feel a little nauseous and put it down to anxiety about our very early flight ( we had to be at the airport just after 4am) to New Delhi via Mumbai/Bombay the next day. We decided to call it a night and get a good night’s sleep. We arrived home as the feeling in my stomach worsened and I began to cross off what I had eaten that day suspecting food poisoning.  I packed my backpack ready for the morning and we organised for Patrick to take us in his tuk tuk to the airport. That night as Rhys slept soundly beside me, I deteriorated getting up and down through the night with a fever, hot and cold sweats, diarrhoea and vomiting. I know that isn’t the most flattering image. I’ve had traveller’s tummy before (in Indonesia) I knew it would all be over soon enough and I just had to try and keep my fever down and my fluids up, but alas it was not a restful sleep.

As I watched the clock tick by, I eventually decided I might as well get up and shower before our alarm went off and Rhys woke up. He had stirred a few times during the night to see if I needed help, but I tried not to wake him as I figured it wasn’t much good both of us being zombies the next day. I felt a little better after my shower and even managed to slowly eat half a croissant as we piled our bags into the (well overloaded) tuk tuk with the surfboards strapped on top. As we arrived at the airport, we said out goodbyes to Patrick and headed into the mostly deserted airport. We exchanged the last of our Sri Lankan money into Indian on our way past the money exchanges offices and then we checked our baggage in with Sri Lankan airlines. We sat in the cafeteria as my condition started to intensify again before making our way (slowly) to the gate to await our flight. I was trying my best not to look too sick just in case they didn’t let me on the plane, choosing to discreetly make my way to the bathroom (very quickly) whenever the urge to throw up began at the back of my throat (I am sorry so many of my stories involve vomit). I couldn’t keep the croissant down as we went through the final security check point and entered the gate lounge to wait. Finally, our flight was called and we lined up ready to show our passports and ticket for the final boarding just as the male flight attendant began to look a little puzzled.

As he flicked through our passport pages, he asked for our Indian visas. We tried to explain that we were just obtaining a tourist visa on arrival but had completed the forms (digitally) to show at the other end to save time. I showed him my phone with the completed form in my emails. In his broken English, he tried to explain that what we had was not sufficient and that we needed to have a different visa. The worry and panic began to overtake the sick feeling in my stomach as he told us to move out of the line and sit down to await our fate.

At closer inspection of the email (that we had filled out late at night, the night before we left for Sri Lanka after a few too many celebratory drinks) we saw that indeed it was not an etourist visa form, but a digital form  that needed to be sent away and approved by the Indian embassy. As we realised our mistake, we tried to communicate that we could perhaps just scrap the initial form and instead apply for a tourist visa on arrival forgetting that we had filled out anything else. Unfortunately, for reasons that were lost in translation, this did not seem to be an option.

The attendant just kept telling us to sit down and wait while they got the rest of the passengers on board. We sat anxiously for another 10 minutes while the staff discussed options amongst themselves telling us to just “sit and wait please” every time we tried to ask about what was happening. Everyone had boarded the plane and we still weren’t getting any explanations about whether we were going to make the flight or not. By this time I had spewed a few more times into my plastic bag while Rhys began to get agitated about the situation and lack of information. They had taken our passports away and not returned them and our bags were still on the plane. We tried to ask questions but the language barrier seemed to cloud any clear communication. No one would give us a straight answer and the longer we waited the more tense it became.

Eventually, we saw our backpacks come off the plane and then we had to worry about whether they had remembered our surfboard bag too. Finally, an attendant confirmed that all our bags were together and to follow him. He had our passports and told us to sit in a chair just near the departing gate  entrance while a security guard completed some paperwork. After an hour and a half of sitting and waiting while phone calls were made to superiors and the right questions were asked. It still seemed to us that no one knew what to do or what the procedure was to reject us from the airport. A different man came and escorted us to another section of the airport (not official, just outside s tea shop. Go figure.) and told us to wait again. During this time, I needed to vomit a few more times rushing frantically to find the nearest bathroom as I had now lost my bearings, only just making it to a shop and asking hurriedly for a plastic bag while the woman looked at me with confusion and then disgust as I threw up in front of her. Another hour passed and we were led back to the main airport entrance where our bags were screened again before they pushed us out a side door and into the hot, humid Sri Lankan air. At 4:30am, we had arrived airport only to find ourselves standing in the same position 5 hours later. We had our bags but no idea of what to do next (having never been rejected from an airport before) and we were still in a state of shock about what had happened hoping it was all a bad dream. We decided to go back to our accommodation to access the wifi and try and figure out what our options were. The worst part was we knew we had a connecting flight out of India to England in two weeks time that we would miss unless we could organise an alternative.

We hailed a cab, knowing how much we should pay and agreed on a price of 1000 rupees. Once loaded up and driving, the cabbie started trying to bargain for a higher price. In our exhaustion, we argued back and probably got a little too angry at him trying to haggle with us after agreeing on a price already. The cabbie thought we were newbies fresh off the plane that he could bully into paying more, when in reality this was our third airport trip and we were in no mood to take any of his shit. It got to the point where we had only been driving for a couple of minutes but Rhys and I were demanding he take us back if he wouldn’t accept the agreed price. The cabbie refused and then proceeded to lock the doors, keeping us essentially captive customers. The silence and our anger filled every crevice in the small van and the cabbie did not say another word until we arrived at our destination. We got out and gave him the 1000 rupees, but he wouldn’t accept it and kept asking for more. In the end, we refused to pay on principle and after such a hectic morning as well as being sick, I couldn’t deal with anyone anymore choosing to retreat to the air-conditioned room for some solace as the cabbie drove away in a huff.

In hindsight, I still feel that the cab driver tried to take advantage of us but after it was all over, I realised we were stressing over a small amount of money that didn’t really matter to us. It was all about the principle of agreeing on a deal for me. Thankfully, Patrick welcomed us back a little confused, but with open arms. We explained what happened as he made us tea and organised a fresh room for us. After a few hours of researching, numerous phone calls to Web Jet, Sri Lankan Airlines and World Nomads, we were running out of options and nobody seemed to want to help.

We even made a special trip to the Indian embassy in Colombo in an attempt to get the visa approval. We spent a whole day organising our visa paperwork, getting passport photos taken, photocopying documents and paying to have the forms completed by some guy in a makeshift office across the street from the official embassy. We waited in line to submit it all only to have the lady tell us that we would not be able to apply for a new Indian visa and have it approved and returned before our London flight as they had to send our passports away and it can take up to 10 days.

Web Jet (who we had booked all of our flights through) told us the flights couldn’t be changed or cancelled from their end and to call Sri Lankan Airlines. Sri Lankan airlines told us that Web Jet booked the flights and therefore they couldn’t change or cancel our flights and our travel insurance told us they would not cover the cost of any new flights or accommodation as having the correct visa was our responsibility. So we were out of luck, couldn’t change or cancel our flights or make it to India in time to catch our connecting flight to London. We also couldn’t just fly earlier to London as our working visas didn’t begin until the 15th of August meaning we would have to enter on a tourist visa and then leave the country and re-enter on our working visas. Talk about a messy situation! So we did what any sane person in our situation would do… we booked flights to the Maldives in an attempt to forget our woes.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The south coast of Sri Lanka is the one you see featured in most of the staggeringly beautiful photography that pops up on your computer screen when you are googling or pinterest-ing as a means of procrastination at work.

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This is where I spent many of my days reading a book when the sun got too hot.

The crystal, blue waters are teeming with wildlife and the stick fishermen brave the waves for their dinner. When in season (Nov-Feb) the south coast is a tourist mecca of snorkeling, scuba diving, whales, dolphins, never-ending beaches and warm sunshine. It can get crowded and you will likely have to book accommodation in advance as well as organise dinner reservations for larger groups the day before. We left Udawalawe behind and arrived in Mirissa via Matara after another long bus ride and then a 15 minute tuk tuk.

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Rhys made a furry friend. I wanted to take so many stray dogs home with me. They are treated quite poorly in Sri Lanka.

Mirissa beach is breathtaking regardless of the season as restaurants spill out onto the white sandy beaches serving up cocktails and scrumptious seafood BBQs. The beach itself has a rocky headland at one end which contains champagne pools which makes a great swimming spot, while the rest of the stretch consists of easy soft, sandy shorelines.

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One of the many sticks planted in the rocks along the coastline. This was also the champagne pool I swam in.

Mirissa has a fully functioning tourist strip which includes a ‘beach club’ with a pool and lilo beds. We lazed about most days, took long walks up the headland to see the views and ate so much delicious food. We stayed with a local family as a part of an airbnb for our first two nights, but it was a little far (and dark) to walk at night to the main area. So we moved to a very affordable room (1500 rupee per night with ensuite) just behind the beach club with much better access and a cool, laid-back garden to chill in.

During the off season, it is still sunny and warm (it’s always warm in Sri Lanka) but my lazy beach sessions were often interrupted by sudden downpours of rain for around 15 minutes. Everyone did what I was doing: hastily collecting all of my stuff and madly dashing for cover under nearby trees or into the cafes. After the 15 minutes of torrential rain ended, everyone sheepishly heads back out and sets up their towels again. I recommend taking at least a raincoat with you to the beach as I was caught out a few times and when I did have it, I could throw it over everything and keep it all dry.

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The storms roll in quickly and soak everyone only to leave 15 minutes later.

Most of the beach front cafes turn into bars at night and they were happy to let me sit there for hours and use their wifi and lilos even when I only bought a bottle of water. My favourite restaurant was Zephyr. It is affiliated but not exactly the same as its Arugam Bay counterpart. Instead of burgers being their specialty, they served up delicious wraps for lunch and spicy prawn pasta for dinner.

Avoid the Coffee Shack’s coffee. It claims ‘Italian espresso’ but serves hot water which tastes like you licked a battery terminal. No amount of sugar and milk could fix the acidic taste. I watched (with glee) as others around me made the same face I did and then put their coffee down never to be touched again. On the positive side, their pineapple smoothies were sweet and delicious! Each night we ate at many of the beach front restaurants often hand picking our fish fresh from the esky out the front and then having it cooked to perfection or embracing the multi-dish Sri Lankan curries which are still one of my favourite!

