City with a Seoul

My introduction to South Korea was managing to wedge myself with the 35kg remnants of my year away down the ridiculously small Korean-sized human aisle of the bus from the airport.

I was so wedged I had to back up, taking out all the ridiculously small Korean-sized travellers on the way.

In fairness to me, my brain wasn’t quite working, I’d just managed to not sleep a second on my flight from London and arrived to discover it was winter and snowing, when I genuinely thought it would be summer and sweltering.

It threw me, as did the directions to my hostel, so after losing complete feeling of my fingers I took refuge in the Korean version of Starbucks, where despite the fact I was clearly lost, the three local businessmen sitting next to me proceeded to just stare and then usefully remark upon leaving – ‘you too many bag.’

That I already knew, my rucksack was now so heavy swinging it at speed to get it onto my back came with the added sound effect of each spinal vertebrae clicking into a new place, reminiscent of what the osteopath did to me that time I somehow wound up with one leg longer than the other.

As for my hostel (when I did manage to find it), it was – what’s a euphemism for this – adequate.

Can’t really complain, it was the cheapest on the market and I could actually pronounce its name – ‘Banana Backpackers.’

It was Korean-sized though, with me hitting my head every time I sat up on my top bunk and a campervan-style bathroom where you shower over the toilet.

But despite my hostel woes and my exceptional unpreparedness for Korea, I must say I am exceptionally proud of my sightseeing efforts on day one – managing to stumble across a hit lists of the capital’s must-sees, including:

The Gyeongbokgung Palace, right in time for the midday changing of the guard.

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The largest collection of traditional Hanok-style housing.

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The incredibly modern and living City Hall.

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Seoul Tower, the city’s top tourist attraction and home to the best panoramic views of the city.

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And the US$384-million Cheong-gye-cheon – basically a 9-kilometre public stream-side walkway, running through the city out to the Han River, which was created after they ripped up an old highway.

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It was a great day, topped off by genuinely delicious Korean BBQ mystery meat for dinner.

Day two and I decided to cross the Han and visit the posh part of town – Gangnam.

Yep the place pop sensation Psy is singing about in his hit song ‘Gangnam Style,’ with brilliantly mundane lyrics once translated into English like – ‘A girl who is warm and humanly during the day.
A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee.’

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I too enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee, but the type of girl Psy is singing about is those tiny, two-dimensional girls with porcelain skin and unnaturally shiny hair.

They made me feel even more cuddly than I already am, but at least I could take comfort in the fact many of them owe their model good looks to the boutique plastic surgeries which have earned this part of town the nickname – ‘the Korean Beverly Hills.’

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Clear to say I stuck out in Seoul, with me only encountering one other blonde during my time here whilst at Asia’s largest underground mall.

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But people were genuinely friendly and even though they couldn’t speak much English still offered to help me and not in that – ‘I’m going to scam the crap out of you’ sort of way you encounter in South East Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam.

In fact in my four days here the only place I didn’t feel welcome was the afternoon I rubbernecked the 24-hour fish market, where giant octopuses slip between buckets and large snapper sit in tanks hardly big enough for a goldfish.

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It was disturbing, but not disturbing enough to stop me from going upstairs and ordering myself a crab soup from one of the ubiquitous restaurants.

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It was delicious.

Actually all Korean food was delicious and it didn’t give me the shits once, despite the reoccurring presence of mystery meat.

There was also fantastic shopping (if I had money or room in my pack to buy anything) and the coolest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen.

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It was bloody freezing though, with it dropping to -17C at one point.

But the thought of that was quite pleasant upon arriving in Sydney to a casual 60 degree temperature change.

And while I may not know what the future holds for me back in the South Pacific I do know two things – I’m going to be a sweaty mess and I’m going to burn in the ozone layer-less sun like a Brit abroad.

Goodbye London

Can’t say I enjoyed my final hours in London.

There was so much to do and so little time, primarily working out how to cash my arcane cheque from Winter Wonderland.

I swear I told them in November I didn’t have a UK bank account (given it’s near impossible to set one up as a nomad without looking like a money launderer) and was told cashing it wouldn’t be a problem.

