Small discoveries in Dublin

I can fit a book in my coat pocket. And a bottle of wine in the other.

There are a lot of bookshops. And bottle shops.

Asking for ‘a pint of your finest’ yields Guinness. All other drinks require specificity.

Most conversations involve at least one phrase that I simply do not understand.

‘Your man’ reliably turns up in conversation, and roughly translates as ‘Old Mate’. The quirks of the language are adorably possessive.

Music is lifeblood. Violins, guitars and drums are standard accessories, slung over backs across the city. People hum and sing to themselves – in queues, while selecting detergent from supermarket shelves, on bikes.

Warmth takes priority over style.

Hipster style features – peaked caps and elbow-patched tweed jackets – are not nostalgic affectations. Nobody ever stopped wearing them here.

Whimsy wins the battle with order.

Like the English, the Irish have yet to discover the joys of single-faucet hot/cold taps.

Pub toilet doors are places for lines of memorised, scribbled, sublime poetry, just as much as phone numbers and dick cartoons.

Don’t expect cafes to open in the mornings or on Sundays. Don’t expect people in service positions to be nice to you.

Do expect surprising warmth and hearty chats from strangers. People always seem to have the time.

‘One swift pint’ does not mean one pint, nor will it be swift.

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Wines and tigers – no bears

The Sundarbans are one of Bangladesh’s jewels – a huge, World Heritage-protected expanse of forest that covers the southern delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and all their tributaries finally meet the Bay of Bengal. The last few Bengal tigers roam around between the sparse beeches, butressed figtrees and shrubby undergrowth, swimming across the smaller creeks in a vast network of rivers. Deer, crocodiles, Ganges River dolphins, turtles, crabs, and an array of kingfishers and birds of prey all share the tigers’ home.

In April a group of my friends got together to spend a long weekend cruising down the river. Starting from Khulna, one of the country’s most southerly large cities, our old cruising boat chugged through the forests of the Sundarbans to the beaches at the mouth of the river, and back again. Awash with sunshine and duty-free cask wine, and breathing deep lungs full of clean air and greenery, we played board games, cards and ukuleles, slept on the roof of the boat, ate endless courses of fresh seafood, squelched through muddy mangroves, and searched for elusive tigers.

Festival of colours: Holi in Kolkata

I’d always wanted to just throw myself into the pictures. Clouds of pink, blue and yellow powdered dye, exploding above people dancing and celebrating. Who wouldn’t want to visit India during the Holi festival?

Celebrated at the start of spring in honour of the victory of good over evil and the end of the winter months, Holi is a chance for everyone to let loose and play – children and older people alike chase each other through the streets with water cannons full of dye, throw water bombs from the tops of roofs, play music, dance and attack each other with fistfuls of iridescent powdered dye. Everyone’s welcome – whether you’re a street kid, a Muslim neighbour or a tourist – it’s the more the merrier as the party takes over the city.

While it’s celebrated in Bangladesh by the small Hindu community, a group of my deshi friends decided we would hop over the border to Kolkata to experience the festival in its home country. And was it worth it.

Kolkata’s an amazing city – a perfect mix of British retro nostalgia (a hang over from its life as the trade hub of the colonial British Raj) and the colour and playfulness of the Indian culture. From the ‘Ambassador’ cars to the amazing food, wide green parks and cheap markets, I pretty much fell in love straight away.

Putting on our old white clothes and wrapping up our hair in bandanas, we asked our hotel manager where the best place was to ‘play holi’. We were pointed in the direction of the flower market under the famous Howrah Bridge – as we wound our way through the city we started to see people walking down the street with fuschia dust in their hair and rickshaw drivers with bright red faces, and we knew we’d found the right place.

We stopped at a market stall to buy bags of dye and had a few first blessings of ‘happy holi!’ from grinning bystanders.

While the major streets were fairly quiet, once we turned into the alleyways the fun really started. We were beckoned into a small courtyard where at least 50 rainbow-soaked people danced to music playing from one of the upper floors. With cries of ‘happy holi, happy holi!’ people shook our hands and welcomed us by rubbing dye between both hands then smearing it down our cheeks, poured liquid dye over our heads, and shoving our faces full of special festival sweets made of rice, milk and spices.

(I took my little point-and-shoot in a plastic bag, so most of the photos aren’t great! Even then, all the buttons on my camera are now bright pink. 🙂 )

On our way out, a gang of five-year-olds carrying waterguns and soaked in red dye ambushed us at a narrow intersection. The dye gets EVERYWHERE – in your mouth, in your ears… After that, we were varying shades of dark purple and red.

We spent the rest of the weekend walking around town, visiting the Indian Museum and eating. Happy Holi, everyone!

Why going home is hard: it can’t be everything

We just got back from a trip back to Australia, and after two and a half weeks of whirlwind visits to four cities in three states, almost daily partying and celebration with friends and family, a redeye flight to Kuala Lumpur, a 16-hour layover and a couple of days of truly staggering jetlag, I’m taking stock of what it meant to be home.

