Jun 4, 2012

A summer vacation in the winter down under...

I don't know if the nomad in me just possessed me that day but all I know is that one random day at work, while looking for a good deal for a friend planning to fly down under, I ended up with tickets for myself (!!) whose itinerary looked thus :Hyderabad-Bangalore-Kuala Lumpur-Sydney-Melbourne- Sydney -Kuala Lumpur-Chennai- Bangalore- Hyderebad!   
Now I'm no stranger to traveling or international travel for matter, but from traveling with a group of 85+ people, to a backpacking trip to Thailand with my girl 'BFF' last year, an impromptu trip to a country halfway across the globe all by myself was a different ballgame!

The months after booking the tickets rolled on, eventful in their own ways, with a rather pushed-to-the-back-of-the-mind, excitement for the upcoming trip…. I don't know if I'm lucky or extremely careless, either ways, after being on the tenterhooks for my Australian tourist visa, it arrived TWO days before my trip which almost didn't happen...The fact that I might have bought myself a white elephant struck much later when the rupee plunged 55 to an Australian $ at an all time high and for a fat wad of Indian currency, I got TEN small notes of a hundred Australian Dollars each which meant this trip meant tightening the shoe-strings !

Day 1: Bangalore/Kuala Lumpur : In my 4 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, I happened to be sitting next to an Indian married couple and let me just say,by the end of the flight, I knew the Aunty's maiden name, her hobbies, her best friend's nephews' name, their hobbies, her philosophy on education , that she was carrying a a months' supply of khakras and frozen paneer butter masala on account of being a vegetarian and not trusting foreign foods much, and how much she admired me for "being a single girl and going alone to Malaysia" ! Only if she knew...

My first pittstop at KL was a city, I had been to exactly 5 years ago, except this time, I was no tourist with a group of 80 people, but a solo traveller… I had all of one day to re-explore this city, so immediately after landing at the LCCT ( that's the exclusive airport for low cost airlines! Way to make one feel poor Malaysia! ) , I got a hassle-free and generally free TWOV ( Transit without Visa) pass and took a bus to the city. I must say, no Asian city I've been to has impressed and surprised me as much as Kuala Lumpur has: right from it's beautiful and tech-intensive airport to its brilliant civic infrastructure ( read : wide, well manicured roads running smoothly alongside landscaped hills and highlands, triple-tier flyovers) to its vast public transport system and world class shopping malls, it has it all….After I reached Sunway Pyramid Mall, well past midnight, I saw one of the most spectacular sights ever...The full moon ( a super moon as I learned later) was shining bang over the head of a giant Sphinx - The symbol of this mall ! My friend Nandini and her friends picked me up and we went to her Malaysian friend's apt with a breath-taking view, played cards, drank Indian whisky that I picked up from the airport and passed out…..

Day 2: Kuala Lumpur : Next morning we chilled at the same mall trying the famous coolers at ' Chatime' and then after a local metro ride, I was once again standing under the iconic "Twin Towers". Still as majestic, beautiful and glittery as the last time.
After clicking a few pictures around, shopping in the LCCT mall, I took a train back to the airport for my flight to my main destination Sydney!

Day 3 : Sydney : The 8 hour flight to Sydney was comfortable, smooth but unfortunately this time no Indian families next to me to discuss my marriage plans with but an Ozzie girl who sat upright during the entire flight and when I asked her about it she said " I'm a natural gas inspector, it's my job staring at a drop of oil for hours!"

