Amsterdam Revisited

Amsterdam River cycle

I held Joe’s hand, tight, but it didn’t stop me slipping into the darkness. Down down down I tumbled, sick to the pit of my stomach and desperate to cry out to him for help. He was right there next to me on the cheap hotel bed, but I had no voice. The fits of giggles that filled the lift back to the room were a distant memory, probably from days ago, or possibly just minutes.
“I finally understand the poetry of Byron,” Joe’s voice echoed in my skull. He was miles away, a vast desert of duvet between the two of us. I started to cry. We never should have had that second space cake.

So my first trip to Amsterdam at the age of 19 was a bust. I saw little more than the four walls of my hotel room, the smoky haze of coffee shops and watched a film about talking animals about six times. Last week I returned, a little apprehensive and embarrassed by my own memories.

“Weed is not actually legal in the Netherlands, it’s just tolerated,” Mark read from the guidebook as we settled in to our Art Hotel out by quiet Westerpark. I felt a stab of shame for Past Suzy – as an enlightened traveller I don’t really want to just be ‘tolerated’.
“Well, when in Amsterdam, do as the Dutch do is what I say,” Mark added and my spirits dropped. I didn’t want to lose this weekend to a drug-induced stupor.
“I thought you weren’t interested in that?” I said.
“Do you even listen to me? All I talk about is bicycles,” Mark replied and a wave of relief washed over me.

Our first cycle took us to the leafy Jordaan neighbourhood with peaceful canal-sides, a wide variety of boutique cafés selling nothing but actual coffee and cakes. Views of bridges, houseboats and tall, colourful houses were fit for a postcard. This was the Amsterdam I was looking for, not the sex museum on the Damrak (although the Victorian pornography was quite interesting).

Mark in the Jordaan

Mark in the Jordaan

A ten minute cycle took us to the Southern Canals and right underneath the Rijksmuseum. We sped past other tourists climbing all over the ‘I amsterdam’ sign like ants. Cruising through the Vondelpark, puffs of the familiar oily herbal smell drifted from the grass and pedestrians became a little more difficult to predict.

We followed the stream of day cyclists along the Amstel River. Buildings morphed into trees and open fields. An old windmill with a thatched roof and wooden sails stood proud by the riverbank. Tulips of every colour dotted its garden like confetti. Dutch cyclists said “hello” as we passed on the path. A farm making gouda and clogs was our lunch stop, the pungent smells of a hundred orange wheels of cheese mixed with wet pine in the background. Cows blinked long-lashed eyes and mooed softly while we sat on hay bales and munched cheese sandwiches.

Freshly made clogs

Freshly made clogs

Looping back into the city we saw single houses among completely flat fields before pedalling through a forest-lined path.

Back navigating hump-back bridges and pedestrians in the centre, we thought we would take in the sights of the Old Town, perhaps giggle our way through the Red Light District like school children and cycle through the quiet, picturesque backstreets. The Old Town, however, was rammed with people and we seemed to be the only two on bikes. Stag parties staggered into my front wheel and anyone emerging from a coffee shop was deaf to the ringing of my bell. Perhaps if I looked hard enough I would have a Murakami moment and see Past Suzy stumbling about the streets, laughing at the half-dressed women in the windows to hide her awkwardness, her glazed eyes looking for the nearest stand selling fries and mayonnaise.

Bugger this for a game of soldiers, Present Suzy thought, I’m off back to the Jordaan for a cup of tea and a crepe.

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Singapore Stop-over

Orchard Road in the rain Orchard Road in the rain[/caption]

Originally published at http://www.exploration-online.com

Singapore’s skyline, dominated by shiny, towering bank-buildings casts a shadow over the ramshackle colonial history at the heart of the city. It is, more often than not, seen as a clean and clinical metropolis worthy of little more than a stopover for those travelling onwards to Australia, New Zealand or embarking on a South East Asian adventure. We planned to use Singapore as a jet-lag buffer between the UK and Malaysia. However, after binning the guidebook and spending four days skulking in the shadows of the skyline we felt we had scratched away at the pristine surface of this city and not ever got close to its core.