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Late afternoon is always the most magical.

See the Tangent Time blog for my whale watching recount.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Mirissa (July-August 2015)

Tangent Time: (This post is not for the fainthearted – read at your own risk. Does involve vomit.)

In peak season, Mirissa is famous for its whale and dolphin watching tours. After spending a couple of days lazing about, we felt that we should probably organise an activity of some sort. One night after dinner, we were strolling along the beach back towards our accommodation when we saw a sign that was advertising cheap whale watching (2500 instead of 7000 rupee) for the next day. After a couple of questions to check the particulars and suss out why it was so cheap (apparently last minute seats to help fill the boat and not as many whales as usual), it was decided we would take a chance on it, plus it included breakfast (always gets me over the line). The organisers claimed that even though it was not whale season, they were still averaging 2 whale sightings a trip as well as many dolphins. They even guaranteed a second trip for free if we didn’t see one! What could we possibly have to lose? Apparently my dignity.

We had to meet the organisers at a certain spot the next morning at 6am to be tuk tuked to the mariner. As I dragged my holiday-mode self out of bed and got ready, the weather outside had me seriously second guessing our plans. The clouds outside were dark and angry looking as they unleashed their rainy wrath upon us. Rhys and I debated not going but he ended up convincing me that the weather would clear eventually like it had the other days usually turning on the sunshine by around 10am. We stomped our way through the mud to our meeting point where our guide was 10 minutes late arriving. I saw this as an ominous omen as we debated heading back home to crawl under the covers, when he came running up apologising. The rain slowed as we drove to the mariner and located our boat. Our guide pulled us aside just before we got out of the tuk tuk and whispered to us, asking that we not mention the cheaper price we had paid to the other participants because apparently they had paid full price.

As we boarded, I noticed that the 100 seats were occupied mostly by Asian tourists readying their cameras as they put their life jackets over their heads and clipped in. We headed out of the calm mariner and into the rough and rolling seas. The clouds were still looming over head as the wind whipped around and the ocean rocked the boat. After almost an hour of heading directly out to sea followed by a couple of other whale watching boats, the non-seafaring folk (myself included) began to revolt against the rolling motion and the seasickness began.

I am not usually a queasy person, but this trip got me too. It started towards the front as a couple of kids and their dad dry wretched, trying to throw up their non -xistent breakfast. The tour operators handed out black plastic bags as quickly as they could to anyone who looked mildly ill. The sounds of more people chucking their guts up started to take effect  on me and eventually I succumbed. I tried standing up, I tried sitting down, I tried looking out to the horizon that was rolling just as much as our boat was. It was windy, raining on and off and the noise of plastic bags flapping and heaving stomachs filled the air. It had been almost two hours of boating without even seeing a single fin or tail. Plus, many of the passengers were staring at the ground trying not to think about how terrible they felt.

At this point, I almost didn’t care if I never saw a whale ever again as passengers all around us were sick and Rhys tried to help me, looking on with pity as I sat there spitting bile repeatedly into my plastic bag. Finally, a blue whale was spotted as the tourists who were still able to look up pulled out their cameras trying to capture a glimpse. The captain’s helpers rushed to the side of the boat and pointed furiously at the spot where the whale had just breached (very slightly) out of the water. Now in all honesty, yes, I did most definitely see a whale a couple of times. It was a one second glance of a hump, then a tail and then that was it. I wasn’t well enough to even think about getting my camera out nor did I think the scene before me was really picture worthy as I clutched my bag of spew. There were a few oohs and aaahs as the whale swam along breaking the water every 10  minutes or so as we tried to keep up. After 30 minutes of following the whale, our tour guides started asking if anyone hadn’t seen the whale, ensuring that no one asked for their money back. Even if I hadn’t seen the whale, you could not have paid me enough to do the trip a second time.

After it had been agreed, that yes indeed EVERYONE had seen a whale, the boat turned around and headed back to land as the excitement of the whale sighting started to wear off and everyone realised that we had another 2 hours of rocking boat time before we hit dry land.   The crew started to hand out the breakfast boxes to those with iron stomachs who had been able to resist the motion sickness paired with the retching sounds that continued around them. I took my box but gave it to Rhys who happily chowed down on the extra tuna sandwich, banana and juice popper. I couldn’t even look at the sandwich without wanting to throw up a little more. Finally, the boat docked and I could not get off fast enough. Our tuk tuk driver was waiting to take us back to our accommodation but it was still hours before I could even think about eating.

The boat and staff were actually excellent, and the experience itself is one I won’t forget, but not because of the whales.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Mirissa (July-August 2015)

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Safari Jeep Time! Feeling pleased as punch.

There was only one reason we made the trek to Udawalawe: Elephants! I LOVE elephants. I think they are just the most spectacular, majestic and beautiful animals. With their size, they can be fierce and dangerous especially to humans who cross their paths in the wild, but then you see them in their  families playing and being so gentle with their young. They are intelligent and I just adore the family dynamic they create within their herds. 

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This big guy lives in the park but often hangs out right near the road. He had very gentle eyes as he watched the human world go by.

It is such a shame they are hunted and poached so severely and that their habitat is being destroyed by humans. My love of elephants blossomed at a young age and my parents are adamant that one of my first words was a variation of ‘elephant’.  My Udawalawe safari experience wasn’t the first time I had witnessed elephants up close and in the flesh and it definitely won’t be the last but, it was one of the most magical. We took a bus from Ella to a town near Udawalawe (can’t remember the name unfortunately) and then while we waited for the next bus to take us the last leg, we bartered with a tuk tuk driver and eventually agreed on a price of 1500 rupees for the 2 hour journey. The bus would have been cheaper (approximately 200 rupee) but we decided to go with the tuk tuk as it would halve the time we would spend travelling and was still a reasonable price after negotiating him down from 4000 rupee. He was very persistent  and we were a little tired. We spent only one night in Udawalwe which does not have much to offer besides the safari tours. There is a variety of tours and hotel packages available, but we stayed in a brand new guesthouse which was still under construction. Due to the construction, there wasn’t much happening and we had to travel to an alternative restaurant for our meals, but the rooms were brand new with fancy ensuites and it was only 1500 rupees a night for the two of us. Inconvenience was trumped by price! We organised a tour with our guesthouse manager as there was three of us staying at the guesthouse and we decided to do the safari together. 

Tour costs seems to work out in the following ways:

  • Park admission 1500-2000 rupees per person (depends on season and changes often)
  • Tour jeep and driver: 5000 split between how many people go (most have 6 seats, but we only had 3 people so the cost was a little higher)
  • ‘Volunteer’ guide: 500 rupee per person (this was an unexpected charge at the end of the trip that was not explained at the beginning – I always feel a little ripped off when that happens but begrudgingly handed over my money. After all, the safari delivered on the promise of many elephants)

If you are travelling solo or in a couple, there is a chance you can jump onto one of the jeeps that has seats left or there are always drivers and their jeeps waiting on call that you can negotiate for a good price as well. Most safari operators agree that early morning or late afternoon is best (as animals hide and sleep during the hottest parts of the day). Arrive at the safari park gate  around 6am or 4pm and then put on your barter face and be ready to roll just in case you can squeeze on. Of course, if you choose not to organise a your and leave it to fate instead, you do run the risk that there may be no jeeps free or with empty seats especially during peak tourist season.

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A herd of buffalo just chilling out. They don’t seem to care or notice the crocodiles also casually basking in the sun.

Our jeep and driver arrived at 5:30 am to collect us from our hotel. We packed cameras, snacks, water, hats and sunscreen in our backpack ready for the day ahead. I also recommend taking a cardi of some sort as it was quite cool until the sun came up.

The thrill of climbing into our open air jeep and cruising through an eerily silent Udawalawe town made my stomach bubble with excitement and anticipation. After about 20 minutes of driving, we arrived at the park, entered and then moved to the office to pay our admission fee, picking up our ‘volunteer’ guide. He spoke very good English and was knowledgable about all of the animals pointing them out as the sun slowly rose over the park and the heat began. He answered all of our questions and was on the phone constantly discussing animal sightings with some of the other guides on other jeeps. I was surprised at the number of jeeps (there are many different companies in competition) that were waiting at the gate, but we didn’t follow them along Jurassic Park style. Instead, as soon as we entered the park, they all sped off in different directions and we were left ambling along alone for quite some time. We spotted deer, buffalo, peacocks, monkeys, crocodiles and a myriad of various birdlife.

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Keeping my eyes peeled for exactly this!

 After an hour into our trip, I was starting to get little worried that we wouldn’t see any elephants. I furiously scoured the scrub for any glimpse of grey, wrinkled skin while I pondered how I would ask for my money back if we didn’t see at least one elephant in a park that boasts being home to over 3000 elephants. But low and behold, we made our first elephant sighting as a female crossed the road just in front of us. We stopped to watch as she disappeared into the bush which was too thick for the jeep to follow. 

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A lady elephant just strolling.

Then, as we started up again along the path, our guide received a phone call from one of the other jeeps and we were speeding away towards the location discussed where they had discovered a small herd. We stumbled across two males as we made our way and our guide explained that we were lucky to see a male with tusks as only a small percentage of the males actually grow them. 

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Can’t you see that I am hiding? A small male with tusks.

Our time as a lone jeep came to an abrupt end as we rounded a corner and came across the herd along with the six other jeeps all lined bumper to bumper on the road to watch the elephant family do their thing, which mostly consisted of eating, pooing, playing and rubbing their backsides against the trees.

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This family consisted of two females and their babies!

 

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 I snapped away with my camera furiously as baby drank from his mother and they all milled about hardly even noticing the jeeps, the cameras or the many eyes upon them. The rest of the morning was spent following the herd and then we drove back to our hotel to enjoy a well deserved breakfast before moving onto our next destination.

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Aw man!

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Udawalawe (July-August 2015)

This is the spectacular view about halfway up the hike to Mini Adam's Peak.

This is the spectacular view from the helipad which is about halfway up the hike to Mini Adam’s Peak.

