Remembering Vietnam

It’s 37 degrees today in Melbourne. Stinking. Hot. I put Bubba down for her afternoon nap in a singlet and nappies and jacked the aircon up a notch, just like her Papa – she feels the heat.

She had a good sleep, around an hour had passed before I heard her little ‘come get me’ whimpers. I kind of love picking her up from her afternoon sleep, it’s when she’s at her cuddliest and she just snuggles into me for ages. She was damp with sweat when I got her, little half-curls flicking out under her ears. I snuggled her close and smelt that beautiful baby smell, but I could smell something else too – no, not what you’re thinking – I couldn’t place the smell but then it came to me. Dozens and dozens of drowsy, sweaty little babies in orphanages in Vietnam I had the honour of cuddling to awakeness a few years ago.  [Read more…]

And she’s off…. again

Kia ora!

It had to happen didn’t it? I had to grow tired of layering merino and strapping spikes to my shoes because I am a walking/sliding comedy act if I don’t. Very soon I will be bidding a bittersweet farewell to Norway – and I’ll be leaving the Arctic temperatures for possibly the hottest month possible – in Australia. And, to be honest, not a moment too soon.

So I gave it a good try, this being Norwegian thing – but man it’s been hard. I’ve been a foreginer plenty of times before, starting anew in other countries a few times. But this has been the biggest struggle I’ve faced for a long time, a learning experience that perhaps I’ll appreciate a little more when it’s in a more advanced state of retrospection.

In a nutshell, I tried for jobs here throughout my six month ‘highly skilled jobseeker’ visa – I applied for numerous roles, I sent unsolicited open applications to everywhere I could think of that spoke English, I found international companies and emailed them all – and, nothing. Most companies didn’t even respond. Pretty disheartening and frustrating. I mean, the thing is, people here learn English from the age of 10 at school, so being a native speaker isn’t much of an advantage really – it just means you probably can’t speak the language that every Norwegian can. And yes, you can take lessons to learn norsk – and I did a beginners course and loved it – but if you’re in my position (no residency and a visa dependent on getting a job deemed to be inline with my experience and skills) you have self-fund some phenomenally expensive language courses, and they reckon you need 18 months of courses before you could tackle a job speaking Norwegian. So it didn’t make much sense.

To be honest I’m pretty much over the immigration laws here – a lot has been done to make it easier for people from within the EU to come over and get benefits and take advantage of welfare system here, but it’s bloody hard work if you want to come over from outside of the EU and actually find a job. There seems to be a lot of facetalk about wanting to hire internationals but unless you’re an engineer – I haven’t seen any proof of that at all. And there are a lot of people like me, who are foreigners with Norwegian partners (we refer to ourselves as ‘sex-pats’) who end up leaving out of sheer frustration or lack of options, and – like me, we take our Norwegians with us. So the big focus that the government seems to have on keeping the birth rate high and keeping families within Norway is failing – because if it had been easier for me to stay then maybe I would have one day had little (okay – probably quite big) half Norwegian kids and raised them here, but without any options me, my childbearing properties and my Viking are heading off.

Right – rant over (although no promises I won’t revert back to ranting at some later stage).

So other COOL stuff is that I’ve had a couple of little trips. I had a girls’ weekend in Madrid with two of my sweetest friends, both Kiwis and living in London. Unfortunately – Madrid was completely underwhelming. I’ve been to Barcelona and really enjoyed it but I didn’t sense any of the fun vibe from Barcelona in Madrid. I was also holding out for some kickass tapas and I was disappointed, and when we did find a nice spot for a few wines and a nibble, some awful person stole my friend’s handbag. It was one of those moments where you just don’t believe it’s happened. We both had our handbags between her chair and mine, within my line of sight, and then during the meal my friend moved her bag to get her lipgloss and thinks she tucked in under her chair more. We were sitting outside and some nasty person took the table by ours (without us noticing) and, when we weren’t looking, slipped his hand under the seat and took the bag. Bastardo!! So now I have another story of trying to find a police station in a foreign country after some sort of theft (I was pick-pocketed on a bus in Florence many years back – very lovely Italian police officer took my statement). So I won’t be booking the next flight to Madrid in a hurry, but it was still fantastic to have a break from the cold and to spend some quality time with my friends.

The Viking and I also took a little jaunt to London last week, which was great. I have such a respect for people who learn a new language now, it’s such hard work – so being in an English speaking place is just so easy. I talked about it with a friend who lived in Japan (actually – the same friend who had her bag stolen, but that’s by the by) and she said that when she came back to an English speaking country she found being able to understand everything you hear a little distracting – she found it peaceful to just tune out a language she couldn’t understand. I’m kind of the same, I feel a bit like I’m in a bubble because people can be talking on the bus or street and I’ve got no idea what they’re saying, when I was in London I was suddenly very alert to overhearing conversations and picking up bits of discussions everywhere. And to be in an English bookstore again – ahhhhh – bliss. I’ve almost exhausted the small English section of our local library – and I’ve had to read some authors I’d sworn off.

So yes, we’re all set for Melbourne! The Viking actually came up with the plan, because he’s pretty clever really. I was so focused on Europe and seeing what to do here and he very sensibly said ‘we can both speak English so maybe it’s best to go somewhere where they speak English.’ I see the logic. Also, he can get a special ‘Viking visa’ (or something like that) for Australia – because he is boyish and good looking – whereas I’m too old for working visas nowadays but can go to Aussie without a problem. Cheers Aussie! So the Viking’s visa was processed OVERNIGHT (not that I’m comparing it to over 6 months of rigmarole over here, 6 months – rigmarole – overnight – online – easy as pie), and we have both written about it on Facebook so that means that it’s really got to happen. Flights have been booked, the apartment has been tenanted, recruitment companies have been contacted, airport pick-up has been arranged, initial dossing with good friend and her jazz singing flatmates has been secured. Excellent.

At the moment Norway is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I never realised I totally associated snow with Christmas movies until a few weeks ago. I started feeling extremely festive and realised it was because I actually thought I was walking through the set of any of the dozens of children’s Christmas movies I’ve seen. The snow is so perfect and beautiful it looks fake – you know when you see something and you go ‘oh – as if! It can’t look that good, it’s got to be fake’ well that’s what it’s like here. The sun shines through snow covered trees and the snow actually glistens, and – as my Australian friend pointed out – the snowflakes are actually the same as the way people draw them – that’s how they look. It is magical, it is intensely Christmassy, I am lucky to be here to experience this because it’s so different to what I’ve ever lived in before. I have a lovely, caring and supportive Viking to steal bodyheat from, and a very tight circle of ‘sex-pat’ friends to experience this with. I also have the Viking’s parents (who I refer to as ‘Mama and Papa Norway’ – but they don’t know that so please don’t tell them, although they’re so nice I don’t think they would mind too much) who invite us over and spoil me and still like me even though strictly speaking I am stealing their youngest Viking from them and taking him almost as far away as we can get. So I am grateful for all of this good stuff, but I’m also spending a good deal of time daydreaming about running my toes through the sand on the beach, lying back in the sun and eavesdropping on everyone’s conversations.

Steph J
xxx

(P.S – the photos on my blog were all taken today when I went for a walk down to the shop. It’s no Taranaki but it is fairly picturesque). : )

I will beat you about the head with my friendliness and charm

Hei hei!

So, I’m almost five months into my Norwegian escapade and, to be honest, I’m still not very Norwegian. In fact, I think I’m rebelling against the reserved, or, some (or indeed many) would say ‘rude’ culture of the country in which I live. So, in retaliation, I’ve become almost aggressive in my friendliness, and I am finding this rather satisfying.

Now, what I call ‘rude’ others would call ‘efficient.’ Like, not bothering to say please, excuse me, bless you etc etc… Nobody here finds it rude because they’re used to this as normal behaviour, obviously, being from a place where manners are drummed into you and saying ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are mandatory – my view is different from my current environment. Now, I think, my Viking is very sweet and polite – but he can see nothing wrong with hanging up in the ear of telephone salespeople. Granted, he does seem to get a weirdly high amount of people calling to sell him stuff but he wastes no time in cutting them off. I said ‘surely you could just say ‘sorry not interested’ a few seconds before you hang up?’ and he said ‘no, there’s no point. They have to make a certain number of calls, I’m not a sale so I’m saving them time. It’s sensible.’ I still disagree, because I wouldn’t do that, but I can see the strange logic in it.

Luckily for me, I’ve worked up a really good network of other ‘expats’ over here, a few Kiwis, some Aussies, a great girl from Atlanta, Georgia who rings me and drawls out in the best accent ‘Heeeeeeeeeeeeey girl! What’s up?’ and if I think I’m not very Norwegian I’ve got nothing on her. Anyway, when we all get together the subject does often shift to ‘you’ll never guess what happened to me on the bus/train/at the movies/supermarket/walking along the street minding my own business’ which is always a story involving an act of, what I would deem, rudeness.

