I could have been a victim of the Paris terror attacks

Standard

Four hours before the France v German friendly that took place at the Stade de France on Friday the 13th of November, we were considering not attending the match at all.

We had bought three tickets to the match, but we didn’t realise at the time that they weren’t seated together. The match also started at 9pm, and with Miss P having been abnormally grumpy that day, we thought it was just too much effort.

In the end, we decided to go with Miss P strapped to my front in the baby carrier. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric, with almost a full house of excited and enthusiastic French fans madly waving their tri-colour flags. We even managed to find three seats together and thought we’d just keep them warm until the ticket holder came along to boot us out.

We were seated next to a rowdy bunch of drunken French fans, which offered us a very entertaining insight into the rarely seen French bogan. They were merrily passing around a bottle of alcoholic mystery in an unlabelled Coke bottle, and yelling words of encouragement to their countrymen on the field.

French bogans

Shortly into the first half of the match, we heard a loud explosion that came from outside the stadium. We looked at each other and our friend tried to reassure us, “I think it was just a bunger!” I replied, “It sounded a bit loud to be a bunger”. The bogans even shouted, “Yeah! They’re the real fans!!” But as we looked around the stadium, no-one else seemed concerned as they continued cheering loudly for the Blues.

Not long after, we heard another loud explosion. I could see people high up in the back row, only a quarter of the way around the stadium from us, peering over the fence to see what was going on outside. There was clearly some sort of drama going on, but we didn’t think anything more than there being some very loud fire crackers or perhaps a nearby gas explosion.

Half time rolled around and a lady with her kids came up to us and said that we were sitting in her seats. Being well after 10pm by now and not having three seats together, we decided to call it quits and go home. As we lingered on the terrace with the countless smokers, the large metal gates slid shut right in front of us. We asked the security guard where the closest exit was and he informed us that no-one was being allowed to leave.

Soon after, the second half started and crowd were fixated on the game. We heard a third explosion outside the stadium in front of us and we could see police lights, armed men, and medics gathering. While the game was playing, our friend was searching on her phone for any news items that could shed some light on what was happening nearby. It was only then that we were shocked to read about the shootings at the concert hall and the restaurant. There was only a minor mention of an explosion near the stadium.

We weren’t panicking yet, but we were slightly concerned at the lockdown and with the the end of the game looming closer, the thought of a stampede for the exits was at the front of our minds. We tried to place ourselves in a little alcove so that if there was a rush then we would be protected.

As the final siren came closer, there were a few more worried faces gathering at the exits, mostly young families who were probably in the same situation as us, and those just wanting to beat the rush home. Thankfully, about 10 minutes before the end of the match they began to open the gates and we were able to leave.

There was tension in the air as we walked to the train station. Heavily armed police and tactical response teams were everywhere, bearing large semi-automatic weapons and tear gas launchers. We even saw one young man with multiple guns pointed at him, urging him to put his hands up and lay down on the ground. We all put our hands up in the air just so that there could be no mistake to the authorities that we were ‘the good guys’.

One week later, we have been heartbroken and deeply sad at the 129 senseless deaths and 300 people injured that night. But we also feel a sense of relief that the suicide bombers outside the stadium were detected and stopped before they killed and injured potentially hundreds more. We wonder what we would have done if an explosion had happened in the stadium. Would we have stampeded toward the exit? Or would we have done the more rational thing and stayed in our seats?

We wonder whether the suicide bombers would have detonated their vests near us, and we would be just another name on the list of victims.

Japan ski adventures

View of Mt Yotei
Standard

For any food-loving Aussie skier, the mere thought of Japan is enough to get one salivating. There is an abundance of light fluffy powder, it’s less than 11 hours away (that’s on the doorstep from our perspective!), and even the Japanese food is worth a visit alone.

I know it must seem crazy to some to take flight from a gorgeous Australian summer to seek winter cold in Niseko, but passionate skiers and boarders know that it’s worthwhile. There are pretty much guaranteed snowy conditions, fantastic off-piste skiing, and of course, the food. And compared to the predictably icy Australian snow conditions and extortionate lift ticket prices, it ends up being much better value than a week at Thredbo.

