Saturday, 20 February 2016

Throw another prawn on the barbie Part 1

The love-hate relationship between Australian and American BBQ truly began in the (Australian) summer of 1984 with the Paul Hogan 'Come and say G'day' commercial.
In an attempt to attract more American tourists to Australia, Mojo and N.W. Ayer teamed up to bring us a video full of white sandy beaches and pre-Cocodile Dundee Paul Hogan speaking with a strong yet very understandable Australian accent.

While the ad definitely did its part in making Australia a more attractive to foreign tourists it also became a major point of contention for Australians and foreign tourists. The particular problem being Hogan's iconic sentence 'I'll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you'. The sentence has become so ingrained in popular culture it is not only mentioned by every drunk tourist visiting the country but it is now also a meme.

What most foreigners don't realise is the correct phrase in Australia would actually be throw some prawns on the barbie. Replacing prawn with shrimp was merely a clever marketing decision in order to not confuse the American viewers, who have a different set of vocabulary to deal with their own specific types of crustaceans. Needless to say this common miscommunication leads to a great deal of ire from the Australians who feel that there is much more to their BBQ culture than throwing some 'shrimp' on the barbie. In fact BBQ is one of Australia's great prides and they have a number of their own specialities that rival those of America. Here are just a few tasty treats to try, and where to get them in Melbourne.

1. Damper

Damper is a bread made of wheat flour baked over the coals of a journeyman's campfire. It can also be made in a camp oven. It is often eaten with a sweet syrup or meat as the damper alone is quite bland.

The James Hotel down in the docklands serves damper as a starter. It is served kind of like a bread basket with dips, this damper is softer, than the stuff you would get out in a farm, hot and buttery, the recipe is meant to appeal to a wider audience than just those trekking in the outback.

Looks like a dome of carby heaven to me
To make your own check out the Chicken Shop at the Queen Vic market during the day or get a pack of kangaroo steaks from your nearest supermarket at throw it on your own barbie.
Now this my friends is a hot dog
Chin Chin takes an Oz-Asian fusion approach to BBQ and does an amazing BBQ Barramundi, definitely worth a visit, though maybe a good idea to book in advance, this place can get quite busy.
Don't they look happy and patriotic?

If you have time, and a car, head out to Warrook Farm. Not only will you get to experience a ton of Australian wildlife (koalas, wombats, kangaroos and emus for a start) but it is also a working farm and historical homestead where you can learn more about Australia's rich history and the tasks associated with early settler life. They have guided tours and a heap of activities for kids and adults. They also have lessons in making damper and billy tea so you can try your hand at some traditional bush cooking and taste the product of your efforts.

For those who want to make a meal of it the Merrywell has a smashing Oz Burger that is wrapped in a damper bun. Considered one of the best burger joints in Melbourne, the Merrywell is definitely worth a visit. And after your burger you can take a walk along the Yarra River or catch a movie in the Village Cinema.

2. Australian game 

I am talking kangaroo, crocodile and emu meat.
While kangaroo is super lean, emu is more traditionally gamey, and crocodile is outright chewey. All Something for everyone in the land of Australian BBQ.

Napier Hotel in Fitzroy is well known for its delicious variety of kangaroo meat dishes, most with a healthy portion of golden chips, best served with a nice Mountain Goat Ale, or anything else from their extensive beer menu. The restaurant has become somewhat of a gastropub, cosy, good food but also relaxed and not too stuffy. Somewhere you could take anyone from your boss, to your parents, a group of friends or even a date. This is actually where I had my first date with my current partner so I may be slightly biased. I have never tried it myself but they also have something called a Bogan Burger (bogan being the Australian equivalent of a redneck or chav or ned). A terrifying mass of steak, schnitzel, potato, egg, bacon, pineapple, beetroot, cheese and tomato between a bun, this burger sounds like a monster of myth. Perhaps those less adventurous, like myself should stick to the kangaroo steak, or perhaps try the parma (cheesy tomatoey crumbed chicken). There are also some nice veggie options.

For a more casual alternative check out the Queen Vic night markets. The stand Australian Eating serves traditional beef burgers but also ostrich, croc and roo, as well as a tasting plate for all three. Be warned you may have to stand in line a LONG time if you get there during the rush. Then again all the stalls at the Queen Vic night market have a long wait, so just bring some friends and get a cup of sangria at the nearby stand to sip as you shuffle.

Finally if anyone is heading out to the Grampians for a hike consider spending a bit of time in Hall's Gap, the starting point for many local trails. There is an eatery on the main drag (well the only drag really) called Basecamp Eatery, this is definitely one to check out. They have very well priced, very large kangaroo steak pizzas that are delicious and fresh. Great fuel after a long day of hiking around the nearby trails.

Other places that come recommended but that I have not personally tried are the Royal Mail on Spencer Street, Charcoal Lane and the Crafty Squire (they have a Bush Tukka Feast that is supposed to be amazing).

3. Sausage sizzle

I personally do not see the appeal of this, but it is endlessly popular among student societies, fundraisers, department stores and sporting clubs. Literally a hot dog in a piece of bread with some ketchup, maybe some onion if you are lucky. Millions of these things get consumed at university orientation weeks every year.