Thanks to a research done before, I got immediately on a bus to the house, I was going to call home for the next few days. Now here's a lil background. It's strange how connections made subconsciously and immediately almost forgotten at some point, re-bounce back in life and cross your paths again.. this trip was a witness to this anomaly every step of the way. I was on my way to stay with a person, I'd only met and connected with briefly at a party in Bangalore 2 years back and whose, ironically, face I hadn't seen properly, as it was  a halloween costume party i'd met him at! He ( bless him) and his lovely, newly-wedded wife opened up their sweet red-bricked apartment to me and made me feel truly at home in a country much away, and colder ( literally ^& figuratively) from my own.
After a rather insipid a flight meal, a welcome Indian lunch made by Jaishree( the wife), I rested off my jet lag and only got enough time to meet my friend ( the one for whom I originally looked up the flight tickets for , remember?) for a beer at the local bar "sovereign lounge' in the hood of burwood! ( my home for the next one week!)
But as the night would flip, I bought a $60 travel card that'd enable me to travel on any mode of local transport for the next one week in Au . We got to the the famous Sydney Harbour bridge and had a first look of the iconic Opera House, in the freezing night in all its illuminated glory of the city centre !
After a 2 hour midnight walk on the walkway along the harbor bridge and clicking some arty pictures, i took the train back to burwood and slept off my travel fatigue and first night in Australia.

Day-4 :Sydney : From a slight experience in travel that's short on time, I've learned that the trick to get the best out of time and a place is to start early, so at 8 am, all winter-suited up and raring to go ,I took the train for the central and made it in perfect time to meet an interesting, yet not much older than me, girl in a bright green tshirt, who took a group of eager (and pocket-conscious) travellers like me on  a "free walking tour" of the city. We walked and walked and walked some more. She took us to many heritage buildings and landmarks, beginning with the town hall to the famous hyde park, the talking dog, the art gallery , the NSW financial district, the british colony called the "rocks" ending perfectly at a point offering a scintillating view of the busy darling harbor ….
If anything that took my breath away about the city, it is its relaxed, corporate urban and yet hippy -like outdoor culture, the amazing amalgamation of Old world Architecture and modern skyscrapers all co-existing in a perfect visual treat..The multitude of sidewalk cafes, the most well dressed people, students and high flying execs alike,walking down the road non-chalantly in their designer & street-chic best, just before a kid would whizz by you on his rollerskates & at the same, a man well past his 80's peddling along on his bicycle! If you're lucky, they even greet you with the famous Australian "hey mate, have  agood one" !

After the tiring walk, which left me exhausted & famished, I landed up at the Sydney Branch of my company ! ( Yeah who goes to office on a vacation? )You would too if the office offered a brilliant view of the harbor while savoring the free gourmet lunch and chilling in a colorful, art-dekko office environment, located conveniently opposite a casino (!) and in the middle of all the action in the city!
After a very soothing noon spent at the office, I met up with a few of my friends in Sydney at the Darling Harbor. Basically this is a C shaped bay choc-a block with diners, cafes, pubs all, against the high rise CBD….in the night this place just.. glitters. No other word to describe the fun of sipping a coffee on the staircase overlooking the view, with your feet almost touching the water, and devouring  the lights & sounds of the city on a Thursday night, which as I learnt later, is the day when Sydney-ers get their pay and indulge the most in the week! Perfect.
The choice of a place to unwind that night was the much-recommended "opera bar" right at the entrance of the Opera house, which is a stunner, with live music, the perfect blend of of the yippies, the arties, and the travelers all revelling in the great view of the city and good times… After some great local wine and some yummy finger food here with my friends, Sunny and I trailed off on the roads filled (freshly-paid) Sydney-ers, and got back home….And i knew i was in love…with the city…How I lost my boots ( what would have been a winter saviour) that night would always remain a mystery that I'd never unravel..

