Australia / South Korea / Travel

Sydney and Busan: the final installment

Location update: I’m delayed in Zagreb Airport, waiting for a flight to Dubrovnik. I spent just 36 hours at home and, for most of that, I was comatose with jetlag and trying to get the dog to remember who’s in charge. He’s changed allegiances while I’ve been gone, widely rumoured to be because I don’t let him sleep in the bedroom and Vee does. Next to me, there’s a couple who are obviously just about to be parted. They are sobbing loudly on each other’s shoulders, she choking back sobs and he shuddering and dabbing her eyes with a damp, snotty tissue. Ah, young love. Anyway, back to the southern hemisphere.

Four days in Sydney

I landed in Sydney and instantly felt at home. The city is like a smaller, more manageable version of London, with more space, much better weather and friendlier people. There’s also a noticeable lack of signs telling people not to do things, that something is dangerous or that ‘it is against the law to do xyz’ which you are bombarded with in England. The river banks drip with every shade of green and huge old houses surrounded by verandas gaze onto the water. My hotel was right near Hyde Park and the roads had good old fashioned English names, like Elizabeth Street and Commonwealth Street.

After navigating my way through six busload-worths of elderly Japanese tourists waiting in the lobby for their next set of instructions, I dashed straight from the hotel to meet my dear old friend Kirsten who I hadn’t seen for five years. We went off to chat the night away at a really cool underground artists’ club called 505, where you can sit on sofas and drink beer. As we left, we passed the backstage door, and I was proud to see that the guy who had been performing, Steve Clisby, was living up to the stereotype of oversexed musicians and asking two very young and scantily dressed blonde girls to “Come back into my little room here…?”.

The next morning I ducked into a tiny, freshly opened coffee shop called Joe Black Cafe, where a mad coffee scientist was brewing up precisely weighed-out coffee in tiny glass jars using bunsen burners, thermometers and timers.

The evolution of coffee

“When the water hits 91 degrees, brew the coffee for four minutes!” he roared, then produced several tiny little cups of coffee for two men to taste. The coffee here is wonderful – if you’re on Commonwealth Street, not far from the Travelodge hotel, pay them a visit.

First stop on the list was Sydney Opera House. I walked down Macquarie Street and saw it shimmering in all its glory. It shimmers because the surface is made up of thousands of handmade tiles imported from Sweden. It’s actually a lot smaller than I thought when you meet it in person but still very impressive and curvaceous.

Strewth!

We sat in the sun eating prawn sandwiches – call a prawn a shrimp in Australia and people look at you like you’ve just told them they’ve got snot hanging out of their nose – drinking iced coffee, watching the ferries go by and looking at people climbing the Harbour Bridge in the distance.

We took the ferry to the leafy suburb of Balmain where I perused the streets searching in vain for some clothes while Kirsten performed mummy duties back on the ranch. I was getting so sick of wearing the same five outfits that I was planning on ceremoniously burning them as soon as I got something new to wear. Alas, all I found was Chinese crap and old lady outfits. Then I went to the ‘bottle-o’ – the bottle shop – to get some booze for me and Kirsten to guzzle in the garden while the sun set.

“Where’s this card from then?” asked the bloke behind the counter, ogling my bank card when I tried to pay. When he found out it was from a Dutch bank, it started him off on a rant about how his mother, whose maiden name was Stoffels, was related to Rembrant’s wife and how his cousin had recently gone over to the flatlands and was treated ‘like royalty’ every time he mentioned his name. I had to suppress my snorts because everyone knows that even royalty isn’t treated like royalty in Holland. The conversation concluded with him saying, rather sadly, that “I’ll never get over to the Netherlands now. I’m married and am saving for a down payment on a house. And the surf’s no good there anyway… .”

The next day I walked what felt like the length and breadth of the city, enjoying playing my new favourite game of ‘guess the accent’. The guy I bought phone credit from was from Afghanistan (didn’t get that one), the girl in the coffee shop Russian, the girl in the pharmacy was Korean – I don’t think I spoke to an Australian the entire day.