Chinatown

Chinatown

Getting into town from the airport is easy – the metro will take you right to the city centre. There are some really good hostels near Chinatown. Five Stones Hostel and 5 Foot Way Inn are both good choices with quiet rooms and helpful staff. They are both within walking distance of some of the best dinner options the city has to offer. In Chinatown itself, steam billows from the dim sum cafés and hot wok noodle stands lining the narrow streets. For a taste of traditional South East Asia throw yourself in to a hawker centre. These indoor centres might not be on the open streets, but dirt-cheap dishes, crowds of locals and Malay, Chinese and Indian spices make it feel authentic enough. If street food isn’t your thing, a short walk takes you to the Colonial riverside where wooden bumboats potter down the water during the day and the swanky restaurants and bars overlooking the water come alive at night. A word of warning though –the dirt cheap beer prices of SE Asia don’t extend as far as Singapore and beer is expensive across the city.

Be sure to pop in to the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel at least once during your time in Singapore for a Singapore Sling – creative lubricant for literary heroes such as Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad. Perhaps you’ll pen your own magnum opus sipping a cocktail, perched in a wicker chair in the grounds of this iconic hotel.

Hindu Temple

Days can be spent pawing through technology malls that feel as though you’ve stepped into a Science Fiction film and anyone into serious shopping (or serious window shopping) could spend days drifting in and out of opulent malls filled with every designer shop under the sun on Orchard Road. Trawl through the riot of colour that is Little India for spices and silks. The painted wooden shutters and colonial-style buildings feel a world away from the towering metropolis beyond. For a break from all the chaos, duck into a tranquil Hindu temple where everything is calm.

If you don’t want to part with your Singapore dollars on a big shopping spree then head to East Coast Park where you can rent a bicycle or just go for a walk. The path through this coastal park is lined with palm trees and wide open sands stretch to the eerily green South China Sea. On the horizon you can watch the silent drift of oil tankers while locals go for their daily jog along the shore.

For wildlife lovers, the Jurong Bird Park has hundreds of colourful tropical birds squawking and cawing away to visitors and the underwater tunnel at the Sentosa Aquarium lets you feel like a Scuba diver without getting wet. The country’s humid climate makes it the perfect spot for all kinds of colourful butterflies which you can see in abundance at Sentosa’s Butterfly Park. Singapore’s main guidebook attraction is the night safari at Singapore Zoo. Arriving at the world’s largest zoo at dusk, you are just in time for the nocturnal animals to waken. The main concourse with its gift shops and zoo themed fast food joint is usually teeming with people and the little trams that take you round the main loop are often full to bursting. However, as soon as you wander off down one of the many jungle-lined paths you soon lose the crowds. The wide-eyed fishing cats are mesmerising to watch and cute little deer-mice totter through most enclosures.

If you’re spending any length of time in Singapore an umbrella is essential. The city suffers from year-round tropical thunderstorms that bring sheets of fat rain every evening. If you don’t have an umbrella you’ll be soaked to the bone in seconds and in the humidity wearing a waterproof coat is a lot like wearing a sauna. Also, be sure to read up on the Singapore customs and laws before you arrive as it is a notoriously strict nation.

Four days in Singapore flew by. We had planned to use it as a first stop purely to recover from jetlag before beginning our real adventure in Malaysia, but Singapore was part of the adventure from the moment we stepped off the plane. Even though it looks pristine and modern on the surface, you can find the roots of the city if you’re willing to dig deep enough.

