Saturday, August 20, 2016

Topdeck Part 2 and Journeying Home

Hello again! My Topdeck tour is over, and I'm back in Bahrain, packing before I return back to my home. I am so excited to be reunited with friends and family, and get back to day to day life in lil' ol' Wellington. Firstly I should probably fill in the second half of my "Grand European" tour.
A blurry image of the crazy route, over the 28 day trip

I left off in Rome, I believe. Followed by the bustling and ancient capital city was the breath-taking Venice, which had to be one of my favourite cities. Put this on your bucket list - PLEASE. We had a canal ride, the weather was wonderful, and I bought waaay too much - including a Venetian mask which I'm sure I'll be utilising every weekend with all the Masquerade ball invitations I receive.... (?)
But seriously, it was a nice mask.

Next was Pag Island in Croatia, which if I'm honest, was a little over-hyped. Our tour guide likened it to a tropical paradise much like Fiji, and on arrival I reasoned that he had never actually been to Fiji. It was quite lovely, but it was no tropical island. The beaches were rocky, the land was desolate, but the little village centre and the people were terrific. Also things were quite cheap there and I felt rich with my $500 in Croatian Kuna which is more like $100 NZD. It is also known to be very much party central, and by this point in the trip I hit a wall, I think. Not only had my body finally succumbed to what has been dubbed "Cough-deck", I was also completely over the whole get-drunk-and-be-stupid vibe present throughout the trip. Luckily my wonderful roommate had the same attitude. I didn't go out to the club once in the three nights we were there. I don't regret it either. Also I remember being absolutely relieved not to be served pasta again, and instead getting cabbage (YAY) and other nummy vegetables. No one else seemed as enthusiastic.

Oh, and one of the guys on our trip took some random drugs he bought for the equivalent of $2-5 NZD from a stranger, and, well, he got quite messed up. I only know because someone took a video and posted it to our tour page. People are stupid. He was okay the next day though.

Ljubljana, Slovenia (Loob-lee-yana) was absolutely gorgeous and I can't believe of all places we only had one measly night there. Also, they have vending machines for fresh unpasteurised milk and cheese dotted around the streets. Casual. Another memorable thing was their city's main square; in the centre there is artificially engineered rain pouring 24 hours a day. However it was rendered pointless when we were staying there as it was raining anyway. I really didn't get it at all.

The Austrian Alps were another one of my highlights and my absolute favourite optional* activity, canyoning, was there. If you are like me, and don't know what that is, I can only describe it as a combination of abseiling, cliff jumping, and rock sliding. Oh, and water that was surely of arctic temperatures. First we kitted up in TWO layers of special wetsuits, one of which covered my whole head like a hoodie, and a sexy yellow helmet, plus special socks and boots for grip. I honestly felt like I was wearing one of those super suits from The Incredibles. It was both terrifying, adrenalising, and oh-my-god-I'm-going-to-die-of-hypothermia-cold. I only braved the 5m cliff jump (the higher ones were 6m and 9m), and while I think I could have eventually braved the 6m, I am proud of my effort. (And I would have been far to freaked trying to clear the rocks that jutted out of the 9m jump.) The abseil cliffs were 20m and 13m. The worst part was always hitting the water at the bottom; it was the kind of cold that makes your teeth chatter and your brain feel like it isn't getting enough oxygen so you make all these stupid panicky breaths. As our hands were the only extremities not covered, they were always on the edge of feeling like they would seize up.

I realise I'm making this sound like it was quite horrible, but rest assured I'm just trying to create a little drama. Don't get me wrong, it was fantastic - but I'm not exaggerating about the cold. Need I remind you I was already sick and up half the previous night with a horrible cough.

Also the "rock sliding" was literally sliding down the rapids on the smoother parts of the canyon rocks. I don't really know how to properly describe it but I hope you can get a bit of a mental picture.

I'm sad I couldn't get photos, because I didn't have a water-proof camera, but I'm going to sneakily borrow these ones from Facebook. (Thanks Sam...)

