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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The last days of summer

I’m really glad I decided to spend the last days of summer in southern Spain, given I’m now sitting rugged up in the Netherlands trying to get feeling back in my hands to write this post.

Truth is I wasn’t actually planning on going south, in my head I was going to San Sebastian then up through France on-route to Oktoberfest in Germany.

I blame Spanish guy for the sudden change of plans.

It was something about the way he told me in his most sincere tone – ‘you’ll deeply regret it if you don’t see Granada.’

And he was right, Granada is a weirdly meshed mix of Moroccan, European and university town, not to mention the place Michelle Obama learnt flamenco and Bill Clinton is said to have seen the most spectacular sunset of his life over the Alhambra.

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I blame the walking tour guy for those useless facts and I have to admit this is as close as I got to Granada’s number one attraction.

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Before someone yells at me, I tried, it was booked out and besides I’ve seen more than my fair share of temples, mosques, cathedrals and churches over the past nine months.

As for my hostel it was more like staying in a brand new apartment – with bunk beds.

Given that it also attracted this ‘too cool’ backpacker crowd who just seemed to want to get stoned, play guitar and cook pasta.

The last part perplexed me the most given Granada is the home of truly free tapas.

It’s a backpacker’s dream. You buy a drink and they feed you. You buy another drink and they feed you more.

It’s a good life and you can see why some backpackers never leave, especially the ‘lost souls’ once they discover they can carve a cave into the hillside and live rent free.

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As for my beach time I decided on Nerja, a little coast town on the Andalusian Coast.

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All the hostels were booked, so I ended up renting the front room of a local’s house through Air B&B, which gave me a much welcome respite from dorm life.

There’s really only so many – ‘Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?’ – conversations you can have before you want to shoot yourself in the face.

So for the next 48 hours my days in Nerja went a little something like this: go for a run, cancel out my run by eating churros and chocolate for breakfast, lie on the beach on my tiny microfibre towel as I’m too much of a tight arse to buy a real beach towel, swim, eat gelato, lie on the beach, swim, eat gelato, find free tapas, read 50 Shades of Grey (I blame Jenn Smyth for this), go to sleep dreaming of my unicorn, and lastly – watch newlyweds pose for their wedding photos.

In fairness how could you not watch this bride, especially once she decided to take the nicest dress she will ever own swimming.

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It was a nice way to bid farewell to summer, though I have to admit the concept of a European beach still scares the shit out of me.

They’re too commercialised, there’s too many people, they always seem to have this tacky ‘Brits’ abroad’ feel and you’re always rudely awaken by a – ‘Excuse me Miss, you want a massage, a sarong, a henna tattoo, sunglasses, a bracelet, a drink…’

My last gripe with European beaches concerns the nakedness.

No I’m not a prude and I did actually quite enjoy the bronzed stallion of a Spanish man in his metallic blue budgie smugglers, but quite honestly, is there a secret rule of law out there that says the more old, crusty, pruney, fat and out of shape you are the more naked you should be?

Seriously, some of the ladies could/should have tucked their tits into their bikini bottoms – it was disturbing.

As for Malaga, truth is I only came here to catch a cheap flight to Amsterdam but I did enjoy my afternoon given Spanish guy gave me a gastronomic tour via text from Madrid.

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Freshly barbecued sardines on the beach, seafood tapas, and the liquid raisin-tasting dessert wine which had me in such a state it took me three hours to navigate my way back to my really really shit but really really cheap hostel.

Amazingly, I made my red eye flight the next morning and before I knew it I was in Amsterdam.

It was cold, I blended in for once with all the blondes and my fear of being pick-pocketed quickly morphed into a morbid fear of death by bicycle – or tram – but most likely bicycle.

Happiness only real when shared

I’ve become a quote person.

‘Assumption is the mother of all f@*#-ups.’

‘For excessive freedom is nothing more but excessive slavery.’

‘The journey is the reward.’

‘Cut it with an axe not a breadknife.’

And, probably most poignant for this post – ‘happiness only real when shared’ – made famous by the book and movie ‘Into the Wild,’ as if I was to sum up my best moments in Barcelona and Madrid, it would be about the amazing people I’ve met.

I’ll start with a guy I’ll call the Incredible Hulk from my hostel in Barcelona because in his words – ‘I’m quite good at picking things up and putting them down again.’