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Work in the Forties

Outback farm

This year I was one of the ‘best of the long short-list’ in the Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel writing competition. This is my entry on the theme of ‘Meeting the Challange’. Next year I hope for highly commended…

The only sign of life was birds of prey circling high above the remains of a cow, its skin in pools around a skeletal frame. I sat on my rucksack somewhere along the border between the Northern Territories and South Australia. Months of picking fruit, endless weeding and clearing gutters left me thirsty for a bigger adventure. The advert in the WWOOF book said De Rose Hill used quad bikes to herd the cattle and I fancied myself a modern day cowgirl. The wail of crickets rose with the heat. Faint tyre marks in the sand stretched to the shimmering horizon where a silver car winked through a mushroom cloud of dust.

“You must be my volunteer.” A woman with cropped hair, floppy cowboy hat and sunglasses that glinted like beetle shells stepped out to greet me.

I nodded.

“Well, I’m Barb and you’ll meet Rex later,” she said, her mouth a tight line. She peered over her sunglasses taking me in; a weedy Scottish girl who looked like she’d never seen a steak before, let alone worked a day on a cattle station.

 

Vast sheds, old trucks and piles of metal rusting in clumps made up the yard, rising out of the otherwise barren landscape. I scuttled after Barb to the main house. The living room came into focus; seventies décor and pictures of cows everywhere.

“I’ve ridden a quad bike before,” I said, breaking the silence as Barb rummaged in an old shed full of every shade of rust under the sun.

“Have you now?” she said, dragging out a ladder. “Well, Rex does the herding, so I guess it’ll be clearing gutters and mucking out sheds for you.”

My heart sank.

 

The burning metal of the gutters made my fingertips raw as I scooped sun-crisped leaves and let them flutter like drunken butterflies to the ground. The heat climbed into the high forties and sweat rolled down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Stringy saliva rolled around in my mouth. Once I’d finished the gutters I was desperate for water.

 

“What are we going to do with her, Rex? She doesn’t look like she can lift a fly, never mind cattle fencing” I heard Barb’s monotone through the open window. A grunt came as a response.

I held my breath as I clattered through the fly door. An old man with a scraggly beard and coat hanger frame lent against the sideboard. A saggy grin hitched up the corners of his mouth.

“Can I have some water?” I asked.

“Don’t take too much,” Barb replied, pointing to a jug in the corner.

It was lukewarm, but I didn’t care. I wanted to tip the whole jug over my head. Barb watched with narrowed eyes as I gulped and Rex’s grin seemed like it was frozen in time. Neither spoke. Perhaps they hadn’t spoken to another soul in years.

“What should I do now?” I asked.

 

Tractors, ploughs and quadbikes covered in a thin layer of red dust stood silent inside the vast shed. Rex handed me a broom and I expected him to mount a quadbike and power off into the distance. Instead he shuffled to a rusting deck chair in the corner. An old oildrum was his picnic table. A jug of frothing milk that still smelled like cows and a bottle of rum were his lunch.

 

As I swept, Rex made vowel sounds and pointed at invisible patches of dust. The hot throb of lower back pain pulsed through my body and swirls of dust made my lungs raw, but I was desperate to prove myself. Darkness descended outside, though it was still hours before sunset. Through the open door I saw the landscape tinted an eerie yellow as lumpy grey clouds built up over the sun. A red mist hung in the distance. Rex creaked to life as if someone had wound him back up. He dragged his deckchair outside to watch the sky. Change tingled in the air, or perhaps electricity. A fork of lightning licked silently through the grey clouds.

Outback storm

The wind picked up in seconds as the storm got closer. Flecks of dust grazed my eyes as the world turned red with sweeping sheets of sand. Somewhere out there, Rex sat alone in the storm.

“You alright?” came Barb’s voice from behind me.

“Yeah, but Rex…” I started.

“He’s not what he was ten years ago,” Barb sighed. Her eyes shone as she stared out into the storm. “We can’t do it by ourselves anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say, but an entire desert of sand covered the floor so I cracked my back and started sweeping again.

“Urgh, bloody dust,” Barb said, wiping her eyes. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get you on a quad bike.”