For example, when the Viking and I were preparing for a solid afternoon of DVD watching and coffee drinking we needed to furnish ourselves with necessities such as chewy lollies and hot soup, so we went to the supermarket. (As an aside – on Sundays here you’re hard pressed to find ANYTHING open, the supermarkets have some weird rule where there is a limit to the square footage of space they can have open on a Sunday, so they open like a big walk-in wardrobe and stuff it full of food for people to come and clamber over on the seventh day – madness). But that’s where we were, and I was at the counter, feeling rather excited because my Norwegian is now ‘advanced’ enough for me to say ‘hello, yes please, one bag, thank you, goodbye.’ (Although ‘bag’ and ‘sausage’ have only one letter difference and the Viking found my asking for sausages from check-out staff hilarious for quite some time before he told me).

Now – back to the story. A lady pushed in – in short. So I said, in my ‘noisy whisper’ to the Viking – but unfortunately in English as I didn’t know all the words – ‘why is that lady being served before us?’ Nothing gets my dander up like a pusher-inner. And the Viking whispered (properly) ‘she’s probably just had to duck back in after forgetting something.’ Which is fine, but how are we to know that I say? How about a quick ‘excuse me’? Nope, not done here.

So I have begun being the friendliest foreigner in Norway. Whenever I get off the bus I yell ‘TUSEN TAKK!’ (Thanks very much) at the top of my lungs, normally causing the person in front of me to leap into the air as if I’ve just bb gunned them in the back of the knees. I’ve extended my general ‘smiling at babies and old people’ rule to ‘smiling at anyone within a 50 metre radius’ rule. And, last week, someone smiled back – that was a good day.

So, in all seriousness – meeting other foreigners here has saved me from a bit of madness really. (Or further madness depending on how you look at it). And after a particularly triumphant afternoon of greeting strangers/patting their dogs and humming under my breath the Viking did comment that he’s not sure I’ll ever truly fit in here. Which made me secretly pretty glad because I like smiling and being happy, and saying sorry if I’ve done something wrong like kicked the back of their heels or something.

Adjusting to life in Norway has been harder than I thought. Breaking into the workforce has proven to be beyond difficult, not just for me but for almost all the foreigners I meet, the cost of living is sky high (esp if you’re not earning) and, generally speaking, it’s tricky to build up a social network when people are quite reserved. It seems like people are interested but just not enough to be truly inquisitive. It’s strange for me.

But – I’m lucky to have a wonderful man to cheer me up when I’m bored or lonely, skype for the super regular catch-ups with my family at home and, now, some really good friends in the same boat as me. In saying all that, I am unemployed, with a looming visa date, and I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the levels of reality TV I’m consuming, so we will see what the next adventure is. There’ll be a smiling Kiwi and a serious looking (but rather silly on the inside) Viking involved for sure.

Oh – and France was ah-may-zing. Loved it. We had a ball and got tanned and ate exquisite food and saw beautiful things and met a hilarious wine-maker who sung ‘rrrrrrrrrraindrops kep fawling on my ‘ed!’ to us and then said ‘zeee? I ‘av no accent ven I sing! It ez amazing no?’ We bought his wine, largely based on that performance. It was delicious. And I saw hummingbirds, which kind of blew my mind.

Okay – perhaps the next update won’t take so long to arrive and I’ll have some more solid news of what I’m doing, or, alternately, I might have news of being deemed a public nuisance on the streets of Oslo and be banned forever, who knows.

Take care all,

Steph J
xxx

Well I never! Things I didn’t know about Norway…

Kia ora!

Can I just say, before I begin, that I love ‘genius mixes’ on my iPod. I really do. I’m rocking out to some non-stop neo-soul mixes right now and it’s like the best mixed tape that never, ever ends. Who knew I had all that cool stuff on my iPod? I really need to listen to more Hollie Smith, whenever I hear her I feel like I’ve let her down by not listening enough. Sorry Hollie.

Right – so, you know when you first come to a country and you notice all sorts of weird things and you go ‘whoa – look at that!’ and then within a few months you’re just used to it and you don’t notice any more? Like when you go to London and you think, what’s up with lining up for everything? And then, six months later, you’ve been standing in a line for an egg and mayo sandwich for 40 minutes and you hadn’t even noticed. So I decided to make a little list of things that I’ve queried over here. I would also like to express, very genuinely, that these are not criticisms, that I love this country and that these are just little unique things I have picked up on. (Just in case anyone gets a bit sensitive and decides to lock me out of the house or something). : )

1. In Norway it’s the law to drive with your headlights on all of the time. In fact, we borrowed the Viking’s mum’s car the other day and the headlight was out and we had to wait until brilliant daylight to drive to the mechanic to get it fixed, quicksmart. Road safety is taken VERY seriously over here. Drink driving is simply not tolerated. So if someone has driven to visit you, you don’t even offer them one glass of wine, even with a big dinner. My Kiwi friend here, Sal, stressed to me how serious this is by saying ‘oh yes, if you have some cough medicine here you wait until the next day to drive.’ I think this is good, having learned a lot about the injury rates of crashes involving alcohol, but it’s different to what I’m used to (which is a glass of wine with a meal when you’re out is okay). No way now though, if I was going to mess with the police from a country I don’t think I’d start with the Norwegian police. Yes – but driving is very safety conscious however NZ is ahead in cycle safety it seems. Over here it’s not the law to wear a cycle helmet and hardly anyone does – even though everyone between 3 and 97 rides a bike. (Which, many will realise, poses a small issue for me – the girl who decided to just ‘wait for something with an engine’ when the subject of bikes was raised as a child).

2. Body art. Now, I like tattoos, within reason. I like artistic expression and, well, I guess I like human bodies too so the mix doesn’t seem unnatural to me. And I have some, so I need to defend them. In NZ a lot of people, particularly those under about 40, have tattoos. It’s not a huge deal. But over here heaps and heaps and HEAPS of people have tattoos. It’s really noticable. It’s interesting and there doesn’t seem to be such a stigma around it. The Viking got his sixth one on Wednesday, and the neighbour that never puts a shirt on (and therefore seems to have a very even tan) has loads of them – George Clooney off Dusk til Dawn style. Lots of the lads seem to be quite into the gym too so, ladies, if toned up blonde boys with tattoos on big biceps are your thing book your tickets now. It’s a tough, tough life.

3. On May 17th I noticed the next point. There’s a lot of international adoption in Norway. I noticed lots of European looking Mums and Dads with Asian or African looking babies and children. I asked around and apparently international adoption is pretty common here. Go Norway! I’m very pro-adoption and after my time in Vietnam I love the idea of kids coming to a place like Norway for a better chance at a good life.

4. I’m not sure if this one is just in my head or not, but I’ve also noticed a lot of identical twins over here. Like HEAPS. And you know, when you see identical twins and you think ‘hang about – do they look exactly the same?’ and then you see yourself staring at two people sitting opposite you on the bus and you get embarrassed? Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of that. But – I think I know why it might be. If Norway is big on international adoption, maybe it’s also big on IVF – which creates more multiple births. Not sure, but I could be onto something. Maybe.

5. At supermarkets you don’t hand your change to the cashier. You put it in a slot machine and it counts it and spits out your change. I like this because it seems hygenic. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the machines for quite some time and would hand over the money and the person would look at me like I was going to rob them.

6. Now, Norway is an expensive country, and I like a bargain just as much as the next unemployed traveller. So when I realised how expensive clothing was I thought, bugger that – I’ll just buy everything online. I may have done my dastardly laugh as I ordered a tshirt and a denim jacket off the topshop website. I certainly emailed some friends and bragged about my plan. Not so actually. Not only had I mixed up the conversion rate and paid rather a lot for a t-shirt that, although new – looks vintage and so you are paying lots of money for something that looks old and a denim jacket that, on the website, did NOT look cropped (because I need my clothes short to make me look even taller – I mean really) but also, sneaky old Norway taxed me to pick up the parcel. There is a tax on all packages here (except books – thankfully) and then an additional tax depending on the value of the package. So I shan’t be online shopping too much anymore, and I will perservere with my short denim jacket unless I get a chill in my kidneys.

7. Now, this is rather a silly point, and when I discussed it with the Viking he rolled his eyes at me – but then he did help me with the spelling of the words so I think he knows, deep down, that these things are funny. There are certain words over here that sound like really rude or funny English words, but over here are commonly used. For example, there are a lot of signs that say ‘farts dumpere’ which means, speed bumps. Thus – the singular is in fact ‘farts dump.’ And children here walk right under those signs without laughing and pointing and making rude sounds, fully grown Kiwi women, it seems, do not. This one is quite rude (sorry Mum) – ‘kant’ is pronounced just like the really, really bad English word. So, a friend was shocked when she was asked to buy a ‘kant-klipper’ as a gift for her mother-in-law. It means edge-trimmer. And, finally, ‘slutt’ means – the end. So when you watch a movie or programme, sometimes ‘SLUTT’ will flash on the screen at the end. I no longer take offence.

