In November 2008, I left my job in England, gave up my house, and hopped on a plane to Delhi. I'd never been in Asia in my life, and on Wednesday 12th I was getting off the plane, all on my own in a far-away land. It's been quite a journey since, I've seen a lot of temples and beaches, met people from all over the world, even been in a Bollywood movie. I returned to England on Tuesday 22nd September. Read on for the fully story. You can also browse all the photos.
Singapore (Thu 13 Aug)
I'm feeling knackered by the journey, but arriving at the hostel cheers me up immediately. It's got a lovely communal space, and is full of like-minded people. I know straight away I'll have fun here. There's a short wait for a bed, then I get a well-earned snooze. When I wake up, my friend Sze has appeared. I met her in England, way back in 2000, and we've had occasional email contact since. Well, we finally managed to meet up again! And I've got a true local to show me round the city.
We start with a short trip on the very efficient metro. After a quick lunch at her friend's restaurant, Sze takes me to a temple where all my questions can be answered. You have to ask the question in your head, and shake these sticks out of a container, until one pops out alone. You take the numbered stick to the monk in the corner, and he gives you a piece of paper with your answer. I can't tell you about the wonderful answers though - that would be bad luck.
Wandering around the city, we catch lots of minor sights. There's a garden ten floors up in the library, where you can see the funky buildings nearby, and the neighbours' rooftop pools. And there's art around the city, even in subways. Most impressive though is the waterfront. One side is framed by the huge steel skyscrapers of the CBD, and the other side is a building site. In a year or so this will be a massive resort, with a mega casino.
While we're wandering, I am impressed, the city is immaculate by any standards. Bangkok seemed sterile compared to Delhi, but this is another level. One thing I have to remember is to wait for the green man. Jay walking is illegal here, along with many things, including chewing gum. Sze is well used to this though, she knows the rules. In the years since we met, she's become settled in her job, which involves a fair bit of international travel.
Come evening, I go to explore the nearby nightlife with Laura, an English girl from the hostel. She's on quite a similar trip to me, but going in the opposite direction - she's already been in South America. There's a lovely area for going out near the hostel - lots of bars, a few clubs, and even a reverse bungee ride. We end up in a bar by the river, but it's only for one drink, the prices here are beyond us. It's about seven pounds for a pint.
Party Singapore (Fri 14 Aug)
After a lazy morning, I go exploring with Michelle. She's a teacher from New Zealand, on her way to live in England for a year. After some food and a little wander, we settle in another going out area. This is close to a whole load of offices, and being early evening on a Friday, the area is filling up with after-work drinkers. We manage to find a jug of beer at a not-too-extortionate price, and so, for the first time in a very long time, I'm sat among after work drinkers on a Friday evening.
Exploring after this, the city look fantastic at night, lit up in different colours. The photos of the waterfront are just stunning, I can only imagine what the completed area will look like. We see a big crown of people in front of a building. Turns out Singapore is hosting the 2010 Youth Olympics; the opening ceremony is exactly a year from today. There's a big event with loads of youths dancing around the countdown clock.
After this, I pal up with Mike, a big, smiling Zimbabwean and we go out to hit town. The first people we see is a trio from the hostel, sat by the river, drinking beer from the shop. We join in and it's a fun scene down here. With bars being so expensive, people who in England wouldn't be seen dead drinking on the street, are all over the place. We hang with some nice people from the Philippines, then a group of locals appear, with a birthday girl.
This is funny, Shane is really drunk. Her friends keep giving her dares, like collecting kisses from random guys while a friend takes a photo. The last bit I remember is her going into Hooters and applying for a job. We split after this, to find a club, while Shane's friends help her stagger home. On the way we see a bar with a menacing-looking dentist's chair outside. This is The Clinic, with specials like drinks served in a drip. And it's here that a gorgeous young Finnish girl appears.
And then we're in the club. I'm not too keen on the R&B room, but happy when I find the house room. They've got a lot of kit here, lighting rigs, VJ projectors, very professional. It's a fun few hours bouncing around, and after they close up, we wander the streets, don't make it home until it's light.
