Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why I'm glad I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps

A decade ago, I was happily travelling down through Poland when I stopped at Krakow for a few days, and somehow decided to visit the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps nearby.

I hadn't especially thought it through - I was in full-time travelling mode, and full-time travellers crave all kinds of new experiences, good or bad.

But I confess (and I warn you, in case you want to stop reading this post right now) that I had bad nightmares for weeks after it and still today, eleven years later, I feel distressed to look through these pictures or write about it. (And I also feel a little bit of what right do I have to write about it, sitting here with jazz music playing and a piece of chocolate cake - so utterly privileged to have found a so-far good place in world history for myself). However, despite all of that, I am glad I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps and if you are curious, you can read on. I'll forgive you if you prefer not to.

Arbeit macht frei - entering Auschwitz

Clearly back then work did not make you free at all.

My journal from the time notes that my outing to Auschwitz took place on a bright sunny summery day, and how inappropriate that was. I semi-reluctantly joined a tour, as tours were "strongly recommended" (in fact for a while I thought it was compulsory to join; in retrospect I would recommend it too). After being shown a short documentary from just after the end of the war, we were taken out to the grounds and the "Arbeit Macht Frei" entrance was the first thing we were shown. It only got worse from there.

Suitcases left by those entering the Auschwitz camp

The Auschwitz camp has much in the way of exhibits and displays set up to educate visitors about the reality of life in the concentration camps and to explain some of the shocking experimentation that took place there. All of it is awful, but for me the most awful part was the rooms in what they referred to as the "extermination" exhibit. Each room had been filled with belongings of the exterminated prisoners. A room full of shoes, a room full of hairbrushes, a room full of suitcases. There were others that are too distressing for me to write about. Seeing the crematorium here at Auschwitz was also something I don't want to think about for too long.

An almost aside: in a reminder of just how low the human race can sink, we were given warnings by the guide that pickpockets were rife in the more crowded buildings at Auschwitz. And in fact someone in a group behind us did have their wallet taken. Can you imagine what someone is thinking when they consider that targeting tourists at a concentration camp is a clever way to grab some cash?

Sunshine over Birkenau

That damn sunshine continued. My mood, and that of everyone in the tour group with me, was much better suited to a grey, damp day. It's probably the quietest I've ever heard a group of people remain for so many hours - the bus ride for the three kilometres to Birkenau from Auschwitz was silent.

End of the train line and entrance to Birkenau 
Birkenau looked familiar after seeing the film of Schindler's List. Familiarity didn't make it any less confronting though. Many of the buildings had been destroyed by the Nazis as they left, apparently, but there was still more than enough to indicate the vastness of the place. It is worth remembering that at least 1.1 million people were killed in these camps, and perhaps over 1.5 million. Over a million - isn't that absolute insanity?

Fences at Birkenau concentration camp
My photographs remind me of many of the Birkenau details that I've blocked out in my mind (and I won't share the bad ones). We went to the site of two crematoriums which were linked to the gas chambers. The guide told us that close by were beautiful flower beds, giving the prisoners the false impression that this building was a good one. In the change rooms, where prisoners were made to undress, they were apparently particularly told to remember the peg number where they hung their clothes so they could get them back after their shower. It is incredible to me that cruelty seems to have no boundaries.

Should you visit Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Memorial inscription for Auschwitz-Birkenau 

As the plaque says:
"Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity."
And this is the main reason I am glad I went. Somehow I feel it is important to hear that cry of despair. Somehow I think it's important that although I believe people are all basically good, there are circumstances which can change them. 

Last week my husband and I watched a documentary called Hitler's Children which showed some of the descendants of Nazis like Himmler and Goering and how much they struggle with knowing what their ancestors did. It seemed to me extraordinarily unfair to be judged on something your grandfather or great-uncle did (before you were even born) but these people had very genuine struggles and very sad stories to tell. In fact, this film is what got me thinking about my visit Auschwitz and Birkenau all over again. But my husband very firmly said he would never want to go there. A quick poll on Twitter confirmed for me that people do indeed generally fall into two quite decisive camps of wanting to go, or definitely not wanting to go. I am glad I went but unless my son needed company to go there, I wouldn't go again.

Should you go? It's a very personal choice, but you can certainly learn an awful lot by spending a few hours there. It's very distressing but it's the sad reality of what happened there. And it definitely is a good "warning to humanity".

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Where should my friends travel in Europe - not the normal spots

When you're a travel blogger, you tend to get quite a few messages from random people with questions about a trip they're planning - and I like answering them - but what is even more fun is when a good friend asks for some tips!

I got this text message from my friend Susannah last week, who's heading to Europe with her mother for two and a half weeks. They've both done a reasonable amount of travelling already and I love that she wants some tips to travel to "not the normal spots" - that kind of advice is the kind I love to give the most. I put on my thinking cap and have come up with a few suggestions for Susannah and her mother to consider ...

Brainstorming: I turned to Pinterest to plan a European trip!

Susannah told me she imagined spending three or four days in four or five different places and I immediately had some ideas. Compared to travelling around Australia, it's so easy in Europe to see some really different parts quickly and cheaply - oh for the budget airlines of Europe over here in Australia (obviously totally impractical given the lack of population but a girl can dream, right?).

You may know I have had a bit of an obsession with Pinterest lately and I love the map feature, so I set up a secret board to plan out some trip suggestions for Susannah. This is what I came up with:

Trip planning on Pinterest - central Europe

Once I heard Susannah had never been to Berlin, it became a must visit (you can read about my Berlin highlights to know more). She also said she'd like to return to Budapest, a city she loved but didn't get to spend much time in, and that she's had an inkling for ages that Croatia is place she'd enjoy.

