The Simpson Desert

There is one massive blank spot on the Austrlian landmap and it is called: The Simpson Desert.  It is Australia´s fourth largest desert and covers up roughly 170 000 sq. km. between Alice Springs and Birdsville. This part is well known for its remoteness and the immense parallel dunes. If you want to cross it, you will have to tackle the 1100-ish sanddunes to get to the other side. Some of them are 200 km long and that makes the Simpson Desert home of the longest sanddunes in the world.

Now of course, why would anyone cross it? I mean, going up and down 1100 km sanddunes to get to another small town in the middle of nowhere, not to mention the amount of dust entering your car while driving. Besides that, there runs a highway north of the Simpson Desert. You might better take that one. You must be mental to do this.
It turned out, we were.

If there is one thing what it is inherent to the Australian culture, it is 4WDing. This means you drive around on – sometimes very- rough terrains, tackling washouts, sanddunes, beaches, creek crossings and such a like, just for the fun of it. With a good, well-maintained 4×4, you can almost get everywhere. I can tell you it is extremely funny to drive over a roundabout rather than taking it. It is also very helpful when driving sandy or corregated roads. As with a normal car, you will be shaken to death and more likely to roll over and lose several parts. In a 4×4 you simply release some tire pressure and off you go.

Back to the Simpson Desert, where there is obviously a 4WD track. Australians love driving and make tracks where ever they can. The road in the Simpson called The French Line and is one 439km straight line from west to east. But even before getting to the beginning of the road, it is a long rough way with dustholes, corrugation and some terrible steep washouts. I remember one creek crossing where I walked in first to see how deep it was and got suddenly stuck up to my knees.
Luckily, this is not something you will experience in the Simpson, as there is no water.

At lest that is what we thought. It turned out, there has been an incredible amount of rain, in the days before we arrived. This means more mud and damage to the track. On the other hand, the desert has never been that green since 10 years.

Driving through the desert doesn´t go without any risks and the Australian government and visitor centres take therefore any oppertunity to warn you about them. Lives hve been lost out there.
The French Line is one of the most feared tracks in the 4WD world and with that knowledge, I picked up a `HOW TO BE SAFE IN REMOTE AREAS` brochure to find out if there are any precauctions we had to take. Just in case.
To state the obvious, here’s a list of what you should know before heading out:
– Carry plenty of water: 7 L/ a day/ per person + 7 days extra.
– Enough food + 1 week extra
– In case of a breakdown: STAY AT YOUR VEHICLE! A missing car is easier to find than a person and this is how many people died. They leave their vehicle in search of water.
– Let someone know of your travel plans and when you are expected to be back
– Warn the police on both sides when you should arrive.
– Have a well maintained 4WD
– Carry enough fuel
– Carry a satallite phone + a 2m long red flag, attached to your bullbar.
– Do research and know what to expect.
– Know your vehicle and know how to repair it.
-Deflate your tires.
-Be experienced in 4WD and sand.
– Don’t go alone.

There are probably another 10 things to add but this is in big lines what everyone will tell you.
To be fair, I was scared to enter this god forsaken place. No shadow, no people, a long not-so-easy road and we would travel alone, not in a convoy or tag-along-tour. We would be alone.  Surely the list stated clearly: “Don’t go alone.” That means something, right? Right?!
What if we would tip? What if we get stuck-stuck? I could hear myself saying through our radio: “Blue troopy just tipped over, please help.” It would take days to someone would show up! And then , somehow, they would have to tow us out, tip us back. The disaster!

My partner, qualified mechanic, had nothing to fear. He wasn’t afraid. Nor scared. It was just a sandy and hilly drive in his eyes. In the weeks before, he had done every single repair on our vehicle and fixed things of which he thought had to be fixed. He reassured me that we had done so much 4WD the past 2 years, that the Simpson would be more than fine. (Fair enough, I can’t remember how it is to drive on a sealed road).
So off we went, up to the 1100 or so, sanddunes.

And was it one of the scariest tracks? Was it really that remote? Was it dangerous?No, no and no.
On the first day, we have met so many people, that it seemed impossible to even be stuck out there. Wait an hour, maximum, and someone will drive along. We have met tours, recreational drivers, seasonal drivers, locals, bikies, rangers and a massive truck. The landscape consisted indeed out of a lot of parallel sanddunes which means you will go up and down and up and down. It was sandy but not that sandy as the Sahara and above all, it was GREEN. Bush, small trees, salt lakes were filled, clouds were hanging above our head and even a few drips of rain came down.

The Simpson Desert was nothing like a dry, arid or remote place. Sure; there was no drinking water or communities around, but you were never alone.
Of course, we were perhaps lucky or experienced enough, but we did meet people who had some issues with their car. Also, some washouts were extremely scary. If you are unexperienced in 4WDing, it might be a difficult track to tackle. Nevertheless; if you are prepared, you can do it.

 

The Australian Kitchen

Chop. Slice. Blend. Stir. Mix. Rinse. Mash. Fry. Pop. Steam. Cook. Boil. Grill. Smoke. Dry. Rest. Bake. Fillet. Season. Drizzle. Mix. Beat. Slimmer. Serve. Eat.

In November 2015, Australia launched a new food channel: The Food Network. Not that this country lacks any cooking show. During prime time you can get inspired by Aussies BBQ Heroes, Jamie Oliver’s Superfood, Chopped, The Spirit of Japan, Inferno Kitchen, UK Bakes, Cabinet’s Kitchen and a dozen of others. Despite the huge range of these programs, it seemed viewers were in the need of something more. Quite funny, in my opinion, as Australia doesn´t really have decent food culture.

Every single European I come across has been complaining about the same thing: Australian food sucks. The bread is too soft, the coffees are too weak, soda’s are incredibly sweet and artifical. Above all: who came up to create Vegemite chocolate?! No, Australia is not a country like France or Italy where you could go to just because of its kitchen. France can be named in one sentence with croissant, crêpe, brie en Boeuf Bourguignon. Italy just breaths pizza and pasta. Perhaps Australia can be described with sausage rolls or pies. Not the chocolate pie or Dutch apple pie, but minced beef pie. It comes with a dash of ketchup and if you’re lucky, it had been made the same day. If not – what most likely the case is – you will probably munch it after a good night out.

The cooking shows are a big puzzle for me, as there is no point in broadcasting them. Why look at them and not use them? Sure, Jamie Oliver can provide you great ideas for dinner and it is quite entertaining but how likely is it you are actually going to put this in practice? Nihil, I assume. It is a real shame, as Australia has many farmers and produces a lot of fresh vegetables, meat and dairy. However, most of the harvest will be exported to other countries and Australia ends up importing more products. For example: the Passionfruit Christmas Pudding has been created in England from imported ingredients and exported to Australia. Same for the Belgian Chocolate Cake, made in Belgium – I guess this is actually a good thing – and the kiwi’s are imported from Italy. You start to wonder if this country keeps anything for themselves and if they are able to cook something more than a mashed avocado toast.

Well, there is one thing Australians are bloody good at doing: the barbecue. It is the French gourmet pan, the Italian pizza oven and the Belium deepfrying pan. All hail, make way for the Australian Barbecue! You cannot live without a barbecue unless you deny that you are in Australia. There are options for vegetarian and vegans so no one will be left behind. Every household owns at least one of these smoking hot grills. Either working on gas or with – flavoured! – coals: char grill, steam, woodfire, spit, portable or smoking. Australia has the answer. There are free electric barbecues in parks if your backgarden is too small. Every day, the council cleans them but on the country side, you might be a bit unlucky. Most rest areas have designed barbecue pits so that you could still light the barbie, if you could not afford a portable on – and also to prevent bushfires.

Knowing this, the only understandable cooking show which makes sense, is Aussie Barbecue Heroes. I wouldn’t be surprised if locals pick something up from this show. Three couples have to face different barbecue challanges such as “create a dish with prawns, sweet chili and basil, within 30 minutes!” or “give me a fushion steak!” It is far more interesting than Australia’s Master Chef with the tension around Sally’s dish and the question if the eggs of her quinea salad are boiled on the point or not.

To wrap up the Australian kitchen, you will need 3 things. Pie – preferable a few days old, reheated – a barbecue – to create excellent steaks – and an ice cold beer – but due to the heat, it is more likely a warm one. I haven’t discussed the matter “beer” but as most students among us know what a beer is, it seemed irrelevant to me to elaborate on that subject. There are no extrodinairy beers here: think about a simple beer and reduce the alcohol to 3.5% and that is your Australian beer. However, you never know what Jamie Oliver comes up with and turns it into a gourmet superfood. This country is full of surprises.

So there you go: pie, barbecue and a beer that goes along with it. Simple and easy, that is Australian food culture. Who needs Passionfruit Christmas Pudding anyway?

1903 Tour de France with Keir Plaice

Keir Plaice, a former semi-professional cyclist and 3rd year Bachelor Arts and Culture student, is embarking on a cycling ride of a lifetime. He is riding the route of the original Tour de France of 1903 and documenting his experience in his Le Grand Tour column in the cycling magazine Soigneur. Read on to find out more about Keir and his project!

Interview and photography: Brian Megens
Interview and text: Karissa Atienza

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Tell us about yourself.
I came to the Netherlands to race bikes for a Dutch cycling team in the summer of 2010. I’d rode for two years before that as a semi-professional cyclist in Canada. I wanted to try and make it to the very top of the sport, ride the Tour de France and the World Tour, but after a couple of years I realised that it wasn’t going to happen. I also met a Dutch girl that bound me to the country.

Why Maastricht?
After my cycling career, I realised that I better go to school and start a future outside of cycling. I’ve always loved reading. I really love literature and arts. I love going to museums and experiencing paintings. I decided that when I go to university I would study something purely out of interest and immerse myself in something I’m really interested in. I wanted to study something to do with art and literature in English. My choice was Maastricht or Groningen. Maastricht is a much more beautiful city than Groningen, especially if you’re a cyclist.

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

How do you experience combining your study with your other interests?
When I decided start university, I decided that that would be my first priority. At the same time, whenever I had the free time I would go for a bike ride. I find that they really complement each other. I think lots of people who are very ambitious with school get completely caught up with university. When I go on my bike, I don’t take my phone, I don’t take anything. You just have a couple of hours in the countryside where it completely clears your head and it re-adjusts your priorities. It really helps you when you’re studying cos you’re not stressed about things.

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

How did you start journalism?
When I was racing, I started keeping a blog mostly to let friends and family know how the races are going. After a while, I got bored saying the race grew hard after 25 km, I was in the second group, I suffered all day but finished 30th. So then I became more interested in conveying the experience of racing through words. Bike racing is something I was completely in love with and I thought it was a cool exciting, interesting experience but anytime you read anything in the newspaper or magazine, it just states the result. None of the experience is conveyed in the stories you read about it. I found that a real shame.
The cycling magazine Soigneur somehow found my blog and they really liked my writing and got in touch. I’ve been able to do several really interesting projects with them.