At sunset I met Kirsten and Davy at the Orbit Bar, a revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of a giant tower block for just one exceedingly expensive cocktail. I enjoyed my cucumber mojito even though the movement of the floor made me feel slightly queasy.

A cucumber mojito. Che Guevara would be turning in his grave…

Off we went to Shady Pines Saloon Bar, an uber-trendy western ‘themed’ bar down a back alley, accessible by way of an unmarked graffiti-covered door, complete with a very large security guard lurking around outside. The all male bar staff looked like they had been imported straight from the trendiest bars on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, each one displaying perfectly coiffured facial hair – ‘ironic facial hair’ as Davy put it – and clad in 50s-inspired fashion du jour.

Pints of beer come with a bowl of monkey nuts and a little glass of spirit on the side. “The darkest beer you’ve got!” I demanded. When he asked me which spirit I’d like for a shooter I said ‘anything – except whiskey or vodka’. He looked at me like I’d just told him to shave off his handlebar moustache, deliberated with another hairy colleague for five minutes and then presented me with a glass of the darkest brown rum I’ve ever seen – Zacapa, a Guatemalan rum, the silkiest, tastiest rum I’ve ever tasted. As soon as we’d finished, we rushed off to The Local Taphouse for gourmet burgers and a beer tasting board – five small glasses of beer, one of which was beer brewed with chili – yack. Since we’d begun drinking at 17:00, we were pretty much on the floor by 23:00 and I flopped into bed hoping that I wouldn’t be devoured by mosquitos (or worse, bed bugs) all night again.

Manly, 17 km north of Sydney’s CBD, was Sunday’s destination, so called because when Captain Arthur Philip first sailed by, he saw two ‘manly’ looking natives and decided to call the place ‘Manly’ as a tribute to his closet homosexuality. Manly has been a seaside destination since the 1850s and the hulking Manly ferry is one of Sydney’s icons, transporting thousands of people every day. I think the entire population had the same idea as me and Manly was heaving, the Corso thronged with people scoffing ice cream and fish and buying up cheap souvenirs.

I ducked off the Corso and into a cheap-looking random cafe and ordered a ‘vegetarian sandwich’ from the two old Chinese men working there. A Chinese vegetarian sandwich, in case you’re interested, can be recreated thus: piece of toast, mayonnaise, piece of lettuce, mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, cheese, mayonnaise, slices of tomato and avocado, mayonnaise, cheese, mayonnaise, more mayonnaise and a garnish of mayonnaise, piece of aubergine, cheese, unidentifiable blob of brown stuff. I still have no idea what that was. I felt like I’d been drinking motor oil afterwards.

Mmm, the healthy option

I decided to have an early night as I had to get up indecently early to get to airport. And that, my friends, was the end of my Australian adventure.

And off to Busan

But before I returned to dreary old Amsterdam, I had one more stop on my travels; Busan, South Korea’s premier (only?) beach resort, to attend a conference. I’d been to Korea before and so I knew the drill upon arrival in the country: be scanned by thermo cameras for horrible diseases, laugh at amusingly translated signs, dash to mobile phone rental stall to acquire crap all-singing-all-dancing-mini-phone-with-bizarre-and-random-functions-and-incessant-warnings-in-Korean-even-though-you’ve-set-the-language-to-English and withdraw billions of banknotes with alarmingly large numbers on them from the ATM.

I got in a taxi. My taxi driver spoke no English and spent the entire time watching the tiny TV mounted on the dashboard while driving as fast as he possibly could, overtaking all kinds of vehicles being driven as fast as possible while their own drivers gazed at TV screens.

He’s really, actually, honestly watching TV!

I’d forgotten to check how far the hotel was from the airport and, after about 45 minutes driving through industrial estates and drab high rise housing complexes, I started to get a little bit nervous and my imagination started to run wild, remembering stories about those poor girls in Japan that washed up in pieces on a remote beach or ended up decomposing on someone’s balcony.

Just as I was about stab the guy in the neck with a biro and run for my life, we pulled into Haeundae Beach, the so-called ‘honeymoon capital of Korea’. Bright lights, happy couples and unhappy gamblers oozed out of every corner. It was 28 degrees at 23:00 and after a 13 hour journey, I needed air conditioning and sleep. And fast.

