Whanganui (Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand)

A sliver of sunshine filters through the clouds. It seems almost surreal after the rain and cyclonic weather that has been floating around.

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We head up to the Whanganui River Road. We’ve heard it’s beautiful and the river is the town’s biggest draw card. The tip was true and the Whanganui River Road is a classic drive. Mind you, we don’t get far before a landslide blocks our path. More experienced locals or people driving 4WDs would get through. But I don’t want to be that tourist who took the wrong risk. So we turn around.

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This isn’t a bad thing though because Whanganui has so much to offer. The Bason Gardens were created as a labour of love by a local many years ago. It’s now a large botanical garden where families are taking picnics. We sit a while in a picturesque gazebo before exploring the conservatory and house garden. This is a place to take your kids to run, play and instill a love of plants.

We follow the road down to the windswept black sand coast with it’s ever present tsunami warning signs. There’s no surfers today for the sea is brown with run off from the flooded rivers. However, there are two local men on quad bikes collecting drift wood.
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We drive back to Whanganui along country roads. We have no need to rush. We take a short walk along the beach at Castlecliff where the Whanganui River meets the sea. Green grasses blown in the increasingly strong winds. A long brown line extends across the sea about 400m  (1/4 mile) from the river mouth. Waves crash oddly where the force of the muddy river water meets the blue storm churned sea.

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Returning to Dolphin Townhouse we relax for an hour before driving to the local movie cinema. It’s cute on the outside and still in 1960s style inside. We watch Beauty and the Beast. The picture and sound quality are surprisingly good. A vocal old drunk storms out partway through the second song complaining that “there’s too much singing blergh”. Everyone giggles and settles in without his muttering. Children run around behind us, making stomping noises throughout the entire movie but that’s what little boys do when they watch a movie chosen by their sister.

And so ends our day in Whanganui.

A day of culture (Siem Riep, Cambodia)

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The cinema beckoned this morning. We try to go on every country we visit so today was our day for Cambodia. The Platinum Cineplex is modern and relaxing. Tickets cost $US3 each and snacks about the same again. There was a good selection of English language films in 2D and 3D. We chose Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: the story of a young American soldier’s journey with PTSD. It was thoroughly moving and thought-provoking. The quality of the cinema experience here is excellent and the seats far more comfortable than our local cinema at home (though it is being upgraded so that will change). If you are seeking some reprieve from the heat, this is a good option in Siem Riep.
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Down on the river banks preparations are in full swing for the Water Festival. Long boat crews were busy training and practicing in the Siem Riep River. Along the banks marquees were set up with hammocks strung from every tree, post and vehicle. Large woks and barbecues will allow the groups to share meals throughout the festival. It looks like it will be a cracker – though we won’t be here for it.
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We spend the day time hours enjoying town. We eat cupcakes at Bloom: an NGO that provides training, employment and access to healthcare to women. The cupcakes are delicious and pretty. We have our teeth cleaned and scaled at the dentist for $US8 (at home this would cost $100-200 so I haven’t had it done in three years). And we haggle for a few items from the markets. I buy a camping hammock with mosquito net for $US11. And Paul gets a t-shirt seller down from $US6 per shirt to two shirts for $US5.
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But the highlight of the day is our evening excursion to the Phare Circus. Words cannot do justice to this emotionally charged experience. Acrobats, musicians and a painter work the stage, sharing the story of how the war has affected the people of Cambodia and what they are doing to move forward into the future. Even writing about it twelve hours later I feel a lump well up in my throat. Such was the brilliance. The performers, musicians and artists are trained at the Phare School, which provides free education in the arts to Cambodian youth. The storytelling is second to none and I leave looking at the locals in a whole new light. Sure, I had a positive perception of the country and it’s peoples’ resilience but the performance made it more real and emotionally engaging than anything written ever could.

A productive day (Noord Brabant, The Netherlands)

The day has finally arrived. I am picking up the wheelchair bike I bought for Pedal Puddle Participate. It’s exciting to see the bike dismantled and packed into boxes. The guys at Roll-On Mobility in Hapert have been wonderful, meeting all my needs and requests.

Unfortunately, I get home and discover that the bike, as packaged, is just too heavy for my baggage allowance. I am flying Etihad Airways and booked my flight before 12 September 2015 so have a 30kg baggage allowance. For USD140 I can also buy one extra piece of up to 23kg. As packed, the three parcels we’ve picked up weigh 28kg, 4kg and 26kg. As you can see, this is not going to work. So my uncle and I set about dismantling the bike some more. Some puzzling later and we’ve managed to get the bike to fit into one bike box weighing 30.7kg and one other box measuring 90cm x 72cm x 43cm  (I’m allowd 90 x 70 x 45) weighing 22.8kg. I also have about 7kg of bike parts in my hand luggage, meaning I will be wearing pretty much all my clothes onto the plane to keep my carry on below 10kg (my laptop alone is 1kg). It’s a tight fit but that just means I am getting my luggage money worth.

It’s still bucketing down so I spend a few hours in the afternoon working. It feels good to be productive and the course I’m writing is interesting. My aunt asks me what my plans are for the evening given that my uncle is going to a fishing club meeting. “I might keep working a bit”, I say. “Or shall we go to another movie?” she asks. You don’t have to ask me twice. And that’s how I come to spend the night watching The Revanence. Have I mentioned that the movies in Holland have a ten minute break midway through? It’s good if you need to use the bathroom or buy a snack. I don’t need to do either so just sit back and relax.

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.