I recommend instead heading out to one of the gourmet hot dog bars around Melbourne like the Snag Stand by Melbourne Central or Massive Wieners on Chapel Street. You may not be able to get two for a dollar, but you will be far happier and have a better sense of what Australia has to offer.

4. Delicious local produce

Australia has incredible locally sourced produce, they are especially proud of their wagyu and grass fed beefs. Some names to look out for are Blackmore, Cape Grim, Minderoo, and most anything from Gippsland (O'Connor etc.).

Melbourne also has some really nice seafood Barramundi and mahi mahi are great for BBQs, as are salmon. Seriously Australians LOVE BBQing salmon, or at least those that I have met do. Lesser known BBQ favourites are sea mullet and luderick. For a wider range of seafood look for prawns, calimari, octopus, rock lobster and crayfish, all happy to have a spot on the barbie.

More grill than BBQ Rockpool's run by renowned chef Neil Perry has an incredible array of locally sourced meat and fish on offer. Slightly less expensive is a restaurant mentioned earlier the Charcoal Grill on Hill, who allow you to choose your meat from a display cabinet.

If you really want to get a good BBQ going why not organise your own. Head to Queen Vic, Prahran, South Melbourne or any of the other local markets floating around and get yourself some nice meat, fish and veggies. You can even get fresh pre-marinaded meats for extra flavour. The rules in Australia for BBQing are quite strict, especially during the dry months of summer when fire risk is high, but there are a number of parks, reserves and beaches with BBQ facilities available. There is a handy list available here. Don't forget to also bring a big cooler full of drinks and a picnic blanket or some lawn chairs. You can always find a great array around Australia Day, the 26th of January, mostly sporting images of kangaroos or the Australian flag.

Now while I did note the strong love of local produce and Australian BBQ culture, Melbourne is a very multicultural city and in my next post I will discuss some of the favourite American, Korean and even Philippino BBQ joints here in the South Australian Capital.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Cocktail Party Archaeologist

A slight divergence from my planned blog series, this is a response to Doug’s Blogging Carnival about the Grand Challenges for Archaeology.

As a current PhD student in archaeology, I see many grand challenges within our field. For me personally the main one at the moment is finding a job. I have had many a depressing conversation with colleagues about the vast swathes of funding schemes and academic institutions we have been applying to. The conversation often ends with the proposal of an eccentric and somewhat desperate plan B: designing academia related monopoly games, writing Persian poetry themed children’s books, starting up a gourmet popcorn stand, or my personal favourite, joining a hippie commune and sailing around the Greek Islands. All fantastic ideas, but not exactly what we have spent many years and often a lot of money training to do.

Now I am not suggesting there are no jobs, nor am I claiming that archaeologists have it so much worse than everyone else, but as archaeology is my field, it is a problem I am over-exposed to. It doesn’t help that people outside our field don’t quite know how to place us. In a sense we are a very practical discipline, trained in specific methods meant for a very particular professional context. However, at the same time our field is seen as quite interpretive, artsy, adventurous, outside the professions associated with everyday needs. This puts us in somewhat of a predicament, endlessly floating between a vocation and recreation in public perception.

The case in which this becomes most evident is the cocktail party conversation. By this I mean the inevitable exchange that occurs when you meet new people in a semi-formal setting. They ask you what you study/research/do, you naturally answer ‘I am an archaeologist’ and their most likely response will be something along the lines of ‘oh I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid’ or ‘oh I loved Jurassic World’ or ‘oh so you are basically Indiana Jones, defeat any Nazis lately’. This conversation does not have to be at a cocktail party of course, for me it occurs pretty much everywhere I go.

While I understand that my non-archaeologists conversants are trying to be nice and find a talking point, on a bad day I feel a bit slighted by this comment, like it demeans my chosen career path as something that should be done as a hobby rather than a profession. Archaeologist suddenly gets thrown in the mix bag of childish dreams along with becoming a princess, cowboy or space pirate. Ok so I guess astronaut is in there too, and that job is pretty hard core, but the subtext remains ‘I wanted to be an archaeologist, but then I grew up’. Very few people when they meet a lawyer will say that they always wanted to practice law while growing up. This subtext often has more to do with a general misunderstanding of what the discipline entails. I mean let’s face it if any academic actually ran around Indiana Jones style they would have been sacked for unethical acquisition of finds, forgetting to put in a risk-assessment, failure to publish and avoidance of administrative duties.

This entire episode brings up a number of challenges for the discipline:
  • -          How can we keep young people interested in archaeology beyond their childhood daydreams?
  • -          How can we show that a training in archaeology makes you employable?
  • -          How can we help the public to understand what archaeology really entails?

Two key pathways to solving these issues are education and engagement. We can keep people interested and teach them what archaeology truly is about by integrating it in general curriculums and organizing outreach projects with communities. We need to highlight how the discipline of archaeology remains relevant today and how it contributes to communities. There is also a need to show that the skills taught in archaeological training are in fact highly transferable. The more the public understands archaeology and what it entails, the more people will see archaeology as a viable career option, the more employers will also take it seriously.

Achieving these changes involve a transformation in the discipline’s own internal thinking process. We can no longer afford to do archaeology for its own sake. It isn’t like last century, these days there are far less wealthy amateurs willing to invest all their money in uncovering a mummy. The process is much longer, the methods more rigid and the cost higher. Archaeology requires collaboration, it requires justification and communication to a wider audience, not just journal publications and textbooks. 

