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.

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Why the Greek islands kick mainland Greece’s arse

If you’ve been reading my blog of late, you’d know that I’ve been hating on Greece.

Well… I’m pleased to report that Santorini has restored my faith somewhat.

You see, tourism is the lifeblood on the islands, so there’s a lot less of this CBF attitude that made mainland Greece my solo backpacker’s nightmare.

My first two nights on Santorini are at a gorgeous little hotel, run by a very sweet Greek woman called Poppy.

My only complaints were that I seemed to be the only guest not on a romantic getaway and Poppy’s directions to get to the main town of Fira failed to mention that I needed to turn a sharp left.

All she said was – “turn right at main road, can’t miss it.”

Let me assure you – you can and I did.

Can’t say I was too happy about it either, fresh off an eight hour boat ride to get here. It was all too hard. I ended up abandoning my plans to treat myself to a romantic dinner with caldera views and went back to my hotel and ate muesli out of a cup.

The next morning I did manage to locate Fira.

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Don’t get me wrong, the view from my morning coffee was spectacular, but it smelt overwhelmingly of donkey shit and the streets were lined with shop after shop selling touristy crap – and come lunchtime pearl-wearing, champagne-sipping cruise-goers.

I must say, I took great pleasure in watching one of them (who clearly had an overly romantic idea of what a donkey ride down the caldera would be like) holding on for dear life while this donkey thrust her around like a baby’s rattle, as the poor thing (the donkey) struggled not to buckle at its knees under her weight and the Mediterranean sun.

After I’d had my fun people watching, I ventured to Oia to see Santorini’s famous sunsets.

Oia is seriously like being in a postcard.

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At one point I became so overwhelmed by this type of view I forgot to hold onto my glass of cherry frozen yogurt and it obliterated all over the restaurant floor.

One word for you – mortified.

The rest of the afternoon I was a rubbernecker at people’s weddings.

I can see why you’d get married here, but to be honest the view is so ridiculously beautiful it can upstage the bride – particularly this one who committed a fashion crime worse than sneans.

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As for the sunset, the clouds decided to roll on in, right in as the sun was going down, so this was about as good as it got.

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The next morning, after some Skype coaxing from my best friend, I moved to Perissa (the beach side of the island) and into a eight person dorm to save myself from another day of talking to myself.

I spent the afternoon on the beach with a Canadian ex-Mormon divorcee I met on the bus and then the early evening sipping 3 euro cocktails from a golden oldies’ bar which played the likes of the Bee Gees and Rick Astley.

After waving her off at the bus stop, half cut, I found myself a cute little restaurant for a romantic dinner for one.

To be honest, I actually don’t mind dining by myself but for some reason it seems to make other people nervous. I got many a stare from the loved up couples and honeymooners strolling past, and more welcome – many a free wines from my waiter.

Needless to say I got myself accidentally drunk and knew it was time to leave when I shaped two napkins into dinosaurs and began having a T Rex fight – complete with sound effects.

Next I went in search of a bar one of my old radio colleagues used to work at.

There I met an Athenian liquor sales rep who also seemed perplexed as to why I was travelling by myself, but most of all, why I hadn’t found myself a Greek lover. According to her this is very, very strange.

It got me thinking, I’ve been here three weeks and apart from the bartender at my hostel (who has a girlfriend) and the guy I saw at a bar shaking his arse better than Beyonce – no-one has caught my eye.

In saying that, I have been wearing a daily contact lense in my right eye, which is actually the prescription for my left eye, for at least a fortnight.

I know, it’s very bad, but seriously Greek optometrists never seem to be open.

The next day the Athenian took me out for the day. It was amazing to have wheels again and to not have to rely on Greece’s crap excuse for public transport. We drank good coffee, we ate good food and we went to Red Beach – famous for its red and black sand.

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That night I hung out with the only other girl in my dorm. We decide to make a night of it, but when we arrive at a popular backpacker’s watering hole it’s like we’ve walked into 2Pac’s funeral. We’re the only ones there and they’re cranking the old school R&B tunes “I believe I can fly” and “I’ll see you when I get there.”

