Christmas with Oma (Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands)

I walk immediately to the right side of the car to drive it. This awkward “wrong side of the road” faux pas never fails to amuse me. There’s nothing suave about that first dorky moment when you can’t work out how to change gear with the wrong hand, flick on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators nor look the wrong way at the intersection. But we survive and hit the motorways of Holland to drive across the country for Christmas with my Oma (grandmother).
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We make good time on empty roads until I see the sign. It advertises a massive puntzak friet at the next service station. And that’s how we come to eat our first hot chips with mayonnaise and need croquettes of the trip. It’s just service station food but it’s presented so beautifully; not just slapped on a plate.
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We get a bit lost finding Oma’s house. A lap of tiny Hilvarenbeek ensues with its one way lanes and dead ends. But eventually we find the place and are entering the Christmas dinner preparation sanctum. Oma and my aunt from Portugal are cooking up a storm. As afternoon becomes evening more family arrive to fill Oma’s small home. It’s quite the gezelig feast with conversation, good food and laughter. There’s no gifts exchanged because that’s not part of the Dutch Christmas tradition: it’s all about connection and family.

After the long journey to be here we last until 7:30pm before we drive to my uncle and aunt’s home nearby and fall asleep almost instantly.

Cycle tour preparation

It’s only 17 days until I depart on what was a Brisbane – Bathurst bike ride but is now a Brisbane – Sydney via Bathurst cycle tour. I am excited to be setting off on another cycle tour. I haven’t done one since Hungary in July 2015. And, to be honest I have missed traveling by bicycle.

This trip will be different to my previous cycle tours because I am going to be largely self-sufficient. On previous tours I’ve bought food along the way and largely stayed in formal accommodation, whether camping grounds or hotels. But this time I am departing from my front door and traveling in a country where I am familiar with the landscape, laws and customs. So I have prepared a route based on the WikiCamps AU app, which shows the location of formal and informal camping areas in Australia. This means I have been able to find a good mix of bush and formal camping areas. I need formal ones sometimes for power recharge and shower. But I am excited to be doing some more remote bush camping too.

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I’ll be traveling light, carrying just:

  • bivy
  • sleeping bag
  • liner
  • sleeping mat
  • ground sheet
  • small lantern
  • hiking gas stove
  • gas canister (or two)
  • spoon
  • knife
  • cooking pot
  • food rehydration jar (plastic peanut butter jar)
  • laptop (for work)
  • mobile phone
  • charger cable for laptop and phone
  • charger blocks for phone
  • hand pump
  • tyre levers
  • tube patches
  • multitool
  • spare folding tyre
  • zip off pants x 2 (wear one, carry one)
  • long sleeved shirts x 2 (wear one, carry one)
  • lightweight thermal top
  • soft shell jacket
  • t-shirt (for at night)
  • underwear x 4 (wear one, carry three)
  • socks x 3 (wear one, carry two)
  • beanie
  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste
  • soap
  • microfiber towel
  • Scrubber washing bag
  • small bag washing powder
  • water
  • food.

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I’m also bringing most of my own food. This will allow me the flexibility to wild camp, save me from carrying heavy fresh foods that I find in shops along the way and ensure I stick to the healthy eating plan I’m on right now. I have a dehydrator so this makes it possible to carry plenty of good tasty and healthy foods without carrying weight. Here’s a rough list of foods I’ll be carrying:

Breakfasts

  • semolina with sultanas (semolina, powdered milk, sultanas)
  • dehydrated baked beans (red kidney beans, onion, home made tomato sauce, freeze dried shop-bought Parmesan cheese)
  • oats with sultanas & banana (oats, powdered milk, sultanas, dehydrated bananas)

Lunches

  • dehydrated pumpkin & sweet potato soup
  • pasta with tomato and mushroom (pasta, dehydrated tomato, capsicum and mushroom)
  • noodles with vegetables & eggs (rice noodles, dehydrated zucchini and carrot, powdered eggs)
  • some bought lunches