Canyoning (I'm first on the left)

With our banana yellow harnesses for abseiling, uncropped for view (!!)
Austria also has this delicious herbal lemonade that is *supposedly* good for you called Almdudler and I'm so addicted to it. I wanted to take some home but don't think it would have travelled very well. Also this was easily our best accommodation of the trip. It was a large country homestead in a small town, with a cute little bar and felt very homely - a huge contrast to the low-budget hostels and "hotels" we had been growing used to. Plus the staff there were so lovely.

EDIT 21/8: I somehow lost a few paragraphs regarding Mauthausen, Prague and Berlin so I'm going to try and summarise what I remember typing....

Before arriving in Prague, we stopped at Mauthausen, an Austrian concentration camp. It was absolutely mentally shattering. I stood inside a real gas chamber. I walked the death stairs, and I heard stories from survivors and American soldiers at the onsite museum. I have long been interested in the horrors of the Holocaust, but this personalised the tragedy so much for me. This was definitely the most moving part of the trip.

At this point the places begin to blur...but Prague, Czech Republic truly has some stunning architecture. Lots of castles, cobblestone streets, and a famous ice cream, berries and chocolate stuffed pastry called trdnelik (I still cannot pronounce this). Personally - and this is unpopular opinion - I thought trdnelik was a little overrated. It tasted very similar to funnel cakes which are often at pop up food markets in Wellington.

Berlin is a quirky city with the most adorable green man traffic light. Pink tubes weave around the streets, transporting...faeces? There are lots of pubs, lots of historical museums, and on our walking tour we even see the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled baby Blanket over the balcony.
The things I remember are random and mundane, but I have already written a novel already, so moving on.

We finished in Amsterdam, which unsurprisingly reeked of pot. We went to the Red Light District and I was baffled to discover not only tourist kids wandering around with their parents in the evening, but there is actually a kindergarten there. Also it was an odd moment returning back to our hostel, walking past a small group of Christians worshipping on one of the bridges in the district. I wondered if they were planning on evangelising the sex workers. 

The next day we did a bike tour, which was beautifully scenic, before I gapped it to the airport. And there my travel story ends, I suppose.

It's good to be back in Bahrain a few days, and only now do I realise how much I'll miss Si and Annabelle. I'm so happy to go home of course, but it feels weird that I won't see them for a long time.

Tomorrow I have a full day, and I leave on Monday. Let's do this.

*On tour we had various optional activities we could pay extra to take part in, and these were usually at a group rate, cheaper than if we organised them ourselves.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Grand European Madness

To avoid further hassling from the parentals, I have managed to scrape some time together for a much needed update. Last time I blogged I'm pretty sure was in Kuala Lumpur...

For those who don't know, for the last two weeks I have been on a frantic bus tour of Europe with a bunch of other travellers aged 18-30ish. I have been to four countries, or 8 cities in just 13 days, and I have another fortnight of this ahead of me. (And I'm only including the places we stayed overnight in this count.)

A few words to sum up so far: 

BEAUTIFUL - everything I've seen so far is so gorgeous and ancient with so much history and I can't get over standing in front of a famous monument in the flesh that I have seen countless pictures of.

ALCOHOL - because apparently every night is a party and it's a go hard or go home mentality. 'Tis good fun. I do not frequent the clubs/bars nightly however, because I'm not insane. 

MUGGY - it's the kind of sticky hot where sweat drips everywhere and sunburnt skin is the norm. 

EARLY - mornings are hard. Every second day is a travel day which always means early departure from our accommodation.

As promised I have attached my itinerary (which I hope people can access??)

So far I have grazed Paris, Swiss Alps, Avignon, Barcelona, Nice, Monaco, Pisa, Florence and now Rome. My favourite place has been Swiss Alps, not only for the breathtaking views, but the cooler climate, welcoming locals and absolute serenity of the place. Also a couple in our group got engaged at Jungfraujoch which was absolutely adorable.

It's fitting that I post at this time because our group is actually two separate tours combined - a two week and a 4 week trip. That means that 13 of our 42 will finish up the tour, and we will welcome 14 new, fresh-faced, well-rested Topdeckers for the remainder of the trip. Part of me is hoping for more 18-20 year olds (as the median age is about 24), but I've noticed I have an easier time with the older travellers in our group because there is less drama and they are friendlier. To be honest though, what did I expect - a bunch of strangers from all around the world, there is bound to be a bit of friction..