After the heat of Arugam Bay, the mildly cooler Ella was a very welcome relief. Ella was definitely one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka. It is located north east of Arugam and is reachable by bus but, we chose to take a private taxi which took 4 hours and cost AU$80. The drive wound through the mountains as we slowly ascended providing little glimpses of the world below through breaks in the trees offering some breathtaking views. Our driver pulled over for lunch at one of his preferred restaurants where we shared a huge plate of devilled chicken and side dishes among a group of very merry locals. This particular meal is popular in Sri Lanka and is made with a sweet and sour sticky sauce and lots of fiery hot peppers. I think it is delicious!

The dusty roads of Ella village

The dusty roads of the Ella village

Ella is small village located up the mountains on one of the main roads. The accommodations and restaurants have a shanty-shack vibe and are stacked on top of each other up the steep mountain sides. I was surprised by the number of tourists in Ella, thinking smugly that I had stumbled upon this hidden stretch (silly me). It was busy and bustling the whole time we were there and after discovering a little more about what the area had to offer, it all made perfect sense. If you are into hiking, waterfalls, wildlife, tranquility, good food, 360 degree views or fun (who isn’t?), then Ella has something to offer you.

Taking the road less traveled but probably full of snakes.

Taking the road less travelled but likely fidled with snakes.

The tea pickers were mostly women and they carried their sacks using a contraption on their heads.

The tea pickers were mostly women and they carried their sacks using a contraption on their heads.

Ella is home to the famous ‘Adam’s Peak’ hiking trail which has magnificent scenery but takes around 6 hours to complete. If hiking is your thing, it is something you would not want to miss out on. Take note on the best season for hiking though, as we were told even if we made the hike, it was unlikely we would see much due to the low cloud cover and rain. As we were only in Ella for a couple of days, 6 hours of hiking with no guarantees felt like too much of a commitment, so my partner and I decided to do Little Adam’s Peak instead which is a lot easier on the body and accessible for most (normal, non-hiking folk) people, plus it takes way less time and effort! The entrance path to Little Adam’s Peak is well signed and there is restaurant at the start that boasts an impressive cactus garden and pet birds. The trail consists of an dusty incline, winding pathways through the tea tree plantation and smiling pickers (be careful of getting caught taking photos, they may ask for a tip), many, many narrow stairs and then finally some steep, rocky and sometimes slippery goat tracks through the scrub. Take plenty of water and maybe a snack as you will definitely need it. The sights all the way up are spectacular as you peer out across the huge gorge between the peaks.

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The views are magnificent all the way up and especially from the top.

The views are magnificent all the way up and especially from the top.

We felt like the only two people in the whole world.

We felt like the only two people in the whole world. I love that nature can make you feel small and insignificant in order to humble you.

On our way back down the mountain, we continued on to a green tea factory where we did a 30 minute tour for 500 rupees. It was fairly simplistic, but also fun (we had to wear blue shoe covers and hair nets) and included a relaxing cup of green tea afterwards. We needed all the hydration we could get! After walking for so long, we were exceedingly hungry (more than usual anyway) and as we headed back towards town, we stumbled across a little eatery called Adam’s Restaurant where I had some of the best samosas I have ever eaten and a delicious Sri Lankan curry set to the background music of Bob Marley’s greatest hits. What a memory! They LOVE Bob Marley in Sri Lanka.

The windy road to the tea factory

The windy road to the tea factory

Back in the village, we stayed at the Ella Tea Garden which boasts awesome views of the surrounding mountain side and is home to a very laid back Dachshund called Renske which was just an added bonus as I am a little dog crazy, especially when it comes to Dachys and Frenchies. Renske got all the love and attention any dog would need in a year from the couple of days I stayed there. He was probably relieved when I left.

View from our Tea Garden room.

View from our Tea Garden room.

Renske getting some lovin'.

Renske getting some lovin’.

The Chill Bar is a wooden treehouse-style restaurant with fine dining downstairs and upstairs houses an open rooftop area with beanbags that is ideal for cocktails and pizzas. After eating, we could hear all this drumming and loud talking over a microphone. We followed the sounds to discover quite a sight. There was a band set up in the middle of a field with huge posters and lights everywhere (I’m still not sure if they were religious or political). At the back of the field was a long winding row of tuk tuks and in front of the sights and sounds onstage was a group of Sri Lankans all dancing, jumping up and down and having a great time. It was fun to see the drivers of the tuk tuks at the back having a great time down the front and losing themselves to the music.

Politics or religion? Either way, they Sri Lankans were loving it.

Politics or religion? Either way, they Sri Lankans were loving it.

Tangent Time: While in Ella, I developed an ear infection and had to go on the hunt for a doctor or pharmacy that would be able to help. I figured the cause was from all the swimming I had been doing at Arugam Bay and also knew it would only get more serious without treatment. I started by googling doctors and hospitals  in the area and asking the staff at my hotel but they all said the same thing: I would have to travel 2 hours to the next big city to go to the hospital or see a doctor. I was preparing to do this (mentally only) when I walked past a small sign  with a red cross on it while exploring some markets. It pointed to a narrow alleyway and up some steep stairs. As I arrived at the top, I found a large the room with literally 2 waiting chairs, a tiny reception window, a small office and a patient bed. No one was around and there were no phone numbers that I could see. My hope began to waiver as I went back a couple of times during the same day to see if anyone would show up and be able to help me. On the third time, I studied the signage a little more closely even though it was written in Sinhala, and found a couple of numbers that looked like they could be opening hours. They were from 7-9am and 4-7pm but I had only discovered the place in the middle of the day. I waited until 4 and then returned in a last ditch effort to find help as my ear throbbed relentlessly. As I took the final step to level with the reception window, a young girl popped her head up smiling. She spoke some English and waved me into the little room where a female doctor was waiting for me. She spoke English as well which made the whole process easier and she was able to give me what I needed right then and there. The service was excellent and we chatted for quite some time about her private practice and her life in Sri Lanka. She was planning to open her own guest house with her husband (also a doctor) and they were going to add their own practice to the back. She pulled out a notebook and pen and started asking me all these questions about what tourists wanted from a guesthouse and what services and prices I had been paying as I traveled around Sri Lanka. It was quite fun! I was so lucky to find her and grateful for her help and the antibiotics. The consultation was free and I only had to pay 3000 rupee for the meds she provided. The only downside was that I couldn’t put my head under the water at the waterfalls that we explored the next day.

The main pool at the bottom where most people swim and refresh after a long day of walking.

The main pool at the bottom where most people swim and refresh after a long day of walking.

Ravana Falls is situated about 15 minutes south from Ella. You can walk it and many do, but it is uphill all the way back, so we chose to get a tuk tuk which cost 1000 rupees and he waited for us at the bottom until we were done exploring. If waterfall climbing, slippery stones and mud doesn’t interest you, then there is a large pool at the bottom where most people swim and enjoy the refreshingly cool water after a long day of hiking. It gets busy quickly though, especially on weekends and there are a variety of locals who are trying to sell you produce and items the whole time you swim. Watch out for the men who try to swap you a crystal for a “coin from you homeland for my child who collects coins.” If you are feeling a little more adventurous, you can make your way up the waterfall to the more secluded pools at the top. It is not easy, but it is definitely worth it, though we found a much easier (and secret) path only after we had scrambled our way up the hot stone. If you know what you are looking for, there is a gate to the right before you reach the main pool that says ‘no entry’ (Yeah, I am that rebellious) and from there you can follow the water pipes that run up through the rain forest to about halfway up the waterfall and then you can make your own way from there.

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Secret Squirrel Track

Following the pipes back down proved much easier than scaling the slippery stones.

Following the pipes back down proved much easier than scaling the slippery stones.

This is me 'not getting my head wet'. Kind of.

This is me ‘not getting my head wet’. Kind of.

The view from the secluded swimming pool we found.

The view from the secluded swimming pool we found.

For such a small place, Ella has a plethora of things to do and see and I really enjoyed every aspect of it and I hope you do too.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Ella (July-August 2015 )

Arugam Bay

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

We chose to visit the upcoming surfing spot of Arugam Bay as friends had been in previous years and bragged about how great the surf was. It tends to work best in the off season meaning the surfing season is from June – October.  Arugam is a very laid back strip that sits on a large bay with a range of point breaks both north and south. The bay is beautiful for swimming, boasting calm water with rolling waves that break onto a sandy shore. The locals all come down in droves on weekends where whole families scream with glee, jump on each other and play in the shallows. Arugam’s main point is gentle most of the time but does have a bit of a rocky shelf which can attract the odd sea urchin. Some surfers wore booties, but my partner and I both didn’t bother and chose instead to just try and avoid the bottom as much as possible.  My partner was a little disappointed with the surf when we were there, as it didn’t really get bigger than 4ft and there is a minimal tide difference (so it just stays the same) and the wind was howling from about midday. There were also a lot of people (and beginners) trying to do their thing in the shore break which is not ideal when you have come specifically to surf and you have to worry about avoiding them as they bob around on huge foam boards.

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A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

I chose not to bring a board with me (my partner bought two), but hired both a mini mal and malibu on different days and had an awesome time while getting a great tan. Upali is the accommodation and cafe which sits right on the main point and provides a perfect (and shady) reading or blogging spot when my partner was surfing for long hours. Once we were all surfed out, we would walk back to the main strip and score a cabana (usually at Funky de Bar) that looked out onto the water. Funky de Bar was also home to a litter of puppies and anyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE dogs. We would eat, drink, play with the puppies and be generally merry which isn’t hard to do in a place as beautiful as Sri Lanka.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller. We hired this 9ft mal for a couple of days.

We stayed at The Hotel Paradise for 10 days and it catered to our needs really well. Not only is it right in the middle of town, it was clean and cheap plus the staff were very accommodating. I would definitely recommend an air-conditioned room though as it was still quite hot at night and nice to escape the heat in the middle of the day. The Hotel Paradise also do a curry buffet for 400 rupee which was so tasty and filling. You can’t really beat that.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

The food in Arugam has a lot of variety and can cater to all budgets and taste buds. Some days we lived off roti and Sri Lankan curries (the one from Munchies Shack was the best in my opinion) and other days we would splurge a little more and eat BBQ whole fish done over a fire, delicious burgers and cocktails from Zephyr, and real coffee and breakfast paninis from the Hideaway cafe during the day and fruity cocktails with reggae at night from the bar. There are a few touristy shops if retail therapy is your thing, but I wouldn’t dedicate too much time to it.

