Saturday, December 19, 2009

A head full of memories

We had a long flight back home, leaving from Frankfurt airport, stopping over in Seoul half way for 4 hours and then on to Sydney. Time to reflect and ponder the past 3 months! I’ve met so many wonderful and interesting people. I’ve seen some beautiful, stunning and amazing parts of the world. I’ve experienced such diverse cultures. I’ve learnt about religion, history, politics, geography, society, sociology. I’ve seen some inspiring art, heard wonderful music, and eaten delicious food. I’ve learnt a lot about life, myself, who I am and what I enjoy. I’ve enjoyed the explorations and discoveries along the way, the ‘being in the moment’ that travelling inspires, the highs and lows, the exhilarations and exhaustions and the times of fullness and stillness.It is with excitement I return home after such a long and full adventure. A rich, memorable and exciting time of my life, and even though I return home from overseas, I feel that the adventure is only continuing!

German experiences with Good friends

Sitting on a couch in a tiny cosy cottage in country Germany, a glass of wine in hand, chocolate in reach, playing a game of 500 with dear friends filled my heart with warmth and contentedness. Matt and I were staying with our Australian friends Tim and Mandy in their small cottage in Duisdorf, surrounded by green fields, horses and little forest groves. Their cottage was homely, small and simple with one main room decorated beautifully with a country touch by Mandy. There was a small stove fire flickering in the corner creating a deliciously warm glow - a cosy haven from the freezing temperatures of the dark night outside. This was the end of my epic overseas adventure, and it couldn’t be more perfect. The last few days had been wonderful with Tim and Mandy as they shared Germany with us. They picked Matt and I up from Duseldorff train station in their little red mini, heading straight for Christmas Night Markets set up around a castle in the country. There we ate a soupy spinach dinner with a huge sausage floating in the middle of it, shivering in the chilly air. We scoffed down our hearty meal while watching a choir of old men swaying on stage with Santa hats singing Christmas carols in German accompanied by two piano accordions. It was a festive and cheerful atmosphere with many people out, young and old, all rugged up drinking their hot spiced wine. I can understand the need for these markets - breaking up the miserable long winters with something to look forward to. The markets were filled with many artistic home-made items, and I was creatively inspired. As we walked around, we bumped into two older ladies eating an interesting looking pudding desert. Very curious, we all gathered around them both, peering at their food inquisitively. Mandy, our German interpreter, began asking what it was they were eating, excusing us for ‘we were Australian‘. I can imagine how odd we must have been to these women! (I didn’t think of it then, it seemed like perfectly normal behaviour). I think they found us entertaining, as after explaining what they were eating, suddenly one of them began shoving large spoonfuls of her pudding into Tim’s mouth and proceeded to do like-wise with all of us. The other lady exclaimed with laughter ‘yes, that’s right, feed the kangaroos’!! I’m sure if we had stayed longer, they would have fed us all their pudding and bought another one for us!

We went on a road trip the following day to stay in a Castle in a gorgeous town called Monchau. We drove via Maastricht in Holland, and stopped there for a Dutch beer. Very cool to be in Holland! (even if only for a couple of hours!). Sort of surreal to be passing through a country like that. Monchau is a small village in a valley, with two small overflowing rapid rivers diverging in the middle of it.

The buildings are ‘framework houses’ - where the wooden framework is exposed in criss-cross on the outside walls. We enjoyed some more atmospheric Christmas markets here, with more hot alcoholic drinks (very good to warm you up!) and German tucker. Staying in the castle was very exciting. It was converted into a hostel, and the rooms were quite plain, however it was cool to be sleeping in such an old building high up above the village with tremendous views. The excitement increased the next morning when we all discovered it was snowing! It is funny how snow still provokes this child-like fascination and excitement! Along with the snow, came the cold! My fingers and toes were frozen all day! In the afternoon, we headed to a football match between two local teams. I’ve never been to a soccer match before, so it was quite exciting. The packed crazed crowd was pumped, chanting their songs, drumming their drums and waving their fists. We joined them in their singing and clapping and waving about - partly to keep warm. (it was a chilly 1 degree!). We witnessed an historic game, as three of the five goals of the winning team were scored by the opposing side!
Our last day in Germany was spent with Tim and Mandy and their lovely neighbours. A delicious and hearty brunch, a hip-hop dance performance by their (neighbours) talented 8year old son, a game of hacky, a wonder into the nearby forest, a row on a lake, some good conversations and thawing out inside with tea, fires and wine. A great and memorable way to finish the trip off!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Black forest - Germany

Sitting on the train once more to head into Germany - destined for the Black Forest. Train travel has been very enjoyable, a great way to see the countryside. The trains are fast, efficient and very comfortable. The German countryside we passed through was beautiful with green rolling hills, mountains covered in tall pine trees, and cute little villages of colorful cottages with sharp A frame roof-tops.

