Monday, April 21, 2014

How to choose a holiday destination: Penang thanks to our Malaysian friends

Over the years I've done my share of choosing destinations based on famous places I want to see but if I look at my last couple of years of travels, the biggest deciding factor on destinations seems to be related to our friends and relatives. Our entire Europe trip last year was inspired by our Australian friends spending six months in Inis Meain and included visits to other friends and relatives in Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland.

More recently, my son and I spent a fortnight in Penang during the long school holidays and there was a very simple reason for this: my friend from Penang (who now lives here in Perth) was spending a couple of months there with her son (the same age as mine, and a friend of his too!) - it was a no-brainer! Even though Penang hadn't really been somewhere I'd thought of visiting - perhaps because the little I knew about it had made me categorise it as a bit of a resort-style, relaxation holiday destination (which is not my style) - but as soon as I heard my local friend would be there I was utterly drawn to the idea, and so glad we were able to make it happen.

So, my idea is that choosing a destination for a trip based on being able to visit friends or spend time there with friends is one of the absolutely best ways to make a travel decision ... and here are some of the many reasons why.

Local friends have local knowledge (and so do their parents)

Knowing a local takes you a very big step closer to knowing lots of locals. Although my friend doesn't live in Penang any more, she grew up there and her parents and other relatives still live there. This gave us access to such a treasure trove of knowledge.

A great example of this was our lucky timing in being in Penang for the Thaipusam festival. This is celebrated in a truly huge way in Penang and my friends parents helped us out so much by not only giving us lots of tips on how to see the best of it but by actually picking us up and driving us to the best spots. The roads were so crowded but they knew a great shopping centre to park at and a perfect street to watch the parade go past (and get involved in smashing coconuts, too!). This was a huge contrast to the experience of other Australian friends of mine who happened to be staying in Penang at the same time - the driver who took them from the airport to their resort told them it was just too crowded and crazy at Thaipusam time and they should just stay at their resort. I'm so glad we didn't do that!

Pretty costumes, and piles of coconuts, from our Thaipusam Festival experience

Trying new foods and drinks is easier with a local friend

I found the same thing in Japan - once I'd made friends with some Japanese people I felt confident to try many more new kinds of foods - plus there are always so many kinds you don't even know about and can't even ask to try until a local has pointed you in the right direction.

In Penang, my friend was able to give us detailed descriptions of dishes on the menus and of course give us small tastes of the more exotic things she ordered which we weren't quite game to risk a whole meal on. It was like having our very own specialised food guide the whole time and it was wonderful (and delicious).

There was no shortage of delicious food in Penang. So many amazing choices!

Choosing your accommodation with local knowledge really helps

I'm not a big resort fan, in the sense that I don't want to stay in a huge hotel complex full of activities and feel like I don't want to go out and see the rest of the place I'm staying in. My friend knew that and was able to give me plenty of good tips when booking our hotel.

For example, if I look at the Penang accommodation options at My Holiday Centre, I can see there's a resort in Batu Ferringhi and one at Tanjung Bungah. When I first started looking for a place to stay I came across both these locations and looking on a map didn't really help - neither were in the city (George Town) and both were on the beach. My local friend was able to explain to me that most of the resort lovers were out along Batu Ferringhi and that Tanjung Bungah was only about ten minutes from the city - so obviously that was the spot for us and if I returned to Penang I'd stay in that some area again as it had the best of both worlds. It would have been hard for me to work that out properly for myself without having been there before.

View from our hotel in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia. I still miss this view!

Our two weeks in Penang were so fabulous that I'd return again - especially with my friend and her son - and we even will let our husbands come next time! I'm sure that if I'd gone alone, my experience would have been totally different and definitely not as good. So now I'm just trying to pick a few more destinations where I can visit some friends or travel together with them and get all these advantages again. Suggestions, anyone?

This post is sponsored by My Holiday Centre but my thoughts and opinions are all my own, as always!

Friday, April 18, 2014

A decade ago in Paris, via Instagram

In my mind, I am still 25, so it seems impossible that I can say an entire decade has passed since the trip to Paris I'm going to describe for you today. (I guess I am not alone in this feeling, right?)

Warning! Paris is a city of tourist cliches!

Beware! Warning sign on the Paris Metro a decade ago

This is one of my favourite pictures from that Paris trip. It's a stereotype that the French are an emotional and dramatic culture but stereotypes often tend to arise from somewhere. This warning sign was in a Paris metro station; I've asked around to find out if they're still there but without getting an answer to date. I must admit that I can be a slightly anxious traveller when I'm underground (it's a kind of unnatural place to be, right, unless I'm a burrowing animal, which I'm not) and these signs didn't exactly put me at ease!

But on to the cliches ...

To Eiffel Tower or not to Eiffel Tower 

I've been to Paris three times, and I have visited the Eiffel Tower three times, so you can probably guess where I come down on this question. My son's currently obsessed with a book about famous buildings and one of them is the Eiffel Tower so I feel certain that on our fourth visit to Paris (not yet planned but Paris is inevitable, right?) it'll be yet another Eiffel Tower visit. I know my son will be thrilled to see such a famous monument in real life. Yes, it's a cliche, yes, it's not even a particularly beautiful one (I remember the Parisians were going to pull it down at one stage), but it's a place that so many people know and aspire to see. That's just the way it is.

