The mood in the albergue was grim as we woke up to the sound of heavy rain on the roof. Reluctantly, people pulled on still-wet clothes from washing the day before and headed slowly out the door, farewelling the kindly hospitalero and – more practically – the excellent beds.
After a relatively relaxed day in San Sebastian yesterday (only 8km walked around the city) I thought it would be appropriate to push myself and combine two stages into one 44km day. As it turned out, though, this ‘relatively relaxed’ day included a pintxos tour of the old city – run by the hostel – which turned into a lot of food and many, many drinks. So, it was at 6am on Friday morning that my alarm went off, having been in bed at 2am after that most shameful of drinks – tequila shots. I ended up walking about 32km today, so less than my original goal, but I think there’s still something masochistically amusing about four hours’ sleep, hard liquor and long-distance walking. Who said youth was wasted on the young?
After setting off in the dark and climbing into the hills past San Sebastian, I met Eduardo, a Spaniard from the Canaries who owned a bar on the main island, Gran Canaria. He proudly showed me live video of his bar at 8am: a surprisingly high-resolution feed of a waiter cleaning the dining room. I thought it was comically Orwellian, to have your boss watching you on the CCTV from a religious pilgrimage 2,000km away. Much like the first day, we walked through chestnut forests and pine groves, the occasional water spring with ‘agua, muy bien!’ scrawled in yellow paint. Cloud persisted in valleys here and there, lending a definite Swiss-mountain-chalet feel to the area. The green hills, livestock and farmsteads dotting the landscape could have been anywhere in Europe, really – if not for the harsh Basque script (‘ch’ becomes ‘x’ and there’s an overabundance of ‘k’s) and semi-frequent nationalist graffiti (‘Basque independence or death!’ etc).
On these first few stages, I found it easy to forget the stunning landscapes you’re walking through. Instead, you’re occupied by the burning in your thighs, the unfamiliar weight of a pack on your shoulders, the pounding of your feet on the pavement, the question of both ‘where will I end up sleeping tonight?’ and, more importantly, ‘when’s lunch?’. But, truly, the endless postcard vistas are amazing. They give you a tangible sense of the ruggedness of the Basque people and identify – if the coastline, swell and food of San Sebastian weren’t enough proof already.
We strolled past vineyards heavy with fruit – in particular, row after row of green grapes for the local white wine, txakoli. The odd fig tree and blackberry bush beckoned. And, of course, the odd cafe con leche and bocadillo stop:
Arriving in Zumaia after 32 mountainous kilometers, with throbbing feet and sweat running down our faces after a climb through the seaside village, was not a gracious event. Our albergue for the night was a donativo, run by volunteers and located in an old convent. We weren’t sure what to expect but were very impressed by the ancient wooden rafters, still solid as the day they were built. I think the building dates back to the 1300s or so. Huffing and puffing up a hill, it’s easy to forget that the cobblestones you’re walking over are at least seven centuries old. It’s a little mind-boggling, the scale of the age of the whole Camino. You’ll pass barns older than Australia.
A late lunch at the albergue. In San Sebastian I picked up a hunk of iberico and some excellent local sheep cheese, paying about 30% more than the bargain-basement reconstituted ham/cheese. It was definitely worth it – the cheese was somewhere between pecorino and parmesan with a fantastic sharpness. The iberico was neither large enough to cut properly, nor did I have a sharp enough knife – but the flavour was still there.
Later on in the albergue, people gathered in the small garden to share cider and vino tinto and beers and snacks – and tales of the day’s walk. I recognised a few of the pilgrims from the Irun, though I had accidentally lost Esteban and the Canaries.
Discussion turned to walking techniques and gear, and I acquired a pair of nylon inner socks (literally just cut-off stockings) which supposedly completely prevented blisters when worn inside regular socks. I had heard they were excellent but hadn’t got around to finding any. More vino tinto and supermarket Spanish omelette was consumed, and before long friendly chatting had turned into field surgery. Those unlucky enough to have already developed blisters were instructed to hold still while someone fetched the betadine – another held an iPhone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, gleefully taking pictures of the quasi-surgery.
The night gets a little blurry after that. Well, at least until the elderly volunteers came and shut it all down at 10pm on the dot. Good thing, too, lest we start gleefully amputating one another’s limbs. And this is just day two of walking…
‘Til next time,
Sitting in a square, sipping a cafe con leche, I thought that San Sebastian wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live. Or, more appropriately, to retire to at 60 and grow wildly obese and happy. But it still has that seaside European feel, with a huge amount of tourist traffic – not quite suffocating the locals, but definitely creating a second world. I suppose the resort town feeling is so ingrained because of years of holidaymaking by Spanish royalty. Any would-be retirements by a foreigner would be hampered, I think, by the fiercely independent Basque culture. With their own language, lifestyle and customs, it would be almost impenetrable to outsiders. Sure, you would survive, and make a few friends – probably have a good time, too – but, short of marrying into the culture, living here would be quite isolating. Or maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in Spain yet.
This enormous steel chain is drilled into the rock at the end of La Concha, an impressive art installation linking the sea, sky and wind. It symbolises the ruggedness of the terrain and, I guess, the way the Basque culture and people seem to be chiselled out of the rock. The scale of it is quite dramatic, with enormous waves breaking through the gaps in the rock and chain. For reference of San Sebastian’s relationship with the ocean, it’s famous for its surf – and gigantic breaking waves:
A few more pintxos, an hour or two reading and suddenly the day is over. Time flies when you’re having fun (i.e. a rest day! (not that I’ve earned it…)).
‘Til next time,
Welcome to my new blog series! Here I’ll be regularly writing about my travels over the next few months. Post frequency will be dictated by Wi-Fi/power availability, but I’m aiming to write – if not post – at least a little every day.
