A Year in Retrospect: Thoughts From a Sushi Train

It’s 2:00 PM on Saturday, 18th August 2007, 53 weeks after I left Melbourne. I’ve recently turned 23, and I’m sitting in Finchley Road at a Sushi Train realising what an absolutely amazing year I’ve had.

In the past year I’ve set foot on four continents, visited more countries than I can count, met many amazing people, reunited old friendships, and lived some of the most incredible experiences of my life. Be it experiences like riding along the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun sparkles off the Pacific, or floating in a hot air balloon as dawn breaks over Egypt; or be it drinking Kölsch at your friend’s favourite beer-hall in Germany, or realising, for the 100th time, as you stroll along the Thames embankment, that you’re actually living in London. It matters little how big or small the experience, it is each of these which have come together to make the past year as amazing as I had ever hoped for.

It has not, of course, been without hard times. Several things have happened with my family which have been difficult to bare from so far away. But the world doesn’t pause for anyone, and I’ve been lucky to have such supportive family and friends to ease the burden of these times.

Today I had an Andy Day (a term coined by Cynthia; credit where credit is due). To digress for a moment, I’d never really discovered the value of ‘self time’ until a few days before leaving Melbourne. I had met Mum and Dad for breakfast in some suburb; of which I’ve forgotten the name. Though it was the middle of winter the weather was beautiful and I decided to take a drive [back in the days of having a car] into the city and see where it took me. I ended up just wandering Southbank and enjoying simply being in Melbourne. I was amazed at how much more I noticed by just being there, alone, instead of always surrounding myself with people and talk. Prior to this I had always felt sad for those people alone in the movies, or eating dinner in a restaurant without company. Suddenly my attitude changed. This is not to discount how much I love socialising, but there’s a time and place for everything and on this occasion I had a better time in my own company. I realised on that day that some things are better experienced with your full attention; a realisation which helped ease concerns about travelling alone and which enhanced many experiences while I was away.

Back to today: I headed down to London Bridge and wandered to the Tate Modern, having had a Starbuck’s breakfast, where I browsed the Global Cities exhibition. It’s what I love, and hate, so much about London – there is always something new to do, but never enough time to do it all. Having spent a couple of hours wandering the exhibition I headed across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, then jumped on the tube and walked around Covent Garden and Leicester Square before coming to Finchley Road where this story began. It was a simple day but I had a ball and it got me thinking about what an amazing year this has been.

Just over one year ago I said goodbye to friends and family, boarded a Qantas plane and flew to London. I was meant to transit to Brussels but was caught in the 10th August terror threat and lost my connecting flight (for which I will always hate British Airways and refuse to fly them again). Eventually I made it to Belgium and met my friend Minda (with whom I’d travelled briefly in New Zealand) who I spend the next week with exploring quaint Belgian cities, eating great food and sampling some of Belgium’s wide variety of beers.

In mid August I caught the Eurostar back to Waterloo and, the following day, started my 6.5 week tour of Europe. This took me through France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands. I had an amazing time, but probably wouldn’t recommend spending so long on a tour. If you’re not up for fully independent travel, do several smaller tours with breaks in between.

People often ask the highlight of my European experience. While this is an obvious question to ask, and one I’ve been guilty of posing myself, it’s not a question for which I have a simple answer. Europe is so big, so diverse (both geographically and culturally) and the experiences had in each country are so incomparable that it’s hard to say, “I loved x most.” I loved standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower; for me that was the ‘yep, I’m in Europe’ moment’. Later I saw 3000 year old art in an Egyptian tomb. How can these experiences be compared enough to prioritise a favourite?

Following my tour I spent a few weeks in a hostel in London. I didn’t get up to much during this time, as I had myself a cold, but did manage to book a trip across to Germany to see Janina and Vanessa (more friends from my New Zealand trip). It was great to see these two again and I ended up spending three weeks with Janina, relaxing, exploring and enjoying Düsseldorf and its surrounds.

During this time Chris, a mate from Melbourne, came over and we headed to Prague for a few days. This was a beautiful city and provided some great photography as autumn had set in and the leaves were turning golden and falling.

From Prague we went back to Janina’s for a few more days then set off for Italy and Spain. We started in Rome, a fantastic city which I was happy to see again. Chris was an excellent travel buddy with similar interests and a passion for walking and taking as much in as possible by foot. A definite highlight was climbing the dome of St Peter’s and watching the sun set over Rome.

Twenty-four hours later we were watching the sun set over the Mediterranean from the top of a hill in the Cinque Terre, a beautiful, untouched region in northern Italy where time has stood still and preservd the farming traditions of the past. We spent several days here walking between the little villages and roaming the hills. It was a beautiful few days.