8. And another language one for the wordgeeks, Norwegians have an extra 3 letters in the alphabet, so when I saw an advertisement that said something like ‘we have everything from a to å’ – instead of ‘a to z’ it just tickled my fancy a little. It’s the small things.

9. Over here, if someone says ‘shall we go for a little walk?’ What they mean is ‘put your boots on we’re going out for no less than a three hour hike.’ Seriously, it’s a big part of the culture, and once you stop being surprised by it it’s actually really cool. It’s called ‘Gå på tur’ – go for a walk.

10. A nice surprise was also that bathroom floors in almost every house, are heated. It sounds like a small thing but it’s lovely to walk in there in bare feet and have a nice warm floor. When I first arrived I would call out ‘warm floor! Warm floor!’ every time I went in to the bathroom, which wasn’t actually that well received if it happened to be the middle of the night but it really is nice.

11. The drinking age over here is split. So to drink beer or wine you only need to be 18, but to drink or purchase spirits you need to be 20+, some bars go so far as to only sell beer or wine on Friday nights so that they don’t need to check for ID at the bar.

12. Norwegians love coffee. Everyone has a coffee maker and drinks their coffee black and strong. (My penchant for vanilla lattes has caused a few sideways glances). BUT – there is no Starbucks here. Which is a nice break from a chain that seems to have taken over the rest of the world.

Right – so that’s it really. 12 things you may not have known about Norway and now do. I’ve been here for two months now, and am still regularly pleasantly surprised by how genuinely nice the people are – you wouldn’t say they’re bubbly and friendly like Antipodeans but they do seem to be really kind and a very openminded society. A bit of a generalisation I guess but that’s just what I’ve found.

Planning for France is now in full swing. I’ve embraced the excel spreadsheet itinerary with great gusto and have even created a budget split into Kiwi dollars, Norwegian Kroner and Euros. When it comes to spending money on travelling I like to be thorough, if nothing else.

Right – I hope that you’re all well and happy, wherever you happen to be in the world.

Steph
xxx

A baby deer in the woods

Hello,

I had such a lovely experience yesterday. I was out walking with the Viking’s mum and her friend and we wandered past a real live Bambi, munching on the grass in the woods. I don’t know why but it blew my mind a little. I’m really in Norway.

So all is going very well, well – the important stuff is going very well. I’m healthy and happy and getting to spend time with a very cool Viking who takes good care of me and is learning more and more retro kiwi slang every day. Stuff that isn’t exactly smooth as silk is the bla bla boring admin of trying to become a resident. Strangely enough, I get a different story every time I contact the UDI here (which is the immigration place), and multiple variations from the Police – who actually administer the visas. At the moment I’m contemplating either becoming a skilled jobseeker, or getting a work permit, or extending my tourism visa (which isn’t a visa because I’m from a ‘non-visa country’) or who knows what. I have to go to the Police with loads of documents and proof of ‘sufficient funds’ (but without anyone being able to tell me how much is actually ‘sufficient’) so it’s a bit of a rigmarole. I’m sure we will get there in the end because these things always work themselves out, but it’s just a little frustrating in the meantime.

So, since my last blog a lot has happened. I’ve joined the gym, and had a programme written for me by ‘Frank’ (pronounced FRUNK) which he assures me will have me in tip-top shape in no time at all. It’s a bit of a concern when my Norwegian is still so basic that I can’t read the many signs around the gym, or in the changing room but I’ve yet to come into any real trouble so I think I’m okay.

The Viking and I also took a lovely holiday to Bergen, where we stayed for a couple of days. Apparently Bergen gets more rain than any other Norwegian city, but we struck gorgeous weather. Seriously, summer here is great – really late sunny evenings, not much wind, and the ability to get a light tan without frying your skin. Yay! But Bergen, yes Bergen. It was really nice. We did a walking tour and went up and down the tiny little streets (that are really just narrow cobbled paths) that go right beside houses on a hillside. We found an excellent wine bar and even better tapas restaurant (both are right next to the funicular station and really worth a look). We got a lot of walks in and had a lovely time. There are a lot of quaint little streets with wonky little houses.

Of course we checked out the wharf, Bryggen and ate a lot of local seafood. Delicious!

From Bergen we began the ‘Norway in a nutshell’ tour we had booked. This is a really clever piece of tourism I think. There’s variations on the ‘Norway in a nutshell’ route, but we did the traditional version, from Bergen to Oslo. So you train from Bergen to, eeek – memory going – I think Voss, yes yes (have just checked to make sure I don’t muck the names up), then it’s a quick change onto a bus to Gudvangen. Now – I looked at the itinerary and thought, ew – bus, that will be the boring bit. I was wrong – the bus ride was actually extraordinary. We went through tiny narrow valleys, and alongside waterfalls – it was really beautiful. From the bus we jumped on a boat for a couple of hours to Flåm, where we stayed the night. Now what Flåm lacks in nightlife, it certainly makes up for in scenery. The little town sits right on the fjord and if you can escape the little village of souveniers for a while (like we managed to – after I bought my second and third pair of moose embellished ‘Norway socks’) we just lay down on the grass by the fjord and read and chilled for the afternoon.

Flåm was right on my first month ‘anniversary’ of being in Norway, so the Viking and I took off for a very fancy shmancy dinner at the local flash hotel. While we were there they were filming what looked like a Korean tourism programme, with a very beautiful female host having a discussion with a very shy and embarrassed looking head chef. The food was all pretty traditional Norwegian fare, presented beautifully and accompanied by very nice Italian red wine (which I’m not sure was that authentic but I didn’t want to raise the issue). The Viking raved about some, wait for it, dried reindeer meat – that he said ‘melted in the mouth’ but I just went to town on the seafood and left the dried meat for the locals. Although the locals weren’t that local it seemed – the waiter asked the Viking to speak to him in English because he didn’t speak Norsk, which was quite funny for a Norwegian tourist spot.

From Flåm we caught the Flåmsbana – which is one of the steepest railways in the world. It was just breath-taking. Because we were surrounded by tourists, many of whom had just jumped off the colossal cruise ships that dock in Flåm, I wanted to be a little sneaky to get the inside on where to sit on the trip. I said to the Viking ‘go and ask the train man (not his official title) which side is best to sit on – ask him in Norwegian.’ I thought this was cunning, because not only would the train man think ‘oh – locals, that’s a change – I’ll give them the best scoop,’ but also no one within earshot would be any the wiser because they wouldn’t understand. Unfortunately my cunning plan wasn’t that cunning because the train man said ‘they’re both good, the first half sit on the left and the second half the good stuff is on the right’ (or vice versa – I can’t remember). Anyway, it’s all good, sit wherever you want and you will have your mind blown.

There’s even a stop by a huge waterfall and there’s a little Norwegian surprise there that I won’t spoil but it’s so worth doing. I got a little overwhelmed by it all.

Anyway, the Flåmsbana drops you in Myrdal, with just enough time for an icecream, before the 5 and a half hour train ride back to Oslo. Now this train ride is incredible too. Snowy hillsides and icy lakes – all stunning. There was a brief period I missed due to accidentally falling asleep, I think all the excitement wore me out.

So, we’ve been back in Oslo for, well, I’m not sure – maybe a couple of weeks. And I’ve been sending my CV to all the Norwegian Humanitarian organisations, as well as all of the international organisations I could find that operate with English as the business language. My phone hasn’t been ringing hot with job offers just yet but it will happen. I think I do need to bite the bullet and do a proper Norwegian course though, and then I can apply for jobs where I can at least communicate at a basic level in Norwegian as well as in English (at a less basic level I would hope). My ‘teach yourself Norwegian’ has been good for teaching me how to recognise and translate Norwegian when it’s written, but hearing it spoken at top speed is quite different. I think I’ll get more confident when I can practise with other people with crazy accents and who also find it hard to pronounce words like ‘kjedelig’ (which means boring and sounds like a cat hissing when you say it properly).

But fun stuff is that I’m currently planning a wine-tasting trip around France. We think we’ll start in Nice and work our way up to Paris. In Paris we’re hoping to meet up with Nicole and Billy to celebrate Nic’s birthday. Nic is one of my closest, and also most diminutive friends, so I’m very much looking forward to introducing her to the Viking – who has hands the size of trailers and getting a photo of her itty bitty little hand beside his. I’ve warned them both of this plan and, as long as it is accompanied by good wine, both parties seem keen.

Right – I best press on. We’re off to pick up our ‘Taranaki Hardcore’ t-shirts that have been specially couriered over from my Dad so we better get moving.

I hope everyone is well and happy, if you’re not you should come to Norway – it’s warm (yes yes, I know I’ll eat my words in a few months when it’s -30), there’s lots of really good seafood and you get to see baby deer in the forest!

Steph J
xxx

Eurovision, waffles, a parade and a new favourite park

Well hello there!