 

On the mountain at NisekoIt snowed every day, which meant that every morning was filled with the excitement and anticipation of getting on the mountain. The weather was very cold, with temperatures of around -8C in the village and -15C on the summit, but you didn’t really notice too much until you were sitting high up on a lift, a slave to the elements. All I can say is thank god for the gondolas and the hooded lifts!

My favourite ski area was the Hanazono area, where there were some fun off-piste runs through the trees. It was my first time skiing through trees so I wasn’t game enough to go hardcore through the gates and outside the resort boundary and patrolled area, and Strawberry Fields area in particular had some narrow steep drops with some nice powder stashes, as well as wider open areas through the trees.

Niseko Hirafu

Hanazono ski signThe best thing about visiting Japan (right up there with the snow!) is all the delicious food. They take such pride with the serving and presentation of their food, that you can even get tasty snacks in their convenience stores. It’s fine dining compared to the dry sausage rolls or tasteless egg sandwiches in the Australian convenience stores.

We sampled a range of Japanese food throughout our visit, including sashimi, teppanyaki, sukiyaki, soba, and lots of ramen. It was cool to see that food vans were a thing in Niseko too.

Sukiyaki

Soba noodles

Ramen with snow crab legs

Potato ramen

Potato ramen

Peace out!

Deep fried oysters

Gyoza at Little Red Mimoji

Fresh sashimi

Niseko food vanWith so many Aussies in Niseko, the bar scene is hip and happening. The most trendy bar would probably be the Fridge Door Bar, properly called Bar Gyu+ but known for it’s distinctive front door.

Fridge door bar NisekoInside it’s a cosy European feel with warm wood panelling and wooden furniture. The menus are hand illustrated, and there is a great selection of whiskies, as well as hot alcoholic drinks and my first ever absinthe (the stuff knocks your socks off).

Niseko fridge door bar menu

Ev with a drink

AbsintheSkiing and eating aside, we managed to find some time to squeeze in some karaoke. For the equivalent of around A$20 for two hours of singing and all-you-can-drink, you can be assured to hear some high quality vocal performances. Oh well, when in Rome, or Japan…

Karaoke

Hooded up in the snowDid you take off for any snow adventures this winter? Or are you looking forward to the upcoming Southern Hemisphere winter for some snow action?

Taipei’s Shilin night markets

Gallery

On our recent trip to Japan, we stopped over in Taipei for a night of feasting at the famous Shilin night markets. The markets first opened in 1899 and has a huge variety of delicious Taiwanese street food and snacks. During the day, the streets are empty and quiet, devoid of food carts, but come nighttime, it’s jam-packed with hungry people throughout the night.

A country still at war

Gallery

With South Korea and its northern neighbour still technically at war, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border of these two countries is a really fascinating visit.

On one of my trips to South Korea a few years back, I joined a tour to check out the DMZ to see the stand off between the two Koreas. We were taken around on a guided tour of the Joint Security Area and the Freedom House, where delegates from the two countries have met for talks. Soldiers from the Republic of Korea (as South Korea is technically known) stand stiffly without cracking any hint of emotion. The border between the North and the South runs straight through the centre of the building.

Outside, ROK soldiers stand on guard, half exposed and half hidden while facing their northern counterparts.

These are some of my favourite photos of my South Korean trips, including the walled city of Suwon, Namsangol traditional houses, and Gyeongbokgung Palace.

When travel goes wrong

Standard

Travelling is one of my greatest passions. It may end up costing you a house deposit, or your best childbearing years, but I think it’s a worthwhile investment on so many fronts. However, bad things can happen when you’re away from your usual nine-to-five routine. And when bad things happen and you’re a long way from home, it can be a daunting and helpless experience.

We never plan for bad things to happen, and that’s why travel insurance is a good idea. It’s a major pain in the ass if your luggage is lost, your passport is stolen, or you miss a flight. It means spending hours or days waiting around, wasting precious travel time.

