Sand, Stars and the Space In-between

Have you ever seen one of those cliché coming of age movies? You know, the ones where a mellow song comes on just as the protagonist is staring out of the car window questioning life pensively? Well, much of my three-week bus trip from Zambia to Cape Town was a constant priceless movie moment. The wild, African roadside was the setting, and I was the stargazing traveller.

Days after days of watching country-sized game parks fly by the window, and observing giraffes gently grazing by the side of the road led me to fall head over heels in love with Africa. About a week into the trip, I entered Namibia – a golden, duney land of desert that is home to ‘Mad Max Fury Road’, and a sizeable segment of my heart.

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While preparing for the impending heat, we were warned about the necessity of hats and sunscreen, and most importantly, water. Lots and lots of water. Every two days or so, we would stop at a store and have to buy at least one five-litre water container each. Hydration was even more vital in the desert (three hours was the ballpark given to us for survival time without this precious liquid).

During the briefing at our campsite one night, our fellow travellers enquired as to how much shade there would be, the quality of hand-dug latrines, and tactical escape plans from encounters with deadly scorpions (eternally grateful for tent zippers). It was thrilling to say the least. Camping at its finest.

Now imagine that scene from Jaws where the townspeople are discussing their plans to deal with the shark, and the eerie but experienced bad guy from the back forewarns them of the tragedies that may ensue. It was like that as one of the Dutch girls in our trip spoke up to caution us about the desert.

“Some people lose themselves in the desert… They go insane… They just can’t take all that raw, open space, and it drives them to madness…”

If I’d had a mouthful, I would have gulped. It was terrifying.

But despite the warnings, the next leg of our trip proved to be the most exhilarating travel I’ve experienced yet. The endless hours of watching the glare bounce off uninhabited, illuminated, sun-scorched, red earth in every direction for as far as my eyes could see.

Key expectations from an African adventure:

  • Layers of sand on top of sweat on top of bug spray on top of sunscreen on top of more sweat.
  • Getting stage fright when trying to pee behind the truck when on the road.
  • Sunrise and sunset yoga in bikinis atop wildlife viewing towers while your washing dries in seconds from the intense dryness of the air.
  • Watching out for scorpions when you need to relieve yourself during the night
  • A canvas of stars so vivid and unaffected by light pollution that Van Gogh himself would surely trek to the desert with paintbrush and easel at the ready
  • Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in upwards of 40 degree heat
  • Sunbathing on mattresses in the middle of the desert at sunset (with ample supply of ‘Savannah’ beer)
  • Learning how to make fire with natives
  • Trudging aimlessly (and slightly deliriously) across the desert with no guide, map or water supply, but merely the directional gesture of a local driver

 

It was somewhat frustrating on the drive to and from Spitzkoppe (that magical word still gives me chills). My tent buddy and I were unfortunately at the back of the bus as we drove along the very bumpy and long dirt road between the main road and the towering dunes. The frequent and painful lurches of the bus kept causing my earphones to dislodge themselves, disrupting my movie-moment-window-gazing bliss (and the stomach contents of one of the poor Germans). Once the pure-hearted had proved their worthiness by managing to endure the hour-long road hurdle, they would find themselves in the middle of the Namib desert, surrounded by Mad Max-style splendour like no other. It was surprising that I found such bewildering beauty in this place that was so bare and expansive. Hello insights! The peaks were surprisingly easy to climb, and we took full advantage of this by perching ourselves high above the sparse trees to behold a flawless sunset. Incomprehensible distance existed at every angle: our vision only hindered by the natural curvature of the planet.

 

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Cue epiphinal moment #846 from this trip. You know how people argue over whether it’s black with white stripes or white with black stripes? What we witnessed in the sky this particular night would no doubt be considered a white backdrop with fleeting moments of darkness, as the celestial glow that lit up the Sossusvlei as we sat (wide-eyed, stunned, and possibly being nibbled by scorpions) outshone every inch of empty night space. Stargazing in silent awe, we literally tilted our heads from side to side, trying to take in the sheer number of stars that was spread across 180 degrees of African sky.

 

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We continued to be exposed to this splendour long into the night where, in our sand-infested tents, our unobstructed stargazing blurred into existential questioning. Somewhere amidst all the sleepy “what is life” moments and shooting star anticipation, I fell into the most restful sleep in this magical, star-kissed land.

 

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Untouched and unforgettable
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Indian Toilet Situations

I’m quite confident when home in Sydney that I can ask any shop, restaurant, or pub if I can use their bathroom and they’ll accommodate. Maybe the hook on the door will be broken off, or there won’t be a handle to grab and slide on the lock. Perhaps the half flush won’t work and I’ll be obligated to use the full flush button, but that’s about as horrific as it gets.

