Thursday, October 21, 2010

Subtly Sultry: South-East Asian Dreaming On A Balmy Day

I want it all - the exhaust fumes, the fresh food smells, the dark grey grids of Bangkok and the incense wafting through it all...

Moving from concrete-strewn Sofia to colour-saturated Sydney, I felt like nature was overwhelming, and made a point of opting for man-made non-outdoorsy environments whenever possible, where I could read without having to worry about bugs making contact with me. But now, whenever I travel to less extravagantly naturally blessed locales, I realise that Sydney should bottle what it has and export it.

That said, there's something about Asia which has insinuated itself deep into my soul... it has both nature and culture, the showy allure of its deeply curvy wats (temples) complemented by buckets of green and spillages of blooms. Beautiful art can be found in the big cities... (Should I become a painter in Thailand? I can see it now, mingling with Phuket's art society, drawing beautiful loops of pink onto sky-blue canvasses, shopping for art supplies, setting up my materials, bringing my European and Australian influences into Asia's art scene...) I never thought I could be satisfied with so little. I never thought the world could be so full, luscious and charming, even while battling off pollution and the (perhaps deeper) hazard of hesitation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dear Prague: Don't Be Depressed, You Look Fabulous [1]

The first Czech I met was on the plane from Seoul to Prague. I first saw him in the airport and felt a hard-to-pin-down sense of affinity. He was clearly used to being alone, and yet he had a travel partner. He was hard on himself, but rich in inner wealth. Something about his pain mirrored my pain, and though we ended up seated next to each other (him sharing his stories of how the Czech were very relaxed about homosexuality, and how the Swedes he had studied with were initially cordial, but their friendship was unattainable compared to the social scene of the Czechs), I felt something was missing. He seemed like an interesting, well-educated and open-minded individual, but at the time I felt like I knew enough of those and I was looking for someone from a different region to broaden my mind further. I missed out on making a new friend through my lack of receptivity to his offers of further online communication, and I think back on it with a little regret. I am not, however, going to lose sleep over it. I will, on the whole remember him fondly. He had graduated with a degree in law, but had no reason to work because his family owned properties and were collecting rent from them. The seated passenger next to him was his wife, and fairly well into her pregnancy.

My first two flights with Korean Airlines were armrest-gripping, anxiety-fueled affairs. Luckily I managed to find an equilibrium somewhere between Stockholm and Prague on Czech Airlines and now I feel much more positive about flying. But more on my psychological development on that leg of the journey later.

"Don't worry, there's lots to see in Prague. It's a big city, and it's called The Heart of Europe," offered my new-found high-flying comrade. He had read my face well: I was prepared to be annoyed, disappointed and irked. I even wondered, mid-flight, why I had made Prague my first stop, considering my overarching disgruntlement with Eastern Europe. Had I gone too far in embracing the counter-intuitive?

The international airport was bright, clean and shiny, and offered an advantage to me not shared by most visitors from outside Eastern Europe: I could pick out distinct similarities between Czech and Bulgarian. I scoured the signs and advertising for words and phrases I could understand, a fun game while walking from one section of the airport to another. Far from boring, uniform texts, the airport was full of eye-catching and elegant designs mounted up upon the walls and counters. It reminded me of a much more savoury version of the Sofia airport - the standard here was much higher than in the little corner of the Balkans my parents had once called home.

Absolutely exhausted from the stress of the flight, the sleeplessness and the jetlag, not to mention feeling slightly under the weather, I paused outside in the general waiting area to catch my bearings. Looking around revealed unhelpful signs declaring a McDonalds within 50 metres and ads for Czech alcohol. Finally I spied upon a small booth offering discount transportation to the city by chartered van. The lady was helpful enough and in about 14 minutes a tall man with a far-away expression walked up to me, gave me a big, cheery smile, and seized on my bag with little other formal introduction. I followed him out into the parking lot where the van was already stuffed full of first-time arrivals. The engine got turned on, and so did a soundtrack of 80s feel-good hits, as a group of Asians chattered away behind me.

My first impression of Prague was greenery, then bursts of four-storey buildings, a post office which advertised itself as the CzechPoint, and a quaint, vaguely run-down look to the city. It was simultaneously part of the Eastern Europe I knew, and yet a much glossier, wealthier, more spirited and prouder one than I could have imagined prior to finding myself circling its contours.

About 25 mins after boarding, it was time for me to discover what kind of pleasant torture my hostel consisted of. Sir Toby's turned out to be one of the most pleasant accommodation experiences ever, with no bunk beds, my upgrade into an all-female room with slanted ceilings and an annexed shower and toilet, friendly and well-trained staff, a straight-forward internet connection, a buffet breakfast at little extra cost and tram connections just around the corner. The area even had plenty of restaurants to choose from, including several Czech and one Italian.

It was already about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so even if I had been feeling ready to hit the town it would have been time to 'call it a day' and sleep off the jetlag.

I made the mistake of not asking for a towel, and using my nightgown to dry myself off, which I then put on. I just wasn't thinking, I guess. When the English lady in the bed next to the window expressed a desire to leave said window slightly open I didn't look out for my self-interest but humoured her and... lo and behold... I woke up the next day with my head throbbing and thinking "Great. Just great. I've managed to get myself seriously sick on the fifth day out of Sydney."

All through Prague, Berlin and most of Copenhagen, my condition worsened... it wasn't until I left Stockholm early to get treatment in Bulgaria that I finally got the anti-biotic I needed to eradicate the infection in my chest, and the anti-biotic I took was very strong. As a friend said, "such is life." And while feeling unwell certainly led me to be less adventurous in approaching people, and saw me spending a few days just recouperating from the heavy duty sight-seeing, I wouldn't trade the experience for any other...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The problem with travel is...