Here I am! In Norway! I’ve been here almost three weeks and I must say, this place is choice. I had high hopes for Norway, I expected gorgeous landscapes, impressive fjords and, well, polar bears actually – but two out of three isn’t too bad I guess. The nice surprises I’ve had since I’ve been here have been the laid back feel of the place, the focus on family, the feeling of safety and security and the long sunshine filled days. Ahhh, drinking wine on the deck until 10.30 at night and feeling like it’s about 6.30pm because it’s so light is a novelty that’s not going to wear off for a while. (Although, it probably goes without saying that I’m missing most of the sunshine earlier in the day, with all of this late night sitting up marvelling over the sunshine).

So, for those in ‘the know’ – I was enticed to Norway by a big, tall Viking I met in Vietnam last year. Like many Norwegians he is a very private person, so when I ran the idea of my blog past him, and his potential presence in the blog, we agreed that as long as I referred to him as ‘the Viking’ (with a capital ‘V’) he could handle the possible international exposure of his private life. Bless.

I’ll come back to what Norway is like soon, and even though everyone is very polite and sweet, they are not cut from the same cloth as a smiling, uber-inquisitiveTaranaki girl. The Viking is taking some time to get used to me smiling and waving at the neighbours (who now, after nearly three weeks, sometimes smile back!) and striking up conversations with people in shops just for the hell of it. The whole conversation thing is a bit tricky actually, considering I don’t speak Norwegian. And yes, most people here under 60 years old speak really good English, but it’s just not the same when you can’t eavesdrop on the train or know if someone is muttering to themselves or you. So I am learning, that’s the latest task actually – I’m teaching myself Norwegian with a book aptly titled ‘Teach yourself Norwegian.’ So far so good.

But more about the country itself! Actually, before I launch into that, I need to mention Berlin. We went there after Munich and it was a cool city. Very creative and more laid back than Munich. Loads of drinking on the street seemed to add to that (not by me, but many, many other members of the public I noticed). But I think people should check it out, for sure, as well as bursting with history and gorgeous architecture there is some of the best shopping I’ve found in Europe and I just love the really artistic feel. Plus, in terms of European cities, Berlin is a bargain.

Okay – Norge! Fun fun fun! It’s been pretty busy since I got here actually. The day after I arrived was May 17th, which is Norway’s National Day. The Royal Family stand on the balcony of the castle for hours waving at everyone, heaps of people dress up in traditional costumes, there’s bands, concerts, dancing, and loads of people just wandering around having a good time. It was a gorgeous day here too, which added to it. We wandered around Oslo and checked out the parade, waved at the royal family, went to Arke Brygge (the waterside area) and then found a pub. It’s funny to see the bandmembers lay their instruments down and undo their dozens of buttons on their jackets and have a few beers, apparently if you stick around they pick up their instruments and play a few less formal tunes later in the night.

Another cool thing I noticed were teenagers wearing bright red overalls or dungarees. ‘Hmmm, that’s a dodgy trend Norway’ I thought quietly, however I was wrong. Apparently when you finish your last day at highschool you get given these overalls, and everyone writes on them, and you wear them (without washing them!!) until May 17th. So, from what I can gather, there are about two weeks of full on parties and at the end of that the overalls aren’t that red anymore and they take themselves off you and walk themselves to the bin. The other thing I learned is that May 17th is the day when kids can have as much ice cream and sweets as they want and not get told off for being noisy – so the kids go nuts, it’s great. Also, the high-school kids have a stack of cards with jokes on them, and little kids will go up and ask for them and collect them. It’s actually really nice to see little kids chatting to teenagers throughout the day (even if some of the teenagers are looking a bit worse for wear).

Other Norwegian highlights? We went to the Edvard Munch museum and saw ‘the Scream’ – which was pretty impressive. I must say that poor old Munch didn’t have the cheeriest of lives so seeing a lot of his work all at once isn’t that uplifting, still – it’s pretty impressive.

I tell you what is uplifting though, and my new all time favourite park in the world – Vigeland Park! I LOVE this park! Gustav Vigeland is a famous Norwegian sculptor who has created these incredible sculptures all over the park. There’s a massive monolith, which is a pillar of 121 figures, you can walk around it and see 120 of the figures, with the last one only visible from the sky. So impressive. And then there is a bridge lined with more statues, lots of children and people running and embracing. I just love it. When we were there it was a gorgeous day so there were lots of people lying around on the grass with their wee portable BBQs, just lovely.

Other cool places we went to were the Nobel Prize Institute, which was not only really good but also really hi-tech too. A very interactive exhibition with lots of screens and movies and flashy lights and other disco fun.

Last weekend was Eurovision, and I don’t mind telling you I was pretty excited about that. We had been invited to my friend Sal’s place for the night. Sal is from NZ but married a Norwegian girl about 5 or 6 years ago and has lived over here ever since. (Another very cool thing about Norway is that they recognise same sex marriage).  Sal and Ina live in Horton, which is a little town by Drammen and close to the water. We went for a ‘shake it off’ walk in the morning to see the Viking burial mounds and a big Viking museum – the only slightly disturbing thing was the ‘viking-themed’ playground for kids which included axe throwing as one of the games, with a real axe. Hmmmmm. Anyhoo – how much fun was Eurovision? It was awesome, and we voted Germany too, because, well to be perfectly honest the Norwegian guy wasn’t that great, but you can’t actually vote for  your own country’s candidate. Oslo was hosting the event as Norway won last year, but I’m sure we had more fun watching it on TV then we would have had at the actual event. And there are certain dancemoves (ie trying to mimic the Eurovision dance that apparently everyone in Europe except me knows) that are best only in the company of good friends.

So that was a big night in Norway and a lot of fun.

At this stage it looks like I might stay here for a while, mainly for the smoked salmon I think, so this blog may turn into a vehicle for expressing my issues with attempting to get residency/a job/a grasp of the language quite quickly.

In the meantime, please send me gossip and news, I do love it so.

Jeg vil gjerne en pinnekjott (I would like the salted and dried mutton ribs steamed on twigs).

Ha det

Steph
xxxx

A brand new adventure

Kia ora!

Well things have changed a little since I last wrote, I’m writing this blog from a hostel lounge in Munich, and clearly I haven’t been very good at keeping up to date with blogs over the last few months. I think the reason for that is simply because I was living a rather dull life in Wellington, working in my old PR role for the NZ government (well, an agency for the government) and trying hard to save money and prepare myself for this trip. So it wasn’t exactly thrilling material for a blog – ‘today I went to work, it was windy in Wellington, I went to the gym, I came home….’ Times that by the last three months and ask yourself if you’d bother reading about that.

Okay, so I got to London last Thursday. And never one to make a quiet entrance I got off the plane and lined up at immigration and my nose decided to react to the change in temperature by having the most hideous bleeding nose of my life. How sophisticated and cool is that? Also, how dodgy does it look to arrive in a country where people import a lot of drugs and look like my nose is about to fall off from snorting Tony Montana sized portions of cocaine? The good news was, once I’d sorted myself out in the bathroom I was pale and dizzy enough to go straight through the quick line at immigration and be met by my little cousin, who was on the verge of ringing NZ to see why I wasn’t on the plane as everyone else from my flight had already come through.

But, that was a minor hiccup in an otherwise good flight and arrival. London is gorgeous at the moment, lots of blossoms everywhere and just a wee chill in the air. It’s funny, I think when I left London last time (seven years ago now) I was so over living there that my main memories were of packed tubes and homeless people and bad street smells, not the pretty side of London. So it’s been lovely to be back. Lovely, but very brief. I flew out to Prague less than 48 hours after arriving.

I was really looking forward to Prague, having not made it there during my first stint in Europe. It is a gorgeous little city. We were there during bank holiday weekend so it was completely overrun by tourists, and even though I am one, it’s a little irritating to be surrounded by other foreigners. It was hard to get a sense of the city, or what the locals were like, when you couldn’t tell who actually were locals. Luckily for us though, my good friend Teri lives in Prague so she was able to take us out for a locals point of view. We struck fantastic weather so we went on a lot of big walks and soaked up the sunshine. I bought some gorgeous photos as we walked over the bridge. So one day, when I figure out where I’m going to live, I will have lots of lovely things to hang on the walls.

From Prague we caught the train to Vienna. I must say, I loved Vienna. It was stunning. A beautiful city to walk around and just so many gorgeous things to see. I had one wonderful day when I got to see Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ painting at the Belvedere and then go to a show that evening at the palace. I’ve loved Klimt’s work since I was a kid so to see the originals in a stunning, stunning gallery was just amazing. The Belvedere is one of the best galleries I’ve ever been to, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Schiele and Klimt all in one place.

