Basking in Bali: Day One

Arriving in Bali the doors of the plane open and stepping out into the equatorial humidity hits you before anything else. This is a tropical island paradise where the life is slower, the people smile more and before you are even done with your first day you are sure to find yourself floating on an Indonesian cloud.

Denpasar airport is the first port of call and it looks like a oversized old ballroom equipped with art nouveau chandeliers. Instead of lushious round tables, bow ties and a jazz band playing this ballroom arrivals terminal is equipped with several small booths where the masses of tourists, mostly Australian, queue to get their visas to enter Bali.

Visas for Bali cost US$35 OR AUS$50 and can be paid in pretty much any currency.This price has recently changed from the normal US$25. The process is quick and seamless with the lady behind the counter welcoming us to Bali with a big smile. The customs and immigration officers were talking amongst themselves as they checked my immigration card but Anthea got chatting to the guard who said that six days in Bali wasn’t enough.
A quick bag scan and little walk later we were out into the arrivals hall of the airport. It is a interesting experience as you are so used to seeing families with loved ones and children who on their tip toes peer over the barrier to see that familiar face. This was not the same. Along the glass barrier stood men in loose linen and tropical beach shirts all hosting an array of white pieces of paper some with name scribbled in anything that left a mark and others with snazzy printed and laminated card.
We eventually found our man; Deta greeted us and welcomed us to Bali. He was kind enough to explain a few of the procedures and how to avoid being taken for an ignorant tourist on our first visit to this equatorial archipelago.
The ride to the hotel was interesting to say the least. Scooters hummed like bees flying from a hive around us and with jerky movements they flew from one side of the road to the other. With no real guidelines to how many people could occupy a scooter or what items may be carried on the scooters it made for some interesting observations with children asleep on the handlebars, dogs sitting on feet and an enormous crate of corn carefully balancing on the back.
Katut, our driver, said that this was all perfectly normal and told us to ensure we barter with the storekeepers in the marketplace. Zooming up in our little van to the front of our hotel we were met by hotel security who opened the back door to suss out the arriving goods; us.
Driving up the driveway; I had a moment. As if those movies where the princess makes her way to the caste for the first time. She stares from her window and time slows as she gazes in wonder; well that was me at the reception of our hotel.
The Royal Beach Hotel in Seminyak is simply beautiful. The staff are friendly and our room is exquisite. We were kindly shown to our suite after a refreshing arrival ice tea and once the receptionist had shut the door we found ourselves giddy. We giggled like little girls, jumping up and down and I proceeded with my face planting ritual on the freshly made beds with crisp white linen.
We spent the last bit of the afternoon lazing at the pool surrounded by tropical gardens which are impeccably kept. We ordered a celebratory cocktail coming to the mutual agreement that this was going to be paradise for the next little while and just what was needed for our souls, we were then prompted to take our first sip.
Relaxing with an ocean view
The beaches of Seminyak come alive at twilight and it was the perfect time for us to wander alongthe charco coloured sand. The umbrellas, surfboards and loungers are packed away while the beanbags, lanterns and small bands litter the beach.
With unrecognisable lyrics to the songs we all know to vendors selling local goods to singers whose voices could be mistaken for that of Keith Urban we found a spot to enjoy our first Bintang Beer.
We made our way to The Sand Beach Bar and Alex; our waiter called us his darlings as he ushered us to nearby bean bag as we sang along, sipped our beer, enjoyed the sunset and listened to the grovel and molasses-like voice of the singer near by.
Seminyak’s Musical Twilight
A little wander along the restaurants dodging scooters and minivans we arrived back to our haven with an evening dip in the pool and a restful evening in beds fit for any princess.
With first day in Bali complete; I can now understand why so many people recommend this peaceful, beautiful island and why for so many people it is not their first visit.

To Live the Suitcase Life

So many people seem to call themselves well-travelled these days but many seem to live something they imagine to be the suitcase life.

Once you have lived out of a suitcase for over two or five years then perhaps you can call yourself reasonably travelled.

The idea of being well-travelled does not mean staying in 5 Star hotels and having mummy and daddy pay for it all. It means; getting lost and not knowing which direction to turn, scraping pennies for the £3 meal deal at Tescos, having all of your belongings stolen in a land where not a soul speaks English and waking up in the middle of the night with a swollen face from the bed bugs who have bitten you in the early hours.

I am well-travelled and this is something I would not trade for the world.

There are so many ‘travellers’ and impressionable bloggers out there who call themselves well-travelled but who have no real idea what it truly means.

