Paying Guests Only

April 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Although, at first glance, they may appear to be public property, the neat rows of comfortable-looking deck chairs that line the beaches in Kefalonia have not been supplied as an act of generosity by the local council; they are, in fact, rentals owned by nearby resorts, that you are expected to pay for when the staff come around with a collection tin.

Failure to recognise this important fact can lead to serious embarrassment, because not knowing a fee is payable means there’s a considerable chance your wallet will be back at the hotel when said fee is suddenly requested (a beach is, after all, a fairly likely place for people to be traveling without a wallet). Apparently, the fact there are no signs to indicate the existence of this practice is not a valid defence for non-payment, because – according to the guy with the tin, anyway – it’s considered “common knowledge”.

Now, while this may very well be common knowledge to Europeans, I will defend my inability to pay (and subsequent sheepish defection to a patch of sand further down the beach) by stating that, in Australia, the idea of charging people to use a seat on the beach would be considered, at best, mildly opportunistic, at worst, downright anti-social. In Europe, however, it’s apparently common practice.

Considering they charge to use public restrooms here though, it’s probably not something that should surprise me.

Sandy beach

The “economy” seating area of the beach

Categories: Greece Tags: , , , ,

Buy a Drink or Get Out

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

While bars and nightclubs at home in Australia are required, by law, to follow strict guidelines regarding the responsible service of alcohol, it seems the same is not true of similar establishments in Japan.

On a recent visit to Roppongi (a popular, yet slightly dubious, nightlife district in Tokyo) I noticed that many clubs have an enticing “no cover charge” entry policy, but make it abundantly clear from large signs on the walls that if you aren’t drinking, you will be immediately ejected from the premises.

The deal is, if you’re spotted sans glass for more than a few seconds, one or more sizeable bouncers will approach and politely ask if they can get you another drink. If you say “yes”, they will cheerfully make their way to the bar for you, and a fresh drink – along with exact change – will be in your hand in under a minute. If, on the other hand, you choose to challenge their policy by saying “no”, you will be given one final chance to reconsider – this time with the typical Japanese politeness noticeably less evident – before being escorted into the street by the full complement of bouncers on staff. Of course, by “escorted”, I mean unceremoniously ejected with as much force as necessary.

I discovered this latter part after witnessing a friend – who had been attempting to subvert the system by carefully nursing the remnants of a lukewarm drink – challenge the rules, only to find out the hard way that the bouncers don’t take kindly to people attempting to negotiate what is clearly a non-negotiable policy.

In short, the lesson to be learned from all of this is simple: If you don’t plan on drinking in one of these places, you shouldn’t plan on staying long.

Sign stating "Everybody must be drinking to stay"

...and they mean it

A Mexican Dessert You’re Unlikely to See at Taco Bell

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment
Female Silouhette

The "Tijuana Special"

As anyone who regularly dines out would know, restaurant staff frequently utilise “upsell” questions to encourage additional spending by patrons. Common examples I’m sure most people have encountered include, “Do you want fries with that?“ and, “Would you like to see the dessert menu?”

Asking diners if they’d like a hooker with their lunch, however, is probably not something most establishments would consider normal practice.

At least that’s what I assumed prior to visiting Tijuana, a place where they clearly have a very different idea about what is considered normal.

It was here that I was introduced to a whole new level of customer service when, after a meal at a popular restaurant, my traveling companion and I were approached by the grinning proprietor and, instead of being offered dessert as expected, were asked if we would like some “ladies”.

Now, at first, we were a little confused as to precisely what he was offering, but it soon became apparent  – mainly from his crude hand gestures – that he was attempting to supply us with a couple of prostitutes for some after-dinner “entertainment”.

Fortunately, my companion – a guy I had admittedly met just a few days earlier and knew very little about – was as disinclined as I was to visit an illegal Mexican brothel (or any such establishment, I should point out), and we politely declined the offer in favor of another Corona. This is a compromise we felt was wise under the circumstances, as offending a Tijuana pimp seemed like something we should try to avoid if at all possible.

