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.

Phnom Penh to Siem Riep (Cambodia)

A mini bus from Mekong Express arrives just before 6:45am. It’s a battered and bruised van but the aircon is cranking and the driver negotiates the traffic slowly. We do loops of the city collecting other passengers headed to Siem Riep on the 7:30am bus.
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There are a few choices when traveling between Phnom Penh and Siem Riep. I won’t bore you with lists of bus companies and prices because other websites already do this. At first we think about booking online but there’s booking fees and the need to print a ticket so we just ask our guesthouse to do it. Arun, the manager of Feliz Hostel and Cafe booked us on the Mekong Express yesterday without charging commission. That’s exactly the kind of quality service that we’ve come to notice from this modern new accommodation. And that’s how, despite lots of research, we came to travel Mekong Express instead of other bus lines.
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At $US13 the bus ride is comfortable, safe and efficient. There’s only 40 passengers, each with allocated seating, individual aircon vents and curtains to block the sun of you desire. An English-speaking guide ensures all passengers are comfortable and provides basic information about the duration of the trip and the midway rest stop.
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We leave Phnom Penh’s noisy streets behind and rural Cambodia comes into view.
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It’s quiet by comparison from the windows of the bus. There’s no congestion and chaos. Just small houses on stilts amidst rice paddies, cattle and ever encroaching jungle plants.
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The road is relatively empty the whole way to Siem Riep save the onslaught of hundreds of children cycling home for lunch around midday. I last saw this a couple of years ago on Java but there it was like a sea of white headscarves while here the children’s heads are all bare.

I slept most of the bus trip so the six hours passes quite quickly. By 1:30pm we’re jolted from the airco out into the harsh hot Siem Riep air. Our guesthouse is 400m (1/4 mile) from the bus station so we decide to walk. Poor Paul is a puddle of sweat by the time we arrive and falls into a snooze on the bed. I think it’s a sensible choice so I join him to rest out the midday heat.
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Our guesthouse, the Golden Gecko, is close enough to the city centre to walk (10 minutes) or to take a cheap tuk tuk ride ($US2). It’s run by two Australian men and is clean and comfortable with an inviting swimming pool.
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My cousin from Holland and her partner live here in Siem Riep so we catch up. I haven’t seen her in some years and it’s the first time we’ve met each other’s respective partners. They head off to work for a few hours and we walk into town for a foot massage ($US6/hour). Relaxed we enjoy the trees and lights reflecting on the Siem Riep River.
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We join my cousin to eat at Nest. This is a fine dining experience that is ridiculously affordable. I eat a braised pork belly and quail egg starter followed by fish amok (a traditional Khmer dish) while Paul takes a garden vegetable soup followed by roast duck breast with potatoes. There’s a great selection of wines but Paul and I don’t drink so we stick with fresh juices. It’s an absolutely lovely introduction to Siem Riep where we will stay for the next four nights.

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.

Eat Street Markets (Brisbane)

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I’ve heard a lot about the Eat Street Markets over the past year but hadn’t had a chance to go there. So I was excited when my partner took me there on Friday night. The markets are held here in Brisbane ever Friday and Saturday night. Restaurants and stalls are set up in shipping containers and thousands of people turn up to eat. This is not a cheap hot dog and fries type of affair. The food represents some of the best international street food available in Brisbane. Some is familiar, like nachos or fish & chips while other options are more creative like steamed Asian-inspired sliders and cruffins (croissant cross with a muffin).

After walking around we decided on Mexican street food as our dinner. We shared nachos and tacos. The flavours were fresh and clean while the portion sizes were just right. The stall decorations were inviting and interesting, with a skeleton lady, and free self-serve salsa. Service was quick and efficient (unlike another stall where we initially lined up to buy our meal but left due to the long wait).

For our first desert we bought a Tim Tam flavoured cronut. The Eat Street Markets had been posting photos of the cronuts on their Facebook page all week so it was impossible to pass these up. And wow! They were amazing! I love chocolate croissants and chocolate donuts so a combination of the two was divine. I can’t even explain the way it tasted other than to say it was a like a donut made out of croissant pastry.

We had to walk past the Byron Bay Gelati shop on the way in and out of the markets. The temptation was too great so we ended up with a second desert. I love gelato so enjoyed the treat.