Selfies in the Louvre

The expected Louvre visit. Yes, we saw the Mona Lisa too.
Speaking of Parisian cliches, this was the one visit to Paris that got me into the Louvre. I prefer the D'Orsay, I have to say, but it was closed the day we had hoped to visit it. But as I write this, a decade on, I have just learnt that there is a new Louvre trend. A friend of mine is visiting this Easter (just as I did ten years ago - hi Jen!) and she added a photo to Facebook this morning - a selfie of her and her husband with the Mona Lisa in the background. She said that's what everyone does these days! It's incredible what a difference ten years makes - nobody had phones that took self-portraits at the tap of a button and nobody had thought to do it in front of the Mona Lisa, but now it's the "done thing"!

My Hunchback of Notre Dame reward

Ahead of this trip to Paris, and at the urging of a teaching colleague in Bratislava (hi Dave!) I had begun to read Victor Hugo's work. He is (all due respect) one of those writers who should have lived in our century so that a good editor could have slashed about half the word count from his manuscript. If you have read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or Les Miserables then I'm pretty sure you would have to admit to skipping entire chapters in exasperation at times because Hugo wanders so far from the story and so deeply into architecture or history that you almost forget why you picked up the book. Somehow, though, they are nonetheless satisfying reads and I had just finished the Hunchback before our Paris trip - and that made my climb to the top of the tower at Notre Dame so much more worthwhile. I felt utterly transported back to a Hunchback daydream.

Then, of course, I looked down and remembered that it was Easter Sunday and there were enormous queues of people still waiting to enter the cathedral. What luck that I'd got up early enough to only stand in line for a couple of hours and not all day!

The occasional touristy trip won't kill you

On reflection, I barely remember speaking to a single Parisian local on this trip and beyond baguettes from streetside vans I hardly consumed much local food. I didn't really go off the beaten track at all, and in a city like Paris which has a whole lot of beaten tracks this probably isn't surprising! But sometimes this kind of travel is okay too. I'm still glad I did it!

What's your ideal day in Paris? Eiffel Tower or an anonymous stroll elsewhere?

I'm linking up with Instagram Travel Thursday - check out some other great posts below:

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

On four failed attempts to leave Perth in my twenties

When you grow up in a city as isolated as Perth, Western Australia, it's not surprising that you get the itch to leave, at least for a while. From the time I graduated from university (just a little while back now ...) I was looking for opportunities to leave Perth for a while and see something of the rest of the world.

But I hadn't quite realised until recently, looking back, how desperate I was to leave, because I tried all kinds of ways to do so!

Heading north to Newman in the Pilbara

My first try was to follow a (then new) boyfriend when he got transferred for work up to the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I have to say that living in Newman wasn't quite the leave-Perth-adventure I had in mind but it was still a great experience and we made the most of travelling around the Pilbara region to amazing places like the Karajini National Park and towns like Karratha and Tom Price. Just as I was settling in (I think six or eight weeks in?) his company abruptly sent him back to Perth. That was the end of the Pilbara escape attempt!

Hamersley Gorge in Karajini National Park, not too far from Newman in the Pilbara

Heading east to Adelaide, South Australia

The same boyfriend soon took a transfer to Adelaide and I spent a month there when he first started work - I was writing my Honours thesis and walking on the beach at Glenelg. (More beach walking than thesis writing, I think). Adelaide also wasn't the place I'd imagined escaping to - bigger than Newman, but still smaller than Perth, and only slightly closer to anything - but I genuinely enjoyed it. But what do you know - his company retrenched him after a month because he was the newest employee and they were cutting back at every state office. Another failed attempt and I was back in Perth!

Glenelg Beach in Adelaide, South Australia

Trying to volunteer in the Solomon Islands

I guess this was enough for me to take things into my own hands. I found out about a volunteer program run by the Australian government which actually still exists, the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD). This, I decided, could be my way to get out of Perth! At the time I had been working as a research assistant mathematics education and there was a need for someone with this skill set in the Solomon Islands. I was accepted into the program but after some time, for some reason which is lost to the channels of history, the organisation in the Solomons stopped accepting volunteers and I never got there.

Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, and a place I nearly moved to for a while

And almost volunteering in Cambodia

But never fear, of course I had another plan. This time I persuaded my boyfriend at the time to apply for AYAD with me and we found a Cambodian organisation which was looking for two volunteers (although they were in towns a couple of hours apart, if I remember correctly). The organisation must have been quite religious and I remember that we agreed we'd get married before we left (oh yes ... did I mention I was desperate to leave Perth - I was probably only 23 and would have got married way younger than I'd planned just so that I had a way to move abroad!). But I think that was the start of feeling uneasy about the arrangement. And then ... well, this is how I remembered this whole story, recently I was reading a piece by Walter Mason about his new book Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom when a short paragraph really hit me.
Cambodia is a country that has enchanted and fascinated me since I was a young man. I first travelled there in 1996, for the express reason that my mother had begged me not to go there. It had seemed like the ultimate dangerous destination, but after a few days there I discovered that, like anywhere else, it was filled with complex, moderately happy people seeking to lead lives of quiet comfort and occasional joy.
This was nearly me, except I decided not to go to live in Cambodia for a year, partly because I was kind of nervous about the whole deal and partly because my well-travelled mother had also expressed her concerns that it could be dangerous to move there! We backtracked out before we committed to any volunteering and although now I wouldn't have a problem with volunteering in Cambodia, I think that courage has only come about thanks to all my other travel experiences.

And finally, I moved to Japan

You probably know the end of the story. In 2001 I finally got a job teaching English in Japan and moved there, beginning the exciting phase of living abroad in three different countries. I finally escaped Perth! And of course, I returned too, proving that it always was a great place to live - but I still want to keep travelling.

If you could leave your hometown now ...

What about you? If you could easily leave your hometown now to live somewhere else for a while, where would you go? And why?

Or have you had failed attempts like I have?