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The Giro

Made for CyclingNorthern Ireland was pink. Painted bicycles adorned every roundabout, people in pink caps and t-shirts went about their weekly Asda shop and even the odd dyed sheep would totter about its enclosure, chewing grass, nonplussed in magenta splendour. The Giro d’Italia had taken over. MAMILs (Middled Aged Men in Lycra) zipped up and down the roads, bent over road-bikes as if they were competing themselves and cars were forced to take the backseat for an entire weekend.

Mark and I arrived at Carrick Fergus, just outside Belfast, an hour before the roads closed armed with deck chairs, sandwiches and over-sized umbrellas. The smell of burgers and fried onions drifted from a cluster of vans by the harbour and the squeals of children on a bouncy castle filled the air. A single halo of sun shone down on us, ominous grey clouds closing in on all sides. We perched our chairs at the side of the road, filled thermoses with tea and munched from a poke of hot chips. The entire population drifted to the roadside, like iron filings to a magnet.

As the crowds swelled, clumps of MAMILs powered down the street free from the peep of car horns. Children danced out onto the road as if it was a river on a sunny day – you never know when you’ll get the chance to play in it again. As the giant pink clock ticked the seconds away the atmosphere became electric. Fat storm clouds rolled closer, bulging with rain. Stewards in magenta tabards shouted for everyone to get back from the road as the distant wail of sirens grew louder. Dozens of police motorbikes flashed past to the hoots and cheers of the crowd. The cyclists were coming.

Waiting...

Waiting…

Mark lent forward like a kid at the zoo, yammering at me about Tour de France winners and Team Sky. Fat drops of rain plopped around me and a flurry of umbrellas to my right cut off my view, but I could hear the cheering creep towards me like a Mexican wave. The rain came down around us like shower water. Three riders bent over their bikes like hunched old men zipped past before I had time to fumble with the camera. They were gone in a moment.  And then, nothing.

The cheering died down to the lone squawk of a kids’ novelty horn every now and then, rain hammering on the road. The pink clock ticked away – one minute, two, three. In the fourth minute I began to think that was it – all the other cyclists must have given up. The roar from the crowd half a mile away told me otherwise. Within seconds they were in front of me, close enough to touch. Like a school of fish hundreds of cyclists deaf to the cheers and shouting enveloped the roundabout.

It was over in seconds, and so was the rain. The clouds were following them and so was Mark. Well, until he ran out of breath.

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Street Food in Saigon

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The back of a motorbike is the only way to really see Ho Chi Minh City. We had booked a food tour and I had neglected to mention the ‘back of a motorbike’ part to Mark until we were waiting outside the hotel. After a couple of days navigating the roads of Saigon, stepping out into the street and letting hundreds of motorbikes zoom around us like a school of fish, he wasn’t entirely happy at the prospect.

However, when two Vietnamese girls in traditional Ao Dai – silken dresses – rode up to our hotel, beaming at us, Mark completely forgot his fear of Saigon traffic and donned the motorbike helmet without a second glance in my direction. We sped through the streets, the city air whipping at my face.

The first stop was a typical clattery old cart with squat plastic chairs and tables littering a side-street of District 1. Tender beef in a thin but flavourful soup was set in front of us as we chatted to our guides about life in Saigon. We prodded bean sprouts and coriander into our dishes. Pho would become a familiar sight and smell for the rest of our stay in Saigon.

Streets that had seemed slow-paced and laid back during the day crackled to life as night fell. Back on the motorbikes we passed make-shift pavement stalls where sheets piled with crockery, spices, toys and clothes were manned by old women cawing at passers-by. We got lost in a huddle of motorbikes waiting at a red light. Entire families perched on one rusty old bike, people transporting flowers, livestock, sheets of metal and even doors all waited for the light to blaze green.