Archaeology is a subject that seems to naturally interest people, this is something that can be tapped into, not in a populist way, but in one that is genuine and unpretentious. It should be an attempt to mutually share knowledge with others, not to manipulate them. While many scholars are moving towards a more open, public oriented approach, it is a process of ups and down, successes and failures. However, I think it is one that is worth striving for, even if only to get a different response to my career choice at a cocktail party.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Around the world in a single city

As I said in my last post about Melbourne, it is an incredibly multicultural city. Its diversity and vibrancy is thanks to a long history of immigration (despite what those angry racists from reclaim Australia might tell you). I mean if you think about it, the nation of Australia was brought about by a bunch of British immigrants trying to stake out lands against the French and Dutch. If you want to be all ‘those who actually come from Australia should be allowed to determine the laws and future of the country’ then the only people who should have a say are the indigenous Australians, and let’s face it, indigenous voices have been pretty much silenced in Australian politics since the arrival of foreign settlers with their so called civilising mission (can you tell I am bitter about Australian politics at the moment?). But I am getting really off topic now.

What I am trying to say is that Melbourne is a place where many different nationalities, religions, cultures, languages and worldviews come together. This is manifested in the local museums, film festivals, sporting groups, and food.

In this series I am going to try to bring all these things together, giving you some ideas for themed outings to do with friends, family, with complete strangers or just on your own. 

Museums, festivals and cultural centres provide occasions for engaging with others, other people, other cultures and other experiences than what you would normally encounter on a day to day basis. These encounters help broaden horizons and create a better understanding of the world around us. The more we know about the world and are confronted with things that are 'different' in a positive environment, the more tolerant we become.

Food has a similar effect. The spices, aromas, colours, textures, there is just so much to take in! And every region’s food is different, I mean yes there are similarities but also very specific things that are distinct to a specific group of people. Even families have their own special recipes passed down from generation to generation. In these cases foods are a part of certain stories or histories.

I also think food is a great social tool, it brings people together. All the best holidays revolve around food (and presents of course), most first dates are over dinner or lunch or some other meal from the hobbit list (second breakfast is my personal favourite), food is brought along to cheer people up like ice cream after a break up, it just forms the centre to so much of our daily social lives. It would actually be great to run multi-cultural cooking classes for communities that have issues with racism and inter-cultural violence. But again I digress.

Anyway after living in Melbourne for two years, I have seen quite a lot of the city and experienced many of its multicultural events. This is my way of sharing these experiences and the knowledge I gained through them with the world.

The themes will range from Melbourne as a port town, to beer production in the city, to heritage listings. If anyone has any suggestions for themes they are interested in, put it in a comment!

- Annelies

Saturday, 9 January 2016

In the Footsteps of the Incas Part 2: Like the Incas of Old

The trip to Peru was not so fun. A 4 am wake up, a delayed flight and the discovery that one of our group had actually booked on a different carrier made for a stressful morning.

Almost every flight to Cuzco, the capital of the ancient Incan empire, must go through Lima first. As the principal city of modern Peru Lima is a sprawling metropolis. Unlike Cuzco it has long lost its Spanish colonial feel, rather these facades have made way for clubs, restaurants and condos. While the Lonely Planet Guide for Peru states that the capital is not to be missed, I can confidently say I have no regrets that our sojourn in the city was brief. While the food was good and the atmosphere was very busy and excited, I was keen to get out of the dry urban climate and go on to the Incan navel of the world, Cuzco, which also happens to be the starting point for all travel to Machu Picchu.

This World Heritage Site stands at the threshold of the sacred valley, the foothills of the Andean mountains resplendent with Incan ruins, picturesque villages and boasting beautiful natural formations. Not everything is idyllic though. For people visiting the city one of the biggest issues is the altitude. Cuzco sits at about 3400 m above sea level, more than 3350 m higher than London, New York City and Melbourne. Needless to say it takes a bit of time for your body to acclimatise. My recommendation: rest and coca tea. Coca tea is controversial internationally. Made with the coca leaf, the tea on its own is harmless, however the alkaloids found in these leaves are used to make less wholesome products. Despite these annoyances, the tea is legal in Peru and can provide relief from the symptoms of altitude sickness as well as functioning similarly to coffee in its ability to wake you up in the morning. Our guides en route to Machu Picchu also swore by this remedy and would wake us up with coca tea when our treks began in the early hours of the morning. There are also coca candies that you can buy in any convenience store.

If coca is not your thing there are a number of places where you can get nice detoxing smoothies (Green Point being the most popular). There is also a random Australian coffee shop called Jack’s CafĂ© where you can get a flat white. Just make sure to get there early, a line tends to develop around brunch time. Whatever you do, don’t just leave for the trek day one. We were arriving from Bogota, which is 2,640 m above sea level and we still suffered from headaches, soreness and dry throats. All very mild compared to the stories we heard about others.

