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Sydney – becoming a local

Wow. Sydney. What a city. Living there for two and a half months, I really got the grip of the city. After my rather sporadic and fantastic couchsurfing experiences (three weeks in a row), I found a constant place at my fifth and last couchhost in Pyrmont. Located close to Darling Harbor, it quickly developed to be my home for the last seven weeks of my time in Sydney. Quite handy, as I found a job in a German bakery right in the middle of town hall’s subway station. The six weeks I worked there were quite intense though. Hard and tough work, especially in the beginning when everything I did seemed to be wrong and finding my place in the narrow shop seemed to be difficult. In the first few weeks I took double the pain, taking a look into a great media agency every day before heading over to work at the bakery. That translated into a 60-70 hour workweek which calmed down once I concentrated on the paid job, to a “relaxed” 50-60h week. The pay was crap, getting up at 4AM and working for 12h straight on Sundays, having only the Saturday off. At times the only baker for rushing business people which wasn’t too much fun but I actually didn’t mind, as time flew by under the stress and the tough physical work. The colleagues were fantastic as well, many Germans who laughed with me about the simple pleasures in life, and shared their stories with me. Especially the “Sandwich girl”, the colleague who focused on preparing sandwiches in the back of the shop were I spent my time preparing and baking trays of treats was a great addition to my daily baker boy lifestyle. Every evening, I took the leftovers that were about to be thrown away and gave them to homeless people, sometimes junkies, anyone who was willing to take one of those heavy, bread-and-rolls-filled bags. It was the first time I felt adding welfare to society, a feeling that prompted a smile on my face every day on dark way home. Every day I kept saying to myself “these bags of good food would be thrown away, yet they can find their way to the people who need it, if only you want.” One time I found a campervan with some backpackers inside. I knocked, apologized for being so crazy to ask them if they wanted to take food from a stranger, but they smiled and took the bread happily.

This time really shaped me in many ways. First of all  because it was the hardest labor I ever had to do. Lifting tons of bread, rolls and pastries under high stress and low wage. Then again in a social way because I learnt a lot about treating the people, doing good by trying to help. And finally by earning some spare money, for the first time in my travels. I can’t say I was the best baker ever, but I was sure the happiest, most content and most welfare-oriented.

Entering Sydney – Of Harvard grads and Hippie lads

Arriving in Sydney, the quest for a save place was again running. Couchsurfing was quite helpful, guiding me to a guy called Chris who said that he could host me for the weekend. I stumbled into his place on the outskirts of Sydney, just to find myself in an elaborate jamsession with an amazing Austrian guitarist, who was on his exchange semester himself. Before I knew it I was behind the mic and we had a great time freestyling, having a couple of beers and just enjoying the intercultural communication music delivers. I still had my van for these days, where I preferred to sleep (I mean, I paid for that scum, so the least I could do is using it). I liked the cozyness although it was getting colder at nights. Yet it also made me independent on the wakeup times of other people. However I really didn’t have so much rest for myself as every day was packed with adventures. It was a really nice weekend, getting shown around town, jamming and laughing, karaoke and cooking, surprise visits of Sydney’s harbor, having other couchsurfers over (who sucked) and laughing about them afterwards. During that time, a fellow couchsurfer accepted me for the week so my next stay was save.

 Following, the weeks seemed to fly by… During the week I found shelter in the city and during the weekend I returned to the outskirts, back to Chris’ place. The great thing about couchsurfing is the people you get to know. It takes seemingly humongous efforts to convince somebody to host you, especially if you are a small fish without any recommendations. But once you get to know them, you very quickly find out that everybody is forged in the same furnace – next to excentric Harvard grad Chris, I met a mid-twenties banker who lived in a great studio and who took me out to dinner with his mom. Or an olympic weightlifter who ran a crane company with his brother. We watched the London Olympic Games and shared delicious chunky beef stew. Or a hipster psychology major living in Newtown, who taught me about the difference between dubstep and brostep, sharing her vegan scalloped eggplant bake with me. Showing me around her uni, smuggling me into the library so I could leech internet.