I bought my ticket for the show on the street. One thing that is funny when I compare travels in Europe to travels in Asia is the lack of people trying to rip me off on the streets. I quite like the banter with people on the street, it makes you feel a bit alive to negotiate and watch your pockets and stuff, but there’s not too much of that here – well there is, but not by comparison to Vietnam or Cambodia. Anyway, we were approached by some guys dressed up as Mozart and asked if we wanted to buy tickets. “Here we go!” I thought to myself, smiling at my cleverness for identifying scam artists. But, sadly, they were actually just trying to sell tickets, real tickets – and for a normal price, so that limited me a bit. Anyway, I was standing, as I often do, in third position (which is a ballet position where one foot is placed at the centre of the other one – God knows why I stand like this, but it’s comfy and I did do ballet for about fifteen minutes as a kid so maybe I’ve retained some of that poise and grace), anyway, one of the Mozarts came up to me and said ‘she is a ballerina!’ and mimiced by stance. Now, I have been accused of many, many things, but as a ‘woman of stature’ a ballerina is not one of the more common ones. I’m not saying I didn’t like it though, and he did then leap off the pavement and do a fancy twirl for my viewing pleasure. He looked over my shoulder at the ticket I was buying and said “that’s my show! I’m a dancer in that show!” And I said (still hoping that he might be trying to trick me) “sure you are buddy.” And he said “I will see you tonight.”

So – can you guess where this is going? I went to the show, which was LOVELY. It was a combination of orchestral performance, opera singing and ballet and guess who the lead male ballet dancer was? Mozart! Well, not really Mozart but the guy selling the tickets. So that was lovely. The show was fantastic. Amazing singing and the orchestra was excellent.

From Vienna we caught the train to Salzburg. If you go to Salzburg you should stay at the Lasserhoff – it’s like a lovely hotel at hostel prices. What a treat for two weary little Kiwi travellers. Salzburg was really nice. We just did a little tour in the morning and then wandered through the cute little old town. We checked out the Salzburg Museum which was fascinating acutally, not at all traditional – pretty quirky in fact.

Right – this is going on a bit isn’t it? So, we arrived in Munich yesterday and are again staying at the Wombats Hostel. (We stayed with them in Vienna too). It’s a good hostel with a good set-up and lots of nice lounge space.

One of the first things we wanted to do in Munich was go to Dachau. I studied Nazi Germany at University and have always been really interested in the history of this country. Still, if you want to plan a fun day you don’t normally factor in a visit to a concentration camp, but I must say – today was really amazing. We did a tour of Dachau with an Irish guy called Gordon, who is an artist who has lived in Munich for 12 years. I could not recommend him highly enough as a guide. His knowledge of the Third Reich is absolutely massive, and all self-taught. He’s a passionate historian and sees taking tours of Dachau as a way to acknowledge and commemorate what the inmates went through. I think Gordon’s philosophy, coupled with his knowledge made for a memorable, insightful and informative tour, that – although emotional at times, was not as hopelessly traumatic as it could of been.

If you’re interested, Gordon does tours that leave from inside the central entrance of Hauptbahnhof train station 6 days a week (except Mondays) at 10.15am. Our tour cost 19 euros. Bookings aren’t necessary but you can contact him on gordonstours@gmx.de

Gordon’s flyer sums it up when he says: “On this officially authorised tour of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, we will approach this dark period of history and try to understand what led to this terrible injustice. By doing this, we will not only honour those who suffered and died, but we will attempt to learn from history for the benefit of both ourselves and future generations.”

The museum there is amazing and Gordon recommended a couple of books to me which I picked up at the Visitor’s store (which has an amazing book collection).

Speaking of books – I’ve just finished ‘Dancer’ by Colm McCann, which is a about the life of ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev – so that gave me a really interesting appreciation of the ballet I saw in Vienna. (Aunty Janine – you should read this, sorry but I left my copy in a hostel in Vienna). Now I’m reading ‘The book of laughter and forgetting,’ by Czech author Milan Kundera, which I need to finish before I start with ‘Hell’s Cartel’ which I got this morning. I love having more time to read because I’m travelling. I also love not having to get up and go to work, which I know I will eventually have to do again but I’ll avoid it for as long as I can.

So we’re in Munich for another couple of days and then we go on to Berlin, back to London for a few days and then I go to Norway. I’m stupidly excited about Norway. I get there in time for the May 17th celebrations. I’ve been promised the opportunity to wave at the royal family so that will be cool. When I get to Norway I might think about where I’m heading to from there and where I could set up for a while. I’m not going to worry myself thinking too hard about it until then though.

I hope you’re all safe and well, and keeping your nosebleeds under control.

Steph J
xxx

A fresh outlook

I haven’t worked for three months, I’d probably be quite worried if I didn’t have a fresh outlook on life. So, I’ve been back in New Zealand since mid December and have travelled a little up and down the North Island to catch up with friends and family. It’s been great. I love Kiwi summers and I’ve managed to follow the sunshine wherever it goes.

I started off in Wellington, where I had to reconsider the wisdom of buying so many floaty summer skirts and dresses. They don’t call it ‘windy Wellington’ for nothing. I had a good time catching up with my friends there for a few days, I felt quite the little socialite actually with all my lunches and dinners. But, after a few days of that I needed to get away so escaped to a friend’s bach in Ngawi. I love Ngawi, it’s such a rough coast, it reminds me of Taranaki – but with more tractors on the main road. I read somewhere that there are more tractors than there are permanent residents in Ngawi, due to everyone needing them to pull the fishing boats in.

So I had a lovely couple of days lying in the sunshine and watching the boats coming in. I did venture out for a wee adventure though, and I of course managed to pick an unbelievably windy day to do it. I wanted to walk along the coast to the lighthouse, which is far further away than I’d remembered. I ended up walking along the road, which was being steamrolled or whatever they do to push the gravel down into the road, and the nice man driving the big machine stopped to let me pass without being completely coated in dust. Then I decided, in my infinite wisdom, to peer over a cliff at the way that the seaweed was being blown with the direction of the choppy water – it really looked amazing. Then I realised that I was having to brace myself entirely against being blown in for a closer look at said seaweed so I turned to walk towards the road (and away from the water) when another sudden gust of wind blew my t-shirt completely over my head, and, as luck would have it, the normally barren Ngawi road was suddenly inhabited by a car filled with surprised looking surfers, no doubt laughing at me struggling against the wind and my t-shirt to make my way to safer shores.

Soon after this, when I was stomping along the road again, a boy came tearing around a corner on his quadbike and nearly took me out and I decided that perhaps today wasn’t the best day for climbing the lighthouse so I turned back. I was no longer feeling at one with nature. My slightly sore heels from some new blisters developed into being excruciatingly painful and I was faced with the ‘bare feet on gravel’ option or put up with the blisters. As I was unhappily pondering this the friendly big machine driving man pulled up beside me in his ute and offered me a lift home. Normally, I’m not big on jumping in cars with strangers (Mum used to tell me hitch-hiker horror stories as a child to reinforce the ‘stranger danger’ message) but it was pre-Christmas and he looked a bit like Santa and my options were running low. Clearly, I made it back in one piece and then managed to lock myself outside and had to climb through the window to get back in but there was never a glass of pinot noir that tasted better than the one I had that night.

From Ngawi I went briefly back to Wellington then up to Taranaki for Christmas. Taranaki is beautiful, there is absolutely no doubting it. When I got there Fleetwood Mac were playing at the Bowl of Brooklands. I love the Bowl of Brooklands, I went to my first concert there when I was about eight, it was UB40 and I loved it. But I didn’t go to Fleetwood Mac, I heard it was great though. I was initially amused at the amount of Stevie Nicks lookalikes around town, and I chuckled to myself about how devoted some people were, until I looked down at my long bohemian style skirt and ran my fingers (as much as I can with the knots) through my long blonde hair and thought – ahhh yeah, I’m just as Stevie Nicks as any of these women and I’m not even a fan.

The rest of my time in Taranaki was spent walking the coastal walkway – which is brilliant and beautiful. There was a campaign in New Plymouth a few years ago to encourage residents to smile at people on the walkway, and it’s really stuck. It’s nice to go out and have people nod and smile at you as you walk along by the beach. There’s a lot of kite-boarding in Taranaki now too, which is good to watch.

So now I’m in Hamilton, which is where I went to University. The city has changed quite a bit over the last, um, I guess ten years now. I caught up with a friend for dinner and when we tried to have a drink afterwards we struggled to find a bar that was open (it was a Wednesday but it was only about 10pm) and when we did find one they closed after we’d had our one drink.

My sister and I also did a day-trip to Tauranga and stopped at Waihi beach on the way home. Waihi beach is gorgeous. I don’t think I’d been on that beach for over ten years, my last memory there being a camping trip after my first year of University. A particularly ill-equipped camping trip if I remember rightly.

Anyway, I’m going to do a day-trip to Auckland to see some friends this weekend and then slowly make my way back to Wellington via another stay in Taranaki. I’ve got a few months contracting work in Wellington, so I’ll be back in the ‘spin-cycle’ of PR very soon. That will be a bit different to the last few months but it’ll also be good to get a regular routine again, and an income will be nice.