Photo credits: Karajini National Park - Graeme Churchard; Glenelg Beach - Heather; Honiara - Jenny Scott.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Take me back to Inis Meain, or Inish Maan, or whatever you call that gorgeous scenic place ...

Shockingly to me, it's almost a year ago that I was on my last European trip and about to visit Ireland for the first time since my childhood. With friends spending six months on one of the least known Aran Islands, either Inis Meain or Inish Maan depending on your preference, I dragged my husband and son over there for a week-long stay in a place that is otherwise not really visited by tourists. And as I had long predicted (yes, I did tell everyone "I told you so"!!), it was brilliant. I am a massive fan of going to off-the-beaten-path destinations and this was great. I'm reliving it today for you ... or is it really for me?

This was the incredible view that greeted me each morning from the kitchen of our friends' rented house on Inis Meain. They were away from the main village and close to the airport, and that meant the view made me feel like we were in the middle of nowhere and I LOVED that. Don't you think that kind of nothingness really revives the soul? It does for me, anyway, and I could have stared at this view for hours on end. In fact, I did.

And then there were the animals. Obviously my three-year-old son was impressed to see lots of animals around - sheep, cows, horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens and more - but I loved it too. It was pretty unique to see them penned in by these old stone walls rather than conventional fences, and because some of these fields were quite small the locals regularly rotated the animals to other areas and it was common to pass a group of animals on the road. There is something about having the humans being significantly outnumbered by the animals which appeals to me.

We spent a lot of our time on Inis Meain walking. It's the kind of island where you can walk nearly everywhere, as long as you have enough time, and are willing to put up with a fair bit of wind. I find walking in the wind utterly refreshing, and then there's that moment when you step back into four safe walls and everything seems so quiet. And so it was after our trek out to Synge's Chair, one of the spectacularly scenic spots of the island.

But even the best scenery and the most unique place in the world doesn't, for me, beat catching up with old friends on their new adventure. I have known Maria for close to twenty years but in the last decade we have rarely lived nearby. It was a true pleasure to visit her in her temporary new home, to spend hours catching up and having that feeling that it doesn't matter how often we see each other, we will always be friends. This picture shows her with my son on the beach beyond their rented house; it was so windy that the sand was constantly whipped into our eyes and we didn't stay long, but it was so scenic I couldn't ignore it completely.

I'm joining in with the Instagram Travel Thursday link-up this week - you can discover some other great travel blogs once they link up below.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Collecting juice in Penang - challenging yourself to try new things on your travels

Do you make a deliberate effort to try new foods (and drinks) when you travel?

I have to admit that when I first began travelling I was a bit of a food conservative. I was raised vegetarian so trying to avoid meat was one of the issues, but I think in general I was just a bit of a scaredy-cat!

But then I moved to Japan and being wary of new foods became an impossibility - there were so many new things (and often barely any familiar ones), the people were so friendly and polite about offering me them, and then I discovered that nearly all of them tasted great - and since then I've been much more open about new tastes and flavours.

In Penang earlier this year, trying all the food was easy because it is SO delicious (and not that unfamiliar since we have a lot of Asian food available in Perth). But this post isn't about the food; it's about the drink, and more specifically the juice. Now we drank endless amounts of freshly-squeezed juice, at least once a day - and I was happy to see my son choose a new flavour nearly every time, stringing together a list of new juice experiences which he can still name a couple of months on. His three-year-old memory is so much better than mine and he can tell me he had carrot juice at the curry place in George Town and lemon juice upstairs in the big shopping centre. But this little tale is about a different kind of juice.

I had a secret evening treat in our hotel room in Penang, after my son had gone to sleep: my mystery juice box. Most days we would walk across to the convenience stores near our hotel (there were three virtually next to each other, all selling nearly the same goods - each with virtually no customers!) and I would always pick up a new box of juice (or two) to try later on.

There was some delicious ones and some that I could get used to and a couple that really I just had to switch off my taste buds and drink fast (you may ask, why didn't I just stop drinking, but I felt I needed to give each juice a chance!). I never found a new favourite, but I'm glad I tried them all. Although I already knew that south-east Asian countries have all manner of fruits that we're not used to back home (I'm not sure why, as our countries are so close in location) it was eye-opening to taste so many of them in a box!

And while consuming a bunch of random juices isn't exactly a scientific way of exploring a culture, to me it's symbolic of making a deliberate effort to seek out new things. Ten years ago, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done that. These days, I'm much more aware of making the most out of my travel opportunities. For me, that especially means doing things that are different to what you do at home, whether that's eating or drinking, or visiting different kinds of places, or being braver about talking to strangers; whatever the situation, making a deliberate effort to learn and experience what can only be learned and experienced in that place.

What's your "juice box collection" equivalent when you travel? Is there something you do that's braver or bolder than you would normally do at home? Or perhaps even something that you regret not doing on a trip in the past?

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Could I be a digital nomad? Should you? Advice for a reader.

I got a long email from a 19-year-old reader named Dylan this week. It is full of questions about travelling and working as a "digital nomad" - someone who works largely online, and can be anywhere in the world but still able to work. I'm certainly not location-independent in my work yet - most of my income comes from face-to-face training, coaching and consulting - but I'm trying to shift more of my income generation to being online and being able to have a more flexible lifestyle with some more travelling! Anyway, Dylan had a bunch of questions and I thought some of the answers might be relevant to even more of my readers, so here they are.

What should you study at university or college to prepare for a digital nomad lifestyle?