I mostly spent my days on the various couches, recharging batteries from my journey, many times refraining from anything but video editing and re-socializing with friends from over the world. It’s amazing how the network of the traveler grows and grows, exchangers I met in Singapore, people I met during the time in Cairns, people I am getting to know now, plus everyone from back home of the studies and even back back home in Germany.

One of the things I wanted to get hold of was the vibrant subculture I was sure to find in Sydney. Couchsurfing in this respect is the best way to find it, as you are closely in contact with locals. One day, Chris announced that a drum-circle-gathering-party was happening and before I knew it I stood in a quiet neighborhood some blocks from Chris’ place, in front of an even bigger house that emitted the indulging scents of joss sticks. Being greeted by the host of the house I dared a stroll on the patio, overseeing the backyard. I couldn’t believe my eyes first but then I realized it: I just stumbled into a miniature hippie-festival.

The backyard was filled with around 60 alternative/medieval looking people, frantically discussing the amazement of the vegan dishes everybody cooked and shared, drinking self-made chai tea from a heated dispenser, cramping around a campfire listening to the sounds of a hippie-band. I couldn’t stop chuckling about this spectacle; the people, the conversations, the behavior, just fantastic. For example the chai dispenser was clogged, so somebody came explaining “ooh, there must be some of the cardamom stuck in it!”. I asked what Chai tea is made of. I didn’t understand 80% of the ingredients. Soy milk, I got for sure.

Other highlight conversations:

  • “is there a contribution box?”,
  • “I’m half dentist assistant, half artist”
  • “is this the queue?” “well, that depends on whether you want that to be a queue. Maybe its something else” “a line of waiting for enlightenment?” “yea for example, no stress!”

I enjoyed every piece of this firetwirling-congaplaying-herbalindulging community and fell to bed happy and satisfied with my first real Australian artspace-encounter.

Interim skit: A new dawn

When I arrived in Sydney I didn’t really know what expect. I just finished my bachelor – I found out about that In Newcastle, and I knew I had shitloads of videos to edit from the last journeys through Asia. But in terms of missions or goals I was very much indifferent. I knew I wanted to let it flow, do something creative and live cheap, so couchsurfing looked quite like the thing bringing me closest to that. How to achieve it, though, was a complete mistery. Since the HongKong trip and through hosting my family in Singapore, I became aware of the positive effect of local knowledge on the experience of the guest, so I was sure I wanted to get some real insider insights into the city. I wanted to see something regular visitors don’t see, subculture, underground stuff. Big cities are known for their creative youth, deep inside I felt that I was ready for doing something out of my experience. I was not about to be a tourist in Sydney, I wanted to become an insider. Seeing, breathing, living the city.

It took me one week to form this goal, from not knowing at all what to gaining life experience. Surviving the urban city. Everybody told me how expensive Sydney was. I wanted to beat it. Survive.

 

Roadtripping the East Coast – Brisbane to Sydney

When I picked up my friend from the airport in Brisbane, I knew everything changed to the better. Don’t get me wrong, I was not one single minute pessimistic about the future of the trip, even though we had 6 consecutive days of rain (which is very uncommon for the season, everybody assured us). In fact, from the moment I opened my eyes awaking in a one m³ airhole surrounded by 4 huge backpacks, till the very evening having driven for hours and cooked for the crew and finally closing my eyes happily, there was not a single second I didn’t enjoy to the fullest. Sure, a little bit of sunlight every now and then would have helped make the trip more enjoyable, but I was always happy and content with the situation. On the one hand because the journey always continued, which gave me spirit of continuation, and second of all because I felt like I went through the hard knocking school of South-East Asian traveling already.