We have an earlier night than intended and when we wake we find the only other person in our dorm (a Chinese guy who speaks little English) eating Cheerios (I’m convinced that’s all he eats) and drinking red wine straight from the bottle. Seriously dude – it’s 9am on a Monday.

I spend my last few hours in Santorini lying on the black sand beach, 30 metres away from my hostel.

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It’s here I can’t help but think to myself about how much I’ve mucked Greece up.

I spent too much time on the mainland trying to see ancient ruins (which you just don’t get when you’re from such a young country) and not enough time on the islands where they actually understand that tourism is a lifeline for their economy.

Who knows, perhaps I’ll come back to Santorini – but not by myself.

It’s a wildly romantic and beautiful place – best shared with someone you love.

NAT: not another tour

Greece is like a toxic lover.

It consistently treats me badly – yet I keep coming back for more.

I was dangerously close to leaving for good, but I knew if I did, I’d kick myself for missing the ancient sites of Delphi and Olympia.

So I begrudgingly book a three-day organised tour. It’s not cheap, especially once they slap me with the dreaded single supplement, but given my track record with Greek public transport it’s the only way.

When I get on the bus my heart drops. It’s predominantly a golden oldies tour, and the only people around my age are honeymooners.

My heart sinks further once I realise the tour is bilingual. Everything our guide says is sentence for sentence in English – then in French.

It’s gonna be a long three days.

Our guide is best summed up by this Australian woman, who likened her to a Greek Judge Judy (fitting, as apparently she used to be a lawyer in America).

Here she is with her trademark umbrella. I choose to use this photo as the other one I have is her in a very unfortunate pair of purple pants. Two words for you – camel toe.

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Put simply, Judge Judy should not be a tour guide. She’s downright rude, intolerant, blunt and doesn’t have any people skills.

For example, when we arrive at Delphi, Judge Judy discovers we’re missing one person and asks – “where is the fat lady?” using her hands to demonstrate her width.

All of us, including the Belgians laugh out of sheer awkwardness and look at each other with an exasperated – did she just say that? – look on our faces.

Luckily the South African woman on our tour takes her on – “she has a name you know, her name is Jane.”

Judge Judy rolls her eyes – “Very well then, where is Mrs Jane?”

In those three long days Judge Judy cracked just one joke, leaving us to make our own fun.

My favourite game was to wander off from Judge Judy’s ridiculously long bilingual rants (I swear no-one listened to her) and take covert photos of lurking angry whistle people.

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I didn’t get whistled at but a lot of people on our tour did, including for leaning over this bar at Delphi to get a photo of what the ancient Greeks believed was the centre of the world.

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I also spent an entire morning trying to take a covert photo of a stocky woman wearing a lacy black bra underneath a see-through black fishnet top. I failed but the image is forever etched in my memory.

As for the archeological sites – they don’t disappoint.

As cheesy as it sounds, I run the 162-metre female track at Olympia (in my jandals) and get the equally cheesy photo to remember it by.

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We were also fortunate enough to be there for a dress rehearsal of the lighting of the Olympic torch, which took place today.

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Mediterranean men in skirts = happy Rachael.

The ruins of Delphi, nestled on the slopes of Mt Parnassos, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth are also stunning.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be an organised tour without a ‘coincidental’ un-publicised stop – this time at a vase factory.

Lunches are equally as sneaky. They drive us out of town to these crappy little tavernas that look like they haven’t seen a lick of paint or a customer since the 1970s and then out of sheer hunger we each spend around 10 Euro to eat some re-heated, dehydrated-looking piece of meat, accompanied with flaccid salad and stale bread.

On the bright side, our first night’s accommodation’s palatial compared to what I’m used to and they make a massive point of not letting us carry our own bags to our rooms.

Perhaps I’m about to be treated to some of this old-fashioned Greek hospitality I keep hearing about.

I get to my room, desperate to have a shower before dinner and wait for my bag to arrive.

I wait and wait, check outside the door, then wait some more.