My room was festooned with the kind of bizarre and random objects that you only find in Asia, like the ubiquitous heated, arse-washing-and-blow-drying toilet,

Once you get used to having your arse blow dried, you’ll be smitten…

earthquake torch, smoke hood, electronic mosquito zapper and an escape ladder. The mini bar revealed further delights in the way of underwear and collagen facemasks.

It took all my willpower not to put on this mask and run down the corridor knocking on people’s doors…

Outside the entrance to the hotel, there were several high-powered air hoses for people to blast every last grain of sand off of their feet. They think of everything these Koreans.

You crazy foreigners blast off the sand. I’ll blast off your head instead

The next afternoon after the conference had finished, I headed over to the world’s biggest department store, Shinsegae Centum City, with Nathalie and Vymala and nearly had a heart attack, firstly over the vast size of the place, and secondly over the price of stuff in there. We halfheartedly tried to shove our porky feet into some shoes that were on sale while thirteen impeccably dressed sales girls smiled patiently at us, silently willing us to take our fat, ugly, sweaty western feet as far away from them as possible. We soon realised that the largest size available for most ladies’ shoes in Korea is the equivalent of a European size 36. Even with my relatively mini size 37 trotters, I felt like Cinderella’s wicked step sister. At one point, the staff started to point us towards the mens’ shoes, saying ‘Big! Big!’.

Available for midgets only

We decided to walk back to the hotel from the department store, which in hindsight was a bit stupid since it took us over two hours in 28 degrees and involved crossing a highway, prompting incredulous looks from anyone who passed us.

The next afternoon I went for a wander around the little market in the town, taking care not to look too closely into any shop selling meat in case I was greeted by the head of a previously fluffy labrador who was now currently sliced and diced up ready for chien-au-vin.

No puppy pie for me thanks

Nathalie, Emile and I then headed off to the beach in the next town because Emile – a budding surfer – had discovered that they had surfboards to rent. We arrived at the beach, and to our horror, discovered there were no umbrellas to hire. It being 1 September, the summer season had officially finished and all the umbrellas had been whisked away for hibernation.

The language of surf knows no boundries

I could already feel my skin threatening to blister and had visions of myself convulsing in a sun-stroked fever on the beach within minutes and ran, panicked, into the surf shop to ask if we could possibly hire some shade from them. A tiny, old lady then proceeded to run around for fifteen minutes until she came back with umbrella, procured from god knows where and thrust it into my hands saying “No charge! Bring back when finish thank you!” I almost cried with gratitude as she kow towed to me and scurried back to the surf shop.

After I’d slurped my iced green tea frapuccino thingy from the Starbucks-wannabe chain ‘Angel in us Coffee’ under our shady knoll a.k.a tatty umbrella, I decided to check out the water. It was a not very inviting shade of grey and had bits of plastic and old bottles in it as well as jelly fish bobbing about so I didn’t really feel like swimming.

Back in Haeundae, right on the corner near our hotel, a random guy had set up a table and was selling ‘cocktails in a bag’ for about two Euros. We visited him every night simply for the novelty factor.

And which flavour meths can I interest you in today ma’am?

I was probably drinking glow-in-the-dark meths but when in Rome and all that. Later that evening we hit Gecko’s, the bar on the beachfront where some of my colleagues had ingratiated themselves with the bar staff by ordering pretty much every single vulgar and filthily named shot they had on their menu. More than once. It seems some people never tire of saying ‘I’ll have another wet pink pussy please’.

This was the tame version…

My friend Chris has always said that, coming from Australia, he found it hard to find a beach that impresses him. After spending time in the amazing Whitsundays and seeing what the Gold Coast had to offer, now I understand his point. Haeundae Beach was very nice but it wasn’t anywhere near as beautiful as anything I’d seen in the past few weeks.