BBQ

We arrived at the thriving hub of District 8, where there’s a five story karaoke bar on every corner. A sprawl of squat plastic street furniture cluttered around a vast concrete space that might have functioned as a car park during the day. We were seated at one of the tables amidst Saigonians all reclining happily, empty Ba Ba Ba cans littering their tiny tables. It felt like real nightlife – laughter and fast-paced chatter punctuated by wailing karaoke floating across the car park on the humid night air. We roasted goat, frog and squid with chopsticks on make-shift barbeques at the table and screeched “Mok, Thai, Ba, YO!” while clinking our cans of beer together. Not for the first time in Vietnam, I found myself being spoon (or rather, chopstick) fed by eager locals, even lifting my beer to my mouth and making me drink. The whole ordeal was fast-paced, messy and left Mark and I smiling.

District 7 was a small respite between force-feedings, a world away from the constant peep-peep of motorbike horns. Single cables thread like string through telegraph poles looked almost alien compared to the clumps of black electricity and phone wires of Central Saigon. A Seven Eleven, Starbucks and even a Domino’s Pizza dominated the rubbish-free main street. Quiet young Vietnamese students lounged in couples on the grass. This was, of course, Expat Land. It was as though we were in a completely different city, more like Singapore than Vietnam. There was more local fare to try and another district most unlike this one to visit, so we hopped back on the motorbikes and headed back towards the bright lights of the centre.

HCMC scallops

The final food stop on our journey was in District 4; a hive of activity after the silence of District 7. Down the main street, stalls serving all forms of seafood lined the road. Teenagers danced to ‘Gangnam Style’ blasting from 1980’s style boomboxes strapped to the back of their parked motorbikes. Brave from the Ba Ba Ba, we shouted encouragement from our table as we were served fresh scallops in their shells, dripping with lime, ginger and chilli. Plates of whole cooked crabs covered with deep red dust were delivered next and we happily cracked open the claws, slurping up the meat inside while the chilli powder tickled our noses.

Completely full and with a pleasant beer buzz, I watched the lights of central Ho Chi Minh zip past as the motorbike crossed a traffic-heavy bridge. Bustling night markets teemed below with no sign of shutting even though the clock had drifted past midnight.

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In Training: Cycling the Lakes

So far the blog has been very Gastro and not so Velo, so here’s a little helping of me struggling up some hills 🙂

Cumbria

White puffs of sheep dot the hillside as misty rain drifts past them in sheets. We’re at the bottom of another valley having just come over the steep climb from Oxenholme Station in the Lake District. My gloves have soaked through and my newly bought padded trousers haven’t saved my backside from the bike seat. And we’re only one mile into our cycle to Grayrigg on the W2W route.

Mark is my trainer. He cycles at least 8 miles every weekday and often 40 over the weekend. He’s spent so much time on cycling websites that little adverts of ‘cycling singles in your area’ pop up every time I open the internet browser, like a threat to get me on my bike. I haven’t been on a proper cycle since I was 12 and I can feel this fact pulsing through my bottom and rasping through my lungs.

‘DING DING DING’ goes Mark’s bell. He’s far ahead and wants me to keep up. I mutter profanities under my breath I ascend a hill seven times bigger than the last.
“I reckon this’ll be the peak of the journey!” Mark cries cheerfully, his words almost lost in the wind.
Thank God. Perhaps I can just skip this one then. Mark looks disappointed at the ‘click click click’ of my back wheel as I reach the peak of the hill on two legs rather than two wheels.
“You’ll need to get better if we’re going to cycle the Dalmatian Coast,” he says instead of asking if I’m ok. I don’t have enough breath to swear at him. He’s flying down the hill before I’ve even wrestled my water bottle out of its holder. ‘DING DING DING’, I hear as he crouches over his road bike handles like he’s in the bloody Tour de France.

It’s a relief to soar down the hill. I could’t appreciated the views of rolling hills, green fields, the rocky ruins of overgrown farm buildings and the twinkle of Lake Windermere in the distance when I was struggling to see through the sweat in my eyes. But with the wind whipping past me and my legs and lungs resting I can see that it’s a beautiful part of the world. Cycling down the tiny weaving roads almost feels worth the climb, smelling the damp grass and waving at curious little lambs poking their heads over stone walls.

