Prague: The City for the Goldilocks Traveller

Prague, the Czech capital, seems to be blurring the lines between Western and Eastern Europe. The idea that it is a city caught in the middle of a cultural cross-roads is played out again and again, in recognisable forms, even to a superficial three-day traveller.

It’s probably fair to say that the ways the old and the new jostle for position in any place is nothing ground-breaking, but as tourists lean over the walls looping around Prague Castle to take city-encompassing ‘selfies’, it’s easy to see that Prague takes it to new levels. Along the medieval streets that lead towards the city centre, you’ll find the usual signs of a changing world, the Starbucks and McDonald’s winking at each other across a sea of tourists, not a stone’s throw from the 18th century statue of some fabled do-gooder.

3(Prague’s cathedral watches over the growth of globalisation in the city. Photo from the author)

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Christmas in Cape Trib

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After three months of working for food and board across Australia my friend Alistair and I decided we wanted to spend Christmas day on a tropical beach sipping cocktails and deviously juxtaposing tacky Santa hats and turquoise waters to the envy of everyone back home. Cape Tribulation, a little hamlet in the North of Queensland, seemed to have everything we were looking for…except the Christmas spirit.

“We don’t do Christmas on this farm,” Alison, the tropical fruit farm owner, said when we arrived. She eyed the strings of tinsel round our necks suspiciously. It was abundantly clear that there would be no tree, no presents, certainly no turkey and probably not even a day off work. We smiled and nodded and tried to hide our disappointment as we shoved the santa hats back to the bottom of our rucksacks.

ChristmasCapeTrib_SuzyPope_1113_3The humidity and temperature soared, and by Christmas Eve we’d forgotten it was even December. The lead-up to Christmas was not spent frantically shopping or praying for snow, but nursing dragon fruit plants, bagging starfruit, stepping on sleepy pythons and praying for a dip in the crystal-clear sea in the afternoon.

We woke up at the usual 6am for breakfast on Christmas Day, but rather than washing it down with a glass of fresh tropical fruit juice, we were each handed a fresh Mango Bellini.

“We’ve been invited to next door’s Christmas lunch,” Alison informed us.

Tipsy by 10am we wandered through the mangosteen orchard and crossed the fence to next door. At least 20 other people were there; extended family, friends and neighbours all sipping beers and Bellinis in the sun. We were accepted with smiles as part of the Cape Trib community. Lunch was fresh crayfish caught off the rocks that morning and prawns in every shape way and form. Conversation was like any family gathering – gentle jibes and jokes washed down with Prosecco.

Full and sleepy, some people retired to hammocks, and a few of us headed into the lush jungle surrounding the farm. Once we’d found a creek to cool down in, the beer coolers came out, teenage boys swung from vines and jumped off trees into the water. Alistair and I just lay around digesting the fact that we were in the middle of the jungle on Christmas day, along with the ample lunch.

“I know what you guys would love,” one of the teenagers piped up, “a biscuit!”

“I can’t fit anything else in,” I replied and the whole creek erupted with laughter.

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It turns out the biscuit is not something you have with a cup of tea, but an inflated disc that is attached to the back of a speedboat and you have to climb on top of it and hold on for dear life. Stinger suits were essential due to the threat of box jellyfish.

Once we had finished whooping and squealing our way across the ocean our hosts steered the little tin boat into the swamp creeks through the jungle in search of crocodiles before returning to the beach to watch the sun set.

After darkness had fallen and we were sitting on the porch listening to the creak of frogs I turned to Alison. “I thought you didn’t do Christmas.”

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Wicked Campers: A Warning

"Views that blew our minds" (picture by bobarcpics, Flickr)

“Views that blew our minds” (picture by bobarcpics, Flickr)

Wicked Camper Vans’ beat up campers are spray painted with slogans of dreams, peace and rock n’ roll. They stick to an ethos that aims to offer the cheapest as well as the best road trip experiences. It’s hard to see why anybody looking for a road trip with a difference would go anywhere else. This was my theory, anyway. With a restricted budget and an insatiable desire to bum around Australia with absolute control over where I visited, what I saw and even where I slept, Wicked seemed like the perfect option.

It started off well. Getting picked up from Melbourne airport in a van that made more noise than any vehicle should ever make and was spray painted with Kim Possible on the side combined with a crude gynaecologist related joke on the back, it caused more heads to turn than a bout of public nudity. I couldn’t have been happier – this was going to be a memorable trip. A quick stock up on Hungry Jack’s, beer, and no frills coffee, and we were off.

Hitting the Great Ocean Road, the first 6 days were incredible. We covered a satisfying amount of miles, belted out a lot of bad car-singing and spent a few freezing nights taking in views that blew our minds at the top of cliffs. It couldn’t have been going better.

Then the van started filling with fumes from the engine. It got to the point where we couldn’t drive any more without the risk of hospitalisation. Actual hospitalisation. Not the best way to wind down a 4 month RTW trip…

Thinking we were just unlucky, we took the camper back to Melbourne and had it exchanged for another. Wicked were pretty good about this and, despite an unplanned overnight stop in Melbourne and a bit of a screw up on our plans, we were feeling okay. Picking up our new van up the next day, we started our adventure all over again. After 8 hours of driving pretty much non-stop, we arrived in the tiny town of Bega. Bega has nothing to offer. Absolutely nothing… apart from a cheese factory.

