Reflections on Poland

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As we sit at the airport waiting for our flight back to Holland I am struck by two things. Firstly, how mean is it for the snow to fall today instead of the for the past two days. And, secondly, that Poland has been an amazing country to travel.

When we first told people we were traveling to Poland in the winter, we received two common responses: “Are you crazy? It’ll be too cold!” and “Why would you want to go to Poland?”. To the first response, I simply responded with “We have good quality layers for warmth” and to the second I responded with “Why not?”.

Having now been to Poland in the winter I can tell you that it is cold but that with good layers and a more relaxed pace of travel you can thoroughly enjoy this country and all it has to offer. To help others planning a trip to Poland in the winter, here is what I wore most days:

  • Fleece lined beanie
  • Fleece neck warmer
  • O’Neil ski jacket shell
  • Kathmandu Altica 100 fleece pull over
  • T-shirt
  • Mountain Designs mid-weight merino long-sleeved thermal top
  • Fleece gloves
  • Regular underwear
  • Quechua winter trousers (cost about $AU30)
  • Quechua Forclaz 100 socks (1 pair only – I don’t layer my socks)
  • Quechua Forclaz 600 winter hiking boot (Paul used the Quechua Arpenaz 500 boot, which worked well too)

We also carried merino thermal long johns and a 700 weight goose down jacket but it didn’t get cold enough to use them. We were fortunate that the coldest it got while we were outside was -14’C and the average hovered around -2’C during the day and -7’C at night. What I’ve learned from the experience in relation to weather is that I don’t need to avoid winter because it has it’s own beauty … one to which we’re both quite hooked now and we’re already talking about a return to Eastern Europe in January-February 2017.

But what about Poland as a travel destination? I think my blog tells the story of that. It’s wonderful. Poland has embraced tourism in a positive way. It’s easy to rent a car and drive around the country independently. And I highly recommend renting apartments, rather than staying in hotels. Our one experience in a hotel was in Warsaw where we stayed in the Mercure. Seriously, Poles do not understand hotels – our sheets were dirty and then we were expected to make our own bed when the staff brought us clean sheets. But they have wonderful apartments and the landlords of the apartments know how to make them feel like home, right down to apartments often having fresh flowers in vases and better quality linens than even the Mercure (a four star hotel).

I was sad to leave Poland because I enjoyed the pace of travel there. Late morning starts and late night finishes felt good. My blog fell behind because we were having too much fun to take time out for writing. The food is excellent unless you are a vegetarian, in which case I’m sure you’ll find something to eat but sorry it won’t come close to roast pork knuckle or Polish sausages.

The past two weeks in Poland had everything from the gut wrenching stories we heard at Auschwitz, Schindler’s Factory and the Warsaw Uprising Museum to the now lighthearted fun of Wroclaw’s dwarfs and playing in the snow. It made us ponder the role of religion in society and rejoice at the joy of skiing. As far as travel goes, Poland has definitely entered the top three places I’ve been along with South Korea and Hungary. Perhaps I just like the dark horses.

18 years ago today (Transit home from Indonesia)

Half my life ago I turned 18. And 18 years ago today I was having the longest birthday ever as I crossed multiple time zones on a flight from Australia to Spain. It was the day of Princess Dianna’s funeral and our stop over in Singapore was dominated with television screens showing this sad event. An event I still don’t connect with because it’s not as though I knew the princess personally. And besides, it was my 18th birthday; a time for celebration. 

My dad was traveling with me to the World Duathlon Championships in Gernika. I was representing my country in a dream come true adventure with my dad. On this day 18 years ago it was both my birthday and Fathers’ Day so instead of watching The funeral we found a TV that was playing cartoons, bought lots of lollies and chips (I distinctly remember a packet of Pringles being in the mix) and enjoyed the transit. 

We celebrated my birthday at midnight in every time zone we flew through, making it possibly the longest but quietest 18th birthday party ever. 

Today I turn 36. And, as I was 18 years ago, I am on a long international transit. I began the day in Yogyakarta, lunched in Kuala Lumpur and will fall asleep somewhere over the ocean between Malaysia and Australia. But the time I land my birthday will have passed and my dad will be waiting at the airport to pick us up. Yesterday was Fathers’ Day and so, again, it is like a double celebration for us. 

A lot has changed in the 18 years since I achieved legal age. I don’t feel 36 years old. My mother will say I am heading for 40. But thankfully I won’t see her until my parents and I are together in Turkey next week. So she’ll have to wait with that one 😉

In the past 18 months I’ve seen so much and traveled so far. I’ll only be home for a week before I board another flight out of Australia. This time to a Turkey where I will go sailing, hiking and camping with my parents. And after that another change to my lifestyle that is yet to be fully determined.

But that is tomorrow. Today I turn 36. And I am waiting at Kuala Lumpur for the second leg of our flight home from an amazing trip to Indonesia 

Reflections on Hungary

I had no idea what to expect when I booked my trip to Hungary. I based my decision to travel there on the recommendation of two Hungarian backpackers who I met at Mt Fuji. Before booking the flight I had been seriously considering walking the Camino de Saniago de Compastella. I was ready to book flights but something was stopping me. I guess I realised that I am not looking for a sense of myself. Yes, like all travellers I am searching. But while I was in Hungary I realised that it’s not me I’m trying to find. Rather, I am trying to discover the world and the way I want to live in it. And that’s a very different quest to the one that had previously drawn me to the Camino pilgrimage many years ago when I first started thinking about wanting to do it.