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Tell us about your project.
The project started early this year when Soigneur asked me for any cool ideas. As a cyclist, of course, the big dream for everybody is riding the Tour de France. It’s the holy grail for every bike racer. It was something I had always wanted to do. It was an idea where I could give a conclusion to my own cycling story, to have my own Tour de France. I’ve always known that the early Tour de France was really interesting. At that time the sport was just beginning
At the same time, I’ve always known that the early Tours were really interesting. Back then, it was completely new. Someone just had an idea of ‘hey, let’s race in France’ and the idea just took off. Now, it’s all very organised and it’s the same every year. The stages of the early Tour de France were also much longer so there was a more adventurous approach towards the sport as opposed to the racing today. It’s impressive what the guys racing in the Tour can do today, but at the same time, every aspect of their lives is completely controlled. Because it’s so competitive and everyone is so good, there’s absolutely no room for error.
So you miss some of those crazy stories of what used to happen where the guys would go for a 120km long breakaways, stopping for ice cream, pull over at a bar on the side of the road because they didn’t have enough water, hiding behind the bushes and let the peloton or whatever was left still think there were someone in front. Because it wasn’t at this super high-end top of the sport, of course, they were still very competitive, they had a lot of freedom.

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

What’s the plan?
I will ride the original route of the first Tour de France in 1903. So there are 6 stages, each between 270-470km. In total, it’s about 2500km. It’s basically the same programme as what they rode in 1903. Each of the stages is will be ridden in one shot. I’ll wake up at 4 ‘o clock in the morning and grab my bike and finish it. In between the stages, there are two or three rest days. There is a Maserati car riding with me for food, drinks, repairs and spare parts.

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

How did you prepare?
Apart from my regular riding of about 15 hours per week, I made sure to do a few longer drive of 200-250km range. A couple weeks ago I went to Norway to ride a really big race there called the Styrkeprøven. It’s 540km from Trondheim to Oslo. That was twice as far as I’d ever ridden in my life. I surprised myself and finished second place at 14 hours and 10 minutes.

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Photo by: Brian Megens Photography (www.brianmegens.com)

Follow Keir’s journey through France in the Soigneur magazine and the Maserati Cycling youtube channel and relive the first Tour de France! Watch Keir conquer the first stage of the Le Grand Tour from Paris to Lyon:

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When Germany opened its borders for 1 million refugees, Australia allowed 12 000 asylum seekers into the country. This is just a fraction compared to Merkel´s quota, especially when we look at the size and population. With 22 million inhabitants and a land of the size of North America, you would think it is more plausible that Australia would take in a few more. This, however, is not the case, at all. Australian immigration policies are complicated and make it very difficult for immigrants to enter or settle down. Yes, it is one of the most multicultural societies in the world, but that doesn’t mean it is very welcoming to strangers.

With 4 coastlines to protect, one of the most discussed issues for Australia is to hold back the illegal immigrants, coming from Indonesia by boat. These people are so desperate, they get on a tiny dingy and cross the Indian Ocean in the hope to find some luck in this sunburned country. Unfortunately, most of them get the status “unlaw-ful non-citizens and end up in a detention center where they are waiting to be deported. They will not be granted a visa and deportation can take up to a few years. The detention centers are known for being harsh and problematic. Over the last few years, riots have been taken place and asylum seekers have sewed their lips together as a form of protest. It is the uncertainty and desperation for these people what drives to anger.

The discussion about boat immigrants, as they are often called, played up after the Paris attacks. The question was if Australia was safe, and what would happen if they would allow more immigrants into the country. The majority of the population was afraid of a terrorist attack. People explained that it is “very likely” that something will happen because “you don’t know where the enemy is.” Paris was taken by the media and politicians as an example to show what could happen if a country takes up too many immigrants. It confirmed what the majority feared if Australia would take more refugees.

In the past, Australia hasn’t always been so neglecting to foreigners. In the 1970s, there was a completely different approach to refugees. The immigration minister back in 1976, Michael MacKellar said the following after the first boat of Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Darwin:
“As a matter for humanity, and in accord with international obligation freely entered into, Australia has accepted a responsibility to contribute towards the solution of world refugee problems.”
Promises were made to use the “full resources” for current and future refugees, because of “moral rightness”.

What has changed over the years and how did it changed? Media nowadays, uses phrases such as “potential terrorists”, “job-takers” and “illegals”. The promised “full resources” turned out to be detention centers which I have briefly mentioned above and the Australian Border Force, which aims to protect and control the movement of people and goods across the border. Why is Australia nowadays so neglecting towards asylum seekers?

It is a tricky question and a complex answer.

One thing is clear: Australia has changed as has their way of thinking and talking about aslyumn seekers. Immigrants are not regarded as victims of war or traumatic events, rather they are considered as persons who come here to work. By changing the way of discussion in public, it is changing the view on the subject. Another example is the phrase “how to stop the boats” instead of helping people. The detention centers are build out of vision of the Australian citizen. This creates the thought: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Recently I have talked to a local named Jack about this topic. He stated that humanity should be ashamed of itself of what is happening in the world with the massive stream of immigrants. His argument was explained in a long speech and contradicted himself by concluding that Australia does not want more immigrants. “We are accepting more than enough refugees already. We don’t want them here, they can go somewhere else.” So if the world should be ashamed of himself, should Australia be too? Would it not be a better idea to help those people instead of putting them away? Jack sighted and looked annoyed. “Look, we probably could do more but we don’t want to. We have our own problems to take care of.Australia could do more, yes that is true, but does it want to? As far as I can see, no. Perhaps some issues are, indeed, too far out of sight to be kept in mind.

© Brian Megens

Soup, Salad and Smoothie Bars of Maastricht: Vers

Maastricht is well known for its historical city centre, shopping, hilly surroundings, and gastronomical cuisine. However, since the foundation of the University of Maastricht, a younger, more international generation has entered the stage. Inevitably, these new inhabitants have an impact on the city as they come from various backgrounds with different lifestyles, preferences and demands. In big cities like London and New York, a plethora of soup, salad, and juice and smoothie bars abound. Gone are the days where healthy living is boring. Like the increasingly cosmopolitan city that Maastricht is, healthy living has caught on. In this new column, we will visit the recent arrivals of soup, salad, and smoothie bars in Maastricht and meet their passionate owners, hear their stories, show their place, and of course, have a taste of what they have to offer! In our first column, we interview Paul van Aubel and Marie-Claire Giessen of Vers. 

What is Vers?
Vers is a soup bar with extras! We make homemade soups, salads and fresh juices and smoothies. We try to make good, healthy food based on the season which you can eat here or take to work, in class or at home.

© Brian Megens

Vers Maastricht

How did you end up starting a business?
Marie-Claire: I always had it with the smoothies and juices. Abroad, you can find it everywhere. It’s so easy to have a fresh juice, but we thought it would be a little too small just to do juices and smoothies.
Paul: We really liked soup bars, but we always had to go to Belgium, in Hasselt or Ghent. We said there’s nothing like a soup bar in Maastricht, so let’s do it. We always said it to ourselves that we wanted to start a business and we thought it would be nice to do it together.
Marie-Claire: We wanted to start something, we wanted a new challenge. We said let’s do it now, otherwise we won’t be able to do it again.

© Brian Megens

Vers Maastricht

What do you aim to bring with Vers?
Marie-Claire: We hope to bring good, healthy food that make people happy. So when people take their juice in the morning, they have a good start to their day or that they can have a good quick healthy lunch, even if they only have half an hour.
Paul: It’s difficult to find healthy fast-served food so I think it’s one of our strong points. You can have a quick lunch or sit down for a cup of coffee.
Marie-Claire: You can also stay longer and work or study here. We have Wi-Fi and we have plugs for your laptops.

© Brian Megens

Vers Maastricht

© Brian Megens

The red lentil soup and the Vietnamese pho bo

What’s your favourite in the menu?
Marie-Claire: We regularly change the menu based on the season, and we also change something every week so it’s not always the same.
Paul: For the soups and salad, we try to focus on the season but it’s a bit more difficult with the fruits, especially in winter. A lot of the vegetables are locally produced, I think it’s very important to have local and seasonal ingredients.
Marie-Claire: For now, I like the mango-raspberry-orange smoothie and the pho (Vietnamese noodle soup with beef).
Paul: We started with a red lentil soup and we still have it in the menu. It’s very popular and I really like it. Even after almost three months, I can still eat it every day!

© Brian Megens

Vers Maastricht

How has the students changed Maastricht?
Paul: In the last couple of years, you see there are more and more students coming to Maastricht. It’s become a student-town. What that brings, especially the international people…
Marie-Claire: …is diversity in the people and of their food. For example, you see it now with the Korean place. It brings new things and I think that’s good for the city.
Paul: In the holidays, we get a lot of tourists from Belgium and Germany. Now that the holidays are over and the students are back in Maastricht, we immediately feel their presence.

© Brian Megens

Vers Maastricht

What do you like most about Maastricht?
Paul: I like Maastricht because it’s diverse. It’s international, it’s not a typical Dutch city. Everyone who comes here say that Maastricht is very different. For the students, just enjoy Maastricht.
Marie-Claire: Explore the little streets and try the local spots. Don’t just go straight to the Vrijthof square, but go outside Maastricht too. For example, the Château Neercanne, you can bike there, or go to the Sint Pieter. The surroundings of Maastricht are very nice.

What are your favourite events in Maastricht?
Marie-Claire: The Food Truck Festival in the summer is really nice (the Stadspark turns into one big outdoor restaurant with dozens of mobile kitchen, live music and theatre performance) and of course, we have the Preuvenemint (the annual food event of Maastricht and the largest food festival in the Netherlands)
Paul: The Bruis (a free multi-day music festival) and JekerJazz (a two-day event with concerts at various venues spread across Maastricht) are good too.

© Brian Megens

Vers Maastricht

Interview and text: Karissa Atienza
Interview and photography: Brian Megens

Vers.
Grote Gracht 31
6211 ST Maastricht

Coffee Bars in Maastricht: Bandito Espresso

Maastricht is well known for its historical city centre, shopping and hilly surroundings. However, since the foundation of the University of Maastricht, a younger, more international generation has entered the stage. Inevitably, these new inhabitants have an impact on the city as they come from various backgrounds with different lifestyles, preferences and demands. A necessity for many students is a relaxed environment to study, and enjoy a good cup of coffee accompanied by homemade cake while keeping up-to-date via a WiFi connection. As quite a few international students come from a country wherein coffee is so much more than the traditional Dutch drip coffee, Maastricht’s entrepreneurs saw the opportunity and several coffee bars, where coffee is served with craftmanship and passion, enriched Maastricht. In this new column we will visit the many coffee bars that Maastricht has to offer and we will meet the passionate owners, hear their stories, show their place and of course taste their coffee! This time, we interview Diënne Hoofs and Jeroen Brouwers of Bandito Espresso, the much loved café of FASoS students, for whom going to Bandito is almost a daily routine. In the morning one can see the Bandito staff chopping onions and other condiments for their daily soup and throughout the day, batches of cookies can be found baking in the oven. It is a hidden gem within FASoS which is worth exploring. The Bandito Espresso’s fresh and organic food and drinks are now also available at FPN.

Bandito Espresso FASoS
Jeroen & Diënne

What is Bandito Espresso?
Diënne: We call ourselves an espresso bar with organic specialty and fresh food! Everything we do is organic. We try to be as fair trade as much as possible, but that’s always a challenge because companies often choose one of the two, organic or fair trade.