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay is the perfect location to make your ‘base’ so you can do day trips north or south and see all that the area has to offer. There is also an elephant gathering place west of Pottuvil near the big waterhole. The two times we went past, we were a little too early and then a little too late. Get a local to take you and time it for late afternoon to witness a spectacular sight.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

North of Arugam Bay are secluded accommodation options away from the bustle of the main strip. There are a couple of surf points and I spent two very relaxing mornings at the Whiskey Beach cabanas and cafe. It takes about 10 minutes by tuk tuk and costs around 1000 rupees return (or 1500 rupees to the Lighthouse point) and usually the driver will wait for you, or come back and collect you at an agreed time. Pottuvil Point is worth a look if you are up that way already, but probably not as an individual trip. Most drivers tag on an extra 500 rupee for the trip.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

South of Arugam there is Okanda and two national parks. Okanda is a dusty 40 minute drive south and we visited on two separate occasions. The first time was a part of our local led ‘safari tour’ just to have a look. The second time was early in the morning on a surf expedition but there was also a week long Hindu festival on. (Check out Tangent Time below for my story about my ‘celebrity status’.) Okanda beach is beautiful, the surf was little bigger but still quite messy.

The view from the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

The view from the rock near the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

One of the local tuk tuk drivers (we called him ‘No Teeth’ for obvious reasons) drove us to various points a couple of times and we discussed with him the possibility of us taking a safari tour to check out some of the wildlife in the area. We paid 3000 rupee (plus we gave a large tip at the end as we were stoked with what we did and saw) for a couple of hours driving. No Teeth promised we wouldn’t pay if we didn’t see any elephants or were unhappy with the quality of the tour in anyway. It sounded like a pretty good deal to me. He picked us up from our hotel at 1:30pm and we set off. Not even 15 minutes had passed when we spotted peacocks (as plentiful as pigeons in Sri Lanka), a herd of buffalo bathing in a pond, a mongoose and witnessed our first elephant sighting. A large bull was standing just outside of the bush line and was visible from the road. We watched him for about 15 minutes before moving on with No Teeth promising we would see plenty more on his ‘special tour’. We hiked up to the Okanda Kudumbigala Forest Hermitage Shrine and fed the monkeys biscuits we bought from a local stall. They were mischievous and naughty, just as monkeys should be, and I have developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with monkeys. I find they are very sweet one minute being all friendly and cutesy, but as soon as you are out of food, they turn on you (and each other) going feral and vicious in the blink of an eye. Once we climbed to the top of the temple, we were treated to breathtaking 360 degree views of the whole area and it is definitely worth the walk up the stone steps (if you can call them that, they are more like strategically spaced rock grooves). Ladies, don’t forget to enter the shrine you will need to take or wear a long skirt and cover your shoulders. I took two sarongs with me so I could take it all off afterwards.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

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Monkeys and crocodiles.

Monkeys. How cute is this guy?.

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These guys you can see, the others not so much.

I knew what was underneath the water...eek.

I knew what was underneath the water…eek.

No Teeth then showed us crocodiles up close (and a little to close for comfort) in a nearby creek. They didn’t do much, just lazed about on the banks, but I was more afraid of what I couldn’t see under the water as we stood on the edge of the river watching them. I didn’t really want to test fate. We visited Okanda, to see what it was like and saw that they were setting up stalls and shops for some kind of festival which we discovered to be a Hindu event later on. Finally, we went on the hunt for more elephants. We spotted a group of four adult elephants quite far off in the distance opposite a large (and mostly dry) waterhole. Eventually, we found a family of about 7 adult elephants and a baby. We were apparently getting too close as the bull began throwing dirt, grunting and stamping. Needless to say, we backed away slowly. It was amazing to see this whole elephant family out in the wild living (mostly harmoniously) with the villages. The fence in the image actually goes around the village to keep the elephants out rather than to keep them in captivity. I felt honoured to witness these beautiful exotic creatures in their wild habitat roaming freely.

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Daddy elephant. Not so happy to see us.

Elephant family roaming freely.

Elephant family roaming freely. The little baby is too much!

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This male was by himself near one of the roads to Okanda.

Tangent Time: When my partner and I returned to Okanda for the second time to surf it was early morning and the sun had just risen. No Teeth was supposed to pick us up from the front of our hotel at 5:30am but he didn’t show. We found out later that he had slept through his alarm. Instead, we waved down one of the many other tuk tuk drivers. No point getting up this early for no reason! Okanda beach was mostly secluded except for a couple of towels and bags left on the beach by the other 5 surfers who were already out in the water. My partner paddled out and I sat on the beach on a towel in a dress and hat with my camera at the ready. After an hour of taking some snapshots, I noticed that there were a few small groups of locals dressed in their best saris and suits making their way down the beach towards me. As they got closer, there was a lot of pointing and talking (that I couldn’t understand) as they all moved closer and stood around me. The kids waved and said hi excitedly. Some spoke a few words of English and asked questions about my name and where I was from. A lot of the boys stared or asked to take my picture, some wanted to touch my blonde hair or shake my hand. For approximately 3 hours this went on with each group that passed by. Most were polite, others not so much and some started taking pictures without asking or doing anything else. Just waltzed right up and started snapping. I began to understand a little more how celebrities feel. I was reading a book on my ipad mini and many of the children wanted to look at it and touch it as they had never seen anything like it before. I had to explain to a couple of boys that my ‘husband’ was out in the water so they would back off a little and move out of my personal space. One man who spoke excellent English explained that many of the locals were from very small villages far away and had driven for days just to attend the festival. He outlined that most of them would not have seen a white person in the flesh before either and that was why there was so much commotion.  It was such a bizarre experience that I won’t soon forget and I now have an appreciation for what it must be like being an animal in a zoo.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Arugam Bay (July-August 2015)

Elderly Shoutouts

I just had the most lovely encounter with an elderly lady and it compelled me to give a shoutout to anyone over the age of 65. (You know who you are, but I am not sure many of you read blogs?)

My partner and I were riding our bikes through Dover, England after spending the morning exploring the historically significant Dover Castle (totally worth doing). We were cruising down a large hill and came to a fork in the road. We weren’t sure which way to go so we pulled out our phone (yep, Gen Y-ers) to have a look at the map. As Rhys was doing this, I was looking around appreciating our surroundings and gazed up at a window in a house nearby. The window belonged to an old person’s nursing home and framed perfectly  in the window, enjoying the sunshine and view sat a hunched, little old lady in a wheelchair who had short white hair and was wearing a blue two piece suit. She was watching us, smiling widely and furiously waving at me in the sweetest way possible. My heart melted as I thought of my two grandmothers and I waved back.  She started to point to the right indicating the way we should go. I tapped my partner on the shoulder and pointed so he could wave too and thank her for helping us when, just as he looked up, she started blowing kisses the cheeky devil! Rhys obliged and blew kisses back and then we took her on her word (and hoped she didn’t have dementia) and peddled our bikes to the right as we waved goodbye. Luckily, she got us to where we needed to go.

I just want to encourage people to take a moment today and be a little kinder and a little more patient to elderly strangers and family members. Their life experience and understanding of the world far parallels our own and we should feel blessed to enjoy every moment we have with the special old people in our lives. Warm and fuzzies all round.

This post is dedicated to both my lovely grandmothers who I know are looking down on me and keeping me safe on my travels.

xo

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The Sri Lanka Series: Negombo and Colombo (July-August 2015)

Sri Lanka had not really crept onto my travel radar until after my partner mentioned he would like to stay there as an extended stopover on our way to Europe. After some initial research, it was quite clear that Sri Lanka has a lot to offer for such a small country. The main draw for us was the surf, the history and the animals (including one of my personal favourites: ELEPHANTS!).

Our ‘planned’ itinerary looked like this: Fly to Sri Lanka. Make our way to Arugam Bay at some point. Find elephants.

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Elephants are everywhere and for me, they were one of the main reasons I wanted to go.

Though I did complete a fair amount of research and had a rough idea of how we would make our way around this tiny island, we did not book anything except for our first night after flying into the airport and it was such a nice way to travel. The reason I had not done this on previous trips is because all of my other overseas adventures were with groups of 4 or more which limits the freedom just a little. Having such large groups and needing to meet everyone’s holiday expectations meant I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to experience such an open way of traveling and it was so LIBERATING, albeit a little stressful at times. This time is was just my partner and I and we could do what we pleased, when we wanted. I enjoyed fully embracing the selfishness of the situation. I am a fairly organised person in life. I like plans, I like lists and I like direction so, to let go and trust my partner and myself to get where we needed to safely and quickly in a foreign country was quite the escapade and I loved every minute.

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This is ‘Jerry’. He was a stray taken in by the hotel staff where we stayed. He was pretty fun and very cheeky.

We chose to travel Sri Lanka even though it was technically the off season for the eastern side (the tourist area). This is the side of the island nation that was highlighted in my Google image and Pinterest searches displaying crystal blue water, snorkel and dive areas abundant with colourful fish, whales and dolphins frolicking everywhere and the iconic fisherman on sticks. It wasn’t going to be like this for us apparently.

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Rhys had to exchange his small board for this 9ft log.

For the western side though (where we hoped to surf), the season was at its best. This meant most of our accommodation along the eastern side was a lot cheaper and the tourist towns a lot less crowded. It was still beautiful and sunny most of the time, but the wind did creep up during the day and push over the occasional torrential downpour of rain. This often passed after about 10 minutes and then the sun would shine again as everyone crept back out from wherever they had been taking shelter to set up on the beach. We experienced a couple of cloudy days while we were there, but nothing that interrupted our plans significantly. In fact, I think the locals were more upset by the weather as their pride of country urged them to tell anyone who would listen that it was “not season and that it was not usually like this and you should come back in November”. Bless them!

In the end our journey looked like this: Negombo – Kandy – Arugam Bay – Ella – Udawalwe – Mirissa – Unawatuna – Negombo.

This list is where we booked accommodation (usually just outside of the bigger cities), and then we would travel either by tuk tuk or scooter to the other attractions,  sights or villages in the area. It was nice to venture out to the crazy, bustling cities but return to stay in the less chaotic villages to sleep.

