Christmas in Australia

This year there would be no cosying up by the fireside with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie… well actually there would be mince pies, a lot of mince pies! Otherwise Christmas in Australia was going to be a little different than back home.

There would be no blustery wind, rain or snow days either but as Christmas approached the temperature rocketed. The hottest day we have had so far is up to 45 degrees so instead of huddling inside for warmth we found ourselves flopped out under the air con. Sticking my feet into the kids paddling pool was also a favourite way to cool off. Yet despite the heat it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

A big part of this was living with a family and being au pairs. Seeing the kids excitement growing everyday definitely helped with the Christmas spirit whereas I think if we had been travelling on our own for this portion of the trip we might have felt a bit detached. We made Christmas cookies, played Christmas songs while the kids got ready for school and even helped Elfis, the very cheeky elf that came to visit.

So how is Australian Christmas different to UK Christmas? For starters ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ has new lyrics (obviously) and they have a song called ‘Six White Boomers’ a.k.a Six White Kangaroos – you can listen to them if you click the links. The kids got to meet Santa when he drove through the streets on a firetruck handing out ice lollies. Although mince pies are available here they aren’t as popular as back home but Claire kindly bought us some to help us get a taste of home and every time supplies ran low, another box appeared. And another box. And another box, until I think I ate more mince pies here than I ever would at home and I LOVE mince pies. But it was a sweet gesture and much appreciated, especially when we got ourselves a bottle of Baileys to go with!

Otherwise everything felt surprisingly similar. Even the Christmas cards and decorations are still snow themed, which I still can’t get over. What we did miss was our own traditions. Weekends away with the family, having Christmas songs blasting in my headphones while I shop for presents, meeting our friends on Christmas Eve and of course all the family traditions big and small we enjoy on Christmas Day itself.

Christmas Eve in Australia was spent baking cookies with the kids and cooking a big sausage roll as our contribution to Christmas lunch. In the evening we watched Noelle with the kids and once they were in bed settled down with a glass of rum and coke to watch Bad Moms Christmas. Then it was into bed ourselves before Santa arrived.

Despite turning twenty-seven this year I am truly a big kid at heart and barely slept for excitement of Christmas Day. We woke early to the kids excitement as they opened their Santa sacks and then Joey had to put up with my excitement at the presents my mum had kindly posted to us to have something to open on Christmas Day, which we had placed at the foot of our bed. It was nice to have a moment to ourselves to open presents in bed, exchange the simple gifts we got each other, and make sure we did some things just for us as well as getting involved in family Christmas. Joey’s mum sent us money, which we greatly appreciated as it can go towards an awesome experience for us along the next leg of our trip and make it that much more special. We also got to FaceTime our friends as they enjoyed annual Christmas Eve drinks (thanks time difference!) so as we were passed down the table, having mini catch ups, our FOMO diminished and Christmas cheer peaked.

Breakfast was pancakes and ice-cream and not long afterwards the Grandparents and Great Grandparent (Claire’s grandmother) arrived for present opening. Cue absolute chaos. Wrapping paper flew in every direction, Claire tried to keep track of whose presents came from who while taking photos, we tried to snap photos for the family, attempting to catch that brief moment of joy before the furrowed concentration of opening the next present and the toys piled up. The family was even kind enough to get us a few small gifts and chocolate to add to our ever growing stash. It made us wish we weren’t such poor backpackers that we could gift them more than a box of chocolates in return. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces when they opened their chocolate Christmas trees and an X-Box Kinect game we knew they would love, was the best part of all though.

As present-opening mayhem calmed down and the nerf gun war began, we gathered up the food to take over to the grandparents for lunch. They live on an olive farm just down the road and in fact their land stretches as far as the field at the end of the street from the families home. Even though it was a short distance I gripped the plate of nibbles I was holding in fear, using all my core strength to stop pretzels and salami flying in all directions every time we went round a corner. Luckily everything arrived in one piece and we were soon sitting down to lunch.

Due to the heat a massive roast is the last thing you feel like eating but there was still turkey on the menu. After a starter of prawn cocktail we got stuck into a buffet of cold cuts of ham, turkey and chicken, various salads (including a delicious broccoli salad I want the recipe for), our sausage roll and a cheesy potato bake. There were almost as many desserts as there was main food so of course I had a bit of everything. No Christmas pudding here, there was pavlova, rice pudding, cheesecake and trifle. Yum!

Full of booze and food and with the kids eager to get home and play with their toys, we retreated back to the families home for a rest. It wasn’t long before I was deep in a food coma and woke later in the afternoon to the family getting ready to head back over to the grandparents for the evening. Joey and I hung back, allowing them to have some family time and a bit of downtime for ourselves as well before joining them later on. As the sun faded, spreading orange and pink across the sky, the golden grass shimmering in the last of the days heat, I felt like this year Christmas had been a world apart from our normal Christmas and yet in some ways exactly the same. In the end it wasn’t the type of food we ate or opening presents or the little Christmas traditions I missed, it was simply being with family and friends. Yet I was grateful to have Joey by my side and being able to share in this adventure together.

