Tuesday 24 December 2013

The New World

As far as flights go, my departure from the UK was one of the least eventful. My hostel in Hammersmith was on the Piccadilly line which goes directly to Heathrow, I left plenty of time before my flight, all my paperwork was pre-printed and prepared and I didn't even get arrested once. I was flying Icelandair to New York with a brief stopover in Reykjavik, Iceland. I had the option to stopover for longer when I booked the ticket and I strongly regret not taking it up then. At the time, I understandably was concerned about how freakin' cold Iceland would be (and was) at that time of year. Unfortunately, I didn't anticipate that I would have just spent the majority of the last month in Scandinavia so Iceland probably wouldn't have been so bad.

You know Iceland, it's the green one. Greenland is the icy one.

I know that I've said I wanted to go back to pretty much every country I've been to (and some I haven't) but Iceland is the country I'm most looking forward to exploring on my next trip to Europe.

My only photo of Iceland

I flew on to New York and landed at JFK only five hours after leaving, despite spending almost twelve hours traveling. Flying west is a lot easier on the body clock than flying east.


I was dreading passing through US customs because I remember doing it many years ago in Hawaii and it was quite an ordeal then. Indeed, the reputation is that American immigration is quite tough but, probably in response to this reputation, the immigration process seems to have been streamlined and softened incredibly. I passed through immigration at JFK (and indeed every American border crossing since) with a minimum of fuss.


Once I was on American soil, I found a bus heading towards the Port Authority (bus terminal) in Manhattan. I was only passing through New York for a few hours this time, but I would be back for longer before this trip was over. From Port Authority I had bought a ticket on a greyhound bus to Toronto. I lived in Toronto for a year with my family in 2006 so I was keen to go back.


I was on the greyhound bus overnight and at around 5am we crossed the border into Canada. This involved everyone getting off the bus, collecting their bags and passing through Canadian immigration on foot before getting back on the bus on the other side of the border. Even after 6 months in Europe, I still struggle to wrap my head around the idea that you can get on a bus and drive (or walk) into a completely different country. A side effect from living on an island, I suppose.


In Toronto I was staying with close family friends from our time living there many years before. The Smiths (Kim, Sean, Laura and Megan) kindly offered to let me stay with them for the week I had decided to stay in Toronto for which I am very grateful. I am the first to admit that it was a fairly uneventful week for me. This was the first time in almost 6 months when I could literally just stop and relax in a comfortable bed with nothing to do and no where to go and I basically just crashed. For my first five days I did practically nothing but sleep and Netflix. As boring and wasteful as that might sound, it was exactly what I needed. It was exactly what I needed to recover and prepare for the next hectic two months of my trip.


I did make one decent outing, however, which was to see a friend I made in Europe who lived outside of Toronto. I met Alexa in a number of places around Europe and we consequently became good friends. Originally the plan had been to meet up in Toronto but when that plan fell through, she invited me to visit her place in Wasaga Beach (it's on a lake, hence the 'beach part'). There was actually a decent covering of snow around which I enjoyed no end.

It was good seeing Alexa again and going to a house party with her friends actually evoked the only, tiny bit of homesickness I've felt on this trip by reminding me of my own friends back home and their wacky shenanigans. Thanks also to Alexa's family for letting me stay.


On the Friday morning I said goodbye to the Smiths and Kim dropped me off at Toronto Island Airport where I had a flight to Chicago. My aunt, uncle and cousins are living in Chicago and had half offered/half insisted that I come visit which I was more than happy to do.


Sunday 15 December 2013

Rock and Rolling Stonehenge Gathers No Moss

One of the very first bands that I really got into was a Scottish band called The Fratellis. You've probably heard a few of their songs even if you don't recognise the name. I've always wanted to see them perform live, ever since I first listened to their debut album. Unfortunately, the singer and guitarist is notoriously reclusive and the band don't tour very often. That why, when I saw on their Facebook page that they were doing a small run of UK shows to coincide with the release of their third album, I jumped at the opportunity.