Day 5: Sydney-Coastal: A chilly, sunless day this and after luxuriously sleeping in, I was off to the coastal part of the city to visit the famous Bondi Beach and embark on the iconic bondi-coogee coastal walk….I don't think I can do justice to this walk by putting it in words but if you're from India, you've seen nothing like it before…My definition of a coastline, but more than that, coast-life changed forever after this walk…This 7km walk starts at the bondi beach and goes along a well paved walkway alongside the coast , passing on one side, the rocks, never once losing sight of the turqiuse pacific ocean… Even though the entire walk is one big landmark, there is a spot every 5 minutes you'd want to stop at and let your eyes just soak up the infinity of the sea beyond and the path along ahead…
I passed several beautiful rock formations, a few beaches, dotted with happy Australian families complete with kids, babies and dogs out to have a good time, enjoying their nature they have preserved and maintained only too well...
Towards the end of this walk, I passed through of the most poignantly beautiful- cemeteries, perched on a hillslope, overlooking the blue sea….( Remember Dil Chahta Hai?) If life and death had to merge this beautifully ever, this was it…
The sun was about setting, it was getting colder and I was alone….I came back to the hustle of the CBD  hung around at the circular quay , watching the happy people just done with office, out to enjoy the weekend….
I'd save the other details of the night, but all I know is that I found myself partying with a Brazilian guy, whose name I have trouble remembering at a pub called "Scary Canary" and called it a night by 1 ! ( yeah for all my complaining about the 11: 30 cinderalla deadline of Bangalore, I called the night at 1 in one of the most nightlife-happy cities in the world!

Day 6 : Sydney/Melbourne Today was going to be the day I felt on top of the world- literally! My Pilot-in-training friend " Viral " from Hyderabad who's doing his flight training in Sydney, very generously offered to take me on an aerial ride of/over Sydney! After putting my best aviation-cool on, I got on the first chopper of my life. Viral flew us over the city, and suddenly the beauty of the city was an organized plan from up-top ! Little hut shaped houses, tiny cars moving rhythmically interspersed with turquoise pools and green splotches…After a bit of this we progressed above the coastline of Sydney, that I was a part of less than 24 hours ago….And now I see the majestic coastline in all its blueness , down below us…It was infinite sea wherever you looked out from the chopper, and the C shaped Bondi Beach on the side…The happy, fun people of Sydney -now midgets of the sea….
We also passed the beautiful wallimoogong range of highlands/mountains on our way back…
An hour ride of the Sydney Skies and a smooth landing later, I was back in the CBD, this time hoping to do some local shopping which I did by losing my way into the Paddy's market….This market is a huge weekend market that sells everything from fresh fruit, meat, fish and a plethora of souvenirs! Just the perfect place to pick up the famous Australian aboriginal boomerang and the usual touristy Sydney-branded China-made shot glasses and fridge magnets without which any true-blooded tourist's trip is incomplete...

As planned, the same evening, I landed in another big city - Melbourne to see my good friend from college -Yamini ... Melb on the first sight comes across as a chilly, cold stranger that you don't want to make friends with..( possibly also cos it was less than 5 degrees when i arrived) but as you explore and unravel the city as I was to, it'd start to grow on you...After a 2 hour bus & train ride,it was almost unreal, standing at the door my friend of 8 years, in a place 3000miles away, seeing her after 4 years,! The night was too chilly and the house was too cozy so yamini, her flatmate, and a friend and me, just talked, laughed , sang, ate, drank wine, and slept a very well-deserved sleep!