Stranded half way out of town, we were towed back, had to pay for an extremely dodgy hotel, and were forced to wait, and wait. And wait a bit more. In the end, we missed an event we were supposed to be attending, had to pay for two nights of accommodation and wasted three days of our stay in Australia in Bega. Believe me, that cheese factory does not get more exciting the third time around. On top of this it was $240 for a bus ticket to Sydney after no replacement for our vehicle could be arranged.

After all this, you would expect Wicked to be fairly apologetic, right? Refunds of bus tickets, food, accommodation, 6 days’ worth of van hire, 6 days’ worth of wasted insurance and a $240 one way fee from Bega to Sydney all to be arranged as soon as possible, yeah? Almost a year after the incident, we were refunded around $300. Nowhere near the $1000 they had cost us.

I’d kind of heard of a few of these rumours about Wicked being a waste of money before we hired the van. But this has really proved it. Even though they look awesome, the whole ‘fun for all on the cheap’ ethos of Wicked is farcical – don’t be bowled over by the pretty pictures on the sides and the $15 a day difference between different companies. I’ll avoid the ‘Wicked are wicked’ cheese-factory line, but I will tell you to avoid them.

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Halloween special: Isla Vista

It doesn’t take much to realise that Halloween in a Californian school with a reputation for its party scene is going to be pretty wild, and Isla Vista does not disappoint. Type any related search into Google and you’re bound to find plenty of Californians doing it their style: kegs, costumes and the like.

However, rumours had been circulating even before my arrival in Isla Vista (IV for short) that there was nothing ordinary about an IV Halloween – dubbed the “one night you just can’t miss”. Well, sunny October came to an end, Halloween grew near and I realised that my information had been wrong. It was not one night not to miss, but instead, an entire week.

What was once a street party exclusively for locals in the surrounding areas grew through whispers on the grapevine into an extravagantly large street party that had people flocking from almost all California’s surrounding states. Reports from Halloween in 1993 said that there were party goers from Arizona, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin and Nevada coming just to experience an “IV Halloween”, and it still remains much the same today.

Isla Vista is home to an international community of students who join with visitors to take part in the celebrations. Whilst the police try to clamp down on the number of tourists causing havoc and being arrested, this doesn’t bother the majority of the partygoers who are still keen to celebrate old school fashion.

Meanwhile, a week before the Halloween weekend a buzz began to grow amongst students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the main university just minutes away from where the magic takes place. Cycling through university on Monday morning meant one would catch glimpses of conversations of costume making and props, along with tales from previous years being discussed. One early bird was already wearing his Mickey Mouse costume.

Be warned – only a tourist leaves their costume preparation until the night before, as all the pop-up costume stores on October 31st will be empty. And I mean, empty. It is an acknowledged fact that people mustn’t wear the same costume two nights in a row, and suddenly I found myself scrounging around for make-shift Charlie Chaplin attire for Friday, a Caribbean Pirate outfit for Saturday, the main two nights of the self-indulgent elation. It’s an international party in a tiny corner of America.

So what does all this amount to? Well, honestly, one hell of a time. Isla Vista is a meagre 2.1 miles in circumference and with records of up to 40,000 people crowding onto Del Playa and Sabado Tarde, which overlook IV’s beautiful own beach, the streets are alive with DJ sets, dance, live music performances and wonderfully original costume. You can wander into a garden to the sound of Caribou, or cross the street if you want something slightly more Reggaeton and a view of the sea from a balcony.

In between? A maze of people. It’s a mission to walk without having a camera flash in your face, or be recorded by an interviewer asking how your night is going, or perhaps even receive a blessing from a religious fraternity called ‘Jesus Burger’ (a religious organisation who kindly feed party goers burgers free of charge – no vegetarian option but still very successful).

However, to survive the week without being arrested or losing everyone you know, you have to stay on your toes. Be careful not to drink alcohol on the streets, or else Foot Patrol (made up of County Sherriff Deputies, campus police and the Californian Highway Patrol) will be at your heels and you’ll find yourself sweet-talking yourself out of handcuffs. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can get away with it as many inevitably do each year (even if you have a large hat under which to hide your open beverage- you will get caught)!

Watch out for the infamous IV fires, it’s not an uncommon sight to see a mob cheering watching a lighted sofa or mattress go up in flames. A word of warning to those who decide to drink and go near the sea, each year to the dismay of many, there is always one accident highlighting the danger of the balcony apartments overlooking a cliff edge. Every year charity groups look out for those in danger but it’s better to be cautious and prevent anything from happening by watching your alcohol intake first hand.

So as long as you steer clear from any obvious trouble, there is a lot of fun to be had. You’re bound to meet someone you know from your course or if not make new friends you never thought you’d meet. It’s a great opportunity for students to kick back from study and exams, go wild and enjoy all the brilliance Isla Vista has to offer. If you’re ever in the area during October, I strongly suggest you head down and experience the infamous Halloween nights in Isla Vista. As the Americans say, there ain’t no party like an IV party.

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(Tom) Riddle me this: An Asian Voldemort?

International diplomacy is a complex world, it goes without saying. One defined by subtleties of wording, intricate nuances and not offending anyone. As a profession it is a bastion of adulthood, eschewing all notions of childhood mudslinging.

And don’t forget Bono. It usually involves Bono in some capacity – he’s got fingers in pies.

Or, if you’re the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the UK, it’s about infantile name-calling and references to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Both chose the medium of the Daily Telegraph to discuss which of their nations most closely resembled Voldemort and his nefarious rise to power.

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