‘DING DING DING.’ “Keep up!” Mark’s bell says. I would rip it off and throw it into the nearest sheep turd if I could actually keep up. As I round the corner I see Mark ascending a hill twice the size of the last, pointing at his back wheel. I try to pedal through the hot pain in my legs, but half way up the hill I get off my bike again and huff and heave my way to meet a disappointed Mark at the top. My spirits sink. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for the climbs and crags of the Adriatic coast in Croatia.
“I know, I know, I have to get better,” I say.
“Are you actually going to cycle up the next one?” he asks.

After approximately 6 billion more climbs, each one steeper and longer than the last, the slate tower of Grayrigg’s old church juts through the folds of the hills. I force my legs to keep pedalling despite the steep incline. Each inch forward feels like a small victory. Mark stands outside the church.
“Bloody hell, some of those hills were proper lung burners, weren’t they?” he says. “Even I struggled with those last ones.”
“Uhuh,” is all I managed, slumping onto the pavement, ignoring the stares of people wandering through the town centre. My cheeks feel like they’re on fire. Both sets.
“The way back should be easier,” Mark says, patting me on my sweaty head.

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The Egg Man

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My first day volunteering as a teacher in an orphanage in Phnom Penh and I realised that being outside the city centre meant I couldn’t simply pop to the nearest restaurant or air-conditioned shopping mall for lunch. The kitchen, run by the older orphans, looked old and grotty, flies buzzing over raw meat left out in the midday sun. So when Mr Sakun, the orphanage owner, invited me to join him for a Cambodian specialty egg I agreed.

Picturing the spiced, delicious tea eggs of Northern China, I hitched up my long skirt as I climbed on the back of Mr. Sakun’s rusty old motorbike.
“What about a helmet?” I shouted over the spluttering engine noise.
Mr Sakun just laughed and revved away through the rusting gates.        

Smells drifted past as the motorbike made its way, noisily, through the back streets of Phnom Penh; rotting rubbish, fried fish in old oil and sour milk. Dust from the dirt track whipped up into my face, clinging to the sweat in my pores. Wide black eyes stared out from under furrowed brows as we passed street stalls and houses made of corrugated iron. The motorbike chugged over the bridge to the main city; a stagnant river encased in concrete sat motionless underneath; litter peeked its way through green sludgy plants.
Phnom Penh Street

On the other side, we stopped outside a clattery food cart, operated by a toothless old woman with gnarled, bare feet.
Mr Sakun said something to her in Khmer that made her flash a crinkly smile at me. I smiled back, unsure.
“Aaah, very good,” she replied and began clattering around with pots and pans.
Mr Sakun pulled out a tiny plastic chair at a squat table and offered it. We were basically sitting in the middle of the road, motorbikes stacked with wicker baskets, bundles of wheat and one with about twenty live chickens strapped to it, all passing within inches of our table.

The old lady ambled to the table with two boiled eggs in cracked egg cups.
“Good appetite,” Mr Sakun said, lifting a spoon to his egg.
I peeled back the top of the egg, a gasp involuntarily escaping my lips as I looked down into the gelatinous eyes of a baby bird, curled up inside. When I looked up at Mr Sakun he had already started on his own, seasoning it with almost an entire pepper shaker.
“Cambodian specialty,” he grinned at me, a little furry feather caught in his teeth.
Not wanting to offend an entire culture in one sitting I raised my spoon as if going in to battle and scooped out the shrivelled feathery mass. Its head hung limply over the side of the spoon; beak closed in a downward frown. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. The bones felt like undercooked spaghetti, the feathers like stubble. I swallowed it, almost whole; not daring to crunch down with my teeth.

The old lady came with the bill. Three dollars. Mr Sakun sat back and looked at me expectantly.

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