The 30 Hour May Day

I’m sitting in the transfer lounge at Hong Kong International Airport. I’ve had an 18 hour day, and it’s far from being over. I still have a couple of hours to wait until my third and final flight of the day takes to the skies. And since I’m bound for San Francisco, it means I’ll be adding another twelve hours and forty-five minutes to my ‘long’ day. Not to mention what awaits when I finally arrive in the U.S- immigration, customs, transfers, hotel check-in. But after all that will come the moment when I’ll enter my room and see a bed where I can stretch my legs and sleep like a baby for many blissful hours. I can already imagine what a glorious moment it will be.

***

Leading up to my trip, I had this vision in my mind that I’d be completely organised well in advance, leaving me free to enjoy my final weekend in Perth for a while. Although I’ve become a lot more efficient with the preparation and packing process before a holiday, my intentions didn’t go quite according to plan!

Real life always ends up being busier than expected, so I can’t say I’m overly surprised that my weekend didn’t end up being as leisurely as I’d dreamed. (That Raffaelo milkshake I was looking forward to in my last post? Yeah, it didn’t happen.) Instead, I was wired on adrenaline and, on Sunday, micro-managing my time to a level I didn’t even think I was capable of.

Packing wasn’t a hard task in itself, but it was the little things I needed to get done before I could start packing that tested my patience. One trip to the shops to get some final supplies turned into four trips. My printer at home decided to malfunction just as I was set to print out my itineraries (which added a fifth trip to the shops). There was a heart-stopping moment when I thought I’d bought bus tickets to Los Angeles instead of Las Vegas.

With all the time wasted sorting out these unexpected dilemmas, I was not expecting to get much sleep at all, but in the end I managed to get five hours before my alarm went off at 3.45am. Getting this much sleep before an early morning flight is pretty much a miracle in my books, and I was glad for every minute of it.

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Flight 1- Perth to Singapore
After a breezy check-in with a friendly member of ground staff and a short wait at the gates, my first flight of the day departed just after 6.30am. All my flights are with Singapore Airlines, who I haven’t flown with since my trip to Barcelona in July 2013. I thought about all the travelling I’ve done since then, and realised that age is catching up with me because I was not as quick as I used to be at recalling my past adventures. I’ll always have fond memories of Singapore Airlines, though, as they were the first airlines I ever flew, way back when I visited my family in Poland for the first time, at the age of 11. Oh, how I’ve evolved as a traveller since then!

The actual flight was great. It felt so luxurious flying on a ‘big’ carrier again, since my last trip on a non-budget airline was back in 2015, when I flew Qatar Airways to Iceland. How nice to have a meal provided. Entertainment! A blanket! A pillow! I had a window seat and that, combined with the cosy blanket and pillow, made conditions about as perfect as they’re going to get for sleeping in economy class. After finishing some scrambled eggs for breakfast, I slept for about three hours, and the five hour flight flew by.

Flight 2- Singapore to Hong Kong
After a three and a half hour stopver at Changi International Airport, where I emerged off the plane directly in front of my next gate, it was time for my three and a half hour flight to Hong Kong. This flight also flew by- and I haven’t even watched any movies yet to pass the time. Despite how long the journey is, the timing of the flights is perfect, as I’m travelling ‘with’ the day.

There were some towering cloud formations at the start of the flight, and at the end, there was a ruby red sunset. The orb of the sinking sun looked tiny in comparison to the wingspan of the plane and for a while, it seemed to be suspended in a cloud. I almost expected to see the bottom half re-emerge as we descended. It was strange to see a sunset that, in the end, disappeared into the sky, almost as if it had been swallowed by the clouds, as opposed to sinking below the horizon at the beach.

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Flight 3- Hong Kong to San Francisco
My stopover in Hong Kong lasted four and a half hours. The last time I transited here was in April 2013, where I only had a three hour onward flight to Japan. If only it was such a short onward flight this time, too! However, I was pleasantly surprised when I boarded the plane and the captain announced the flight to San Fran would take an hour less than what was stated on my itinerary. Woohoo!

As we left the glittering lights of the Hong Kong skyline behind, I tried to calculate how long May the 1st would end up being for me. Trying to keep up with time zones is difficult at the best of times, but it was utterly confusing in my sleep deprived state, so after a hearty dinner (or should I say midnight snack) of chicken and fried egg noodles (where my exhausted brain also struggled to process why there was a mirror on the fold-out tray), I gave up and went to sleep. In the end, I managed to sleep for eight hours, which meant that this long flight did not turn out to be as tiring as I thought it would be.