Plaza des Armas, Cuzco

A lot of this advice we got from our Inca trail guide, Mario, who came to visit us the evening we arrived. He also gave us a low down on all the stuff we needed for the trek. Turns out we were all severely underprepared. Headlamps are a must for early morning climbs and late night bathroom trips, also good climbing shoes (which we had), windbreakers (also covered), warm sleeping bags (kinda screwed up there), sunglasses, toilet paper, snacks, bug repellent (trust me you’ll need it), sunscreen, uv-protective lip balm (nothing worse than burnt lips, I speak from experience), clothes for all seasons, gloves, hats, water (yes you have to drag it up the mountain but it only gets more expensive the higher you get) and walking sticks (if you felt so inclined).
As we were smart enough to plan a day off before our trip we had time to scour the markets for the gear we had forgotten at home. This also gave us a chance to walk around the city a bit and take in the beautiful Spanish architecture (especially in the Plaza des Armas) and a few small Inca sites. I don’t think I was quite prepared for how many tourists there would be, and how many tourist traps to ensnare them in, watch out for quechua women dressed in traditional costume carrying around lambs and people handing out flyers for massages. This didn’t bother me too much as the beauty of the city more than made up for it.

After a day of exploring Cuzco we were ready to begin our great Incan adventure. Waking up before dawn, we set out towards the main square to wait for our guide. There we met the 3 other people who would be trekking with us. All 20 somethings who seemed adventurous and quite athletic, a quite important detail as we all intended to carry our full packs up the mountain (you can also pay a porter to carry your backpack and just hike with a small day pack if you don’t feel up to it). We piled onto a bus and head out. On the way to the trail starting point we passed a number of small villages with tourist amenities, for those who desired to live outside of the city with easy access to the natural draws of the Andes.

The first true adventure in our trip pounced on us about 2 hours from the trail starting point when the bus broke down. It didn’t come as that much of a surprise. The driver had been starting only on downhills since we left Cuzco, but it was still quite an unfortunate development. We ended up having to wait until a local minibus passed. We all piled in with our bags perched precariously on the roof. The bus was tiny and already full of commuters so our porters, food and bedding had to wait for a truck to hitch a ride. We all managed to get to the starting point relatively unscathed. There we picked up our bedding and strapped it to our packs.

If you think our bags look heavy the porters were carrying three times our load and they walked at double our speed, it is kinda terrifying.

In the early hours of the afternoon we reached the check point where we got our passes to begin the Inca Trail. At this checkpoint you get documents that allow you access to the trail. There is an upper limit to how many people can be on the trail at any given time due to the fear of erosion (500 per day of which about 200 trekkers) so book early! There are also other trails if the Inca Trail is booked out or you want a lest touristic path. All have their own charms, but the Inca Trail is the best known and the main road for accessing Machu Picchu. It also features the most archaeological sites which sealed the deal for me.

I recommend going in the dry season no matter what trail you choose. It is hard enough to get up as is, no need to make it more difficult by adding rain into the mix. The trail includes a number of different types of environments, from mountainous scapes, to cloud forests to open plains. This is where the clothes for all seasons comes in. When up high and exposed the temperature can be very cold especially at night, but when the sun is shining in the middle of the day a tank top and shorts might do (especially since you are sweating from the physical exertion of the trek). The sun is always a hidden problem so even when it is cold wear sunscreen if you don’t want to be burnt to a crisp by the time you get to Machu Picchu.

The trail is littered with archaeological sites and epic vantage points. These photo opportunities provide good rest points, so do stop and take a look around every once in a while. Your guide may have his own personal favourites and will happily point them out if you show interest.


Day one of the trek was quite mild for us, we got to every camp site well ahead of our ETA, which earned us the nickname Speedy Gonzales. However, remember the trek is not a race, take each segment at your own pace and take plenty of water breaks. There is no shame in using walking sticks or deciding midway you need a porter to carry your pack. The worst thing would be to push yourself too much day one and then be burnt out for day two. Because in the 4 day trek, day 2 is by far the worst. This is the day to prepare for pain. All but the last hour is uphill and steep, going up the Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 m). On the bright side there are llamas at the first break point, so something to look forward to. Also the view from the top is incredible. The entire thing is incredible really, but it requires a bit of willpower and a good group.

Because we were too fast we ended up doing a 3 day trek instead of 4 meaning our last day was pretty intense. There is a lot to see during the last leg of the trek, round messenger houses, religious sites, inca tunnels and stepped farm land. These cultural highlights gave us something to work towards, achievable milestones to keep us motivated for the long trek to Machu Picchu.




In the end it was all worth it because we got to walk through Machu Picchu as the sun was going down. If you take the trail you arrive at Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, up at the top of the site. Reaching Machu Picchu is the most incredible feeling in the world. You can see the flag for the site and the town of Aguas Calientes below from a ways away which gives you a good dose of motivation but nothing prepares you for the site once you hit the top. The feeling of achievement was made better by the fact that we were some of the only people arriving from the trail with full packs, covered in sweat and dirt. Of the 2500 visitors to Machu Picchu that day you are part of the 1% that didn’t take the front entrance. The views are also stunning and it helps to know that from there on out it is all downhill.

After sleeping in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes we woke up early the next morning to reach the site by sunrise. What we did not consider is that about 50% of tourists had the same plan so we ended up in the bus line for quite a long time. We ended up only just making it to the summit in time to snap some photos before it was all over. Next began the tour. I must admit after the amazing experience of the trek Machu Picchu itself was rather underwhelming. Crowded with tourists, most of which care more about their holiday snaps than the actual site, getting through the city is a chore. Our guide was also clearly more suited to the challenges of the trail and seemed to want to spend as little time on the hill as possible.