Last Day in Asia (Sat 15 Aug)
Ouch, my head hurts as the cleaner shakes me awake, to kick me out of the bed. It's past checkout time already, and I've not even thought about packing. I manage to pull my things together, and it's a groggy day sitting around the hostel, waiting for the plane. I thought I was in a bad way, but one of the Dutch guys is looking much worse, radiating his headache to the room.
And then it's time to go to the airport, I'm actually leaving Asia. I'm excited to be going to Australia, but I'm more sorry to be leaving Asia. I meet a sweet girl from Northern Ireland on the metro. She's also headed to Australia, but starting in Cairns, at the top of the Gold Coast. At this time of year, toward the end of Australian winter, that's a much better plan.
The seven-hour flight seems like nothing, I've become well used to these long journeys. I didn't sleep well though, I really struggle to sleep sitting down. Qantas were great, both hospitable and very professional. I remember hearing that their claim to fame is being the only major airline that hasn't had a serious accident. That's a very good claim for an airline.
Landing in Melbourne (Sun 16 Aug)
Arriving in Melbourne, it is freezing. I'm not used to this. A friendly guy in the baggage lounge (another Paul actually) shows me onto the shuttle bus. Twenty minutes later we're arriving at Melbourne Central, while the dregs of Saturday night are still out. I taxi to the hostel. Unlike Asia, I don't have to negotiate a price, or forcefully insist on using the meter. But when I get there, the price for going across town is extortion by Asian standards, more than you'd pay to a driver ripping you off.
And so, about 6am I'm arriving at the hostel. I've only booked for the next night though, so I have to wait ages for a room. Catching a few winks in the games room, the manager comes to wake me. No sleeping in communal areas. Dammit! Too many rules, Asia wasn't like this. I'm sure in a similar place in Asia they'd have found me a bed too. Well, I catch some sneaky winks hiding in the TV room, eventually get my bed, and get my head down.
Waking up, I go to wander around town. It's cold and not much is open. I've got a few things to get, but it all seems really expensive. Back at the hostel, I'm looking for some activity. It's a big place - five floors, must have at least ten six-bed rooms on each floor, but there aren't many people around the communal areas. The first person I meet is Elodie, in the bunk below me. She's just flown from France that morning, and is planning on staying on a working holiday visa. Poor girl seems a bit stressed out by sorting things out, a bit unsure what to do, I can see it's a tough first day for her. I end up hanging round the hostel with Rahoul, an Indian guy in my room. We're drinking JD and coke, and we do bump into a few people, but it's far from the happy family feeling I've had in some hostels.
Exploring Central Melbourne (Mon 17 Aug)
While I'm eating my lunchtime sandwich in the shopping centre, a local student befriends me. She's from Western Australia, come to the big glittery lights of the East to study. We go off to see the Salvador Dali exhibition, although that turns out to be expensive, so we just look around the free galleries. A while since I've been to an art gallery, it is interesting, but we can only last an hour or so. After this, I wander round town and do some shopping. I get a coat, essential in this weather, and get my first lot of supermarket food.
Eating my food in the hostel's kitchen, this seems to be the most sociable part of the place. I have a long chat with an English bunch, all travelling post-uni, and doing jobs like telesales. They explain that the hostel is predominantly workers, it's not a party hostel, although they do point me in the direction of one. None of them are up for mid-week drinking, but promise a big bender if I stay till Friday.
One of the English bunch asks me about my work, so I tell them a bit about IT security. And he asks me a very interesting question - "do I know any scammers?" I don't; the work I did was predominantly technical, never taking me near actual criminals. The company generally considered this a job for the Police, not us. I mentioned it would be fun to try chasing them. For example, we could create some sacrificial bank accounts, and supply their details to a phishing server. When we see activity on those accounts, that's our chance to start persuing the scammers. I can feel the influence of the book, "The Fist of God" in my thoughts, and this takes me in another direction. Perhaps I could write a book about cyber crime - a novel, based on my knowledge of the industry.