At some point during my slumber, I travelled back in time. It was about 12.40am on May 2nd when I settled down to snooze, and I awoke at 2.20pm on May 1st, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean and north-east of Honolulu. Of course, I’d already experienced 2.20pm on May 1st- in Singapore. Just as I was trying to wrap my head around the loophole that, technically, I had been in two places at once, the flight crew wished us a ‘good morning’. True, it was morning in Hong Kong, but it was amusing to think that in three hours, they’d be wishing us a good evening. The novelty of crossing time zones will never fail to amuse me, even though I think it’s best not to overthink them!

***

And now, I’m finally in America!!! I’ve travelled over 17,000km to get here, and I’m still not quite sure how long my May the 1st ended up being. I have some impressions still left to share, but I’m well and truly spent now, and it’s time for this weary traveller to go to sleep.

12 L-o-n-g Hours

12th February 2017

***

6.00am
The hills of Ella are emerging from under the dusty rose sky of dawn when my friend and I slip quietly out of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn. There is no sign of the tuk-tuk which the owner said would be waiting to take us to the train station, so we start walking. It’s strange to see the roads so devoid of traffic and noise, and to be unable to flag down a tuk-tuk.

7.00am
We’re on the train and bound for Kandy. My friend and I catch the 6.30am service in the hopes of securing a seat, as it’s the end of a poya (full moon) weekend and we’re well aware the trains are going to be packed. A good idea- except that all the other tourists in Ella have had the same idea. It doesn’t really matter in the end, as all the seats are already occupied by the time we board. It’s going to be a l-o-n-g six hours.

8.00am
I’ve managed to grab a spot to call my own! It’s the gap between the final row of seats and the wall of the compartment, and I’ve had to suck in my stomach to squeeze into the tiny space, which measures a luxurious 30cm in width. Still, I’m willing to compromise being able to breathe freely for the sake of not being pushed and shoved and trod on every two minutes. Maybe my stomach will even be flattened over the next four and a half hours, since it is so squashed into the back of the seat. Well, a girl can dream.

9.00am
I remember reading a guidebook which recommended that if there’s one train ride you take in Sri Lanka, make sure it’s the Ella to Kandy route. The author couldn’t stop raving about the breath-taking vistas, and reassured you that even if the train is busy, you’ll be too enchanted by the landscape to care. Right now, I would like to punch this author in the face. Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is great- if you can get a seat. Otherwise, you’ll find that the stunning views quickly lose their charm.

10.00am
I notice that the landscape looks like the chocolate hills of Bohol, in the Philippines. Or maybe it’s just my weary brain descending into a state of visual hallucinations. In any case, thinking about chocolate makes me realise I’m hungry, so I slide over to my bag to pull out a can of Pringles. It occurs to me that I’m so wedged into my spot that I may not be able to get out of it. With further testing, I find that I can still wriggle out to freedom, thankfully, and use the opportunity to access my stowed bag. I carefully manoeuvre out the can, open the lid, and bump! The train jerks, and a shower of broken chip crumbs fall into my bag. Great.

11.00am
I feel as though I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Every now and then, I shuffle my legs on the spot to keep them from going numb. My feet hurt, but there’s simply nowhere to move. More and more people are getting on the train, and yet each time we pull up at a station, no-one seems to be getting off. The air in the compartment is starting to become stifling. It’s too risky to appease my dry mouth with water, as I don’t want to run the risk of needing an impossible-to-reach toilet. Misery all round.

12.00pm
I believe I have mastered the art of sleeping on my feet. I just hope I haven’t drooled on the family I’m standing over.

1.00pm
What’s better than a six hour train ride stuck in a compartment that’s as crowded as a beehive? A seven hour train ride stuck in a compartment that’s as crowded as a beehive! I have spent the equivalent hours of a flight from Perth to Phuket standing in a space smaller than an airplane lavatory. Actually, let’s not think about toilets right now.

2.00pm
It’s over! It’s finally over! Getting off the train proves to be an absolute nightmare, as my friend and I have been trapped in the middle of the compartment, and the way out is crowded in both directions. After much pushing, we eventually make our escape, joyous to be free and out in the open air. The train continues on for Colombo, and we are glad to see it go. Our journey is not over quite yet, either. My friend still needs to get to Negombo, and my final destination is Kegalle. Our plan is to take a bus and luckily, we can both catch the same one. With a roti in hand, we head off to find Bus 101.