The only date that really worked for me was November 19th, three days before I left the UK and it was a show in Leeds so I decided to make a trip of it. When Micque and I arrived back in London, he caught a bus back to Birmingham and I caught one north to Leeds.

These are crazy times down at Costello music

When I was at la tomantina in Valencia months earlier, I met a girl named Tash who very kindly offered to let me crash on her floor if I ever ended up in Leeds. I was literally sleeping on her floor but I was still grateful. Thanks Tash!

That's Tash in the middle

I didn't really see that much of Leeds. I wandered around the university (Tash lived on campus) and we went out that night. The highlight of Leeds was definitely finally seeing The Fratellis perform live. They were exactly as good as I expected and their new stuff totally held up. I can happily say that's one thing I can now cross off my "to do" list.


Bath Abbey

The next morning I was up early, said good bye to Tash and caught a bus to Bristol where I caught a connecting train to Bath. Every single person I spoke to in the UK said I absolutely HAD to go to Bath while I was in England so I thought I should check it out.


Bath really was a beautiful city. Bath seems to be halfway between a quiet, English village and medium sized city. It's hard to describe but it just seemed relaxed and upperclass at the same time. It was obviously a town with a high socio-economic community.


Bath also has an awful lot of history behind it, as a Roman outpost as well as a stronghold for English kings in the medieval period. I wandered around Bath for the rest of the day and feel like I got a fairly good gauge of the town.


The best day,my last full day in the UK before I flew out, I decided to go to Stonehenge. I was skeptical about going to Stonehenge. I thought it would probably be a little disappointing (untrue) and expensive (extremely true) but I knew I had to do it anyway while I was so close. It's just one of those things you have to do as a tourist.


I caught a train to Salisbury and a bus to Stonehenge from there. When I got their, I was actually surprised about what I found. I'll say now, to see Stonehenge only takes twenty minutes tops and I don't feel the need to go again. I'm definitely glad I went though.


The structure of Stonehenge is impressive enough. The work that went into construction such an impressive structure is mindboggling. There is something else to it, however. It sounds cliche and tacky but there is something that radiates from Stonehenge. I've felt it before, when I've first visited other incredible places like the coliseum or the Hagia Sofia. It's just an overwhelming sense of just awesome power that radiates out of some places. Stonehenge blew them away in that respect. Again, it's impossible to describe but when you see it, Stonehenge just feels like so much more than a bunch of big stones placed in a circle. It really honestly does almost feel magical.


Again though, I don't feel like I have to go again and I was pretty anxious to leave. Stonehenge is located on the flat and open Salisbury plain which gets incredibly windy. It wasn't even that cold but with the wind chill, it was unbearable.

I got back to Bath in the early afternoon and caught a bus back to London that night. I stayed in the same hostel in Hammersmith where Micque and I stayed two weeks earlier, had a nice meal and a quiet lager and had an early night. The next morning was an early start and my flight across to the New World.


Saturday 14 December 2013

Finnish What You Start

I really liked Stockholm on my first trip there but I didn't expect to be back so soon. Mick and I arrived early the next morning and caught the bus into the centre of town to the hostel where I stayed last time. City Backpackers Hostel in Stockholm is a very good one (one of the best I stayed in, actually) so that's where I booked again.


I was keen to go out and see more of Stockholm but Micque wanted to sleep and we didn't end up doing too much. Stupidly, we ended up going out that night (I think I've gone out every night I've been in Sweden) and I didn't end up getting any sleep at all again that night. At 8am we caught a ferry from Stockholm to Turku in Finland.


There is a lot of ferry traffic in the Baltic Sea between Sweden, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Russia so the ferries are quite comfortable and well equipped. Our tickets were cheap because we didn't book a room or anything for the 16 hour trip although I did get a few hours sleep in a restaurant booth.


Late that night, we arrived in Turku. We didn't see much there because we caught the first train into Helsinki which took about two hours. When we got to Helsinki, all we could manage was to head straight to the hostel for sleep. Typically, as soon as we were in bed (in our 26 bed dorm) I couldn't get off to sleep.