Hungary was an amazing experience. I loved the castles, thermal baths and people. The quiet country roads and plentiful cycle routes made cycling a dream. The plentiful clean, secure and quiet camping grounds with first class facilities made finding a place to sleep simple. And the delicious, cheap and plentiful pastries made eating pleasurable.

My pace of travel in Hungary was different. I rode long mileages but felt more like I was on holidays than an adventure. It was a nice feeling. Though I did miss the adventure too.

The long and short is that I loved Hungary as a country. I am already saving to return next year with Paul to drive around and see some more of Hungary and either Slovakia or Slovenia. But for now, I have been home for a week and am settling back in to life in Oz for the next six weeks before Paul and I travel to Indonesia. My blog might be quiet but I will share some of my adventures while I’m home.

Reflections on Malaysia

I’m up in the air with a full row of three seats to myself. In about six hours I’ll be landing at Kansai International Airport, Osaka Japan. As usual, I have no idea what to expect of the land to which I am traveling other than that it’s a country famous for samurai, cherry blossoms, Toyota and bullet trains. But I’m not there yet and as I sit here I find myself reflecting on my time in Malaysia and how it fits into the bigger scheme of my quest for 42.

Originally, Malaysia was not a destination of itself. It was meant to be a two week intermission in a longer trip to Japan. A chance to catch up with Paul so that our time apart did not extend beyond a month. As it turned out, I moved my flights so that I will only have one month in Japan. I moved them for a range of reasons but mostly to give Paul and me a chance to live together and create a basis on which to build something real. And so, instead of being a reunion trip, Malaysia became a destination in its own right.

The thing that stands out about the past fortnight are the Malaysian people. For me they are up there with South Koreans as one of the most genuinely friendly cultures I’ve experienced. Unlike Thailand where I felt like people were only nice if they wanted my money, in Malaysia I felt a sense of hospitality and warmth. This is not a wealthy country but it seems like a country that proudly stands on its own feet without looking up in awe at its old colonial oppressors (unlike Indonesia where white folk are called ‘sir’) or white skinned tourists (unlike Thailand where white folk are ATMs) who pass through.

Speaking of tourists, most of the tourists we saw were from Asia. While there were certainly some white tourists in Melaka and Kuala Lumpur, they had that air of passing through on short transits visiting places easily accessible from the airport. Once night came or when we ventured away from the main transit routes it was rare to see any white people. That’s not to say we weren’t regularly surrounded by tourists because there were plenty of Asian tourists in our hotels and walking around the places we went. So this industry must be healthy.

I found Malaysia an easy country to travel. Many people speak English and the roads are of good quality for driving so there is really no need to rely on point-to-point public transport. You can meander around in a car. Accommodation is as cheap as Indonesia and of a higher standard. Food is delicious and readily available even at 1am. You can get almost anything you want but Malay, Chinese and Indian are the best options being the local cuisine. Mind you, if you are hanging out for KFC or McDonalds you’ll find at least one in every town if not more.

The Cameron Highlands were my favourite place to drive through and Ipoh my favourite of the three cities we visited. I think it was because we stayed in a local place and ate at local restaurants far from the city itself. In future, I would do more of that local travel in Malaysia where we stayed and explored a place further from the capital.

Malaysia is a beautiful mix of cultures. Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism exist side by side. Malay women wear head coverings, Indian women wear saris and red dots painted on their foreheads, while Chinese women mostly wear Western style clothing and make up. Blended languages drift through the air. Unlike Australia where people might mutter “they should be speaking English if they want to live in our country”, Malaysians seem to accept that tourists speak English, Indians speak Hindi, Chinese speak Mandarin (or is it Cantonese that’s spoken here?), Malays speak either dialect or Bahasa Malay and everywhere the influence of Arabic language and script shows the influence of Islam. And people move so effortlessly between the languages to communicate with each other as though communication is more important that being righteous. Perhaps underneath there is a tension but it’s not visible to the casual observer.

On a personal level, I was once again pleased to be travelling with Paul. He forces me to extend myself as a traveller. He doesn’t seem to tire. Often we start our exploration around 10 or 11 in the morning and don’t stop until well after midnight. And even then we are usually still awake talking about our day or uploading photos to the internet for another hour or two before succumbing to sleep. It’s hectic but fun. When I travel with him we see the big attractions like Sam Poh Tong and the Cameron Highlands. But we always end up spending more time seeing lots of cool and quirky things like the Melaka Butterfly and Reptile Farm or Kellie’s Castle. His reaction to an opportunity to see something new is always, “Why not? We’re here.” And his taste for a little luxury means we are never short of a good meal, a trip to the cinema or a relaxing massage. He doesn’t have champagne tastes because we stay in cheap places, often with share bathrooms, but he does know how to make the travel dollar stretch far enough to take in some treats.

Malaysia was fun. I am glad to have visited this country. It’s close to home, cheap to access and cheap to visit. Accommodation costs about $15-25 a night for a clean and comfortable double room. A local Malay, Chinese or Indian meal sets you back between $1.50 and $5 per person depending on how many dishes you select. There are many things to see that are free like temples, nature and art.  Our biggest cost was car hire but it was worth it for the freedom to experience more of the country at a local level. The biggest challenge here is the heat so maybe it is a good idea to pace yourself and take a few rest days to avoid melt downs.