Come evening, I decide to wander to Fitzroy, off a recommendation from a local I met in India. No-one from the hostel's up for it, so off I go on my own. Not alone for long, I find a Northern Irish couple on the street and we wander off together. They're both engineers, just coming to the end of year-long work placements here. And although Monday nights are quiet in this town, we find a couple of fun places to hang out, it's a nice evening.
St Kilda (Tue 18 Aug)
I spend a good chunk of the day in the library, putting some words together for my potential novel. Then I'm off to another suburb, St Kilda. I check into the Base hostel, a well known chain. It's got the same chain feel as the first place, but is somewhat more friendly. End up doing a pub quiz with the roomies, and a couple of randoms. I'm convinced one of the girls is Aussie; turns out she's from London - just picked up the accent fast. One of the rounds is paper planes - but ours is rubbish. I end up writing some more of my book late at night, with the bar man and the handy man giving me some ideas.
Last Day in Melbourne (Wed 19 Aug)
Groan, I have to get up early to check out, this is such a pain. I go for a wander around St Kilda and it is a lovely area. A long beech with lots of yachts, right next to the city. Walking along the pier, a face looks familiar. I think nothing of it, wander on, and when I'm wandering back we meet eyes. Oh my, it's Brian from all the way back in Bangkok. Since I saw him, he's been in New Zealand, and along the East coast of Australia. There's lots of catching up and travelling stories. And then it's time to hop on the Greyhound bus. It's 11 hours overnight to Sydney. Problem is, it's just a seated bus, the seats hardly recline at all. No chance of me sleeping here, I just rattle along for the whole journey, it's pretty grim.
Sydney (Thu 20 Aug)
After a little bother, I manage to get to the hostel on public transport. The Jolly Swagman is a bit more battered than other hostels I've stayed in, which seems like a good thing. And they give me a bed straight away, great to get my head down. On of my roomies, Rachel, is really welcoming. She's a zoo keeper by trade, on a travelling sabbatical. There's a crowd of hostel folks who sit around a table out front, drinking goon most of the day. It seems a little reminiscent of the back of Grand Central in Manchester, and I don't feel totally comfortable with them.
I end up taking a walk through town, seeing the classic views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I cook for the first time in about nine months - just pasta with tinned veg, but it's a start. Some nice evening drinks with Rachel, and another roomie, Rory. Coming back to the hostel, there's some chaos going down. An argument amongst the goon drinking crowd had escalated to the point a knife was drawn, then the police were called, and I returned to the aftermath. I knew I didn't quite feel comfortable with those guys!
Richard Reunited (Fri 21 Aug)
I had a quiet day, spent more time writing in the public library. Come evening I met up with Richard, who I'd first met in Bangkok. Since then he's taken a banking job in Australia. He started on a working holiday visa, but has now been approved to stay permanently. This is after work drinks for him and his mates, it's been a long time since I had after work drinks. It's a nice evening, we go for a Chinese, I take a pleasant stroll through the city back to the hostel. And it's quiet here tonight, the main protagonists from last night have been kicked out.
Blue Mountains (Sat 22 Aug)
I'd been recommended to visit the Blue Mountains, "just outside" Sydney. Turns out that was a bit optimistic - it took me three hours to get there. A few tours are on offer, but I decided just to walk. It's a very picturesque area, and well visited by ramblers, and slightly lazier people who just get a bus to the viewing platform. There's a cable car, a scenic railway, and a staircase where I go up literally hundreds of steps.
When I get back to the Swagman, the front table gang are getting ready to go out. The club we're going to - The Gaff - has sent a minibus for us, so we descend on the place en masse. It's a very cheesy club, we've just missed the pimp competition, but a bit later it's the girls' turn, and half the hostel girls jump up on stage to do their wiggle and get their cheer. Loads of silly photo opportunities. I was wearing my "Lick here to add me as a friend" t-shirt, and finally someone took a photo of a blonde licking it!
Ring of Fire (Sun 23 Aug)
Finally it's a nice sunny day. We sit out front, I take a walk in the park. Come night time, we're playing good drinking games round the take. Ring of fire is the main one, and I end up getting "mirror card" twice. This is the worst card to get, you have to mirror everyone, drink when they drink. The last thing I remember is wandering off with some of the gang to find someone's mate at another hostel...