The next day was Saturday and I really wanted to be in Estonia for Saturday night because I'd been told that it was a real party city so that afternoon we caught another ferry across to Tallinn. Fortunately, this trip was only two hours.


It took me a lot of time, effort, money and sleep deprivation to get to Estonia but when we got their, it was worth it. Tallinn was absolutely incredible. It was a real mix of everything. It's a small city that can only be described as quaint in the most European way possible. The buildings are all ancient and ornate with a real Eastern influence. Estonia was once part of the USSR (actually, it was the first country to break away from the soviets as well) and parts of the infrastructure and architecture remind you of it as you walk through the city but not in a dreary or depressing way (as in Albania where the country is still struggling to rebuild itself after communism). Finally, when it gets dark, Tallinn turns into a party city with bars and clubs suddenly appearing in unobtrusive buildings hundreds of years old.


For dinner, Micque and I found a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant that served traditional Estonia elk soup. The thing that set this restaurant apart was the fact it was elaborately styled as a traditional restaurant from two hundred years ago. The two tiny rooms had wooden tables lot only by candlelight (there was no electricity whatsoever) and the staff wearing traditional dress. Even though there was no electricity, Micque still asked if he'd be able to pay by card.

Tallinn really was incredibly beautiful. I can't really recommend it enough.

Guess what time it is in this picture? If you said 4pm, you obviously live in Estonia.

Saturday night in Estonia was an all nighter for me as well. We had an early ferry back to Helsinki the next day (the changes to our plans meant we lost days in Estonia and Finland) and after coming all this way I wasn't going to waste my time in Tallinn sleeping.


When we got back, Micque and I spent some time wandering around Helsinki. Helsinki was a typical Scandinavian city. It was very clean and orderly, it was incredibly expensive, the people were all friendly and everyone spoke English. Even in Estonia, I didn't meet anyone who didn't speak perfect English.

Architecture in Helsinki

The cold and lack of sleep eventually caught up with us, however, and we headed back to the hostel to recover from both afflictions. I will definitely say that Estonia and Finland are two countries that I have not seen anywhere near enough of and definitely feel the need to go back to.


The next day we caught a train to Tampere (the last time I would use my Eurail train pass) and flew back to London.


Arrested Development

This is the story of my final European adventure. Looking back on it now, it seems almost almost like a test. It challenged me physically, psychologically and emotionally. This is the trip that got me arrested, forced me to catch pretty much every kind of public transport there is and kept me awake longer than a diet of red bull. It was a test of my dogged determination to get to Estonia and it forced me to use every lesson I've learned backpacking in the last five months. This was the backpacking gauntlet, as far as I'm concerned.


So to set the scene, I had six days left on my Schengen visa. If you don't know what that is, don't worry, but the upshot is I could legally spend six more days in continental Europe. A good friend, Caitlin, did a similar trip to mine last year and came back raving about Estonia and I was keen to go and couple it with Finland to fill out my remaining time. Finland would mean I made it to all four corners of Europe (Portugal, Ireland, Finland and Turkey). I was traveling for those six days with a friend I met a sporties, Micque (or just Mick). Mick trained me in how to work in a bar although I eventually became his boss. Mick is living in Birmingham for six months then moving to Canada and this trip was celebrating the end of his time in Europe as well.


I booked the flights months before hand (in Turkey, actually). We were going to fly into Tallinn, Estonia on the Wednesday afternoon and stay three nights before catching the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki in Finland. Everything was booked and we were ready to go. Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.


Our cursed journey began in Birmingham on Tuesday morning when our bus to London (a bus booked though the company Megabus) was actually a train to London (I know, right? What?) and we had no idea. So after standing at the bus stop for an hour waiting in the cold, we booked a second bus with a different company from a bus terminal that was obviously across town.