I suspect that had we accepted his offer though, the next “upsell” would have been a couple of cheap penicillin shots and a tube of extra-strength Zovirax from one of Tijuana’s notorious “no prescription required” drug vendors.

With all due respect to the ‘ladies” in question, I have a strong suspicion we would have needed both very shortly.

Why I’ve Never Seen the Sistine Chapel

January 2, 2012 1 comment
St Peter's Basilica

A Vatican City ceiling that I did actually get to see

Just how long is too long to stand in a queue?

The answer I suspect most people would give is that it depends entirely upon the event or attraction for which said queue has formed.

Now, while this may be true, I have discovered there is definitely a limit to how much patience a person can have, no matter how desirable the attraction at the other end of the line.

The reason I bring this up is because I recently attempted to visit the the Sistine Chapel on a morning it was reopened to the public after several days of preservation work (a fact I was unfortunately unaware of until I arrived at the entrance). This extended closure meant the number of people wanting to get inside – fairly sizeable even on a good day – had multiplied significantly, with close to a week’s worth of tourists now clamoring for entry at the one time.

On top of this, it was also a Wednesday, meaning the Pope (apparently he’s quite popular amongst those who frequent the Vatican) was giving his weekly address to the masses, inflating the number of people in the vicinity even further. Consequently, the line to enter the museum was absurdly long…about forty minutes long, in fact.

Now, before you say that forty minutes doesn’t sound like too long a wait for something as noteworthy as the Sistine Chapel, you might reconsider when you realise it wasn’t taking forty minutes to get from the end of the line into the Museum…it was taking forty minutes to walk from the Museum entrance to the end of the line.

If you’re confused, think about it carefully for a moment, and you’ll realise that’s one very long queue.

Even before we discovered how long it actually was, the vision of a gargantuan line snaking off into the distance and out of sight around the city wall was a fairly sizeable deterrent to going inside. Deciding, however, that the pay-off of seeing the Chapel exceeded the pain of an extended wait, my companion and I bravely set off to find the end. After following the line in vain for more than a kilometre though, it began to dawn on us just how long a wait we were in for and our enthusiasm began to seriously wane.

Ten minutes later, when we found ourselves still walking, yet not even remotely in sight of the end, we gave up any thought of actually getting inside and began following it simply for amusement value. The estimate of a six hour wait by one of the museum staff we spoke to along the way did nothing to help us reconsider abandoning our plans and doing something else.

Eventually, after another kilometre of solemn trudging, we did reach the last person in the queue (a forlorn and defeated looking figure if ever I saw one), but the thought of jumping in behind him and beginning a slow six hour shuffle to the Museum entrance was no longer even remotely appealing. Perhaps if I’d been staying another week, I might have considered it, but as it was my last day in Europe before flying back to Australia, it was hard to justify spending my remaining time standing in the street, waiting for a five minute glimpse of the Sistine Chapel, when I could walk away and spend my final afternoon viewing the multitude of other amazing sights on offer in Rome.

Not surprisingly, this is exactly what I did and that’s why, to this day, I’ve still never seen the Sistine Chapel.

Roommates From Heck

December 31, 2011 3 comments
Fawlty Towers Hotel Pensione Sign

Sadly, there was no rude, short-fused proprietor here to put obnoxious guests in their place

The worst thing about staying in a hostel dormitory is that you have absolutely no control over who sleeps in the room with you. Sometimes you get lucky and find yourself sharing with friendly, interesting, considerate people who make your stay enjoyable; other times, it’s only the memory of the foreign prison in Midnight Express that stops you from strangling all of your roommates in their sleep. Although none of the people described below are offensive enough to receive the noteworthy distinction of “Roommate From Hell”, they’re all irritating enough to make it on to a list of commonly encountered pains-in-my-ass I’ve dubbed “Roommates From Heck”. On the off chance anyone reading this falls into one of the categories listed, I’ve included a personal message to let you know precisely how I feel about your behaviour.