In my job I travel every day and I take people for whirls around Europe. I enhance their experiences by showing them the time of their lives. Some of these people are what most consider to be well-travelled but really they are only beginning to get their first glimpse of what real travelling truly means. They have budgets and commitments which anyone who is travelling should have. For many of these temporary suitcase travellers they really do have the time of their lives, I know this to be true as many have said that they felt liberated, free and happy with the people they have slowly become by travelling over time by discovering new cities and cultures. They live the temporary suitcase life but ultimately return to normality where life is comfortable and constant; something we humans crave.

I like to think that I show them the real world and not some jaded image of how people think people should be travelling these days.

The real suitcase life means hanging around a laundromat until your washing is dry enough that it won’t smell like mould in the next 3 days, it means wearing flip-flops in the shower and hearing the person snoring in the bed across the dorm as you imagine throwing a pillow at their head; and in some instances you do. These descriptions merely scratch the surface of a real suitcase traveller.

I cross countries every two to three days and yes in my job I get a snapshot of cities; but these cities I return to, the locals become friends and the customs become ordinary.

To live the suitcase life means to you become a local; you are greeted in the language of the country you are in because you are seen as one of them. You don’t stand out and flash your Prada handbags and free top-notch accommodation because all that does is scream ignorant tourist and spoilt little brat.

You spend your free days (which are few and far between) searching for something new to do where the tourists do not exist and where you feel as though you fit the mould of a local. Your holidays are spent scouring any possible resource for the best bargain to the most remote place you know. It becomes a new adventure to add to the never-ending list you have not written down but have scrambled in your head with everything else you wish to achieve before you have to get “serious about life”.

To live the suitcase life is not for everyone but rather for those with the spirit for it. It is for those who have nothing to prove to everyone else. Nothing to show off to the endless followers with floppy hats claiming that they are wanderlust when really all they are is delusional. Delusional about reality and what it really means to travel.

I salute all who really embrace the suitcase life and all the hard times that go with it. I admire those even more who take those hard times with their suitcase and who make friends with people that they never thought they could, who live life on budget they never thought that they could manage, who fall in love with remarkable cities and who see the world with new eyes because they have truly travelled and know that they have gained a world of experience from it. To live the suitcase life is to take anything that comes your way and to turn it all into noteworthy memories and times that you shall never forget.

If you really live the suitcase life then you know what I am talking about because you are in it, living it and breathing it because the normality of life that humans crave does not fit us. We break the mould each day, we become locals in several countries because we know how they live. Everyday we get up and our suitcases are packed and ready to go, ready to see what awaits us at our next destination.

To those who truly live the in this never ending moving world that I speak of; go and make memories while living your suitcase life because it certainly is the best time of your life.

 

Barcelona, a City Like No Other

Whether visiting Barcelona for the first or fifth time; Barcelona leaves you breathless. The green strip of the Ramblas gives you a Spanish skip in your step and La Boqueria food markets leave your eyes gazing at the endless colourful variety while your mouth salivates over the smell and taste of the fresh produce. Leaving an identifiable mark on the city’s skyline is the wonder of the Sagrada Familia a Basilica like no other, in Barcelona, a city like no other.

Having visited Barcelona severally  times I am still so amazed at how I never grow tired of the city. It offers an abundance of attractions for any traveller with a unique Catalan flare.

If you only do one thing in Barcelona it should be to see the Sagrada Famillia. This Gaudi masterpiece is something to behold and is guaranteed to be something you will remember. As the main attraction in Barcelona it naturally attracts the majority of tourists in the area and the queues can take over an hour. However, if you plan ahead then you can book your tickets online and jump the long line. General admission costs €12 and should you wish to climb one of the soaring towers then that will cost you an additional €6.

Once inside you will be instantly in awe of the meticulous detail and beauty that surrounds you no matter which way you look from the soaring granite columns to the stained glass windows in an array of colours. Allow yourself at least two hours to explore this incredible Basillica and the museum underneath explaining how the Basillica is being built as it is not yet complete.

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A walk or a quick metro ride will get you to the Ramblas and Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. The Gothic Quarter is the perfect place to get yourself lost. The small winding streets lead themselves to small treasures from the old palace walls to historical squares. When you are finished getting lost in the Gothic Quarter it is just a short walk to the Ramblas.