Bandito Espresso FASoS

How did you end up starting a business in Maastricht?
Diëne: In Landbouw Belang (a social group with cultural and social activities), we had a voluntary dinner café where we had the crappiest coffee. At the same time, I had a friend who’d just moved to Berlin to start a coffee business and taught me about coffee. I really enjoyed it so I convinced everyone to buy a coffee machine.
Jeroen: I was totally against it at the start, like why should we buy an expensive machine? But then when they bought it, I totally got into the machine.
Diëne: Me and Jeroen were always getting into fights on who should be making coffee and we realised to make more coffee, we needed to turn it into a little business. Jeroen went to Berlin and my friend taught him about coffee and the business.
Jeroen: We started as a mobile business here at the Markt on the Wednesday and Friday market. We just had a table and an old Faema. Bandito was born officially on paper and slowly, it evolved to the Bandito Espresso now in FASoS and FPN.

Bandito Espresso FASoS

How did you end up in FASoS? in FPN?
Diëne: At the time, Jeroen and I knew that there were no facilities at all in FASoS and a lot of students were complaining about it. At first, the Director said no. So then we did a coffee assignment here for 4 days, but there wasn’t a reply from the Director. We were almost thinking of moving to Berlin to fuse our business with our friend’s company but all of a sudden, we got a phone call from the Director who asked us if we wanted to open a café within 4 weeks! The week we opened here, they called us asking if we wanted to open another café over at FPN. By that time, the building wasn’t even there. It took us a long time, but in the end we decided to do it.

Bandito Espresso FASoS
Kwinten Hoofs, one of the four owners of Bandito Espresso

Bandito Espresso FASoS

Bandito Espresso FASoS
Sean Hoofs, also part of the founding four.

What do you aim to offer with your business?
Jeroen: We’re trying to do everything as fair trade and organic as possible. Not only from where we buy our groceries, but also until the customer. With the customer, we try to be as fair trade and not as pricy. I want to offer fair food and drinks but also fresh, I don’t want to sell something that comes out of a package. We do it how we do it, and we try to keep this price low. This is our philosophy.
Diëne: We want to give this moment to get together for students to have a nice coffee in a homely situation. It’s important to us for the students to feel that this is your Common Room, it’s your space so we want to accommodate the students as much as possible. 

Bandito Espresso FASoS
People queuing to get their coffee, lunch or cookie and then they are off to either to common room or the Bandito garden

Bandito Espresso FASoS
The FASoS Common Room

How do you explain the rise of new coffee bar in the Netherlands and in Maastricht?
Diëne: People nowadays have proper coffee machine at home, so why would you go to a café for coffee that’s worst to what you’re used to at home? People just don’t want to put up with it anymore, luckily. The rise in coffee bars in Maastricht is definitely a good thing. I hope that it will bring up the standard of coffee in every café in Maastricht.
Jeroen: You have cities that lead. It’s not Maastricht, but in the Netherlands it’s Amsterdam. In Europe, Berlin is one of the leaders. They were influenced by a lot of the Australians who came there. Australians who back home used the old way of Italian coffee-making. Over in Italy, I think they’ve lost a bit of the spirit. Coffee bars really exploded in Berlin and then, it came in the Netherlands.

 
Bandito Espresso FASoS

Bandito Espresso FASoS

How important is the student community for the city?
Jeroen: The students are very important, I think without the students Maastricht is nothing. Factories are closing down, yes there’s a tourist sector but that’s probably it.
Diëne: I think the students saved Maastricht. In Maastricht, the vibe is so international. It was the New York Times who called Maastricht the smallest cosmopolitan in the world. That’s exactly what Maastricht is.

 
Bandito Espresso FASoS
Enjoy their soup in the Bandito garden

Bandito and the students:
Diëne: We really like working for and with the students. We get to meet them every day for 3-4 years, so you build this relationship with people. You go through their highs and their lows, being a part of all that is really nice.

 
Bandito Espresso FASoS

The perfect place to relax in Maastricht?
Diëne: I’ve just moved out of the city, but I really like being outside in Maastricht. I like hanging out at the Maas, at the park or at Tuinen van Vaeshartelt where you can grow and pick your own fruit and vegetables.

Maastricht in three words:
Diëne: Cosmopolitan, cosy, (has) potential

Verdict: Great coffee, amazing homemade soup, baguettes and cookies for a student price. The perfect place for your daily coffee or lunch.

Bandito Espresso FASoS

Bandito Espresso FASoS

Text: Karissa Atienza
Photos: Brian Megens

Coffee Bars in Maastricht: Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Maastricht is well known for its historical city centre, shopping and hilly surroundings. However, since the foundation of the University of Maastricht, a younger, more international generation has entered the stage. Inevitably, these new inhabitants have an impact on the city as they come from various backgrounds with different lifestyles, preferences and demands. A necessity for many students is a relaxed environment to study, and enjoy a good cup of coffee accompanied by homemade cake while keeping up-to-date via a WiFi connection. As quite a few international students come from a country wherein coffee is so much more than the traditional Dutch drip coffee, Maastricht’s entrepreneurs saw the opportunity and several coffee bars, where coffee is served with craftmanship and passion, enriched Maastricht. In this new column we will visit the many coffee bars that Maastricht has to offer and we will meet the passionate owners, hear their stories, show their place and of course taste their coffee! We’ll kick off this column with the ‘new kid in town’ Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee.

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Located 50 meters away from the market, Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee is a spacious coffee bar where the love for bikes (you can stall it inside) and coffee comes together. Located in the Hoenderstraat (side street of the Markt), the bar is run by the couple Renske Tackenberg and Ruud van Loo together with Jack, their 2-year-old Australian Shepherd. Renske and Ruud both have a background in healthcare and switched careers as they opened Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee on June 6 this year.

How do you explain the rise of new coffee bar in the Netherlands?
Ruud: I think people in general never appreciated coffee the way they do now. They became aware because of the big companies who introduced new home coffee brewing machines that coffee can be in all sorts of tastes and that there is so much more than just the average drip coffee that is traditionally used in the Netherlands. Furthermore, people travel a lot more nowadays and visit countries where coffee is so much more than what they are used to. As people are discovering the diversity of coffee with their new machines at home, the restaurants and bars couldn’t stay behind and stepped (or still need to step up) their game in order to stay in front of the home machines. Just ask around, everyone can remember their first good cup of coffee and we try to offer the best!

What do you hope to bring in with your business?
Both: We hope to create a place where people can bring in their bike (Yes you can stall your bike inside!) sit down and relax, work, study or whatever they like to do while enjoying a quality cup of coffee and a nice piece of cake. For the future, we would like to create a community with people who share the same passion for bikes and coffee and organise events like: coffee workshops and bike rides.

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Where does the passion for Coffee and Bikes come from?
Ruud: I started cycling when I was a kid, but soon I was more intrigued by the mechanics of cycling than riding itself. The passion for coffee came when I was in New York where I saw the diversity of the several types of coffee. I bought the little red machine and started to explore the world of coffee, what do I like, what type of bean do I need for the perfect espresso, how do I make a good espresso, cappuccino. In short, I started to experiment in order to master the art of coffee as best as I can.
Renske: Ruud dragged me into both and now I am as passionate about coffee and cycling as he is. For example, I never could imagine all the work and dedication that goes in a good cup of coffee and how much variation you can create when making changes to each step. Moreover, I am crazy about cycling as well and love to ride my bike.

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Bikes, Coffee and Maastricht:
Both: The south of Limburg is well known as the cycling area in the Netherlands with its hills, attracting not only leisure cyclists but also professionals to this area. Moreover, one of the big cycling classics, Amstel Gold Race, starts in Maastricht on the Markt and brings the cyclists over all the famous hills in the surroundings. This race is also our favourite event that Maastricht has to offer. So one of the reasons to start our business here is that Maastricht is the centre of cycling in the Netherlands. Another is the university which brings a whole new international generation to the city that we hope to serve. Furthermore, Maastricht is well known for its restaurants, shopping and historical city centre, thus attracting tourists from various countries who hopefully feel like dropping by our place as well! As Maastricht is already notorious for its cuisine we feel that we (and some other coffee bars) can contribute by setting the bar on the quality of coffee higher. Furthermore, we also sell bikes to people who are looking not only for a reliable way of transportation but people that want a unique and special bike that they can cherish.

Alley Cat and students:
Renske: We would probably not have settled here when the university wouldn’t be here as it’s the university that brings young ambitious international people to Maastricht that changes the dynamics of the city. For example, last week there was a student from America that told me so much about the country that it almost feels like I’ve been there myself. However, we don’t only aim at students, we hope to become a place where students, locals and tourists mingle and where we can share our passion for coffee and cycling.

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee


The perfect place to relax in Maastricht?

Both: After a long day of work, walking along the Maas, sun going down. You see people, sporting, relaxing BBQ-ing, just having a good time.

Maastricht in three words:

Both:  Diverse, cosy, vivid.

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Verdict:
The place: as a coffee lover and former cyclist, I absolutely love the fact that both come together in a relaxed environment where you can just come in to study while being around such awesome bikes.
Coffee: I always drink my coffee black and prefer a good strong cup, I’ve tried a doppio (double espresso) and ever since, that is my standard order here.

Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee

Photography and text: © Brian Megens
More photos click here

Contact information:
Alley Cat Bikes and Coffee
Hoenderstraat 15-17
6211EL Maastricht

Our next interview in this series will be with KOFFIE by Joost & Maartje, stay tuned!

Willing Working On an Organic Farm

Whether you have just finished your high school, Bachelor or Master, you might start to think about taking a gap year. Australia is one of the countries which offers a one year Working Holiday Visa (WHV). The visa allows you to work and travel for a year, throughout the country. It is a great way to experience its culture, cruise around and earn a bit of money. If one year is not enough, you can apply for a second WHV. However, you need to fit certain requirements. One of them is that you need to have done your 3 months specified work – also known as “the 88 days”.

The 88 days of specified work is explained in Document 1263, which you can find on the Australian immigration website. It tells what kind of work is elidigble and in which region. For example, work in hospitality, in all states, does not count, but picking apples in Tasmania does. It does not matter if you work two weeks here, one month there and another one and a half month somewhere else, as long your employer signs your days off. In any case, it is improtant that you are up to date with the visa regulations and restrictions. There are major consequenses if you fraud your days such as being refused at the boarder or paying a high fine.

So what work is elidigble and what not? Not everything is clearly stated in the Document and it can be utterly frustrating and confusting. The best way to find out is to ask your boss before you start the job or to call the immigration line.

Most jobs which count are positions on cattle stations, mining, fruit picking and pearling. The specified work is not always fun and I would not like to pick mangoes ever again. But everyone has his own favourite and it all depends on where you end up and you want to do or learn.
If you do not like the idea of working long hours for minimum pay in the hot sun with the eyes of an angry manager piercing in your back, than there is something like WWOOFing.

WWOOF stands for Willing Working On an Organic Farm. It means you are volunteering four to six hours on an organic farm in exchange for food and accomodation. To goal is to learn something about farming, the culture and country you are visiting. It is an international organization and even Holland has a department.
WWOOFing jobs can variate from feeding wildlife, planting and harvesting crops to tree planting or conservation work. Part from the learning factor, you will meet people with the same intension – namely, to help and learn – as you and a much friendlier boss who will not scream at you when you accidently put the compost on the zucchini plants instead of the tomatoes. To put in short: the atmosphere and vibe are much better. Plus, you will end up in the most ridiculious places.

Personally, I was lucky enough to learn how to make cheese and herd sheep for two months in Tasmania. How many people can say that they have milked sheep and led them from paddock to paddock? At the moment of writing, I am WWOOFing at a butterfly farm in the Nothern Territory. Every day, I have to catch butterflies, harvest lettuce and tomatoes for the kitchen, maintain the vegetable garden and feed a trizillion of bunny rabbits, chickens, goats and geese.