Dinners

  • dehydrated chili con carne with corn chips
  • Thai chicken with rice noodles & vegetables (rice noodles, dehydrated Thai chicken mince, dehydrated zucchini, beans & carrot)
  • sweet & sour beef with vegetables (rice noodles, dehydrated beef mince, pineapple, sweet potato & pumpkin)
  • spaghetti bolognaise (pasta, dehydrated beef mince, home made tomato sauce, mushrooms & freeze dried shop-bought Parmesan cheese)
  • chicken curry with noodles (rice noodles, coconut milk powder, curry powder, dehydrated chicken mince, sweet potato & pumpkin)
  • chicken & bacon pasta (pasta, dehydrated chicken & bacon, home made tomato sauce, zucchini and carrot)

Deserts

  • custard with fruit (custard powder, powdered milk, sugar & dehydrated strawberries)
  • chocolate pudding (cocoa, cornflour, sugar, powdered milk)
  • stewed fruits (fresh fruits from shops along the way)

While the food looks like a huge list, it’s amazing what dehydration does. For example, three sweet potatoes fill just 1/3 of a sandwich bag, 7 tomatoes & 10 mushrooms fill just 1/2 a sandwich bag, and 8 serves of home-made tomato sauce dehydrated as a bark fill just one sandwich bag.

I’ll be having a shakedown ride next Friday. It’ll be on the fat bike but will use the same bikepacking kit as I will use on my tour.

 

An afternoon in Lisbon (Portugal)

The train takes an easy hour to reach Lisbon. I have instructions to get off at a certain station but I decide to get off earlier. It’s a glorious day for a walk and the train is the worst way to see a city. Walking is the only way. Besides, it’s only 2km (1.4 miles) from the first station in Lisbon to my destination. Why not enjoy the sunshine and sights.

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I could go sightseeing here. I have about five hours before my cousin finishes his university classes. But sightseeing is not really what I do. I have missed more “must see” sights in the past two years than I have seen. So why start racing around now. It’s a good day to just chill and see what I see. Like this very cool scooter belonging to a member of the Vespa Club of Lisbon. The stickers tell of a life of adventure.

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I walk past a massive billboard advertising the Communist Party of Portugal. The old hammer and sickle motif getting plenty of airplay. There are Communist Party headquarters in many villages and towns here. It’s an odd sight when you are from a country where that philosophy only exists in the guise of other names. I pass some street art not far from the billboard and wonder whether it is a reference to the same philosophy or whether it’s just coincidence. The themes in the art indicate it is.

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I stop at a mini market to buy some bread, chicken and grated carrot. It makes a delicious picnic lunch in the square where I am headed. This cool building has been preserved and a shopping mall built underneath. It’s a pretty place to eat lunch while the pigeons wait at my feet for scraps I might be so careless as to drop. This is what I like to do in cities – walk randomly, see what I see and picnic in parks.

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I haven’t yet seen a movie in Portugal and it would be remiss of me to skip this country. In Spain movies are dubbed (do not get me started on how stupid dubbing is and how it totally destroys the film experience – even in Australia we subtitle foreign films) so I skipped the movie experience in that country. But in Portugal movies are shown in original tongue with subtitling. The cinema is small but has a very cool foyer with loads of movie-themes statues. A few selfies pass the time before the ticket office opens. Brooklyn is the only film showing this early in the afternoon so that’s what I see. I have the entire cinema to myself. It’s a small cinema so the screen is just a large square frame with a white screen taped over it. But it doesn’t matter – I’m ticking off Portugal as one of my movie-going countries and I’m enjoying the whole thing.

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My cousin lives nearby (not in these flats) and comes to pick me up from teh cinema. After dropping my gear, he takes me for a walk of his city. A city he obviously loves to live and skate in.

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He takes me to the downtown area so I can see some of the most familiar aspects of Lisbon, like the yellow trams.