I won’t lie, it was hard to leave. Sydney harbour glittered in the summer sun, the bush south of Adelaide crackled underfoot and yielded the gorgeous wines of the McLaren Vale, and the beach in my hometown was an endless yellow strip of sand that I had all to myself. I saw my family for the first time in months, saw one of my best friends who is about to become a mum, another who has been living overseas for two years, had a surprise visit from an old bestie and went to a fabulously happy wedding. And not least importantly, everything just felt so easy. I knew which trains to catch, I didn’t have to worry about what I was wearing, I could sit on the grass in a park and know that no one would question why I was there. It was like a festival of the best that home has to offer.

But something was nagging at me while I was there – it wasn’t all falling into place. I had wanted to do so many things and couldn’t fit it all in – for months I’d fantasised about sleeping in, relaxing on the beach, walking through Sydney city, going to the movies, getting up early and going for runs, seeing everyone I missed, hitting the town and having a few white wines, playing with the family dog, going shopping … But it gradually became obvious that it wasn’t possible to do all those things, not least because some of them were mutually exclusive (sleep in and get up early for yoga?). I wanted home to be everything it had ever been to me. Everything I couldn’t have in Bangladesh, all in the space of three weeks.

And that’s how I realised something important: you can’t live somewhere else and have one foot at ‘home’. While you’re away you need to let go of the wonderful things that make up home, and accept that while you’re gaining a new country and all the wonderful experiences it has to offer, you’re also going to lose some things. You’ll miss your sister’s birthday, the best part of summer, and maybe the birth of a nephew. You won’t be physically able to bring back a supply of cheese big enough to keep you happy until next time you’re back. Some things have to stay behind when you leave. With our suitcases packed with olives and wine and our cameras full of pictures of our most beloved people, we try to combat this reality, but there’s nothing we can do: you can’t bring home with you – and you can’t live a whole life in three weeks.

It’s good to be back in the Desh, living the life that I have here. But I’ve learned to think differently about home: those precious weeks back in Aus are important, but they don’t need to span the emotional sea of the intervening months. Between here and there, I live two lives interleaved, not two lives simultaneously. Now I know that, maybe next time going home won’t be so hard.

The best massage in Kathmandu for weary trekkers

I consider myself a bit of a massage connoisseur: I really, really love them. I estimate that since I’ve been able to afford it (finishing uni) I’ve had, on average, a massage at least once a month, and that in total over my life I would have had over 100. Oops.

I don’t normally feel the need to put up reviews for places, but the massage I had in Kathmandu last month was one of the best I’ve ever had, hands down.

Divine Spa is on Lazimpat road, an easy 15-minute walk from the north side of Thamel. Clean, affordable, well-lit, with professional staff and zero creepiness, it’s the perfect place to recover from a long trek in the Annapurnas or even just a few hours doing battle with Kathmandu airport. I got a thai massage from Rita, who was fantastic – it was firm and therapeutic and left me feeling like a different person. They also do ayurvedic treatments, hot stones, facials and the like. Make the time to drop by before you leave Kat!
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Get out every 3 months: top tips for escaping Dhaka

It’s pretty crazy here in Dhaka, and after a while it can all start to fray your nerves a bit: the constant beeping, the relentless traffic jams, the daily shock of poverty, haggling for everything, trying not to fall down holes in the street that lead to ominously murky drains, making complicated but daily ethical decisions about whether or not to give money to beggar kids… Ultimately, it amounts to just the stress of constantly being ‘on’ – of having to think differently, adjust yourself, adapt, be flexible. When you’re in a culture that’s so different to your own, your safety net of normal is stripped away.

Culture shock comes in many different forms, and here in Dhaka it’s often not what I’d call ‘shock’, but something quieter and more insidious – maybe erosion, or attrition. You think you’re fine, moving along from one day to the next, taking it in your stride and enjoying the constant stimulation of being somewhere new and different. And then one day, that’s it, you snap, you’re done. You lose your cool and suddenly you’re yelling at a rickshaw driver for trying to overcharge you, or you’re in a puddle of tears because someone at work didn’t say ‘thankyou’. The straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is always insignificant and ridiculous – it’s something you deal with every day but suddenly you can’t handle it any more. And that’s when you know you need a break.

It’s a bit of a rule of thumb in the local expat community that to try to avoid these silly and often public meltdowns, you should get out of the city every three months. This doesn’t mean leaving the country (although a getaway to Kathmandu, Kolkata or even Thailand is pretty easy and affordable) – there are a few great places to head to for a couple of days in Bangladesh. Top of the list are:

  • Srimongal, the peaceful, green and hilly tea district in the north-east
  • The Sundarbans, the world heritage-listed wetland forests on the Bay of Bengal that house the famous Bengal tigers as well as the fascinating otter-fisherman
  • The Rocket, a colonial-era paddleboat that offers comfortable overnight trips down through the country’s huge river system
  • Cox’s Bazar, for a bit of beach time and some great seafood
  • Sonargaon (Panam), the medieval capital of Bengal and 19th Century colonial centre, just south of Dhaka

In the lead-up to Eid Ul Adha I had one of the famous Dhaka meltdowns, but luckily Ollie and I had some beautiful people from Australia coming to visit us, so we already had a few getaways planned. We ended up going to Nepal for 5 days and Srimongal for another 3 days, then coming back to Dhaka for Eid – posts to come!