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Friday, April 25, 2014

PART 4: Pub-crawling around the world - The Wine Connection, Singapore

I absolutely love Singapore. I first had the chance to visit through work in 2010, all-expenses paid, very nice indeed and I stayed on the gorgeous, tropical Sentosa Island. This time, it was a transit stop before I travelled on to Perth, but I completely embraced it.

I also, as most people know, have a great reverence for wine. My palate has developed over the years and nowadays I'd much prefer to be quaffing a Sancerre or Gavi than the bargain basement choices of old. Beggars can't be choosers though so I often rely on Pinot Grigio to satisfy both my tongue and pocket. An inexpensive PG is always going to be better than a relative Sauvignon Blanc and let's not even mention chardonnay. I don't know anyone who drinks it anymore, but someone must as there's a multitude on every wine list.

This time in Singapore I was lucky enough to have the lovely Ivy and Charlie as my guides around eating and drinking establishments. I met them at a mutual friends' wedding in Ireland last summer where we partied in Dublin and Waterford and now I was in their hometown and they certainly showed me a wonderful time.

After a fabulous dinner of proper Chinese fare, Ivy had ordered everything - and in future I will let her, as she definitely knows food, little plates of fabulousness were served up, accompanied by endless green tea, and after tender pieces of pork, many noodles and bok-choi, we were ready to move on for some alcoholic beverages.

One of their favourite bars was closed, as it was a Sunday night, so they brought me down to Robertson Quay where we settled on "The Wine Connection". Despite the rain, and it being a school night, there were plenty of customers but we found a nice table out the back and settled in to trade funny stories about room mates we'd had over the years. Unfortunately Charlie has experienced some Irish guys who don't really represent our country very well, mostly by being extraordinarily lazy. There was another story about a crazy English guy and we decided that he definitely had the worst run of the luck in the room mate stakes. I've been mostly lucky, although we once had one guy who insisted on hiding naked and jumping out at you every time he got drunk, which led to some awkward situations in the kitchen, bathroom, on the stairs etc.

So, one bottle of wine turned into two, mostly because it was really easy to drink, but we still managed to toddle off home at a reasonable hour and they avoided being too hungover at work the following day. Although it's definitely not a tourist trap and probably not considered by backpackers, it is worth considering if you're either, as it's very reasonable for Singapore and it also offers tapas, which smelled delightful. The fact that it was busy on a Sunday evening is also testament to the fact that it's enjoyed by locals here.

Ambience: 8/10 - It's outdoor area on Robertson Quay is lovely, but the interior felt cosy on this rainy night.
Food: We didn't eat but we saw some small portions being delivered to other tables. Prices start at about $6, which is reasonable for Singapore.
Location: Robertson Quay, plenty of other bars and restaurants in the area to crawl around, if so required.
Toilets: The toilets are around the corner and service the complex, but they were clean and presentable.
Overall: A good variety of wine and prices on the menu and lovely for an intimate catch up.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Freefalling in Paradise - the best experience of my life

I never thought I would actually do it, I meant to do it, I WANTED to do it but I was absolutely petrified. There are many people who will testify to my fear of heights, some have seen me lose it on fairground rides, or quiver whilst going up stairs that have gaps in between the steps. I was getting Facebook comments from friends telling me to try a sky-dive in New Zealand and how I would be fine, but I really wasn't sure. However, whilst lying in bed in Kaikoura, sober, I just decided that once I reached Queenstown, I absolutely had to do it. I might never have the opportunity again and that's what this entire trip was about.

So I arrived in Queenstown on a beautiful summer's evening at 5.45pm. I walked straight into the tourist office and asked which company I should go with and how high should I jump from. The woman asked what my budget was and I told her I couldn't afford it anyway, so aside from price, what were my options. There were three companies and three choices - 9, 000ft, 12, 000ft and 15, 000ft - the highest you can go for a tandem without oxygen. I decided to throw caution to the wind (absolutely literally in this situation) and I booked for 15, 000ft with Skydive Paradise the following morning.
For those not familiar, you have to do 10-15 tandem jumps from this height before you're allowed consider going it alone.

I woke up and felt a tightness in my chest, I felt rather out of sorts and unbalanced. These are all the things they tell you to check for if you're doing a jump but I convinced myself it was psychological. One of the guys who was supposed to come with us was turned down due to the fact that he was over 100 kilos and he was really gutted, I felt for him but I was glad they took their safety seriously. So off we went, to Paradise, in Glenorchy, about 45 minutes from Queenstown. On the way we stopped for pics beside Lake Wakatipu
It was really breathtaking, when you're here it completely makes sense why it was chosen as Middle Earth and I was getting to fly over it!

There were nervous jokes about landing in the glacial waters but then we arrived and it was time for our brief (too brief - my nerves) safety instruction and getting suited up. I was almost mute with fear, I had gotten to the point where I was scared that I would be too scared to enjoy it. I desperately wanted to enjoy this and conquer my crazy fear once and for all, but I actually considered the fact that I might have a stroke in mid-air and be a dead-weight on my tandem instructor. I was a little relieved when I saw the big strapping men that we would be attached to. The two Danish girls (yes, both blonde, kind of attractive) that had been on the bus were first up and I watched the tiny plane rise through the air, climbing until it was out of view.