However, those are not the worst things that could happen while travelling. Being hospitalised with an illness or a result of an accident can ruin a trip, as well as a bank balance if you don’t have travel insurance. Especially in developing countries, it’s important to be mindful of the water you’re drinking or the food that you’re eating, lest you end up on the toilet for days at best, or at worst, hooked up on a drip in a hospital where you can’t speak the language.

A run in with the local authorities is also not advised, even if it makes a good yarn many years down the track. Being arrested and thrown in a foreign jail would make for a unique travel experience, however there are countries where you definitely want to walk the straight and narrow, unless being thrown into a violent jail where you will be treated inhumanely is your thing.

Speaking personally, my bad experiences include being pickpocketed in Costa Rica, my hotel room being burgled in Honduras (and losing, amongst other things, 4 months of travel photos on my camera), my luggage not making flights, being dumped by a then-boyfriend, having fellow backpackers shagging all around me whilst I was trying to sleep, and being ripped off by numerous taxi drivers.

However my worst travel experience was while I was travelling alone around Lebanon. I was on a day trip to Baalbek, in the Beqaa Valley, to see the beautiful World Heritage Listed Roman ruins. Public transport in Lebanon is often by minibus, and it was on one of these minibuses, as I was making my way back to Beirut, that trouble struck.

baalbek lebanon

I was the only passenger on the minibus, and the driver, Bilal, a tall man probably in his early 20s, insisted that I sit with him in the front passenger seat. After repeatedly rejecting his offers of a seat for about 5 minutes, I gave in just so that we could get our journey underway and I could make it back to Beirut and then to Jbeil, where I was staying. That was a mistake.

Bilal suddenly turned off the highway and drove off road for a few hundred metres before stopping with my passenger door hard up against a small tree. After turning off the engine, he proceeded to stroke my leg and mutter things in Arabic to me. Needless to say, I was starting to run some defence scenarios very quickly through my head, as my heart was beginning to race away in my chest. The clearest scenario that I could imagine was using my years of martial arts training and attacking him with a punch to the throat. However, the thought of then trying to get out of the car, running to the road, and then trying to flag down a car and communicate with them in English when they could probably only speak Arabic seemed a bit risky.

As Bilal continued to touch my leg, my face, my hair, and then tried to roughly shove his hand into my jacket and down my top, I decided that my best defence was just to laugh the whole thing off, repeatedly brush his hand away, and say yellah over and over again – let’s go, c’mon! Thankfully, after what seemed like an eternity but was maybe only 5 minutes in reality, he was fed up with my refusals, started up the minibus, and got back onto the road. It was only when he picked up the next passenger, an older lady, that I finally exhaled with relief, safe and unharmed.

When I finally made it back to Jbeil, I told my new local friends about the ordeal. They were horrified for me but told me that, despite being dressed modestly, it was likely they thought I was sex worker due to being of Asian descent. Great! And it explained why I was propositioned another three more times during that short 7-day trip.

There are many ways for travel to go wrong. Many things can be covered by travel insurance, but the best thing to do is to be careful, look after yourself and your possessions, and if you come home without being sexually assaulted by a dodgy Lebanese minibus driver, then you’re doing well!

This post is modified from my original post on Laugh Lots, Travel Often

Fun in the Filipino sun

Standard

For many years, I’d heard of the great diving in the Philippines – beautiful reefs, lots of fish, and loads of historical wrecks.  I recently managed to get there to experience it for myself, along with my brother, his girlfriend, and our mate Steve.