Excellent question. You all might laugh when you discover what I studied at university: mathematics! Of course, that was back in the mid-1990s (when ... eek ... Dylan the question-asker was just a baby!) so you couldn't study much that is relevant to my current career anyway, but the fact is, I never really used this degree at all. BUT it was very, very often important to have a degree, regardless of the major. Teaching in Japan, for instance - I needed a degree. It also meant I could enrol in my Masters of Education (in adult learning and online learning) and that has been a really useful factor in the kind of work I do now.

What I'm trying to say is that I don't think there is any one subject to recommend. Do what interests you and the rest will follow. This is not always popular advice but I believe it and will tell my son the same.

Teaching ESL in Japan - nobody cared if my degree was in Viticulture or Vet Science or whatever!

Are there already too many travel bloggers and digital nomads out there? Is it worth trying?

Oh yes, it is definitely worth trying. Do a quick survey on the street and see how many people know what a digital nomad is, or what it means to be location independent. Unless your street is really different to mine, you will find that barely anyone knows what these terms mean. Some of those people won't even know what a blogger is. That to me tells me that there is still plenty of space to get on board in this new and pretty darn exciting way to live and work.

Is it selfish to want to be location independent and a digital nomad?

I can see where Dylan is coming from when he asks this. He has another question that follows on immediately: have you found a way to work towards a cause greater than yourself? And that's the key. The digital nomads I know are not travelling the world just to prove that they can, or to try and demonstrate they're somehow better than those people back home in more regular 9-5 jobs. They all have a cause they're trumpeting, some way they are trying to help other people. I think that's one of the great benefits of working for yourself online - you get the chance to figure out exactly what you can contribute to the world. For me, some of that is the inspiration and lessons about travel I can impart through this blog, and the people I can help get through reverse culture shock after they move home from extended time abroad.

Does the thrill of new places and people grow old?

I hope not. It hasn't for me. It is different, though - it is never quite the same once you have already seen a decent amount of the world. That amazement at the smells of South-East Asia is never the same after the first time, the thrill of seeing famous monuments does temper, too. But over time it's become less the obvious "thrills" that work for me, and more the unique thrills - the very special locals I meet, the unusual obscure town I visit, and there is always, always something I learn in a new place.

Flying into Penang. I still feel utterly thrilled when I'm arriving in a place I've never been before.

Does the computer ever trap a digital nomad? Do you find time to relax?

In a sense I'm lucky at the moment as I have a permanent home base and I don't need to work too much when I do travel. And because I travel with a young child I can't work too much when I'm on the road. More importantly, I don't even want to work too much on the road - and I wrote about this last year in a post about how I'm not a typical modern travel blogger. But everyone has a different model. I'd recommend reading and listening to some of Natalie Sisson's Suitcase Entrepreneur stuff, because I think she's got the full-time digital nomad thing worked out pretty well.

I should be using this iPad for work while I travel, but Mr3 likes it much better

Hope that helps, Dylan, and perhaps provides some food for thought for other people contemplating a life of more travel. These days there are so many possibilities to work online, explore the world and make your life quite different to how you ever imagined - it's a very exciting time.

Are there any more aspiring digital nomads out there? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Birthdays abroad and at home, and asking a favour of Not A Ballerina readers

It's my birthday today!

Being here in Australia, this particular birthday (my 38th, if you're curious) may not be particularly distinguishable from my 37th and 39th when I look back in future years. But I remember my 28th birthday, exactly ten years ago, very, very well.

I was living in Bratislava, and had been for about six months. A lot of that had been winter. Now, a Slovak winter is not a terribly severe thing, but it does seem to go on and on and on and on. (Or at least it does to an Australian.)

On the morning of my 28th birthday, I took the tram into the city centre and had to walk to my first class of the day, teaching Business English at Slovak Telekom. I'd caught the tram that didn't go quite all the way there and had perhaps a ten-minute walk.

It was awful. The ground was icy and slippery from recent snow. The weather was freezing and grey and rather than snowing, it was throwing down that horrid hard hail and combined with a strong wind, all I could feel was these stones whipping into me with ferocious beats; it actually hurt. And I was cold and soggy as well. I remember thinking, come on weather, how can you do this to me today, on my birthday? And I was also thinking, it's nearly the end of March, this winter seems to go on forever, when will it ever end? I was miserable and feeling terribly sorry for myself.

Wintery Bratislava on a less blustery day
Fortunately, my day improved - my class was so lovely, and the weather stopped beating me up - but the start of it made that day one of those birthdays I will never forget.

And now it's my birthday again, and given that I am in Perth, Western Australia, you won't be surprised to know that it is not hailing or icy. That's definitely a rarity here, especially in balmy March.

But since it's my birthday I wondered if my readers would give me a little gift. I've been trying to find out more about you and what you like to read about. So the thing on my birthday wish list is ... could you fill out this short reader survey? It's just 10 short questions but it will help me magnificently to keep providing blog posts that you love reading.

This is what the Not A Ballerina reader survey looks like ...
And if you're reading this after my birthday, don't fear ... I accept belated birthday presents too. You can still take the reader survey and I'll still be grateful!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A decade ago in Osaka, my first home abroad, via Instagram

I will always have a special place in my heart for Osaka because it was my first home abroad, and because I truly loved living there and was so sad to leave. It is difficult to explain to someone who hasn't lived there quite why I loved Osaka so much. Even visiting as a tourist, I suspect, might not be quite the same. I still have the same worries I wrote about last year in my post on "privileged places":
I fear that it's the kind of city that grows on you, that you love because you live there and know where the funny little man is with the delicious takoyaki snacks or you know exactly how to use the ticket machines at the station; that if you visit just for a week or two that it might seem just like a grey, smoggy city, punctuated with occasional patches of temple or park beauty.
Looking through my (rather large) collection of photos from my time in Osaka, it strikes me that for a large city that could be seen as drab and grey, my pictures suggest a lot of colour and fun.