The plan after my contracting stint is to go back into the wide world again. I don’t think I’m ready to settle down in New Zealand at the moment, so I’ve decided to travel for a couple of months and then look for a permanent role in Cambodia. There are a lot of NGOs looking for communications people at the moment so I’m hoping to find some work for an organisation that is somehow related to helping children, especially if it’s related to creating opportunities for education. So, fingers crossed there.

As Cambodia in May is a bit too tropical for me I’m going to head back to Europe to bide my time for a while. I’m going to launch myself back onto some of my old stomping grounds in London, I really want to go to the Amalfi Coast in Italy and I’ve also planned to have a look around Norway and maybe Sweden. It’s a pretty loose plan at the moment but I’m excited to get back over the other side of the world in the near-ish future again.

I did get some very, very sad news this week though. My good friend in Vietnam, Jumi, passed away. If you’ve read my blog a little bit you’ll know how wonderful Jumi has been to me, she’s been my translator, my guide and my dear friend since I met her the first time I went to Vietnam. Jumi was one of the most genuinely warm and beautiful people I’ve had the fortune of meeting. There’s so much to say about Jumi that it’s hard to put it into words, it’s a tragedy that she’s gone. She touched the hearts of so many children in Vietnam and made every visitor to Vietnam she met feel welcome.

Jumi has inspired me to take more risks in life and take every opportunity that comes my way – because there were so many things that she wanted to do and didn’t get the chance to.

 

Jumi Nguyen 1987 – 2010
Rest in peace Jumi. Arohanui.

Egyptian hospitality

Well, it has come to an end. I’m writing this blog from Kuala Lumpur airport having left Cairo overnight and flown for ten hours to get to Malaysia. From here I have a three or four hour wait then one hour to Singapore, then overnight there, ten hours to Auckland, brief overnight there and back to Wellington on Friday. Why is that important? Well it’s actually not at all, apart from as an excuse for the poor grammar and/or spelling that may crop up in this entry. There’s something about overnight flights that leaves me a little incoherent.

BUT – a lot has happened since the last update. During my Nile cruise I met a tour guide called ‘Sharif’ (named after Omar Sharif). He was probably the first person to really show me what Egyptian hospitality was really about. He noticed me loitering around the boat waiting to get off to look at Edfu temple and asked if I wanted to join his clients. I said ‘sure’ thinking, ‘a guide can’t cost that much if I’m part of a group?’ So I went along with his really lovely Bangladeshi clients (a brother and sister group as their Mum was resting up in her cabin). They were fantastic, funnily enough, the woman had a job that was quite similar to my old job in Wellington, working in PR for a health related organisation. So we had some stories to swap. Both her and her brother made Bangladesh sound pretty amazing, sounds like there’s a massive disparity in terms of income levels and if you’re at the comfy end you can be incredibly well looked after as the cost of living is so low. Still, Bangladesh is a little far down the list of dream destinations but it’s nice to know that there are good opportunities there.

Anyway, back to Sharif. What a champion. He showed me around the temple and wouldn’t accept any money, not even a tip. (I have a real issue with tipping generally speaking, I’m what’s called an ‘awkward tipper,’ actually verging on an ‘inappropriate tipper’ at times. I try and give money to people who are being genuinely kind and then forget when someone actually wants money. Coming from tight-wad New Zealand (just kidding but we really don’t tip at home) it’s very weird. If someone has been really nice to you it seems a bit insulting to give them money for their kindness). Anyway, I tried to slip Sharif some money, in my fumbling, blushing fashion of tipping, and he said ‘shame on you for even offering.’ So that made me feel like I was totally on top of this tipping thing.

Sharif decided that I was now ‘like a sister to him’ and he showed me around and rung me regularly to check up on me while I was in Egypt, often warning about the ‘bad boys in Dahab,’ apparently they weren’t ‘nice boys’ like him and they could NOT be trusted. Bless him. If he thinks the boys are bad in Dahab he probably needs to spend a few nights out in provinical New Zealand.

But to go off on a tangent; over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a lot about gender roles in Egypt. I’ve made a heap of Egyptian friends but, aside from a lovely lady who sometimes cleans for Eva and looked at me like I had just told her there had been a death in the family when I said I didn‘t eat red meat, they are all men. Women in Egypt tend to stay at home, tucked away. The only time I was approached by a group of females here was in Aswan when a little gaggle of schoolgirls raced up to ask me where I’d got my skirt from (when I answered ‘Cambodia’ they nodded and went ‘oh’ like I said I’d just picked it out of the rubbish bin around the corner). So when you’re in a restaurant, or at a hostel, or on a boat, they are all staffed by men. The hotel I stayed at in Dahab was staffed by all Egyptian men in their early twenties. And when someone asked me how I liked the hotel I said it was good but it was lacking something, and strangely I think that thing is a woman’s touch. When there’s no female input into these kinds of businesses everything is kind of, well macho I guess. Like if you order a meal the young men literally chuck the plates down on the table, slopping stuff over the sides and clearing the table by sweeping everything noisily onto a big tray.

Enough rambling? Bloody lack of sleep (and waking up in the middle of the night to see a bizarre guy across the aisle either sleeping with his eyes open or staring at me without blinking, that was soothing). So when I got to Luxor I had a great time. I arrived early in the morning (I think it was a Saturday) and was flying out late the next night, so I only had 48 hours to check out the city that is considered to be the jewel of Egypt. So, in retrospect I was stupid not to allow more time, but I didn’t realise how cool it was going to be.

So the first thing I did was go to Karnak Temple, which is amazing. It’s huge and you could spend hours wandering around the massive columns and getting lost. By the time I came out, with no real plans but a hungry belly, I was invited into a shop by a couple of guys who were just closing up for the day. I was a bit knackered but wanted to figure out a place to eat so went and chatted to them. The guys were called Ahmed and Adel. Ahmed was a portly guy with a cheeky grin who lavished me with some well-worn compliments that obviously help his sales figures. Still, if you want to call me a queen and say nice things about me I’m probably not going to tell you to be quiet too quickly. Adel, was a taller, slimmer, quieter guy, with really kind eyes and the kind of demeanour of a doctor, one of those people you just trust when you meet. So when I said I was looking for somewhere to eat Ahmed insisted that I eat with them. Small alarm bells went off and I did faintly hear my mother saying ‘Stephanie, you don’t know these men from Adam and you’re going to go off with them to God knows where?’ But then I thought, ahhh, bugger it, I’m sick of being a total tourist, I’ve just got off a fricken cruise boat where I was completely spoilt in a country where a lot of people don’t have much and I want to see what it’s all about.

Needless to say, five minutes later I was on the back of a motorbike cruising into a small village in Luxor. The day I visited was a special day for Muslims. Sharif had told me about it, it was ‘feast day’ to mark the end of the fast. It was a big celebration and most families would sacrifice a sheep for a big lunch. So we pulled up outside Ahmed’s cousins place, where there were about ten guys standing out the front, all wearing the traditional long gallibaya costume – which is kind of like a long dress – and smoking sheesha. I was then taken inside and introduced to everyone and taken upstairs to eat ‘with the men.’ A little boy came up to ask Adel something and he said ‘la la la’ which means ‘no no no.’ I asked what the boy had asked and it was that the women had asked if I wanted to eat with them, but Adel had said no, I was to eat with the men. So kids and women were downstairs, cooking and preparing and the men got to sit upstairs and eat. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable but I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why the women didn’t sit upstairs with the men.

Anyway, I was honoured to be there. The food was pretty amazing, and there was heaps of it. I had already done the whole ‘I don’t eat red meat’ thing to Adel at the shop but I didn’t want to be rude so when he said ‘you really should eat some of this meat, and you should eat it with your hands like we do,’ I did. After about ten years of no red meat I nibbled politely at a piece of sheep that was put on my plate. I can’t say it awakened a great desire to resume my carnivorous ways but I think that my hosts appreciated the gesture.

Adel and Ahmed then decided that they would show me the ‘real Luxor’ for the rest of the afternoon. So I went with them on a local bus, crossed the Nile on a boat their friend captained and was then driven around all of the big sites I had organised a tour for the next day. They took me to the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut and the Colossus of Ramses. It was great. We finished up by going to Ahmed’s friend’s (also called Ahmed) bar type establishment. Well, it was really like a hang out centre for the village boys, there was a pool table, play station and ping pong. Muslims very rarely drink so it was more about having a bottle of coke than a can of beer, which was just fine with me.

Oh, and the whole afternoon the boys wouldn’t let me pay for anything, even just things for myself like tickets on the bus. I offered on the bus, I offered on the boat, I opened my mouth at Ahmed’s bar and Ahmed the first said ‘Steffie – you ask me once, I say no. You ask me twice, I say no. You ask me three times – I kill you!’ He was kidding of course, but I didn’t ask again.