3.00pm
It takes 20 minutes of walking around the Kandy bus terminal to find our bus, and then another 20 minutes waiting around in the full glare of the hot tropical sun. The first bus is already full, but is in no hurry to drive off. When the second bus arrives, it is swamped by a rushing horde of locals. My friend and I don’t even bother to try and get on, but the driver beckons us forward, and it turns out there are still a few seats available. A friendly local at the front of the bus offers the seat next to him, but I move down the aisle and end up sitting next to my friend. The bus departs the chaos of Kandy and starts the three hour journey to Negombo, which coincidentally, is the reverse journey of the first day of our G Adventures tour.

4.00pm
Just when a girl thinks she’s done battling the crowds, wait, there’s more. It only takes about an hour to get into Kegalle, so I keep my eyes peeled for the name of the city on shop fronts and street signs. As soon as I see it appear, I say goodbye to my friend, and start making my way to the front of the bus. This ends up being a more difficult struggle than getting off the train, and I don’t even have my bag. It takes five minutes to move a couple of metres along the aisle, in which time I find myself deeply regretting I turned down the offer to sit at the front of the bus. I basically have to walk on people in my battle to get out. I’m pretty sure I elbow a couple of old ladies in the back, but it can’t be helped. The bus has ended up being ridiculously crammed. Once I finally make it to the front, I find my bag, at the bottom of the pile of luggage, of course, and I have to yell at the driver to wait for me to free it.

5.00pm
All that remains now is to get to Hotel Elephant Bay in Pinnawala. Thankfully, a tuk-tuk pulls over almost as soon as I step out of the bus, and I clamber into it straight away. The driver states his fare and I don’t give a damn about bargaining. I’m so exhausted, and feel like I’ve run a marathon. The first thing I do when I enter my room about half an hour later is fall onto the bed. It feels absolutely amazing to be able to stretch out my tired legs. I could honestly cry with happiness.

6.00pm
There’s a soft golden glow filtering through my curtains. I step out onto my balcony and am amazed to encounter a fringe of palm trees swaying gently in the balmy evening air upon an embankment of a rock-strewn river. The sun is setting, and as it sinks slowly behind a hill, the river seems to turn into flowing honey. And just like that, all the stresses of the day melt away. The icing on the cake, though, comes in the form of the two large, wooden chairs in the centre of the balcony. What a joy it is to enjoy this glorious, calming view- sitting down.

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A Stroll into Secrets

7th February 2017

***

It’s 6pm and I’ve just finished dinner at Ayos Hill. I’m counting on my delicious potato roti and mango shake to sustain me for my hike up Adam’s Peak in eight hours time. Twilight is falling and I head out for an evening stroll in the little village where my guest house is located.  The setting sun is casting a golden glow over the summit of Adam’s Peak and I walk up the street to try and capture a photo, but doing so actually ends up blocking the peak from view, so I don’t end up venturing very far.

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I smile and nod at an elderly lady who is observing me from her front garden as I walk back down the street. She returns the gestures and asks me where I’m from. Australia, I tell her, and she disappears inside her house. I don’t understand the chatter coming from inside, but it would seem the old woman has informed the other inhabitants of the house of our encounter, as I do catch the word ‘Australia’. A minute later, I pass a couple of school girls who smile brightly and say hello. What a friendly village.

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I walk past my guest house but it’s getting dark and I don’t really expect to go much further down the street. I’m just about to turn around when I catch sight of a trail, which is brought to my attention by a group of young cricketers who have just emerged from it, obviously having called it a day given the deteriorating light. I can’t resist checking out the trail for myself, though, and I head down the path to see where it leads. It winds downhill through rows of green bushes, but it is impossible to see where it ends. Tendrils of smoke from an orange flame below me curl up to meet the twinkling moon above. My feet lead me onwards.

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As the final colour of day fades quickly from the world, I stumble out of the bushes and into a secret paradise. It feels like I have walked into a pastel dream the world itself is having; a memory of a forgotten land lost in the mists of time. There’s a grove of trees to my right that look like they’ve come out of an enchanted wood, soft and sparkling in the shadowy hues of twilight. In front of me, a calm and clear lake stretches, its surface as smooth as glass, a mirror in which the very soul of paradise is reflected. Birds sing their lullabies, insects chirp to the moon, and far away the tiny lights of villages twinkle while a hum of distant voices carries on the gentle breeze like a lullaby.