And I imagine he would be, he’s a tank of a Scottish man who has lived everywhere (Iraq and Antarctica included), globe-trotting the world fighting fires.

But what is most remarkable about the Incredible Hulk is that he is walking-proof that you can make something of your life no matter the hand you’re dealt – oh yeah and he can cook.

Though I did learn to never take him to the supermarket on an empty stomach, unless you want to be served up a large windowless building of pasta for dinner.

Unfortunately he had to go home the next day, but then as I was sitting there on my lonesome eating breakfast who else but Melbourne hipster walks in.

The irony of that was the self-professed hipster decided to spend his only night in Barcelona before his flight to Greece at a hostel called – ‘The Hipstel.’

Our reunion was short-lived and after managing to lose two travel buddies in the space of the morning I opted to join the Gaudi walking tour of his most famous architectural feats, including the dare I say it – never to be completed La Sagrada Familia.

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As walking tours go, it was an exceptionally good one, where I learnt trivia-worthy facts such as Gaudi was so obsessed with getting the figures anatomically correct on his masterpiece he covered a still-born baby with plaster for this scene of the death of the innocence.

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And for those of you who are Star Wars fanatics… George Lucas apparently got his inspiration for the helmets of Darth Vader and the storm troopers from these Gaudi chimneys.

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But the best part of this tour was meeting Australian Rainbow hippy.

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We spent the afternoon together visiting Gaudi Park which made me feel a lot like I was in the nursery rhyme Hansel and Gretel, and even more so given I was there with her.
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It truly was one of those perfect travel days, topped off by a perfect evening where we sat in George Orwell Square known to locals as ‘Trippy Plaza’ because everyone there’s on drugs, eating the best 5 Euro burger and beer combo of my life – or at least I thought so at the time…

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If you look closely you can see the patty is still a bit pink.

I knew this but I was hungry and thought to myself surely my stomach is made of lead by now.

Clearly not.

That burger reared its ugly head eight hours into my nine hour bus trip to Madrid.

I knew it was coming given I’d spent the previous eight hours hurled over in writhing pain and had a bag at the ready.

But the bag had holes in it, so for the next hour I sat helplessly weak and mortified as the spew trickled down my legs.

I am eternally grateful to the Spanish woman sitting next to me, who helped me get cleaned up and escorted me on the metro to the city – where I had stupidly pre-booked a 14-bed dorm at a party hostel.

It was a low moment, particularly when I couldn’t muster the energy to have a shower and instead opted to climb into my bunk bed and toe-spoon my own ankle.

And sleep was in snippets over the next three nights with the guy on my bottom bunk’s snort-like snore, revellers coming home at all hours of the night giggling and debriefing about their evenings, the Brazilian navy guys trying to root everything on legs, people being so out of it they didn’t even hear their alarms go off, and the guy who liked to doze off to the dulcet tones of slit-your-wrist death metal.

Madrid’s a surprisingly pretty city though and the highlight was catching up with possibly the only good thing to come out of my time in Greece – Spanish guy.

There’s not enough nice words in the English language to describe this guy, he is a true gentleman who spent two nights showing me around.

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I only hope one day I can repay the favour.

Apart from him there’s only one other person I want to mention in this post – Essex boy.

Basically Essex boy decided it would be fun to psycho-analyse me one lazy afternoon in the park by playing this game where you have to imagine you find a box, a ladder, flowers and a horse in the desert.

The box apparently sums up your personality, the ladder your life goals/career, the flowers your family and the horse – your ideal man.

Now I know it’s just a game but it was freakishly accurate, particularly my horse which I described to him as – ‘a noble white unicorn, which is quite silly because I know they don’t actually exist.’

Ever since then I’ve been petrified I may never find my unicorn and will instead turn into a crazy cat lady, which is slightly ironic considering this daunting realisation happened while I was staying at…

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Why tomatoes are dead to me

It went too smoothly travelling with Melbourne hipster.

I know because within hours of parting ways I find myself holed up in a crappy hotel in the port town of Algeciras on the Spain/Moroccan coast, the lack of air-con gives me a bad case of not only ‘swamp arse’ but swamp whole-body, bed begs cluster-bomb my ankles and wrists, and the shower hose has so many holes it’s like standing under a sprinkler.