But there is a problem with the WWOOFing system as well. Many places do not have a register or precise overview of who is staying or going. Owners sign of more days than WWOOFers were actually there and some farms do not treat their volunteers that well. That is why the Australian gournement decided that WWOOFing will not be eligible for the 88 days anymore. WWOOFing has to become paid work.

Is that a problem? I believe so. First of all, the intention of WWOOFing falls away. WWOOFing is volunteering, the persons are in general more mature and care more about what they are doing. A majority of the persons with who I worked told me they like WWOOFing because of the unique experience and the oppertunity to learn something. Above all, it feels good to help someone, especially when you start to see what needs to be done.
Second, many family businesses rely on WWOOFers as they are a cheap way to replace workers. It is not all about the money, that is true. For them WWOOFing is often a liftestyle. They have been working with WWOOFers for years. Their idea is that, every person has its own skills and that is what makes WWOOFing work. One is good in gardnening, the other in cleaning and guys are very helpful when it comes to construction. All these little pieces make one big puzzle.

I cannot more agree with this vision and I truly hope the gouverment changes her mind.

As for now, I keep enjoying my butterfly catching and picking tomatoes.

Up the Track

The wilderness around us slowly disappeared and more houses were showing up along the road. Places such as Humpty Doo and Palmerston passed our window. If you ever have been to Australia you probably know where I am. We found ourselves in the Northern Territory’s Top End, Darwin. A sign doomed up in the distance: 10 kilometres to go.

It had been a good 2 month from Melbourne until we had reached this part of the country. Of course, there was a quicker way which might have taken half the time we took, but that would have been less enjoyable. The easiest way to get to Darwin is via the famous Stuart Highway, also known as “The Track”. The sealed road starts in Adelaide and is 3500 km long. It leads you through the Red Centre of Australia, along cities like Coober Pedy and Alice Springs. The Track is travelled by many locals and backpackers all year round. You will not be left alone when you get a flat tyre and rest areas along the way are designed for overnight stays. Often they fill up around the hour of 3 o’clock.

It would have been indeed a faster way to get to Darwin. However, we had the luxury to kill some time before we would hit the city. And to be fairly honest, avoiding the Stuart Highway is the best you can do. Yes, The Track is one of those roads you should drive when you are in Australia. In my opinion you should do it because you can say you have done it and to visit Ayers Rock, a 460 km drive from Alice Springs. Part from that, there is nothing to do or to see, between the few roadhouses which form the only opportunity to fill up your car and your tummy with a counter meal. The landscape stays more or less the same, the whole way through. The road is straight, no turns, roundabouts, curves or double lanes. Perhaps a turn off, once in a while. No, the Stuart Highway is not the most scenic or interesting route that exists. Merely, it is just a road.

Knowing this from previous experience, we took a rough 2000 km detour via dirt roads and 4 wheel drive tracks (4WD) . After crossing the boarder with the states New South Wales and South Australia, we drove up to Innamincka via he Strzelecki Track, and several non-touristic national parks. The 4WD road is not the most scenic one, and maybe even more boring than the Stuart Highway. Nevertheless, it was an experience and a challenge to drive after a week of rainfall, like we had. The track leads to Innamincka, a small settlement close to the boarder of Queensland. It has that romantic touch of a remote cattle station with dust tornadoes created by triple trailer roadtrains, rushing by. Not to forget to mention the incredible amount of flies swirling around your head, trying to get in your eyes, ears and mounth.

From here you can crossover to the Birdsville Track via Walkers Crossing, another 600 km of four wheel driving. The Birdsville track is a popular drive, bringing you from Birdsville to a little place called Marree. You will drive along the edges of the Simpson Desert, Australia’s own Sahara.

Marree marks the end of the Birdsville track but also the beginning of a new off-road: the fascinating Oodnadatta Track, leading via Oodnadatta to Marla, follows the old Ghan railway. The rail service was originally designed to transport goods from Port Augusta in South Australia to Alice Springs, but it got shut down after sixty years because of poor maintenance, which led to financial losses and extreme delays up to three months (Australia, The Rough Guide, 1999).

Despite of the relics and desolated sidings you can find on the way, it is again, not the most spectacular drive of all. The badly corrugated 620 kms road shows you nothing else than endless bushland and dust clouds.

However, this might as well be the most scenic and special experience of the outback. Australia, after all, is a big country and distances are often underestimated by us, spoiled Europeans who demand a sort of attraction every 50 kms. In my believe, the big fat nothing is the most scenic attraction and is unique compared to the European continent. This country is not filled with ancient towns or 4 lane highways. Instead, there might be 1 main route to get to another place. In that sense, we are very spoiled with our cultural heritage. With a 3 hour drive you could be in Germany or France. A three hour drive here means you are not even half way.

And although therre is not much on the way and there not many cities, it does not mean you are alone. Australians like driving and are used to the long distances. The 3 tracks, Strzelecki-Birdsville-Ooodnadatte, are therefor the most popular dirt roads in the country and are frequently travelled by locals. It is a pain if you want to be alone but a bless if you get stuck, knowing that there will always be someone to pull you out.

In that sense, driving off the beaten track might not be so much different than the sealed main roads. But if you looking for a more adventurous way to experience the outback, than this is something you should do. No smooth sealed road, but dust and corrugation. No road trains and backpackers, but locals and 4WD enthusiasts. No busy rest ares, but a whole campsite for yourself and no one else around you. Complete remoteness. Well that is an experience.

America: the Country of Unlimited Portions!

EuroSim 2015, Skidmore College Saratoga Springs NY

Skidmore  College, Saratoga Springs NY, the first American university that I experience first-hand. I am aware of America’s campus-culture which stands in strong contrast with the more loosely organised style of student life at most, if not all European university. However, this observation on American campus-culture is largely based on American Pie movies and media coverage which cannot really be called objective. Therefore, I see my trip to Skidmore College as the perfect opportunity to test this hypothesis. I am in Saratoga Springs to represent FASoS during EuroSim, a simulation of the European Institutions, and stay here for 5 days. Although I’m not sleeping on campus I do have most of my lunches and dinners there, and that’s exactly what strikes me most about the campus-culture: the overload of food. Lunch on the first day of the convention is my first encounter with the cafeteria. I feel like walking in an all-inclusive holiday resort with various different fresh-cooking corners, ice-cream and waffle machines, twelve kinds of cereals, fresh pizza corner, Asian corner, veggie corner, Western dinner and buffet corner etc. I cannot believe that I am in an educational institute. Overenthusiastically, I walk around without realising my plate looks like a bad miniature version of the Eifel tower and I need a second plate to fulfil my demands. In short, as always with the all-you-can-eat concept, I prove the theory of diminishing returns and I feel like never eating again at the end of my lunch.

EuroSim 2015 Skidmore College

EuroSim 2015, Skidmore College Saratoga Springs NY

EuroSim 2015, Skidmore College Saratoga Springs NY

At first sight, the concept seems great: a central place for all students to have their meals with a wide variety to choose from. However, it also makes me think about its disadvantages. First, it is well-known that the Western world, specifically America, has a growing problem with obesity and I don’t think that all-you-can-eat cafeterias in universities help address the problem. Second,  studying in America isn’t cheap to say the least and having a cafeteria that cost each student around $12.000 a year does not help. Third, having unlimited access to put food on your plate increases the amount of food waste. Fourth, students do not learn to cook for themselves. I know that not having to cook or doing groceries save time, and thus can be seen as an advantage. However, I genuinely enjoy my daily walk to the supermarket where I can enjoy free coffee (honestly it isn’t bad in Helmstraat), and start my hunt for the latest offers which save me a lot of money on my monthly grocery budget. Furthermore, I know how much food my body needs on a daily basis and by buying my own groceries I feel less tempted to overload my plate.

EuroSim 2015 Skidmore College

EuroSim 2015 Skidmore College

Personally I loved my time in the Skidmore College cafeteria but I was more than happy to return to my daily walk to the supermarket. Moreover, summer is coming so my body needs to be beach ready!

All photos © Brian Megens

Australia Day

We happen to be in the capital, Canberra – pronounced as Canbra – on Australia Day. It was the 26th of January, a National Holiday and celebration for the country. Australia Day is celebrated throughout the country with barbeques, drunkenness and the necessary national flag waving Many countries have their own national day, to honour their establishment and achievements in the past centuries. Or to solely to acknowledge their existence.

However, Australia Day is not cheered by everyone. The Aborigines, the original inhabitants of Australia, call it Invasion Day or Survival Day, referring to the point in history that everything changed. On 19 April, 1770, the English First Lieutenant James Cook started to map of Australia’s East Coast. And with that, he was mapping the end of the Aboriginals dominance over the country.

It was not Cooks intention to take the land from the Aborigines, rather he admired them for their self-sufficiency: “They are far more happier than we Europeans. They think themselves provided with all the necessaries of Life and that they have no superfluities.”

18 years later it became clear that things would change and the Aboriginal supremacy would end. Captain Arthur Phillip landed on Australian soil. It was January 26 1788, the “First Fleet”, consisting out of 1350 convicts and soldiers with their wives, immigrated to Australia.  In the years that followed, many convicts and free settlers arrived, filled with hopes, dreams and hungry for land and work.

It was on 1 January 1901, that Australia became officially a federation. It has been a bloody war between the settlers and the Aboriginals, where the latter have been brought almost to their extinction. The first aim of the new national parliament was to protect the European Australian identity and values, from Asian and Pacific Islanders influence. It was known as “the White Australia Policy”. It took another whopping 66 years until a national referendum gave Indigenous people the right of an Australian citizenship. And it was not until 2010 when a formal apology was made by former prime-minister Rudd to the Aborigines for the past 2 centuries of suffering and injustice.

There are many opinions when it comes to Australia Day. Some find it disrespectful towards the Indigenous people; others don’t see a problem. It is merely another reason to throw a party and socialize with the neighbours.

The Canberra Times argues that Australia Day is not a political occasion but rather “[…] a place, a nation, a people, and an idea.” (2015, 26 January, the Canberra Times, p. 2C).
It pledges that
Australia Day is about the unity of the country, with all it’s different cultures, backgrounds, histories and ideas. Nobody is the same but what all the inhabitants of Australia have in common is that they are Australians. Citizens of the country with collective hopes and aspirations. “What is being celebrated here is what we are, and have been and could be.” The cheerful celebration should not only look at the present Australia, but also at the history and its future: “It might be natural for some sense of triumph, togetherness and optimism, but it is not an occasion for abandoning truth, self-criticism or some hope that we can do better.”

My current supervisor, Nicole, partly agrees with this statement: “No, Australia Day is not about our history. I don’t believe anyone thinks that far or feels guilty about that part. We weren’t there, you know.” In her eyes, the Australian history has many black pages but that shouldn’t be something to focus on. You know, every country has a horrible story to tell, she says, “and we happen to have a very recent one. But look at the Germans, they are putting far too much attention on it!”, referring to the Second World War. Nicole explains me that she doesn’t want to be judged by something that her great-great-great-grandfather has done.

Then, she says something which I find typical Australian. Not because she’s Australian but it marks the main thought of many Australians: “It is not about the history, it is more a reason to get together, throw some meat on the grill and drink.”