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Naturally, we go to the big square where tourists flock to take photos of the statues and arch. It was all rebuilt in the 18th Century after a massive earthquake caused the city to be burned. My cousin, a passionate student of architecture, tells me that the whole main boulevard and square was created mathematically so that the big entrance arch always circles the statue and never blocks it off from anywhere on the boulevard. It’s a pretty impressive feat of design.

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Across the road is the river. The late afternoon sun shimmers off the waters and the ode to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is perfectly silhouetted on the skyline. It’s all very glamorous indeed and I can appreciate why people love Lisbon so much.

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We meander some more, taking in the atmosphere. There’s a cafe with a stunning view so we stop for a drink. A glass of milk is one of the options on the menu. It’s a strange choice but suddenly I just need to drink some milk. And, given that I’m making non-sugary choices, a hot chocolate is the one drink I want to avoid. I’ve never sat at a cafe drinking a glass of cold milk before and might never get the chance to find this on the menu again.

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Back on foot an old car catches my attention. We have old cars at home but they are different brands to the old clunkers here in Europe. I always say I’m not a car person but oddly enough I have more than my fair share of car photo on my Instagram account. I guess I like the shapes, colours and stories that these inanimate objects we place so much value in tell.

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As we walk we discuss all manner of things. Especially the light of Lisbon and the way it brings out the colours of the city. The pastels that looked so washed out in the villages of the Alentejo are perfectly at home in this city where the blue sky is tempered by surrounding buildings and trees. I realise it’s too bright in the villages for these colours to pop, especially not against the bight whites, blues and yellows of the other houses. But here in Lisbon it works and gives a magical warm glow.

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The shapes of the buildings are also pretty. A perfect blend of historical and new. A mix of original and recreated. A song of function with style.

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We watch the sun setting in the west from a few different vantage points. This is something I will miss at home – sunsets that take longer than 10 minutes to be completed. I won’t get the chance to change location to get a different view of the sunset when I am home where the time between daylight and total darkness is less than a quarter hour long.

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We walk a lot through local neighbourhoods beyond the invisible border that separates the tourist zone from the locals’ homes. It’s fascinating this dance that exists in the world’s big cities between what the tourists and touts own, and what is left to its own devices. The tuk tuks are gone now. As are the trams. And the big flashy cameras are nowhere to be seen. Menus are in Portugese again and there’s no signs in English advertising “genuine” Fado music.

We take dinner at Mr Lu’s Chinese restaurant. My cousin tells me it’s the best Chinese in town and that we are going there to celebrate our Sino ancestry (our great grandmother was Chinese and our grandmother is from Indonesia). The food is amazing and I can highly recommend it if you are in Lisbon. Look it up. It’s well off the beaten path from the tourist menus of Spanish paella and Italian pizza. We sit and talk for ages eating the most delicious duck and crab and noodles. There are twenty years to catch up on so the conversation flows all the way back to my cousin’s apartment.

Today was my final day in Portugal. It’s been a fantastic ride. As I write this I am preparing to fly back to Holland for my final few days in Europe.

Ice cream fondue and Semawis market (Semarang, Indonesia)

I’m feeling a bit better this morning. I actually slept last night and we don’t get picked up by my cousins until midday. That leaves plenty of time for sleeping. I have a few dry sweet cookies that Paul bought me last night with a hot unsweetened tea for breakfast in our room. We watch the IAAF Athletics World Championships on the television and relax. I feel a little more human today. 

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We’ve arranged to take my cousins and their kids to Hagen Daz for ice cream fondue. This is the only place I know where you can buy this wonderful treat made with real melted chocolate, not a mere chocolate flavoured sauce. I’ve been looking forward to this all week and am so grateful to be starting to feel better. We talk and laugh and eat ice cream. The children are especially excited by the experience, even though they are still wary of this strange blue-eyes white man they are told to call “Oom” (uncle). ( Note: Credit for the beautiful photos to my partner Paul)

We stay at the Paragon Mall together all afternoon because we have lunch there. I can just get down about three or four mouthfuls of nasi goreng (Javanese style fried rice). But at least my relationship with the bathroom isn’t as strong anymore. 