The days itself just mixed and blended into one. It was just simply tremendously cool to have good weather again and such a good buddy around. Shared history makes good trips. The rest of the trip:

Day 8:
Restocking on groceries, then taking the bus into the city. The sun was finally shining and Phil and I had to catch up half a year of travels. CQ University decided to invite us to their open-day and before we knew it we were in midst free catering-quality food, chit-chatting with professors and staff about business and economics. If we learned one thing in the past, than bullshitting our way through to our goal. The rest of Brisbane was equally enjoyable, especially the lovely South Bank Park with adjacent lagoon and the numerous bridges over the river. Exactly that part of Brisbane I damned 24 hours before, limited to finding a free parking lot for the van. New day, new approach. Way better. Yet after our 6k stroll around town we decided to head off South, leaving Brissy behind. The city of “Surfer’s Paradise” is not far on the road and as night fell soon we decided to spend the night there. A tough undertaking we found out, as this not-so-paradisaical place is crammed with sky-scraping hotel chains leaving not much space for our beloved budget camp grounds. Piling like glow-sticks into the night I felt like I was running right into Singapore’s skyline. Yet we managed to stay on our budget and rewarded ourselves with an indulgeous burger barbecue, proving that our co-operational kitchening skills were not forgone at all.

Day 9:
Being greeted by a perfectly blue-bird sky we spent our breakfast at the beach, determined to make good progress that day. Sun was up and everything seemed just as planned when we found out that the smoke we saw coming out of the van’s DVD player the night earlier identified itself as a nasty short-circuit that paralyzed not only the DVD player itself (which was redundant as we quickly passed out every night after exhausting adventures anyways) but also the car stereo, leaving us with no entertainment but our own voices. We quickly located the van’s circuit-board but the descriptions of our Toyota were surprisingly in Japanese which forced me to hotline roadside-assistance. But after an hour of waiting lines and explanations, I was told that I had to make sure that the rental company would take care of the costs and we decided to postpone the further procedure to Byron where we intended to stay for the night. So we left Surfer’s Un-Paradise behind (not before visiting “Miami Beach”, though) and went on a detour up the mountains to the small village of Nimbin. A friend recommended this place to me years ago and I reckoned that it was worth-going as it is close to Byron Bay, our day-goal. A decision I didn’t regret. Entering Nimbin is not like any other city. You are greeted by a sign displaying a unicorn riding over a rainbow and in front of the town hall, decorated with painted flowers, were two dreadlocked backpacker in their twenties, kissing each other in front of an old VW van. Yep, you just entered Hippie-town.

The rest of the trip displayed itself just as mellow, with good avocado breakfasts, long hours on the road filled with chatter, and always good dinners in the evening. Some highlights were definitely getting kicked out of Byron Bays “Cheeky Monkey” for lack of dance swag (NOT my fault!), shitty-weathered but astonishingly sunset Newcastle and wine tasting in Hunter Valley. Yet after two weeks of road life, I waved my buddy goodbye at Williamstown Airport, and carried on – alone again.

 

Roadtripping Australia’s East Coast – Episode 1: Cairns to Brisbane

Bascially, Australia has a handful of “bigger” cities that are spread along the coastal line, with nothing much going on inside the huge vast nothingness of space. Darwin in the north, Cairns in the far northeast, Brisbane in the Middle East, Sydney in the South East, Melbourne in the far South East, Adelaide in the South, Perth in the South West. While the West coast is known to be a 4×4 adventure paradise that has not seen much tourism overflow yet, the East coast features infrastructure consisting of highways, beach, reef and surf paradises and other attractions (such as heaps of national parks, croco farms, koala reserves, viewpoints, waterfalls, you name it).

Starting my Australian adventure in Cairns, it was easy at hand to cruise down the East coast for new stories. Cairns is more or less the North tip of the Great Barrier Reef, which invites for diving and snorkeling. The reef breaks the waves, which means that there is almost no good surf all the way down to Brisbane. Yet, plenty of stuff to see. I originally wanted to do my diving licence there, but plenty of people reassured me that the Great Barrier Reef is way too crowded and overrated, plus its extremely expensive to dive there. Still the helm-diving madness was a great experience. Having spent 4 weeks in Cairns but haven’t seen anything of the country yet, it was time to roll.