We trudged into the National Express terminal and waited half an hour for our bus. When it eventually arrived, we and the other passengers formed an orderly queue and were promptly shuffled back outside into the cold for 45 minutes because there was a fire alarm going off somewhere. Looking back, this should have all been our first warning that the trip was cursed and that Mick and I were not meant to go anyway but we persevered. We got to the hostel in London late that night and bummed around Hammersmith (where the hostel was) having dinner and a few drinks.


Despite living in the UK for six months, Mick hadn't seen anything in London so the next morning I played tour guide and tried to cram as much into a few hours as possible. We got to Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey which I think made for a solid effort. We headed back to Victoria coach station to collect our bags and catch the bus to Stansted airport where The flight to Estonia would leave from.


Trying to fit as much sightseeing into the day as possible, the bus we had elected to catch that morning after carefully researching travel times and schedules got us to Stansted airport with one hour to check in and get through security which I still consider to be a reasonable time. What we didn't count on was the bus taking three hours to do a two hour trip for no readily explained reason.


At this point, I should also mention that my flights were booked with Ryanair. Yes, Ryanair. If you've read anything I've written about Ryanair before this, you already know trouble is coming.


Check in for bags ended at 5:15 and our bus arrived at the terminal at 5:13. We ran to the Ryanair check in and that's where we made our biggest mistake. The woman at the Ryanair check in told us that, although the check in for hold luggage was closed, if we went through security and got to the gate quickly then the luggage could be stowed under the plane then. With retrospect, that was only a way to set themselves up to charge me an outrageous fee but I was so keen to catch the plane that I didn't even stop and think.


Mick and I charged headlong into the security area and frantically tried to remove anything and everything from our bags that wouldn't get through security. Deodorant, shampoo, shaving cream, Vegemite all came out and were dumped unceremoniously in the bin. One thing I did forget though, was the pocket knife that I bought in Turkey.


I bought this pocket knife for 5 Turkish Lira (roughly two dollars Australian) I'm the grand bazaar in Istanbul. It had a flick out blade, was a cigarette lighter (not that I even smoke) but best of all, it looked exactly like my car key back home. It was for novelty value mostly but of course having a knife whilst traveling is pretty handy. It had also come with me on seven different flights across Europe by this point, but in my check-in luggage which I was stupidly attempting to take through security.


Obviously the machine found it and I helped the very friendly, portly old customs man dissect my bag and begrudgingly but understandingly said he could keep it. If only it had been that easy. Before I knew what was happening, two police officers coved in body armor and sporting enormous machine guns sat me down and read me my rights, telling me I was being arrested and taken into custody for possession of a concealed weapon. Apparently the fact that the knife looked like something else turned it from a harmless pocketknife into a deadly weapon.


I've been warned not to talk about my experiences at this point by friends and family but I don't really see the problem (although obviously some subtlety is necessary). I'll say from the start, despite the fact they were arresting me, the two officers (who I will just call Officer B and Officer O) were courteous and even friendly. It seemed to me that what they were doing was more routine than anything else and, strange as it may sound, we got on fairly well considering the circumstances although they were a little tight-lipped.


They took me back to the station were I spent three hours either being interviewed on tape, having my fingerprints and DNA taken or just sitting in a cell. A younger lady cop (Officer W) was assigned to look after me and I ended up acting more as a travel agent for her upcoming trip to Thailand and Australia in February than anything else. Every person I spoke to in the station was polite and friendly although there was an understandable note of seriousness to everything. Officer W also informed me that Mick was waiting for me in the reception area during this time.


Eventually the officer in charge (Officer H) came to see me. I'd been chatting to her before as she checked my goods into storage and I didn't realise she made the final decisions on things. Officer H was a friendly lady, more like a grandmother or a primary school teacher than anything. She told me it was nice to deal with someone so eloquent for a change and told me I was being issued a 'caution'. Essentially, it is exactly what it sounds like. I was never convicted of anything, I do not have a criminal record although if I have any run ins with British law enforcement in the future, it will be added to my record.