Locals

On the more secluded or remote beaches, a blonde haired foreigner sitting on the beach is quite a sight to behold. These guys asked me for a photo, so it seemed only fair to ask for one in return.

Negombo
We flew into the Bandaranaike International Colombo airport which is 10 minutes from Negombo or 40 minutes from Colombo. We booked our first night’s accommodation in Negombo through Airbnb as it is much closer to the airport and we were flying in quite late at night. A bonus was that our Airbnb host was happy to collect us from the airport and save us the hassle of having to bargain with a driver or taxi straight after landing.

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The locals seem to swim in all of their clothes but love rolling around in the shallow waves.

The airport is quite simple and foreigners are required to complete an entry card with a Sri Lankan address on it before you can go through customs so make sure you have one organised. We applied for our visas online before we flew out and paid around AU$50 each, but you can get a 30 day tourist visa on arrival, but it does cost a little more and you have to stand in line with all the other visa-less people, whereas we just waltzed right on through to customs. After customs, the most exciting things you will find are a range of money exchanges, tour operators and taxi companies vying for your money. A taxi from the airport to Negombo should cost between 1000-1500 rupees. But be careful, as there is a Negombo ‘city’ and Negombo ‘beach’ about 6kms apart and the beach area may incur an extra fee, so be clear about what you want before you leave (See Tangent Time below for details). We were in the city area first with our Airbnb booking which was fine, but there isn’t much to see/do or many touristy things. The beach area is where we traveled to for dinner one night and then chose to stay there instead before we flew out. To travel between the city and beach part of Negombo should cost approximately 200/300 rupees.

I spent a lot of time lazing about it these cabanas reading my book and blogging.

Tangent Time: After being denied access to our flight to Mumbai (more to come about this story in future posts), we were eventually pushed back out the airport doors with our luggage. We had no idea what to do, so we decided to head back to our accommodation in Negombo to figure it out and get some wifi access. We were going to hail a tuk tuk as it was a bit cheaper rather than get a taxi van. I was negotiating a deal with one tuk tuk driver while my partner was bargaining with a van man. In the end, my partner and the van man agreed on 1500 rupees to Negombo beach. Or so we thought. We piled our luggage into the van and hadn’t even maneuvered out of the airport pick up area when our driver started asking for more money (500 extra rupees) if we wanted to go to Negombo beach and not the city area. We told him that wasn’t the deal and that we had already shaken on it and we would not be giving anymore money. We asked him to pull over if he did not want to accept the agreed price. He then locked the doors of the van (so we couldn’t get out) and started asking for Australian money instead. He thought we had just arrived off a plane, cashed up and naive, when in reality, we had already bee n in Sri Lanka for 3 weeks, were quite knowledgeable about the prices and procedures and hadn’t been allowed to fly out.  We tried to explain that this wasn’t our first taxi ride but he just kept driving and would not stop. By this point, we were all getting quite angry and as we had just spent 5 hours in the airport, our patience was running a little thin. After neither of us could get the other to understand, there was about 15 minutes of (fuming) silence before we arrived in Negombo beach. Our driver kept asking for directions from locals every 15 meters or so even though we were telling him where to go. He just simply would not listen. It was so bizarre and one of the worst transport experiences I had with a local. Once we arrived, Patrick (our beloved accommodation host) welcomed us back with open arms wondering what had happened as he had dropped us to the airport earlier that morning. Our van driver was still demanding the extra money. Though it wasn’t a lot of money, our tired, stubborn selves did not want to part with the extra 500 rupees on principle. We did end up giving in just to get rid of him. We gave him 1800 rupees all up. He was still not happy, and even tried to argue with Patrick who was having none of itand waved him on. The moral of the story? Always be EXTRA clear with the driver about the location and the price, especially if you have just arrived off a plane.

Negombo is a less crazy version of the bigger and busier Colombo. It is a fishing village with a thriving (and stinky) marketplace along the beach. The beach is not necessarily the prettiest (or cleanest) but it is ok for a quick swim to cool off and escape the heat. Alternatively, some of the larger resorts along the beach tourist strip have pools that you can use for a daily price ranging between 500-1000 rupees depending on the resort and facilities. You won’t need long in Negombo to see the sights but is a much easier place to navigate and a little more relaxing when flying in or out of Sri Lanka. If you have a day or two to fill in, you can explore the temples, see the Dutch canal and eat plenty of fresh seafood. Arpico is the local supermarket and we even spent quite bit of time discovering new snacks and enjoying the air-conditioned space. We had two days to explore before we headed off to Kandy next. The first day we spent in Negombo orientating ourselves, the second we decided to spend doing a day trip to Colombo after talking to our Airbnb host. We were going to originally spend a night or two in Colombo but our host advised us to just do day trip. So glad we listened.

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Rhys was hoping for surf in the capital of Colombo.

Colombo
I didn’t really know what to expect from the capital of Sri Lanka. With over 600,000 people in one city, I knew I was in for a bit of a shock. Our host pointed us in the direction of the bus stop in Negombo city and we found and boarded an air conditioned ‘express’ bus bound for Colombo. It was one of the more modern buses I travelled on while in Sri Lanka, only took 30-40 minutes (compared to 1 hour on the big, old non air-con buses that are everywhere) and was only a few rupees dearer (120 rupees per person, one way). I thought the air-conditioning was worth every rupee as I had just stepped off a plane from the Australian ‘winter’ and I was not dealing with the heat too well just yet. Our bus was very full (as they all are) with people standing in the aisle and cramming in. It seemed to consist mostly  of business men going to work or women going shopping in the city, plus my partner and I (the only tourists). The large TV monitor at the front loudly blasted a variety of Sri Lankan pop music videos and was sufficient entertainment for the drive as we hurtled up the highway.

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I thought this was an interesting clash of local markets and the cranes of the international port behind.

We were dropped off right in the middle of some local markets where vendors yelled out to us at every chance and even grabbed your t-shirt to try and get you into their shop. We tried a variety of street food (deep fried triangles filled with a curry mix and egg) and indulged in the sights and smells (not always pleasant) of Colombo. As we walked along, a local man came up and introduced himself. I had experienced a similar scam in Indonesia, but it didn’t really click until it was too late. This man wanted to show us around Colombo waving down a tuk tuk and driving us around. We tried to negotiate a price before hoping in, but he assured us this was a good tuk tuk who had a good price. Being fresh and naive, we jumped in without a thought and went on a whirlwind tour of the city. Our ‘guide’ was quite knowledgeable, but did keep trying to get us to go a diamond store. We promptly just kept telling him no and that we wouldn’t buy anything. We visited a variety of temples and landmarks, walked around a park and made it to the beach. Every time we got out of the tuk tuk, and tried to pay, our ‘guide’ told us not to worry and that he would wait for free, “no worries”. Silly foreigners we were. After 2 hours of touring, we explained that we needed to catch the bus home and asked how much we owed the tuk tuk driver. He promptly told us 8000 rupees. I collected my jaw off the floor and then proceeded to ask a lot of questions about why it was so expensive and could he please explain how much each trip was as I had calculated in my head about 1500 rupees as the maximum for the short distances we traveled even with ‘waiting time’. After much discussion that made nothing any clearer, we paid 5000 rupee, which was apparently a good price and left Colombo with a sour taste in our mouth. We realised later that they probably worked together and pulled this scam on a whole bunch of fresh faced, unsuspecting, trusting tourists like ourselves. Looking back on situations like this, it seems so clear that it was a tout, but at the time, when you are new in a unusual city, you want to be trusting of the locals and believe they genuinely want to help or show you around. I don’t want the ways of the world to harden me and the way I view humans. It might make me a fool sometimes or a little poorer, but like they say, follow your heart, but take your head with you.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

The underutilisation of the humble car horn

I for one, use my car horn only when I am REALLY annoyed at someone which happens quite a lot on the Gold Coast. People are always cutting you off, not allowing you to merge or running through the roundabout without giving way. Traffic and road rage is a very real thing that I experience a couple of times a year. When I do engage with my horn, it is usually used sparingly to jolt the other driver awake or make them aware that you are “not happy Jan” (anyone remember that ad?) about what they have just done. It is a blaring alarm, punched hard with the palm of your hand in anger, often followed with a crude hand gesture or perhaps some swear words for effect. Then, if the opportunity arises and you happen to pass the offender or stop at the lights, it is proper road rage ‘etiquette’ to glare at them even when they don’t look or pretend not to notice your crazy eyes boring a hole into the side of their head. This of course, infuriates you further.

If you have ever been to a third world country, you are probably familiar with the constant honking and erratic driving that is both thrilling and terrifying all at once. However throughout my travels, I have come to appreciate the many opportunities of the humble horn that most westerners seem to have let slip away.

Indonesia was one of my first overseas trips and the driving style really was a shock for a fresh faced 20 year old me. The ducking and weaving, the horns blaring at all times of the day (and night), the stop, start rhythm and the squealing brakes. I watched out of the taxi window in horror and thought to myself, how am I going to get around? I can’t surely drive in that. It still humours me to think that it took only two days before I felt like the chaotic driving was perfectly normal and I then proceeded to hire a scooter and join the rat race (yes, just like every other Australian tourist).

The memory of these roads had begun to fade from my mind as my last two holidays were to developed countries where structure and order were the main ingredient of their well organised transport cake. Once I arrived in Sri Lanka I was quickly jolted back in time and suffered déjà vu with that familiar backing track of many horns honking.

One night at dinner, my partner and I were discussing the variety of ways Sri Lankans use their horns. The next day, I started compiling a list. Here is the list of my observations.