The colourful Glico man in Namba

Neon lights near Dotonbori Bridge in Osaka
You can't get much more colourful than the neon of central Osaka and especially the famous Glico man next to the Dotonbori Bridge in Namba. Osaka has a couple of centres but Namba was my "local", because that's where my train line ended. It's really an Osakan cliché to have photos like this, but I can actually feel the bustle and buzz of Namba just by seeing it. It reminds me of the giant crab opposite, and an Indian meal I had next to the crab, and of 100 yen shops I frequented, and of the English-language bookshop just down the mall from here, and so much more.

Who makes 8-metre okonomiyaki?

Osakans decided to break the world record for the largest okonomiyaki
 Surely this is an only-in-Osaka moment. One of my students gave me the tip that there would be a record-breaking attempt to cook an eight-metre wide okonomiyaki (a traditional food - kind of like a cabbage pancake) in the grounds of Osaka Castle Park. It took quite a few hours longer than planned but I stayed until the end and tried a piece - sadly, it was far from the most delicious okonomiyaki I'd ever eaten, but it was exciting to be there. I've just done a little surfing to discover that the Guinness Book of World Records still lists this one as the biggest ever.

Sumo wrestling tournaments in Osaka

Ceremonial beginnings to a sumo tournament in Osaka
I think I fitted in three different sumo tournaments during my two years in Osaka. What a spectacle! My three-year-old recently saw some sumo wrestling on TV and was captivated, keeps talking about it. I can understand that. To modern Western eyes it's a crazy sport, barely a sport, even, but I became addicted, and knew all about the leading wrestlers back then.

Sunflower festival excursions near Osaka

Sunflowers at a festival near Osaka
I made what I thought was a casual remark to one of my students-turned-friends in Japan, the dear Yuko, about how sunflowers were my favourite flowers. Not entirely to my surprise a couple of weeks later, she had discovered a local sunflower festival and arranged an outing for a group of us. It was gorgeous - sunflowers galore and every sunflower by-product you've heard of and a bunch you hadn't. The sunflower ice cream was the most popular because it was a terribly hot and humid day, yet all the Japanese friends in our group traipsed on regardless without a complaint. Another fond memory from my Japanese collection.

Seasons changing in Osaka

The Osakans know how to make the most of a change of season. Unlike us down here in Perth, where winter suddenly turns to summer and summer pretty much melds itself into winter with just a touch of a season in between, in Osaka there is a definite autumn or fall and a truly gorgeous spring, and numerous events and excursions are organised to make sure you enjoy them. I think the cherry blossom viewing of spring time is my absolute favourite time of year in Osaka, but the amazing colours of leaves during autumn is a very close second.

Cherry blossom at Osaka Castle
I'll return to Osaka within the next couple of years for a visit with my family and I really hope they enjoy it as much as I want them to. It's a really special place.

I'm linking up for Instagram Travel Thursday - take a look at some other gorgeous travel bloggers and their Instagram explorations.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Travelling jobs and back-home careers - my experience with ESL teaching and adult education

A few years back I wrote a post for Vagabondish about Why Travel is Good for Your Resume (you can go ahead and read it ... I'll wait!). I still stand by everything I wrote there 100% and it was that post that prompted a reader named Jasper to write to me with this question:
You say that your experience of teaching adults helped you get some great consulting work when you got back. Can you let me know what it was about the teaching that the employers/companies liked? I taught English to children in India as a volunteer, and I think it helped me to market myself to employers. I would now like another travel adventure, but would be needing to find a job when I return and so any voluntary work must add value to my CV as well as being good and fulfilling. I'm wondering whether teaching adults might be a next step.
A very valid question indeed! I think it's really sad that many employers (and particularly, I hear, in the United States, and I believe in countries like Japan and South Korea too) are so critical of a resume gap. What is so terrible about taking time out, be it a few months or even a couple of years, to do something new, exciting, challenging and different, especially if the person's been able to arrange their finances and so on to allow this gap? I really hate that this fear of being less employable stops people from travelling. But to get on to Jasper's question properly ...

What teaching ESL abroad can do for your career skills

I fell into ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching mostly by accident. I had been working in the education area (but not teaching as such) so it wasn't such a huge stretch, and I'd long had an interest in languages (I'd learnt German from a young age, and dabbled in other languages along the way), but the decision to go to Japan to teach English was mostly just because it was a convenient way to leave Australia and have a decently paid job when I did.

My Japanese students hard at work learning English in Osaka
Fortunately for me though, I loved it, and according to the feedback from my employers and students, I was also pretty good at it. It taught me a lot about English (I finally learnt English grammar properly - good for my writing!) and it taught me a lot about teaching and training adults. I think I was really lucky to have a great trainer myself for my first week in Japan, who had some fun approaches to teaching adults, and that set me up with the right mentality - that if you want people to learn, even adults, they need to be having fun.

My experience in Japan led to three more ESL jobs - teaching Business English in Slovakia and then Germany, and then teaching various ESL courses back in Perth, to students of twenty or so nationalities. I loved each of these positions, and learnt so much about other cultures, and learning styles, and how to command the attention of a group of adults whether they wanted to be sitting in the room or not. It gave me the confidence to speak in front of anyone and to win them over by creating chances to laugh.

And what teaching adults abroad can do for your career back home

Teaching and training is such a huge area. After I finished teaching ESL - I went on maternity leave intending to return part-time, but the school I'd been teaching at closed down suddenly just a couple of weeks after I left, so I took this as a sign! - I thought about how I could combine all the different skills and qualifications I'd picked up over the years, especially while travelling.

