King Hoo Ping ceremony (Semarang, Indonesia)

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The scent of incense and sounds of chanting and chimes fill the air. We on’t now what will happen next but we watch to see. The air was still a moment ago but since the prayers started it has become windy. My cousin tells me that the wind comes because it is the souls of those passed coming back for the ceremony. Flags that were still a few moments ago wave as the wind gusts the table. The souls have come to join us for the annual King Hoo Ping ceremony at my uncle’s old house in Semarang’s China Town.

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After attending church with one of my cousins this morning, we have been invited to come to the King Hoo Ping ceremony from midday. Naturally, we agree enthusiastically. It turns out this is an important ceremony for my family and their friends. My uncle was raised by a Chinese family and my cousins grew up in the heart of Semarang’s China Town area, spending their days playing in the many temples that abound here. They uphold the Confucian tradition of King Hoo Ping to honour the deceased every year.

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The tables are set with an abundance of food. There are bowls of rice, birds, vegetables, fruits, beers and all manner of foods I don’t recognise. People stand and sit around the tables talking and watching the ceremony. I realise we are actually just partying in the street of the kampung with a big tent over our heads for shade from Semarang’s searing heat. Everyone is festive.

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My uncle arrives just after we do. This is the first time I’ve seen him among people other than the family. I see how well respected he is. And how many laughter lines he has around his eyes. Every time I look he is smiling with someone. He asks me to take photos of him praying at the head of the table. He is one of three sponsors of this ceremony, which is a great honour. To be a sponsor you must receive approval from the spirits; it is not something just anyone can do. My cousins tell me that about a decade ago someone tried to move this ceremony to another nearby location. My uncle was a sponsor and said “okay but you must first ask the souls for permission”. The people didn’t ask the souls and moved the ceremony anyway. That year during the King Hoo Ping ceremony the winds came and blew the tent and tables away. So now the ceremony is back outside my uncle’s house where the souls seem to be happy.

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As I stand there watching the incense rise from the sticks standing in the food offerings something strange happens. Someone special to me appears beside me and touches my shoulder. I know she is here just as she was with me on Kumano Kodo back in Japan. On that occasion her message was that I should not walk the Camino de Santiago di Compastella. A decision that led me to the wonderful experiences I had in Hungary.

On this occasion her presence is again linked with an important travel-related decision I have made. See, last night I decided to end my nomadic life after Turkey. I have enjoyed the experience but am ready to have a new more balanced way of living. One in which I am not just wandering aimlessly but in which I have a home from which I take specific adventures. A life in which Paul and I travel together to see new places and have new experiences, both at home and abroad. I had booked flights to Cambodia in November but have decided not to board that flight. Instead, I will be home with Paul from mid-October to late-December when we head to Europe for the winter. I need structure in my life so from 1 September I have increased my workload to 3 days a week and committed to attend my office on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays when I actually am in Brisbane. That still leaves me the luxury of a four day weekend every week. And I still have the flexibility to travel whenever I want and work my three days a week while traveling. But I think for a little while I want to enjoy some routine of work, fitness training, weekend adventures and road trips with Paul. I hope we can still travel overseas for 2-3 months a year because there is so much more we need to see and experience. But I want to do most of it with Paul; not alone. And, as the spirit of my friend stands behind my at the ceremony, I know that I have made the right decision. Because suddenly I feel at peace and after this day the gastroenteritis will suddenly clear.

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And that’s how I find myself at the Matahari in the evening buying three pairs of business pants and three business shirts at a buy two get one free sale.

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I also buy the first pair of jeans I’ve owned in almost exactly a decade to signify that my wardrobe can expand a little beyond lightweight traveling clothes.

I am excited about the next chapter. I look forward to dropping the two trouser sizes I have gained this past 18 months and feeling attractive again. I can’t wait to have friends around for dinner more regularly and to spend more quality time with my family. It will be fun to have work colleagues and a professional life again in a more regular part-time capacity. And I get goose bumps knowing that Paul and I will have more time together instead of having our relationship tucked into my travel schedule.

Warm Showers in Szeged (Southern Great Plains)

I have organised a Warm Showers host tonight in Szeged so pack camp, do a few hours work, chat with my new friend and head out to explore the city. I am meeting Donat (my Warm Showers host) at 2pm so have a couple of hours to kill in town.

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Szeged has some cool statues and I walk around admiring them. There are beautiful ladies, handsome men, fierce warriors and (I think) inspirational leaders. I am quite a fan of city statues so enjoy checking them out. I won’t bore you with photos of all of them though. Just the ones I like the best (does anyone else wish they had a body like the guy with the flag?).

I go to the museum because it is showing a WWI exhibition. Now I will be honest, I don’t know what side Hungary took in that conflict but I have learned that Hungary was right in the thick of the battles with it being the main link between the East and the West. Thought I did have a read on Wikipedia and see that Hungary was on the losing side, which makes sense given the country’s history as I have been told it by Hungarians while here. Anyway, the exhibition is small but excellent. While there are no English language translations for the stories, I can feel a deep sense of loss and sadness in the display; just as I have in all the war exhibitions I’ve visited. It shows that human life is human life no matter what flag is sewn on the soldier’s arm. Within the display there is a dark room with sandbags lining the walkway. A “man” with a machine gun holds the highest position and “heads” are popping up from trenches around the room. As I walk past the machine gun it starts to “fire” and a video display shows bombs going off and flashes from gun fire. It’s the best interactive WWI exhibit I’ve seen and, thankfully, the closest I have been to a trench. I leave deeply moved by the experience.