Please ignore the random stuffed kangaroo on my balcony…

The fact that there are no bins around doesn’t help much either and the picnicking teenagers and canoodling honeymooners seem to just leave all their rubbish behind to wash into the sea, which probably explains why the water was full of crap. After dark, Haeundae Beach and its promenade get packed with people enjoying the slightly cooler evening weather. One night we came across this bizarre couple and their dog having a picnic on the beach wall.

We’re practicing for a David Lynch movie….

What was even more bizarre was that people kept stopping to take pictures of them, locals too, not just us foreigners. They just acted as if they didn’t see us, she watching something on an iPad and intermittently feeding the dog crisps, and he staring, motionless, at the sea. Later, when we were holed up in Gecko’s, we saw them walking past; the poor little dog walking on its hind legs, wearing a hat and backpack.

After over four weeks away from home, I was getting excited to be heading back to Amsterdam, even though it hadn’t stopped raining in biblical proportions for the entire month I’d been away. Emile’s flight was leaving just before mine so we decided to share a taxi to the airport. He wanted to leave the hotel three hours before the flight, but I bargained him down, being someone who’d rather break their ankle running to the gate while the tannoy bellows ‘Passenger Gray, you are delaying the flight’ than sit in an airport and wait for more than ten minutes. We left at 07:30, two and a half hours before our flights. Here is where I must thank Emile for his extremely Dutch attitude to time-keeping and his extra smart advance planning skills, for if he had not insisted on us getting to the airport a bazillion hours ahead of our flights, I would not have been able to get on an earlier flight from Busan to Seoul and would have certainly missed my connection to Amsterdam. Here’s why:

I was flying to Seoul’s Gimpo airport and had to take the shuttle train to Seoul’s other airport, Incheon. I had allowed myself three hours to make the transfer, which was plenty of time according to all the websites I checked, all of which told me that it takes about 40 minutes. And that’s true. If you only count the actual time spent on the train and don’t count the fact that you have to walk from Gimpo airport via the longest pedestrian tunnel I’ve ever seen in my life to the train station, factoring in the 28 kilo backpack I was carrying (I am not joking, it was 28 kilos) because the airport luggage trolleys couldn’t be taken into the tunnel.

After about twenty minutes of walking, I arrived in the station practically bent double and tried to buy a ticket with my credit card because I’d spent all my cash. The girl in the booth told me that I had to pay cash and then said there was an ATM about 200 meters away but it probably wouldn’t accept my strange, foreign card. “Please,” I begged, “can I just leave my bag here while I try to get the money?”  She looked very uncomfortable and tried to say it wasn’t allowed but saw the desperation in my eyes. She came out of her booth and tried to drag the bag inside. She couldn’t even move it. “I just stand here with it,” she said. So, with a bit of luck, I managed to get the cash, buy the ticket and get the train.

After a 40 minute train ride, I arrived at Incheon, one of the most spread out airports I’ve ever been to. My check-in desk was as far away from the station as it could be. I staggered over there, checked in, then walked back to the arrivals terminal to return the mobile phone I’d rented, and then back again to the departures terminal to go through security. I stood in the queue for 25 minutes, fuming. By the time I’d got past immigration I was so hungry that I was contemplating chewing on my shoe laces. I headed to the nearest lounge which happened to be the first class lounge. I was shooed away from the elites as if I was a rabid cat and pointed in the direction of the correct lounge.

The boy on the reception desk told me that my gate was ‘very far away’ and I should go to one of the other lounges that were nearer to it. “I need coffee. And food,” I growled. He kow towed and backed away from me as if I was about to bite him. After I was replenished, I realised my flight was already boarding. I didn’t know that when the boy told me that my gate was very far away, what he actually meant was that it was almost in Japan. It took me ten minutes to walk to the train. And another ten minutes sitting on the train and then five minutes to hurdle my way to the gate, where the final call sign was flashing and I could tell they were getting ready to call my name.

I sat next to an old man who actually, physically, twiddled his thumbs for the entire ten hour flight, apart from the twenty minute break he took from twiddling to look longingly at several dictionaries he had inside a metal briefcase. He didn’t watch a film, read a book, fall asleep. You really couldn’t make it up.

And that really was the end of my summer adventure.

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