That said, I have a great group of people and have had a lot of fun so far. I can't be bothered to stagger my photos throughout the text so instead I will just dump them here.





  Notre Dame, Paris ^


Cabaret in Paris ^








Jungfraujoch, Swiss Alps - highest point in Europe




Parc Guëll, Barcelona 


Pretty sure we accidentally didn't pay to get in here...






Monte-Carlo, where even babies are attractive...


Pantheon, Rome - over 2000 years old



Colosseum in Rome

And a lazy bullet point list of notable moments:

  • Pickpocketers disguised as tourist family skirt Trevi Fountain
  • 150 flavours at gelato store in Rome (I got grapefruit, soya hazelnut, and soya coconut)
  • Crêpes under the Eiffel Tower at 12am
  • Realising I didn't pack a towel, assuming free towels would be readily available 
  • Getting served a green salad entree followed by a larger green salad "main" at Paris hostel
  • Apparently cows get high off the chemicals they spray on the mountains in Swiss Alps
  • Sprinklers going off at Avignon picnic by the river
  • Poor beggar in Barcelona with basketball sized stomach tumour
  • Bomb threat at Monte Carlo...? Was just a false alarm though!
  • Bread being the only thing I can eat at the breakfast buffets (ugh)
  • Perfecting the art of sleeping on the coach
  • Living off cheap cans of lentils to save dem euros
  • That first "six hour" travel day that turned into thirteen
  • Getting served cheeseless pizza in Florence- dumbfounded. Did not think that existed.

That's all for now, and I apologise if this is the only update I can give until I get back. I'm seriously getting so lethargic though - the heat is mad, and we already did a 3 hour walking tour of Rome yesterday, so a lazy day at the camp ground seems pretty damn inviting right now.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Reunited with the Retrosnob clan*

*...well, minus dipsy sis number two, who is having a crazy adventure in the US of A with her school chums.

Since my last post, I have departed on a plane to Singapore. From there, I met my family and stayed one night in the capital, before we left for Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We have now been here for four nights I believe? We leave KL tomorrow for a little island off the Mainland (but still part of Malaysia) called Penang, where we will be staying in a tree hut! What??? I am so excited. It already sounds like my dream home. But first, I better recap our adventures so far.

That's right, now I have to use plural pronouns, because I am no longer the sole feature of this blog. *Cries.*

In Singapore we saw Cloud Forest, which was absolutely mesmerising. There were waterfalls and tropical plants and pretty lights and crystals and everything wonderful and paradisiacal. I didn't particularly like feeling like I was in the clouds though. I'm realising I have a thing about heights - I can't be close to the edge of something, because I feel like I'm about to fall to my death.
The temperature there was muggy and sticky, but far more manageable than Bahrain. Surprisingly I didn't have even one moment of déjà vu as I did in London, even though Cantala's Europe tour in 2012 saw us in Singapore for roughly the same amount of time as the UK. I get the feeling I may have just seen a different part of the capital last time, perhaps?

Malaysia feels far more authentically Asian than Singapore. It feels less commercialised, I think is the way to put it? Day one saw us doing not much; we went for a swim in the hotel pool and then went out for dinner. Their spa pool was the same temperature as the main pool - absolute madness, and utter disappointment. The Mexican from Loco was brilliant. I had a surprisingly spicy vegetable burrito (hold the cheese successfully granted.)

Over the next few days we wandered around the mall inside the twin towers, saw Chinatown, visited the "Upside Down House", Butterfly Park (seriously lame sounding but highlight), and I even fell asleep on a tour bus...after sleeping in until 11am. I don't know how that happened.

So in typical me fashion, almost a parallel to the end of my time in London, I stayed at the hotel all day today. I went to the gym, but apart from that, I didn't even leave the apartment. I was just a bit over it. So Sophie and the parentals went out without me. I have no idea what they actually did, but Dad brought back cookies so that makes me happy.

I had no idea that we leave for Penang tomorrow until a few hours ago when it came up in conversation. I am tragically out of the loop.