Anti-Soap Guy

I understand that sometimes, after travelling for months on end, social niceties like personal hygenie can become a chore. If, however, you make the decision to avoid washing for your entire trip, you forfeit the right to complain when I open a window for air, no matter how hot or cold it is outside.

Light-Switch Guy 

While I have no problem with my roommates going out and returning to the hostel at four in the morning per se (traveling is supposed to be fun, after all), I do believe that anyone incapable of making their way from the door to their bunk, without turning on every light in the room, SHOULD BUY A GODDAMNED TORCH.

One Hundred Decibel Guy

Yes, I’m aware that your non-stop, jackhammer snoring is an involuntary act that occurs while you’re asleep, but I plan to claim the same defence in court after I smother you with a pillow in the middle of the night.

“I Just Scored” Guy (and Friend)

I’m not sure if you realise, but when someone tells you to “get a room”, they generally mean a private room…we don’t need to hear whatever it is you’re doing over there.

Noxious Gas Guy

While having twelve guys sleeping in the one room makes it possible to silently pass wind with little to no chance of being blamed, it’s still considered socially unacceptable to inflict that kind of respiratory distress upon your roommates.

“Why Carry a Backpack When I Can Use Plastic Shopping Bags?” Guy

What’s that you say? This doesn’t sound too bad? Well, just wait until it’s 5:00 AM and I start shoving my stuff into plastic bags two feet from your ear, then you can tell me how f**cking bad you think it sounds.

Too Much Information Guy

Seriously dude, put some pants on.

Stay tuned for further installments of this list…it’s guaranteed to grow the instant I set foot in another hostel dorm room.

“Normal” is a Relative Word

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment
Tsunami Evacuation Route Sign

A road sign you're unlikely to see on the driving test back home

The Cook Islands is a place where things happen just a little differently to the rest of the world. A unique combination of isolation, ethnic diversity and a so-laid-back-it’s-almost-horizontal approach to life, means situations that seem perfectly normal to locals will often appear slightly out of left field to vistors from more developed Western countries. If you’re visiting and find yourself experiencing an above average level of weirdness (and if you’re staying for any length of time, there’s a fair chance you will), relax…this is just how things happen here.

Some common examples of Cook islands “normality” include:

– Paying US $250 a night to stay at a hotel where the supplied in-room entertainment consists of a twenty-year-old AM radio and communal newspaper.

– Making a purchase at the local store and receiving your change in the form of triangular coins and a three-dollar bill.

– Sitting on the deck of your hotel drinking Coke instead of beer, because you haven’t properly catered for the fact that the sale of alcohol is banned on Sundays.

– Dining at an upmarket restaurant and spotting three different species of lizard crawling across the walls and ceiling.

– Opening the door of your hotel room to find an entire family of chickens roosting on the front step.

– Attempting to relax and enjoy your beachfront accommodation, when you’ve walked past at least a dozen different “tsunami evacuation route” signs since arriving on the island.

– Questioning the need to spend hundreds of dollars on an expensive child restraint for your car, because it’s been clearly demonstrated that the rear tray of a utility vehicle is a perfectly valid method of transporting kids.

– Taking a five-minute stroll from your hotel to the local shops and crossing paths with at least five different farmyard animals, despite the fact you’re not even remotely near a farm.

If you manage to go more than a day in the Cook Islands without ticking off at least half of these experiences, I’d advise taking a closer look at your flight details…you may very well be in the wrong country.

The Rude Traveler

August 30, 2011 Leave a comment
Gulf of Finland

If you're going to piss people off, don't do it somewhere it's easy to dump a body

After many years of traveling, I have reached the conclusion that no matter which part of the world you visit, you’re guaranteed at least once in your journey to cross paths with the universally despised creature known – in polite conversation at least – as “the rude traveler”.