After our short stroll around the others in our group went down to the hot springs, something I wasn’t too upset about missing out on as I had read a number of bad reviews. While they were off relaxing we took on the challenge of one final hike, Huayna Picchu, the mountain that stands alongside the site. Though the trek up is steep and difficult with very few supports, the lack of tourists and the view prom the top were worth all the sweat and we rewarded ourselves with snacks at the top.

We decided to head back into town to say goodbye to some of our colleagues who were leaving early, this turned out to be a terrible idea as there is very little to do in Aguas Calientes and our train did not leave until late evening. We ended up walking around aimlessly and then sitting at the train station for about an hour, not the best ending to our trip. Especially since there was another site up on Machu Picchu (the moon temple) that we could have done.

The train ride allowed us to relax and spend some time off our feet, while the atmospheric music meant we could not really sleep the seats were very comfortable and they did give us snacks, so a pretty good deal.

Back in Cuzco we pretty much passed out straight away. I was probably the most desperate for sleep as I had promised a friend to meet at her hostel before she left at 8 the next morning. It ended up being entirely worthwhile and her trekmate ended up joining us on our adventures that day. We did a lot of shopping for llama/alpaca wear, tried to get up to the white Christ (which turned out to require either paying 70 dollars or going through a pretty dangerous neighbourhood so we passed), and went to a few museums (don’t go to the inca museum it is not worth it). What is worth it is an Alpaca burger and a Pisco Sour, regular fare at most local restaurants. You can try guinea pig but to be honest the presentation is better than the taste.

After taking in all the experiences that Cuzco had to offer we finally head back home for some well deserved post-vacation vacation back in the magical land of Oz (aka. Australia). 

So if you are planning a trip to Machu Picchu consider doing it like the Incas of old and walking in their footsteps down the royal Incan highway, you won’t regret is.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Jurassic Park for Archaeologists

One of the things that is often stated at info sessions about graduate degrees in the arts are that they are very isolating and lonely experiences. Considering the lack of traditional classroom learning and time for extracurricular, it is quite easy to get stuck in one’s own specialization and forget to socialize. At Melbourne we try to mediate this isolation through organizing graduate groups and having communal office spaces. A positive thing about this is that you meet a lot of new people and get to learn new things about those you already know.

Early this year we learned that one of our new colleagues had never seen Jurassic Park. Now while I am sure this is not so uncommon in the new generation, it still came as a shock to many of us who had grown up with fond memories of Sam Neill’s reluctant heroism and Jeff Goldblum’s introduction of the rocker-mathematician look. We felt that as a graduate community we had an obligation to initiate Marc into the glorious world of dinosaur films and began to plan a movie night.

Now this was a slightly controversial decision as archaeologists have spent decades arguing the difference between themselves and paleontologists at school visits and cocktail parties.  The popular Youtube phenomenon Archaeosoup even wrote a song called ‘We don’t do dinosaurs’ to express the distress that every archaeologist feels when confronted with the comment ‘You’re an archaeologist e? Man I always wanted to dig up dinosaurs as a kid.’

However, in the spirit of camaraderie we decided to leave our ‘archaeologists are not paleontologist’ pickets at home for the evening and dive into a bout of 90s nostalgia. The film did not fail to deliver and we all enjoyed an evening of T-rex chases, veggiesauruses, a chain smoking Samuel L. Jackson and Jeff Goldblum reclining like some kind of Greek Apollo statue.

By some stroke of luck the new Jurassic World film came out only a few weeks after our movie night, so the dinosaur-filled joy could continue beyond our original movie night. Loudly humming the Jurassic Park theme song we walked from our attic office in the university to the theatre in the centre of the city. Despite what anyone else might tell you, the movie was amazing and delivered on all the things we have grown to love about the Jurassic Park franchise. There was witty humour, giant lizard-like dinosaurs, arrogant scientists, a sense Michael Crichton's moral technologism and the addition of this hero:

I would love to say the entire experience was educational. That it taught us something about misrepresentation of academic disciplines in public media, the hollywoodification of our research, the difficult balance between maintaining academic integrity and assuring commercial success. In truth I have to say that none of these things were really brought up during the movie. Ultimately the aim of the movie nights is to bring all us grad students together and to give us a break from the daily toil of research and teaching. Really it is about easing the stress and solitude of the postgraduate experience.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

In the Footsteps of the Incas Part 1: Space Centres and Sunburns

The idea of going to Peru first really started taking hold in my imagination when I was about 16. I was in Italy on vacation at the time with my family and that of our ex-neighbours from our time living in New York. We were discussing where we wanted to go on our next joint vacation.

I would love to take credit for the idea of going to Peru, but I am pretty sure that it was actually my friend Sarah who posited it.

My dad was talking about going to some remote island chain to spend a week on the beach, an idea that appealed to a number of other members of our party, most certainly not including myself. I was the one ranting about the uselessness of such vacations, wanting to do something more cultural. I tended to get bored quite easily as a teenager (actually I still get bored easily) so I argued that I could spend about a day maybe two on the beach before I would go crazy and attempt to drown myself in the sea. I was also a very dramatic teenager.