We went to the dive centre of Puerto Galera, which was a 2 hour drive from Manila airport to the port town of Batangas and then a 1 hour ride on a bangka boat to La Laguna beach in Puerto Galera.  We arrived at our amazing resort, Out of the Blue, where we had a villa right at the top of the hill that had great views over Sabang Bay.

banca boatout of the blue resort puerto galera philippinesout of the blue resort puerto galera philippines

We didn’t dive on our first day there, but took the opportunity to unwind with cheap beers, mangoes, and massages.  One thing I didn’t expect was the number of older, foreign men with young, pretty Filipino women.  Call me naive but I had thought that this was a dive destination, not a seedy, girlie destination!

la laguna beach sunset philippines eating mangoes on the beach bikini bar sabang philippines

Thankfully, the diving was fantastic and it was well worth the trek here.  The diving was relatively easy here, with mild currents at most, but the reefs were colourful and teeming with fish.  We even saw a few turtles!

divers on a boat

On our last day in Puerto Galera, we took a day trip around the island in our own private jeepney, one of the flash buses common to the Philippines that were former US military vehicles.  We went to check out the stunning views from the mountaintop Ponderosa golf club, White Beach, and a lunch at Tamaraw Falls.

welcome to puerto galerajeepney philippines jeepney philippineswhite beach puerto galera philippinesview from ponderosa golf club puerto galera view from ponderosa golf club puerto galera drinking from coconuts tamaraw falls puerto galera tricycle philippines

After we’d had our fill of diving, we island-hopped to the premier beach holiday destination of Boracay.  I usually find top rated beach destinations a disappointment whenever I go on holidays because we simply have amazing beaches in Australia, but this was one beach that definitely lived up to the hype.  Walking across the beaches of Boracay is like a heavenly dip in powdery, silky soft talcum powder, and the water is a beautiful turquoise blue.

boracay beach philippines boracay beach philippines boracay beach philippines

Boracay is a fun holiday destination, with loads of restaurants and bars, sunset sailing, and checking out the local seafood markets.  We had one night out on the town with a pub crawl group, where we met lots of great fellow party people from the Philippines, the US, Saudi Arabia, and a few other Aussies too.

seafood markets boracay seafood markets boracay eating seafoodboracay beach sand sculpture dinner with friendssailing boracay sailing boracay sailing boracaysunset boracay beach sunset boracay beachboracay pub crawl boracay pub crawl

For great diving and beaching, and a cheap Asian holiday destination, I would definitely recommend the Philippines.  It’s a laid back country with friendly locals, and has the advantage of being an Asian country where English is widely spoken. I’m looking forward to heading back to the Philippines sometime to check out more of the country’s spectacular diving and beaches.

Powder and poutine

Standard

I made my first trip to Canada earlier this month, all for the eternal search for powder.  The White Russian and I were prepared to be slightly disappointed, after initial dumps of snow at Whistler Blackcomb earlier in the season hadn’t continued to the weeks immediately before our departure.  However it was a stroke of luck that the weather forecast changed as soon as we arrived and we saw 5 consecutive days of snow.

Whistler Blackcomb snow Whistler Blackcomb snow

With loads of fresh powder, the skiing was fantastic.  There ended up being 10 of us in our group, with some travelling from the UK to join us for some snow action.  We were constantly on the hunt for powder stashes, which we managed to find off piste and particularly some of the steeper black runs.

The visibility was fairly poor most of the time due to the layers of cloud that seemed to constantly sit at mid-mountain level, and then there were the snow flurries as well.  Sometimes you could barely see more than 10 metres ahead, resulting in some hairy near-collision moments.

Whistler Blackcomb snowboard Whistler Blackcomb snow Whistler Blackcomb snow Whistler Blackcomb snow Olympic ringsWhistler Blackcomb gondola

We decided before we arrived that one of our snow days would be a onesie day.  I came prepared with a suitcase of onesies for everyone.  Needless to say, we drew a lot of admiration (or was it just curiosity?) on the slopes that day!

snow animal onesies

Being my first time in Canada, I was eager to try the poutine, Canada’s (un)official national dish of chips, cheese curds and gravy.  We even found a version with pulled pork!  Absolutely delicious.  Some of the other delicacies we found on the slopes included a Mexican bulldog, which consisted of a frozen margarita with an upturned Corona.

frozen margarita corona cocktail poutine pulled pork toffee applescheese fondue

All in all, Whistler Blackcomb was a fantastic mountain, with some really long piste runs, lots of light and fluffy powder, some challenging steep terrain, fairly fast moving lift queues, delicious selection of food at the restaurants, and lots of friendly faces and smiles (a lot of them Australian!).  It would probably be some of the best skiing I’ve experienced.