My most recent encounter with one of these unpleasant individuals occured on a passenger ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn, where – after having just found myself a comfortable seat in the ship’s television lounge – I was trying hard to concentrate on not doing what I generally do at sea, which is get rapidly and debilitatingly seasick. It was while quietly contemplating the effectiveness of my chosen medication (side note: never buy pharmaceuticals unless the dosage instuctions are in English) that I witnessed a middle-aged European man stride in with his wife, change the channel from the one that had been playing since the ship left shore, then casually sit down to watch his new choice of show.

Now, as far as I was concerned, this abrupt change in programming wasn’t a huge issue, as my near-complete ignorance of the local language meant the level of enthusiasm I was able muster for Finnish daytime television was fairly minimal. The lounge full of people who had been watching the TV, however, were clearly more invested in what was happening than I was and seemed rather taken aback at the audacity of the man’s actions.

After a few moments of silence and blank stares – in which the entire room seemed to be telepathically asking each other, “Is this guy for real?” – there was a loud murmur of protest, before one of the offended viewers jumped up and switched back to the original channel, angrily chastising Mr Rude as he did so.

It quickly became obvious though, that incurring the wrath of close to twenty fellow travelers was not an issue for this particular individual, for as soon as the offended viewer was back in his seat, Mr Rude stood up, fllcked the channel back to his choice of program and sat down again to watch it. Rather astonishingly, he then then had the balls to criticise the other man for interrupting his viewing.

Not surprisingly, this resulted in an immediate declaration of war from the offended viewer and for the next minute, the two combatants leapt up and down from their seats, flicking the switch back and forth in a ridiculously comical “duck season, rabbit season” scenario. The entire exchange was accompanied by a fairly heated flow of words in what I presume was either Finnish or Estonian (or possibly both; neither seemed to be getting their point of view across to the other particularly well), as well as a variety of heckling and insults from the crowd.

The situation escalated well beyond the point of total absurdity before the rude traveler finally realised he wasn’t going to get his way and grumpily stormed off – haughty-looking wife in tow – presumably to try his luck in the lounge on the other side of the ship.

With order once again restored to the universe (or at least the television lounge, anyway), I was left to ponder the following question: Is the person who does this sort of thing too stupid to realise they’re being an a**hole, or are they just too much of an a**hole to actually care?

I guess the sad fact is, either way, they’re an a**hole….and they’re coming soon to a plane, train, or Finnish/Estonian ferry service near you. 

The Island of Convenience Stores

After two weeks in Waikiki, I have determined that the maximum distance it is possible to walk in any direction without coming across an ABC covenience store is 12.6 metres.

Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration – it’s probably more like 20 metres – but I can still assure you that these things are everywhere. It’s as though the local government has concluded the entire economy of Hawai’i will catastrophically collapse if visitors are not, at all times, within four seconds walk of everything they could possibly ever need.

A quick spot of research on the internet reveals that the central Waikiki area contains a positively absurd thirty-seven stores within a one mile radius. On top of that, one of the busier parts of the city has four shops at a single intersection – literally one on every corner.

Now, I’m not sure about you, but this strikes me as just a tad over the top. I know there are a lot of fat American tourists on the island, but has society really reached the point where people can’t even cross the road to buy a Snickers?

Having said that, the proliferation and product range of these establishments is extremely convenient. The list of items I’ve bought there in the past fortnight includes sandwiches, beach towels, sunscreen, diving equipment, ice cream, souvenirs, magazines and clothing. Most appealingly, they sell Canadian Club for US $9.99 a bottle, which is cheaper per litre than some of the soft drinks at my local 7-11 back home, and offer it alongside a much tastier range of snacks.

The downside to this, of course, is that I now fear spending further time here will lead to me becoming one of the aforementioned people who are too fat and lazy (or intoxicated) to cross the road to buy such things.

Oh well, at least when I start posting images of myself looking like Marlon Brando in The Island of Doctor Moreau, you’ll know why.

View of the ocean at Waikiki Beach

As far as I could ascertain, this is the only location in Waikiki that doesn’t have an ABC store

La Ville de Merde

Eiffel Tower

Look up at your own risk

Paris has a reputation as a city of tremendous beauty, and rightly so. The Eiffell Tower, Notre Dame, the banks of the Seine, the Louvre; there are enough amazing sights to fill this entire page and still not list everything.