Down the centre of Europe: Estonia, Poland, Hungary and Croatia

My first thought when I think of "not the normal spots" in Europe is the Baltic States. I visited Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania initially on my way to Bratislava to work (coming across Russia on the Trans-Siberian to start with) and I especially loved Estonia, and have returned to Tallinn again. Estonia's such a fun country to visit - along with Tallinn, I've suggested the university town of Tartu and the gorgeous island of Saaremaa - and it's kind of unique because despite being part of the USSR, it managed to remain a bit more Western, thanks to its close connections to Finland, and it came out of the Cold War in a better position than most of the eastern bloc. I found the people of Estonia extraordinarily friendly and helpful; it's lovely and scenic; and it's small and easy to get around.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Estonia's gorgeous capital, Tallinn

I think Poland doesn't get enough of a look-in on travel itineraries and that's a shame because it's a country with so much to offer. It's quite big and therefore diverse. Warsaw is fascinating and definitely worth seeing but my favourite part is Krakow in the south. Such a gorgeous city, with interesting history and culture; if you're up to it, then visiting the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps is a short excursion away from Krakow, although I think everyone has to decide for themselves if these are places they want to see, as they're pretty confronting - I had nightmares for quite a few weeks after my visit and am still haunted by some of what I saw there, but I'm glad I went.

Cloth Hall, in Krakow's beautiful main square, Poland

Budapest is a particularly cool capital city (who can go past the idea of swimming in a cathedral?) but rural Hungary is fantastic too. I think picking a small Hungarian town - preferably known for wine, as many are - to spend a couple of nights would be a good move. I loved the thermal baths at Heviz and that whole region around Lake Ballaton is a brilliant spot to stay.

Hotel Gellert (home to the famous baths) in Budapest, Hungary

Scooting on down to Croatia from Hungary is a reasonable idea ... not it's a fabulous idea because Croatia is amazing! Everyone knows the gorgeous coastline and of course the spectacular city of Dubrovnik, a place I'd love to go back to (my Dubrovnik stay was cut short!). But my all-time favourite part of Croatia is the Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of the most beautiful, beautiful places on earth.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, northern Croatia

Other ideas for "not normal spots" in Europe?

So those are my thoughts for the lovely Susannah and her equally lovely mother, but what are yours? Please leave some suggestions in the comments for other great parts of Europe to visit that might classify as "not the normal spots" - thanks in advance!

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to get brave enough to speak to a local in a foreign language

Some people grow up knowing two or even more languages and thinking nothing of it. In fact, lots and lots of people in the world grow up this way. But in English-speaking countries, we tend to be a bit limited in our language thinking. After all, the "world language" is English (or so we think - and in many ways it kind of is) and lots of English-speaking nations are physically a bit isolated from others - the United Kingdom, most of the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand - so the need to speak another language is realy not that urgent.

But that means if you're an English speaker and you learn a foreign language, it can feel really, really difficult to try speaking in that language when you're travelling. We barely get any practice, we often don't get particularly good language education because it's not something that's prioritised, and we are just plain terrified of making silly mistakes or not being understood.

Germany: the villages look just like you imagine but speaking German to a local is STILL HARD!

My experience with learning German - before travelling and during travelling

I was kind of lucky for an Australian going through school in the 1980s and had quite a lot of exposure to foreign languages - mostly German, which was taught in school to me from the age of about seven. (Not many hours a week - but better than nothing.) I had a year learning Italian around age ten (I forgot it all!) and then in high school I added Mandarin for a couple of years but found the pronunciation crazily difficult. I continued with German all the way through to university, though.

But then when I got to Europe and had increasing opportunities to speak in German, I found myself totally tongue-tied. Basics were fine but nothing more than that - certainly nothing approaching a real conversation. When I lived in Bratislava, I found a German teacher who gave me weekly lessons and got me finally talking at a basic conversational level (hi Elisabeth!). And then I moved to Germany.

You'd think living in a country would really help improve my language skills quickly, but it wasn't anywhere near as effective as I'd hoped! Because I was working as a business English teacher I was expected to only speak English at work. It was kind of hard to make local friends, or if I did they were my students who expected to speak to me in English, or I met other ex-pats from other countries and our only common language was English.

Having the confidence to speak another language is tricky. Even for me in Germany.

Also: I was scared to speak German to real Germans!

Most of my daily interaction in German was very standard stuff - paying at the supermarket, asking directions, ordering beer. The stuff that we had practised numerous times from textbooks. (So, kudos to language textbooks, some of the stuff in them is spot on.) I was nervous about these kind of short conversations at first, but I had them often enough without much mishap that I got used to it. Plus these were always just based on a short transaction, not building a relationship.

But the idea of speaking to someone about a more interesting topic was a big hurdle. The neighbours in my building in Germany were not the friendliest - most were old and perhaps a little unwelcoming - but there was one really lovely man who would always stop me for a long chat. The problem was, I could barely understand him. He didn't seem to mind, or possibly he didn't even notice, as he talked a LOT and was good at filling in any blanks, but I walked away often having very little idea of what we'd actually just talked about. He used a lot of local dialect words, had an accent AND talked quickly, so yes, your basic nightmare for a learner, but he was such a nice fellow (hi, Herr Mantsch!).

Finally, I met the man who's now my husband and after moving in together with him, my German improved. Phew! Obviously with him I could speak without fear of too much ridicule or failure and I knew he would help me get my point across, and I was helping him with his English at the same time, and he felt the same.

These days, although my German grammar is way less than perfect (I usually just speak quickly to skip over the grammatical endings I'm not sure of), I can sound basically fluent and the ultimate compliment is when I meet new German parents at our German playgroup and they assume I'm actually German. But that has taken thirty years of work!