Sarah took a more constructive approach and attempted to suggest alternative places that offered a lot of culture and also relaxation. One of her many suggestions happened to be Peru. My father picked up on this and asked of all the places why Peru, Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, he could understand those, but thought Peru was an odd one to throw into the mix. By this point I had joined team sensible teenager and began to state a number of cool things in Peru, the nasca lines, Macchu Picchu, Spanish colonial churches and of course lots of llamas.

About 7 years later I finally had the chance to put our plan in motion when my partner and I decided to go visit our friend in Colombia. While I am 100% sure we could have spent the whole 3 weeks I was in South America trekking around Colombia (and my friend did suggest it at one point). I was dead set on going to Peru.

In the end I managed to plan my trip so I would be in the US for the 4th of July, in Colombia for a week and a half and then to Peru for about a week and back in Melbourne in time to celebrate my birthday.

I tried to coordinate this trip with 4 other people including my partner, his brother who was in Europe, our mutual friend in Colombia and my friend Sarah who was in the states at the time. As is often the case with international planning, something went wrong and Sarah ended up booking a different trip from us. The dangers of online miscommunication. Seriously guys if you are trying to plan something take the time to call people, I didn’t and it caused me a lot of stress.

Anyway we booked our painfully long flights (everything is far away when travelling from Australia), gave notice of our leave to our supervisors and departments and when July came around we finally headed out on our trip.

Our first stop, Texas was ridiculously hot and humid, but the festive 4th of July atmosphere, and a trip to the Johnson Space Centre made the weather more tolerable. I personally find space travel and study fascinating so I just love the Space Centre. I mean you get to see rockets and mission control and the astronaut training centre, what’s not to like. Plus they have a ton of information on the history of NASA’s space programs. So basically Disney land for any history/sci fi geek. Also if any of you happen to go to the museum make sure to try to find the copy of Asimov’s Foundation and the little dinosaur toy. I mean if I were an astronaut those are probably the things I would bring to space, that and possibly a vacuum packed box of Oreos.

After a very short stop in Houston we headed off on part two of our journey. This time heading to Colombia. After a brief encounter with a US passport control officer who literally told us not to bring anything funky back from Colombia. The fact that he felt the need to tell us this is quite a sad reflection on how tourists have aided in driving the drug trade in South America, a trade that is tearing many of these countries apart. Something to think about… After reassuring the officer that we were going to visit our friend who is a doctor and finds such things disgusting, we boarded our flight.

My visit to Colombia was the first time I encountered an airport where literally none of the staff I encountered spoke English (since then I encountered it again in Iran). People still tried to help us and with a lot of gesturing and guesswork we managed to find where we were going. Our friend’s father kindly came to pick us up so we didn’t have to navigate the problems of finding a cab, which I was personally very happy about. In fact both his parents were ridiculously hospitable. Maybe it is a cultural thing but his mom would cook us meals every day even though we all were perfectly happy to go out and buy our own food. From tamales, to bean soup, to chicharones, she let us try all the local favourites, and she was an amazing cook.

We were treated to a full tour of Bogota including the lovely hilltop church at Monsettate with an incredible view of the city, the gold museum where everything is distractingly shiny, and the hip downtown area for some live music. He also introduced us to the local 'drink of choice' Chicha, which I personally found non potable. Just a word of caution, always try a sip before asking for a full glass of the stuff no matter how amazing those around you might say it is. I would compare its effects to marmite, you either love it or you hate it.

We took a few days out of the big city to visit the old colonial town of Cartagena. It was beautiful and warm and relaxing. There was a massive modern area with a historical centre nearby and beaches ran the entire length of the town. As we were told the beaches by the town itself were quite touristy and overcrowded, two of Julian’s friends who were locals organised for us to go out to Playa Blanca, a short boatride away. We ended up having our own tent out on the edge of the beach away from the tourists. From where we stood all we could see was a clear blue stretch of water.

It was beautiful and sunny and relaxing until a storm came and we literally had to be rescued by boat, mostly because we (the European tourists) had decided to go for a walk and hadn’t paid attention to the distant dark clouds. Still we had a good number of hours in the sun, enough for me to get ridiculously sunburnt, which became exceedingly uncomfortable in the next part of the trip as we were heading off to the cooler climes of Peru…

Saturday, 7 November 2015

My Tuk Tuk Journey Part 2: Siem Reap

By the time I got home from the killing fields it was well into the evening. I ate my last dinner in the Cambodian capital and collected my luggage from the hostel. The next part of my journey would take me to Siem Reap, what I’d call the archaeological capital of the country.

Before leaving for Cambodia I had booked an 8 hour night bus, so as to lose the least amount of time humanly possible travelling. After all I needed to save the few days I had left to indulge my inner geek and obsess about all the ruins.

Now for anyone who has never taken the nightbus in Cambodia it is not a particularly pleasant experience. The traffic is only mildly better at night, so your first hour is spend trying to drown out the honking and screeching of tires. The bus is set up with reclining bunk beds so technically you can sleep, but I am quite tall and the bus company takes no responsibility for your personal affects so I ended up with a bag of your valuables taking up most of my foot room, so not much sleep for me.