Perhaps that is all what Australia Day is about: the celebration of itself as a collective nation with everyone who is there at the moment. A sort of communal mate-ship. Sharing a sizzle and a cold one at the beach. It is not about the history but rather it is about the creating a united Australia today. Easygoing and definitely with a lack of fuss.

 

Sizzling Sydney

You could almost hear the city breathing. Aah rain! It was a relief. After Christmas it hadn’t rained anymore. Now, when the first drops fell on the heated pavement, it was like water on the barbeque. Sizzling. Ssszzz
Sydney’s temperatures have been up between 25-35 degrees, week in, week out. It calls out for a day at the beach and that is exactally what most Sydneians do. The sandy shores of Manly, Bondi and Congee are overcrowed with enthusiastic surfers, bomshells and beach boys. We walked along Manly beach, zigzagging between the visitors, tourists and ice cream-eaters. Nothing special, in our opinion, but then again I’m not a true Sydneian and not a true sunbather. A beach is a beach. Sand ‘n’ sea, water ‘n’ earth, yelling children ‘n’ sand castles. Recently there was a shark spotted in the area. How exciting.

The famous ferry to Manly was everything execpt enjoyable. On a Sunday, when the public transport is only $2,5 for a full day, the whole city had the same of going to Manly. The line to the ferry terminal was incredible long but luckily the boat has a capacity of 1000 passengers. Within 15 minutes we sailed off. The Indian family next to us had at least one camera per person: ready to capture Australia’s biggest harbour with splendid views.

Our dissapointment wasn’t a surprise. It is a natural thing what occurs when you are travelling for a longer time. Being spoiled with breathtaking views, lakes, waterfalls, indigenous sites and stunning routes make everything look normal. Nothing is special anymore and comparisments with previous experiences ruin your present visit. I’ll give an example: when we were at Lake Waikaremoana, New Zealand, we said to each other: “Oh look, another big lake.” But of course, although it is beautiful, an overload of beautiful things will accostom you to it. As soon we were back in Auckland, we realized how astonishing our journey has been. Take a look at your holiday pictures, maybe you will be surprised too.

Back to Manly, Sydneys famous overcrowed beach. Why is this beach so populair? What makes this sandy shore so special? If you ask me, it looked more like a public catwalk than a recreational area. The amount of trained bodies walking around made me feel like it was Baywatch Live. Yes, it was nice to walk on the boulevard, to watch surfers cathing their waves and to enjoy the sunshine. But can’t you do that on any other ordinairy beach? Don’t get me wrong, I like beaches. Perhaps the sand in my cheese sandwich and the screaming children around me make it an unpleasant experience.

A few days after we tackled Manly Beach it started to rain. The showers were more than welcome because of the high temperatures of the last few weeks. Maybe the Sydneians wouldn’t have admitted it but 23 degrees instead of 35 is very pleasant. On the news people complained that this autumn weather isn’t summer. Perhaps they were annoyed that they couldn’t go to Manly Beach. Fair enough, there are more things you cannot do when it is raining. No sizzle on the barbie. No tanning, drippin’ ice cream, an ice cold schooner or thongs and skirts.

Personally I only see one downside of the relatively cool weather of the past days. Namely, I have hanged my laundry up to dry. But it doesn’t.

Ka Kite Āno- see you again!

Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest N.P and the land is a vital part of the Māori history. If it so happens you are there and you got a day to spend, you definitely should do the Tongariro Crossing, which takes you literally through Middle Earth. The walk is 19,4 km and takes 6 to 8 hours. On the way you can do several side tracks leading to the Soda Springs or the summit of Mt Tongariro. Since my arrival in New Zealand I have walked the crossing three times and done all the side tracks except Mt Ngaruroe. And that is exactly what we were about to do.

Mt Ngauhuroe is also known as Mt Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The sleeping volcano is 2290m high and that doesn’t make the climb an easy scrawl. There is no marked path going up the 45 degrees steep slope and the loose tephra makes it even harder to climb.

During my way up, I got in contact with a local from Christchurch, Mike. I was relieved he was there because I am not an experienced climber and I was afraid that I would fall backwards or get hit by a falling rock. Luckily, non of this happened. Mike tried to keep my mind of things by talking about what I have done during my stay in New Zealand. My internship in the NZ film industry gave enough material to talk about.

One thing we discussed was the quality of Kiwi films. From my point of view, New Zealand makes either very intense movies such as Once Were Warriors (1993), Whale Rider (1992) or the screenings are about zombies: Dead Alive (1992), Black Sheep (2006) are just the beginning of a long list. Every country has its preferences such as France likes romance, America enjoys vampires and the UK can laugh about its own humour. But New Zealand has something very interesting, in my opinion. Mike agreed with me when I stated that the New Zealand film industry has one unique feature which represents the local culture namely, Māori films.

The Māori are the original inhabitants of Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand. Their roots lie in Polynesia and between 1250-1300, several groups of settlers immigrated to New Zealand and upon today, the Māori culture is present in day-to-day life. Examples are the famous tattoos and the language usage in the media, sport events and public facilities. The intimidating haka is a traditional warrior dance which is preformed before the start of the game of NZ’s favourite and most popular sport, rugby.

As for that, the Māori culture puts its stamp on the film industry.  A recent example of such a movie is The Dead Lands (2014) which is completely written and spoken in Māori. The film follows the tale of the chief’s son Hongi, who must avenge the murder of his father in order to honour the souls of his family after his tribe has been slaughtered by another tribe. Hongi has to pass through the forbidden and feared Dead Lands, wherein a mysterious Warrior lives, also known for its brutal act of killing. My friend who worked on the film told me he never had to make so much fake blood and clean weapons as he did for this film. I won’t spoil the end because it is something you should see for yourself but I can tell you it is loaded with honour and respect.

After spending almost one and a half year in New Zealand, I still find it very fascinating how the Māori and Western culture collide. The fact that a tribal culture survives in a dominant Western lifestyle seems to me unique. The adaptation and changes Māori culture has undergone are tremendous but fascinating in every single way. The ongoing effort that is being made to keep the culture alive deserves nothing more than great respect to their cultural heritage.

Furthermore, films produced and screened in Māori language should be more encouraged to bring the culture to the main public, especially outside New Zealand. It could unfold more interests and respect from the native younger generation. Overseas it could simply increase the knowledge about the Māori culture. All in all it would be great example for other situations such as the Aboriginals in Australia.

In between time, we had reached the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe. The view was breathtaking and we could see up to 200 kms. It made it so obvious why the Māori immigrated to NZ. I would have done it too, with a view like that.
Our time here is over, but I am pretty sure I will return.

Aotearoa: Haere rā– farewell, or shall I say ka kite āno – see you again?

The World According to Bill

Since October we have swapped our Nissan Homy Caravan for an apartment. It is a cheap-as place, where dust and thin, plaster walls are the only things what separates you and your neighbours. This doesn’t count for noise because that goes right through it. Happy us. This is how we got to know our neighbours a bit better. On the left there lives a couple who loves Desperate Housewives and right door´s they are very religious and are helping our his sister who has a long history of money problems.
Often I feel like living in Die Pension Grillparzer, written by the fictional character T.S. Garp in John Irving’s The World According to Garp. The pension is inhabited by odd circus performances such as a pretty good dream teller and a beer, riding a unicycle. You hear them but don’t see them. You know they are there because during the day all the showers are taken – why?! – and after eight o’clock everyone starts cooking – why?! Nothing better than the smell of curry at 11 pm, right? At night you can hear voices but when you are looking for the right door to knock on to ask if they can shut up, they stop.

On the ground floor Bill is the manager. Whenever Bill disagrees with the daily life in the kitchen, second bathroom or washing room, he will do something about it. Once in a while, Bill likes to lock the bathrooms downstairs. Every time he hears too much noise, he assumes ´they are having a party´ and shuts down the toilets. He is also the one he turns of the gas and cleans the kitchen. If the washing machine or dryer doesn’t work, you can ask Bill to come and help you. He will show up with a hammer and makes sure it will take your coins.

The sad thing about Bill is that he looks like he has never had a fun day in his whole life. Lines in his face show that he is definitely older than sixty and his voice reminds me of Miley Cyrus. His white hair goes where gravity doesn’t and that hints that he has been Santa Claus in his previous life.

Bill kills his days by sitting outside on his Yellow Pages, sipping coffee from a beer glass and reading a copy of The Listener, a `good English book´, as he says. The latter is not really book, it is the sort of TV Guide which writes about a possible zombie apocalypse in Auckland, including an A-Z survival guide. His favourite show, he told me, is Dr. Oz who gives `great advice!` I had to try Miso Soup. “You know what Miso soup is? You can get it at Countdown, it is a soup with seaweed. It is very healthy, one of the healthiest food in the world Dr. Oz said.”

Bill’s weak spot it Tassie – Tasmania. Just like most Kiwi’s, he has lived in Australia for over six years. Now he is retired he wants to move back and settle down but first he wants to clean the aquarium because you can hardly see the fish any more. Bill has never been anywhere else than Australia and New Zealand, so Europe is exotic. My worn-out hoodie which says “PARIS, 69!” from the local Op-Shop was “a fancy t-shirt!” and my cookies are “yummie! Mum’s recipe?”

I like Bill, till a certain point. When you are in a hurry, it is not a good thing to run into Bill: whenever he starts talking, he will not stop talking. On the other hand, Bill keeps the fishes alive, saves you from wearing your swimsuit when you ran out of underwear when the washing machine gave up on you. I really do hope Dr. Oz is right about that Miso Soup and that it keeps Bill alive and healthy.

The Wedding

The city Bandung is called Kota Kembang [The City of Flowers]. After the smog and durian smell of Jakarta, I was thrilled to see it. Unfortunately, Bandung was not much better than Jakarta. Traffic jam is a national  problem and so does Bandung too, suffers from the ongoing – or not going – stream of cars. Its nickname did not apply at all to the city, rather you could call it Jakarta 2.0.

For me, Bandung was bizarre. I couldn’t find a city center, the way, a structure or anything worth visiting or anything at all. And still, I spent almost a full week there. My host Dewi told me straight away when I arrived, that I couldn’t go out on my own and if I wanted to go somewhere, she would come with me. It was standard that you would be home before 11 PM. The evening clock, starting at 12, prevented youngsters and teenagers to go out to clubs and bars. Also, it should lower the high criminality rate. Murder and raping were extremely common.  I was shocked. Was it that bad here? Dewi nodded. Yes, last week her bag was stolen from her dads car. The window was ruined but that didn’t matter, as long her dad was still alive. I asked what she meant and Dewi explained: Robbers don’t want any eyewitnesses so if you, by accident, see something, they would probably stab you. I didn’t want to believe it.  On the other hand, it did explain all the gates in front of the houses here.

One of the reasons why I stayed in Bandang, was because I got invited for an Indonesian wedding. This changed my travel plans a bit but that was alright: I only had a rough idea where I wanted to go so I was very flexible.
I would attend the wedding with two other German girls, Lea and Sarah. We were a bit afraid of the need of wearing a nice dress and high heels. As backpackers we only had our harem trousers and loose H&M t-shirts.