I'd started this blog and worked for a few other big blogs as well; and I'd done lots of teaching and training. And I loved both of these. So the next logical step was to put them together and I soon found there wasn't anybody training people how to blog here in Perth, and put together a course for the community course arm of my old university. This has sold out every time we've run it since 2010 and has led to a whole bunch of other opportunities with training adults (mostly in blogging and social media) and public speaking as well. Last year I even got to start teaching a travel writing course (including blogging and more), which is the perfect combination of all my favourite skills!

Back in Australia and my new career as an adult trainer starts ... this is my travel writing course
Whatever field your "real job" is in, I think getting the skills to teach or train others can only be a good thing, a skill that should open up new opportunities to you. I totally get that not all employers will appreciate this (and that's because they haven't travelled much and don't get how valuable your experience would be for their company). But hunt around and you can find the people who do appreciate a combination of interesting experiences and mixed skills.

I am insanely glad I didn't listen to some of my "advisors" a decade or so ago who thought I should stay in my safe career here in Australia and not give it up to go travelling indefinitely. Everything about my life is different and better because of the experiences I had teaching ESL in Japan, Slovakia and Germany, and the work I get to do now is perfect and it's all because of leaving to go abroad.

So to sum up my advice: just go travelling! The rest of life will sort itself out.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The perfect weekend in Perth, my isolated but gorgeous hometown

Perth is the kind of city that lots of people ask about, but few actually end up visiting. Obviously, we are kind of isolated down here, but I'm sure that's why it's such a special place. To give you a taste, this post is all about how I recommend you spend a perfect weekend in Perth - and I hope I can convince a few of you to try it sometime!

Starting my Perth weekend with some tasty Japanese food

Regular readers will know I'm a bit of an addict of good Japanese food. And there is this new-ish Japanese restaurant in Hay Street, Perth called Jun that I have not yet tried, but it was recommended to me by a really nice Japanese girl I met at a PR event last year. Both times I've tried to go there it's been booked out, so that's a good sign (but I really need to get more organised and go!). It's an izakaya style place - casual and lots of different small dishes to order - which I used to LOVE in Japan.

Downtown Perth by night (thanks to Jan Augustin Photography)

A kid-friendly Saturday in Perth

No perfect weekend in Perth is complete with entertaining my young son, of course. We are regular visitors to the Perth Zoo and on a sunny Saturday morning this is still the perfect outing. The zoo is shady and feels like a botanic garden so it's the kind of place you can go time after time and still enjoy. No visit is complete without seeing the gibbons (my son's favourite) or the giraffes (mine).

One of Australia's unusual birds, the cassowary, at Perth Zoo (thanks to Jan Augustin Photography)
Somewhere my son hasn't been yet, but I'm sure he's getting old enough to enjoy, is the Fremantle Gaol. He is (for some reason, hopefully it's quite normal) obsessed with thieves and police and stuff and thinks that if you drive through a red light the police will immediately catch you and take you to prison, so I think visiting our old prison down in Freo would be just right for him now. (Although he may not be quite ready for the candlelight tours, since I was scared by them when I was a lot older than three.) (Also, if you're keen - although it's not small-child-friendly - the tunnels tour of the prison is amazing!)

And that would leave us in Fremantle for the rest of the afternoon, and the weekend is the perfect time to be there, with all the markets open. I would eat crepes!!! (Yep, they're very tasty.) I have very fond memories of days spent at the Fremantle Markets when I was younger but have hardly made it down there in the last decade or so, which really is terrible. I must fix that!

A Perth weekend with water involved

One of the big bonuses of living in Perth is the combination of brilliant weather (there are lots of stats about us having more sunshine hours per year than practically anywhere) and access to the water, whether that's the Indian Ocean or the Swan River. So it would be really remiss of me to plan a perfect Perth weekend without getting on or in some water. The problem is that it's kind of difficult to pick exactly what I'd want to do. I haven't been catamaraning on the river since (long) before my son was born but that's always so much fun; I have also wanted for ages to take one of the river cruises that go out to the Swan Valley, involving plenty of wine and good food (may need to leave my son with his grandmother for that one!).

Seagulls fly above the Indian Ocean and a Perth beach (Jan Augustin Photography)
As much as I love being on the river, I think the beach is one of my favourite parts of Perth (or I should say, the beachES, because there are so many and they are all the most beautiful, empty, perfect white sand beaches you will ever see). So either for breakfast or afternoon tea I'd slot in a beach walk after a stop at one of our many lovely coastal cafes. It's unlikely for me to add a swim (unless the weather is crazy-hot) but I would definitely be getting barefoot and enjoying the sand and the edges of the waves. And that's my weekend!

Perth readers: what would you recommend as part of a perfect Perth weekend?
And everyone else: what are your questions about Perth - the place that nobody really knows about, but should!?

This post is an entry in a competition brought to you by the Pan Pacific Perth Hotel. Hopefully I'll get a chance to stay there!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Garbage truck travel and keeping a travelling child happy in Penang

When you are travelling with a three-year-old boy, you do need to adapt your sightseeing expectations somewhat. After our trip to Vienna turned into an expedition to chase Viennese garbage trucks past Stephansdom, I thought I was fully prepared for this when we travelled to Penang a couple of months back.

Who knew Penang had so many different kinds of garbage bins?
But can you ever really be full prepared for the amount of passion a three-year-old can apply to the hunt for new and unusual rubbish bins and garbage trucks? I think not, and surely the images above, just the tip of the iceberg, demonstrate that. But I have certainly got over any qualms I might have had about people giving us funny looks, because whenever my son asked for me to take his picture with a new garbage bin, I obliged.