Keeping the international film experience alive (Delft, The Netherlands)

After our adventure with the Ark van Noah we caught the train to Delft where we would be staying for a few nights before Paul went home to Australia.
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It’s dark by the time we arrive so our first impressions are of the pretty lights reflecting on the black water of the canals. Our hotel is in an old 18th century building; the perfect place to take in this old city. We overlook these very canals through a pretty old school window. Dark wooden beams protrude beneath the whitewashed walls and ceiling. It’s perfect for us.

We decide that we haven’t seen a movie in Holland yet and we don’t want to ruin our perfect record of seeing at least one movie in every country we visit together. The cinema is about 500m from our hotel so it’s a quick walk. Tonight we decide to watch The Big Short. Neither of us know much about it but it’s one of the few American (read English-language) films we haven’t seen yet. There’s not much different about going to the movies in Holland to home except that there are more people in the cinema. We’re not used to that. The movie itself turns out to be great and I have now learned more about the financial system and GFC in two hours than I otherwise would have found the energy to bother learning.
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We take as short middle of the night walk around Delft after the movie. It’s pretty and there are bicycles everywhere. The bicycles in Delft are on an Amsterdam level of crazy busy. Down in the market square the New Church looks pretty all lit up. I think this is what I equate Holland with most: austere brown brick buildings and churches.

Anticipating a warmer night I haven’t dressed well for the weather so am too cold to do much more sightseeing despite the temperature being above zero after weeks being comfortable at sub-zero temperatures. Maybe the problem is the wind, the water and my over-estimation of my acclimatisation. Either way, we might as well make the most of our comfortable hotel room and a good night sleep.

European Center for Culture 2016 (Wroclaw, Poland)

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The drive to Wroclaw is notable only for three reasons. Firstly, there are no petrol stations along the highway. You have to follow signs to petrol stations in the villages along the highway. Secondly, the highway is in super condition. And finally, the further we got from Lodz the less snow we saw until the world was once again awash with green near Wroclaw (pronounced Vrots-waf).
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We found our apartment with relatively few difficulties and went out to buy some groceries for breakfast over the coming days. There was a big shopping center across the road from our apartment that made finding food to buy easy. But the food wasn’t that interesting … I was far more interested in the fencing competition taking place. I’ve never seen living fencing before so it was fascinating even though the competitors were only teenagers. I guess to some of these kids fencing is as normal as surfing is for some Aussie kids. It was fun to watch for a while.
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But the best was yet to come. After dropping our groceries home we decided to go out for dinner as this was our final Polish destination. What we didn’t know was that Wroclaw was being opened as one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2016 (the other being San Sebastian in Spain). We innocently walked out towards the main town square only to discover marshals, barriers and vendors selling light sticks. There were drummers beating drums and video footage of four parades that would converge on the city centre. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where to go for the parades and ended up being just 100m from a display that looked spectacular when we saw it replayed on the television later that night.

But we did see some pretty cool drumming and acrobatics.

It was particularly cool to see this with such a beautiful square as the backdrop.
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We didn’t wait around for the parades to reach the square because it was obvious that (a) we weren’t going to understand the story that they were telling and this was a very theatrical parade and (b) we weren’t going to see much because we were already being pushed further and further to the back of the now swelling crowd. Instead, we went out to dinner at a pub that served good honest polish food and then caught the new Star Wars movie at a nearby cinema. The cinema usually shows art house films so there were lots of art house types around playing board games.

The movie itself was actually quite good. I haven’t enjoyed any of the previous Star Wars movies (including the original trilogy) but decided to give it a go because the franchise is now being produced by Disney and I tend to like the Disney focus on character development. I was not disappointed. The cinema that we went to was more of an old university lecture theater in style than traditional cinema but that just added to our international movie-going experiences.

Movies and Czestochowa by night (Poland)

We’ve rented an apartment in Czestochowa for one night. The building is old and the rear entry is covered with graffiti. We’re both looking at each other with an “oh no” look. The landlord opens the door and our looks change to pleasure. Inside the apartment is fantastic. It’s ultra modern with a gorgeous view out over the main street. It turns out to be quiet, safe and comfortable. We both almost wish that we had rented it for a few extra nights.

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There’s a movie cinema about 2km from the apartment. To get there we can walk straight up the main street beneath the pretty Christmas lights. Joy is playing with subtitles. This is something you need to know about going to the movies in Poland – many movies are dubbed in Polish. So if you want to see a movie in it’s original language, do not go to any movie that has “DB” written behind it.

The cinema seats are incredibly comfortable and the quality of the screen and sound is great. The movie Joy itself is nothing like the previews. It’s actually a really great movie about the origins of the squeeze mop. Paul tells me that he even had one when he was growing up. It’s uplifting and (pun intended) joyous.

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We leave the cinema to discover it has been snowing. The world is now covered in white, which is so pretty. We cheer and play in the snow.

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The white carpet makes the monument to Pope John Paul II pop at the top of the main street. Its actually a really cool monument.

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It’s about 10pm and we missed dinner before the movie. There’s nothing open except McDonalds so we decide it will have to do. The meal is nothing spectacular but we do notice that ice cream sundaes here are served in edible cones not plastic cups.

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Back out on the street we continue walking back to the apartment. The main square is pretty with the lights and Christmas decorations.

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On one side is a church-like building that is beautifully lit. The snow in front of it is thicker and hasn’t yet been trampled …

So Paul gets me to make a snow angel. Of course I cannot help but resist the opportunity to be playful.

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This is the resulting masterpiece. Haha

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Back at the apartment we are just about in bed when we hear a tractor driving up the street. Like children hearing sleigh bells on Christmas Eve we race to the window to see what excitement might be outside. There’s a cute little tractor driving up and down the street spreading the magic salt and sand that will make the road clear of snow by morning. We wonder what locals would think f they knew we were taking photos of the tractor. They’d probably think we were from another planet; and in a way we are.