Chris and I then took an overnight ferry (trying to use every possible transport this trip) across to Barcelona where we began a couple of weeks exploration on the east coast of Spain. Barcelona was, again, great fun but it was nice to get out of the cities and see some smaller Spanish villages (albeit slightly over-run by British sun seekers).

After Chris and I spent several weeks travelling, walking, talking and solving all the world’s problems over various beverages, I departed for the United States. This part of my trip was, unexpectedly, amazing. I didn’t have the greatest expectations of America due to the culture, as we observe it externally, being somewhat irritating to me. Upon arriving in San Francisco and exploring this city, meeting real Americans and getting back into big city life, I discovered a new found love for the country.

Wandering the streets of San Fran, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop and fire-escapes lining every building, was thrilling. I had only three days there, one of which I spent in the Yosemite National Park, which wasn’t enough and, as with most places I’ve visited, it’s on my ‘repeat required’ list.

From San Fran I made my way to the surprisingly hot LA where I started my US tour taking me from LA, across the south through Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Dallas, Memphis, Florida, then up the east coast through Washington to New York. On the whole it may have been the best weeks I had away. I think maybe this was because my [negative] expectations were always broken, but also because I was surrounded by a great group of people and I was always learning. I think I obtained a more worldly, historical knowledge there than I did in many years of study.

New York City was amazing. Christmas carols playing where-ever you walked made you feel like you were in a Christmas movie and I felt the festive spirit in the strongest way I have since I was a kid. I had ten days in the city across Christmas and New Years and I had an absolute ball. I was up at 7:00 most mornings, not in bed before 1:00 and pounded the pavement for the hours in between. By all rights I should have been exhausted but the city has an energy of its own which gets in your veins and you feed off it! I instantly fell in love and, within the first days, was already planing my life there (in the semi-distant future, of course).

Sadly, come 3rd January, I had to bid the city farewell and head to London to start a more regulated life. NYC waved me off with a stunning sunrise, the Empire State Building silhouetted in the distance against a glowing pink sky. Eight or so hours later I was checking into my hostel in London, exhausted having not slept the night before I left.

Here began my London experience. I started looking for places for Clare and I to live and investigating the job market. A week later Clare arrived and we started our life together in Willesden Green. Clare started work within days of arrival, and I sat at home job hunting and working on my website management software, Simple Site, for ten weeks. The cash problems started and, while I don’t regret this experience in the slightest, I’m still struggling. On a side note, I would recommend coming to London with a job lined up and plenty of savings behind you; it’s an expensive city to get started in.

Eventually I found a job with the Health Protection Agency, doing a PC rollout for three months, before moving onto St George’s Hospital where I am currently working as a desktop engineer.

During the time in London we’ve made lots of friends, had plenty of nights out, dinners, drinks and fun experiences with great people. We’ve made a bit of a surrogate family with Cynthia and Adrian and have been on a road-trip together to the Lake District.

In April Clare and I went to Turkey for a tour which took us through Gallipoli for ANZAC Day. This was an incredible adventure, I really love Turkey and the dawn service was something that, in my opinion, every Australian should experience. Whether or not you have a direct connection to the campaign, it’s a very moving experience.

As the weeks have gone on we’ve done more London experiences. Whatever your interest London caters for it with galleries, museums, theaters, stadiums, concert halls. The tube is the most incredible transport experience in the world and will get you to anywhere you need to be. It took me a while, but if you open yourself up to London it really delivers, and now I’m attached. While I’m sure I’ll love coming home at the end of the year, I don’t think I’ll quite be finished with this city.

To celebrate my birthday last week, coinciding with my anniversary of being away, I flew to Minda in Belgium for a few days, then to Janina and Vanessa for the end of the week. It was good fun to see them again and have some time away from work and the day-to-day life in London. This is where Europe is so amazing. I left London and within a hour was sitting having drinks in a quaint Belgium town. It’s so easy to get to a completely different world.

I really have been so lucky this past year with what I’ve experienced and hope that anyone else who sets out on an adventure like this can have such incredible times also.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to keep in touch. If you know me well, you’ll know my e-mail address. If not, just post a comment and I’ll get back to you.

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Egypt

One thing to say, wow.

This morning I flew back from Cairo to Athens, so yes I did make it through Egypt. What a week though, by far the most different part of the trip yet.