Half an hour later I give up and go in search of my backpack. I find it outside the lift shaft. It’s like they got to the third floor and just projectile threw it out the elevator.

The next morning Judge Judy gives us strict instructions that if we’re only doing the three day tour (thank God) we must tell the driver our bag is going back to Athens.

I carry my backpack over to the driver and inform him – “Athens please.”

I turn around to get onto the bus and there’s Judge Judy yelling at me – “tell driver, your bag Athens.”

“I did.”

She repeats more forcefully – “tell driver your bag back Athens,” waving her umbrella like a cane.

I walk back over to the driver, point to my bag and confirm – “bag, yes, Athens.”

I ignore Judge Judy’s ongoing rant and board the bus.

Three minutes into our journey she stops the bus and over the loud speaker says, “if you just boarded the bus (clearly she means me) please get off and inform the driver that your bag is going back to Athens, as I just told you (one of her favourite sayings).”

I get off and for the third time confirm that, yes, my backpack is going back to Athens.

Despite all that, my bag still gets put in the wrong pile and if it wasn’t for the vigilance of my Australian friend it would have gone to Meteora with Judge Judy and the other half of the tour group.

We, the lucky half, get left in Delphi to catch another bus back to Athens.

We wave them off gleefully.

Poor sods.

I swear some of them are telepathically pleading with me from the other side of the glass – please, take me with you.

It’s all Greek to me

The restaurant sign I spotted in Athens yesterday sums up how I feel about Greece.

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In fairness, my morning after my night at Hotel Jason starts ok. I manage to locate the ferry to Skiathos (the island made famous by the movie Mamma Mia) and the lady at the cafe gives me a free apple and banana with my coffee.

The ferry docks two-and-a-half hours later, in what looks like a cute little island, and I optimistically set off to find my hotel.

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Problem is where it says it is on the map and where it actually is are two different things.

It takes me an hour in midday heat to find it and when I do there’s no signs of life – it’s locked.

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I sit on their porch, hoping they’ve just gone for lunch.

An hour later my stomach gets the better of me. I walk back into town, order the biggest beer I can find and a gyros (where the meat appears to be pure pork crackling) and drown my sorrows in alcohol and pig fat – then a nutella crape.

Technically check-in is at two so I wait it out and return around 2.30.

Still no-one there.

I sit on their porch for another hour before asking for help at a bakery down the road. Calls are made and then some woman called Olga comes and retrieves me.

She’s a friend of the hotel owner and informs me that he’s away from the island for a few days. Helpful considering I’ve already booked and paid to stay there.

She takes me to her hotel instead.

I’m exhausted. All I can handle doing is crawling into the fetal position, toe spooning my own ankle, and having a nap.

I wake up three hours later, go for a stroll around the promenade and are staggered with how quiet it is.

I get that it’s the beginning of the season but some places look almost abandoned.

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I eat my feelings at a little taverna and then spend the rest of the evening trying to decipher the wifi password from a Greek woman who speaks no English. I crack it an hour later but the signal’s so piss weak I mise well have not bothered.

The next day I wake up on the right side of the bed, go for a run, fix myself some skippy cornflakes for breakfast and sit on the balcony watching the world go by.

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I then bus to Little Banana Beach for the day where I was intending to tick off another one of my best friend’s OE challenges for me – sunbath nude.

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Conditions are perfect.

I have the beach to myself.

But as I’m about to strip off two five-year-old girls arrive with their mums.

I can’t bring myself to do it, even though it doesn’t seem to bother the two nude prunes who arrive a couple of hours later.

On the bus home I decide I’m going to get the first ferry out of Skiathos tomorrow as I’m beginning to feel like Tom Hanks in Survivor here (iPad would be my Wilson).

But when I get to the ferry booking office I learn the first ferry is at 6.45 – PM that is.

I know it’s spring but seriously.

I refuse to spend another night here or in Volos so I opt to get the 6.45pm ferry and then the 1.30am bus back to Athens.