Just as a precaution beware of your belongings when wandering the Ramblas, there are always opportunists around so it is good to be vigilant. I recommend walking down the centre of the Ramblas, at the top there are many small market stalls selling fresh flowers and small souvenirs with department stores and tapas bars lining the sides of the Ramblas. Around halfway down the shopping street are the La Boqueria markets. The only way to explain these markets is to say that it is a sensual overload. From stores with sweets stalls that sell fruit, juice to the fishy back corner. It is a colourful experience that will have you digging for gold euro coins to try the fresh ingredients.

Closer to the bottom of the Ramblas is the more creative section, artists sit in wooden chairs sketching tourists are painting pictures of the beautiful attractions in Barcelona.

When you reach the bottom of the Ramblas you will see a statue of Christopher Columbus pointing out to sea, he is not pointing to the New World, being the Americas but to his home in Italy. Walking along the port area is great to do with street vendors and people on bikes casually riding past.

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If you continue to walk along the port you will eventually end up at the beach. There are numerous activities around including a fernicula ride to the top of Montjuic, tapas bars, bike hire and enough ice cream stores to keep anybody happy.

My final recommendation would be to make your way to Port Olympic, which is around a twenty minute walk from the beach. The port has a huge variety of restaurants where the waiters will try their hardest to pull you in with all sorts of deals and special prices. Usually you can get yourself a three course meal with a glass of Sangria or drink of your choice for around €15.

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Should you wish to experience the Barcelona nightlife then Port Olympic is also the place to be and the party kicks off from around midnight but remember everything in Spain starts late and so you don’t need to worry about getting up too early the next mornimg.

Barcelona is by far one of my favourite cities, it is colourful and has a Spanish culture all of its own that is just waiting to be discovered.

The Real Madrid

From the cobble stone streets, colourful expansive squares where activity buzzes to the black, grey and white of Picasso’s Guernica; Madrid will captivate you in more ways than you might expect from this Spanish capital city.

Having only ever been to Barcelona in Spain I wondered what to expect of this diverse capital and suffice to say I was blown away.

Arriving in the evening with plenty of jet lag my priority was food and bed however I was immediately struck by the beauty of Madrid. Emmerging from the Metro into Puerta del Sol my eyes darted from one building to another. Their elaborate decoration and height reminded me of Vienna. Knowing the Hapsburg’s had an influential reign in this great city made me understand it’s architecture that much more.

Puerta del Sol is adorned with a statue of King Charles III who sits on his horse in the middle of the square keeping a watchful eye over the happenings below. Another statue on one end of the square shows a bear reaching for the Modrono Tree; a heraldic symbol of the city of Madrid.

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Charles III keeping a watchful eye over the city

Surrounding the square are various main streets which allow for a wide variety of stores to spew out onto the street for the tempted visitor.

Spain is know for it’s clothing brands with Mango, Berksha and Zara being some of the many stores available in the surrounding areas.

If you are a big shopper then it is a great idea to explore El Cortes Ingles. This enormous department store truly does have anything you will need. It is so big that it is separated into different stores along the main strip according to categories. A wander through this store won’t cost you anything but a purchase might. El Cortes Ingles stocks designer brands and designer prices. Should you wish to shop without emptying your purse I would recommend Top Shop or the always reliable H&M; while not Spanish in origin it still allows for a few new items in your suitcase without entirely blowing your budget.

A twenty minute walk down Calle de Alcala sends you into the business district of Madrid with the Palacio de Communicaiones immediately drawing your eye. This grand building proudly waving the Spanish flag used to be the headquartersfor the Spanish Post and Telegraphy Company.

The Palace of Communications

A short walk away is the cultural triangle of Madrid. This triangle; made up of Museo Prado, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and Museo Tyssen Bornemisza contains all the art you need to be completely blown away.

A visit into Museo del Prado is an absolute must and you can either pay €14 during the day for admission or plan your day around a visit between 18:00 and 20:00 and save yourself that €14.

The Museo del Prado has ever changing exhibitions which are included in the admission cost, it also hosts an array of Spanish, French and Dutch works from the likes of Goya, El Greco, Rembrant, Bosch and Raphael.

Should you wish to spend more than two hours quickly rushing through the museum I suggest you pay the admission price and take your time wandering through pieces of art and sculptures which range from the early 11th century all the way through to the Renaissance era and up until the 18th century.

If you are hoping to see art which is a little more modern then the Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia is your best option. Once again you can either pay the €12 admission or arrive between 19:00 and 21:00 and pocket the extra cash.