I guess I have had worse bus experiences, there was one trip where I decided to take a megabus from London to St Andrews in Scotland which was far more painful. It also drove through the night but there were no reclining seats, or really anything made for sleeping on. Plus it was completely full and we were quite late so we ended up sitting by the toilet so that kept us up most of the night.

On the other hand I have also had some really lovely bus journeys. The bus connection between Eastern Europe and Turkey for example is quite nice, they serve you snacks and tea and it is very clean and comfortable. Then again maybe I just got lucky in the company I picked and the other busses are terrible, who knows.

So after about 3 hours of sleep I arrived in Siem Reap at about 6 in the morning. I immediately walked out to my hotel, the sister establishment of Velkommen in Phnom Penh, got shown my room, a smaller dorm then my previous one with only 6 beds instead of 16 and I fell asleep for another two hours.

At 8:30 am my pre-booked tuk tuk driver was set to pick me up from the hotel and start my tour of the temples. Slightly groggy, but enthused, I grabbed a few granola bars, packed a camera and set out to see the sites.

Now travelling around the temples solo is not a cheap endeavour. It is not particularly expensive, but it is definitely something you are meant to do with others to split the cost. I was aware of this so I booked a tuk tuk on the cheaper end of the scale. While my partner was not too keen on this, he wanted me to book with the company he and his friends had travelled with, I did not see the need to book an air-conditioned jeep with a guaranteed fluent English speaking tour guide who would accompany you to every temple. Of course I knew he was just looking out for my safety but at double to triple the cost it just didn’t seem worth it.

It is a good thing I didn’t listen to my partner because my tuk tuk driver was incredible. I honestly don’t think my experience would have been even half as lovely with any other guide. His English was completely fine, he was patient and flexible. While he couldn’t enter any of the sites with me, he gave me a guide book to take along and gave a short history for every temple. As I narrate my experiences at Siem Reap you will find out just how amazing he was.

Originally I had planned for two days of temples and one day of visiting floating villages and the mangroves on the lake by boat. After a long session trowelling the internet for reviews just before leaving, I discovered the area I was set to visit on the lake was more of a painful tourist attraction than anything else. I had canoed past floating villages when I lived in Singapore, and that had been an extremely positive experience, I didn’t really want to tarnish it with a memory of being exploited to sit in a dingy and be ferried between shops where I was forced to buy random things I did not need for fear of not being brought back to shore.

Anyway I told my tuk tuk driver this on day one and he was nice enough to completely change my schedule, more temples and time in town with a short drive by the lake to see everything from afar. Sounded good to me.

My first visit of the trip was of course to Angkor Wat, the most visited tourist destination in all of Cambodia. Now while being a much beloved attraction what many tourists don’t realise before their entry into the temple complex is that it is still an active religious site. The statues of Buddha intermixed among carvings of the Hindi pantheon still receive daily offerings and rituals of worship are conducted by monks all year round. Like many traditional churches and mosques this means that there is a strict dress code at the site. People are expected to cover legs and arms. While they are moderately lenient, allowing a scarf to cover the shoulders on hot days, they will bar your entry if they see you are completely flaunting their dress code. If you happen to forget your temple-appropriate garb there are dozens of merchants selling scarves, flowing skirts, shirts and harem style pants that you can buy. Just remember the closer to the temple complex you get the more expensive everything becomes so better to buy stuff at the market the day before. This also applies to things like drinks and snacks.

It may surprise you to note that I spent less time at Angkor Watt then some of the smaller sites. While this may not be reflected in my photo album (I took ridiculous amounts of photos of the bass reliefs), I found Angkor Watt a bit too crowded and stuffy. Don’t get me wrong it was incredible, an amazing feat of architecture with beautifully carved decoration, but I just wanted a break from all the tour groups. My guide was a bit surprised that I came out of the complex after only 2-3 hours as you can easily get lost there for an entire morning. However, he told me we would be returning to catch the sunrise before I left so I could spend a bit more time in the temple then.

As we got away from Angkor Wat the crowds began to thin and I was able to enjoy my visit much more. I know, hypocritical, a tourist complaining about other tourists, but I can’t help how I feel.

It was fascinating to note the different colours, materials, layouts and decorative styles of each temple. I was able to connect these to wider historical trends as my guide gave a short explanation for each one, its builder, religious affiliation, time period and often a myth related to the site. armed with his teaching and his guide book I was able to better appreciate each temple and its role within the region’s development.

From an archaeological point of view it was also interesting to note the level of preservation of the different temples. While temples like Angkor Watt or the Bayan were fully restored including the installation of mobility ramps and ticket stalls a number of temples had merely been cleared for tourist access, with trees growing into the structures and tumble from ruined buildings littering the site. One such complex was that of Ta Prohm, actually used as a filming set in Lara Croft. Even more critical were sites like Kbal Spean, still half submerged in water or Beng Melea, that had been completely abandoned to the elements. Here the best thing to do was ask a worker to give a short tour. Most of the maintenance men and women were willing to help a tourist out and help them navigate the rubble. Their English may not be perfect but they can get the point across and they know the ruins better than anyone. I really discourage anyone from attempting to walk around in the complex on their own. The chances of tripping and falling off a roof onto a pile of rocks is very real. If money is an issue, like me you can ask a local worker on site rather than a guide to show you around and you can pretty much pay them however much you have on you. Just please be fair, they did just help you avoid a serious concussion.