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Not only have I come across this magical scene by happy chance, amazingly, I have it all to myself to enjoy. There is no-one else around, and I’m grateful for this unexpected solitude. Quiet experiences like this are my absolutely favourite, and I sit on the bank of the lake, silent and still, to soak up my serene surrounds. I am loathe to leave, even though the curtains of night have almost closed in around me.

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Sri Lanka has been so busy and brimming with life that it almost seems unreal to have come across such a tranquil place. I feel like I’ve been let in on one of the island’s most secret treasures, and I’m thankful for my sense of curiosity which allowed me to discover it. What a special way to end off a magical day- definitely my favourite day so far.

Goodbye Summer

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It seems like only yesterday that December was starting, and with it, the season of summer stretched ahead, full of possibilities. And yet, somehow, three months have gone by, and the sun has now set on the last day of summer for 2016/17.

I’ve always loved the freedom that summer represents. As a kid and later as a teacher, I always relished the long school holidays, from mid-December to the end of January. Finally, there was time to indulge in my creative pursuits without feeling guilty that I should be doing school work instead. For six weeks, I would feel like ‘me’ again. These days, as a relief teacher, I have more freedom than ever before, so I’m trying to make the most of it. That’s why I’m so pleased with how successful this summer has been from a creative point of view. My two biggest achievements were completing my ‘Himalayan 100’ photo album and starting this blog. More importantly, I’ve maintained this blog for two months now. This is because I dedicated the month of January to changing my mindset about writing. Now that it’s a habit instead of a task, it’s just become a natural part of my routine and I don’t feel as if my day is complete until I’ve done some writing.

No summer is complete without a holiday, of course. My annual visit to Rottnest Island at the start of January may only have been for a day, but, like always, left me feeling refreshed and inspired. The longer trip came in February, when I headed off to Sri Lanka for two weeks. It was my first visit to the island, but I’m sure it won’t be my last. I met some lovely people on my G Adventures tour, was treated to some amazing views and nature experiences, and ate such delicious food that I’m still dreaming about it. Sri Lanka was the perfect way to start off my adventures for 2017.

I aimed to be active regardless of whether I was on holiday or at home, and, happily,  I achieved a goal that I set at the start of summer to walk 10,000 steps each day. That said, I found plenty of time to relax as well, in the form of watching late night trashy horror films; feasting with friends over the festive period; and what has got to be my favourite summer pasttime of all- lazing in the hammock with a good book (and sometimes falling asleep).

What I also really liked about this summer were the milder temperatures, as I don’t enjoy the heat as much as I used to. There were several days where I actually went for my walk wearing a jumper, as the air was nippy outside and it was so windy. The weather resembled a rollercoaster, as we’d have a couple of really hot days, which would be followed by a substantial drop in temperature. Not that I was complaining. It’s much easier to tolerate a 40 degree day when you know you don’t have a two week heatwave following it. (Though the 114mm downpour and 17 degree day that Perth experienced while I was in Sri Lanka was just weird.) I’m not sure whether the weather had anything to do with it, but the skies were pretty tame at sunset time, and my camera only came out twice the entire summer to capture a dramatic evening sky.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying it’s been a wonderful summer. Now to see what autumn has in store.

Galle to Ahungalla

After a few days of nature based experiences, we bid farewell to the Udawalawe region on Day 5, and headed off in the direction of Sri Lanka’s famed southern coastline. Our first stop for the day was Galle, a coastal city renown for its Dutch colonial architecture. We had an hour and a half to explore the city, which was obviously nowhere near long enough to fully experience the rich history of the area, but it was just enough time to walk around the Fort and take photos of the old streets and buildings, as well as the beautiful Indian Ocean which surrounds three sides of the city.

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Galle played an important role in the ancient trading routes between the east and west, and the Fort, which is such a key feature of the appearance of the city today, was first built by the Portuguese in 1588. However, from 1649 onwards, it was the Dutch who set about on an extensive fortification of the city. Today it is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by Europeans, as well as being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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There are a number of additional interesting architectural features around the city, aside from the impressive fort structure. These include the clock tower, constructed in 1883; the Dutch Reformed Church, a Protestant church constructed in 1755; All Saints Church, an Anglican church constructed in 1868; and the lighthouse, which stands 26.5m tall at the southern end of the city. It was constructed in 1939 after a fire destroyed the original structure which the British had built in 1848.