Non of this is relevant to a simple Indonesian wedding, according to Dudung, Dewi’s farther. And no, nobody will throw with rice! Although there’s more than enough amounts of rice in this country, it’s not something they would do. They rather eat it after the ceremony. I had already noticed how utterly creative Indonesians were with their national dish, nasi. There was red, white, brown, black, (non-)sticky, yellow rice. Cooked in banana leaves, 20 different sorts of oil, spices, (coconut)milk. Sweet or savoury, whatever you wish. One day I helped with the rice harvest and upon today I still find some grains in my backpack. But that is another story.

Dudung kept on stressing that it would be a simple Indonesian wedding. Me who never attended a wedding in her life, still expected a RTL scene. On the contrary, this was everything execpt what I thought it would be. Dewi’s uncle got married for the second time  – up to four times is accepted – and this time it would take place at the house of the bride. When we arrived, we had to take our shoes of and sit on the ground of the living room. Many people around us were playing with their smartphones and seemed barely interested in what the imam had to say. Not that we could understand anything about what he was saying, but playing with your phone? Some family members weren’t troubled turning the noise down.

Another thing which I never got used to during my stay on Java, was the incredible amount of attention we got from family members. Their focus was not on the newlyweds, but on us. We had to pose, smile, shake hands. When the wedding treasure was handed over to the family we had to be in the picture. They stopped the ceremony so there could be pictures taken of us with the couple. Guests asked us if we were single and if we would like to meet their sons. Left-overs of the buffet went to us and  in the end they thanked us more than a gazillion times.

And all this within 2 hours.

The drive to and from the wedding took even longer. Because of the traffic jam.

White Legs.

It was a pleasant half an hour rock-jumping to get to the waterfalls. They were called “Kedung Malem ” which means something in the context of “The heart of an [fallen] angel.” The green canyon wherein the waterfalls were situated blocked most of the daylight which lowered the temperature to 20 degrees. A relief, if you compare it to the 35 degrees in the sun. To get to the waterfalls from Madiun, East Java, you need to have a damn good car which can deal with all the ups and downs. Or you need to be in the lucky possession of a motorbike. In both cases you need to have good GPS System. In my case, my host’s friends Patmo and Bernardi new the way and cruised me around on their motorbikes. It was an hour drive through the mountains and I enjoyed every single second of that ride. The air was cool, the landscape was changing: from city to sawa’s, from dried out forests to woodland  giants so high, you couldn’t see the top anymore.

Patmo and Bernadi went for a swim. Being in the country now for 2,5 weeks, I learned that swimming did not happen in bikini’s or trunks. People kept their clothes on (jeans, headscarves, shirts…) if they went for a dip. As a local explained before, Javanese find it “too naked”and “rude” to walk around in swimming gear. “It’s like walking in shorts; you just don’t do it.”
So instead of taking a refreshing dip, I installed myself on a big and comfortable rock. It was truly a pleasure looking at the guys, seeing them having fun.

Patmo came up to me. His English was broken but understandable. “Marie, you know how clean yourself with stone?”, he asked me. I shacked my head. He grabbed a flat stone out of the stream and started to scrub is legs, while continuing poring water on them. I repeated it him and soon little black and brownish streams flowed down my shins and calves. Patmo pointed to my legs: “So white!” he said surprised. I smiled and putted my leg next to his to compare. You couldn’t imagine a bigger contrasts. We started laughing. I was so white compared to his leg that I was almost glowing. “You’re as white as an angel”, Bernardi said when he saw my legs. “You’re the falling angel of the waterfall!”

Thinking back of it, it was actually an unique experience. I’ve never felt white and I don’t care what kind of skin colour others have. But I remember a phone call of my American friend in Christchurch, just before I left. He said: “Oh man, Marie, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to see the advantage of being a white, European girl.” I remembered I laughed about that and replied: “Oh well, we’ll see.”

My friend was right. Being a white girl had its advantages. First of all, everyone wanted to help you and looked at you with some kind of admiration I cannot describe. Second, people were extremely friendly, invited you over for dinner, lunch, to meet their family, school classes, friends. Everywhere you visited, water was given, food was served even though you hadn’t asked for it. But this also had a huge downside. It meant I couldn’t set one single step alone. Soon I understood why celebrities have bodyguards, disguises or rent complete restaurants so they can have a quiet lunch. Your freedom is completely gone. In Bandung, my and another Dutch couchsurfer, weren’t allowed to go out on the street on our own. There had to be someone with us, at all times. In Jakarta, it took me and two other German backpackers, half an hour to leave the Kota Square because people kept on coming up to us, asking for pictures and video’s. In Madiun, the Peacock Center I visited, uses now a car pick up guests because they had find it “unappropriated” that I came by motorbike. On our way to the waterfalls, a pregnant woman asked me to touch her belly, in the hope her child would turn out to be white as well.

With many other travelers and hosts I talked about these events because most of them hadn’t expect that much of attention. We came to two conclusions. First, you’ve a celebrity status because most people see white people on TV, making the link White = Famous. Second, Java is not that touristic as Bali. As Javanese don’t see that many white people in real life, it makes you more special.
Looking back on everything, I can laugh about it, while being in the situation, I remember I got very annoyed. In the end I was sick of being a showpiece for someone’s family. On the other hand, place yourself in their position, wouldn’t you have done the same?
At the waterfalls of Kedung Malem it was like everything washed away. Patmo and Bernardi were just Patmo and Bernardi, not two Javanese. And I was just Marie, a couchsurfer from Holland, with very white legs.

Tradition

Adolf was eating his nasi rames at a warung along the road to Kúta. Our tehmpe was served with sambal. “It is interesting”, he said, “how Indonesia is dealing with the modernization.” I nodded and had a bite of my ayam goreng. It’s great that Indonesians only use Gods cutlery, alias, their hands. Saves lots of dishes. What do you mean with “modernization?”, I asked.

The traffic continued while we were eating and discussing the national changes. “I mean, look at all those motorbikes!”, Adolf said and pointed to the 20 bikes, waiting in front of a red traffic light.Some people are afraid that we’re loosing our roots, that we’re forgetting our culture. We so badly want to catch up with the Western world but we fail.”
I nodded again and gave it a thought.
It’s true though, that some technologies are just not ready for the Indonesian society yet. Try to talk to an Indonesian about biopetrol or electric cars to reduce the emission of CO2 and he would just lift up his shoulders.
So what? The most important thing is that he would get from A to B and the motorbike is the best way: it’s cheap and fast because you can avoid the traffic jam, which supposed to be one of the worst in the world. Part from India, I heard.  And the smog, well, that’s just life, isn’t?

My impression of Indonesia was not that it badly failed in its attempt to becoma part of Western civilization, rather, I got the impression that their cultural heritage is much stronger than other countries I’ve visited so far. For example, on a cultural festival in Yogyakarta, multiple regional dances were preformed. In Madiun I visited a typical shadow puppet play (wayung) and in Bandung, traditional dances contests were held for young children. No, I did not have the impression that Indonesia was loosing its roots, rather, I had the feeling they were holding it tighter and tighter. Working as a professional puppet player or dancer would actually provide you a good monthly salary. Tradition might more appreciated and higher valued than in Western countries. But then again, how many tourist does Java receive every year? Not as much as Bali.

Bali was the exception. When I arrived in Kúta, the main tourist area of the island, I was in shock. Since when can you wear shorts and skirts (or less) here?Tank tops? Bill boards of Quicksilver, Billabong and Roxy were decorating the dark sky. Alcohol was freely advertised with happy hours.  It was a small culture shock, coming from Java, where covering up is a must and alcohol consumption is rarely found. But for the first time since 3 weeks, I felt safe enough to walk on the streets by my own after sunset. No people coming up to me, staring at you or asking for a picture. No one wants to touch you or asks for money. Bali is used to tourists and yes, on this island it might be clear that Indonesia is struggling with its roots.

Outside of Kúta, most tourists visit temples. There is more than one temple complex on Bali and one of the most famous one called Pura Ulun Danu Bratan.,situated on the middle of the island, next to the lake Bratan. This place is overwhelmed with tourists who come in big tour buses, which are obviously not made for the small roads. At least they have A/C, I reckon. “Oh god, more tourists!”, Adolf said and looked disappointed.  I smiled, “yep, welcome to the world of tourism! Have you ever been a tourist in your own country?” Adolf shacked his head. Never. “Ah well, then this will be a new experience for you.”  And as soon we were approaching the Pura Ulan Danu Bratan you could hear French, German, Dutch and several Asian languages floating through the air. Adolf wandered away from the mass to find a more peaceful and quiet spot. Just next to the lake there was some stagnant water where some children were fishing. Adolf smiled and said “if they are going to catch a fish in that, I would be amazed.” The children were up to their thighs in the mud and dirty water, kept on filling a wicker basket.  Adolf explained me that this was a traditional way of fishing and that he had done it as well when he was young. Personally, I cannot remember that I ever fished as a child the way those children were fishing and I was only amazed by the way they done it.

Homeless

Originally, I wanted to write about being homesick and how fortunate Dutch students are with having their “home” – whatever you want to call it – nearby. Yes, on Friday afternoon, the NS has to deal with the thousands of students who are making their way home – meaning; their home city or parent’s place. Although it is maybe a 3 hour journey, other (international) students don’t even have the ability to go home or need to travel maybe double the time. That makes the lazy days at your parent’s place not worth going and staying “home” in Maastricht might be the only other option.

Either way, everyone has something what you can call “home”, either your student flat or your parent’s place.

And then there are the people who don’t have a “home”. In with “home”, I mean a roof above your head or a warm shelter with at least 4 walls and a front door. When you think of homeless people, you might think of beggars in India or Brazil.However, in the current Western society, homeless people do exist. Some of them try to collect some money by selling newspapers; others can’t be bothered and just lay on the street, hoping for some spare change. Each and one of them has his/her own story about how they became homeless. Quite recently, I spoke to a guy in Auckland who went bankrupt and got divorced at the same time. His (ex)wife and the bank came knocking on his door for money and that is how he lost everything. Even more striking was that his family didn’t want to help him which is why he ended up on the streets.

In the donut city of Christchurch, I spoke to Richard. Richard is 39 years old, born and grown up in the city. Since the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, he lives in his car since he has no home left. According to him, the council is too slow with providing and renovating houses. And if they provide them, they are often without hot water or electricity – these are his words. So when the rebuilding started, he stored al his possessions in a safe garage – furniture, his MTB collection – and moved to his van. He drove to the suburb called New Brighton, pulled over at the parking lot and didn’t leave that spot ever since. In fact, he is too afraid that his car won’t be able to drive. I’ve talked to Richard for hours – and hours – and he basically is homeless. He has no address, no work, no family, only a van and government support in the form of money. On his roof, there are solar panels to run his laptop. I’m pretty sure he won’t move his car for the rest of his life.

At the moment, I feel quite similar like Richard. Although Auckland CBD is not like Christchurch and we do have a job, we are still living in a car with no fixed postal address. Surviving on the streets changes your way of thinking. Instead of just buying whatever you like, you have to consider the amount of space you got left. Or the fridge, which we aren’t able to run due to the low capacity of the battery. Furthermore, you have to walk 200 m to the toilet and back; but also to brush your teeth, to clean yourself, to do dishes or to fill up your water tank. Showers are a 10 minute walk and paid ($2,5). The first proper WiFi connection is available at the library, half an hour walk. Laundry is only doable at launderettes, which are coin operating and don’t always supply a dryer. However, I’m not complaining because we have the best free camping spot, with great view on the Skytower.

In other words, not having a roof above your head is a challenge. Knowing that we HAVE a home, an the other side of the world sets our mind at rest. If everything may fail, we can always go home.