So, we had a fantastic two weeks taking photos of the local rubbish bins (of all shapes, sizes and colours), but the biggest thrill of all came when, on our walk back to our hotel one afternoon, we came across the rubbish truck emptying the bins at an apartment complex next door.

My son is, I have to say, remarkably knowledgeable when it comes to the way refuse collection systems work, and he was very keen to observe exactly how the Penang version worked. And do you know what? His passion has rubbed off on me, too, because I wasn't just standing there staring for his benefit - I wanted to know too! It was especially interesting to see that the sorting of recyclables was done by the garbage collectors themselves, and that there was a separate part near the front of the truck where they stored the recyclables. But the best part was that the men were all really friendly and gave my son some hearty waves both when they first realised he was watching and later on as they drove off down the road.

These are clearly not tour suggestions you will find in your travel guide book to Penang. And it is certainly not how I imagined my travelling life to be before my son was born. But I love that he is curious about the way different countries handle their waste! I love, mostly, that he understands at his young age that there are so many different countries and just as many ways to deal with the garbage, and I really love that he wants to visit more new places to find out what they do. It's his gateway into exploring multiculturalism and how things are sometimes different and sometimes the same; and how garbage workers can be friendly and give you a wave whether they're in Ireland, Malaysia or Australia. I feel a little sad that at some stage in the future his passion for garbage will (presumably) wear off and seeing a new kind of rubbish bin when we visit, say, China, will barely rate a mention, but for now, I'm embracing it. All travel suggestions for destinations with particularly unusual garbage systems are welcome!

What do your children especially notice when you travel? 
What did you love to see when you were a child?

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Why Tunisia rates as one of my best trips ever (via Instagram)

Visiting Tunisia was my first time on African soil. Of course, it wasn't anything like the safari-Africa I read about in books at school, yet it was still very different from anywhere else I'd ever been. When people ask me that horrible question about the "best place" I've ever been, I always include Tunisia in my top three. It is now ten years since I visited (eeeeek! How does time go that fast?) and that's making me über-sentimental about it. So, I'm going to try and explain why it made such a big impression on me - and I hope it might help you decide to book a trip there too, one day.

Tunisia has mosaics + I love mosaics = I love Tunisia

Mosaics in the Bardo Museum, Tunis
I knew virtually nothing about Tunisia before I arrived, just what I'd skimmed through in my guide book, which I'd bought shortly after I'd booked flights there (before which time: I hadn't even been sure where Tunisia even was!). Arriving in Tunis, the capital, and figuring that the highly-acclaimed Bardo Museum was the best place to make a first stop, meant that I was overwhelmed by these old Roman-era mosaics, all brought to the museum from various sites across Tunisia. (When I later saw the much poorer condition of those mosaics which had been left on-site, I was glad they had rescued so many.) Anyway, I have a particular love of mosaics, I think because I love "busy" patterns and these are intricate and gorgeous, and I was thrilled to have found so many to look at.

Tunisia in the off-season is the best Tunisia

Monastir's ribat on the west coast of Tunisia
Unbeknownst to me (growing up here in Perth, where Bali is the "we need warm weather now" playground), Tunisia is a relatively popular destination for Europeans looking for a higher chance of sunshine. Fortunately, though completely by chance, I was there in the "depths of winter" at Christmas time, and the resort holidaymakers were not. My hotel at Monastir (about three hours south of Tunis) was right on the beach and a short walk to this amazing ribat (fort), and I guess in the summer months it was probably full of tourists. I prefer my travels less crowded and this was perfect.

Tunisia has a colosseum to rival Rome's

Colosseum or amphitheatre in El Jem (El Djem) in central Tunisia
At the time, my guide book, and anyone I spoke to, told me that this amazing structure in El Jem (or El Djem, depending on what you read) was a colosseum. Since then, most of my reading seems to suggest it is "just" an amphitheatre but whatever you call it, it was incredible, and what's more, I could see it through my bathroom window of my tiny hotel room. (Bonus info: it was even used for filming some of Monty Python's Life of Brian, as was the ribat in Monastir.) Anyway, for some reason when we visited Rome as a child we didn't go to the colosseum, and now I feel like I don't need to, because this one impressed me enough.

I could trek in the Sahara Desert in Tunisia!

Camel foot hits the Sahara Desert near Douz, Tunisia
Growing up, the Sahara Desert always sounded like this truly mystical, far-off place where you would go for weeks without seeing a sign of life. And yet, just out of the southern town of Douz, here it was! Sure, we were on the very edge of it, and perhaps my childhood image of it would be more accurate if I'd had the time to take a multi-day trek, but I just had a day and took a guided trek out across the dunes on a camel who was intent on trying to tip me off by constantly reaching down looking for something to eat. I stayed on (though I did have a rather sore bottom after!) and I loved it, even the crazy sand blowing in my face, and finding that sand in all my belongings for weeks afterwards.

There are so many more reasons why I loved Tunisia, but really they all come down to one thing: it's a country which is full of contrasts and you can see completely new and unique things every day. If I've intrigued you, check my backpacking route post for some suggestions but don't forget to take my advice to NOT bet on a camel race while you're there.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Travel Secrets for Seniors (which are really travel tips for everyone)

Last year I met a lovely couple in my travel writing course who told me they were already well on the way to publishing a book and a bit of an empire, too, called Passionate Retirees (great name!). We've kept in touch and now Adele and Ely's first book Travel Secrets for Seniors is being launched next month.