Reina Sofia contains enough Picasso to leave any art lover satisfied for a lifetime. From the Lady in Blue to Picasso’s most renowned work; Guernica, you will find your jaw slack throughout the museum with your eyes capturing more detail  the longer you stare and the magnificent paintings. The variety of Spanish artists on display in the museum include the likes of Joan Miro and Slavador Dali along with many other local and international artists that will leave you wondering what exactly it was they were smoking when they picked up their paintbrush.

Other recommendations include Retiro Park which allows for a break from the tall city buildings and facades to a well mantained public park where a stroll to the famous Alfonso Monument is an absolute must. The monument hugs a murky blue lake with romantic couples and close friends rowing in small dark blue boats from one end of the lake to the other.

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Alfonso Monument in Retiro Park

The enormous Royal Palace is certainly something to behold. As the largest in all Europe it boasts an unfathomable 3418 rooms. For just €11 you can have a peek into the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family or just walk around the immense building getting a feeling of its sheer size.

Finally food is one of the most integral parts of Spanish culture and it would be silly not to embrace it while in the country’s capital. Madrid is home to one of the oldest Churro restaurants around. A Churro is basically a long cinnamon doughnut but it is not like your average cinnamon doughnut. The place to try these is in the most famous Chocolateria San Gines; open since 1894 they got something right. Their fresh Churros dipped in warm melted chocolate will have you drooling for more. The restaurant is a stones throw away from Puerta del Sol and will only cost you around €3.50 for a plate of 6. Sharing is optional.

Besides stuffing your face with Churros your options include enough tapas to satisfy any size belly accompanied by Paella or a freshly grilled Spanish steak. Your options for food truly are endless and you can wash it down with a large glass or five of Sangria.

Madrid privides any tourist with endless possibilities from museums that take an entire day to pubs that will keep you drinking all night. The atmosphere of this beautiful city is certainly something to behold and is a recommendation for anyone looking to visit Spain.

“Give Me the Route For Today”-Contiki Training Part Four

It takes two to tango and it takes two to run a successful Contiki tour. It’s not all about the Tour Manager, the person who sits behind the wheel deserves some recognition because ultimately they carry 50 budding travellers safely around Europe. This one is for the Drivers.

As tough as training for Contiki was, we all eventually began to get used to the endless grind, the constant questioning and the fact that no matter how well we thought we were doing there was always room for improvement. We soon realised that this job would ensure we were constantly learning and if we did make a mistake we had to recognise it, learn from it and ensure that it didn’t happen again.

Often our mistakes could be put down to the fact that we were stupidly tired. On average we got about five to six hours sleep a night, if not less. I for one love an average of about nine and can survive on less but with full eighteen hour days where you run around and try and consume as much information as humanly possible it can begin to take it’s toll.

Coach days, where you travel from one location to the next, were notorious for having at least one person nod off from sheer exhaustion. The ‘to be’ tour managers weren’t the only ones to endure the gruesome sixty-six day training; the ‘to be’ drivers accompanied us.

Each morning they were tasked with explaining the route we would take to each destination, how far it was and calculate which services we were to use. Equipped with European road atlases we were on our way. Contiki don’t condone the use of GPS navigation devices during training, so how would you find your way around a bustling city if you couldn’t read a map while driving? The answer; route notes.

We were issued two standard lined books and notepads, which after many a late night and red palms, were perfectly ruled to specific measurements (checked by our trainers) allowing for precise route notes of Europe. As tour managers we also ruled these books but didn’t do nearly as many route notes as the drivers.

We had two trainers, one who focused more on training us tour managers and the other the drivers. Each day our driver trainer sat the front of the coach and using the microphone would read a series of route notes. These would then be drawn, neatly and with a ruler might I add, into the margins. So if we were to turn left and traffic lights we would draw an arrow left following traffic lights and so on.

The drivers did this relentlessly and were often jolted awake by the announcement of “route note” over the microphone. Each day they had to sit on the window and observe road signs, now this doesn’t sound so bad if you are an average height but nearly every driver on our training was above average. We had a variety of European drivers, many Portuguese. I’m not sure what the Portuguese feed their boys but they sure are tall! Sitting on the window took it’s toll on the 6 foot 4 inch plus frames of our drivers.

When they weren’t scribbling route notes, filling out worksheets, staring out the window or trying with all their might to stay awake they had to endure us! Each day we were called up to practice the speeches we had written, sometimes five minutes before, and since we couldn’t plug in an iPod and listen to music we all became the audience.

As tour managers we were often busy enough to continue the speech we were working on and block out whoever was speaking, our drivers didn’t have this luxury. They had to endure every speech. From histories to city introductions, city tours and socio economic talks, with not very many being remotely good or interesting on the very first try. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how they did it.