We arrived in Cairo last Wednesday afternoon (I never mentioned before that people applauded when our plane landed – I wonder what type of a landing doesn’t receive an applause) and were instantly met by the craziness that is Cairo. I was pulled out of the customs line into a little room where I shat myself for several minutes and armed Egyptian guards typed my details into a computer, eyed me up and down for a while, then stamped my passport and sent me on my merry way without explanation. Weird!

Then came the traffic. Traffic lights mean nothing, if they’re even working. Nor do headlights, nobody uses them. Nor does anyone use lanes. Talk about organised chaos. Yet we made it a week without an accident.

We made it to our hotel and were cleared through the metal detector before being allowed into our rooms where we had around an hour before our Nile dinner cruise. This was a really great night with music, singing and dancing and, of course, the Nile.

The following morning we headed for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where our guide explained the mummification process and the customs surrounding the mummies and their tombs. We also saw the Tutankhamen display and several preserved mummies. You can’t really describe in words what it’s like to be looking at 3000 year old artifacts, it’s just something that has to be experienced for yourself.

Our next excursion was lunch at the Pyramids, literally. We were eating and they were just there. And after lunch it was time to explore them. They are breathtaking. The single blocks that make them up are taller than a person; it’s unfathomable how they moved the blocks into place. Not to miss any Egyptian experience I decided to climb into the burial chamber of the middle Pyramid, through a 1 x 1 metre tunnel. Bad idea I thought as I got about 10 metres in, but quickly overcame my claustrophobia and was treated by another amazing sight.

Having done the Pyramids, we headed down to the Sphinx to compete with the Japanese tourists for some photos.

That night was our 14 hour overnight train from Cairo to Aswan. We arrived in Aswan in the late afternoon to 40ºC heat. We had time for a quick rest before heading to the Nile for a boat trip to our sunset camel ride. I think we may have used every form of transport by the time we left Egypt. The camel ride was great fun, wandering off into the desert at sunset. We stayed there for a while for photos before heading back to the hotel for dinner.

After dinner (circa 10:00 PM) we jumped in a horse and buggy (driven by a 15 year old kid) and headed for the night markets. These were an experience to say the least. There are merchants everywhere and they just bug the hell out of you. It was near impossible to make a purchase as you didn’t have time to look at or think about what you might want to buy. But it certainly was an experience, especially being offered 20 million camels for a girl in my group and, of course, the offer of pot (just come out the back of my shop).

We made it out alive and went back to the hotel to get a few hours sleep before another early morning.

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Abu Simbel

We had to catch a plane from Aswan to Abu Simbel to visit the Abu Simbel temple. This temple is incredible. I’ll get photos of it up soon. Interestingly, it had been moved several decades ago to higher ground after the valley it originally resided in was flooded by a dam. After a plane flight back to Aswan we spent the afternoon by the pool before heading to Luxor by train.

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Luxor

Luxor was another early night as, the following morning, we had to get up for a sunrise hot air balloon ride. It was my first balloon ride and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting. As we sailed over the Valley of the Kings and Queens we watched the sunrise and saw the villages below waking up to another hot Egyptian day. Most of the homes don’t have roofs due to the fact that it never rains in Luxor. The last time it rained was in 1995. So you can literally see people getting up for the morning, talk about privacy!

Later that morning we went to see the Valley of the Kings and Queens and I got to see King Tutankhamen’s tomb. I hadn’t really realised that it was available for the public to explore, so going into the place I had studied in school nearly a decade ago was fairly surreal. Tutankhamen’s tomb was not as grand or beautifully decorated as the others but still compelled you to stay for some time to take it all in. You knew you were there, but it didn’t feel real.

After the Valley of the Kings and Queens we set off for our night in a little resort town called Hurghada on the Red Sea. The hotel was pretty nice; again we ate by the pool, this time to a bit of dance music which was fun. That night we had a room party before setting off on the Red Sea cruise.

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The Red Sea

The cruise was amazing. I would rate it as good as the time I went out on the Great Barrier Reef, and that day was perfect. The water was crystal clear turquoise, the sun was shining, we couldn’t have asked for a better day.

We cruised for 30 minutes before grabbing out snorkels and jumping overboard to explore the coral reef. It was so clear and there was an abundance of techni-colour fish to swim with (that was the part that was better than the Barrier Reef; although the coral there was more spectacular, the fish in the Red Sea won hands down).

Soon after, lunch was served. We sat up on deck, lounging in the sun; it was great! The rest of the afternoon flowed in the same manner with several more swimming stops.

Later in the afternoon it was time to finish our time in Egypt up with a police accompanied convoy trip back to Cairo. I was a bit sad to leave. Though it was a pretty crazy and dirty place, and though the merchants could be annoying, I thoroughly loved my time and a week went by far too quickly.

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