As regular readers will know, I'm really passionate about all the good reasons to travel. Knowing that, you can bet that this opening paragraph of Adele and Ely's book really got me hooked:
We rarely ask ourselves, "Why am I travelling?" If we did, some of us would answer, "Because I need to get away from it all," or "I need a vacation." Is that really the best motivation for going away? Some people may feel like that when they are actively working, but it hardly sounds inspiring. It's a lot more exciting asking ourselves, "How can I create a dream?" or "How can I have a great adventure?"
Travel Secrets for Seniors
This book is a combination of workbook and practical tips and anecdotes and more. There are places to fill in your own thoughts - like a list of your top five values and how they relate to what kind of travelling (destination, style, etc) you might like to choose (I love this idea! and it is relevant to any travellers, regardless of age). There are checklists of questions to ask yourself to help figure out what kind of travelling is right for you.

As you would expect, of course, there is also some senior-specific information here - like a chapter titled "Fitness matters, age doesn't". I love that as well as doing some walking training, they suggest practising squatting - yes, a very important skill when going to the toilet in some countries, and worth training for! And recognising that seniors don't necessarily have well-honed internet skills (although plenty have excellent ones these days), Adele and Ely give lots of tips about booking elements of your travels online.

The main reason I enjoyed this book is because Ely and Adele obviously have a very similar approach to travelling to me. It's all about the experiences, meeting the locals, creating amazing memories, and not doing anything so quickly that you come away from Paris with a photo of the Eiffel Tower and nothing else. I can see that along with people of all ages, many people from the baby boomer generation might need to learn this - they have spent their lives working hard, bringing up children, often not had much money left over for luxuries like travel - and now during their retirement they are ready to travel, but haven't yet learnt "how to do it", as such. Travelling in a really fulfilling way is a skill that needs learning, and something I'm grateful my parents taught me as a young child, but something that I'm really aware doesn't come naturally to everybody.

The end of the book covers a topic very dear to me - reverse culture shock, and how to deal with coming home after travelling. I think it's such an important part of travelling, and there are some tips to help you remember the trip, and to deal with the problem of finding yourself in your "mundane" home life and routine again. And of course, the best cure is to start planning the next trip!

I'll be completely honest: in my line of work I meet lots of people who tell me they've written a book, or that they're self-publishing a book soon, and the quality of these books is, well, not always top shelf. I am super-impressed with this one though. Well-written, excellent practical advice, plus lots of inspiration to encourage people to travel more and to do it thoughtfully and intentionally. A great combination - love it!

Full disclosure ... Adele and Ely gave me a free copy of this book but they didn't need to bribe me in any way to say great things about it. That stuff is all my own opinion!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A month ago in Penang ... a wistful look back at my Malaysian holiday (via Instagram)

It's been a month since I returned from my fortnight in Penang and I freely admit that I miss it. Everyday life has been a bit hectic lately and if someone handed me a plane ticket back to Malaysia right now I would be on it, pronto.

I've got lots of posts planned to tell you all about my Penang experience but before I do, I thought a quick pictorial overview was in order, partly to inspire you but mostly to appease my longing to return ... yes, travel bloggers can be a selfish lot! It was timely that I came across Instagram Travel Thursday, too, so I'm taking part and sharing some Instagram and travel blog love.

One Penang day in food (and Milo)
First up: it didn't take us long to acclimatise to life in Penang. On our first full day there we got through all of this food and drink (and more). I got a taste for the local Milo, and Mr3 began an addiction to noodles and freshly-squeezed juices. All made easy because my lovely ex-pat friend was there to give us tips.

Lion dancing competition in Penang
But we didn't just eat. We did local culture too. Right in the foyer of the apartment building where my friend was staying, they held a wushu and lion dancing competition spread over a couple of days. It was brilliant. How do those lion dancers do it - especially the poor fellows who have to be the bottoms? Hard work!

Reclining Buddha Temple, Penang
Some proper sightseeing was on the agenda too. I was thrilled that Mr3 loved (most) temples. This was one of his favourites - the Reclining or Sleeping Buddha Temple (depends who you ask; also known as Wat Chayamangkalaram). Of course some of the niches filled with ashes aroused some tricky questions but Mr3 still left happy.

Street art in George Town, Penang, by the talented Ernest Zacharevic
In one of those curious blends of cultures, it's the art of a Lithuanian bloke named Ernest Zacharevic that left the biggest impression of Penang's capital, George Town, with us. Throughout the city there are little surprises like this amazing street art; we walked and walked and walked to seek out more.

Ubiquitous Chinese New Year decorations in one of Penang's shopping centres
We were just a couple of weeks early for Chinese New Year - but we still got some benefit because during our stay all the decorations began to go up. Mr3 was especially enthusiastic about them and pointed them out constantly.

A mirror selfie? The four of us in George Town
I love to travel by getting to know the locals and this trip was a twist on that - my friend from Perth who grew up in Penang was going to be there on an extended holiday, which is why we decided to visit. You can see the four of us in this reflection of George Town.

Street art souvenir seller and resident of the jetties of George Town
We strolled the jetties of George Town where people actually live - it's pretty weird that you can often look right into their living rooms! And some of them take advantage of the tourist traffic with a little shop, like this lady with various products all spun off from the street art.

A coconut to throw during the Thaipusam festival
And while we might have been too early for Chinese New Year, we were just in time to catch the Thaipusam festival before we flew back to Perth. The first day saw us gathering in the streets of George Town to help throw coconuts on the street before the chariot (wending its way from one temple to another) drove past. Lesson learned? You have to throw coconuts down really, really hard to crack them open!

Departures board at Penang's Airport
And all too soon it was time to leave again. Side note: aren't departures boards inspiring? I could stare at them for hours daydreaming about where in the world I might fly to next.

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