It’s after 4pm when my cousins drop us at a massage place near our hotel for reflexology. We have been missing this part of our trip in Semarang with me being sick. The shop only has one therapist so we take turns having a one hour treatment each. If you are in Semarang I cannot recommend SyncQ’s Massage in China Town strongly enough. The guy is fantastic and trains his staff so they will be good too. It’s the first time anyone treating my feet has noticed and worked around my heel spur or tight painful Achilles’ tendon. And I had to stifle a laugh when he mentioned that my feet have the same structure as a woman’s feet. Hahaha. I guess he knew what he was talking about but not why. 

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Feet massaged we walk back to our hotel. It’s now after 7pm and the Semawis Market is in full swing. We take in the sights and smells but I am not yet ready to risk local food. I am feeling about 85% of my usual self and want to be 100% tomorrow for our last day in town. So, instead we drop off our gear at the hotel and take teo becak (trishaws) to McDonalds (don’t judge … It’s  only food). The good news is that I am feeling hungry for the first time in days so have no difficulty eating my double cheese burger then stopping at Baskin Robbins for dessert (I didn’t eat much of the ice cream at Hagen Daz). 

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We end the night on a high note when we find a bookshop. Despite my being so ill, we have decided to return regularly to Indonesia. We both love it here, it is so close to home and we have enjoyed spending time with family. We have already made an arrangement with one of my cousins that we will all three train so that next year we can hike up Gn. Muria, Gn. Ungaran and Mt. Telemoyo. I might also try to organise a hike of Gn. Merbubu during the same trip. But to really enjoy these plans we need to speak some Bahasa. So we buy some children’s books, a phrase book, a dictionary and a teenage fiction book. The last one is just a personal challenge for myself. It will help me measure my progress as more of the words in the book become familiar. My vocabulary has probably tripled already since last year to cover more words and three separate base sentences:

  • A is from X (e.g. “Saya dari Australie” or “Saya sepupu dari Semarang“). 
  • B likes Y (e.g. “Saya suka coklat” or “Kau suka pisang?”)
  • C wants Z (e.g. “Saya mau tiket keretaapi” or “Nina mau minumum dingen?”)

I also know the greetings for morning, afternoon, evening and night time; how to say and respond to “How are you?”; how to ask price; my numbers up to 99 (learned the hard way after making a mistake on a bargained price by a factor of ten … Haha); mother, father, cousin, child, grandmother; many foods including hot, cold, sweet, unsweetened, salty and sour; and of course the important yes, no, thank you and delicious. It’s not enough for a conversation but just writing this I realise I have learned a lot in just two trips here. Imagine how much Paul and I can learn in a year by speaking some Bahasa together at home.

I feel good for the first time in a week. Last night I just wanted to go home. Tonight I am happy (saya senang). 

Malang old and new (East Java, Indonesia)

We’re both feeling much better after “enjoying” traveler’s bellies for a few days. We’ve stopped eating street food to let our stomachs settle and that seems to have done the trick. So we’re ready to walk.  

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We start with a walk to the train station to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s trip to Probolinggo. At first the process seems complicated and slow because there are people standing around waiting for the numbers to be called. So we take a number and realise there are literally 100 people ahead of us. I watch people filling in forms so do the same. Google told us we need to change train in Bima so it’s good that we saw the customer service area and take a ticket to go there too. We learn there is a direct train to Probolinggo tomorrow afternoon that only takes about 2.5 hours instead of the 4.5 hours that Google recommended. Customer service completes our form and sends us directly to a counter with just two people before us. Easy.  