Well it was.

Not that they recalled that conversation and not that they were willing to put aside this infuriating ‘can’t do’ English attitude to ensure I could access the money I was relying on to see me through until I get a real job back home.

In hindsight, me losing the plot at one of their HR ladies on the phone, after she, without knowing any of the facts was quick to blame me and began patronisingly calling me ‘Rachael’ at the beginning of each of her sentences as if I didn’t know my own name, clearly didn’t help my cause.

But seriously, it was insult to injury after enduring 75 hours of being locked in a token booth and forced to listen to Christmas music on repeat, while desperately needing to pee.

All I can say is thank goodness for the parentals, who saw right through my too proud to ask for help ‘I’ll be fine’ facade and immediately topped up my bank account with an emergency loan.

Without them I would have been royally screwed right now, because despite working full time for the past two months and not paying rent thanks to the perks of purebred cat-sitting, money goes nowhere in London.

It’s a city you need money to have fun in.
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And as much as I loved my time here, it’s not the type of place I can see myself getting a flat and a career job in.

Everyone is in a rush, everyone is stressed, you queue for everything, it takes a good hour to get anywhere, thousands of people resort to internet dating because it’s a tough city to crack and most disturbingly – people outwardly ‘how dare you’ tisk when the Tube conductor comes over the loud speaker to announce in a monotone voice that there’s a delay on the line after some poor soul saw no way to improve their life but to jump in front of a train – at rush hour.

The English also have this habit of making things exceptionally difficult when they don’t need to be – the payment from Winter Wonderland is case and point, as is needing to see a doctor when you don’t have a fixed abode, or going to the optometrist for contact lenses.

Above all, I’m positive London’s no place I want to raise my kids.

Clearly I’m talking in the future (the only baby I have at the moment is a food baby) but watching mums (and the elderly) struggling up Tube stairs (because a lot of stations lack step-free access) while intolerant commuters shunt past them is something I never want to experience first-hand.

But perhaps the tipping point for me is there’s no seaside in London.

Sounds silly, but being from New Zealand not being able to see the ocean makes me feel just a little bit claustrophobic.

So on pretty much my only day off in December I managed one last day-trip to Brighton to see the beachside town – taking my sister’s best friend’s mum along for the journey.
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In hindsight we probably shouldn’t be allowed to travel together – managing to get on the wrong train and only clicking a good half hour later when we both thought it was funny the train conductor didn’t mention anything about going to Brighton.

Credit to us we were at the right platform at the right time – we just got on the wrong train.

As for Brighton (when we finally got there), it’s not really a beach, it’s pebbles and one hell of a rolling current.
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And as for the pier with its dated arcade games and crusty carnival rides deep in winter hibernation, despite being so incredibly different to home (where the ocean is left to revel in its natural beauty) I actually found Brighton Pier tackily brilliant and strangely charming.

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So all in all what I’m trying to say is that I’m confident I’ve made the right decision to go home.

But surprisingly I’ve accumulated a lot of clothes from my year away, which I blame mostly on my recent discovery of Primark.

I kinda wish Ear Candle Wax Girl never introduced us though, as packing my rucksack took numerous attempts and I’m actually scared to open it now for fear of being buried under an avalanche of mainly blouses.

Sadly I didn’t have room for bus face, though it would have been mighty easy to steal her given she packed herself.

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But I don’t think she would have survived my extended stopover in South Korea – apparently they eat cat here, and dog, and according to the pub’s Mexican chef – ‘they eat baby.’

I thought he was pulling my leg until he pulled up articles like this on my iPad.

Surely that’s cannibalism?

Maybe eating cats and dogs isn’t so bad after all…

My last weekend on the continent

I don’t know how I ever got it into my head that Irish men were good looking.

Must be their accents, because on closer inspection a lot of them have a strange resemblance to Wayne Rooney, but unlike him, can’t rely on being good at football and massively wealthy to improve their mating chances.

But even if I did find Irish men attractive it wouldn’t have really mattered, because my weekend in the Irish capital with Ear Candle Wax Girl turned out to be a very girly one.