The incredible Bob
The incredible Bob

Each day a new driver was selected to be the ‘driver of the day’ and along with an accompanied tour manager they would run the day as if on tour. Now picture yourself driving and trying to reverse parallel park an average sized car down tiny European streets with crazy drivers surrounding you, honking their horns because you are in the way or because their patience level is at zero. It can be stressful and make you a little nervous. Now imagine doing it in a 13 metre coach with fifty passengers scrutinising your every move. It is no easy feat.

Our driver trainer is one of the most patient and calm people I have met and I take my hat off to him with the amount of patience he showed to our drivers on training. Allowing each driver to grow in confidence behind the wheel of the giant coaches which scatter the European continent each year.

I never gave the drivers enough credit during training, always thinking that we were working harder as tour managers, but I was so wrong. After a season on the road I have begun to appreciate my drivers more each time and the hard work and effort they put in to making each tour a success. They are the support system of the tour manager and become friends rather than colleagues. Their abilities amaze me, their sheer patience to put up with some of our crazy tour manager antics is endless.

It takes two to tango and while some may have two left feet, they are always willing to dance.

“Is This All Worth It?”-Contiki Training Part Three

Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher once said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Sometimes we do things in life and later question if the decision we made was worth it. Is becoming a Contiki Tour Manager worth it?

Being a Contiki Tour Manager is not for everyone and on training a few people fell by the wayside and decided to leave while others left on their own accord.

It takes a certain person to do this job and if you happen to be reading this blog for an insight then let me be honest with you; it is no walk in the park and if you think it’s going to be some kind of holiday you are sadly mistaken. From the moment you wake till the instant you go to sleep your brain is buzzing.

On training the only time you get to yourself is in the shower or when you sleep, even that is limited. You get off the coach and run in cities you have never seen, hoping you are running in the correct direction. Your actions get questioned on a daily basis and often you find out that the running you did, around the city you have never seen, was not as beneficial than if you had you run in another direction. The trainers push you harder each day, testing your patience and ability to remember facts on the spot.

You drag yourself out of bed every morning after a few hours sleep, you try your hardest to keep your eyes open on the coach when all they seem to want to do is close and on a daily basis you get told that you are not good enough and need to improve.

Is it all worth it you may be asking? Well the proof is in the pudding. This is the most incredible job, many say it’s the best job in the world, and being away from it during the Christmas season has made me realise that this is true.

Never before have I heard of a job that allows for so much personal development, one where you hop on the coach in the morning in one country and you are in a new country by lunch time. Where you meet incredible people from all walks of life and experience different cultures while sharing memories with clients and colleagues that become your best friends.

I don’t find that I am the same person I was before Contiki, I am a better version of myself. I think I can speak for many of the tour managers when I say that training and life on the road changes you.

What are these changes you may be wondering? Well it took me a while to figure it out for myself.

I have fewer plans, perhaps you can say I am more of a free spirit or a nomad. Before Contiki I always had a set plan; I was to finish university, get a top paying job, find a place to live, get a boyfriend and a dog and settle.

Settle? The last thing I want now is to settle! So what if I don’t know where I am going to be in 5 years and I don’t have a structured plan for the way my life ‘should’ turn out? I am living life to the fullest, seeing more of the world than most and having the adventure of a lifetime. The wise Lao Tzu also said “A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

Travelling opens your eyes to the big wide world and when you travel you see the world a little differently. You develop a profound appreciation for the way that other countries and cultures work, understanding what makes them tick.

It’s like leaning how to swim; you are thrown on the deep end, without floating armbands to bring you to the top, but eventually you learn to paddle your way to the edge and before you know it you are swimming with a huge grin on your face.

Not many things are easy the first time round but once you get used to it you find you improve. You begin to swim in places where before you felt like you were drowning.

Working with people and ensuring you have effective communication skills, that transcend cultural boundaries, is something you learn through this job. Working with people is not easy and often presents itself with challenges that make you rethink your approach. I have learnt patience working as a Tour Manager and figured out ways to communicate in different situations.

Like any job there are days that are more testing than others but there has not been one day where I have not wanted to be working as a Tour Manager. Or where I have questioned my decision to pack my bags, leave my friends and family for an adventurous life on the road. I know that they are there supporting me with every step I take.

So if you are questioning whether to do the same, or are at a crossroads in life without any idea of which way to turn remember this;

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” It may be time to take that step.

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