But when I get to the Volos bus station the guy behind the counter seems to take pleasure in telling me there’s no 1.30am bus, the first bus is at 4.45am – despite what it says on their timetable.

I decide to wait it out at the bus station – that is until they lock the inside part of the station and it’s just me and an old homeless looking man left outside.

He just stares at me and I get the sense if I fall asleep I’m gonna wake up with nothing but the clothes on my back.

So I walk back into town and check into – yep you guessed it:

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Despite the fact I’m only in the room for four hours the lady won’t budge on 30 Euro.

Greece throw me a a frickin’ bone here.

Small world

On the wisdom of a Greek/Australian guy I met at Anzac Day I decide to head north to Meteora – home of the spectacular 14th century Greek monasteries perched precariously on the top of rock towers like this one.

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But getting here is a mission.

It involves getting up ridiculously early, pissing off all five of my dorm mates (I blame the plastic mattress covers for that), getting the metro to the outskirts of Athens, walking about 2 kilometres with my 16kg backpack, getting abused by this dodgy looking Greek guy who tries to pick me up in his convertible, and then catching two buses to the small town of Kastraki, which is at the base of Meteora.

When I arrive it’s dead on lunchtime, I haven’t eaten today, it’s insanely hot and I’m struggling to find somewhere to stay for less than 30 Euros a night.

Right as I’m about to have a mini meltdown a kiwi/English couple I met on my walking tour in Athens drive past.

They take pity on me, ply me with coffee, help me find a place to stay, stop at a bakery where I buy a cheese pie for lunch (cheese makes everything better), and drop me at the top of Meteora.

Then as I’m wandering around the monasteries I bump into this Spanish guy on my bus from Athens.

The first two times it happens we giggle and carry on our separate ways.

But on the third time I’m pretty sure the universe wants us to hang out, besides it’s getting late so I don’t really fancy walking back to Kastraki by myself.

It’s nice to have company for the afternoon, and to not have to take selfies in front of the monasteries.

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The next day I’m at the bus stop early to get back up to the top of Meteora but it doesn’t come. Like many things in Greece they have a real CBF attitude – and they wonder why their economy is rooted.

When I ask the lady at the minimart (which hosts the bus stop) when the next bus is coming she just shrugs her shoulders and gives me a look of – how would I know?

Walking it is.

It’s a full on hike.

An hour later, dripping with sweat, I do the unthinkable for me (sorry Mum) – I accept a ride from a stranger.

In fairness he was a very old Greek man and I could totally take him if it came down to it.

He kindly drives me to the furterest away monastery and refuses to take any money for it.

And then who do I run into again…Spanish guy.

He’s about to go back to Athens but at least now I have someone to have a beer with in Madrid – that’s if I ever manage to navigate my way out of Greece.

Given the effort to get to Meteora, I make myself visit all six monasteries.

They are truly something.

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Unsuprisingly, getting out of Meteora is about as easy as getting here.

The next morning I’m at the bus stop ten minutes early and when it comes it drives straight past me.

Being Greece the next bus isn’t until 1.30pm so I have to walk about 2 kilometres with my pack into town.

When I get there, again drenched in sweat, I discover I’ve just missed the bus to the port town of Volos where I need to go to catch a ferry to Skiathos, even though the timetable they gave me says it doesn’t leave for another hour.

I’m not proud to report I actually swore at the woman. Then I had a bit of a cry.

My day is now totally rooted.

I have to wait another four hours for the next bus, meaning I miss the last ferry to Skiathos, meaning I have to spend the night in Volos.

When I get to Volos I go in search of a ferry timetable. I ask a taxi driver but he’s more occupied with trying to get me to have dinner at his mate’s taverna. One too many patronising ‘you listen to me girls’ later and I say (again not proud of this) – ‘no you listen to me, I don’t want a f#%*ing souvlaki I want a ferry timetable.’

I give up and go in search of a hotel instead. The cheapest I can find is 30 Euros for a place called -wait for it…

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The only things it’s got going for it is that I can actually pronounce the name and it’s opposite the ferry terminal.