While food around the temples is more pricey than in town it is still very reasonable in comparison to cities in Europe or America. Most restaurants do a simple rice and meat dish that is quite cheap. If you are strapped for cash (a poor student or backpacker) you can always ask your driver to bring you somewhere that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. If he is nice, like mine, he’ll make sure you can get a good meal for a good price.

For an afternoon pick me up try buying some palm sugar sweets. I found that I got quite tired of all the walking and climbing in the afternoons, especially since I decided to do a short intense trip rather than giving myself a week or two to really relax and see the sites at a reasonable pace. The palm sugar candies are cylindrical in shape, and often packed in palm leaves. Have one in the afternoon and the sugar rush should last you an hour or two. Just don’t get them wet, in fact make sure you don’t have any unpacked food in your room, I made that mistake and there are these evil little red ants that crawl into everything and then come out and bite you when you least expect it.

Anyway, for people whose travel plans permit it, I really recommend watching the sun rise over Angkor Watt. It is absolutely beautiful, seriously, I couldn’t get a proper photo of it because my camera was horrible but I am sure if you have one of those fancy professional-looking ones or just a really good smartphone, you can find a setting where the colours come out.

I actually encountered a slight hiccup the morning of the sunrise. I had plugged in my phone, which was nearly out of battery, with my alarm set and went to bed early the night before. However, my roommates were inconsiderate jerks (seriously one girl took 30 minutes blowdrying her hair at like midnight every day I was there while I was trying to sleep) and one of them unplugged my phone immediately as I fell asleep since they wanted to charge their phone and computer at the same time and we only had one plug each. Needless to say my phone ran out of battery, my alarm did not go off and the hotel manager had to come wake me up as my tuk tuk driver had been waiting for me for half an hour. Quite angry and utterly embarrassed I threw on clothes, grabbed my bag and ran out of the room. The worst part was my tuk tuk driver had been nice enough to buy me a pho boy for breakfast because it was so early. He kept apologising that it had gotten cold and I felt even more horrible. It was delicious by the way, gotta try the local sandwiches. I managed to get to Angkor Watt just in time to see the sun rise and I met two Singaporean girls about my age so we could all take photos of one another.

But Siem Reap is not just known for its great Khmer temples, it also has a lively town, and this is where I spent most evenings. The town was a ways away from my hostel which was located closer to the tourist attractions like Angkor Watt and the Khmer museum. By the way, for those wondering, the museum is nice, but nothing in comparison to the rest of the trip, so if you are short on time I would skip it. Plus there is a national museum in Phnom Penh which covers a larger range of Cambodia’s history. My tuk tuk driver again proved himself to be a lovely person and was nice enough to drive me there in the afternoons even though it was not part of the set itinerary. He would drop me off before his Chinese class, which he was taking in order to be a better guide.

The town has a number of more modern temples which are fun to check out, but the main attractions are the markets. You can buy everything from fresh fruit to silk scarves to Angkor Watt snowglobes. The strong tourist presence means many Cambodians working in the market can speak French or English which means you can haggle.

For those who would prefer to spend some time off their feet there are dozens of fish tanks where you sit on the edge and put your feet in while fish “massage your feet”. Often this only costs a couple of dollars for half an hour and it includes a canned soft drink. More extensive spa type packages can be found as well for anything from facial masks to manicures to full body massages. Just remember to respect those working there, the staff is made up of many young Cambodian women who have to suffer obnoxious male foreigners who treat them like unregistered prostitutes rather than trained masseuses. I actually had to go up to one man attempting to force an unwilling masseuse back to his hotel and tell him to back off or I’d call the police. He said I didn’t understand and this is just what girls in Cambodia were supposed to do. I subsequently told him that he was a disgusting human being and pointed him out to the nearest police officer. I doubt he got much more than a telling off, but maybe he’ll think twice before disrespecting a woman in that way again.

The gourmands among you will be happy to know that the Siem Reap markets are full of street vendors selling delectable local foods (and yes mango milkshakes). There are also a number of outdoor hawker style areas and some very reasonable sit in restaurants. For a bit of a splash (on your last evening for example when your frugality has paid off and you still have enough dollars for a fancier meal) find a restaurant where they do music and dance performances, especially apsara, considered typical to Cambodia. The temple bar and restaurant has shows every night and they have an extensive cocktail menu for those who would prefer a drink with their dancing.

I actually took a fantastic Cambodian cooking class while in Siem Reap at the Paper Tiger, beyond the pleasure of learning a new dish, the course also took you to a local food market where you learned about the different ingredients that went into your dishes. I made green mango salad and amok. While I think that the cooking ended up being as much my doing as the chef assigned to help us, the food came out amazing and I ate with a great sense of achievement. We even got a fancy certificate at the end.

Finally my trip was at an end. The same evening I was to cook my first Cambodian meal was also my last. I had booked a night bus back to Phnom Penh where my flight would depart around noon the next day. I would have probably missed my bus and my flight had it not been for my amazing tuk tuk driver who yet again saved the day and found out that the bus arrival station was different was where the bus departed. After another uncomfortable bus journey and a few hours drinking juice and uploading photos at my previous hostel (they even let me use one of their showers while I was no longer staying there). It was time to take one final tuk tuk through the crazy streets of Phnom Penh.