Shortly afterwards a guy arose from laying on the grass and approached me. He introduced himself as Matias and said that I would be jumping with him. I was confused, was I not going to be attached to one of those big, muscular men I'd seen with the girls? Matias was slight, about 5'6" and at best could be described as lean. I know I'm no Amazon, but if the guy had 5 kilos on me I'd be surprised! In the plane (tube) I actually asked him if he would be able to feel my weight as we fell. He assured me that he wouldn't!

I tried not to look down as we ascended but I couldn't help but notice the snow-tipped peaks growing ever smaller below us and I couldn't breathe. I whispered "I'm not sure I can do this," and had awful visions of the plane having to return to the ground and having failed to confront this fear. Matt simply patted me on the shoulder and told me to move to the door. It's a good thing we were strapped so closely together because rather than sit at the door for a moment I threw myself out, wanting to get it over with and not experience the horrible anticipation any longer.

Surprisingly, my first sensation was absolute freedom. I loved it. I wanted to whoop and scream and I tried, but it's not very easy when you're flying towards earth at about 214 km per hour. All I could see was the blue of the lake but it didn't feel like I was hurtling towards it. It honestly felt like flying. When Matt tapped me to put my arms and legs out I didn't hesitate, my fear was gone. When he pulled the chute, I was disappointed, I wanted to free-fall the entire way - but that of course, was crazy. That's how I felt though - I was completely high on adrenalin and happiness. Delighted that I had confronted my fear and that I was enjoying so much.

We twisted and turned whilst we glided down towards the ground and I had time to take in the absolutely stunning scenery that surrounded me. I'm sure most people think the same, but I honestly couldn't have chosen a better place to take that crazy dive.

I landed smoothly and even asked if I could go back up again but there was a queue waiting to do their dives so I decided that some other place at some other time would be better.

Most unfortunately my video and photos corrupted so I only have a few snapshots to show but every time I think of it, I remember how I was filled to bursting with happiness and the most free I have ever felt. No Go-Pro could capture that.

So, when I get the money again, I'll try again somewhere, maybe back in Dubai - apparently it's only 10, 000ft - pah! I can do that ;) I'm just afraid it will never feel as good as that first time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pubcrawling around the World - Part 3: Infinity, Chiang Mai

Arriving in Chiang Mai for the second time, I was planning a quieter time than my Christmas/New Year trip.  My cousin, Alex, had other ideas. Whilst I was chilling in Jackie's apartment on my very first evening, he called at 9.30pm and said we were going out. I had only arrived that afternoon and I hadn't even a chance to change or put on make-up when I was on the back of his scooter and we headed off to Niemenhaemin. Alex prefers Thai bars and areas and he told me that usually there are huge get-together's in a car-park nearby but it wasn't to be this Thursday night so across the road we went to Infinity.

Immediately I liked the outdoor area, parts are covered with an artful gazebo like structure and the other half is completely open-roofed. On a small stage, there was a girl singing popular tunes and she was pretty good. We were straight into it, ordering a bottle of Absolut, joking around with the waitresses.
You can see the stage in the background

When we had approached the bar, we saw a sign saying "Foreigners: 200Bt entry fee." but I think since it was quiet enough they didn't press the issue with us, or perhaps they knew Alex would be ordering lots of shots...

After a couple of hours catching up and enjoying the atmosphere (and perfect weather) outside, we headed inside where Alex met some of his students who had just graduated. Inside was like a nightclub, there was a Thai band onstage belting out popular numbers (well, I assume so - it was all in Thai but the music sounded superb!) everyone was dancing and whilst there were couches to sit on, there was also a big dancefloor and most people were standing or dancing. Towers of drink were being ordered and there was general mayhem enjoyed by 18-25 year olds! Everyone was really friendly and there was a real party atmosphere in the place.

From the outside, there are huge glass floor-to-ceiling windows which house the club part of the venue, and it's pretty upmarket. It reminded me of super-clubs in other cities and if you're into clubs then definitely give this place ago.

I was really enjoying the music but I did feel a little out of my depth, given that I was probably the only non-Thai present, on the older side of the crowd and I had no Thai to speak of! I had to wander off around 2am, my excuse being that I was still jet-lagged from my Australian flight two days prior. I'm not sure even Alex knows what time he got in, but apparently the club closes pretty late.

Ambience: 10/10 -This place has everything, outdoors for chilling, indoors to get your groove on!
Cost: $$ A little on the pricey side for Chiang Mai, but ridiculously cheap for Westerners - 950Bht for a bottle of Absolut
Food: Didn't eat - not even sure they serve food!
Location: Just off Niemenhaemin.
Toilets: Spotless, with friendly Thai girls.
Overall: A great place for a big night out with a group of friends.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Volunteering in November 2013

As part of my travels I was keen to find a volunteer position somewhere and Sri Lanka seemed like a good choice. Ideally, I didn't want to pay to volunteer as I'd been told that many of these projects are a bit of a scam. I wanted to give of my time and expertise to a group that are really helping a local community and assisting them in becoming self-sustaining. This wasn't quite as easy as it sounds.