The miracle of technology helped as well and getting to FaceTime both our families throughout the day to hear that they were having a good time too. As the stars (and the mosquitos) came out we shared family stories with Claire and Josh, having one more Christmas tipple before bed, feeling happy about where we were and what is yet to come for the New Year.

A Whistle Stop Tour of Sri Lanka

For me, Sri Lanka has felt like one long train journey but if there is any country where this is a good thing then it is Sri Lanka. And not just because a 9 hour train journey can cost you as little as £3. The trains rattle along past valleys cushioned with tea plantations, giant white Buddha statues appearing here and there and gazing serenely at the passengers who lean out of the windows and doors for a better look at the view. 

This is the first part of my trip where I have been travelling alone and I feel already I have had a taste of the highs and lows of solo travel – though I’m sure there will be more to come. I arrived in Colombo fairly late, eager to get to my hostel, but the universe had other plans. My first mission was to get money out as I’d opted to get money from ATMS when first arriving in a country rather than carrying bits of cash from all the different places I’ll be visiting. I followed the instructions on the screen and pressed ‘accept amount’. Denied. I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. Attempt 2: Denied. I tried a different machine but got the same result. I scrabbled about for wifi so I could check my acccount and tried to call my bank only to be put on hold. Tears were prickling my eyes, this was the last thing I needed after being so nervous about being on my own, but I was determined not to let them fall. I reminded myself that I was carrrying dollars I could exchange or pay with instead to at least get me to the hostel and when a taxi driver approached me and we agreed on a price I decided it was best to get to the hostel and sort it out there.

In the end my card worked the next day and I could start really enjoying my trip, well, that was the plan anyway. Everywhere tells you to get out of Colombo ASAP and originally I planned to leave for Kandy straight away, but the card fiasco made me cautious and I had booked another night in Colombo. This is probably my only regret of the trip as I could have used this time to make another stop on my way back to Colombo at the end, thereby breaking up a long train journey. You live and learn and I definitely learnt that day.

After securing my tickets to Kandy (really easy and really cheap) I decided to walk around and see the few sites that Colombo had to offer, such as the Fort and the Clock Tower. To begin with a friendly Sri Lankan man tagged along with me, offering to show me the sites. I was nervous of him but he seemed harmless and kept saying he didn’t want money, telling me about his daughter who collects stamps and how all he asked was that I send her some from England. I couldn’t find a way to shake him off until he got in a tuk tuk and asked me to join him and, my hackles immediately going up, I refused, walking on. I have no idea where he was leading me but I’m not convinced it was actually anywhere I wanted to go, as stopping to look at my map it didn’t look like I was even heading in the right direction. So I doubled back and wandered around, probably looking like a crazy person as I turned one way and then back the other until I had blisters on my feet. Eventually I gave in and grabbed a tuk tuk who took me to a couple of Hindu temples I wanted to see (at least I think they were – they might have been random ones) but they were closed for their Poya celebrations, a public holiday linked to the full moon and a time when Buddha urged his disciples to deepen their spiritual practice. Feeling dejected I headed back to my hostel.
In the evening I made up my mind that I was going to actually make it somewhere I planned to go. I searched up a good place for dinner in my Lonely Planet guide, wrote down fool-proof instructions and set off. I reached the end of the road. Left? Or right? The one thing I had forgotten to write down. No matter, I had written the name of the first street I should pass instead so I tried left but the first road was called something different. I tried right instead. The name still wasn’t what I expected. I decided to keep going but 20 minutes later I still wasn’t recognising anything from my directions. 

The one good thing was that I unexpectedly ran into some Poya celebrations. People dressed as peacocks and monkeys were dancing down the street, fire dancers loomed over the crowds on their stilts and behind them followed a small temple on wheels. All this was cool to see, but it wasn’t food.

I doubled back and then carried on and came to the street I had been looking for just one road on from the wrong one. I sighed and trudged on. And on. And on. The walk was supposed to take 20-30 minutes but I had been walking about 40 minutes and still not recognised anything. I was fed up, tired and starving. I was too nervous, both of germs and of drawing people’s attention as a single white woman, to get any streetfood or try the local places I passed along the way. I settled for a cafe I’d spotted earlier, not too far from my hostel and sat eating reheated pasta feeling like a failure. I was supposed to throw myself into a new culture, find my way around the country and I couldn’t even find a decent place to eat dinner. 

Tomorrow was a new day though and at least I knew how to get myself to the station. The train to Kandy offered some beautiful views, though passing the make-shift shacks of the poverty stricken when I was sat in second class with a digital camera on my lap was unsettling. Still, the dense forests that gave way to open fields lifted my mood. The Elephant Shed hostel where I was staying was only a 5-10 minute walk from the station but I still managed to get a bit turned around. A couple of kind locals called the hostel for directions for me and pointed me the right way. 