There is, however, one notable feature of the city that resides squarely at the opposite end of the beauty spectrum, and that is the positively staggering volume of canine excrement that litters the streets

Yes, that’s right, despite all it’s charm and sophistication, Paris has a serious problem with poop.

Even before lunch on my first day in the city, I had lost count of the times I found myself momentarily distracted by a beautiful building or streetscape, only to look down and realise evasive action was urgently required. Considering the majority of visitors to the city spend a significant percentage of their time staring up at the scenery, the prevalence of these ugly deposits presents a rather obvious problem.

A quick investigation on Google shows that an astonishing twenty tons of this stuff is left on the streets of France every day (my sympathies to the guy who had to go around collecting and weighing it all to figure that out), with around 650 people injured each year after slipping on it. Apparently, these freakish stats are a result of France having one of the highest per capita rates of pet ownership in the world.

Now, while I’m certainly glad the French are so passionate about providing homes for their furry friends, really, how goddamned difficult is it to carry a plastic bag with you when you leave the house? Seriously, walking the streets here requires more nimble footwork than a trek through Cambodia.

Don’t get me wrong, Paris is a great city and a wonderful place to visit, but it really does, quite literally, need to sort its s**t out.

Categories: France Tags: , , , ,

Judder Bars and Angry Seals

April 28, 2011 1 comment

Despite the fact it’s just a short flight from Melbourne (the city in which I’ve resided for thirty-something years), New Zealand is always capable of surprising me. Listed below are some of the discoveries I made on a recent drive around the North Island:

1) New Zealand fur seals are rather adorable…until you move, stare or breathe in a way that displeases them, then they suddenly display all the charm of a rabid grizzly bear that’s just been sprayed with mace.

2) Judging by the obsession local drivers have with overtaking, the posted highway “limit” of 100km/h appears to indicate the slowest speed at which you can safely travel without being laughed at by pensioners on their way to church.

3) In such a picturesque country, a casual, relaxed drive along “the scenic route” is always preferable to taking the highway…except when the aforementioned scenic route degenerates into a narrow, twisting goat track, skirting the edge of an unfenced cliff face. In this case, it’s about as relaxing as a game of Russian roulette.

4) Contrary to what baffled tourists may suggest, the commonly-encountered road sign alerting drivers to the nearby presence of a “judder bar” does not refer to any of the following:

– A New Zealand strip club franchise

– A popular local confectionary product

– A mystical creature from the Harry Potter novels

A judder bar is, in fact, the New Zealand term for a speed hump.

5) The quirk in New Zealand geography that allows you to stand at the southern end of the North island and see the South Island to the North-West makes navigating your way around this part of the country far more confusing than it should be.

Additionally, I also discovered that travelling to the world’s southernmost capital city in the middle of winter is a guaranteed method of generating complaints about the temperature from my accompanying fiancee…although I probably could have guessed that before I left.

New Zealand fur seal

A New Zealand fur seal: Cute until it attempts to rip your arms off

Try Not to Look Like a Tourist

March 27, 2011 Leave a comment
Foggy street in Edinburgh

Not exactly the ideal place, time or conditions in which to be lost.

One of my key rules when travelling in a foreign country is “Always look like you know where you’re going”. While there’s obviously no point in being paranoid about your surroundings, I tend to believe that doing things that clearly draw attention to the fact you’re from out of town – such as standing in the middle of the street, staring vacantly at a giant map – are an open invitation for less scrupulous people to take advantage of you.

Knowing my stance on this, you should therefore be able to understand just how lost I was when a gang of extremely inebriated Scottish hooligans found me by the side of the road one night, attempting to make sense of not just a map, but the entire Edinburgh street directory.

This rather unfortunate turn of events came about after I had arrived in town very late at night and attempted, rather optimistically it turns out, to make my way by foot from the train station to the hostel on the other side of the city (a taxi being completely out of the question on my backpacker’s budget).