How to get braver when speaking a foreign language

All of these tales go to show that for most of us it is NOT easy to speak another language, or even to try to speak it. I'm a generally confident, outgoing person who likes to chat so it's not that which holds me back - it really is a fear of not saying the right words, of not being understood and of making a fool of yourself.

I'm still not great at it. I know a reasonable amount of Japanese, for example, but I'm crazy-scared of using it - I still order in English at our local Japanese restaurant even though I can hear them all speaking Japanese to each other.

But for what it's worth, I totally encourage you to take every opportunity you can to speak with the locals in their language, even if you only know a few sentences. And if you've learned even more of a language, then do your best to get brave enough to have a real conversation. It's such a great feeling to converse in a foreign language!

Above all, I guess, you have to give up the idea of looking silly. It seems logical enough but it's harder to put into practice. The very, very worst that can happen is you'll end up saying something totally different to what you're trying to say, and that will either make the person laugh really hard or just scratch their head and not be able to understand you, and neither of those are really so bad, right?

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Travelling as kids get older: Keeping my son keen on family travel

Travelling as a family and in particular, showing my son the world and encouraging a love of travel in him, is something I plan to do a lot of in the coming years. I love travelling so much and learn so much from it, both about the world and about myself, and I'm determined to pass these gifts on to my son as well.

Encouraging my son to plan trips

This determination means that we talk about the world and travelling a lot in our household. I think most parents are looking out for "teachable moments" with their kids, but we all have a different direction which is our favourite - some jump on anything numerical and turn it into a spot of maths education; others seize any interest and grab a new book (that includes me, I must admit!). But my favourite "teachable moments" are anything to do with travel.

Last weekend my son was watching one of his favourite TV shows and they showed a short video clip of Cockington Green Gardens, a miniature village in Canberra. He was so taken by it that first of all we had to start building our own miniature village but then he wanted to know about more across the world (I may have mentioned that there were lots of them around the globe ...) and before I knew it, we were on Pinterest together searching for miniature village tourist attractions.

My son's new Pinterest board - currently full of places with miniature villages
We now have Pinterest pins across a map identifying a dozen or so miniature village attractions he wants to visit, although in case you need to know his current favourite is one in Pennsylvania. (Although he was pleased to hear about one within a short drive from us in Mandurah - that will be on our agenda very soon.)

Encouraging my son to keep travelling with us as he gets older

My son is just four years old at the moment, so he can't imagine travelling with anyone other than Mama and Papa. But I know that it will not be all that long before he may not feel the same. I was just 14 when I travelled without my parents on a school trip to Germany and that now seems incredibly young - how could I let my son travel to another hemisphere for a month in less than ten years' time? (And thanks to my Mum and Dad for letting me go - especially back then without email or easy phone calls!)

My style of travelling with my son has already changed dramatically throughout his life: we took him to Germany as a four-month-old babe-in-arms (and borrowed a rather rickety pram from friends-of-family) and a year ago we pushed him along the narrow roads of Inis Meain in his beloved stroller. But in Penang earlier this year, he just had to walk (and did so without too much complaint) - and of course he's still at the age where he loves to hold my hand!

But my son is a solutions man and was not that keen on only walking so his new suggestion is taking "big boy" wheels on his next trip. We get to school by scooter or bike but they're not something you can pack in your suitcase - I suggested a skateboard and before long we were back in front of Pinterest! So it turns out there are light plastic skateboards (who knew, obviously not me) and we found Penny Skateboards online, a big success story that started here in Australia, and there's one young man in this house who already has his eye on one of them! As he gets older and we get less cooler, telling him he can pack his skateboard for our next trip could make the difference between him wanting to come or staying home.

Skateboards for travelling which my son found on Pinterest ...

I have grand, grand plans for travels with my son in the next decade or so - some of you will have heard how I'm plotting to take him to attend school in Germany for half a year, and of course now we also have to do a world trip to see all those miniature villages, and he still has a fervent desire to get to Egypt. But I may need a few tricks up my sleeve to encourage him to leave his friends and routine for a while. I'm definitely working on it. (Tips in advance appreciated, though!)

(This post was brought to you by Penny Skateboards but I genuinely think they're cool!)

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

German village life: Pfullendorf and Lake Constance, via Instagram

Here in Australia, we like living in huge urban centres. Nearly nine out of ten Australians live in an urban area - which is pretty amazing considering how large our country is for such a small population. When I moved to Germany, it was a huge mystery to me when my students told me where they lived. Everyone seemed to come from a different town or village! And even the biggest cities like Stuttgart or Berlin have fewer inhabitants than most big Australian cities, even though Germany has a huge population compared to its small size.

But over the years I have come to terms with the German village thing and I really rather like it. It seems to mean that in Germany it is very practical to live in a small town or village but still work in a good city job. It is never far to drive to a decent shop or to head out to see music or a museum. All that is very different to Aussie life, and I must say I like it.

The Fachwerk architecture of Pfullendorf, southern Germany
My mother-in-law lives in one of those typical little villages. She moved there after we left Germany so it's only been on short trips that we've explored it but for me it seems typical of German life: her town of Pfullendorf has only around 13,000 people living there, it is cute and quaint, but there are lots of things to do nearby and it's easy to get around to them.

There's a lot to like about Pfullendorf and on our two visits there in recent years my favourite place, I must admit, has been the bookshop - and a big subsection of the books in my son's shelves are from there (I'm a big fan of German books for him!). On our last trip, we also got to visit the Felsenkeller - an underground pub which that night came complete with a medieval-themed wedding party. And something I didn't expect was a mountain full of monkeys - the Affenberg park is nearby, full of macaques you can feed. Who knew!