The next day I jumped in a tourbus with a bunch of other travellers to see the big sights. I was really glad that Ahmed and Adel had shown me around the night before though because I’d had the chance to take some decent photos and get their explanations of the sights I was seeing. The tour was good though. We had a hilarious tour guide who said, “Normally, I kill people for money, but because you are my friend – I will kill you for free!’ So that was interesting. We went to Hatshepsut, which is where Pavarotti performed, it’s also where dozens of tourists were massacred in 1997. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxor_massacre Even though I feel really safe in Egypt, I don’t feel like I have to lock my arm around my bag here and everyone is generally very kind and trustworthy (and very committed to their religious morals) the recent history of terrorism against tourists is a bit disconcerting.

I met some more really interesting people on the tour. One English lady, maybe in her sixties, who was teaching in Sudan and explained to me what it was like there. She said the Sudanese were the kindest people she’d ever met, and also the most repressed by their government.

I got back from Luxor in the middle of the night and was up at the crack of dawn the next morning (are you picking up that I might sleep away my first week back home?) to go to the Pyramids of Giza with Eva, Scott, Ivy and Zara. When you’re going to see something like the pyramids I think that there’s lots of scope for disappointment, they’re an ancient wonder, everyone has seen a million pictures of them. When I got to the Colloseum in Rome I was bitterly disappointed, I’d studied this creation at High School, I’d done whole assignments on it and when I got there I was like ‘it’s not that big’ – I’d just built it up too much in my mind. The pyramids though, are actually awesome (that’s using the word ‘awesome’ as it should be, not like I normally do – with the Kiwi way of slipping into every sentence to describe everything from a good coffee to a new pair of shoes). To look up and see these huge, magnificent structures in front of you (and don’t even get me started on the giant Sphinx – cool) does take your breath away. I misted over a bit, just a bit.

So after a day or two of catching up with the Niehorsters – and finishing up the Christmas shopping in Cairo, I headed to Dahab. I was ready for my week of chilling out. Dahab is on the coast of Cairo and is known for it’s diving and snorkelling spots. I’m not a diver but had toyed briefly with the idea of getting my diving qualification here, then I realised I was motivated by ‘showing-off opportunities’ at saying ‘yeah, got my diving license in the Red Sea man, yeah.’ And I probably wouldn’t actually use it again and I really like snorkelling so I just did that. It was very, very cool. Fish are great, and to see purple and yellow striped fish with electric blue lips looking you right in the eye is pretty amazing, but the reef itself is just incredible. I’m worried about the effects of tourism on the reef because people stand on it to readjust their masks and still break little bits off for selfish souveneirs, but I tried my best to ‘tread carefully’ in the water.

On day two in Dahab I did get a sook on though. I was grumpy about my holiday coming to an end and the prospect of real life again, and another few things were playing on my mind, so, I must confess, I had a self-indulgent morning of ‘poor poor Steph, this is just terrible.’ In fact I was crying into my cornflakes in a restaurant when a scabby, skinny, probably disease ridden cat came to comfort me. And as I sat there patting it’s knobbly little head I suddenly realised how ridiculous I was being. I was in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been to, I was getting waited on hand and foot and making great friends and I was depressed? So I decided to ‘pull my head in’ and distract myself with, quad bike riding!

So I took off with a few others on our quad bikes around the mountains (on gravel roads where cars go, not actually up and down the mountains) and around the beachfront. I learnt the camels shy from cars just like horses do. I learnt that I don’t have the balance to look behind while I’m turning a corner. I learnt that I steer too forcefully and contribute to my own lack of balance. I learnt that when you climb a small but very steep mountain the only way to get down (apart from on your butt) is to tell everyone else to get out of your way and run like the wind. I learnt where the saying ‘eat my dust’ comes from.

So that perked me right up. And that night I met some great people. A guy called Richard from San Francisco who was just lovely and really interesting, he’s travelling around Africa for eight months and downloads language Cds to his Ipod so that he can speak with the locals wherever he goes. We also hung out with a Romanian couple, Vlad and Daniella. Vlad was one of those fit freaks of nature who can hold their breath under water for about twenty minutes and can’t sit still for longer than ten seconds.

The next day I had promised Sharif that I would visit St Catherine’s Monastery. I booked a trip and bused to the monastery, and then climbed up Mount Sinai. The hard core climb Sinai in the middle of the night and watch the sunrise. But I had met some Aussie girls who warned me off that, so I went during the day and came back just before sunset.

The monastery was beautiful, really small and ornate. The mountain was, um, big. And steep. But good. You walk for about an hour and a half and think ‘ha – this isn’t so hard,’ in fact I was up with the front of the pack and feeling quite proud of myself. I was keeping up with the three 25 year old Spanish boys I ended up going out with later, until…..the 750 stairs to the summit. These aren’t stairs like nice wooden stairs, with a safety rail or anything. They’re big rocks in the side of a steep hill. I actually had to summon the voices of my personal trainers in my ears to keep going up there, I was pulling out every piece of positive self-talk I’d ever heard. But I made it, and it was great.

On the way back down it was dark, so that was eerie. I went down the stairs while it was still light but had to guide myself by, this is gross, the smell of camels to get to the end. The lovely Spanish boys waited for me along the way to make sure I was okay. The three of them work for the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv as part of their Masters degrees.

I ended up extending my stay in Dahab by one day to go snorkelling in the ‘Blue hole,’ which is exactly what it sounds like, but the hole is bordered by an incredible coral reef. Just fantastic. I had to buggerise around a little with getting my flight changed but it was all worth it to have that extra time in the water, and with my friends Richard, Vlad, Daniella and a Ukranian couple we’d met.

So I only ended up having one night in Cairo before I took off on the mammoth journey home. Lots of people have tried to convince me to stay in Egypt, or come back to work, and I can see that you can have a comfortable life there, but even though I had a great time in Egypt I think the pollution and the gender inequality would wear me down after a short time. Hopefully I will go back one day to check up on all my ‘Egyptian brothers from some other mothers’ but I don’t think it will be too soon.

I was, of course, a bit sad to leave the Niehorster homestead too. There’s nothing like someone who has known you almost all of your life and her beautiful family to make you feel welcome in a very different country. Hopefully we’ll sort out living in the same country at some stage soon Eves?

Right – so that’s it for this lot of travels, hmmm, the nose has just started running as I type that line, where’s my scabby cat confidante? I’m back home for a little while. I’m looking forward to catching up, breathing the fresh air, and making some plans. I’ll let everyone know how I get on.

Steph J

xxxx

Baby, let’s cruise

Right – just to set the scene, I’m typing this entry from my cabin as I cruise along the river Nile. I’m a million miles (approximately) from Cambodia now and settling into a very different style of living in Egypt. There’s been a slight culture shock coming from South-East Asia into the Middle East but overall I’m doing pretty good.

I wanted to blog a bit about Siem Reap and the temples, but I’m just not sure I can do it all justice. So I just want to say that spending a few days going from incredible temple to incredible temple, each site linked by beautiful countryside and smiling people is an extraordinarily good use of your time. Each temple is different from the last, and in some unique way impressive, atmospheric or memorable. Ta Prohm, which is unfortunately now referred to as the ‘Angelina Jolie temple’ after Tombraider was filmed here, is almost haunting, it’s amazing.

As an aside, when we walked into Ta Prohm my Dutch friend Sander said (with a wistful, longing look in his eyes) “I can’t believe Angelina Jolie was right here.” I replied, “Angelina was here, and now Steph is here – same same huh?” Then he looked at me as I think only the Dutch can (that look of ‘I’ll pretend to consider what you’ve said but I really think you’re an idiot’) and then laughed. He laughed heartily in fact, a doubled over belly laugh that caused me to have a wee stroppy moment and saunter off to closely inspect a tree that had swallowed part of the temple, muttering along the way “it wasn’t THAT funny.”

So after a final weekend in Phnom Penh with my little crew of hard working NGO friends (and nearly starting a street brawl between the street kids when I bought books from one and not another) I started the long haul to Cairo.

My first impressions of Cairo? Dusty and brown. You’d think that would be obvious, considering I was now in the desert, but I hadn’t actually thought that everything would be sand coloured. Buildings, streets, everything was, well, beige. The temperature had also dropped about 10 degrees from the mid-thirties heat of Cambodia.

I’ve been staying in Ma’adi, which is a suburb in Cairo where there seem to be a lot of ex-pats. I’m staying with my very good buddy Eva, her husband Scott (who is a school teacher here) and their two very cute twin girls – aged nearly two years old.

Eva had prebooked tickets for her and I to go to the ‘Kiwis in Cairo’ Christmas party. So, of course one of the first people I see there is my 4th Form Science teacher and her husband. The world really isn’t that big. My main memory of being in Mrs Keer’s class was waiting until she left the room and then walking swiftly away from my Bunsen burner to re-enact some movie scene with the classroom fire extingusher. Mrs Keer returned just as I was spraying the feet of the girls in the front row and said ‘Now Stephanie, that’s not really what you’re meant to be doing is it?’ She was right, and very laid-back so it all ended well. It was interesting to catch up with her now actually, she remembered both Eva and I and even said she’d found a photo of me from high-school when she packed for Cairo. Neither of us mentioned the fire extingusher.