Having very quickly become lost – and being in that distant, dark era before iPhones with GPS facilities – I stumbled into what appeared to be the only open store in all of Edinburgh, hoping to find a small convenient map. Unfortunately, they weren’t offering anything that even remotely fitted this description, so I purchased the only thing that I thought would aid me, which was a large, inconvenient street directory (thankfully very cheap, otherwise my whole “no taxi” idea would have been rather redundant).

As it was almost the middle of the night and the streets were practically deserted, I didn’t think it would be too much of an issue to occasionally stand under a street light and drag out the aforementioned purchase in order to work out where I was supposed to go. Unfortunately for me, however, the first time I did this, a severely intoxicated group of eight or so very sizeable Scottish lads appeared out of the darkness and made a beeline toward me to enquire exactly what it was I thought I was doing.

Now, considering I was carrying a backpack and holding an open street directory in my hand, my usual pretense of acting like a local who knew exactly where they were headed didn’t strike me as a logical option in this situation. I was therefore forced to nervously admit I was from Australia, had just arrived in Scotland and had absolutely no idea where I was going. It was while anxiously awaiting their response to this information that I realised there was a very high probability I was about to be forcibly deprived of my wallet, backpack, shoes and several vital organs.

Fortunately for me, however, the group surrounding me turned out not to be the unruly mob of soccer-stadium-destroying hooligans I had initially feared, but simply a jovial bunch of lads on their way home from the pub. Although they looked imposing during their initial charge out of the darkness, not only did they turn out to be exceptionally friendly, but they actually walked me a fair distance toward my hostel, then gave me perfect directions on how to make it the rest of the way.

A good example of why you should never judge people before getting to know them.

Categories: Scotland Tags: , , ,

Moroccan Chestnuts

February 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Misadventures in African Cuisine – Volume 2

Several times during my journey through Morocco, I witnessed locals standing in the street, cooking small brown objects in large metal drums. Initially, I assumed they were simply roasting chestnuts, so I didn’t pay too much attention. After a few days, however, I began to realise these “chestnuts” were receiving a disproportionally high level of interest, so I decided to take a closer look.

It was at this point I discovered the objects in question weren’t chestnuts at all; they were, in fact, snails.

Now, I’m not averse to new culinary experiences while abroad – hell, just read the previous entry from Morocco – but I must say that these things did not look even remotely like something I would consider putting in my mouth. In fact, on a scale of snail edibility (admittedly, a fairly limited scale), these definitely seemed to belong more in the “garden pest”, rather than “fine cuisine”, category

From what I could gather, once a batch is suitably blackened, the custom is to spear them with a toothpick, detach them from their shells (disturbingly, they’re still attached by some type of internal snail goo), then consume them whole…along with the steaming bowl of smelly water in which they’re served.

Or you can do as I did, which is beat a hasty retreat to look for a dinner slightly less nauseating.

Categories: Morocco Tags: , , , , ,

Memoirs of a Novice Backpacker

January 18, 2011 2 comments
Irish Castle Ruins

One of the more well-maintained backpacker hostels in Europe

Staying in a hostel dorm room is an experience quite unlike anything else. Unless you join the army or get evacuated to the local football stadium during a hurricane, It’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself crammed into a bedroom with a dozen or more total strangers. Okay, some people might, but generally for reasons it’s best we don’t go into here (there are plenty of other websites catering for that sort of thing, if you’re so inclined).

Personally, while I appreciate the opportunity to meet and socialise with fellow backpackers, I also enjoy spending the night in places that are comfortable, quiet and free of people annoying the hell out of me while I’m trying to sleep – all things a hostel dorm room is generally not. Consequently, I was a little uneasy prior to my first ever night of communal bunking.

In an attempt to initiate myself into this brave new world of low-budget travel as painlessly as possible, I suggested to my travelling companion that we book our beds in advance; this way we would only need to concern ourselves with actually staying in a dorm room, not trudging around all day with our heavy packs trying to find one at short notice as well.