 

When I was being grilled by friends and family about the dangers of India, no one seemed concerned about the toilet standards or warned me of the traumas that would result when nature called…

 

A few days before boarding the plane, I discovered the Indian custom of toilet-going. As I understand it, the standard is to use the “left hand method”. Basically this is an absence of toilet paper, in place for using a cup of water and one’s left hand. I was petrified when I discovered this and ran to the bathroom cupboard to cram full toilet rolls into my backpack for fear of being stranded in a cubicle by the side of the road, merely with a bucket and cup. For this reason, there were countless times where I exited the toilet and ran, as I had disobeyed the “no paper in toilet” sign. I have definitely disrupted the sensitive Indian sewerage system.

 

Upon arriving in Mumbai, I determined this anarchy must be myth, as the airport toilets were quite western (apart from the curious hose next to the paper dispenser – which I later found out to be a bidet). This familiarity did not last long. From there on, it was stealing napkins from restaurants, asking hostels for paper supplies, and rationing my tissue packets. And you can forget about soap. If ever in India, note how everyone you see (including the cooks) only really put their right hands near the food…

 

I had been wondering what the poor Indian women did when there was no paper, but after having to stop on the bus ride from Udaipur to Jodhpur, I found out…

 

Let me preface this incident with an overshare of my toilet habits: I am a big utkatasana fan (“chair pose” in yogi terms – think epic squat). I don’t think I’ve had direct contact with a public toilet seat for any of my adult life thus far. No. Just no. So as you can probably imagine then, I’m not afraid of those non-western squatting toilets, of which there are many in India. Where I do find trouble however, is when women are expected to hang out in their burning quads, waiting to dry in the polluted Indian breeze.

 

But surely that’s just highway toilets right? Wrong. The “public” toilets in Jodhpur were just that: public. Imagine your worst squatter toilet nightmare, then minus the cubicle door. Then add a population density of 383 per square kilometre featuring lovely main street views. I suppose I did want to learn more about Indian men and women…

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When you are fortunate enough to find a four-walled bathroom with a ceiling, it requires a certain level of contortionism to use.

 

And it gets worse. After the evening bus ride to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, I concluded that the nicest toilet facilities I’d seen on the trip were the luxurious aeroplane ones. Squatter toilets and no paper is one thing, but no toilets in the cubicle is a whole other level. I have no problem with relieving myself in the bush – my experiences using the African “bush toilets” (think private foliage and shovel) were infinitely more pleasant than the collection of unearthly sights and smells I beheld at this particular pit stop…

 

Imagine an outdoor diner bustling with Indians enjoying their evening meal. I was pointed towards a roofless concrete building the size of your classic Aussie shed, whose walls barely came up to my nose. Of the two “cubicles” inside, the first was clearly a shower or something else as it was empty except for a small puddle in the corner. I decided I’d be more comfortable in the second cubicle anyway as it was further inside the complex, which could make up for the absence of doors. If I was quick, I could squat, throw my paper in the unfortunate plumbing, and leg it. There was, however, no item in this room either… There was a similar puddle in the corner though, funnelling out through a crack in the wall. It took me several painful seconds of doubt and “oh dear God, please no!” before I settled on this peak disrespect of basic human hygiene. I looked around the corner, and down the little concrete hall to check for any encroaching toilet-goers, and then went for it. And as though young, blonde women travelling in India don’t get enough stares, I felt the familiar sense of eyes on me and realised I’d attracted the attention of some old Indian women, and possibly a young boy, who had gathered to have a peep into my cubicle. Inspected in my most vulnerable time, bare-bottomed and in severe bladder distress. Given the choice, I would absolutely rather my boyfriend’s pit-stop experience: being shown to the garbage tip out the back of the diner, and then watched by the bus driver until his stage fright led him to retreat back to the bus awkwardly.

 

After the horrors were over, I bolted from the smelly scene at full speed, back to the safety of the bus. There is not enough hand sanitizer in the world to restore my cleanliness or dignity.

 

I can safely say that my appreciation for Australian toilet standards is endless.

I’m not hipster enough for Melbourne

A journey to find the perfect milkshake in Melbourne.

So I recently went to Melbourne.

It is widely known in Sydney that Melbourne has the elusive upper hand in coffee-making or “coffee-roasting”. As a non-coffee-drinking Sydneysider, I’ve been harassed for years about the cultural superiority of Melbourne, and more recently, the overwhelming abundance of hipster cafes, man-buns, and beards that us Sydney folk are rather behind on.

“You’re only going for the man-buns aren’t you?” What began as a joke about my motives for my Melbourne trip, quickly turned into a quest to find the ultimate hipster cafe.

Weaving in and out of the countless intimate alleys and naturally appreciating every display of graffiti that had suddenly become exhibitions of creative geniuses, I made my way around the drizzly, orthogonal city.

As I became more familiar with the cafe etiquette, I began to realise just how many people were available to soak up the coffee culture on a weekday. Do Melbournians not have jobs? Or does the idea of a deconstructed coffee take clear priority over other potential activities?

Following my phone to a pre-selected trendy spot, I came across many a hidden-away hole in the wall which opened out into cosy rooms of coffee appreciation. As tempting as it was to test the handiwork of all these bearded baristas, I followed the GPS until I found a wooden door in a surprisingly deserted alleyway. I could sense the indie vibes by the fact I had to walk up a flight of creaky wooden stairs to get to the actual cafe room.