And, finally, we bought some herbal teas. They are sold in 500ml and 1L cups. We went with the 500ml cups because 1L seemed a bit obscene. I can’t remember which flavours we bought but it was fantastic to drink freshly brewed herbal iced tea. Lots of people were walking around carrying these drinks and it was good to see this instead of lots of people drinking soft drinks (sodas).

The Eat Street Markets are a great example of the way Australians have embraced quality, fresh and creative foods.

Eating snake and lizard (Semarang)

I have come down with a case of the man flu so I spend the day in bed. It’s not exactly what I want to do but I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. About two weeks ago I got some heat sores on my hip and buttock that got infected. The glands in my neck swelled up until it hurt to even brush against them when tightening my helmet so I bought some Amoxan and heat rash cream over the counter at a pharmacy. The infections on my skin settled but my immune system was already low so I found myself with the man flu. Besides, it was a lovely excuse to lay in bed and watch a whole season of Orange is the New Black on my laptop.

Sometimes days like this make me feel like a bad traveller. I wonder whether the experienced travelers whose blogs I read have days when they just need to stay in bed and rest or whether they are always out there exploring and pushing themselves. I wonder whether I should even admit it on my blog but I think the more honest I am the less pressure there might be on others to be perfect. I mean, none of us can be perfect or healthy all the time.

The rest does me good and by the time my cousin comes to pick me up for dinner at my uncle’s house I am refreshed and ready to eat yet more food.
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Amongst the delicous meal there is snake that my cousin bought me to taste. I have to say it is a wonderfully tasty meat that has been prepared to perfection.
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He has also bought lizard, which is equally delicious.
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Durian fruit on the other hand, even when wrapped in a brightly coloured pancake, is disgusting. I don’t know how I kept the two mouthfuls down but there was no way I could spit it out because the smell was so rank it would have ruined the evening for everyone. My reaction to the durian creates much good natured laughter as the locals tuck in.

On monkeys and fishing boats (Semarang)

My cousin offers to take me out for the day. I am not entirely sure where we will go but know that with Depi it will be fun and there will be good food.
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Speaking of food, that’s what we start with. It’s around lunch time when we depart and my cousin decides it’s time to introduce me to some more interesting Indonesian delicacies. Today it is rujak cingur (cow’s nose). The meat is served in a soup but my cousin orders an extra plate so to ensure we have enough. It’s quite delicious despite the fact that it actually looks like pieces of a cow’s nose.
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Stomachs filled it is time for us to head over to the monkey forest. It’s crowded here on the banks of the new dam with it’s view out over some volcanic mountains in the distance. Everyone seems to have decided to spend their Sunday here looking at and feeding the monkeys. These gentle little animals don’t seem to mind being disturbed by all the human viewers because they are getting plenty of food. I don’t know whether a bag of crisps or a packet of biscuits is so good for a monkey’s digestion but I am learning that this constant concern with doing things right is a luxury of the West; one I simply cannot buy into.
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I am taken by how human the monkeys seem. Their faces show expression and their eyes look intelligent. I can see how we are related to these funny little creatures of the trees. And it’s obvious from this similarity why we are all drawn here. The monkeys are cute to watch and people of all ages are enthralled.
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After leaving the monkeys we drive to Semarang’s port because I am keen to see the fishing boats and port life. I am fascinated by the lives of sailors and fishermen. They seem so adventurous and manly. I certainly wouldn’t fit in but it’s fantastic to see.
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The next generation of water men swim between the boats. They beg me to take their photos and pose happily. A couple of boys stand up to jump in when they see their friends being photographed. They want to join in and show off for “mister mister” who has walked through their part of the world. I am starting to see that personal space and privacy are luxuries many people here simply don’t have so it is not important to them. When you live on a relatively small 1,000km x 210km (620mile x 130 mile) island with 143 million other people, you don’t have a chance to experience privacy or personal space. And I guess a man with blue eyes and a balding head is a novelty in this land of balck-brown eyes and full heads of black hair.
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We pass big seafaring junks. Their shapes are ungainly with big wide bulging cargo holds and overhanging sterns.
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Small canoes and outriggers lie between the bigger boats. They seem so vulnerable so when my cousin tells me he used to paddle them out to see with his friends I am in awe.
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Colourful traditional fishing boats bob in the water. Many are tied together in big bundles of brightly painted wood. It’s easy to see why one of them has the name Mother’s Prayer. Epecially when I see some broken vessels lying on the docks with timber planks missing or salvaged for other purposes.