What a shock!

For some reason, we always arrive in cities during rush hour. Now, Kiwi rush hours are not the same as the Dutch ones, but still. It is a shock when you have been in the outback and backroads for a few weeks and suddenly there´s a car next to you. Or two. What do you mean with; three lane highways?

The worst experience, we thought, would be Wellington. The most windiest city in New Zealand – and it sure was – and probably the most windiest capital in the world. We arrived there around 5 pm, just when whole working-Wellington though “Let’s go home!”, where ever that may be. After spending 3 hours looking for a free parking spot and some food, we gave up and drove 30 minutes along the coast, out of the city center, to find the most beautiful, out-of-the-wind-spot along the coast. How grateful we were.

We thought that if our Nissan Homy survived the Wellington roads, it could survive any road. Unfortunately it wasn’t prepared for the Christchurch roads.

If you’re in Christchurch, you’ll be surprised of the rural road conditions of the area. How? If you had been following the news, you might remember the news item on an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. There have been two major ones.

 In my two weeks time there, I experienced three shocks, which I didn’t realize because they were too deep underground and too weak. Maybe I should be glad for that, considering the damage the earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011 have done. The former had a magnitude of 7.1 second and lasted just 40 seconds. The latter only took 24 seconds, but with a magnitude 6.3 and just 10km southeast of the city center, this quake caused much more damage than you could imagine. Roads were split, buildings collapsed, many people became homeless and in total, 185 people died.

Today, you know when you’re in Christchurch. You don’t need an iconic church to recognize this city -also because there is non. Walking through the city center makes you feel you entered a war zone; buildings are broken down, most houses are empty. The Starbucks has not changed at all – part from the dust and broken lamps on the floor. Still, you can find the coffee cups and newspapers of that day lying on the ground. The Levi store next door has its jeans in the shopping window, while the convenience store is packed with dated energy drinks because that was in discount back then.

The roads are still a mess. One way or not, humps and bumps are everywhere. For instance, the bridge to the suburb New Brighton gave our car a completely new interior and reorganization. And where on earth would you get a flat tire? Exactly, down town Christchurch, where a drugsdealer comes out of his house, in the pouring rain, to help you out and offers you free weed – “You’re alright there, buddy?”

You know you’re in Christchurch when there are locals living in their car for more than 6 months on the same parking lot where you are staying – the council doesn’t provide them with a house, with electricity. You know you’re in Christchurch when there are more parking lots than cars and where you can park your car for $1 per hour. You know you’re in Christchurch when art and graffiti paintings are on every building. And you know you’re in Christchurch when the navigation system leads you to a laundromat which doesn’t exist any more.

Last Christmas

“Is this your first warm Christmas?” a Guild member asked me. “Yes, it is”, I answered and thought of last year, when I was freezing to death in Vienna. What a contrast with my current situation where even jandals are unnecessary – barefooted is the way to roll. For one moment I thought I was back in Tonga but no, good old Auckland it is. You can feel your skin getting sunburned: putting your hand outside is enough. But that doesn’t mean it will be a bad Christmas. Despite the lack of Christmas songs I hear on the radio – mainly because I don’t have one – or the effort the 5 meter tall Santa tries to create which flaunts on the corner of Victoria and Queen Street: I cannot grasp this year’s jolly Christmas feeling. I pass this Santa everyday – and sometimes in the night. He looks down on the people in the streets, accompanied with his reindeer and presents. All this doesn’t work. Neither does the singing show window -really?- of a luxurious warehouse bring me in the right mood.

I’ve never been much of a Christmas person but that doesn’t mean I completely banish the feast. The evenings we spent as a family around the fireplace, reading books. The delicious bread my dad and I used to make around this time. It does bring up some warm feelings. Even the memory of our – REAL- Christmas tree of which the lights turn on/off whenever you make too much noise: it does make me feel a bit sentimental. We always tended to fight about how you are supposed to decorate it: lights-streamers-baubles vs. lights-baubles-streamers? I’m a proponent of the former one, since it decreases the change of breaking the baubles when you hang up the streamers. Unfortunately, my dad thinks differently.
What else are we usually doing for Christmas? Did I mention the annual fights during the Catan and the Top2000 in the background? That was so much fun – especially because I won most of time. Secretly I enjoyed the Christmas song we sang on the market square in Elburg on Christmas eve – although it was freezing cold.

But this year is different. Not in the sense that I’m not in Holland -again- but that I’ve a warm and humid Christmas, wearing a summer dress and jandels instead of winterboots and a scarf. I won’t be bothered with blue toes/noses/fingers. I won’t fall of my bike because of the icy roads. However, in return, I won’t experience the real Christmas feeling. I can’t go ice skating in the polder. Santa Claus wearing a woollen Santa hat and big black boots doesn’t make much sense when it is 25 degrees. On the other hand, I’m treated with sunshine, a light breeze and a gin-tonic. I missed out on Sinterklaas but this year’s Christmas is here to make it up. Well if you could excuse me, I’m off to decorate my palm tree.

 

 

The Friendly Island

One of the most fun parts of travelling is the growing collection of stamps in your passport. Unfortunately you don’t get that many in Europe due to the Schengen Agreement, but outside Europe… oh la la! The more stamps you have, the higher you are in the ranking of ‘world travellers’. In my old passport I had scraped a bunch of stamps from Canada, America, England and a few European countries. We simply asked the custom service. When my passport expired I had to go  to the municipality to renew it and I had to hand it in: bye souvenirs!

My current passport will expire in four years but I’ll definitely keep it. Why? Because I can show off with one of the most exotic stamps which put me in a higher position on the ‘world-travellers’- ranking: The Kingdom of Tonga. The smallest kingdom on earth and the first country to see the sun rise.

As you might know, I’m doing an internship at the New Zealand Writer’s Guild till February. New Zealand is not so far away from pacific islands such as Samoa and Fiji. That is why we (a group of 8) decided to take the one-in-a-lifetime-opportunity and go on a five day trip to Tonga. If you are already on the other side of the world anyway…

The island Tonga lies north east from New Zealand and south from Samoa. “It points to the ocean”, said one of my friends when she had looked it up on Google Maps. True story: Tonga is really small. It has multiple islands (52, to be precise) but the main and biggest island is Tongatapu, which is about 260 km2: that is about 10 times smaller than Limburg. So when I say small, I really mean small and it also means that you have seen everything –  really everything – in less than a day: The stonehenge, dating back to 1200 AD: the underground swimming pool in a cave: the capital Nuku’alofa: the Royal palace and its tomb… don’t miss the unique palm tree with three branches – the only one in the world! I can die in peace now. Or lie on the beach first. Or crack a coconut. Or pick some bananas.

You probably won’t spend all your savings for an exotic stamp and a 48 hour flight to see this. Especially if you can’t survive without your hair spray, internet, warm water or smooth rides we were transported in a van with plastic folding chairs in the trunk; zigzagging between the coconuts which were scattered all over the road. Neither if you want to improve your English because people just don’t speak it: They speak Tongan which has some unpronounceable phrases such as Fakamolemole toe tala mai” Please say that again.

When I asked one of my travel friends what his favourite bit of the trip was, he said: “The culture, definitely the culture.” I have to agree with him: I can’t really compare it to other cultures I’ve seen. The island has never been colonized by any other country and that might be the reason why everything is so ‘real’. Sometimes it looked like time stood still in Tonga: clocks were almost nowhere to be found and if so, the time was incorrect or they were out of battery. The island created its own time and space and lived by the rising of the sun: I’ve never seen a moon shining so bright as in Tonga.

Auckland

Hello stranger!

“I’m sorry, are you from here?” A guy with curly brown hair, holding an acoustic guitar, looked at me. “Are you from Auckland?” he asked again. It was raining. It was my second day in Auckland, New Zealand. Technically speaking because I had woken up at 4 PM, thinking it was 12 o’clock (thank you iPod) but after a quick look at my watch and a knock on the door of my Chinese room mate, I found out I’ve slept more than 19 hours. That jetlag really got me. Even my 2 day stop-over in Hong Kong hadn’t helped. “No I’m not”, I replied, “are you?” “Well, kinda, I’m from Hamilton”. “Where’s that?”, not knowing any other city in New Zealand, apart from Christchurch and Wellington (well done Marie, well prepared). “Bit south. And you’re… English? You sound British.” I smiled “Thanks, I guess”. Well hello stranger, thought. Here you are, in the middle of Auckland, standing at a bus stop, talking to a complete random person. Why does this happen to me? Maybe God has a plan. “No, I’m from Holland, next to Germany, Belgium, you know.” And that was it. That was the start of a 3 hour long conversation about languages, music, passion, films, books, New Zealand and Europe. We ended up in a small French café (in Auckland, yeah). The owner was a French woman, Françoise, half Parisienne, half Marseillaise. Live music playing in the background, nice company and it was pouring and raining outside. 2 hot chocolates please !

The complete stranger turned out to have an Irish name and Venezuelan roots. His study, Spanish and French, didn’t stop him from making music. His dream, to become a world famous musician, was still far away, but his motivation wasn’t. “May I have a look at your iPod? I’m sorry, it might be a weird question, I know.” “Would you just stop staying ‘sorry’ then? You just sound like a Canadian!” (Step on a foot of a Canadian and he will say sorry). He smiled. Although it didn’t help much because after that he kept on saying sorry. This stranger was really an awesome Kiwi.

On the third day, I had to move to another room. This time, I would have 2 roomies. I guessed at least one of them would be Asian, since they’re everywhere (which is good, if you want to find cheap sushi. However, if you don’t like them, it’s a different story). The Vietnamese girl tried to explain what she was doing and who the other girl was. Unfortunately, I was too distracted because of the HUGE fish, she was preparing (including the head and tail. At one point, the eyes popped out. She ate it). The other girl was French, and the next day, we took off to Takapuna, which was just 20 minutes by bus. After a lovely hike, up to Mount Victoria, we enjoyed the view and Willy Wonka Chocolate (too bad; no golden ticket). The ferry took is back to downtown Auckland in just 10 minutes.
I start to like strangers.

Lakes, design and coffee

In April I visited my friend in Copenhagen. The next time I arrived at Københavns Lufthavne, I was on my way to Helsinki, Finland. During your Erasmus time you get to know a lot of new people. In May, I decided to book my trip to my Finnish, Riina. So it happened; waking up at 5:30 AM, catching my train at 8, up in the air at 9:30. Suomi, here I come!

Finland is, for the people who don’t know, locked up between Russia and Sweden. It has only 5.4 million inhabitants, which is not that much since the country is around 8 times bigger than the Netherlands (with approximately a population of 16.7 million). The country is famous for its lakes and islands. Just look at the map and you will see what I mean. Moreover, maybe some people know Suomi better for winning the Eurovision Songfestival (2006). Or the high prices. It might not be the ideal place for folks whose wallet is just as empty as their fridge (like me). Except, if you know where to go. With my guide Riina-Malla, aka Riina or Riini, it couldn’t go wrong. Well… it became a similar experience as with our guide in Brno: “I just feel like her”, she said when we arrived in Suomenlinna, the only and oldest fort Finland has. “I don’t what or why all these buildings are here”, referring to our splendid visit to Hrad Veveří (“We don’t know what it means, it might be English, but it might be French as well. We lack funding to do research on the origin of this cupboard” blablabla).