Gooned (Mon 24 Aug)
I wake up in a groggy haze, pounding head, something stinks. And it's light. Too light - I must have missed my bus. Ignoring the puke for a moment, I check the time and yes, I missed the bus. I turn to a less-puked bit of the pillow and try to sleep some more. I know this can't go on for long though, and go to reception to pay for another night. He's on to me straight away "you're the guy who puked in his room". The Nepali cleaner gets me some cleaning kit, and I set about cleaning it up. Only interrupted by a German guy who I had been sharing with. He'd evacuated in the middle of the night and was coming back for the last of his things.
I have a quiet day, and the room fills up with new people. They all notice the puke smell, and my attempts to blame it elsewhere don't last long. It is a bit of a miserable day, crap weather outside, and I feel rubbish. Feels like everyone in the hostel is looking at me with a knowing grin. And my jacket is nowhere to be seen. Apparently I'd nearly started a fight over this the night before. Funnily enough, everyone seems ok with me, even the poor girl who told me I kept saying "hiya, how ya doing?" to her again and again.
Come evening the gang heads out for a quieter night, in a pub not far from the hostel. It's pleasant enough, and I'm glad not to get too drunk - I'm determined to get the bus tomorrow, and get out of Sydney.
Byron Bay (Tue 25 Aug)
This time I do manage to get up at 6am for the bus. And the damn thing doesn't appear! Feel like I'm stuck in the Swagman forever - it's happened to other people, they didn't leave for months. Keen to get moving I go to the train station and finally have some luck - I'm just in time for a direct train, and ticket's a good price. Eleven hours on the train does get pretty boring, and there's another hour on a bus, but finally I'm arriving! I find the YHA hostel, which is nice enough, chat to a couple of people, and have an early night.
I then spend a few days lazing around Byron Bay. It's a great place to learn surfing, but the water's a bit cold at this time of year, I decide to leave it. Just about warm enough to enjoy sitting on the beach. I do lots of reading, chat to a few people in the hostel, but it's a quiet few days.
Nimbin (Fri 28 Aug)
I take a bus tour to Nimbin, known as the hippie capital of Australia. It's a scenic drive, with a commentary from the driver. And on arrival, Nimbin high street looks exactly what was promised. The driver takes a couple of us to a hostel, the Rainbow Lodge. Well, if the Swagman was laid back, this place is horizontal. A few sparse buildings, no locks anywhere, very little structure. The guy on reception introduces us to some of the people there. And after a little chat, I'm wandering into town with another guy from the bus.
The next two days were totally chilled out, just sitting in the sun, wandering around. There were two older hippies around the place - Bill and Tiny - they loved ripping on me. A few people came and went, but the hostel was pretty quiet. I remember sitting outside one afternoon when a Wallaby hopped up to me. The last thing I was expecting! I just stayed motionless, it stared at me to a few seconds, then hopped on.
Arts Factory Lodge (Sun 30 Aug)
It was time to leave today, I was still planning on heading up the coast, all the way to Cairns. I stopped for a sit at a nice spot by a river. And here two guys befriended me, they were touring in a camper van. We ended up heading to town for the market - more an opportunity to congregate than actually buy anything. And then they gave me a ride back to Byron Bay. I'd spotted the Arts Factory Lodge last time, looked like the best hostel in town. I checked in, then went off with the lads to find a camping spot. After getting turned away from one place with "it's more a family venue", we found an out-of-town spot.
I like their camper van, it's got just enough to keep you in something resembling comfort. The camper van life is a whole different travelling world to hostels. I'm quite taken by the freedom. It could be lonely doing it alone, and would certainly be expensive. To do it with a buddy, I'd have to know them really well. These guys had met randomly at the beginning of the trip, seemed to be getting on fine, but I couldn't do that. Well, I'll stick with buses and hostels for this trip, maybe a camper van next time.
We have a fairly quiet evening, wander into town, but don't go drinking. The next couple of days I kick around the hostel, the guys in my room are friendly, but I'm not feeling particularly sociable. I realise going up the East coast is going to be more of this. And I crave the laid back vibe in Nimbin. So back on the bus it is.