My companion, however – an experienced traveller with a distinct preference for making her plans on the fly – obviously felt this was just the cautious approach of a novice traveller and dismissed it as unnecessary. I wasn’t quite so confident this was the case, but as, a) I’d spent a total of approximately six days outside Australia at this point, and, b) it was the middle of winter (not exactly tourist season in our chosen destination of Cork, Ireland), I decided to go along with her advice. After all, what did I know.

Unfortunately, it turned out there was one very important thing neither of us knew, which was that the day we had chosen to begin our trip was also the day several thousand rugby union fans would descend upon the city for a major international. Consequently, I arrived at Cork airport to find my companion in somewhat of a fluster after having spent her entire afternoon ringing every hostel in the city, desperately trying to find two available beds.

Now, this was precisely the type of problem I had been hoping to avoid when I suggested we book in advance, but given her agitated state, I felt it was probably not going to help the situation by mentioning it…especially as, just before I arrived, the final hostel on her rather lengthy list had said they did have a couple of available beds and would hold them for us if we came down immediately. Therefore, rather than dwelling on the fact that our European tour had come perilously close to turning into an impromptu camping trip, we grabbed our packs and set off rapidly through the winding streets of Cork.

It was while making this short trip that I allowed myself, perhaps a little naively, to believe my first foray into the world of backpacking would actually be relatively uncomplicated. Although there had been an initial, very minor hiccup, I now had a place to spend the night – with no work whatsoever on my part – and life was generally looking good. This feeling lasted for all of about ten minutes however, as it became apparent when we reached the hostel that things would not be nearly as simple as we had hoped.

According to the slightly embarrassed guy at reception, the helpful gentleman who had assured us there were beds available was not actually one of the hostel staff, but rather an exceptionally inebriated guest who had somehow managed to get hold of the phone when no-one else was looking. Apparently, this unauthorised phone-answerer had absolutely no idea about the hostel’s current vacancy situation, but thought he was being helpful by providing us with the answer we most wanted to hear. In reality, the place was completely booked out – just like everywhere else in the city – and our last chance of spending the night indoors was now seemingly gone.

With darkness falling rapidly and the temperature quickly moving in the same direction, I suggested the inconvenience caused by their rather ordinary supervisory abilities should at least be worth an overnight stay in the hostel lounge, which I could see was unoccupied and contained a number of vaguely comfortable-looking couches. Surprisingly, the receptionist had no problem with this, but suggested it may not be all that desirable, considering immediately after answering our phone call, the aforementioned inebriated guest had retired there and, without warning, projectile-vomited the contents of his stomach across the entire room. It had been thoroughly cleaned he assured us, but was still, unfortunately, somewhat on the nose. Giving us the opportunity to make up our own minds though, he offered to take us in for a closer look (or, more accurately, a closer smell) and we promptly accepted, optimistically thinking, “how bad could it be?”. The answer to that, we soon found out, was “very”.

Upon entering the room in question, the horrific stench of stale, regurgitated Guiness made it immediately apparent that, without the aid of a scuba tank, there was no way we would be able to make it through even a few minutes in there, let alone an entire night. Staggering out, we gasped for breath, and stood deflated in the reception area…now left with a total of precisely zero options as far as places to spend the night were concerned.

Sensing that we were at somewhat of a loss, the receptionist thought for a moment, then hesitantly mentioned that they did actually have one bed that wasn’t booked, but it had been classed by the hostel management as “temporarily unavailable”. Our ears pricked up slightly, and we waited to hear the horror story behind precisely what had led to a normally usable bed being given such a cryptic (and, admittedly, slightly disturbing) label. Realising we were obviously expecting another tale involving the sudden, mass evacuation of bodily fluids, he quickly assured us that it wasn’t anywhere near as scary as the aforementioned incident in the lounge room. There were only two problems that he could see: One, it was a single bed and, quite clearly, there were two of us and, two, the bed had no mattress because it was being cleaned.