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Tickets bought we can relax. Sort of. I mean, we are walking around a Javanese city dodging heavy traffic. This huge park in the photo is actually a roundabout. It’s peaceful despite being probably one of the busiest intersections in town. I could probably lay on the grass quite happily with my eyes closed soaking up the atmosphere. Instead we continue walking. Behind our hotel there are quiet back streets with modern houses. These are a stark contrast to the hovels that line the filthy creek here in town. Here, these houses are mansions though some are probably no bigger than the house I sold last year. How life has changed. Living in such a huge house seems so unnecessary to me now.

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The military museum is nearby so we go there. Entry is by donation. The collection is extensive but uncurated. There is just stuff everywhere: guns, trophies, flags, an old car and these random old computers. The computers make me think about my dad who worked on some of the first commercial computers way back early in his career. He told me stories about computers that took up whole rooms so I bet he remembers these old clunkers too. They even have punch card.

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Leaving the museum we walk down Ijen Boulevard. It is a famous road here in Malang because the style is so colonial. I feel like I am back in Orlando, which I visited with my sister in 2012. I almost expect to see American pickups driving past instead of the zippy scooters.

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It’s hot outside and there’s a reflexology shop on a side street so we indulge. Sure, we have an appointment for tonight but at 50,000IDR ($AU5) an hour it can’t hurt to have another. Well, it sure can hurt. The massage men had sting bony fingers that found every tender spot on my feet and calves. I do my best not to pull my feet away; flinching often. The masseuse doesn’t speak or understand English so no point asking for softer. Besides, it’s probably good for my muscles.

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After 10km walking we reach Toko Oen (actually only 1km from our hotel but we like to explore on foot). It’s a colonial institution that has seen better days and the food is (quite frankly) terrible and expensive. But hey, you can’t come to Indonesia and not try experience colonialism. It’s part of the story here.

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Hunger not satisfied we stop at the Houtenhand bar. We’ve been eyeing this cute place off since we arrived. It is hipster cool done to perfection. This is definitely the future of Java. It’s creative, ingenious and stylish. The bar would be popular in any global city, particularly because it is not overpriced. And I want to make a cassette tape lamp fitting at home too like the one I saw here.

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We end our old and new Malang day back at the park in the roundabout. The flowers are lit up now and cheerfully smile on us. It’s funny how the smallest thing can bring so much joy.

Maliobororo Street (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)

I spend the entire night shivering with fever as my skin burns up. It started almost immediately after we return from Jomblang Cave. I have a splitting headache and feel like I have just run a marathon. I try to take a shower but start to shake uncontrollably as soon as I undress. Unfortunately, the hot water isn’t working so I can’t get warm. Paul gets me an extra blanket from reception as I can’t get warm. He tells me that my skin is very hot. Between the cold and having to get up every hour to urinate I hardly get a wink of sleep.

I’m still exhausted and feverish when I wake. I have the runs and nausea. Things are looking grim but I can’t sleep so grab my laptop and head downstairs to do some work. An hour later Paul joins me and the Internet drops out. I am terrible company when sick so head back to bed. 

It’s 1pm before I open my eyes again. Paul has come to keep me company and to have some extra sleep himself. I still feel under the weather but also know that if I not force myself to get up I could fall into a pile of misery. Dr Google had told me I probably have a gastrointestinal virus that will go away with rest, water, not eating too much and drinking some electrolyte mix. I’ve now slept, eaten nothing and drunk a few bottles of Pocari Sweat (the most common sports drink in Asia). 

We walk down the road for a massage. It’s better than sitting around in the hostel but doesn’t take too much energy. Also, a reflexology massage might help my body recover a bit. After all, the process works on the whole body including the gut and head. 

We try to have lunch at a cafe but I become nauseated at the thought of food. Instead I sit in the hostel common room to eat an apple and chat with both another guest and Oscar the owner. Paul ducks next door to an Italian restaurant for take away spaghetti bolognaise that costs four times the average cost of meals here but is tasty and clean and good to give his upset gut a rest too. Oscar is a young guy just 29 years old and he is running a wonderful guest house (OstiC House). It’s always wonderful to chat with locals and learn something of their lives and cultures. 