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Back outside I visit the Heroes’ Gate, which was erected for the men who fought in WWI. The paintings inside the gate are amazing.

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I have a craving for beef and know that this meat is almost impossible to buy in Hungary at a reasonable price. But there is a McDonalds in the city centre and it has free fast wifi. So I buy lunch and call home (the wonders of Viber mean I can call home for free when I have wifi and the time difference allows). There is a group of men sitting at a table across the street drinking beer. They are dressed in super hero and Star Wars costumes. After finishing a round of beer they stand up, walk into the square and take positions. I first think they are just posing but then they capture an unsuspecting pair of girls. The girls don’t seem scared … they seem to be laughing along. A battle of good versus evil ensues with Superman the last hero standing and the other characters all laying on the ground after many “thuds” and “biffs” and “bams” are thrown their way (it’s all pulled punches not real violence). I reckon this sort of laugh should occur more often. The men then return to their table, order another round, drink it and repeat the display further down the street.

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I meet Donat outside the city hall. He’s a young guy just 19 years old and I can’t help but feel like an old man. He’s oozes cool and confidence. I met him through Warm Showers and he offered to host me for the night. Donat has just completed a month long cycle tour through Europe so he understands exactly what a cyclist needs.

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After taking me to his family’s home so I can dump my bike he takes me out to see Szeged. We walk through the main street, check out his university campus, eat cake and ice cream, and visit the big cathedral. The exterior is being renovated so it doesn’t make a pretty photo just now but inside it is fabulous.

We return to Donat’s home and meet his parents. His mother doesn’t speak English but has a way about her that means it doesn’t matter. She’s friendly, smiling and thoughtful. Donat translates as she asks me about my trip, my life and my plans. Donat’s father speaks English. He seems shy with speaking English at first but soon warms up. Later I will also meet Donat’s sister but she is at work right now.

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Donat’s mother suggests that we go to the nearby thermal baths. They are in a grand old building. Donat and I spend a few hours soaking in baths of different temperatures. This is definitely the way to go. I wish we had baths like this at home. But then again, I’d never get anything done because I’d always be there soaking in the warm water.

We end the night by eating pizza for dinner and watching a movie at Donat’s house. It’s so relaxing. I am grateful to them for their hospitality. I see a different side of Hungary than the one I have learned about from those who are struggling. This is the generous, more comfortable and confident side of the country. One that ought not be ignored or forgotten.

I fall asleep in my own private room feeling relaxed, welcomed and content.

Rest day in Szeged (Southern Great Plain)

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After days of extreme dry heat, the weather gods have decided it’s time to give us a break. It’s a about 23’C and overcast as I slide out of my bivy. Annoyingly, I am still awake too early and can’t get back to sleep. But the view of Szeged on the other side of the river is fantastic and it’s really no hardship to be up.

I jump on my bike and start to ride out of the camping to buy some bread and bananas for breakfast when the Belgian couple camping nearby call out to me. I spoke with them yesterday and they know I understand their Flemish words. I am invited to join them for breakfast. They have only two chairs but a step ladder will suffice. They share their food and I enjoy some bread, bananas and yoghurt washed down with a very delicious herbal tea. By the time I leave their camp it is 11:30am … four hours after I sat down.

I hang out at the camping ground using the wifi to knock out some work. The guy from the camping comes over with some pork and cabbage that his mother made me for lunch. It’s delicious. We talk for a few hours about his life in Hungary and his experiences of where his country has been and is going. He explains that the average wage in Hungary for an educated person is about 250-300 euros a month and that the people who mow lawns or are working to renovate the camping ground swimming pool might make 150 euros a month if they are lucky. Most young Hungarian people stay living at home for a long time (he’s in his early thirties but cannot afford to move in with his girlfriend due to financial hardship). I hear about how in 2008 the housing market crashed in Hungary. Not like in Australia where the market dropped about 10% but crashed to the extent that people like his family lost their homes and lost all their equity too. This is why there are so many houses either abandoned or for sale. Because the owners cannot afford the repayments and no one can afford to buy the houses. He has a degree in philosophy from a German university; speaks Hungarian, English and German fluently; is gregarious and generous. Yet it’s a struggle. He tells me personalities and behaviours, and how it will take 3-4 generations to overcome these effects but that the global world expects Hungary (and other former Soviet nations) to change within 1-2 generations. (I should mention that my mother told me something similar). It’s interesting and I am grateful to him for being so open about his experiences. He tells me that he is a patriot and missed Hungary while he was studying abroad. He wants a better future for his country and his countrymen. And he has decided that he will do his part by being friendly, outgoing and welcoming to foreigners so that they enjoy his country and share positive stories about their experiences. He doesn’t resent the West for being wealthy. Rather, he knows that the money we spend in his country will eventually help and that our ideas and happiness might be infectious.

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Later he invites me to dinner with his girlfriend. They take me to a fish soup restaurant. The meal is absolutely delicious and the company even more so. I just wish it wasn’t so prohibitively expensive for them to come to Australia because I’d love to show them around my country too. I can only hope to come to Hungary again to catc