But the big drawcard is the Bodensee - Lake Constance - about a half hour drive away. I've been there several times and it really is a beautiful part of Europe. With a three-year-old in tow the best thing of all was just to play by the water's edge (it definitely wasn't swimming weather - in fact even in the middle of summer I've found it rather chilly there!) and enjoy some of the old wooden playground equipment. Close to the lake, we also came across numerous apple growers, so munching on fresh apples was also part of the fun!

Apples for sale near Lake Constance - on our morning outing from Pfullendorf
Pfullendorf is the kind of place you wouldn't ordinarily visit if you were touring Germany and I love that having family there means we have a reason to explore German village life. Hopefully we'll get back there again soon!

I'm linking up with IG Travel Thursday, and you can check out some of the other great posts below. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Do you have a traveller's superiority complex?

I will admit that I feel proud of myself to have travelled a lot. It's an important part of who I am and how I think. But I had a bit of a shock when I read Kelly Exeter's book Your Best Year Yet* and the opening chapter described how her brother had called her out on having a superiority complex.

My traveller's superiority complex

Ouch. With that paragraph, Kelly called me out on having a superiority complex too! I realised that I quite often felt superior to others because of the travel experience I've had (although there are plenty of travellers I feel totally inferior to, as well ... and Kelly goes on to say how both ways of thinking are rubbish!).

I read her book while on holidays in Penang, in a quiet and pretty dark hotel room while my son was sleeping, and I had plenty of time to think. I realised that my superiority complex was, at times, quite far-reaching:

  • I felt more worldly than people who had travelled less than me
  • I felt better and braver than those who had never lived abroad
  • And then (shoot me now!) I felt even better than people who had lived abroad but only in an English-speaking country (because apparently I was so superior for battling through the language barrier)
  • Next step: I felt superior to those who couldn't speak another language
And the list in my head went on. It's pretty embarrassing to see it all on the screen in front of me but the fact is that I have often felt that way over the past decade or so. It's clearly wrong! But perhaps it's somewhat natural (or at least, common).

Getting past a traveller's superiority complex

So, since that moment I have been hyper-aware of any kind of feeling of superiority but especially those about travelling. I don't actually feel like I'm too arrogant about other areas of my life - travel is the big danger zone for me! 

For a start, I try to remember that there are a billion reasons why other people may have travelled less than me. Lack of opportunity is a big one, or a fear of taking the first step (I still get scared before I travel!). Figuring out how to prioritise travel amongst all of life's other demands like work and kids and other interests is tricky, too. 

And then, as difficult as it is for me to understand, there are also people who are simply not that interested in travel. The superiority complex version of me wants to argue that it's just a lack of experience and if these people had the chance to travel more they would change their mind, but the normal real person of me can reason that there are things I'm simply not interested in as well - I think you would find it a real uphill battle to persuade me to develop a love of motorsports, for example. Some people just don't get that much of a buzz out of travelling.

Everyone is different, everyone is unique, and everyone has their own special interests and loves. And thank goodness, because it would be awful if everyone wanted to travel as much as I do, because the planes and hotels would be even fuller!!

*Totally not a sponsored link. It is just an excellent read and was the inspiration for this post ;-) 

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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Do young kids remember their travels? How to keep travel memories alive!

My son has only just turned four, but he's already been on numerous flights to ten different countries. But he's so young - will he remember these travels?

Regular readers will know my parents took my sister and I campervanning around Europe for six months when we were young. I was nine, and my sister was seven; she says she doesn't remember much about it, while I feel like I remember quite a lot, beyond what my parents have told stories about or photos I've seen.

My son first went to Europe at just four months of age, so he clearly doesn't remember that. He's now four, and I would really like to think he will remember some of this himself: but memory is a funny thing and I'm sure we can influence what he remembers, too, and this is how I'm doing it!

1. Lots of travel photos, all the time

I love to make up digital scrapbooks after our trips and although I'm not always prompt about it, I'm usually extra-inspired because I want him to have some tangible memories and a book about his travels to read at bedtime!

Our digital scrapbook about our European trip is a popular bedtime read at our house

We also make it a habit to sit at the computer now and again and scroll through photos of one of our trips. At his young age, visual is king - for him, looking at photos of our trips (plus the odd video) is like watching TV but with him in it!

2. Telling stories of our trips

Bedtime at our house has lots of books, but sometimes it is great just to tell stories too, and my son will regularly ask for "the story about ..." - something that happened on one of our trips. Obviously I've planted the seed by trying to be a good storyteller and tell him these stories in the first place, but it's definitely worked and now he'll ask to hear travel stories. Like the one about the time the people set fire to the coconuts ... (that was for the Thaipusam festival in Penang in January, in case you're wondering!).

That time with the burning coconuts during Thaipusam in Penang ...

3. Relating everyday stuff to travel memories

Obviously, I'm the kind of person who thinks about travelling very often. That makes it natural for me to bring up travel memories in all kinds of everyday situations. "We're having noodles for dinner, a bit like those ones you ate in Penang." Or when we're at our local zoo: "Remember those rhinos we saw fighting at the Dublin Zoo last year?"

Obviously delicious noodles at a hawker centre in Penang, Malaysia
This regular habit of mine to casually mention our travels has become a habit for my son, as well. I'll always remember his kindergarten orientation session last year (aged three and a half): he was sitting in a big toy car and looked up and told me it was a plane, now, and he was flying to Dublin and then he was going to make it a train to take him to Galway. (That was a proud travel-blogger-mum moment, I tell you!)