Go faster
Go slower
Me first
You first
I am overtaking you
I can’t overtake you because I am a bus full of people and can’t speed up so please slow down so I can overtake you
Move out of the way
Get off the road
I am bigger than you
I am smaller than you
I am coming up in your blind spot
I am on your left
I am on your right
I am behind you
I am in front of you
Move (insert object) usually person, dog, cart, cow, bus, car, tuk tuk, bicycle, scooter…
Look a tourist
Move tourist

Hey tourist
Turn around tourist
Tourist you want tuk tuk?
Are you sure you don’t want a tuk tuk?
No reason at all honking (on an empty street)
Hey friend
Hey stranger
Goodbye
Hello
I am blocking an entire intersection and I do not care
Get out of the intersection you idiot
I’m stopping right here
Train coming
Train not coming
Anyone around the corner?
I’m coming round the corner so you better stop
Move over further so I can pass you as this road isn’t big enough for both of us

I am sure here there are a myriad of other reasons for their horn honking that I will never fully understand, but it does slowly become the familiar background noise of the cityscape, and it only diminishes slightly in the villages. I have started to wonder if horns wear out and need replacing just like brake pads? Feel free to let me know.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

Part 3 – Japan – Tokyo – Disneyland (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Tokyo

We decided to buffer our snow trip with a couple of days in Tokyo at each end. I didn’t want to travel all that way and miss exploring such a lively place. Tokyo is a modern, fast paced city and there are treasures and interesting things to be discovered all over. We choose to stay a little out of the CBD as I feel you get a more authentic taste of what Tokyo has to offer and the city centre really is all about business with people in suits rushing everywhere and tall, commercial buildings towering over you. We did venture in and found ourselves at the Imperial Palace Gardens which is a nice walk.

It is easy to get around on the subway trains as many signs are in English or numbered/colour coded and they run on time and are efficiently managed. I also found the iPhone app  Tokyo Metro Subway and trains.jp to be of great help. There are two companies that run trains in Japan: JR (more regional express lines) and Metro (city to suburbs, stops all stations) so you need to utilise both apps (they didn’t need wifi when I used them) to find the most direct route or if you do have wifi and know where you want to go, the website HyperDia is quite useful.

Some notable suburbs worth losing yourself in are Shinjuku, Shibuya, the Golden Gai and the famous Harajuku. Takeshita Street in Harajuku is full of busy markets and quirky stores where you will find all manner of items. I go just to people watch and have glimpsed the Harajuku girls of Gwen Stefani fame a few times. There are awesome little food stalls everywhere and many are just a hole in the wall or down random stairs so make sure you keep an eye out. You can easily spend hours walking around the Tokyo suburbs and not get bored as the sometimes eccentric Japanese culture oozes from the pavement until the cityscape changes dramatically after dark.

There are a range of cultural displays in the park at the end of the Harajuku suburb. These lanterns were so intricate.

There are a range of cultural displays in the park at the end of the Harajuku suburb. These lanterns were so intricate.

The Golden Gai is a strip in the Shinjuku area. It is famous for the food and nightlife and has a range of wacky and weird shops and 'shows'. Vendors try to get you in the door at every chance.

The Golden Gai is a strip in the Shinjuku area. It is famous for the food and nightlife and has a range of wacky and weird shops and ‘shows’. Vendors try to get you in the door at every chance.

The train network is elaborate but works so efficiently. The trains aren't always this empty, and lugging our snowboard gear around Tokyo station during peak hour is one of my favourite memories as people stared at us with open mouths. I have come to appreciate how the Japanese are able to sleep on the trans and wake up just before their station. I came to call these 'Jap naps'.

The train network is elaborate but works so efficiently. The trains aren’t always this empty, and lugging our snowboard gear around Tokyo station during peak hour is one of my favourite memories as people stared at us with open mouths. I have come to appreciate how the Japanese are able to sleep on the trans and wake up just before their station. I came to call these ‘Jap naps’.

Just soaking up the sunlight on quite a frosty morning

The Imperial Palace Gardens. Just soaking up the sunlight on quite a frosty morning.

Lost in translation. Sometimes it is just as fun to point and then eat what comes.

Lost in translation. Sometimes it is just as fun to point at the menu and embrace what comes. Usually, it is delicious!

Disneyland – The happiest place on Earth

Disneyland wasn’t originally on our itinerary however, we felt that we had seen a lot of Tokyo in the first few days of our trip. So we started researching how to get there from Tokyo while still in Niseko to discover it was a viable option for the two spare days we had on our way home. It turned out to be just over an hour train ride from Tokyo and was fairly easy to get to so, we made our decision and decided to go all out by staying on site to fully utilise our two days. At Disneyland, there are two whole theme parks side by side: Disneyland and Disneysea. I felt that Disneyland was aimed at a younger audience (parades, shows, mild rides) whereas Disneysea was more for the bigger kids (like myself) and included more rollercoasters and sea/water themed rides. We seemed to luck it in with the crowds as the park was not crowded for both of the days we were there, and the longest I had to wait in line for a ride was about 20 or 30 minutes (I have waited MUCH longer at Dreamworld at home). I also took advantage of the ‘fastpass’ system which allows you to collect an advanced ticket for a particular ride for a certain time period so you can jump the queue. This is explained on the many signs and does seem to work fairly well. We did this for most of the bigger rides that had lines or if we wanted to go on something more than once. We spent our days exploring Disneyland and Disneysea, eating the many flavours of popcorn and enjoying the atmosphere like excited children. We stayed at the Disneyland Hilton, one of the affiliated hotels which featured Disney themed levels and rooms with spectacular views of the harbour. It felt overly spacious and luxurious compared to the pension lodge we had been staying at, and it wasn’t so obtusely expensive that it broke our budget. It was a relaxing way to spend a couple of days letting our sore bodies recover before flying back to Australia.

This bought back memories of watching Fantasia as a kid.

This bought back memories of watching Fantasia as a kid.

An underwater restaurant fit for a mermaid named Ariel.

An underwater restaurant fit for a little mermaid.

The only Disney character which did not have a huge line up.

The Toy Story soldier. The only Disney character which did not have a huge line up.

The famous castle from every Disney film ever.

The famous castle from every Disney film ever.

Every girl wants to be Minnie Mouse at some stage in her life.

Every girl wants to be Minnie Mouse at some stage in her life.

Our Hilton room was a slight upgrade from our pension room in the snow.

Our Hilton room was a welcome upgrade from our pension room in the snow.

That is where I will leave Japan for now. I will do another backlog blog about my second trip to Myoko, Japan a little later on. Coming soon is the Sri Lanka series.

-rocketandramble

Part 2 – Japan – Niseko – Hirafu (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Food Glorious Food – A couple of special mentions

There is an awesome  pizza shop located down some stairs on the corner of the main junction, called Niseko Pizza. It has tasty food, wine, a cool seating area and bar. After a long day boarding and eating Japanese most meals, it is nice to get in touch with Italian food coupled with a vibrant atmosphere.

Another group favourite was Wild Bill’s, which is about as un-Japanese looking as you can get. It is a large log style cabin with multiple bars and a pool table split across two levels. They serve delicious Japanese tapas (izakaya) and it can get quite ‘wild’ if you stay past 10pm. It is an easy way to start a fun night out if you are so inclined.
The final mention goes to “Fridge Bar” (aka Bar Gyu). It is an awesome boutique bar, nestled in the snow, a little way from the main drag and has a fridge door as the entrance. They serve hot food and drinks in a cosy and interesting ambiance with vinyls lining the walls. I had many spiked hot chocolates here listening to some  tunes.

Funky boutique bar with a cool atmosphere and drinks menu.

Funky boutique bar with a cool atmosphere and drinks menu.

Enjoyed many hot chocolates and cocktails here in the cosy atmosphere.

Enjoyed many hot chocolates and cocktails here in the cosy atmosphere.

Snowboard Lessons with Pro Ski

My partner could already snowboard having been on a trip previously and he swore that I wouldn’t need lessons and that he could ‘easily’ teach me. He didn’t get lessons when he learnt, but tends to be a freak of nature when it comes to picking up sports. He tried to convince me that I would easily learn just like he did. I was willing to let him at least attempt to teach me. I had borrowed my board and bindings from a friend, but loaned boots and a helmet from one of the ski shops in the village. In day one, my partner spent a couple of hours trying to teach me some basic moves and how to get on and off the lifts without much luck. Needless to say, I did not learn anything, and had already started counting my bruises. After lunch, I went and booked a lesson and improved significantly with better directions fro my instructor and a little more patience. I went with Pro Ski and just did a half day lesson, but there are a variety of other options and a kids club. There were five girls in my lesson of varying ability and we all slowly ‘leafed‘ our way down the family run. I then spent two days practicing what I had learnt in the lesson, but I couldn’t quite perfect my technique and kept crashing, so I booked a second lesson on day three to correct any bad habits. I am so glad I did! It helped correct a variety of snowboarding sins and after that lesson, I felt I snowboarded with less effort and found I didn’t fall over so much. After three snow trips (Japan twice and Canada) I have progressed to my own board and are attempting jumps and tricks with ease. So don’t give up 🙂

Onsen Etiquette – Yukoro

If you have ever wondered about why Japanese women are so liberal about getting changed in public bathrooms, onsen is the answer. Japanese onsens can be quite a daunting experience for westerners. An onsen is a natural spring of hot water that is believed to have healing properties due to the minerals it contains. Some are naturally occurring and others are built up around shines or sacred areas. They are steamy, unusual and definitely an experience worth having, even just for the awkward story. Onsens are usually gendered but some can be mixed. They are quiet and peaceful places that Japanese people go to meditate and relax after a long day.

The Yukoro onsen was my first experience and it was just a short walk from our accommodation. I have now been in a variety of onsens, from indoor to outdoor, on rooftops and private baths in fancy hotels. After boarding or skiing for 5 or so hours, onsen is the perfect way to unwind with a beer or soft drink to let your muscles recover. Leave your shoes wherever everyone has left theirs and then pay the person behind the desk (usually a couple hundred yen). Find the locker room and follow everyone’s lead, by taking off your clothes and putting them in a locker, making sure to remove jewellery and watches etc. Use your modesty towel to cover up if you are shy (or are lucky enough to get one) or just go without and strut your stuff proudly (maybe have a few drinks beforehand, but not too many as you can pass out from the heat). Most people avert their eyes and are respectful anyway. Next comes the washroom. For my first time, it was located down a flight of steamy stairs and did resemble a dungeon a little. But do not fear! It is expected that you will wash yourself thoroughly BEFORE entering the onsen bath. You are supposed to sit on the little plastic stools and use the showers and products provided to clean your hair and body. Standing is unusual, but no one will say anything if you don’t want to sit on the plastic tubs. Before entering, women are expected to put their hair up (not let it sit in the water). Entering the onsen gracefully is really hard work as it is really hot and I found I had to choose which part of my body I covered with my very small modesty towel. Sitting on the edge of the bath, stark naked, slowly forcing yourself into the hot water is quite a humorous situation to find yourself in, made even more awkward and hilarious when with friends. At the Yukoro onsen in Niseko, we were allowed to bring beers and drinks bought from the vending machine outside into the onsen (the rules depend on the onsen) and the common practice (once you have got used to the heat) is to sit in the bath and place your modesty towel on your head (it shouldn’t go in the water) with snow on top to keep you cool if you are too hot. A word of warning, sometimes there are whole Japanese families going into onsen together, it is a little weird at first hanging out with women of all ages naked in a bath, but the more you do it, the better it gets. Trust me. Embrace it. Once you are done (about 20-30mins for me before I get too hot or dizzy) you can rinse off in the washroom, dry off and put your clothes back on. You will sleep like a baby I promise. This became a daily routine and an awesome way to thaw out after all that time in the snow.