I then miss my expensive bus to Valencia – turns out Morocco and Spain aren’t on the same time zone.

So I spend my day camped out at a mediocre cafe waiting for my now night bus and a large portion of the afternoon ignoring this weird Moroccan guy who takes my cold dead shark eyes to his 1000 questions as playing hard to get.

I finally lost it and snapped – ‘I don’t understand you’ to which he changed tact and started writing me notes such as:

‘My name Bumba, you be me friend?’

‘What be you name?’

And finally – ‘you come nap with me at hotel? I don’t mind.’

I think it goes down as the only time I’ve been pleased to board a 12-hour overnight bus, even if I didn’t sleep a wink.

So I spend my first day in Valencia in bed, though I do wake in time for the Requena Wine and Water festival, handily held on the eve of the whole reason I came to Valencia – the world’s largest food fight La Tomatina.

I’ll start with the wine and water festival.

In a nutshell, to celebrate their wine harvest locals’ gather at the bull arena to watch local lads, and in more recent years, intoxicated kiwi and Australian guys get chased by a young bull.

This is going to sound slightly paganistic … but turns out watching cocky drunk men being smashed by a bull is quite funny.

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And, this is going to sound even more paganistic… but watching a handful of hearty females dressed for the occasion in their party dresses, jandals and handbags get even more nailed was even more funny, but funny in that – I should not be laughing kind of way.

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After the novelty wore off we then followed improvised orchestras through the narrow town streets while locals doused us with water from their balconies, all while sampling wine off the back of lorries.

I got very wet but stayed very sober thanks to accidentally buying 0% cider for the bus trip there and there not being enough free wine to go around.

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But it was a blessing in disguise, given the fact we only managed an hour’s sleep before we were back on the bus for Tomatina – something I’ve been determined to do since it was on one of those ‘priceless’ MasterCard tv ads as a kid.

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Apologises in advance but that’s the only photo I have of Tomatina as we didn’t have a waterproof camera to take into the carnage.

I’d give you a brief history of Tomatina but there’s so many stories as to how it started it’s a bit Chinese whisperish.

In a way who cares, because whoever thought it would be fun to pack the narrow streets of Bunol with around 40,000 people and give them a 125,000 tonne arsenal of tomatoes to throw at each other was a legend.

We decided to stay out of the main square out of fear we’d be stampeded or have all our clothes ripped off us but as a result missed out on seeing people try and climb the greasy pole to retrieve a ham. Why? Again, no-one’s entirely sure.

And I was secretly packing myself, as one of my tomboy friend’s told me after attending last year’s carnage – ‘I seriously thought I was going to drown in tomato.’

Turns out drowning in tomato is a remarkably accurate description, as even the side street we were on was calf deep in the tomato/stale water/piss concoction and when the lorries drove past it literally rained tomatoes on our heads.

And over the next hour tomato managed to go everywhere. Everywhere.

But I’m pleased to report in that time I only got badly nailed twice – once in the ear, once in the eyeball. I’ll come back to the eyeball soon…

Afterwards we staggered out of the streets and managed to get horrifically lost trying to find our bus, though we did manage to find a handful of locals (mainly old men) to hose us down.

Before we got on the bus I threw away absolutely everything I was wearing but even then the hour long ride back was horrific.

Turns out the smell of warm tomato is a lot like stomach bile.

Then ‘it’ happened.

I’ll refer to it as ‘it’ because it was one of the grossest experiences of my life.

It all began when I realised I had what felt like a tomato pip wedged behind my eyeball.

So I asked my usually overly helpful kiwi friend to take a look.

Instead she retracted in her seat in horror.

I didn’t have a mirror so I just went in blind with my finger.

I began I pull.

And ‘it’ kept coming.

Without a word of a lie this tomato-coloured eye bogey would have been five centimetres long.

Remarkably my last pair of contact lenses survived Tomatina, in fairness they had to, I don’t have back-ups thanks to England treating contact lenses like they’re Class A controlled drugs.

Fair to say my shower when we got back to the hotel was one of the best showers of my life, even if it did take me three goes to get the tomato pips out of my hair.

The smell, on the other hand, took days.

As a result tomatoes are temporarily dead to me.

And I can safely say that Tomatina was a once-in-in-a-lifetime experience – as in been there, done that, you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again.