Day 7: Melbourne :  Going with my starting early traveling-tenet, I dragged poor Yamini  out of the comfy bed on an extra-cold Melb morning .Even the 8 degrees and the chronic rain couldn't wash away our gung-ho to explore the city & with our freshly purchased umbrellas, and a tram ride,we first started with the local "Queen Victoria's " market which is just like the paddys market in Sydney. Here we came across an aboriginal centre where the shopkeeper was a rare surviving abo himself. After an hour long conversation and 3 CDs of didgeridoo solos later, we were out of the market and hopped on a quaint " tram" that's a free service to explore the popular landmarks of Melb.
We were drenched and our craving to get some warm on was satiated with freshly made "pintxos" , coffee and smoke sitting on the patio of the very curious place called "naked for satan" at the very-happening Flitzroy street…We followed by a walk-in a bookstore called "really weird shit", an antique store called "shag" and a browse in the local artisans market. The street walls around melb city are the most beautiful assortment of colorful graffiti with everything from grunge art to manga to famous cartoons , the graffiti pleased to the art-rat to me... 
A little more walking done,Yamini got me to the famous federation square which is where you see the central Melb at its best…. We sat on the steps of the Moving Images museum, flanked by imposing British-style buildings, churches with tall spires, the classic flinder's street station on one side and the modern financial giant buildings and the art-dekko spike of the art gallery on the other…Not to describe any more, you want to see, hear and feel Melbourne in all its bigcityness, cosmo-ness, lights , sounds, and business, grab a beer and sit on these steps, right here….
The evening was getting chillier which necessitated alcohol in our system to warm up so Yamini and I went to a place that was literally the best "watering hole" , I've been to . "Pomfret" is a bar located right under the bridge of the Yarra river, with tall wooden chairs and natural outdoor torches for light & heating…The place almost feels like being on a boat, with the river sparkling & flowing on the side, the entire Melbourne skyline on view on the periphery.
After the most welcome drink of "Mulled wine" which is basically a mix of herbs infused in warmed warmed wine, we walked back around a bit more and decided to call it a day, given out achy bodies , my broken shoes, and the evening that just didn't stop getting colder. A well-spent day, exploring the art, the culture & the city of Melbourne ended with a home-made dinner and some chilling (warming?) by the fireplace  …

Day 8: Melbourne still had a lot to offer and I had very little time. So without much ado , we set off straight to the art gallery of Victoria that showcases works of different, established and upcoming artists every week.
Next Yamini took me to the famous Kilda beach, which is as SFO as Melbourne gets. The neat roads are lined up with bars, cafes and quaint bakeries with the most drool-inducing produce on display and smells wafting in the air.. We sampled a few that sinful stuff at "monarch bakery" with a cheesecake and other goodies I forget from a temporary deactivation of any other senses than taste and smell.
Now that I was ready to drown myself and die happy,we did some beach bumming, shell-picking at the Kilda beach and 2 hours later I was in the flight back to Sydney….
Sydney felt like coming back home, for a place I'd just got to 4 days before….Tired from the traveling, I decided to spend the day at my friend's in the hood and go to bed early for another action-packed tomorrow…

Day 9: Ever since I knew I was going to Australia, I've  wanted to see 2 things.
1) Koala
2) Kangaroo
(come on, how can you come back without seeing the national animal of Australia? It's different that it's also the only national animal in the world that's also a culinary delicacy :)
This was my penultimate day in Australia and I knew today's all I had to check off these 2 off my list. Unfortunately, kangaroos and koalas don't roam around freely on the roads in Australia like cows and dogs in India. So choosing to visit a national park, over the famous Hunter Valley and indulging in some wine-tasting, was a tough but natural decision.
I had to make the best use of my day so I planned a trip to the locally-recommended "Blue Mountains" - a hill station located about 2 hours away from Sydney City and did the 'featherdale national park " located enroute.I finally had my first sighting of a Kangaroo here! But hold on just 2 puny Kangaroos for a $25 is not what I signed up for! But as a further trail into the park would reveal, there were Kangaroos every step of the way! Eating, playing, mating, trying to mate ( oh yeaaah.....them Kangaroos are horny animals!), running about, there were kangaroos everywhere….Small kangaroos, large kangaroos, albino Kangaroos....I think watching a joey ( as a kangaroo baby is called) jump in and out of the mother's pouch is one of the most amazing nature's wonders you'd ever see….One moment you see a bit of the kangaroo baby leg and the next you see its head rearing out of the pouch and Lo! it jumps out, trots around and hops back into the safe haven with the mother licking the baby to comfort at every chance! After a lot of awwww-moments, I turned to mush again at my first encounter with Koalas!
Remember those little snap-on, stuffed koala-bear toys made famous by a  hindi music album from early 2000 ( chui mui si tim lagti ho)that ultimately ended on our bags and curtains?
Yeah, the koalas are just like it!!! They cling to every damn thing in sight and now officially top my list of adorable animals!
When i was done plotting plans to abduct a koala & smuggle it back home to India with me, i checked out a few other exotic animals at the park and came back to the station to travel further up to the blue mountains….
Now Katoomba is a hill station perched on a height of 3000ft above sea level, the temperature drops 10 degrees down from the normal, the houses are prettier and bigger and the air is fresher and chillier. Without bothering to hop on any $25 tour buses to see the sights around, i trekked my way up to the 'echo point' to get a view of the famous '3 sister formations'. Truth be told, if you're from India and you've been to the highest mountain ranges in India ( i,e the Himalayas), blue mountains would barely impress you much but the very fact that a little piece of purity, beauty and yet a modern, developed town characteristic of a 1st world country, was just a couple of hours drive away from the city, is what made the visit worth it. After managing to get a few pictures in the edgeways, ( Thanks to what seemed to be a Korean Invasion at that point ) I did some soul-soothing at a cafe over looking the mountains and picked up a books at a local bookstore on sale. I was back to Sydney by evening and well in time to make to the dinner that a friend and his wife invited me to at their harborside residence.
I took the train and and for the first time a ferry which I found to be one of the most beautiful ways to get a view of the Opera house, the Harbor bridge and the majestic skyline of Sydney all in one ride! Much to my fascination, my friend's house is located right by the river with the same view from their window! 
A wonderful conversation, an Indian home-made dinner and one very intense (if a little envious )view-gazing was the perfect end to my last night in Sydney….