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After Galle, we made a brief pit stop in the popular beach town of Hikkaduwa, as it is where we were originally meant to stay. There were many water activities available, but we only had time for a short stroll along the beach. It is one of the coastal areas that was badly affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, in which over 30,000 Sri Lankan people died.

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There were certainly no complaints about the change to a new beachside destination when we drove down the long paved entrance to Heritance Ahungalla, and realised this luxury five star hotel was our accommodation for the night. Everyone’s jaws dropped when we walked into the hotel lobby and saw the view below.

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Once we’d checked in, most of the group headed straight down to the beach, which was much less crowded than in Hikkaduwa. I, however, had got sunburnt in Galle, and wanted to avoid the sun for the rest of the afternoon. Instead, I started planning for my solo week of travelling around Sri Lanka. I did make it down to the beach for a stunning sunset, though. There’s no denying life is good when you’re treated to this sort of beauty.

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The Return of Summer

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Sunsets are one of my favourite things to photograph, and I am lucky to live in a city which is blessed with some spectacular ones. The 2015/16 season was full of rainbow skies and striking cloud formations.

At the end of November 2016, with only a few days to go until the official start of summer, there was an evening that blazed with a flaming orange sky. I got super excited, thinking this was a teaser for what was in store for the hot months ahead.

It wasn’t.

Two months went by, and there was nothing. Each night, the skies have been calm and clear. I don’t know whether it’s because we haven’t had as many days of sustained high temperatures as usual, but there simply haven’t been any dramatic endings to the day.

And then, finally, finally, this happened.

I have been waiting for an epic sunset like this all summer. I love the simple sunsets, don’t get me wrong. But there is something utterly thrilling about witnessing such a lively sky, full of vibrance and energy. It is as if a grand masterpiece is being painted before your eyes, simultaneously revealing the past, present and future of a moment in time.

These are the skies that tell a thousand stories and weave them into an epic saga about a fleeting empire of castles built in the air; an empire that is falling into ruins even as it is being built. These are the skies that sing bold proclamations to the heavens, rejoicing in life but all the while preparing for their voice to be extinguished. These are the skies that define majesty and magic, and spark the imagination with a light that reflects the secrets of some other world.

But most of all, these are the skies that remind all who view them just how small and inconsequential we are in their presence. And that is why I love them.

Sweet Simplicity

I headed down to the beach this evening, in the hope of catching a nice sunset. It’s my favourite time of day, and sunsets by the beach in summer can be absolute magic. Sadly, my camera has not had much of a beachside workout this summer, as Perth has been seriously lacking in dramatic evening skyscapes.

I had a bit of time to spare when I arrived at Hillarys, my go-to beach destination, so I decided to get some food first. Ice-cream is totally acceptable for dinner, right? Well, this ice-cream bowl definitely lived up to its promise of delivering a serve of sweet berry blissfulness. There’s no denying that strawberries and summertime were totally made for each other.

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When I made it down to the beach, the day had already quietly faded. This is what the majority of our sunsets have looked like this summer. Where in previous years there have been rainbow clouds marching boldly across the heavens to announce the day’s end, this year, the days seem to be disappearing with no fuss or fanfare. Just a final flicker of light before a faint glow illuminates the hazy horizon, until, that too, vanishes from view.

I love my grand sunsets but I also appreciate the quiet ones. They’re much like our everyday lives- seemingly unremarkable from one day to the next, but always unique, and full of beauty if we care to look. A gentle reminder of the beauty in simplicity.

I also find that quiet sunsets have a sense of timelessness about them. All the colourful sunsets I have photographed stand out resolutely in my memory and take me back to a specific time. Quiet sunsets, so oft repeated over the years, are nothing more than vague recollections in comparison, like a blurred memory of a forgotten dream, or a word that’s on the tip of your tongue. You can’t recall the details but you can feel their lingering presence.

And sometimes, this feeling is all we need. The details are irrelevant. I don’t want to remember the specifics of being 17, but to be reminded of the freedom that I felt all those summers ago, when driving down to the beach first became an expression of finally being an adult, young and carefree, well, that is a gift to be treasured indeed. It’s for this reason, this link to days long surrendered to the passing of time, that I am grateful for the quiet sunsets, and look forward to many more in the summers still to come.

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