P.s. Just to iron out the confusion: "Retrosnob" is an anagram for "Robertson" which I don't even know how we happened upon it but we roll with it...

Friday, July 8, 2016

Chilling with Shakespeare and dining on Cruise Ships

Once again, I'm playing catch up! So I left off on the train to Stratford-upon-Avon, which was a fantastic juxtaposition to the bustling London metropolis. If you didn't know, it is a 2ish hour train ride north of the capital, and it also happens to be the birth and death place of William Shakespeare. That is largely the tourist attraction of the little town - seeing the sites of Shakespeare and his family. I visited his birthplace and family home. I literally got to stand in the room where he was born, which was pretty incredible. I also saw Hall's Croft and visited Shakespeare's grave. The church was truly stunning, and the intricacy of the interior was quite mesmerising. It's just kind of a revelation for me witnessing places so old. It makes New Zealand seem embryonic in comparison; we're just a baby nation with not much history.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Um lol.


Me and Will looking for trouble

Is this not the most beautiful thing you ever did see?

Shakespeare's grave

I also went to a brilliant museum which I think my young cousins would absolutely adore. It was called MAD, an funny little acronym for Mechanical Art and Design. It was completely interactive, where visitors began each of the displays with the press of a button, or the push of a pedal. There were epic marble tracks, moving cog artworks, optical illusions, light shows...I can't even begin to describe it but it really blew my expectations out of the water. The staff were really friendly and the admission was affordable.

Creepy af Einstein inverted face

Me waiting for customer service

I knew I would fail at this without even trying.

Happy chappy!

I got back to London just before 8pm on the 5th. The next day I found myself marvelling at the biggest Lush store in the world, which just so happens to be on Oxford Street. Believe me, I am not exaggerating, the staff told me themselves! The place is three levels, with a whole floor dedicated to bath bombs and bubble bars - they even have events and music gigs and things going on a few times a month. I was also offered to have my hair henna dyed for free! I may take them up on that when I'm back here at the end of July. One thing I noticed was that the staff in this store (and the Stratford-upon-Avon one I visited) are WAY less in your face. In NZ, as soon as you step in the door, the workers all seem to pounce on you with these feigned grins, asking cheerily "May I help you?", "Looking for anything in particular?" and it's all a bit too much.  Especially as 9 times out of 10, I never buy anything - everything is too pricey. Whereas here, the staff just let you do your own thing and wait for you to approach them with questions, for the most part. I took me home two soaps which I am 99% sure cannot be found in NZ stores. Also, I went to The Body Shop and found their prices to be ridiculously cheap in comparison - so I ended up with some much needed BB cream and concealer. And I'm not the kind of person who ever buys make up so that was a big deal for me.

Sheer disbelief.

I can't believe how much rubbish I just wrote about shopping, of all things. What an airhead.

That night I was invited to a tour and dinner on a cruise ship - excellent, and I am convinced I shall live this way one day - cruising the seas to see the world. So painless, skipping all the dreadful airports and economy flights. Travelling in style.

So that brings me up to Thursday the 7th. I had a much needed chill day; I'm trying to recover from a weird sore throat, sneezing, blocked nose fiasco - which Rob thinks could be hay fever. I've never had it before, so that's fun. That evening I saw Liz perform Mozart's Requiem with her choir, and also a more recent Requiem by British composer Rutter. I followed that up with a karaoke night in Soho - pretty much London's gay district. 'Twas very fun: free shots for every song, though they finished at 11.30pm, which was a bit sad. I did Beyonce's Love on Top and got a lot of cheers, compliments and even a hug from the MC afterwards. I met a bunch of people there who were all very friendly and all tourists, like myself. Some from the US, France, and New Zealand too!

Friday consisted of mostly packing and sorting. I also committed to a run, which turned out to be more impressive than I intended. I haven't run for months, due to Bahrain's crazy heat - and I hadn't pulled more than a 6km out of the bag since January at least. I was happy with my pace too, and MapMyRun is the bomb diggity. (Sorry.)

Anyway, that's enough typing for one day. It is almost 1am, so that's a thing. I leave for Singapore on Sunday night, to be reunited with three of the Robertson clan. Erin is off on her own adventure to the US with her school mates.

Until next time...