4. The big picture meaning of travelling young

In fact, I don't really mind if my son remembers our actual trips in any kind of detail or not: what I am really trying to do with all this talk about travelling is instil a genuine love of travel. I think it's such a valuable thing to do, life-changing and inspiring, and I want him to grow up feeling confident to travel wherever and whenever he likes (of course I may regret this in some ways if he decides to live on the other side of the world from me!). The details aren't so important, but remembering that he loves to travel is.

Over to you:

How old were you when you first travelled to another country - and do you remember it?

I'm linking up with IG Travel Thursday, and you can check out some of the other great posts below.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Travelling close to home: Camping in the Perth hills with kids

When you feel the urge to travel but have neither the time or the budget at that moment, then I often suggest taking a trip close to home. And that's exactly what I did last week, at the invitation of my clever friend who perhaps should be the travel blogger instead of me! My family and hers (she has a four-year-old, too) spent a night camping in the Perth hills close to the Mundaring Weir and it reminded me, firstly, of how much fun camping is, and secondly, of how great it is to get away from home, even if it's only for a night. Here are some of the highlights - via Instagram. (But Instagrammed after the fact, because I had no mobile reception up there!)

Tall trees at the campsite near Mundaring Weir, in the Perth hills.
Our campsite was small and full of families with young kids - in other words, perfect for us. On top of that, it only cost $10 per adult for the night, yet came equipped with nice toilets, hot showers, and even an outdoor kitchen with a fridge, kettle and toaster! It almost wasn't camping.

The tent is up (featuring four-year-old "assistant" who didn't help much). Coolbaroo means "magpie".
As far as the two kids were concerned, this was definitely as exciting as travelling. They were in a completely new environment with all kinds of interesting stuff to explore. We brought a few cars to play with, a ball to kick around and totem tennis, and that was enough. They could make their own fun.

There's an amphitheatre near the campsite - yep, the kids loved it.
Of course a large dose of the fun came once the sun had gone down (fortunately that is quite earlier already here - since our four-year-olds wouldn't have made it if we'd gone in summer - they were both asleep by half past seven!). Neither had ever seen a camp fire before and they were mesmerised. Well, even the adults were quite mesmerised by the camp fire - they seem to have that effect, don't they?

Glo sticks and a camp fire are all you need for kids who are camping
The kids managed to get a decent amount of sleep, and the adults would have liked more, but that's par for the course whether we are camping or at home, I'm afraid. The next morning we had a barbecued breakfast and the kids invented all kinds of games to play; my son decided the gibbon he had brought along (from Perth Zoo!) should be temporarily released into the wild.

This toy gibbon enjoyed the camp site too. Don't worry, we remembered to bring him home.
Now, let me talk about the end of a camp trip. I don't mind the endless trips to the car, I like the walk. What I do mind is the packing of camping equipment into small bags. Clearly these bags shrink during the night while your tent or sleeping bag or whatever is in use. I cannot, I repeat CANNOT get tents or sleeping bags back into their snug homes. Yes, I have taken a lot of tips from others. I have even googled it. I just lack this skill.

Fortunately, once we got packed up we had the reward of heading nearby to Mundaring Weir for a bit of a gawk. It's an impressive dam to me and I've visited it a few times throughout my life, although it is scary to see how little water is there knowing that in "the olden days" (my childhood, as my son describes it) it overflowed with some regularity. (Yes, I have had shorter showers this week.)

Mundaring Weir ... water level is actually much lower than it appears!
So, to summarise, this mini camping trip was such a pleasant interruption to normal suburban life, yet so easy to do and one of those things you realise you should do much more often. (Big thanks I and L for inviting us!!) Is there a little trip you could be taking close to home that might give you some of that "travel" feeling?

I'm linking up for Instagram Travel Thursday - take a look at some other gorgeous travel bloggers and their Instagram explorations.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Travelling with kids: take paper, scissors and sticky-tape

Packing a suitcase half full of toys for your kids when you travel is not the answer to a peaceful trip abroad - this I have learned through trial and error over the last four years. On our trip to Penang I think I got the child entertainment packing list just right, and I thought I'd share one of my favourite tips which might help others preparing to travel with kids: you need to pack paper, scissors and sticky-tape (or Cellotape depending on where you come from) and you will be set!

Colourful paper plus scissors plus sticky-tape equals a racing track for his cars
"You will be set" is a big statement, I know, but let's just say, these items helped my three-year-old to entertain himself for many hours during our two-week stay in Penang. He is a generally creative type, I must admit, and I also frown upon noisy battery-operated toys (I know, I'm a mean mum) so he is used to making up stuff to play, but I think that all kids can be persuaded to try some of this stuff out, especially if they can see they're allowed to make a bit of a (clean) mess!

You can see in the picture above that my son is very much of the "I'll do it myself" school and while the roads he cut out of the coloured paper I'd brought are somewhat varying in shapes, he's managed to draw some pedestrian crossings (possibly in the wrong direction, but let's overlook that), stick a bunch of them together, stick them to the carpet too (no damage done, Mr Hotel Manager) and even stick a ramp going up to the bedside table and voila - he played cars here for ages. There was definitely a time when I would have been called on to help him cut, draw, stick and so on but he's had plenty of practice and loves to do this kind of construction himself.

The bit that I love best is that when he'd made the roads he quizzed me about the name of the road our hotel was on and tried to use local names in his (endless!) commentary of what his cars were up to. The only down side was packing up the roads before we went out so that housekeeping could clean our room but rebuilding his roads later on was probably just another part of the fun.

Another paper, scissors and sticky-tape project - fruits and vegetables

On a different day - one when we'd just stopped at the street-side fruit and veg stall, if I remember rightly - he asked me to help him cut out some red circles, and he did the rest and created a gallery of paper fruits and vegetables.