On the way home, we spent one night in Vancouver, wandering around Gastown, Chinatown, and the shopping along Granville Street.  Thankfully I had lots of room in my luggage after clearing out all those onesies!  We also had brunch at the Granville Island Public Market, where one could easily find themselves spending hours ogling at all the charcuterie, cheeses, cakes, seafood and fresh meat.  We got a tasty selection of cheeses (ossau iraty, comte, epoisses, goats cheese), some wild boar proscuitto and duck proscuitto, and a flavoursome duck and fig pate.

pasta Vancouver Granville Island markets charcuterie Vancouver Granville Island markets Japadog Japanese hotdog Vancouver

As we were leaving, we were already discussing next year’s overseas ski trip!  It’s always good to have the next trip to get excited about.

The Australian Outback

Standard

My company was nice enough to recognise me amongst their “top 5%” of high achieving employees in the business last year, and as a reward around 30 odd of my colleagues and I were invited on a trip to Uluru with our partners at the end of October.  It was my first time to the Australian Outback, seeing red dirt, and visiting the iconic Uluru or Ayers Rock and The Olgas or Kata Tjuta.

Of course it was pretty damn hot out in the desert, and I was actually surprised by the amount of vegetation in the outback.  I had just assumed that the desert was just a vast expanse of nothing but red dirt!

We did a sunset tour of Kata Tjuta, and went for a short hike to see the formation up close.

 

During our visit, we also did a sunset visit of Uluru or Ayers Rock with glasses of champagne, a sunrise view of the rock again from a different angle (early start but well worth it!), the Sounds of Silence dinner where we had a buffet dinner under the stars and the full moon.  A wonderful way to see the outback.

 

 

 

Similan Islands diving

Standard

After many years of hearing that the Similan Islands in Thailand were a must-dive destination from my diving friends, I finally managed to make my way there this month.  It was pretty late in the season, which was beneficial in getting a half-empty (or is that half-full?) liveaboard boat and a cabin all to myself, however the weather was starting to turn slightly foul, with cloudy skies most of the time and lashing rain on occasion.  The glimpses of blue sky were very welcome.

Similan island white sandy beach

The diving was quite easy, although there was often a bit of current at the sites to keep things interesting.  The visibility ranged from 20-40 metres and the water temperature hovered around 29C, which made for easy and comfortable diving.

I love seeing big stuff and colourful reefs, and the sites here were not disappointing.  The coral growth on the reefs was looking pretty healthy, apparently making a good recovery after the tsunami of 2004.  The reefs attracted loads of colourful reef fish, which in turn attracted some bigger fish such as trevally and tuna.  On one particularly memorable dive we saw a majestic manta ray that slowly checked us out, before turning around to swim past us again, then swimming off into the blue.

Liveaboard diving is a continual cycle of diving, eating, sleeping/reading, diving, eating, more sleeping and reading.  The diving can get a bit tiring at the end of the day, but it’s definitely worthwhile.  We even checked out one of the white, sandy beaches of one of the islands, which had the whitest powdery sand I’ve ever seen.  It felt like I was standing on a large strip of flour!

White sandy beach at Similan Islands

Thai fishing boats

How did you bring in the new year?

Standard

It’s a big call to escape the Australian summer willingly, but when it means dry, fluffy powder on the slopes of Japan you don’t have to ask me twice!

It snowed on and off for the 5 days that I was with my mate Ed in Furano, Hokkaido, meaning we had amazing powdery conditions.

20120118-072806 PM.jpg

The light and feathery snow here puts Australia’s icy/slushy conditions to absolute shame, particularly when the lift tickets were only $57 a day compared to the $110 rip off at Perisher and Thredbo.

New years eve was spent with a whole lot of Japanese folk in the freezing cold and eating snacks from the market stalls such as steamy ramen noodles, sweet red bean soup, and grilled frankfurters.

20120118-091811 PM.jpg

Shivering with strangers in -10C snowy conditions – what a way to kick off 2012!