Thus I quickly gathered three friends or rather acquaintances, all recently met at the Woodduck, and rented a campervan to cruise down to Brisbane where I already had a date to meet an old friend from the Maastricht days. Buying a car was an option for me first, but considering the great hustle of car ownership, i.e. car registration (“rego”), road-worthy license and repairs, together with the uncertainty whether I would really need a car in cities like Sydney, I decided to go for a rental. Tribal travel in Cairns proved to be a good partner for getting a solid deal from Spaceship rentals, and before we even knew it we already picked up the van, OUR van, at the Spaceship depot in Cairns. Its name: Prowl (say: pry-owl in Aussie English). Everything was packed up easily, the last night at the Woodduck spectacularly celebrated (including the mandatory night-dive into the pool) and subsequently a new chapter of my journey began: Roadtrippin the Coast.

The fun thing about a road trip is surely the flexibility. Sleeping where you want to, going where you want to, experiencing what you want to. Unfortunately, there is a big factor influencing the success of such endeavor: the weather. Even more unfortunately, I, or should be said WE, did NOT check for this variable. Leaving the city borders of Cairns behind it started raining, what a surprise, and it kept doing so basically until we arrived in Brisbane. I would love to tell stories of campfires, guitar sessions and endless days under the sun, parrots resting on my shoulder, turtles delivering ice-cold beers on their backs, Kangaroos playing Didgeridoo, but I have to disappoint you – nothing like this happened. Instead, the trip went something like this:

Day 1: mood (of the group) – bright.
Tablelands / Josephine Falls / The Boulders: the rain starts
Innisfail – what a weird city name: weather dry for a second, time for shopping and restocking
Paronella Park – taking the famous cane cutter highway to this beautifully arranged outdoor venture with a romantic history: only did the night walk as we had 5cm water in the tent the next morning.

Day 2: mood – divided.
Mission beach – known for being the cheapest place to go skydiving: unfortunately rainy, grey in grey.
Townsville – beautiful beach promenade: rain stops, locals say weather highly unusual for the time of the year. Camping at night: rain starts again. Tent still wet.

Day 3: mood – doubtful.
Ayr / Bowen – small towns, nothing to do, continuing south where the sun was seen last.
Airlie Beach – home to the magnificent Whitsundays. We didn’t make the detour: heavy rain.
Mackay – close to Eugella National Park, yet: rain.
Camilla beach – free camping at the beach! But: dark & rain. People told us South of Mackay is where the rain was supposed to stop! We ventured to the camp grounds, parked in a shed, finally space to dry the tent (and pillows, quilt, sleeping bags, jackets, clothes, towels and basically everything that can soak water).

Day 4: mood – crummy.
Marlborough – shopping time. Finally new flip-flops. The old ones I found in Laos were so worn out they had holes. Weather: lousy
Rockhampton – cowboy town. Nothing to do there: rain clearing up for an hour. I’m not talking about sun, though!
Gladstone – one of the many towns flying by. Raining again.
Agnes Water / Town of 1770 – the city with just a number. First surf & known for cheap-ass surf lessons (13$/2h). Nice camping spot at the sea, unfortunately: rainy night.

Day 5: mood – borderline.
Bundaberg – the place where the rum is made. Last year two girls were supposingly dragged out of their hostel and raped. We took the highway-bypass.
Maryborough / Rainbow beach – closest point to the world’s largest sand island. But guess what: rain. We didn’t bother driving the detour to Rainbow Beach.
Gympie – road conditions after Bundaberg worsen. Finally a camp ground, did a good meatball pasta there. Weather: steady rain.

Day 6: mood – calloused.
Sunshine Coast – you gotta be joking, right? Rain.
Noosa – finally mixed weather! Lovely city, supposedly gorgeous waves. Restocking groceries.
Yaroomba / Marcoola / Maroochydore / Parrearra / Currimundi / Caloundra - Aussies love funny city names
BRISBANE. SUN IS SHINING. I’m smiling. And happy :)
We finally made it. I dropped the two ladies at the Woodduck in Brisbane and my buddy Andi and I drove around and tried to find a parking spot. Didn’t find one, hung out at McDonald’s, finally Wi-Fi! Wild-camped on a suburbian street.