Tokyo and Disneyland coming soon.

-rocketandramble

Part 1 Japan – Niseko – Hirafu (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Hirafu, Niseko was the destination of my first group snow trip. It is located on the Hokkaido island, which is north of Japan’s mainland. On the way to Niseko, we stayed a couple of nights in Tokyo (a couple is all you will need) before flying domestically (approximately 2 hours) to Sapporo on Hokkaido island. I do believe there is a bullet train as well, but I haven’t delved any further. Once you arrive in Sapporo, you catch a bus (approx 3-4 hours depending on the weather) to Niseko. It is a scenic route as the roads slowly get snowier, the bus window gets colder and the tree branches begin to fill with snow. At the 30 minute stopover, was the first time I got to really witness snow falling and snowflakes and play in the huge mounds of it that get pushed to the side of the road. I was like a child again, giddy with a new experience and uncontainable excitement. The snow in Japan is so light and fluffy, it really is like powder and it is magical. It is one of my best memories.

The view from the bus on the way up the mountain just keeps getting better.

The view from the bus on the way up the mountain just keeps getting better.

The slopes of Niseko access a variety of mountains with a a range of difficulty levels and off piste areas. Japan’s slopes do have tress but they are fairly small and easy to manoeuvre around and can actually be quite fun to go through with the fresh powder settling waiting for you to hurtle through it. I would recommend a helmet though, just in case you can’t stop in time. Maps of the slopes can be found online here and the mountain passes can be bought for one or multiple mountains depending on how far you want to explore each day. We organised an 8/10 day ski pass before we arrived (trust me you will need a couple of days to rest your legs when skiing for that long) to save on money and then just purchased our last few days as we went. Hanazono had a great park for those who are interested in that sort of thing. Over the two weeks we were in Niseko, we explored all three mountains and were still finding new runs and sections. I highly recommend getting up early for first tracks at least one of the days, and Niseko has some excellent night skiing as well. It is best if the snow has been falling consistently all day and you haven’t quite had enough. It is cold, but can be worth it as the crowds thin out.
The Niseko village is small, but quite touristy and well established. Most people speak English well, but learning a little Japanese goes a long way. In peak season, I would advise booking accommodation as soon as you have your plane ticket, as it does get very busy and fills up quickly.

It is cold, but if it has snowed all day, I would recommend doing it at least once. The lit up runs aren't long, but they are uncrowded and totally fun.

It is cold, but if it has snowed all day, I would recommend doing it at least once. The lit up runs aren’t long, but they are uncrowded and totally fun.

There are a range of places to eat that cater to all tastes and cultural appetites. It can be done cheaply if you stick to the Japanese restaurants as the western food tends to be more pricey. If you want to eat out in large groups (more than 4) I would encourage you to book ahead during the day so you do not get turned away, as most of the boutique restaurants won’t be able to fit large groups on a whim. We found if we ate a little later than usual, they could squeeze us in, but sometimes we were waved away as the venues aren’t very big. To eat on the mountain, you will pay a premium price so we found we could eat really cheap by making a rendezvous time at Seico Mart (the small convenience shop in the middle of the village, just down from the bottom ski lift. You can’t miss it) and we would get sushi, rice dishes, dumplings or noodles and have a bit of a picnic out the front instead. Trying to figure out the hot chocolates and coffees from the vending machines is still a bit of a novelty. It was also pretty fun trying the Japanese snack food and chips, choosing only by the pictures that don’t always relate to what is actually inside.

The village at night is just beautiful with all the snow pushed to the side to make way for the roads. It is so marshmellow-y.

The village at night is just beautiful with all the snow pushed to the side to make way for the roads. It is so marshmellow-y.

Accommodation

My partner and I stayed in a place called the Grandpapa Lodge Pension, which is a large Japanese house run by a local family. The house boasts many rooms (twin or double) with shared bathroom facilities and a communal kitchen. The accommodation is quite modest, but comfortable enough if you aren’t too fussy. There are a range of accommodation options that can suit any budget, just make sure you book well in advance. Our room had twin beds, a table, heater and we used the shared bathroom. It also included breakfast which was a always an interesting talking point to start the morning on as we tried to guess what was in our meals. The family who ran it were lovely and tried to meet any needs we had. It was small, but warm and we didn’t have many issues with the bathroom after the initial shock of no locks and multiple showers in one room (after you have been to an onsen it all makes perfect sense- a post on onsen etiquette is coming soon). Our modest accommodation came in at AU$60 per night with breakfast included and you can’t really beat that. My only complaint was the many stairs we had to walk up and down to get to our room which was on the second level. Usually it would be no problem, but after 3 days learning to snowboard I could hardly lift my legs, let alone walk up stairs.

Grandpapa Lodge had a variety of quirky and interesting decorations scattered throughout its walls.

Grandpapa Lodge had a variety of quirky and interesting decorations scattered throughout its walls.

Part 2 to follow with recommendations, onsen etiquette, snowboard lessons and… Disneyland!

-rocketandramble

Packing for the Snow

My first time packing for a snow trip was a HUGE learning curve. Living in sunny Queensland with only moderate winter temperatures, I really lacked the necessary items to go to the snow. All I really had that was appropriate for minus degrees was the outerwear items I had purchased online. The problem with that is I started to notice that there were going to be multiple occasions when I would have to wear something else such as for dinner, drinks, walking around the village, lounging in the apartment, doing touristy things etc. I didn’t think to plan my outfits a little more carefully and I panicked a little at the last minute and packed way too many items that I didn’t wear because they weren’t warm enough, didn’t match each other or were a little impractical for the snow.

For my net snow trip, I was determined to pack smarted and halve the number of items.  It has been a few years now and I can admit that I was a serial overpacker, because I like to be prepared (is that the scout’s motto?) for all occasions. I have learnt a lot over my last few adventures and especially in preparation for my one year abroad (Blogs to come soon). I found being “fashionable”  in the snow really depends on which country you come from, but pretty much anything goes, as long as it is bright. This included whole families in the exact same neon pink and green onesie ski outfits. The parents weren’t losing those kids! My outfit consisted of dark purple snow pants and accessories and a green patterned jacket.

There is no real dress code on the slopes as long as it keeps you warm and you aren’t blending in with the snow. You want to stand out, especially as a beginner, so people can see you coming and friends can spot you if they need to wait.  When you are not on the slopes, it is common to see jeans and jackets with ugg boots or wellingtons. For most occasions, jeans, a top and a beanie were perfectly acceptable attire. At night, I often wore thermals under jeans, a thermal singlet and top and then my snow jacket over the top with gloves, a scarf and a beanie. When I wanted to dress up a little more, I had a warm long sleeve dress that I wore with thick thermal tights.

The temperatures during the day in Niseko sit around -10, dropping to -15 at night but I found 2-3 layers was enough for me. In saying that, I do find that I am a ‘hot’ person and don’t have trouble keeping warm so if you are not so lucky consider a fleece middle layer. Most people wore their snow jacket over everything to walk around outside, it is the most convenient and warmest, waterproof option. Once you go inside, the snow will melt and soak your clothes, so the jacket is helpful and you can leave it hanging in the cloak room until you leave.

I might type a comprehensive packing list up that I now take use for my snow trips somewhere in the near future. My friend Lauren is a master of the packing list, so I might coerce her into helping me compile one. In the meantime, there are a range of lists that you find online and then modify to get you started.

This is me packed into my partner's snowboard bag. I am pretty good at procrastinating.

This is me packed into my partner’s snowboard bag. I am pretty good at procrastinating.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

Japan – An Introduction

Japan

Dec 2013 – Jan 2014

As much as Australia is known for its beautiful beaches and endless sun, many Australians also love the snow. Australia does have a handful of snow resorts but even on their best seasons, they aren’t much to be desired when compared to other countries. The snow fall is sporadic and can be decent, but it usually comes in flurries and then just as quickly melts away. The cost for mountain passes, accommodation and gear hire (if you don’t have your own) adds up quickly and often it is those who live close to the snow fields or those who want to do a short, trip such as a long weekend  who end up heading to Thredbo or Perisher. Those with a little more cash usually take the short plane trip to our neighbour New Zealand. New Zealand does tend to have (in my professional snow judging opinion) more consistent snowfall than Australia, but even then, seasons vary and costs are still quite high. The next best option, and my personal favourite for snow is Japan. It’s comparable on price, has amazing food, an interesting, unique culture and history to explore and the sheer amount of snow is beyond description. (YouTube Japan powder runs for confirmation)

As a born and raised Queenslander, I had never experienced snow before I headed to Japan with a group of friends. Snowboarding was something that always caught my attention and I reasoned (foolishly before I learnt how to do it) that it was similar to surfing, which I can do. I realised that I was wrong shortly after falling off a ski lift and holding up the line as they dragged me out from underneath. The appeal of traveling to Japan was more that just the soft landing for my butt while I learnt how to snowboarding. I hadn’t skied or snowboarded before, and was quite excited for the trip.

To cut costs, I borrowed a snowboard and bindings from a friend’s sister and put it in my partner’s snowboard bag, while I took a suitcase. I purchased outerwear online to make it cheaper, after trying on brands and styles in store at Snowbiz (Australia’s primary snow gear company) to see what brands fit (Australian gear is very overpriced and has limited colours and patterns. Of course, this is problematic for a semi-fashion conscious girl like me). Even with the airfare, (also bought while on sale – make sure you check the terms and conditions for any block out dates) our budget allowed us a longer stay in Japan for almost the same budget when compared to the Australian resorts. The time of year suited us better to take holidays as well (Dec-Jan is season for Japan). So why not go overseas instead?