We arrived in a little town called ‘Triberg’ where we planned to stay for 2 nights. We had only just decided to stay here after we met a German on the train to Basel who mentioned it as a nice town in the Black Forest. Other than knowing it had a waterfall, we didn’t know much else about the town! We disembarked the train, and found out that the station was quite a distance from the town centre. Thankfully, up until now, I hadn’t had to carry my pack very far - so the long walk up hill to the town looked a little daunting. But I managed it, propelled by the excitement of being back in the country air and with the forest looming up ahead of us. The Black Forest isn’t really black, but this is actually where the black forest cake originates from. And, we discovered, is also the origins of the cuckcoo clock. I’m sure you can imagine what most shops sell here!

We went on a long walk into the thick pine forest, admiring a large very full waterfall along the way. We were a bit adventurous as the walks in the forest had all been closed for the winter, but we felt we were safe enough. The day was crisp, the air was cold and the sun was out . A gorgeous day. As we headed higher up the mountain, there was a light covering of snow. It was revitalizing to be hiking!

We found an old bell tower on top of a hill where we enjoyed our little picnic cheese and cracker lunch. The sun was on us, however not creating that much warmth. I was wearing quite a few layers - including thermals, shirt, jumper, vest and jacket, beanie, scarf and gloves - but still ended up frozen to the core. My fingers have not been functioning that well over the past few days - not happy to be out in the below zero temperatures! So we headed back soon, to thaw out in a cafe with a hot tea.
We had a German meal for dinner that evening at a very kitsch German restaurant. German food is quite hearty - sausages, bacon, sauerkraut, dumplings, potato, egg - and the servings were huge!

Christmas markets in Basel

We were both a little sad to leave the mountains behind, however a few wonderful and refreshing days were spent with a beautiful loving family, the Villiers, in Basel. It was lovely to be back in a family environment again. With three young gorgeous girls, we were kept entertained by their games and highly active imaginations. Basel sits on the border of France and Germany. On Sunday, we all piled into 2 cars and drove into France. I thought that was pretty cool. We visited an old ruined castle on top of a hill with some great views.
Matt and I also spent some time in the city of Basel enjoying the festive Christmas spirit of their markets and lit-up decorations. With freezing and long dreary winters, I can see the festivities around Christmas time would be looked forward to with anticipation and excitement! A very different way to experience Christmas than in Australia! Abounding with energy and activity were the street markets in the centre of Basel. I found it amusing to walk through these clean, neatly organized, orderly markets, fresh on my mind the souqs I had experienced in the middle east. The evenings brought many people out, and the market place was buzzing with people doing their Christmas shopping, gathering around stand-up tables eating thick sausages and drowning them with beer. The smell of cheese filled the air, as huge blocks of hot, melting Swiss cheese sat sizzling on metal plates waiting to be scraped off and served with bread. And everywhere, people were walking around with identical mugs, which we discovered were filled with ‘hot spice wine’. No wonder there was a festive spirit!
Basel is not really a ‘tourist’ town, as it is not near any mountains or lake. (Unlike most other cities of Switzerland). However, it has its own charm to it, with its old characteristic European buildings hugging small cobbled alleys, ornate architecture, rich in colour and design and the wide Rhine river running through the centre with typical European arched bridges. Apart from the Christmas markets, we also spent some time in the Art Gallery, excited to find great original art from famous European artists. To top off our cultural experience, we went to a chamber music concert in the evening - so good to see live music again!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mountains SNOW and Schapps

Matt and I were like excited kids as we sat on the fast train from Florence to the Swiss Alps. The scenery was breathtaking, and we kept jumping from one side of the train to the other to catch the amazing views out the window. Huge snow covered mountains that seemed to grow larger as we approached the heart of Switzerland, descending steeply into large still sparkling lakes with gorgeous little villages on the shores. We ended up in a town called 'Grindelwald'. Amazing, majestically massive mountains surrounded the snow covered town. We got off the train, breathing deep the chilly and revitalising air, exuberant to be in this wonderful place! The first dump of snow for the winter season had happened only two nights before we arrived, and it was already almost 1 metre deep. The snow was light, thick and very powdery. Wonderful! Unfortunately we were leaving the town a day before the ski areas were opening up! We found a delightful little B&B run by a warm young couple with 2 cute little kids. Our view was of 2 huge mountains - almost unbelievable to see them rising so high above us!
We took a long walk on some paths through the valley of the region, absorbing the exciting and dramatic landscape, getting chilled to the bone with the fresh cold air. I loved hearing the crunch of the snow beneath my feet, seeing the intense blue sky above us and the sun causing dark shadows on the immense mountains above us. We warmed ourselves up in a little hotel restaurant on the way with a local beverage favourite - hot schnapps and coffee, and then enjoyed a picnic lunch sitting outside in the brisk air before heading back into town.
It was a short stay in the Alps, but will be firmly planted in my memory for ever.