This turned into even more the next day when he asked me to help him cut out some circle shapes to be plates and he set up a restaurant. He used the carrots and cherries from the previous day and added the souvenir plastic star fruit he'd begged me to buy and he soon had a feast ready for me and his bear. (Note to self: make the bed before taking these kind of pictures in future).

Your child might do an entirely different thing when faced with a bunch of coloured paper, sticky-tape and some scissors, but as long as it involves creating both a bit of downtime for the parents and creating something fun then all is good with the world. We added a few things to our in-hotel kit by going shopping at one of Penang's Daiso stores (Daiso is a Japanese hundred-yen shop, one I'd very much missed since my time there, full of all kinds of delights for next to nothing), and since we were staying in the one spot for a full two weeks this was well worth it.

Don't forget, of course, that the airline won't like you taking scissors on the plane so make sure you put them in your checked luggage, or your plans for kid fun may go awry!

Monday, April 21, 2014

How to choose a holiday destination: Penang thanks to our Malaysian friends

Over the years I've done my share of choosing destinations based on famous places I want to see but if I look at my last couple of years of travels, the biggest deciding factor on destinations seems to be related to our friends and relatives. Our entire Europe trip last year was inspired by our Australian friends spending six months in Inis Meain and included visits to other friends and relatives in Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland.

More recently, my son and I spent a fortnight in Penang during the long school holidays and there was a very simple reason for this: my friend from Penang (who now lives here in Perth) was spending a couple of months there with her son (the same age as mine, and a friend of his too!) - it was a no-brainer! Even though Penang hadn't really been somewhere I'd thought of visiting - perhaps because the little I knew about it had made me categorise it as a bit of a resort-style, relaxation holiday destination (which is not my style) - but as soon as I heard my local friend would be there I was utterly drawn to the idea, and so glad we were able to make it happen.

So, my idea is that choosing a destination for a trip based on being able to visit friends or spend time there with friends is one of the absolutely best ways to make a travel decision ... and here are some of the many reasons why.

Local friends have local knowledge (and so do their parents)

Knowing a local takes you a very big step closer to knowing lots of locals. Although my friend doesn't live in Penang any more, she grew up there and her parents and other relatives still live there. This gave us access to such a treasure trove of knowledge.

A great example of this was our lucky timing in being in Penang for the Thaipusam festival. This is celebrated in a truly huge way in Penang and my friends parents helped us out so much by not only giving us lots of tips on how to see the best of it but by actually picking us up and driving us to the best spots. The roads were so crowded but they knew a great shopping centre to park at and a perfect street to watch the parade go past (and get involved in smashing coconuts, too!). This was a huge contrast to the experience of other Australian friends of mine who happened to be staying in Penang at the same time - the driver who took them from the airport to their resort told them it was just too crowded and crazy at Thaipusam time and they should just stay at their resort. I'm so glad we didn't do that!

Pretty costumes, and piles of coconuts, from our Thaipusam Festival experience

Trying new foods and drinks is easier with a local friend

I found the same thing in Japan - once I'd made friends with some Japanese people I felt confident to try many more new kinds of foods - plus there are always so many kinds you don't even know about and can't even ask to try until a local has pointed you in the right direction.

In Penang, my friend was able to give us detailed descriptions of dishes on the menus and of course give us small tastes of the more exotic things she ordered which we weren't quite game to risk a whole meal on. It was like having our very own specialised food guide the whole time and it was wonderful (and delicious).

There was no shortage of delicious food in Penang. So many amazing choices!

Choosing your accommodation with local knowledge really helps

I'm not a big resort fan, in the sense that I don't want to stay in a huge hotel complex full of activities and feel like I don't want to go out and see the rest of the place I'm staying in. My friend knew that and was able to give me plenty of good tips when booking our hotel.

For example, if I look at the Penang accommodation options at My Holiday Centre, I can see there's a resort in Batu Ferringhi and one at Tanjung Bungah. When I first started looking for a place to stay I came across both these locations they both sounded good - especially as a map clearly showed both were on the beach. Which one works for me, then? My local friend was able to explain to me that most of the resort lovers were out along Batu Ferringhi and that Tanjung Bungah was only about ten minutes from the city - so obviously that was the spot for us and if I returned to Penang I'd stay in that some area again as it had the best of both worlds. It would have been hard for me to work that out properly for myself without having been there before.

View from our hotel in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia. I still miss this view!

Our two weeks in Penang were so fabulous that I'd return again - especially with my friend and her son - and we even will let our husbands come next time! I'm sure that if I'd gone alone, my experience would have been totally different and definitely not as good. So now I'm just trying to pick a few more destinations where I can visit some friends or travel together with them and get all these advantages again. Suggestions, anyone?

This post is sponsored by My Holiday Centre but my thoughts and opinions are all my own, as always!

Friday, April 18, 2014

A decade ago in Paris, via Instagram

In my mind, I am still 25, so it seems impossible that I can say an entire decade has passed since the trip to Paris I'm going to describe for you today. (I guess I am not alone in this feeling, right?)

Warning! Paris is a city of tourist cliches!

Beware! Warning sign on the Paris Metro a decade ago

This is one of my favourite pictures from that Paris trip. It's a stereotype that the French are an emotional and dramatic culture but stereotypes often tend to arise from somewhere. This warning sign was in a Paris metro station; I've asked around to find out if they're still there but without getting an answer to date. I must admit that I can be a slightly anxious traveller when I'm underground (it's a kind of unnatural place to be, right, unless I'm a burrowing animal, which I'm not) and these signs didn't exactly put me at ease!

But on to the cliches ...