I’m still feeling blah but Paul insists he doesn’t want to lay around the hostel all night. He doesn’t care where we go as long as we get out. He’s right too. Besides, it’s Independence Day so there is bound to be something happening.

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We walk all the way to Malioboro Street. At first I hesitate and say I can’t make it that far. But the air is cool and there’s lots to see so before I know it we have walked the 4km (2.5 miles) from our hostel to Malioboro Street. 

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There’s so much happening here. People are dressed in crazy costumes taking money for photos. A man has snakes that you can hold for a photo (I don’t dare). Hawkers sell t-shirts, bags and other souvenir items. Food stalls spew forth the delicious smells of Indonesian street food as people sit on carpets eating from low plastic tables. 

We indulge in the modern side of Indonesia with a cronut, donut and iced chocolate at J. Co. It’s delicious (though drinking milk was risky given my stomach’s earlier issues). 

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I even dare to eat, selecting some nasi kucing (cat rice – not made of any cats). I have two small parcels of the dish: rendang telor (egg in Indonesian curry) and a chicken dish (tiny chicken foot and neck). The portions are barely more than a mouthful; just enough to keep hunger at bay but not enough to challenge my gut. 

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I try to buy a t-shirt on the way back. I like the “My Trip My Adventure” shirts that I later learn are inspired by a National Geographic TV show. But I am too fat, even for the XL size (I must do something about that). I do find a sticker for my motorbike though so that’s a nice alternative. 

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We stop to listen to a band playing traditional instruments. They are very good. A crowd had gathered and many people (including me) take videos of the performance (or part of it). This area is a roadway though so a man with a whistle and orange baton manages the crowd to guide bicycles, becaks, scooters and passing pedestrians through the crowd. He’s very efficient and enthusiastic. Probably the effects of years of practice and working for tips. 

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I’m glad we went out because I feel much better. I still have a mild headache but my spirits have lifted and my gut feels more at ease. We even walk all the way back to the hostel instead of taking a becak like I had originally planned; taking our day’s total to about 13km. The walking is a nice way to see the city (I am seeing more of Yogya than I did last year when I was here with a scooter) and is also good training for my hike in Turkey next month. 

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We will return to Malioboro Street when we go back to Yogya before we fly home. We want to buy some gifts and maybe if I keep up the walking and running training over the coming three weeks I will fit into an XL t-shirt 🙂

Izakaya in Ise (Kansai)

One thing I have learned in the past year is that I need to pace myself when I travel. This means taking time out from sightseeing to do my work and university study, rather than trying to mix the two. I need to work about 20 hours every week. In Korea I traveled almost every day and then worked 3-4 hours almost every night. Here in Japan I am trying a new approach. I am stopping to have two work days a week where I do not go sightseeing. Then I travel five days a week, only dealing with work if an urgent email requires my attention (my boss is really good at ensuring she communicates clearly what is and isn’t urgent and by keeping what is urgent to what is necessary). So, given that I am staying in a hostel where there is fast wifi, power and a comfortable bunk, I stay indoors and get productive (besides, it is my 20 hours a week of work that funds my travels because money doesn’t grow on trees for me either).
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But then, at the end of the day, I am ready to head out for dinner. My new Israeli friend and I have made an arrangement to go back to the izakaya at 7pm to try more of their food. And I have invited a Swiss couple living in Paris who arrived today to join us. The izakaya is full but a group of men are finished their meal so they leave, allowing us to go in. I eat some fresh peas dipped in Japanese mayonnaise followed by soba noodles washed down with a small glass of beer. We laugh our way through the meal and the bar tender / chef becomes even more animated, downloading an app on his phone so that we can speak with him through the translator (which sometimes translates weird things). It’s a rollicking good night with great company and leaves me ready to travel on to the next place in the morning.