You might fall in love. In my case, I fell in love with Copenhagen and Stockholm. I guess I have a crush on Berlin. I was tantalised by the taste of Vienna - it's all I really noticed in the rush in which me embraced. Basking in Seoul piqued my curiosity, in Prague I was hit by the desire for verbosity. But no regular Blogger could be worked into my schedule. I became at once more strong and more fragile.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Slowing & Simplifying

I ended up with a schedule that was trying to do too much in too short a period of time. In fact, I had started to forget my original concept for this trip: Spend as much time in Stockholm/Uppsala and Copenhagen as possible. Adding the 'second cities' of Denmark and Sweden isn't necessary, and I probably wouldn't enjoy changing my location so often. Going through locations at a such a furious pace can lead to rush, but I'd like to get to know Copenhagen and Stockholm as well as possible; explore what makes them such centres of innovation.

So instead of making my way from Copenhagen to Stockholm overland (spending hours in transit so that I can just see a glimpse of places that deserve more time), I'm going to fly between the two, trusting that 'slow travel' (thanks Rolf Potts) will work its magic on me in ways I can't foresee.

My current schedule looks like this:

Sydney - Seoul (3 days) - Prague (2 days) - Berlin (5 days) - Copenhagen & Roskilde, Helsingor and the Louisiana Art Museum (11 days) - Stockholm & Uppsala (13 days) - Prague (1/2 day) - Budapest (3/4 day) - Sofia & Bulgaria (14 days) - Seoul (overnight) - Sydney

I didn't plan the stopover in Budapest - my parents decided that it would be a nice flourish and arranged it for me. I'm excited to be seeing two new Eastern European countries, as well as making some headway towards appreciating the one I feel poses the most potent mysteries for me, Bulgaria.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Evocative Visuals: Seoul

This beautiful temple called 'Jogyesa' is my muse for today~

Monday, May 24, 2010

Travel As Orienting Young People

I remember Pico Iyer saying that his travels to Latin America were his 'real' education... Click here for some (not so) surprising findings from New Zealand.

It's Been A Long Time Coming... Scandinavia, Emblazoned In My Mind

I believe I first developed an interest in Scandinavia when I read that it was the happiest country in the world. Researching Denmark, I found that it had been the first nation in the world to introduce civil unions for the GLBT community in 1989. Progressive and charming, laden with history but at the cutting edge of design, architecture, fashion and many more, I fantasised about moving to Denmark permanently.

When I found that a Danish guy my age had joined my Facebook group 'I Love Postmodernism', I wasted no time in contacting him, and before I knew it, I had my first Danish friend. Rune (pronounced Roo-neh) was so polite, intelligent and on my wavelength that it wasn't long before I had convinced myself that I was totally in love. I would write to him often, doing my best to impress with my writing skills and worldliness. But the more I got to know him, it became apparent that we were just supposed to be good friends. Thus my 'perfect Danish  romance-to-be' transformed into 'an interesting and lively friend who just happens to hail from Copenhagen.' ;o)

Not long after I met Rune, I got an email from a Swede called Bjorn who had read my blog and wanted to get in touch with me. We seemed to be uncannily well-matched in personality, and had an intense online relationship for about two weeks, agreed to meet in real life, and just as I was making plans to go to his hometown of Stockholm, his ex-girlfriend came back and he cheated on me. Distraught for a few days, I bounced back quickly and vowed to be more careful about who I gave my heart to. Bjorn looked rather unforthcoming in appearance, but there was a lot going on beneath the surface, and so I had caught a glimpse of some sort of Swedish psyche. Bjorn seems to have lost all interest in me as a friend now that we are no longer lovers, though I do occasionally wonder about him from time to time.

At around the same time, I discovered another Dane (yet again on a Facebook postmodern group, though not my own) with similar interests, and was slightly infatuated with Kaare for a while. With a PhD in Social Science, audacious good looks, pride towards his bi-ness and with a strong personality, he became a muse and part-time role model of mine. We chat from time to time about philosophy, travel and life in general. Life is never dull when Kaare is around, and maybe someday we will travel together.

The last Scandinavian friend I really got to know is Andy... he's a Swedish lover of postmodernism with eclectic interests - everything from Buddhism to comic books, James Joyce to August Strindberg. We have been getting to know each other more and more, and I put our compatibility down to us both being Scorpios, very progressive and skeptical of all authority. If I hadn't been so preoccupied by all the other Scandi men I probably would have fallen in love with him as well, lol.

Now, maybe I've met the four coolest individuals that Denmark and Sweden have to offer. But I doubt it - the more you look, the more you see. I bet that for every wonderfully open-minded, deeply perceptive, charmingly articulate, meticulously cultured and unmistakably warm Scandinavian I've met, there are hundreds more just waiting to be discovered...

So in about one month's time I'll be mingling with the acquaintances of Robyn, Aqua, Kierkegaard and ABBA, musing on Lego and Volvos, IKEA and hygge. I'll be checking out the anarchic Christiania in Copenhagen and the historic Gamla Stan (Old Town) district in Stockholm, delighting in the small town of Helsingor and the big city of Uppsala, home to one of Europe's best universities. Discovering a tiny nation alongside a pretty large one - even though they have almost the same number of people in them.

Rune and Andy are my tour guides, but I have researched all of my destinations carefully just in case they're not available all the time, and would feel comfortable sight-seeing on my own if our plans fell through. However it's a nice change to have two special individuals be my main attraction, and I look forward to meeting the people close to them.

After all, travel is at its most rewarding for me when I am able to make a deep and meaningful connection with a fellow human being. :o)