To Eiffel Tower or not to Eiffel Tower 

I've been to Paris three times, and I have visited the Eiffel Tower three times, so you can probably guess where I come down on this question. My son's currently obsessed with a book about famous buildings and one of them is the Eiffel Tower so I feel certain that on our fourth visit to Paris (not yet planned but Paris is inevitable, right?) it'll be yet another Eiffel Tower visit. I know my son will be thrilled to see such a famous monument in real life. Yes, it's a cliche, yes, it's not even a particularly beautiful one (I remember the Parisians were going to pull it down at one stage), but it's a place that so many people know and aspire to see. That's just the way it is.

Selfies in the Louvre

The expected Louvre visit. Yes, we saw the Mona Lisa too.
Speaking of Parisian cliches, this was the one visit to Paris that got me into the Louvre. I prefer the D'Orsay, I have to say, but it was closed the day we had hoped to visit it. But as I write this, a decade on, I have just learnt that there is a new Louvre trend. A friend of mine is visiting this Easter (just as I did ten years ago - hi Jen!) and she added a photo to Facebook this morning - a selfie of her and her husband with the Mona Lisa in the background. She said that's what everyone does these days! It's incredible what a difference ten years makes - nobody had phones that took self-portraits at the tap of a button and nobody had thought to do it in front of the Mona Lisa, but now it's the "done thing"!

My Hunchback of Notre Dame reward

Ahead of this trip to Paris, and at the urging of a teaching colleague in Bratislava (hi Dave!) I had begun to read Victor Hugo's work. He is (all due respect) one of those writers who should have lived in our century so that a good editor could have slashed about half the word count from his manuscript. If you have read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or Les Miserables then I'm pretty sure you would have to admit to skipping entire chapters in exasperation at times because Hugo wanders so far from the story and so deeply into architecture or history that you almost forget why you picked up the book. Somehow, though, they are nonetheless satisfying reads and I had just finished the Hunchback before our Paris trip - and that made my climb to the top of the tower at Notre Dame so much more worthwhile. I felt utterly transported back to a Hunchback daydream.

Then, of course, I looked down and remembered that it was Easter Sunday and there were enormous queues of people still waiting to enter the cathedral. What luck that I'd got up early enough to only stand in line for a couple of hours and not all day!

The occasional touristy trip won't kill you

On reflection, I barely remember speaking to a single Parisian local on this trip and beyond baguettes from streetside vans I hardly consumed much local food. I didn't really go off the beaten track at all, and in a city like Paris which has a whole lot of beaten tracks this probably isn't surprising! But sometimes this kind of travel is okay too. I'm still glad I did it!

What's your ideal day in Paris? Eiffel Tower or an anonymous stroll elsewhere?

I'm linking up with Instagram Travel Thursday - check out some other great posts below:

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

On four failed attempts to leave Perth in my twenties

When you grow up in a city as isolated as Perth, Western Australia, it's not surprising that you get the itch to leave, at least for a while. From the time I graduated from university (just a little while back now ...) I was looking for opportunities to leave Perth for a while and see something of the rest of the world.

But I hadn't quite realised until recently, looking back, how desperate I was to leave, because I tried all kinds of ways to do so!

Heading north to Newman in the Pilbara

My first try was to follow a (then new) boyfriend when he got transferred for work up to the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I have to say that living in Newman wasn't quite the leave-Perth-adventure I had in mind but it was still a great experience and we made the most of travelling around the Pilbara region to amazing places like the Karajini National Park and towns like Karratha and Tom Price. Just as I was settling in (I think six or eight weeks in?) his company abruptly sent him back to Perth. That was the end of the Pilbara escape attempt!

Hamersley Gorge in Karajini National Park, not too far from Newman in the Pilbara

Heading east to Adelaide, South Australia

The same boyfriend soon took a transfer to Adelaide and I spent a month there when he first started work - I was writing my Honours thesis and walking on the beach at Glenelg. (More beach walking than thesis writing, I think). Adelaide also wasn't the place I'd imagined escaping to - bigger than Newman, but still smaller than Perth, and only slightly closer to anything - but I genuinely enjoyed it. But what do you know - his company retrenched him after a month because he was the newest employee and they were cutting back at every state office. Another failed attempt and I was back in Perth!

Glenelg Beach in Adelaide, South Australia

Trying to volunteer in the Solomon Islands

I guess this was enough for me to take things into my own hands. I found out about a volunteer program run by the Australian government which actually still exists, the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD). This, I decided, could be my way to get out of Perth! At the time I had been working as a research assistant mathematics education and there was a need for someone with this skill set in the Solomon Islands. I was accepted into the program but after some time, for some reason which is lost to the channels of history, the organisation in the Solomons stopped accepting volunteers and I never got there.

Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, and a place I nearly moved to for a while

And almost volunteering in Cambodia

But never fear, of course I had another plan. This time I persuaded my boyfriend at the time to apply for AYAD with me and we found a Cambodian organisation which was looking for two volunteers (although they were in towns a couple of hours apart, if I remember correctly). The organisation must have been quite religious and I remember that we agreed we'd get married before we left (oh yes ... did I mention I was desperate to leave Perth - I was probably only 23 and would have got married way younger than I'd planned just so that I had a way to move abroad!). But I think that was the start of feeling uneasy about the arrangement. And then ... well, this is how I remembered this whole story, recently I was reading a piece by Walter Mason about his new book Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom when a short paragraph really hit me.
Cambodia is a country that has enchanted and fascinated me since I was a young man. I first travelled there in 1996, for the express reason that my mother had begged me not to go there. It had seemed like the ultimate dangerous destination, but after a few days there I discovered that, like anywhere else, it was filled with complex, moderately happy people seeking to lead lives of quiet comfort and occasional joy.
This was nearly me, except I decided not to go to live in Cambodia for a year, partly because I was kind of nervous about the whole deal and partly because my well-travelled mother had also expressed her concerns that it could be dangerous to move there! We backtracked out before we committed to any volunteering and although now I wouldn't have a problem with volunteering in Cambodia, I think that courage has only come about thanks to all my other travel experiences.