Firstly I looked online and through a reputable website I made contact with a hostel for youths (not a backpackers) near Negombo. It all sounded good: a centre for disadvantaged youths to drop in, some of them homeless, and a group of adults who were trying to guide them to a better life. I had to have a police check done - I was impressed. For about six weeks I liased with one of the centre owners and I had my flights booked, all ready to go when one Saturday afternoon he sent me a message, asking if I would still be volunteering in Sri Lanka. I responded that of course, we had made all the arrangements.  He said that no, they didn't have a place for me any longer. I was a little bewildered and told him so (obviously not using that particular word!). He tried to Skype me then but I refused, mostly as I didn't see the point. He then said he wanted to talk to me privately and I became wary.  He asked if I was single and I stupidly replied that I was. He asked if I would like to have an affair? I was stunned. At my age, still naive. My retort was a curt 'No, thank you.' to which he felt he would improve things by suggesting we only have an affair for a month. Fabulous, well, of course, that completely changes things! I sincerely hope the sarcasm is noted. Needless to say, I told him I was going to report him and I'm still concerned about any young women that enters that hostel.

After that rather tawdry experience, I was lucky that a friend of a friend introduced me to Joy Butler-Markham. Joy runs a charity in Sri Lanka (and other places) called Manacare and it was quickly arranged that I would help Joy for the month of November. I didn't know exactly what awaited me but at least there were some personal connections and a network for me to escape if the situation went sour.

Any doubts I may have had were quelled after spending the trip from Colombo to Hikkaduwa in the back of a van with Joy. Although almost half her age, we clicked immediately. I had never met anyone who is truly the manifestation of their name until Joy came along. The woman is completely selfless, in fact I would say she errs on the side of caring TOO much for others. She cares deeply about the hurt and unfairness in the world and she fights everyday to make the world a better place. A mammoth task, anyone would say, and I often had to remind her to take baby steps, that at least she's changing something.

The following day Joy took me to the Manacare Village, outside Hikkaduwa. The place is immediately impressive - there are a number of buildings - housing a pre-school, doctor and physio offices, a gym, a clothing and textiles workshop, a candle and soap making workshop, a maid-training school, 5 houses for disabled families and plenty of garden space where Daisy the cow lounges on the grass and some rescue dogs run around. Daisy had a partner, who unfortunately died from a snake bite! All the people here were orphans, many orphaned by the Tsunami, who were thrown
 onto the streets once they were 18, after probably a horrible time in a Sri Lankan orphanage. There are some wonderful stories, Nilantha - a 14 year old with cerebral palsy was brought from an orphanage by Joy in December 2012. He had been lying in the same spot, often soiled, staring at the ceiling and it was advised that he would never walk to talk. Through full-time care and attention, even a dip in the water therapy pool, Nilantha now makes noises, smiles and laughs and is moving his limbs! The pre-school children are a dream - singing, laughing and showing off and all the ladies who work 9 - 5, sew and chat happily, delighted to be able to make a living. Newan, another young boy, who burned his legs badly escaping during the tsunami, walks and chats and is learning new skills in the soap and candle making room. 15, 000 soaps a month are bought by Jetwing hotels. Free classes in computers, music, dance, crafts etc run in various parts of the building and grounds and many people avail of them. Everyone here will have a better life because of Joy.

I stayed in Joy's house and my job was to assist with administration, marketing etc. No other volunteer had offered this kind of service and it's really a necessity. In order to apply for grants much paperwork needs to be provided and there wasn't enough in place to track incomings and outgoings. All we know is that the village isn't self-sustaining yet. The teachers, doctors, everyone who gives their time to the site do so for free, and many people are helpful but electricity, medical supplies etc cost money. Joy's phone rings all day long - whether it's 11pm at night or 7.45am in the morning. I took the phone off her to try and create some routine, to give her a break, but running a charity is a 24 hour job. There are always things to be done, from creating an up-to-date customer and price list, to tracking each and every expense which the place incurs. I also had to train a girl, Naudia, in office skills. Education isn't really available for people on low-incomes but she is very bright and well-presented so it was nice to feel I was helping. I believe she's still involved with Manacare, which is great.

I had a wonderful month, many 13 hour days, from helping with the Galle polla (market day) to helping Joy manage the site and trying to assist in giving a routine and promote more productivity in the workshops. There were many social events too - running a charity makes one well-known and popular and through Joy I got to spend an evening with Sir Ian Botham and Morné Du Plessis, who were over on a fundraising walk, a eccentric Britishman in the area invited us to his private island for dining and dancing on another night - every day turned up new invites. I made a bunch of great friends, also known as the Angels of Joy :)
Joy and Sir Ian Botham (who was very courteous!)

Five months on, there's still work to be done. There are many more people helping out on the admin side, but a huge sponsor had to pull out leaving Manacare short of the GBP 3000 it takes to run it every month. I miss the place and I've no doubt I'll visit again but for now I keep in touch via email and dropbox.

If any of you are interested, you can volunteer a few hours a week from home (or donate!) - please see the facebook page