Day 10 : Sydney/KL : I had less than half a day left in Sydney before my flight back to KL, So i decided to explore my hood for one last time…Truth is, I didn't want to leave the place and wanted as much time as logistically possible to soak in the city, even if it meant walking down the road aimlessly, lugging 30+ kgs of luggage, taking it all in for one last time…
I reached KL ( and what would be 3rd time In Malaysia around 6 and after the same immigration formalities as the last time, I took a bus straight to the Suleing wall mall and the petronas towers…
As a funny twist of co-incidence have it, I realized from a stamp in my passport, that I had been at the exact 2 spots in KL, exactly 5 years back!
I took the monorail and caught a drink at a local bar, finding it difficult to  acknowledge that I'd almost reached the end of this journey...

Day 11: Chennai/Bangalore.
I was in Chennai a few hours later and i kid you not, i wanted to disappear and sneak back into the flight to take me back..anywhere,..anywhere at all…but Chennai…Don't get me wrong, but if you've freshly transversed via some of the world' s best airports , have spent 8 days in  <10 degrees temperature combined with severe post-vacation blues and dumped at one of the world's worst airports, in heat measuring upwards of 40degrees, life is suddenly not very pretty…
I  immediately took a bus down to Bangalore and I was back home again….

Day 15th and counting : It's been almost a month since I went on this trip and mind's flooded with so many emotions but mostly of gratitude towards people who helped make it smooth for me :) Safe to say, I went on the trip solo, but in my paths met some amazing people, reconnected with some old connections and came back with some great new friends....I Wouldn't be exaggerating if I said, I'm hungover… I'm hungover on the beauty that Australia was, I'm hungover on all the trains/buses/ferries i took to explore the country (or a tiny part of it as it were) the people, the zillion roadside cafes,  even the expensive $4 coffee….. I miss asking people to "Can you take a picture please" , I miss saying " have a good one, mate" when getting off another bus in the city…. but above all, I miss feeling at home while being 1000s of miles away from home...
Until the next destination, Bon voyage to me!


aloknever4u said...

Nicely written and very well constructed :) I felt like floating in Sydney while I was reading the content :)

Deepa Kalro said...

Natural Gas Inspector! It cracked me first but wow this stuff is so cool, new place new ppl and new animal love ;)...Anyways you've enticed the traveler in me now somebody take me there :|
Great read :)