Nimbin YHA (Tue 1 Sep)
The other main hostel in Nimbin is the YHA. This is a little better equiped than Rainbow Lodge, but just as chilled out. There's a gang of five or six lads, all just like me, we hang out together most of the time. Sitting on the grass looking out over the horizon, I realise how beautiful the Nimbin countryside really is. We play pool, watch films, generally do as little as possible. Even a walk into town seems a big expedition.
Week in a Motel (Fri 4 Sep)
When I head back to Byron, I really don't feel like staying in a dorm. I decide to take a motel room for a couple of nights. This is an expensive option, but I have run out of hostel stamina, I need to sleep in privacy for once. I do very little but read, play on my laptop and go for walks. The couple of days becomes a week, with nothing more exciting than a day trip to Nimbin. I've started feeling like a hermit again, and this was when I first started to question whether I wanted to continue traveling. I've already pretty much missed my trip up the East coast. My round-the-world ticket is limited to a year, so if I change the flights I have to ditch other things, most likely New Zealand.
Random Reunion (Fri 11 Sep)
I'd just planned a day trip to Nimbin, but when I arrived, the place was crawling with police. I didn't feel comfortable hanging around the centre and wandered off to the YHA. It's great to see the gang again. As we're sat my someone's car a long-haired figure wanders up the track. He joins us and our eyes meet. That face looks familiar. He's thinking the same. As the cogs whirr in our brains, he asks "Do you know Roland?" Of course - it's Matt from back in Manchester. What on earth is he doing here? We jump up and hug, much to the bemusement of everyone else around. This is the only time this has happened all trip, and here of all places!
I end up staying the night, a little conscious that my washing is hanging up on a line, back in Byron. Oh well, I'll just hope no-one robs my socks. It's great to hear Matt's story, of his traveling and how he ended up there. He's in Nimbin long-term, renting a room with his girlfriend. I do share with the guys my thoughts about finishing off travelling and going home. I feel a bit guilty because these guys are skint and have all sorts of ideas of what to do if they had more cash.
The next day I have to return to Byron, to get my stuff. I have to make decisions about the rest of my travels, and book flights - deadlines are looming. In the end I decide it is time for home - if I stay traveling, I'm just not going to make the most of it. It's time to get a job, get my finances back on track, live in the real world for a bit. I book a flight from Brisbane (the nearest city) back to Heathrow for 21 Sep. Actually making the booking depresses me a bit, and I hang around Byron being a loner for a few days.
Last Days in Nimbin (Wed 16 Sep)
I come back to the YHA to a bit of a surprise - most of the gang have disappeared. A couple had been WWOOFing - where they'd stay for free, in return for cleaning and helping out. Well, the boss finally got tired of them never actually doing anything and kicked them out. This had ruined the vibe, most of the rest had left on their own accord, and the one guy still there was leaving the next day.
The last few days of the trip I spend kicking around with Matt and Hayley. We sit in the Hemp Bar, keeping Hayley company as she works. I cook tea for us, and we sit in watching a film. I help Matt doing some gardening, and watch as he cooks up his next next batch of pancakes for the bar. It's a wonderful life here, but something I could only do on a temporary basis.
Journey Home Begins (Fri 18 Sep)
First I'm packing up and checking out of the YHA. I hang around with Matt for a while, and it's him who sees me off, the last meaningful goodbye of the trip. Then I'm on the minibus back to Byron. I have a quiet night in a motel, don't really speak to anyone. Realise I never felt that at home here. Shame, because it is nice as a place.
Next morning I'm on a bus to Brisbane. Not a long ride, then I'm getting off in blazing sunshine. Must be a fancy dress convention or something, there's kids in crazy outfits all over the place. I could have stayed in a hostel for one last night. But I chose a guest house, just like an English B&B. All very pleasant, but I'm the youngest by 30 years. Some of the people here are most interested to hear about my trip, and I certainly have some stories to tell. I think back to the times I met people on their last night of travels, fleetingly toy with the idea of one last night of wildness, and decide just to have a quiet one.