Japan’s ski pass prices vary depending on which mountains you go to, or whether you opt to get a three mountain pass versus a one mountain pass, but mostly they vary from AU$50-70 per day. Australian passes are often more than twice that! To fly from the Gold Coast to Tokyo takes about 9 hours. Japan’s runs are definitely not the longest and the mountains not the largest, but they are some of the most fun and they have great parks, if that is your thing. They cater to all levels with great beginner slopes topped by plentiful powder which saved some serious bruises. The snowfall on average is 13 meters per season and it is not uncommon to get dumps everyday of 20-40cm or more, with snowflakes the size of 20c coins. Bluebird (sunny) days aren’t super common, so buy/pack appropriate lenses for your goggles. However, we managed to get 2/3 bluebird days per 15 day trip.

More information on Japan to come including packing, accommodation, recommendations and onsen etiquette. In the meantime, check out some of my photos to get you excited.

-rocketandramble

Every car is a snow mobile. Most cars traveled around with at least 30 cms of snow or more on their roof.

Every car is a snow mobile. Most cars traveled around with at least 30 cms of snow or more on their roof.

The Japanese sure know how to do bakery treats. Delicious!

The Japanese sure know how to do bakery treats. Delicious!

Detailed and descriptive instructions, just incase

Detailed and descriptive bathroom instructions

Bottom of Annupuri Gondola

A view of the fields from Annupuri Gondola

When the sky was clear enough, Mount Yotei was quite a sight.

When the sky was clear enough, Mount Yotei was quite a sight.

Our pension room's view. It was like Christmas everyday.

Our pension room’s view. It was like Christmas everyday.

There is something so pretty and delicate about a snow dusted tree

There is something so pretty and delicate about a snow dusted tree.

A week of waiting

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Free camping at Brighton

After purchasing Sassy, we spent a week hanging out at the bottom of England trying to figure out how to work all of her quirks. The thing about buying DIY campervans is that there are no manuals. Just a bunch of wires and passed on information and tips from previous owners. So we had a little bit to learn. We also wanted to get her serviced and make sure our purchase was living up to the agreed contract conditions.

The first thing we learnt was how little the leisure battery could actually power. The fridge drained it, tripped fuses and then the headlights also wouldn’t work. So we spent a few days trying to decipher Sassy’s complicated code. As it so happened, we actually needed a new leisure battery as the previous owners had cooked the one we had and that was why we were having all the problems. We tried leaving the battery on charge for a long weekend with a lovely English gentleman, but after that, we knew it was done for and that we would have to purchase and install a newbie. We spent our days of waiting using ice in the fridge just like an esky, but we were loving the freedom having a van was giving us. We pulled up wherever we liked, free camped, soaked up the serenity, enjoyed wine, cheese and dinners with some spectacular views of southern England.

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Brighton Pier at sunset

We explored Brighton, Deal, Sandwich and Ham (the full baguette it would seem), and surrounding areas marvelling at the countryside and coastal towns as we plotted our future trip and fantasised about all the possibilities. Then we drive to Dover in preparation for booking and catching our ferry to Calais, France. We spent a day shopping at the gloriousness that is ASDA stocking up on all the household things we were missing (Sassy did come semi-stocked). We also did a big food shop before chugging up a large hill leaving Dover port behind us. Halfway up, as semi trailers easily flew past us, Sassy started grunting and Rhys puzzled over the loss of power. I kept commenting (probably unhelpfully) on the smell of diesel being SO strong.

Next thing we knew, smoke was pouring out of Sassy’s engine and we pulled off the main road and came to a stop next to an open field overlooking the port as sheep lazily raised their heads to see if we were threatening or not only to resume grazing. It would be an understatement to say we were a little bummed about our seemingly dud purchase. Eventually, we got onto a tow truck company and Sassy was hooked and winched up by a father and son team who could have passed as the Weasley family from the Harry Potter films, except for all the colourful, not so PG-13 language that was spilling regularly from their mouths.

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Sassy was down for the count with a snapped fuel injector line and we were told it could be a three day wait before a replacement would arrive. We settled into the glamorous life of living in a van in a mechanic’s yard in southern England. Luckily enough, we had already purchased our bicycles and were able to venture out choosing to spend our time drowning our sorrows at the local pub, riding around town taking in the sights, shopping at Lidl and we spent a full day exploring Dover Castle (which exceeded expectations) before we were handed the expensive tow and labour bill and were on our way yet again. After the somewhat depressing previous days, our excitement bubbled as we booked our barge ticket with optimism in our hearts that maybe the breakdown was just a once off. Fingers crossed!

 

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France was just noticable off in the distance and at night was lit up quite beautifully

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble

@sassythevan

Hustlin’ and Bustlin’ in Belgium

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Less than 20 minutes north from where we stayed the night in Calais, we had arrived in beguiling Belgium. There was a noticeable change in the scenery and streets as we crossed over the imaginary border and pulled in to refuel. Spectacular views of rolling hills with little white dots that turned into grazing sheep distracted us from the continues kilometres we clocked. Our excitement climbed towards its crescendo at having finally reached the mystical, far away land of Europe and we were feeling outrageously optimistic about the rest of our itinerary (especially after the first fuel injector hiccup in Dover) as we sped towards Brugge. Cantankerous clouds gathered overhead, growing darker and eventually the drizzle commenced as we crossed over canals announcing our arrival in Brugge.

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Cheese and Beer

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So wet.

Brugge is truly a romantic city with that fairytale feel from my childhood princess dreams. The streets are cobblestoned and the buildings emulate a gothic tinge with skyscraper spires. Buildings stand stoic like castles as flags fly high and as we wandered through them, I thought about all the history that was contained within their walls knowing Belgium’s reputation as the ‘Battlefield of Europe’. The market square was quite busy considering the woeful weather (mostly scattered showers but with occasional torrential downpours) and Rhys and I ambled around in our raincoats enjoying the unfamiliar sights and wafting, delectable smells. The medieval shop facades had every outsider looking up admiring and awed as I snapped a few pictures before my camera started getting too wet. As the rain became more constant, we naturally ended up taking cover in the nearest bar which happened to be below a beer museum. Luckily, it overlooked the main courtyard and we spent the next hour beer tasting, eating cheese and watching people go about their day through the the huge, rain streaked windows. We decided not to stay the night (mainly due to the weather and a lack of spacious free parks), so we jumped back in Sassy typing Brussels into the GPS thinking we would easily make it there before sundown. Belgium is a fairly small place right?

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We were speeding along the highway surrounded by farmland when it happened. Sassy rapidly lost power and the smell of smoke and burning diesel filled the car as we pulled her off to the side of the road. We jumped out and popped the bonnet as trucks raced past the skinny median strip shaking us violently only to discover the exact same fuel injector hose had snapped! After some initial swearing and anger, we kicked our brains into gear, locked Sassy up and began walking to the closest farm to try and get help. We didn’t have a working SIM card for Belgium (one of the few countries that the Three London SIM doesn’t work) and we didn’t really know what else to do. As we walked, we tried to figure out where we were exactly so we could find our way back and we comforted ourselves by discussing some scenarios we might like to act out with Sassy right at the moment. Some of these included pushing her into a dirty lake, a molotov cocktail into the windscreen or rolling her off a tall cliff. Not long after we started walking, the driver of a fancy looking black Mercedes took pity on us offering a lift into town. Our saviour was a real estate agent on his way home who happened to speak very good English. He offered life advice from his experiences and encouraged us to continue on our trip regardless of the car outcome. We were dropped off at a service station so we could use the phone to call a tow truck, but the lady behind the counter didn’t seem to have a number and our request got a little lost in translation. Instead, she drew us a mud map to find the Ford dealer in town and our unexpected exploration of Aalter began. We walked for a few kilometres and dropped in on various shop owners to confirm we were going the right way, eventually finding the Ford workshop.

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Our home in the mechanic’s yard.

Once there, everybody was extremely helpful and a tow truck was organised but wouldn’t be available for four hours. To fill in time, we conversed with the staff, drank lots of their free coffee from their first class machine, used the very fast wifi and flicked through all the new car leaflets with a little envy. Eventually, the tow truck arrived and we jumped in the back to show them to Sassy’s resting place. After our second tow truck joyride in as many weeks, Sassy was parked alongside the showroom competing against the shiny new models for our attention. The right part was easily ordered as we still had the original broken piece and the box from the previous repair. We were told to get comfy as it could be up to four days before the new piece arrived. The next three nights were spent in the Ford carpark but we occupied ourselves by getting to know the small, sleepy town of Aalter quite well via our bicycles. We picnicked, participated in a small fete and made friends with some local ducks. Once the part arrived, it took all of 30 minutes to install it and Sassy was back up and roaring with life once again. We knew we would have to take it a little easier on the old girl this time around. Ths staff came out to wave us off and we thanked them for their help and for letting us crash their showroom and use their facilities before we pulled out onto the highway and headed for Brussels feeling full of hope once again.

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Brussels is a bustling metropolitan area and we were headed towards an aire that backed onto a hostel in the middle of the city. After spending four days without a shower (amen to baby wipes) in a mechanic’s carpark, I was desperate for hot water and a freshen up.  Later on, we jumped on our bikes and headed out to discover what Brussels had to offer us. We spent the whole day traveling between restaurants, bakeries and cafes with stops to major attractions and historic buildings. We had lost a little time and were trying to make up for it. Our weariness showed when we bought the biggest meringue we could find only to accidentally leave it at a restaurant after too many wines before getting a chance to taste even on bite. Doh! We didn’t arrive home until midnight and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow feeling extremely content. The next day, we decided we had better keep moving to make up for lost time, thinking we might even still make Oktoberfest in Germany. Our only stop was to pick up some cherry beer on our way out of the city. With luck (hopefully) on our side and in good spirits we left Brussels behind and continued north to the Netherlands. I had managed a taste of what Belgium had to offer and knew I would return sometime in the future. 

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Chocolate, waffles and meringues galore.

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble