using my inside voice

A Tourist in My Own City

Lifestyle & Culture | May 5, 2010

Yes folks, the post you have all been waiting for, the first update on my escapades in the beautiful river city of Brisbane. As promised, I have been exploring Brisbane with reckless abandon. Venturing out to places previously unexplored (by me, kind of) to expand both my knowledge and appreciation of this at once familiar but foreign city on Australia's eastern coast.

The West End Markets

Perched on a bend of the chocolaty waters of the Brisbane River are the West End Markets. With stallholders offering everything from locally roasted coffee to fruit, veg and delicious gourmet breakfast options, this is a wonderful way to spend Saturday morning. I popped over for a bacon and egg roll, and excellent coffee, before taking a moment to wander through the plethora of local produce stalls to select my veg for the week. More than a week's worth of vegetables for two came to under $20, so it's also an economical option for the frugal amongst us.

The Brisbane Art Gallery

After collecting the veg and sending it home with my better half I headed for a girlie trip to the current exhibition at the Brisbane Art Gallery, which walks visitors through a history of the hat. Milliners, hat enthusiasts, and even common garden-variety, Volvo-driving hat-wearers will enjoy this exhibition. You can see the giant pom pom hat worn by Bjork, a tower of green and feathers worn by Sarah Jessica Parker, as well as bonnets from the 1600s, the Darth Vader mask and creations made from all kinds of materials.

Shopping in the City

This is something that used to be reserved for one special day every Christmas holidays. We'd get up early on a warm summer morning, dress in our Sunday best, pile into Nana's car, and head to the city; Mum, my sister, Nana and me. We'd park under the Myer Centre and first stop would be a snack in the food court where my Nana would invariably choose something decadent and sweet, like a macadamia nut caramel slice and coffee, not be able to finish it, and I'd shove it in along with whatever I'd chosen. Full of sugar and armed for a big day out we would then face the mall, and conquer the shops, usually armed with a list of things we'd been wanting to buy all year that weren't available at the Sunshine Coast, a mere outpost compared to Brisbane in those days.

Now I can go shopping in the city anytime I want, but of course I don't. So, on Sunday I headed in and found some new shoes and new exercise clothes - woo! Of course the excitement I used to feel as a teenager heading into the big smoke wasn't quite there, but it was still quite a nice way to spend the morning.

Riverside Markets

After the city shopping I headed down to the Riverside Markets which also used to require a special trip into the city. We would find all sorts of lovely things to buy there, mainly jewellery, but lovely jewellery none-the-less (at least in my 15-year-old eyes). Sadly, the Riverside Markets have lost a lot of their appeal. The stalls stock such items as ceramic garden figurines of dogs and Buddhas (probably made in China), cheap blankets and ugly jewellery that purports to be sterling silver, but is quite obviously not. So, this may not be a recommendation for future visitors to Brisbane City.

Mt Glorious and Mt Nebo

On the Monday holiday, upon recommendation from a colleague, we drove out to Mt Glorious and Mt Nebo. Apart from providing a chance for Pepe to show me what he's made of (that's my new car) it was also a lovely drive. We headed up through Samford which takes you along a wickedly winding road with motorbikes zipping past and a dramatic drop off the side to ensure you take each turn with caution.

At the top there are 3 or 4 cafes to choose from if that's your bent, but we decided to keep heading towards Mt Nebo for a picnic at Jolly's Lookout. There was a surprising number of people doing the same thing, but we managed to nab a table and lay out our picnic fare. The view is spectacular, and having a longer, more leisurely meal on another day, with a bottle of wine, is definitely on the cards.

We headed back down through The Gap along Waterworks Road, so on top of a lovely drive and picnic, I also learned some new routes through Brisbane.

There, what do you think? Does my adventuresome nature and innate sense of exploration knock your socks off? Are you sitting back, open-mouthed, wondering how I managed to pack so much action into one long weekend? Well, believe it or not, This weekend we have another round of events which includes The Gunshop Cafe, West End Markets (again) and a Tapas dinner. I am also contemplating a visit to the Boutique Markets in Hamilton - anyone keen?

What a city, what a lady

Lifestyle & Culture | April 24, 2010

Settling into a new city can be hard. Really hard. Sure, I've done it a few times before, and the challenges remain the same no matter where you are. But, this time it's a little different.

When we got to Dublin, it was freezing, I had an epic head cold, the prospects for finding an apartment were dim, let alone finding a job. I started to wonder what craziness possessed me to leave my family and friends behind in Australia to embark on this idea of working and living in another country. But, after a few weeks of arduous searching and tedious trips to dump apartments in the back alleys and soulless streets that exist in almost every city in the world, I finally found a home, a job, and could get to the point of exploring this famous city. I headed each weekend in a new direction with my scarf and gloves, thermals under my jeans and a few euros in my pocket to find something fabulous about my new home. Sure, sometimes all I got was a bad coffee in an arcade off the mall, but at least I'd never been there before (and likely wouldn't go again, but still!)

When we banked over Vancouver, with the pure golden sunshine lying heavy over tiled rooftops on an afternoon in March I felt a squeeze in my belly. As we sped towards our hostel in a taxi in the quickly-descended dark, I started speaking too quickly to the driver about the snow on the side of the road to cover my feeling of pending doom, being wholly overwhelmed with what I'd just done. Why, dear lord in heaven, why did I just break the bounds of comfort and peace that exist with the familiar, with family and friends so close and accessible? Once again I had made a stupendously scary decision to leave my home country and live on the other side of the world, on another continent, with not a soul in a 1000km radius who knows me. But, once more, after a few rocky weeks of apartment searching and scouring websites for jobs, I carved myself a little nook in the city of Vancouver. A place that was so comfy, friendly and fun that I stayed for three years in my nook with an alley view.

When I pulled up in Mum's Landcruiser to my new place in Windsor I felt ... well, normal I suppose. There was no scare, no strangeness, no worry about where I would find the supermarket or which bus I would catch to get where. I knew the train system and had a vague idea of how to navigate my way around Brisbane's city streets. I felt unfazed about the prospect of finding a job, and in fact scored a relatively good one in less than two weeks. I bought furniture, kitchenware, and settled into Brisbane city life without a hiccup, butterfly or nervous moment of burdensome foreignness. I bought a car and made trips to the coast for my sister's wedding preparations, easter and just because, visited Luke's family in Murwillumbah for pizza nights and bubbly parties in the green hills. Basically, I came back to a city I'd lived in before to create a brand new life without any of the scary excitement of past moves. It didn't feel the same, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time, it didn't have the thrill of discovering something new.

The stark reality dawned on me that I'd left behind all my best friends in Vancouver, and was going to have to start afresh without "new city" excitement, and only the hardest part of moving to a new place left to complete - finding new friends. In Vancouver Luke and I didn't make any proper friends for about 5 months and would literally spend any time we weren't at work with only each other, 24/7, week-upon-week. In Brisbane, a city so familiar, this just doesn't seem acceptable. To be fair, I do have a very small selection of extremely high-quality friends in Brisbane. I've been seeing them regularly and they've kept my faith in this city alive with lovely dinners and a bottle or three of wine.

But, I've realised that I can't sit back and be unexcited forever. The time has come Bris-vegas. I know you have changed in the past 6 years, become more sophisticated, softened and mellowed like a good red wine, developed character and body, grown from the brash, young buck you were when last we met into something more cultured, with more cafes, more coffee, food, wine, and people to meet.

I have a plan to get to know Brisbane again, and today I made my first wonderful discovery in the form of a side-street cafe in West End called BlackStar Coffee. Their flat white (more like a traditional cappuccino if you ordered it in Vancouver) literally knocked my socks off. Their eclectic mix of crates, old tables, chairs and mismatched sugar pots captured my attention, reminding me of some of the shabby chic cafes we whiled away at in Portland and New York City.

Yes Brisbane, I know you're out there just waiting for my visit, so here I come. I've got oodles of hours to spend with you now, so it's time to show me what you're made of! To top things off, I will comply with my travel-writing fans' requests to pen some more blogs. Along the way I will document my hijinks and miraculous escapades that could only happen in Brisbane. They will amuse you, make you laugh, cry, and wish that you too were living in Bris-vegas; what a city, what a lady!

Colour me pink

Lifestyle & Culture | April 13, 2010

Dammit. Number two. That’s another inch of champers over the balcony rail. Why do these flies have a death wish so closely associated with my champagne flute of pink bubbly sparkling?

They’re buzzing like crazy, there’s a fly cover over all the cheese and crackers, and my “Pink” warms in the glass faster than I can gulp it down. But, on the upside, this is Australia and once empty my glass is filled again before I can blink. Luke's niece, only 9, even partakes in the filling when she sees I’m ready for a refill after the second fly suicide. Atta girl!

There’s lasagna and potato bake in the oven inside, but at 1pm no-one is in a rush to eat lunch anytime soon. The boys are slogging away at a game of cricket in the open-air garage, the girls are relaxing, swatting flies, talking, and taking in the view which is nothing short of spectacular.

Luke's sister and family live on Doon Doon Road, Doon Doon. No joke. They have a huge farm that you get to on a dirt road for the last kilometre or so. There is a mountain in their backyard – Mount Doughboy (again, not joking). And with a few horses in a nearby paddock, rolling hills in the distance and green as far as the eye can see, it’s pretty much a perfect location.

We have been invited for lunch, it’s the first time all the kids and their partners have gotten together – ever. Partly because before they didn’t all have partners, and partly because Luke and I have been travelling for the better part of 6 years.

So, when lunch finally does roll around at 4pm everyone is relaxed, having consumed the better part of a bottle of Pink, or several beers. We eat, talk, pass food down the end of the table. Clear the plates, talk more, pour more, and sit at the table for a while longer.

Finally, to top the day off in true Australian fashion there is a game of football (touch only). We wander down to the designated football area, glasses in hand. I don’t play (for obvious reasons to anyone that knows me) but I laugh and watch as the boys, men and girls throw each other on the grass, run for their life, dodge, weave, shout, jibe and hobble off on gammy knees (the older generation at least).

By the time we’re done the sun has set. We drive home with the windows down and the cool autumn air streaming into the car. These were the type of days I’d fantasize about when I was homesick in Vancouver, the sun, the wine, the food and laughter. Of course we had them in Vancouver too, but unless there’s a fly in your champers and a sting in the sunshine it’s not really the same is it?

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie...

Lifestyle & Culture | December 21, 2009

It's almost as if I never left, Central America seems a distant memory, closer to a dream than reality. Australia is as real and raw as I always remembered. With sun-drenched beaches, ocker accents an Sunshine Plaza and familiar festive preparations mimicking Christmases past so thoroughly, I could be 20 and home from University again, rather than 28 and about to embark on a spanking new life in Brisbane next year.

There are some things, however, that I'd come close to forgetting about Australia, but seeing and experiencing them once again made me realise what a fantastic country I (now) live in. It all started on Saturday morning, as I began a 3.5 hour drive to Bundaberg for a friend's wedding. I was a little bit nervous driving again on the right side of the road, after four years on the left. On top of that, I was driving a massive Land Cruiser (a girl's got to sleep somewhere after the wedding!). But, Australia's great stretches of greeny-brown land soon rekindled the familiar feeling of a road trip, as I sang to the Dirty Dancing sound track at full volume to keep myself alert.

In my short trip to Bundy and back I remembered a few things that, if you're Australian, maybe you take for granted, and if you're not, maybe you'll find interesting.

1) Driver Reviver

I'd been told multiple times by Mum to make sure to have plenty of stops on the way to Bundaberg. So, I dutifully pulled over near Tiaro at one of the countless Driver Reviver stations that dot Australia's highways. These stops are manned by volunteers throughout the year. They serve free cups of hot Lipton tea in Styrofoam cups to drivers needing a break from the road. As any Australian knows, driving the long, often lonely, stretches can take it's toll, and single-vehicle accidents caused by drivers having 'micro sleeps' are all too common. So these stops are around to help us all stay safe and alert on the roads. Pretty cool hey? And, who could resist a slice of home-made fruit cake for $1 as you bob your teabag in the steaming water.

2) The Warning Flash

As we travelled in convoy from the wedding to the reception an approaching car flashed it's lights at me and I immediately hit the brakes (I was following a bunch of testosterone-fueled hoons I had gone to uni with). In Australia, a flash like that means only one thing - cops on the lookout for speeding drivers. As far as I know, Australia is the only country that has a nationwide system to help fellow-drivers evade speeding tickets. Of course it's totally illegal, but you've got to help out a mate right?

3) The Wedding Flash

A different kind of flash entirely... only in Australia would a wedding guest decide it is an entirely appropriate forum to get nude, walk around a bit, and mingle with their still-clothed counterparts. Yes, there was a nudie run at the wedding. But, sadly it was less of a run and more of a meet and greet, just to make sure everyone got a good eye-full. Enough said.

4) The Flattie

This could mean many things in Australia; a flathead (fish), a flat tire, or, as in my case, a flat white. Australia has a coffee that is uniquely their own (well, they also serve it in NZ apparently, but does that really count?) Where the USA has the Americano, Italy has espresso, and France has the French Press, Australia has the flat white. According to reputable sources, a flat white is 30ml of espresso, textured milk and 1cm or less microfoam and served in a ceramic cup. A latte has more than 1cm microfoam and is served in a glass cup. After waking at 5am cramped and uncomfortable in the back of the Cruiser, I decided it was better to head home that force another few hours sleep with my feet pressed into the door and my head into the back seats. But, to facilitate the long drive a coffee beverage of some sort was required, and when i stopped at a road-side roastery (so awesome!) I saw a flat white on the menu and couldn't resist!

Out on the patio we'd sit,

And the humidity we'd breathe,

We'd watch the lightning crack over cane fields,

Laugh and think, this is Australia

- Ganggajang

Day 190 - As this Adventure Comes to a Close

Travel | December 7, 2009

6 months - who knew it would all be coming to an end so soon? Well, I suppose that I knew, since I booked the tickets home and all, but still, it does seem to creep up in a weirdly unexpected way.

Today is our last day in Central America. After a mad dash to San Jose to pick up Luke's new passport, we have had some time to relax and reflect on what this trip has brought into our lives and and what it has taken out. I guess the top of the list of things that were taken out would be Luke's Macbook and money belt, but these are simply materialistic things (that we hope to be appropriately compensated for by our travel insurance company).

More philosophically, it has removed a great fear I had of traveling to strange and more 'dangerous' parts of the world. When we were first planning this trip, I figured we pretty much couldn't go anywhere in Central America other than Costa Rica, because the other places all sounded too scary. A quick look at some of the government websites listing the robberies, assaults, kidnappings and other unsavoury activities in these nether countries of the Americas and you may understand some of my hesitation. But, soon after arriving down here, we realised that while you certainly must remain alert and take certain measures to fade the bulls-eye that all foreigners have emblazoned in red across their foreheads as prime targets for pick pocketing and robbery, you can also do almost anything you like in safety and relative comfort.

It has made me realise the value of certain things which I most certainly took for granted in the past, such as a vibrant, safe, fun and beautiful city to live in (yes, I'm talking about you Vancouver). To be able to cycling down a well-known road, with the springtime sun on your back and a bottle of wine in your basket, knowing that in five minutes you will be relaxing on a patio with some of the best people you are likely to ever know is, well, irreplaceable. To arrive at work, knowing that while the job itself may not inspire moments of pure, unadulterated joy, you will more than likely laugh your head off multiple times throughout the day, because the people you have the privilege of working with are just plain awesome, is not only hard to come by, but precious beyond compare.

Chilling out with friends in Vancouver
Our final day in Vancouver, a sad goodbye

There is also the flip side of the coin on journeys like ours. We laughed with Mark and Kate as we shared a bottle of rum and watched the rain thundering down on the beach outside, as a bunch of rowdy local teenagers in their underwear screamed and kicked soccer balls on the wet sand, stopping only to pose like juvenile David Beckams when Kate lifted her camera to capture their ridiculous energy. We dove into cool cenotes in the Yucatan, and hassled new-found friends for their fear of the 3 meter plunge. We made a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump on a bus to Yosemite with Mia and the boys who we met just the night before because they seemed like a bit of a laugh. These friendships are epic. They are formed fast and hard, like quick-setting concrete, because circumstance dictates that unless you jump in with both feet the fleeting moment to engage and bond with what were previously strangers will be gone.

Kate, Mark, Luke and I in San Juan del Sur
Cenotes in Mexico
Climbing Upper Yosemite with Mia and Ivan
Catching up again with Mia in Antigua, Guatemala

This trip has given me the realistion that contrast is the building block of happiness. To travel constantly would degrade its beauty and freedom, because once it becomes normal life, the lustre soon disappears. To know some tedium makes traveling so much sweeter, and the journey so much more powerful. It brings insight and passion back into your daily life, and excites the mind for future adventures to other unknown places that you simply must conquer (but with a smaller backpack next time).

As I sit here in a hostel in San Jose, with sun streaming in the front windows and red taxis rushing past on the road outside, I know already that I will crave this trip before too long. The rice and beans, the completely unsafe (but incredibly exhilarating) adventure activities, the thought of rising in the morning and being able to do whatever it is you feel like that day, whether it be sitting around the hostel, or zipping through the jungle canopies of Costa Rica like a modern-day Tarzan. I will miss the irresponsibility that having no ties can bring, with only a backpack and a vague idea to guide you.

But, I am also looking forward to having a home base again, having my own things around me that are constant and familiar, having more than three sets of clothes to wear on any given day, and having family and friends around at any time, for any reason. I'm not quite sure what to say now that six months of traveling has come to an end, but I would like to think that the adventure is not over, and that as I move to another phase in my life, opportunities of different kinds will present themselves. I hope to have ridiculous stories for future blog entries, that while not as exotic will still challenge and inspire me and, maybe you too.

More soon...

Day 177 - A Career in Coffee

Central American Travel | November 27, 2009

At 10 he was picking coffee beans to help support his 9 brothers and mother - his Dad had run away when he was young.

The money he earned coffee picking after school was enough to pay for school books and the bus to and from home.

At 14 he was still picking, but soon made the transition to many other roles in the coffee growing, processing and roasting world.

At 30, after fulfilling every role on the farm, he testifies that picking is definitely the hardest.

Working his way up through the coffee world, Carlos now leads tours at Cafe Ruiz, one of the leading coffee producers in Boquete, Panama.

With a wealth of information and a sense of humour to boot, he makes 3 hours on the farm, in the processing plant and roasting room fly by.

He calls Nescafe "No es cafe" which means "it's not coffee". He says Starbucks are great at selling milk and sugar. He thinks 4 cups of coffee a day isn't a lot, and says that he's met people that drink 10 a day... before noon.

And, he gave me an opportunity to take some amazing photos of all the beautiful coffee plants throughout the farm.

The highly-prized Geisha coffee plant

Arabica coffee must be shade grown, and as you can see from the picture below, it's hard to tell this is even a coffee farm.

The mountainous Cafe Ruiz coffee plantation looks more like forest than agriculture

With close to thirty different fruit and vegetable plants (other than coffee) growing throughout the farm, the bugs choose the fruit over coffee, some biodiversity is maintained, and the workers can pick as much ripe fruit for their own consumption as they please.

A coffee variety that yields yellow fruits

They spray pesticides only once a year, and then only if the plant needs it.

Some coffee beans that have been planted and sprouted

They don't weed, knowing that the weeds hold more water in the soil for the coffee plants, and they pick all their beans by hand.

Yellow and red coffee fruits, with some of the beans squeezed out

Cafe Ruiz also sells 10% of it's coffee within Panama, at prices completely affordable to locals. This is something many top-notch producers in the region no longer do, as they fetch much heftier sums selling their coffee at auction to roasters in the United States, Italy and other countries.

Green coffee beans ready for their final stage of production - roasting.

Cafe Ruiz seems to have it going on in more ways than one, and took my passion for coffee to a new level.

More soon...

Day 176 - Ode to the Dickie Seat

Central American Travel | November 23, 2009

Any trip to Central America is not complete without at least one trip in the infamous dickie seat. What is a dickie seat I hear you ask? A dickie seat is the oft-loathed, but always-used, fold-out seat that fills the aisles of all and sundry minivans and shuttles throughout Central America and Mexico.

The dickie seat is likely to catch you by surprise if you are one of the later travelers to alight your minibus transportation. As you duck inside the sliding door, you will stare in bewilderment around the already-packed van, wondering where on earth you are expected to sit. Then, as the van driver or door-attendant/money collector dude points emphatically at an empty space of aisle, it will dawn on you that what you thought was a strange-looking arm rest is, in fact, a dickie seat, folded into it's upright position.

Me and Luke crammed into two dickie seats on our trip from Almirante to David

As the seat yields and creaks to your insistent pushing and finally slots into place, you resign yourself to the fact that the next six hours will be spent with the bar at the top of the backrest pressing into your spine as you jolt and careen along badly-maintained mountain roads at breakneck speeds.

One minor advantage to the dickie seat on these unfavourable mountain passes is that it comes with it's own built-in suspension. With only the hinged bracket holding your seat mid-air, you bounce along in time to the potholes, as others jolt towards the ceiling at each unexpected highway speed bump.

Oh dickie seat... how I love thee.

My dickie seat brings me just that little bit closer to the music blaring from the two-watt cellphone speakers of the woman next to me. The tinny salsa tunes compete with the DVD being shown on the seemingly out-of-place flat screen TV, which is bolted precariously to the ceiling with a towel as a buffer to the bumps and grinds of the bus's passage.

Only my dickie seat could put me in the path of projectile rubbish the Mayan gentleman next to me lobs past my nose and out the open bus door on one of the many passenger pick-ups along the way.

Oh dickie seat, only you could provide the pleasure of repeatedly standing, sitting, standing and sitting again to let passengers on and off the bus.

Dickie seat, you clever thing you, allowing 30 people on a minibus that is surely only built for 20. And, when passenger number 31 sidles up the minibus steps, only you would provide the added space to cram three people into the space designed for two. If you thought sitting in the dickie seat was fun, sitting with on butt cheek on the dickie seat, and one on the normal seat takes things to a whole different level.

More soon...

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About Bay Oliver

Bay's career has been many and varied due to a penchant for traveling the world. After completing a double degree in Business Management and Journalism at the University of Queensland in 2002 she was lucky enough to land herself a job at Brisbane's Quest Community Newspapers. A year of roving reporting brought the epiphany that journalism and Bay didn't jive.
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