I decide to have a shower to wash away the day. It’s glorious, but when I get out I discover the door is jammed and I’m locked in the bathroom. Half an hour and a bit of hysterical laughing/crying/kicking/punching the door later and it magically opens.

The only thing to fix this now is a beer (or five) so I wander down the promenade where who do I run into….no not Spanish guy – but possibly the only other foreigner on my bus to Volos – an Australian girl.

After a pleasant dinner together I return to Hotel Jason to discover my ranch slider won’t shut. I enlist the help of the Greek woman at reception and with sheer brute force and possibly the ranch slider dying like me under her cloud of blood curdling BO it finally closes.

I’m wide awake now so I decide to read myself to sleep, but right as I open my book the main light in my room flickers out to blackness.

Greece, you are kicking my arse today.

I’m in serious need of a hug and another beer.

You’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata

I’ve been on the road for three months but Greece is the first time I’ve felt like a true backpacker.

Until now I really haven’t had to count the pennies – South East Asia and Turkey are dirt cheap.

So with my mind still in Turkey I get stiffed a couple of times in Athens, worst of all when I happily pay 30 Euro for a crappy white cotton shirt, thinking it’s 30 Lira.

And after saying hello and thank you in Turkish a few too many times I give myself a crash course in Greek from a phrase sheet my hostel gave me.

Not only does it tell me how to say the essentials but also ‘you’re cute’ and – ‘is their a riot?’

The whole riot thing doesn’t really bother me though, as I’ve been informed most of it is just for the TV cameras and once they’re gone the rioters can be found a few blocks away drinking chi.

I guess that’s hardly surprising, the Greeks do have a reputation for being lazy, but in a way it’s extraordinary given they were the ones to invent such things as democracy.

I first encounter this laziness when I visit the Archeology Museum primarily to see the Greek vase collection which takes up the entire first floor.

I’m ridiculously excited (nerdy I know) but ever since I studied them at high school I’ve been a little obsessed.

But when I get there I discover the collection is closed.

When I ask I’m told – “just because.”

So I ask someone else and they helpfully inform me that they didn’t feel like putting on enough staff to cover it today, even though it’s the weekend.

For f*#%’s sake.

The trip wasn’t a complete write-off though – I did learn the ancient origins of what New Zealanders would call the jandal slap.

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It’s from 100BC and depicts Aphrodite fending off erotic advances from Pan.

Later that night I attempt to jandal slap a rather cute American doctor I met on my walking tour after he laughed at me, when so engrossed in my souvlaki, I mistook a busker dressed as a ghost as an actual ghost.

I honestly nearly wet myself.

Anyway this jandal slap is an epic fail, I arse over on concrete (I blame one too many Alpha beers for that) and wake up in the morning with a large black bruise on my knee.

Back to Greeks being lazy… they have a equal CBF attitude when it comes to showcasing their most prized possession – the Acropolis.

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Most days it closes at 3pm but somedays earlier – it just depends on how they feel.

When I visit I manage to get myself stuck between a foreign high school group wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the song lyrics ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ (oh how I hate LMFAO), a gaggle of canoodling couples and my favourite – the matching sweatsuit Asian tourists.

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What suprises me most about the Acropolis is how much scaffolding there is around it. Clearly they photoshop that out in photos – but hey at least they’re restoring it.

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Travel Writer Guy from Turkey had told me about how spectacular the light and air is up there and I totally agree. The panoramic views you get of Athens aren’t bad either.

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And despite being told by numerous travellers that Athens is ‘just a big dirty city’ I quite like it.

It’s the little things for me – like being able to drink water from the tap, walking down the street in shorts and a t-shirt without being made to feel like a prostitute, having large areas of pedestrian only streets, and of course watching the changing of the guard.

It cracked me up, for one they look like they should be at the beach.

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And secondly, I do have a bit of a fetish for a man in a skirt – I think that’s the Scottish in me speaking.

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Oh yeah, as an end note if you’re wondering why the title of this blog post is you’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata it’s from the very first episode of New Zealand’s most popular/only weeknight soap opera Shortland Street.