And that’s the beauty of basing yourself in London, Europe is on your doorstep and with the help of free travel comparison tool Skyscanner you can travel very cheaply indeed.

So for £60 return we settled on a last minute trip to Dublin to celebrate my last weekend on the continent.

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Going all out we even booked a hotel opposed to a hostel, finding a double room for the same price as a bunk bed in a dorm room.

As for Dublin itself, it’s an interesting place, especially at the moment given their economic state.

But at least some Irish have a sense of humour about being in the PIGS group, judging by this sign near a cash machine.

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As for how we spent our weekend… I’d love to say we spent it lapping up Irish culture in their many unique museums and galleries.

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But we didn’t – we spent it at Penneys.

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Penneys is what the Irish call Primark and Primark is a giant stupidly cheap clothing store, where people pull around wheely trolleys as if they were shopping for groceries.

Of all the crap there, it was the hair accessory aisle where things got dangerous, with Ear Candle Wax Girl and I finally discovering how those perfect London girls have perfect buns – the hair donut – an ingenious foam donut you put over your ponytail, cover in hair and boom – you have the perfect bun.

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The fact I’m writing about my bun makes me sound incredibly sad, but I’m a low maintenance type of girl, so discovering a tool to make it look like I spent ages on my hair when I actually didn’t was quite life changing.

When we weren’t playing with our hair, we did try a proper Irish night out, though starting at a Japanese restaurant given I’ve lived off pub food for the past two months.

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The night went downhill soon after, finding ourselves at a crappy overpriced Irish pub in the Temple Bar district, where I spent most of my time marvelling at the lady next to us, who side on was two dimensional and dressed in Grease Sandy-style Lycra pants and a tiny black and white striped full-sleeved Lycra top that only covered her boobs.

In fairness if I had abs like hers, or actually abs at all, I’d probably dress the same.

As for the actual touristy sights of Dublin… we did manage a trip to the Guinness Factory, though we walked around the premises for a good hour spotting about every Guinness sign – except the one for the tourist entry.

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So when we did finally manage to find it, we asked a fellow tourist to take a photo to remember the moment.

Here’s what we got:

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Seriously, we could be standing against a brick wall anywhere.

On that note (given this is by no means the first photo I’ve got like this) – it astounds me that when you’re standing in front of a major tourist attraction and ask someone to take your photo, it should go without saying that you want the photo to document that you’re standing in front of whatever the hell you’re standing in front of.

I digress… Back to the Guinness Storehouse.

It’s a very modern building shaped as a giant Guinness pint, which includes an academy where you can learn to pour your very own perfect pint of the famous stout.

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Truth is I actually already know how to pour a pint of Guinness from my pub days, but didn’t feel like being the ‘look at me’ in our group so played dumb.

But no matter how many I pour, my appreciation for Guinness hasn’t changed – I still maintain it tastes like cold coagulated gravy.

So with the trip to the Guinness factory, shopping at Penneys, playing with our hair, eating, drinking and sleeping, our weekend in Dublin was over all too soon.

Before we knew it we were back in London and I was frantically racing around the city picking up items I’d stored at friends’ houses and clean forgot about, before departing for that magic place – home – though via South Korea and Sydney.

As a end note… a big thank you to Skyscanner for taking a punt on this blog and sponsoring my weekend in Dublin.

My year in review

I promise this is not going to be a big philosophical wanky blog post about how 2012 changed my life, although in many ways it did.

But being the dawn of 2013, it seems wrong to not at least reflect a little on what an amazing year its predecessor was.

In fairness, how could it not have been – I blew my entire life savings on backpacking and, hands down, it was the best decision I ever made.

So because I love bulletpoints here’s my 10 best and 10 worst travel memories of 2012.