And finally, I moved to Japan

You probably know the end of the story. In 2001 I finally got a job teaching English in Japan and moved there, beginning the exciting phase of living abroad in three different countries. I finally escaped Perth! And of course, I returned too, proving that it always was a great place to live - but I still want to keep travelling.

If you could leave your hometown now ...

What about you? If you could easily leave your hometown now to live somewhere else for a while, where would you go? And why?

Or have you had failed attempts like I have?

Photo credits: Karajini National Park - Graeme Churchard; Glenelg Beach - Heather; Honiara - Jenny Scott.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Take me back to Inis Meain, or Inish Maan, or whatever you call that gorgeous scenic place ...

Shockingly to me, it's almost a year ago that I was on my last European trip and about to visit Ireland for the first time since my childhood. With friends spending six months on one of the least known Aran Islands, either Inis Meain or Inish Maan depending on your preference, I dragged my husband and son over there for a week-long stay in a place that is otherwise not really visited by tourists. And as I had long predicted (yes, I did tell everyone "I told you so"!!), it was brilliant. I am a massive fan of going to off-the-beaten-path destinations and this was great. I'm reliving it today for you ... or is it really for me?

This was the incredible view that greeted me each morning from the kitchen of our friends' rented house on Inis Meain. They were away from the main village and close to the airport, and that meant the view made me feel like we were in the middle of nowhere and I LOVED that. Don't you think that kind of nothingness really revives the soul? It does for me, anyway, and I could have stared at this view for hours on end. In fact, I did.

And then there were the animals. Obviously my three-year-old son was impressed to see lots of animals around - sheep, cows, horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens and more - but I loved it too. It was pretty unique to see them penned in by these old stone walls rather than conventional fences, and because some of these fields were quite small the locals regularly rotated the animals to other areas and it was common to pass a group of animals on the road. There is something about having the humans being significantly outnumbered by the animals which appeals to me.

We spent a lot of our time on Inis Meain walking. It's the kind of island where you can walk nearly everywhere, as long as you have enough time, and are willing to put up with a fair bit of wind. I find walking in the wind utterly refreshing, and then there's that moment when you step back into four safe walls and everything seems so quiet. And so it was after our trek out to Synge's Chair, one of the spectacularly scenic spots of the island.

But even the best scenery and the most unique place in the world doesn't, for me, beat catching up with old friends on their new adventure. I have known Maria for close to twenty years but in the last decade we have rarely lived nearby. It was a true pleasure to visit her in her temporary new home, to spend hours catching up and having that feeling that it doesn't matter how often we see each other, we will always be friends. This picture shows her with my son on the beach beyond their rented house; it was so windy that the sand was constantly whipped into our eyes and we didn't stay long, but it was so scenic I couldn't ignore it completely.

I'm joining in with the Instagram Travel Thursday link-up this week - you can discover some other great travel blogs once they link up below.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Collecting juice in Penang - challenging yourself to try new things on your travels

Do you make a deliberate effort to try new foods (and drinks) when you travel?

I have to admit that when I first began travelling I was a bit of a food conservative. I was raised vegetarian so trying to avoid meat was one of the issues, but I think in general I was just a bit of a scaredy-cat!

But then I moved to Japan and being wary of new foods became an impossibility - there were so many new things (and often barely any familiar ones), the people were so friendly and polite about offering me them, and then I discovered that nearly all of them tasted great - and since then I've been much more open about new tastes and flavours.

In Penang earlier this year, trying all the food was easy because it is SO delicious (and not that unfamiliar since we have a lot of Asian food available in Perth). But this post isn't about the food; it's about the drink, and more specifically the juice. Now we drank endless amounts of freshly-squeezed juice, at least once a day - and I was happy to see my son choose a new flavour nearly every time, stringing together a list of new juice experiences which he can still name a couple of months on. His three-year-old memory is so much better than mine and he can tell me he had carrot juice at the curry place in George Town and lemon juice upstairs in the big shopping centre. But this little tale is about a different kind of juice.

I had a secret evening treat in our hotel room in Penang, after my son had gone to sleep: my mystery juice box. Most days we would walk across to the convenience stores near our hotel (there were three virtually next to each other, all selling nearly the same goods - each with virtually no customers!) and I would always pick up a new box of juice (or two) to try later on.

There was some delicious ones and some that I could get used to and a couple that really I just had to switch off my taste buds and drink fast (you may ask, why didn't I just stop drinking, but I felt I needed to give each juice a chance!). I never found a new favourite, but I'm glad I tried them all. Although I already knew that south-east Asian countries have all manner of fruits that we're not used to back home (I'm not sure why, as our countries are so close in location) it was eye-opening to taste so many of them in a box!

And while consuming a bunch of random juices isn't exactly a scientific way of exploring a culture, to me it's symbolic of making a deliberate effort to seek out new things. Ten years ago, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done that. These days, I'm much more aware of making the most out of my travel opportunities. For me, that especially means doing things that are different to what you do at home, whether that's eating or drinking, or visiting different kinds of places, or being braver about talking to strangers; whatever the situation, making a deliberate effort to learn and experience what can only be learned and experienced in that place.

What's your "juice box collection" equivalent when you travel? Is there something you do that's braver or bolder than you would normally do at home? Or perhaps even something that you regret not doing on a trip in the past?

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