Sunday morning, time to check out. Packing my bags in time for check-out has become so routine, but this is the last time. There's no great rush and I have time for a long wander. Before long, I'm on the train to the airport, and queueing for check-in, security and passport control. The eight-hour flight to Singapore feels quite routine, and the airport is familiar of course. For the last leg to Heathrow we're on an A380 - the new super-jumbo. I'd been quite excited to ride on this, but reality is, an economy class seat is pretty much the same whatever plane you're on. The A380 is noticably quieter than anything else I've flown on though. The 14-hour flight to Heathrow is excruciating, I'm clock-watching after only a couple of hours, it's grim and miserable.
Back in England (Mon 21 Sep)
Boy am I glad to be off that plane! I can't chill out just yet though, there's passports and luggage to get through. Heathrow seems really grotty actually, this is terminal 4, not the shiny new terminal 5 I flew out of. Then I rattle around for an hour on the London underground. Again, this seems grotty, compared to the underground in Sydney or Singapore. I end up walking along the Thames on my roundabout walk to my brother's flat. This reinstantes my belief in London - other cities have nice waterfronts, but nowhere has the grandeur or the history that London does.
I end up back in an empty flat, with Scott and Marika away. Some fleeting sleep, but I'm at a lose end. I decide to head for Camden, hang around and see what happens. Ends up being a fun encounter, chilling with two Cypriots by the canal. Come evening, I'd tried to arrange some welcome home drinks. No-one turned up, until Scott and Marika appear, straight back from Malta, still with their suitcases. We're all shattered, so just one drink and an early night.
Back in Manchester (Tue 22 Sep)
It was a jet lagged night, where I woke up for morning at 3am. Still, I could use nice fast internet for free, bonus. A good-bye to Scott and Marika as they're off to work, and it's time for me to take the train to Manchester. An uneventful journey on the nice smooth Pendalino trains. How much people used to whine about this train line! Have to say, it's pretty damn good - clean and fast. Then I'm walking down to Picadilly Gardens, taking a Magic bus to Rusholme. And my first stop? A kebab in Sangam! I wander along to Fallowfield, pick up a rentals listing on the way, then I'm knocking on for Mal.
He's not expecting me at all - thinks I'm still in Australia. I just turn up on the doorstep with the rucsac still on my back. And he's in a state, exhausted from running a club night at the weekend. After a little sit-down, we're out on the street, handing out fliers for Naughty Panda. Quite a laugh doing it. And then who turns up out of nowhere? It's Roland! We end up hanging out for the day, drinking in The Friendship, hanging back at his place. And then he gets a phone call, and turns to me, "Paj, fancy coming out and dressing up as animals?" "Sure" I'm up for it straight away, nothing like some craziness for the first day back.
We turn up at Moho Live and it's Audio Farm - hence the animal costumes. Realise I know the girl who'd asked us along, from years back. There's two girls and us as animals, plus some circus skills. I end up with the chicken costume, my own fault, I asked for it. It's a girl's chicken costume, with hot pants, that my boxers stick out the bottom of! One of the bouncers commented "that's wrong in so many ways." Anyway, who cares, I have a fun night. At one point a man and a lady approach me. The lady puts her arms around me and kisses me on the cheek. With her arms still around me, the man puts his arms round both of us, and jiggles his hips. Nice offer, but too many men for my idea of a threesome.
We bounce around some more, I get loads of attention in this outfit. And after a fun encounter with a sweet girl in a pretty dress, it's time to go home. Despite the protest of the circus crew, I turn down the after party, and we're headed back to Heaton Moor. It's two days after flying round the world, my body clock is all over the place. Sleep much needed.
Last Leg (Wed 23 Sep)
I rise first in the house, realise no-one's going to be up for ages, so I let myself out quietly. A short train ride later, I'm left in Stockport with an hour wait. I do the important errand - getting a new SIM card - then it's time for the train to Knutsford. This train's even more rattley than the ones around Delhi! As it pulls into Knutsford, I see my Dad waiting by the car, get a welcome home hug. A 5-minute drive later I'm back in Carrwood. I guess this is home for now, it's where my stuff is. But this house hasn't been home for a long time - about six years. What am I going to do with myself now?