Now, exactly what had gone on in the bed to require the entire matress being removed for cleaning wasn’t mentioned and we decided it was best not to ask. At this point, even the thought of sleeping on the floor seemed good, so we agreed to go and have a look; an overcrowded single bed with no mattress still sounded preferable to our next best option, which was sleeping on a park bench in the middle of an Irish winter.

Following him up the stairs, we entered a large dorm room and, sure enough, there was one empty bunk which was, quite literally, just a worn wire frame with no mattress. It didn’t look even remotely appealing, but as there wasn’t exactly much in the way of alternatives, we agreed to take it at a reduced rate (saving a couple of Euros seemed like a small victory at this point). We figured that, with two sleeping bags, plus a few towels and jumpers, there might at least be a vague possibility of us improvising something that resembled a real bed.

So, improvise is what we did, and after a considerable amount of Macgyvering (not to mention the substantial redeployment of much of our luggage), we found ourselves with a vaguely tolerable – albeit exceptionally crowded – place to spend the night.

Now, prior to coming on this trip, I knew that European hostels weren’t known for their luxury conditions; crowded, uncomfortable rooms were part of the experience and I accepted that. I would never have believed you, however, had you told me beforehand that my introduction to backpacking would involve two people crammed into a single bed with no mattress.

Not surprisingly, I now always book my accomodation in advance.

Categories: Ireland Tags: , , , ,

Lost in Translation

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment
Broken Record

I was surprised to discover that a considerable percentage of the music on Chinese radio consists of popular Western songs re-recorded with Chinese vocals. My introduction to this phenomenon came during a ten-minute visit to a Beijing supermarket, where I heard Mandarin versions of tracks by Neil Diamond, The Bee Gees and Coldplay.

I was far less surprised, of course, to discover they all sounded just as s**t in Chinese.

Categories: China Tags: , , ,

Land of the Pineapple Kit Kats

November 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Stepping inside a Tokyo 7-Eleven is like being transported to some sort of bizzare parallel universe; everything there seems oddly familiar, yet somehow not quite right. There’s White Peach Fanta, Pineapple Kit Kats, seafood-flavoured bubble gum, and sports drinks with the highly unappealing name of Pocari Sweat…on my first day in Japan I wandered inside to buy some potato chips and spent twenty minutes just staring at all the weird products on offer.

Not surprisingly, I found their selection of chips to be just as surreal as the rest of the product range, with the regulation choices of plain, salt & vinegar and barbecue replaced by substantially less orthodox offerings like salmon, parsley-carrot and pea. As I had a preference for something that was at least vaguely edible (I felt the chances of any of these flavours fitting that criteria were fairly slim), I decided I would try to find a snack of the slightly less weird variety. Unfortunately “less weird” is not something Japan is known for – at least, not when it comes to convenience food, anyway – and the most normal item I could find that was even remotely chip-like was a packet of plain, dried seaweed snacks.

After much deliberation, I decided seaweed would still be a more digestible option than fish-flavoured chips, so this is what I purchased…and for the record it was actually quite good. If there are any Japanese potato chip manufacturers reading this, please be advised that people spurning your product in favour of something that looks like it washed up on a beach three months ago is a fairly clear sign you need to revisit your flavour choices.

Of course, having said that, I later tried the Pineapple Kit Kats and discovered that the local obsession with bizarre, experimental snack food flavours is not completely without merit, as these were actually very tasty. In fact, if you work at Nestle Japan and can hook me up with a free crate or two as reward for this endorsement, get in touch via the comments section below.

Really, I’m serious…those things are awesome.

Note: Since my visit I’ve learned that the Japanese snack food industry has managed to up the weirdness levels of its products even further by producing some positively absurd-sounding frankensnacks. These include Sweet Green Tea Kit Kats, Cucumber Pepsi (seriously, Google it if you don’t believe me) and, horror of horrors, curry-flavoured lemonade. By these standards, my experience now seems almost normal.

Japanese Vending Machines

Clearly, convenience products are a major industry in Japan

Categories: Japan Tags: , , , , ,