As my ironic adventure was all somewhat in jest, I was definitely surprised when I swung open the door to the cafe and questioned my GPS skills and general life choices. Was this the cafe? It was quiet, dimly lit, and very industrial. When I had been doing my research to find the most hipster cafe, I had based degree of hipster on level of industrial influence.

This was industrial.

It was so industrial that I was unsure whether the practicality of the cafe actually outweighed the trendiness. Industrial cafes just LOOK industrial, right? If they’re actually an operating barber and gentlemen’s outfitters as well, does that authenticity make it lose its prestigious industrial Melbourne hipster cafe value? I was so unsure and felt more out of place than I had anticipated. Could they tell I was a Sydney girl coming to take advantage of the Instagram-worthy decor and draw attention to the unrealistic nature of the cafe? No. I had my beanie. I was safe and they couldn’t know.

“Hi do you have a menu?” I asked as nonchalantly as possible to the lovely social justice warrior-esque lady behind the counter. She looked at me. She knew. She pointed towards a big framed board to my right and there sat a list of hand-written lunches.

“Ah thanks, but you have a drinks menu? Teas, coffees, that sort of thing?” I wasn’t after a meal, but a perfectly crafted Melbourne drink.

“No.”

I looked at her. She looked at me. What was going on…? No drinks menu? Is that even legal? How do I dwell on all the options if they’re not presented logically?

“You just tell me what you want and I’ll make it.”

This was new. What does that even mean? How is that efficient at all? Do I go through every crazy Melbourne treat I’m hoping to find on the menu? As a non-coffee drinker (I know – why am I even in Melbourne in a hipster cafe then?), I had been craving an artistically crafted milkshake that was suitable for a 21 year old.

“Can I please have a milkshake?” She was not impressed. Was she going to kick me out of her cafe? I promise I’m cultured! I fit in! Did you note the beanie?

“We don’t make them.”

Yup, she hated me. I panicked for a moment thinking of my next question.

“I can make you an iced chocolate.” She was definitely concerned by my lack of coffee.

I nodded and pulled out my wallet.

“No.”

What!? No paying?

“You pay later.”

It was bizarre. Nevertheless, I sat in the middle of the room, in prime photo-taking, gawking position to wait for my much-hyped Melbourne iced chocolate. There was a glass annexe where a man was getting his beard trimmed. Jackpot. Vintage shoes lined the walls, and the tables were platforms for sewing machines. Jackpot.

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The culturally elite, indifferent to the trendy ambience at Captains of Industry

 

Eventually my iced chocolate arrived. After quickly taking some snapchats to express my cultural value, I put the straw between my lips and consumed the trend-infused drink I’d put so much pressure on.

 

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Sewing machine table ft. modest cup of sugar

 

It was terrible.

It was actually the worst drink I’ve had ever, which is challenging because it’s chocolate-based. It was a hot chocolate with ice cubes at the top – so much so that the bottom 2/3 were lukewarm. I instantly realised this was just a novelty to be endured for the sake of a cafe experience. I messaged my mum to tell her of the tragedy and she told me to tell the barista. Bless her. So pragmatic. So clueless to the social and cultural protocols I had just been subject to.

“I can’t mum. I’ll be deported from Melbourne. My beanie is literally my only redeeming feature right now.”

No bearded barista, no man-buns, no exquisite milkshake. After sticking it out, taking some photos, and watching the poor waitress have to carry the entire framed board to some seated customers for lack of printed menus, I paid my $4.50 for my watery, warm milk and left. It was an experience.

Later, after spending several hours in the Museum of Moving Image, I decided to give Melbourne a second chance to showcase their milkshake abilities. After all, this cafe was part of the museum. How hipster could it be?

“Hi there, do you have a menu?”

The man behind the counter was much friendlier than my previous barista encounter. He pointed towards a laminated lunch menu.

“Ah yes, do you have a drinks menu? With tea and coffee you know?”

“No, you just tell me whatever you want.”

I was beginning to sense a pattern here.

“Can I please have a milkshake?”

“No, sorry we don’t do those. I can make you an iced chocolate?”

What the hell Melbourne? Up your game! Should I make the same mistake? How much worse could it be though? Reluctantly I agreed, and paid a further $5.50.

When it arrived, it was mediocre. It thankfully had icecream, but otherwise it was another bland disappointment.

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Determined that Melbourne could do better than this, I spent the rest of the evening looking up the best freakshakes and diner-style milkshakes Melbourne had to offer.

The next day marked the start of another quest to Richmond’s Rowena Parade Corner Store to find the most decadent milkshake and restore my faith in Melbourne.

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This was the place. It was cute and cosy and colourful and youthful. Their menu was extensive and was ONLY compsosed of milkshakes, and the store didn’t have the ‘we secretly spent a fortune on the floors and walls to make it look like we didn’t spend any money on the floors and walls’ vibe going on.

Satisfaction was finally found after choosing the creative vegemite and salted caramel flavour. It was bliss. Very patriotic. Australian pride restored.

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Vegemite and salted caramel milkshake