I’ll start with the worst, in no particular order:

1. Greece in general – from the numerous forms of public transport that never showed up, the pre-booked accommodation on a derelict island that turned out to be deep in winter hibernation, getting kicked out of the bus station in a dodgy port town in the middle of the night and left to fend for myself with some homeless guys, and my favourite – being sold an expensive backpackers’ tour of Delphi and Olympia, only to discover when boarding the bus (bar the newlyweds) I was pretty much the only person under 50.
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2. As in the number of seriously strange massages I had – the first in Vietnam where the masseuses’ hands got dangerously close to my lady bits, and the second at a Turkish bath in Istanbul where the lady led me (basically butt naked) by the hand over to a group of Turkish woman, before pointing at me and exclaiming – ‘like a baby, my little baby’ – to which I’m still not entirely sure what she meant.

3. Getting mistaken for being pregnant at Thai boxing in Bangkok, at the beginning and I would deem skinny phase of my trip.

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4. While I’m on the subject of pregnancies… Being by myself and a blubbering mess at a camp ground in Florence and feeling like a crap sister for not being in Wellington while my sister had an emergency c-section and hopelessly waiting for news while the internet and phone lines kept crashing.

5. Making the same mistake numerous times – falling for tortured artists, in particular Casio Watch Boy (though the watch is still going strong) and the Gypsy.

6. Being locked in a token booth for 13 hour shifts and deprived of the human right to pee at Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park in London.

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7. The worst hangover of my life in Cambodia, which was the product of drinking an entire pitcher of vodka and orange at dinner because it came with a free t-shirt, the novelty of drinking beer while getting a Dr Fish massage and then finishing the night drinking buckets and shots of absinthe and then having the delayed hangover kick in while visiting Siem Reap’s temples in 40 degree heat.

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8. Getting food poisoning from an under-cooked burger in Barcelona and it rearing its ugly head eight hours into a nine hour bus trip, where I sat helplessly as spew began trickling down my legs from the sieve-like holes in the plastic bag and then arriving in Madrid to the brutal reality of checking into my non-refundable pre-booked 14 bed dorm in a party hostel.

9. The tomato coloured eye bogey incident at the Tomatina food fight in Spain.

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10. Getting lost, everywhere, all the time, usually on travel days when I had my 15kg backpack on and it was upwards of 30 degrees.

As for my best 10 travel memories of 2012…

1. The food: the coconut milk curries of Thailand, the water buffalo of Laos, the ‘Fanny’ icecream of Vietnam, the everything of Turkey, the pizza and gelato of Italy, the fromage of France, the M&S salads of England, the free tapas of Spain, the frites of Belgium, the langos of Hungary, the burek of Bosnia, the schnitzel of Austria, the hard boiled egg soup of Poland and the fried tarantula of Cambodia.

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2. Waking up on my 25th birthday on a Vietnamese junk boat in Halong Bay.

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3. Hanging out with elephants in Thailand and Laos.

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4. Never being prouder to be a New Zealander than watching the sunrise at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli on Anzac Day.
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5. Getting to be an Olympic reporter for the London Games.

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6. All those moments where I felt like I was living in a postcard.

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7. Every day getting better at this backpacking thing and realising that you really don’t need a lot of money to have a hell of a lot of fun.

8. All the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, and in particular, those who helped make it possible for me to live out of a backpack for a year. I love you guys x

9. This blog, which without a word of a lie has kept me going and when things have gone wrong I’ve been able to rationalise it and say ‘oh well at least it will make a good blog post.’ This is the first time I’ve ever had an avenue to write not for a radio news network or for a politician but for me. The only issue now is getting it to start paying the bills… suggestions welcome. Although if you’re that pestering company trying to make me advertise online gambling on my blog, for the umpteenth time I am not interested.

10. Saying farewell to 2012 and farewell forever to The Castle Pub in London where I’ve been bar wenching for the past couple of months, which is sadly about to demolished to make way for an apartment block.

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And finally about 2013.

I am coming home and arrive pretty much a year to the day I left.

There’s a few factors in that decision.

Firstly, I’ve run out of money.

Secondly, I have the chance to work with the New Zealand Olympic Committee for the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney on the way home, which I am incredibly excited about.

And finally, I desperately want to spend some time with my friends and family and in particular meet my first ever and favourite nephew.

But that doesn’t mean this blog will end, it just means it may be about adventures a little closer to home – well for awhile at least.