The ex-pat lifestyle here is certainly different from Cambodia though. There’s good money to be made in Cairo and a lot of people survive comfortably on one income, often with one partner working for one of the oil companies here. I stopped at a coffee shop when out exploring with Scott and had to weave my way around the dozens of SUVs (with drivers napping inside or smoking while leaning on the bonnets) and found that the coffee shop was filled with Western women, all looking very relaxed with their girlfriends. Most ex-pats here seem to have a team of staff too, cleaners, nannies, cooks, and drivers; it does strike me as a little odd that there’s a bunch of people who have come to the Middle East to have a life of near luxury though.

But I’m in Egypt – I should be talking about Egyptians, not Westerners (I can do that from NZ) – boring! Everyone had warned me about coming to Egypt alone, and said things like ‘get ready to be mauled by the men,’ ‘they won’t leave you alone,’ etc…. Well I haven’t been mauled yet and even though I’ve been given plenty of attention, it’s certainly not all bad. To be honest, sometimes walking down the street and having tall, dark, and often handsome men (with the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen) yelling out ‘Welcome to Egypt!,’ or ‘You are beautiful!’ or ‘I love your body!’ is actually kind of nice, it’s certainly not something that has ever happened to me shopping on Courtenay Place. ; )

I think being a female travelling alone here has its advantages. I get special treatment for some things, like being pushed to the front of lines in shops or restaurants, and always having someone close by willing to give advice or take me somewhere; but there are some disadvantages too, you really don’t get left alone. So if you want to get somewhere in a hurry, or even just go for a decent walk without stopping all the time, you either have to feign not speaking English/French/Arabic or just be rude and keep walking. Sunglasses are a must so you can pretend that you haven’t seen people. For me, I have time, so it’s okay to stop and talk to people every now and then. 50% of the people want to get you on their felucca or sell you something, and the other half just want to chat. Eva taught me how to say ‘No’ and ‘enough!’ so I’ve used those when the going got a bit tough.

Another disadvantage is that sometimes you don’t want your bargaining to include kisses in the price. And I have my doubts about being offered a ‘traditional Nubian massage – with free drinks’ onboard a felucca with just me and the captain present.

One thing I didn’t expect here though has been a few people saying that I look part Egyptian. “Not your hair, not your skin, but your eyes, your mouth, your nose – they are Egyptian. Maybe your father is Egyptian? Your mother is Dutch?” I’ve had that a couple of times, little do they know that my father is part Maori from Kaponga in South Taranaki and my Mum is also from the province where you can ski and surf in the same day – and as far as I know has no Dutch, Swedish, or German lineage to speak of. (Apparently there is some Aussie in there but shhhhhhhhhhhhh).

So, what have I actually been doing to get myself to this point in time? Well, in Cairo I checked out the Egyptian Museum. This place is massive and just crammed with artefacts. It’s not particularly well laid out or labelled so it’s worth having a guidebook to get a sense of what you’re looking at. I did see King Tutankhamun’s funerary mask, and three coffins which were really impressive. The Mummy room was pretty gruesome really, but still very interesting. There’s also a room with mummified animals which was bizarre, a big mummified crocodile and its tiny mummified baby were on display. I also met a guy in there who told me he was a student and wanted to explain the displays to me. His ‘explanations’ included him pointing to objects and saying ‘this is a bird’ and then kissing my hand repeatedly. I said I thought I was fine to go it alone with the mummies and sent him on his way. The kid was about 16, didn’t he realise I was old enough to be his……. young, cool aunty?

After a few days in Cairo I caught a plane to Aswan, where I’ve been for the last few days. Aswan is super chilled. It’s a great city for someone like me because it’s so easy to find your way around. You get lost – you find the river and you’re fine. There’s a huge market here which is fun, I love all the shops selling spices and perfumes, although I haven’t bought either for fear of breakage or NZ’s hardcore customs rules.

My first morning here I got up at, wait for it, 2.45 IN THE A.M to go to Abu Simbel. It’s about a 3 and half hour drive to these massive temples and the buses have to go in a convoy at allocated times to go through military checks. The drive goes right beside the border with Sudan so I think there’s some sensitivity there.

So you can bet I was at my best at 3am squished into a minibus with a bunch of strangers, all of us carrying hotel packed breakfasts of bread and a boiled egg. So about twenty minutes into the drive all I could smell was boiled eggs and all I could hear was snoring. Abu Simbel is impressive, and probably the first time I thought to myself ’wow, I’m really in Egypt.’ It’s just absolutely huge. The whole thing was built into the cliffs, and you walk into under these massive carved statues (the four monumental colossi of Ramesses II). The other temple at the site, the Temple of Nefertari, was built for the wife of Ramesses II. I’m sure my future husband will one day build a massive temple for me too.

After Abu Simbel (and waiting for three Chinese girls from our bus, who were thirty minutes late, meaning we missed the convoy and had to wait 45 minutes for another one) we went to the High Dam and the Temple of Philae. Philae had to be reached by boat and was quite lovely.

On Tuesday I went to the old Nubian Village. You can get there by motorboat but having booked a felucca trip for later in the day and knowing I was getting on a big boat tomorrow I was happy to go by car and stop in on a camel farm on the way.

I really liked the Nubian Village. To be honest, I find monuments and museums really impressive, and I do like going to them, but what I really remember is meeting people and hanging out with them in their own communities. The Nubian village was great, Nubians in Egypt are a very proud race of people and are very quick to point out that they’re not Egyptian, they are from Nubia. Nubians look different too, they’re darker and have those incredible dark eyes that look like they’re outlined with thick black kohl, even though they’re not. I’ve spotted a few men I’d happily put on the cover of a magazine if I was an editor. I met these kids on the street, they’re just beautiful.

But the village is worth visiting. There’s some beautiful brightly coloured houses, a very busy little market and unusual sites like a crocodile house. I didn’t actually go in because I felt like I’d had enough of crocodiles after Cambodia but apparently the Nubians raise the crocodiles in their homes because they believe it brings good luck. Maybe not so lucky if you wake up to your beloved pet chewing your leg off but it’s the done thing here.

My felucca trip took me to the Botanical Gardens, which are on a small island across from the Nile. Then we went on to Elephantine Island, which was much more impressive. It actually reminded me a lot of the Forum in Rome, that same scale of ruins. I was a bit rushed here due to the lack of wind meaning my felucca was even slower than it should have been and we were running overtime. My felucca driver was a bit of a pain to be honest, that’s one thing when you’re travelling alone, when you get hassled for money or whatever it’s good to have someone with you to back you up. This guy basically wouldn’t move the boat until I bought a necklace off him. I didn’t fancy my chances jumping out and swimming back to shore so I was a bit stuck. I complained about him to the hotel though (who had booked the trip for me) because he also hassled me for a big tip and tried to take me straight home instead of to Elephantine Island.

In terms of booking stuff, I think it’s just as easy to book your own felucca when you meet a captain on the Nile. A lot are really nice (they all seem to love Kiwis and launch into the haka when you tell them you’re from NZ) and speak good English, so it would be better to go with someone you meet and get on with rather than leaving it to the hotel, probably cheaper too. I did get one great deal with the hotel though, and that’s the cruise I’m on now. I looked into prices from Cairo to prebook and they were through the roof. About US$1000 for a cruise from Aswan to Luxor for four days. I booked two nights from Aswan and got it all for US$140, which includes food, transport and accomm (obviously) so I was very happy with that.

So I jumped on this boat, ‘The Liberty’ yesterday. It’s very nice. I have my own private cabin, with a little balcony, so I can type while I watch the Nile go by. It’s pretty chilled out so a good rest time before we get to Luxor late tonight. Then I’m there for two full days and flying back into Cairo late on Saturday night. The plan then is some more QT with my beautiful buddy Eves and her whanau, checking out pyramids in Giza and going to the big Cairo market, then I’ll head to Dahab to loaf around for a week or so before I head back home.

Am I ready to go home yet? Um, no. I’d love to keep travelling. I’d love to drop in on Istanbul and then come back via another couple of weeks in Cambodia, maybe Thailand and even a quick stop in Vietnam to see the people I missed last time (my friend Jen from Nam is in NZ at the moment – so I missed her). But on the other hand, I want to be with my family for Christmas, I want to see my friends, I want to drink cocktails in my friend’s spa pool while she tells me about her recent wedding in Vegas, I want to get a hug from my Dad and pinch the cheeks of some babies in my own family (‘family’ in the traditional and more broad sense – including my friends babies all over NZ), and I guess I need to start thinking about what I want to do in terms of working (this travelling lark really doesn’t pay well) and living too. So I’ve already prepared my key team of advisors at home, with me of course making the final decision (with mandatory seal of approval reserved for allocation by my Mum), so we’ll see.

Maybe something will come to me while I’m snorkelling in the Red Sea?
I hope you are all well and happy.

Steph J

xxxx