Suomenlinna, by the way, is worth visiting. Just stroll around the island, which is basically one big museum. The only difference is that there are still people living there. The landscape will reminds you of the Teletubbies or the Shire, part from the huge canons and other military stuff which can be found all over the island.
Helsinki has more to give than just one fort and high prices. Take a look in the white Helsingin tuomiokirkko (aka Helsinki Cathedral). Don’t go here on Saturday because every hour, there will be a wedding. Great if you love Say Yes to the Dress or Four Weddings, but not so great if you want to see the inside of the protestant cathedral. The other red brick stoned church, a bit further down the road, is called Uspenskin katedraali (great word for hangman or Wordfeud). From up there, the view is marvellous. But not as marvellous as you can get from the Torni Hotel. Why go there? Because you can have the best shit ever; a toilet with a panoramic view over Helsinki plus its area.

I’ve met Riina during my Erasmus in Vienna. Vienna likes alcohol and so do Finnish people. Unfortunately, alcohol is very, very expensive in Suomi. So what to do? As much Austrian people drink wine, beer and other stuff, Finnish people tend to have more coffee (kahvi)  in their veins than regular blood cells. Don’t expect your favourite cappuccino or sugar sweet lattes; Finnish don’t rape their coffees; they drink it pure and black. Or with a lot of (cold) milk; luckily Starbucks hasn’t opened a branch in Helsinki, yet.  Riina took me to a place called café Regatta (note; when someone says ‘cafeteria’, they mean a café, not a snackbar). The little red house was situated by the shore; a crackling fire, little sparrows twittering around and… good coffee with free refill. For hipster hunters, Helsinki would be an utopia. Finnish design (e.g. iittala) is to be found not only in the Design District, but also in the clothing of the inhabitants. Some creations could go straight to the catwalk and Armani or Chanel couldn’t hardly better them.

Helsinki has surprised me, in many ways. The views, the culture, the people, the nature… Helsinki is beautiful and doable in a few days. But really; make sure you have a local guide. Riina showed me all the secret and hidden places in the city; places where no tourists were there to be found. I ate the biggest soft ice cream of the city; had sushi behind a rock club (Kuudes Linja; lots of metal heads past us), together with 6 other native, blond, Finnish people (iittala cutlery and Ikea table). Of course, you communicate in English because sometimes you need 5 words to translate the Finnish word to English, because the Finnish language doesn’t use prepositions and make endlessly long words which are almost unpronounceable. For example
Kiitos vieraanvaraisuudesta: Suomi on kaunis ja vierailun arvoinen maa.

which means: Thank you for the hospitality: Finland is a beautiful country and worth visiting.

 

Up, up and away

I’m writing this from Vienna Airport. (Bless you, free WiFi, for not letting me die of boredom on long connections.) I’ve just come off my 50th flight ever and, since I’m ridiculously attracted to significant numbers, I’ve been reviewing my flying history.

It was magical at first and I was terrible at it. The very first time I flew, I needed help with the seat belt – and I was fifteen. I was constantly stripped of liquids and fluids just above the volume limit and I forgot jewelry on as I went through security. I was always the one staring helplessly at announcement panels and airport maps and, after running through Schiphol to make my connection, I handed the flight attendant the book I was reading instead of the boarding card. But I was fascinated with the flight itself, to the point of trading places with strangers just to stare out of the window.

Then it became routine. I learned to pack a week’s worth of clothing in a miraculously expanding backpack and leave all “dangerous” items on top, for easy access. I got to know a few airports like the back of my hand and got a general feeling of how others were organized, trying to always beat my own record on how fast I can spot the bus stop signs. I even got stuck with rituals and little games. I took to sneaking duty-free perfume on my wrists in spite of shop attendants and started going for the same overpriced Tea Latte in the Brussels Airport. I even tried to identify the flight home just by looking at people in the line, headphones still on for no linguistic aid. It usually works – there’s something about Romanians queuing in airports that never fails to remind me of documentaries on the feeding habits of hyenas.

And now I’m somewhere in between. I’ve kept my operative efficiency and almost arrogantly casual attitude towards various airport procedures. I’m weeding down my routines, especially since that overpriced Tea Whatever is really overpriced and I’ve been flying more often. I no longer care if my seat is window or aisle, but I will stare out at clouds if they’re there and giggle nervously at every air “bump” in the road. And I just need one more new airport for the next level of the Foursquare “Jetsetter” badge. So if anyone feels like RyanAir-ing somewhere, gimme a call.

Blown away

There are a lot of reasons for not visiting your friends abroad. Although they are your friends, you can’t visit them all. Money, will be the first and most important one, followed by time.
Last year, one of my best friends went to Malmö for 6 months. I promised her to visit, but I never did. The main reasons were indeed money and time, however, it seems to be that I had enough money to buy a Pinkpop ticket (passe-partout). Read more

The emptiness of Maastricht

Welcome to Maastricht during resit week: a harsh landscape that resembles the scene of a Western before a major showdown is about to take place. An eagle making eagle-sounds, some tumbleweed wooshing over the dusty road, a barren landscape and dead silence. Although Maastricht is visually pretty much the opposite of this (and thus making this analogy pretty stupid), you at can catch my drift.  Read more

Good Idea

 “I’ll tell you what you did wrong”, hissed the woman, “you screamed in front of the children! That is just bad! You behaved like a child!”
The man, obviously not impressed by the speech his wife just gave him, nodded.
This train journey from Amsterdam – Maastricht, was going to be a long one.
Hmm hmm, anything else I did wrong?” he responded with a calm voice.
Yes! You did..”, the woman suddenly stopped talking and stared at her daughter. She looked at her mother with big eyes.
Can I have my toooooooy?”
How could she refuse this?

Read more

Why my semester abroad in San Diego sucked

So a couple of weeks ago I came back from my semester abroad. Never in my life have I been this happy about returning to Europe, and I didn’t think I would ever qualify as a person that wanted to leave their exchange destination. Especially when said destination is San Diego, CA. Read more

A German fairytale

While y’all were Carnival-ing it away, yours truly was castle-spotting in South Germany over the weekend. It was freezing, tiring and straight-out lovely.

I left from Brussels on an easyJet flight. The people from the Brussels National Airport have an ambivalent attitude towards low-cost airlines. On the one hand, they accept some companies (easyJet, FlyBe and BlueAir, for example) instead of exiling them to cheaper brother Charleroi Airport. On the other hand, they seem ashamed at their tolerance, so they exile the flights to the most hidden corners of the terminal. So I climbed down endless flights of stairs to a basement-like waiting room and then walked for the duration of 3 songs through the Belgian icy drizzle until I finally reached the plane. I buckled up, had the usual argument with the flight attendants regarding the dangers my Kindle poses to air safety and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Basel.

Basel is technically in Switzerland. Basel Airport is just across the French border and serves not only Basel, but also French city Mulhouse and beautiful German Freiburg. So the airport has a Swiss side and a Franco-German side, each with separate car rental agencies,  which seems pointless until you discover the staggering price difference between the sides. So the Boy and I sneaked through the sliding doors of the conventional border, rented a car from the French side and we were off.

First on the list, Sigmaringen Schloss in the city of the same name, slightly south of Stuttgart. Built by an apparently unremarkable branch of the better-known Hohenzollern family, the castle dominates the sleepy town from its hill and charges a bit too much for entrance. So we settled for a walk in the streets decorated for carnival and then left, having laughed at the parking spaces reserved for women.

Renting the car from the French side came back to bite us. We were cruising through the hills when it started snowing heavily. We half pulled over, half almost crashed into the roadside and discovered that French renting companies are not obliged to provide winter tires. So they don’t. For the rest of the day, our driving speed went back and forth between 100-something and 30 km/h, all the while cursing the elements and overworking the windshield wipers.

By the time we reached Burg Hohenzollern, it was too late to visit it, so we just walked around it, laughing at the former kings of Prussia, who apparently thought it fun to have the same name and just change the number at the end. After another few hours of fun-filled drive on icy roads, we finally reached Lindau, our stop for the night. Delightfully placed on the shore of Lake Constance, which the Germans insist in calling a sea for some reason, Lindau looks exactly like I’ve always imagined Bavarian cities. It has cobbled streets, painted buildings and was, at that time, covered in both snow and Carnival decorations. We almost would have stayed.

But we didn’t, since there was still the highlight of the trip to be reached. East of Lake Constance, tucked away between hills and mountains lies the castle you don’t even know you know. Built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein looks weirdly familiar until you realize (or read on Wikipedia) that it served as inspiration for the Disney castles. If you remember one thing from this whole article, let this one be it: Go see Neuschwanstein. The guided tour explains its history in a manageable format, the rooms are stunningly decorated with scenes from folk legends and the view down into the surrounding valley makes you feel on top of the world.

After another long drive, we got back to Basel and, disturbingly soon, it was time to head back home. I found Maastricht covered in confetti, broken glass and silly string, so I’m guessing you had a good time, too. But I’ll be honest: I had too much fun to regret missing the Carnival chaos. Maybe next year.

So there you told

There is that one culture I came to know here, that one culture that I will probably hold in my heart forever. They taught me that the literal translation of “aí cê falou” is ‘there you told’ and that you use it when something is very nice (therefore the title of this blog). They’re part of probably the nicest memories of my exchange period. And I’ll give you some examples 🙂

Let’s start with going to a house party where you don’t know anyone except for the one or two people that invited you. Where everyone stares at you when you come in. Where everyone is from the same country but not yours. Where everyone speaks a language you don’t understand. But losing your insecurity after seconds because people are so warm and welcoming and start talking to you straight away.

Making friends so easily and not having the feeling that it’s just superficial, but feeling a bond and getting the feeling you’ve known them for ages, because they are all so incredibly easygoing, loving, open and interested.

Listening to their sertanejo and hearing stories about their country, their culture and their people that make you feel as if you’re almost there.

Spending more than a week every night at their place while getting drunk, playing guitar, singing songs, smoking shisha and being knocked down by marihuana they had put in it without telling anyone, and enjoying and appreciating how they come up with a bet to not speak their language so you can understand them. And feeling like a superstar when you’re singing songs for them in their language because of getting the best cheering you could ever get.

Being surprised over and over again by their warmth, their kindness, their passion, their generosity, their positive energy, their friendliness, their juggling skills, their guitar skills, their enthusiasm, their ease and their hospitality.

Being a witness of when they see, touch and play with snow for the first time in their life, seeing their overexcited facebook posts and photos about it and being there when they skate on ice for the first time in their life.

Loving the typical mistakes in English they make, the literal translations, using ‘in’ as standard preposition, trying their best to improve their English while most of them only just started learning it and ending up teaching me some new English words. So so.

Loving how unfussed they are about using each other’s cutlery and glasses, taking bites of each other’s food, loving their food, loving their drinks and not being able to wait until you get to their country to try even more of their delicacies.

Learning more Portuguese than French while being in a province where French is the main language, trying to use the Portuguese swearing as appropriately and as often as possible and making everyone laugh when doing it.

Being treated as if you’re one of them while you’re the only one from another country, making you feel as if you’re a part of them even though you can only sing songs and swear in their language, that’s something only they could do, and it’s probably one of the best things that could ever happen to you.

I’m so incredibly thankful that I got to know all of you and I’m going to miss you like hell when I’m back home.
Aí cê falou. Eu amo vocês, meus Brasileiros!

Ice Skating