I did have a moment of doubt though as I walked down a side street that seemed to be getting more deserted as I turned the corner, but suddenly there it was, this tall wonky building with a brightly coloured sign on the door. Inside was just as quirky, the walls covered in messages from other travellers and the treacherous stairs being little more than ladders. Determined not to make the same mistakes as Colombo and make the most of my short time here, I immediately started packing my day bag and writing EXENSIVE directions down to find The Temple of the Tooth Relic. While I was doing this I got chatting to a girl who was doing the same thing so we decided to go together.

 I quickly discovered that getting lost with someone else was much more fun (also having internet on your phone is ideal for someone as directionally challenged as me). Not that we properly got lost but The Temple of the Tooth is not exactly sign posted and once you enter the complex it is still a while before you come to the actual room with the tooth relic in. In fact we kind of stumbled upon the rather low-key room holding the tooth in a golden casket (there are only certain occasions when you can actually see the tooth) and guarded by a golden Buddah statue and rows of elephant tusks. Around the room are paintings with stories about the tooth but otherwise there is no information about what you are seeing, simply because it is a functioning temple. Many locals were there on the day, being so close to Poya, and there was a peaceful air to the whole experience.

I planned to do Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock, and possibly some cave temples the next day and when I suggested my new friend, Kristel, join me she was only too happy to go together. In fact the hostel guy rounded up a few other solo travellers interested in going and suddenly there were six of us.

Having other people to chat to, between gasping for breath as we climbed the one million steps (ok I exaggerate but it felt like it) to the top of Sigiriya, made all the difference to the experience. It was especially a relief when, on the way back, our driver offered to drop us at a spice garden for a tour and free massage. We were left in the hands of a gawky man with stained teeth who repeated things often and wanted us to smell every spice at least three times. He was clearly high on something and we were tired from our long day and impatient to get back on the road. When he saw he was losing our attention he lead us to a school room type area where we sat on benches and tried a spice tea, which was surprisingly nice. We heard all about the spices and their many miracles cures AGAIN and I couldn’t help but ask the guide if he used the remedies himself as he wasn’t exactly a walking advert for them. 

Next, without much warning, a few more guys appeared and gestured for me and one of the other girls to move to the front bench. With no preamble they starting spreading a thick home made cream onto our faces before massaging it in and then wiping away the excess. The massage was all right but the whole experience was weird. I’m sure they meant well but we just wanted to get away and it was reassuring to have a group of us all thinking the same thing rather than having to suffere through the strange experience alone. The girl next to me suggested it might be time to get back to the mini bus and we were ushered through the gift shop on our way.

Kandy had shown me everything I wanted to see (and a few things I didn’t in the spice garden) so I got on another train away from the dirty city and into hill country and Ella. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is famously impressive and it didn’t disappoint. In fact several tourists left their drivers just to experience the train and got picked up again by them at the other end. I can’t blame them when the views were so good and the tickets so cheap. 

I travelled with Brad, one of the guys from our Sigiriya trip and when we arrived in Ella we both agreed we liked it much better than Kandy. Ella has more of a travellers vibe and that night at Chill Bar, which seems to be THE place to go out in Ella, I sipped a passioinfuit mojito from a jar as we met all these different people passing through. Their were two Israeli girls who shared stories about their time in the Israeli army, the group of fiends who used to work on private yachts together and were celebrating a birthday and the family who had lived all over the world, running hotels. This is what travel is supposed to be about right? Meeting interesting characters along the way, the ones who turn your trip into a story. Finally I felt like I was beginning to get what people mean when they say the best part of travel is meeting people.

The next day Brad, Florian (a guy Brad had met earlier in his trip) and I hiked Ella rock. Like with Sigiriya I was reminded how desperately unfit I am as I panted and sweated my way up behind the boys. At the top the slightly misty view rewarded our efforts and later we rewarded ourselves with another drink at Chill bar. As the afternoon stretched into evening we were joined by old friends we had each met along the way, including Kristel, who had just arrived a day after us, and our little table for three suddenly became a table for nine. 

The great thing about meeting people while travelling is that you instantly have something in common. We shared stories, swapped tips on where to go and what to see and amazed each other with the unique experiences we’d had along the way. Sitting on the train heading back to Colombo, ready for my flight to India the next day, I couldn’t be more exited to see what the rest of my trip has in store. This first week on my own has taught me to expect the low times and the moments where everything goes wrong but to also have faith that things will right themselves in the end. 

I’ve enjoyed my experience of Sri Lanka, as limited as it has been, but feel it is easy to see what you want to see and be done with it. The sites are interesting and worth visiting but for me, it will always be the people that made this leg of my trip so great.

For more please watch my video here.