Day 7: mood – relieved.
Resident greets us right after waking up with tips and advice what to do in Brisbane, where to go and cheered us up – very friendly!
Dropped Andi and the luggage of the ladies at the Woodduck – all on my own now. What to do??
Driving around town, checking Hamilton harbor. No luck finding a good space – I still need an adapter for my laptop! Ask some locals where to find a mall, they describe me a tremendously complex way through their neighborhood (right, left, right, straight, left, roundabout, right, straight I still know every piece of it) to a shopping mall at Toombul, home to a 24/7 Mc Donald’s that closes at 5 and only serves drive-thru cars. Or teens craving for “Mäcces”, which saw me sitting outside and approached me while I was surfing the web. Turns out they were very handsome young fellas open-mindedly talking to a stranger like me. We chatted for an hour about very diverse socio-cultural topics (“Do you listen to the same kind of music where you are from” “Where did you travel” “She is ugly – No he is ugly!”) and when they later returned to get a second round of fast food I was still sitting there. Really funny folks, gave me advice where to go wild-camping and such. I added them on facebook and promised to give them advice when they come to Europe some day. On a downturn, my facebook account gets flooded with self-observations regularly now, such as “somebody skype me” or “omg feel so misunderstood”. Long live the glorious teenager times!
I ended up not sleeping on the parking lot of the shopping center as a bald shaved security guard on a bike reassured me to get the f*** off the property. A sleepy suburban street, this time in Virginia, once more served as resting area. Unfortunately I forgot to search for a place that was level – I kept rolling down to one side of the mattress that night.

Day 8: mood – cheery.
Woke up to a text message. Content: “I am at the public pick-up zone. Is that good?”. My boy Phil from home just touched down in Brisbane. The real road-trip was just about to start…

Leaving Cairns behind…

It has been a while. Most definitely because I drowned in work. Not really, but a bachelor thesis doesn’t write itself. Well, I am glad to say that this is the past. I finished that goddamn paper and I am quite happy with it. It took me some effort as I remained academically unchallenged in the past 6 months, literally, and so it feels good to have it all done. In the meanwhile, I planned the next couple of weeks out, roadtrippin’ down the East Coast of Australia with some fellas from the hostel. The work at the Woodduck proved to be easy and rewarding, the weather not as cold as initially thought, and the general cost of living dropped as supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths appeared as quality service supermarkets with always-updated discount configurations (I can tell, retailing was my thesis topic), and I was quite happy with the life I had in Cairns. Yet, I felt there was more to Australia than hanging with the gang in the hostel, listening to the same palette of stories, lives and tracks. I liked the live at the hostel, the steady pace of coming and going, the friends made and the relaxed atmosphere of the long-term stayers. Yet, every day was in the same haze, and breaking from it my ultimate goal. Hence a new chapter began: rollin’ down the coast, roadtrippin’ OZ…

The ultimate guide on how to be successful

Well, I actually don’t have it, but today it felt like I was getting closer to it. I was working on my bachelor thesis when Dan the man rushed into my room to announce that I could have his job as a night manager in the hostel. While I waited for my soon-to-be boss to hang up the phone, I talked to a friend about heading South soon. Turns out we might rent a car together and share the costs. After getting my job from the boss (and stepping up from guest to crew status, meaning I enjoy free accommodation and laundry), I went to the pool for a quick refreshment. But before I could even jump in, I noticed two cardboard boxes on the patio-table and everybody around scrabbling through it. Turns out there were packaged leftovers from the earlier iron man competition here in Cairns where some of the Woodduckers volunteered. I ended up with a bag of cookies, candies, biscuits, nuts and raisins, juice, and one of the flashy yellow volunteer-shirts. I felt so good that when a lil boy from Germany came into the hostel with his dad because he had to go to the toilet, I gave him a cookie on the way out with the words “here buddy, take one for the way”. Me giving away precious cookies – that’s how good I felt today.

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