Italian wonderings

I flew to Rome from Cairo to meet Matt who was arriving from Australia. Back to western civilisation, and I was curious to discover I was feeling the effects of ’reverse culture shock’. Seemingly clean, efficient, organized, cold and face-less compared to the warmth and exciting chaos of the Middle east and Africa. However, this was ROME and I was excited to be seeing Matt again and sharing the journey with him! Our Italian trip was a whirlwind adventure. From trekking around ancient Rome, to beautiful Florence and then on to explore the picturesque Tuscan hills all within a week! Pressured travel is definitely not the best way to absorb a country, however we didn’t have the luxury of time on our hands.
Rome was wonderful - to see where this ancient civilisation began - after seeing the expanse of the empire over my travels. We wondered through the ancient ruins and the Colleseum with an excited American girl as our guide who unfolded the 2000 years of amazing history in about 2 hours. She was brilliant, bringing alive the historical events.
One of those special travel moments - when you come face to face with the heart and soul of a city was shared with an old Italian guy during an evening sitting in St Peters square. He was volunterily clearing away rubbish, and came over to talk excitedly to us about the coming Christmas activities in the square. He spoke mostly in Italian passionately and engagingly. It didnt seem to matter to him or us that we didnt understand alot of what he was saying, we just enjoyed his obvious love for his country and city. He then began singing to us some carols in Italian. We felt touched and warmed by his sincerity.
From Rome, we caught a train to Florence, where we hired a car to do a road trip around the Tuscan hills. After experiencing the driving in Cairo, to me, Italian driving was a walk in the park. However, I was only the passenger! Driving on the left-hand side of a different car on the right side of the road in a foreign country is definite test to ones nerve, and Matt was most un-nerved, but he did a fantastic job. Despite finding ourselves on the wrong side of the road only once and going around the roundabout the wrong way, we only experienced 2 honks and one rude sign! Tuscany was as beautiful as the postcards, pictures and Italian films represent and we were rejoicing to be back in the still peace and fresh air of the country! As we drove, the weather began turning as dark clouds rolled in bringing a rich intensity to the colours of the hills against the textured clouded sky. The rain didn’t deter our enthusiasm, as we enjoyed being forced to take things at a slower pace. The town San Gimignano was a special highlight. A tiny walled city, with cobbled pedestrian-only streets winding narrowly through quaint tall stone buildings with wooden shutters on their windows arched doorways and rising turrets and bell towers. We climbed the main bell tower to catch the magical view of the town in the early morning. Colourful terracotta rooftops connecting rows of cute stone houses in a hodge-podge of close living. Rolling hills, washed with the colours of Autumn, textured with trees, vineyards, orchards and open spaces of deliciously green grassland. Breathing deep the crisp country air, hearing the bells of the village ring out the time, feeling the warmth of the morning sun, and enjoying the spaciousness of the moment.
We enjoyed some great Italian food - pizza, pasta, gelato and coffee, but one thing I wont forget was a huge waffle sandwhich with massive scoups of ice-cream. Indulgement!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taxi flight or fight!

An experience in Cairo is not complete if you haven’t been ripped off by a taxi driver! I took a taxi to the airport from Natasha’s apartment. Natasha had said to me it shouldn’t cost much more than 40le. There are two types of taxis in Cairo - the black and white ones that you need to bargain with as they don’t use a meter, and the new all white cabs that have meters in them. I caught an all white cab, thinking that what was on the meter would be what I paid. I jumped in the first one that came past, saying ‘Airport’ to the cabbie. He looked at me blankly, obviously not understanding English, however, drove off with me anyway. I tried
to make things clearer, by flapping my arms around in the back seat - in my mind replicating the exact picture of an airplane flying in the clouds…I think to him, I looked like an over-excited chicken, as he shook his head at me! He pulled over to someone standing on the street, asking if they spoke English, and with luck they did and we were on our way to the airport. I was satisfied when I began to see ‘airport’ signs along the way. We were driving along, when suddenly the driver pulled over and put his hazard lights on. I looked at him, confused. He turned around and signaled for me to wait, then got out of the car and ran off. It took me a little while before it dawned on me that he was probably relieving himself, as I watched the meter tick over! 5 minutes later, he was back in the car and I sighed in relief. As we pulled up to the airport, there was a parking ticket booth, and the driver turned around to me indicating he wanted me to pay. I looked at him in confused, trying to ask why I had to pay since he wasn’t parking. We pulled up to the booth, and the booth guy lent in and explained it was 5le, but didn’t answer my question. The driver picked up the ticket, drove off and kept asking for money. I gave him 5le, and he shook his said, and wanted more, indicating that this was only for one way. It was then I was sure something was really wrong, but couldn’t reason with him. I gave him 20le. We arrived at the airport, sure enough, the meter at 40le. I handed 20le over, with 5le for the ticket. He wasn’t happy. He took the 20le, then before I knew what he was doing, he took 50le out of my wallet. I expected change, he wouldn’t give it, I said no, too much, he merely grinned at me and blew me an infuriating kiss! So in a dramatic display of displeasure, I grabbed all my stuff, gave him a screwed up angry look, got out of the cab and slammed the door. He blew more kisses at me. Cairo had got me, and I learnt a lesson.