I got released and Mick and I wandered next door, back to the airport, for lack of anything better to do. We had well and truly missed our flight by three hours and we needed to work out a new plan. Micks phone was dead and mine had only 10% battery so whatever we decided, it would have to be fast.


We both wanted to continue our trip. I was still steadfast in my commitment to get to Estonia and our return flights from Finland were already paid for. Unfortunately, flights directly to Estonia were ridiculously expensive or full. I was reminded of the time I missed my flight in Dusseldorf and I had to make spur of the moment alternate plans, but this was on a much bigger scale.


The plan we eventually settled on was to catch the next cheap flight to Sweden, catch the ferry to Finland and another ferry across to Estonia. It was far from the most direct route but it was surprisingly the cheapest, not to mention the most adventurous.


We left Stansted airport at around 1am (we eventually found somewhere to charge phones so we hung around for a while) and made our way to Gatwick airport where our Norwegian Airlines flight to Stockholm was leaving at 6:30am.


Two long coach rides later, we eventually made it to Gatwick at around 5am. We breakfasted, checked in and, amazingly, made it through security unmolested.


Id been awake for almost 24 hours at this point. I got an hours sleep on the flight to Stockholm but I think that just made me tireder.


Monday 9 December 2013

Live and Let Liverpool

After a night out in old London town with Santi, it was time to move on and continue exploring as much of England as I could in my short time left. Basically at random, I decided the next stop on my whirlwind world tour would be Liverpool. Why Liverpool? I don't know. In my head, Liverpool was just associated with a football team (although I don't follow soccer) and the Beatles. It turns out, however, that Liverpool is much more than that.


I caught a bus to Liverpool the next afternoon and arrived late that night. It was cold and late and I was still dead tired after my night out with Santi (we didn't get back until 5am) so I was happy to take it easy and make a good start early the next day.


I started with a free walking tour through Liverpool and I was surprised. Liverpool is a really, really nice city. I guess I associated Liverpool with being a poor, lower class city and it totally is. Some of the statistics about liver pools socio-economic status are depressing. The surprising thing is, however, you wouldn't know it. Liverpool is honestly one of the nicest, cleanest and friendliest cities in the UK. The history behind the city is also far more extensive than I expected. Also, Liverpool is actually TWO football teams (Liverpool United and Everton).

One of the hundreds of Superlambananas that litter the streets of Liverpool. I know, I'm as confused as you are.

I met some people on the tour and after it finished we wandered around and checked out some of the museums and points of interest. Liverpool has an absolute abundance of free museums. You can't throw a rock without hitting a museum.

Look ma! Modern art (apparently)!


And then there's the elephant in the city. The Beatles. I knew Liverpool was the home of the Beatles but what I didn't expect was for Liverpool to have such a vibrant music scene even today. Liverpool has live music everywhere which I thought was fantastic. Mathew street in particular is the Mecca for live music in the UK. Plus, Mathew Street has the Cavern Club. The Cavern Club is where the Beatles first started playing together in public. They played there over 300 times but so has basically anybody in the music industry in the 60s, 70s or 80s. The wall of fame there is incredible. There is still live music playing any time the club is open.

The next day I visited the official Beatles experience museum in the morning. Whether you like the music of the Beatles or not, the Beatles experience is definitely worth a visit.

The inside of a yellow submarine

Anyway, in conclusion, Liverpool is definitely worth a visit if you're in the neighborhood.

Eat your heart out, UWS!

After Liverpool I caught a bus down to Oxford. Again, there wasn't really any reason for choosing to visit Oxford. I'd heard it was pretty nice so I figured 'why not?'


Oxford was in fact quite nice although I'm glad I didn't spend more than a night there. It was the quintessential English town, in my opinion. It was clean, quiet and quaint. The town is built around the university so it's full of elegant old buildings and has a real olde worlde charm to it. It's also a little dull.


From Oxford I caught yet another bus back to Birmingham to stay with Micque again. The next day was our trip to Estonia and Finland and we figured it was easier to travel together. It turns out nothing about that trip was easy, but that's another story.