The rough plan is this: I’ve just finished university and have about 4-5 more months free before I start a job, so I’m doing the sensible thing and spending all my savings (from about a year of part-time work) travelling. I figure there are limited opportunities for an extended period of freedom so I want to make the most of this time. I’m going to walk the Camino Del Norte, an 800km-ish walk through the north of Spain, then head down south through Portugal until I reach Gibraltar. From there, I will – fingers crossed – hitchhike a boat across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where I’ll stay until I run out of time or money. I would love to make it to Cuba or Mexico, but we’ll see. Backup plan is to explore Morocco and North or West Africa.
[It’s currently day 6 of my camino and I’m in a small town 14km out of Bilbao – but I wrote these next few days’ posts each day as I walked. I’ll post a couple per day until I’m caught up]
After a busy three weeks in Scandinavia and northern Europe visiting friends and family, I caught a flight from Copenhagen to San Sebastian via Madrid. Flying into Spain for the first time, I was struck by the Spanish ‘frying pan’ that surrounds Madrid: endless parched plains and low-lying houses to mitigate the sweltering heat. At a glance it could be Arizona or rural South Australia. Flying north towards the Bay of Biscay, however, clouds appear and the land becomes gradually greener. Loath as I am to fly – I find overland travel much more fun – it does provide some spectacular views. In the east, an amber full moon rose over a carpet of clouds while the last rays of sun faded in the west.
The San Sebastian airport is actually in Irun, the town in which the Camino Del Norte begins, so it was an easy 2km walk through the seaside humidity to reach the pilgrim hostel (‘albergue’), accommodation specifically set up for people walking the Camino. Passing a saltwater river, I didn’t get the usual scent of decaying seaweed, but instead of fresh oysters and brine – considering the industry along the coast, these waters seem impressively pristine. Arriving at the albergue at 9:50pm, I wasn’t sure it would be open, but was welcomed by a perpetually-flustered-looking owner (‘hospitalero’) who found a mattress for me despite all the bunks being full. It was a humid night in a noisy room – but at least I had a bed for the night.
I’m sitting now in a hostel in San Sebastian, having walked the 27-ish km of the first stage of the Camino from Irun yesterday. San Sebastian is famous for its food and drink, so I decided it would be an injustice not to spend at least one extra night here. It’s so far lived up to its reputation – a legendary food city with the most Michelin stars per capita of any in the world.
I spent most of my first day walking in mizzle (mist + drizzle) with Sean, an easy-going Irishman, and Maria, a Russian woman who worked for a German metallurgy company in St Petersburg. Maria said that it’s good luck to begin the Camino in rain – I’ll take her word for it. Walking out of Irun, following the spray-painted yellow arrows, we soon found ourselves in hillside chestnut and pine forests. The damp earth and pine needles smelt alive in the light rain.
San Sebastian is a city of about 200,000 nestled between the mountains and the ocean. A small mountain attached to a spit of land creates two large bays. Each of these beaches has a different feel: the first has large breaking waves and is filled with wetsuited surfers, the second is much gentler, with scores of sunbathers, recreational swimmers and small children playing in the sand. The wide streets of the town are flanked by uniformly tall apartment blocks, creating great corridors for air to breeze through. And yet, there’s still the feel of a planned city, with a well-positioned old town nestled at the base of the mountain at the end of the spit. This used to be the resort destination of Spanish kings and queens – and, judging by the number of well-dressed retired Spaniards, probably still is a resort town. We tramped into town with sore legs and aching feet. Maria, the Russian, had booked a hostel in advance. Sean and I agreed to see her to it before moving on to the pilgrim albergue a little out of town. As it turned out, the hostel had two extra dorm beds going cheap… it would have been such a shame to let them go to waste… and the hostel was in the very centre of town. We decided to stay in a regular hostel.
A quick shower and we were straight out for a late lunch of pintxos. Pintxos, also known as the ‘tapas of northern Spain’ (but don’t say that to a Basque, he’d probably punch you), include a great dining style and are a good way to showcase all the best regional produce. The name ‘pintxos’ (pronounced ‘pinchos’, the ‘x’ is a ‘ch’ in Basque) apparently comes from the verb ‘to pierce’ – hence, many pintxos are served with a toothpick to affix something tasty to a piece of bread. Generally, the locals will enter the bar and have a drink and one or two dishes, then move on to the next place. This grazing style of dining, often standing up, means you get a lot of tastes of a lot of excellent food – and plenty of drink. The local tipple is txakoli, or ‘white gold’, a white wine unique to the region. There’s also less-sweet ‘sidra’ (cider) and a variety of beers. I can happily say I’m a fan of all of them.
The rest of the day was spent running errands, getting our camino passports stamped at the church and buying supplies for tomorrow’s walking (for the other two, at least – I had decided to stay in San Sebastian an extra day to make the most of the food and explore a little). I was stunned by the sheer amount of jamon and and local cheese and fresh bread and seafood at just the local supermarket. Good produce and good food are absolutely ingrained into the Basque mentality and lifestyle [I can also confirm this is still true, six days later]. We headed out at dinner for round two, had probably too many drinks with the pintxos and rolled back into bed at about midnight – but, hey, when in Rome…
‘Til next time,
I spent a year studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and absolutely loved it. I figured I should write up why I think others should study in Singapore and what made it so enjoyable. Hopefully this helps anyone who might be in the same position I was two years ago. Speaking of, it just so happens that it’s been two years to the day since I flew out to Singapore. Life has certainly changed a lot since then – for the better! Singapore is, in my opinion, one of the best exchange destinations in the world. I think it could only be matched by the likes of Hong Kong, London or San Francisco (cities where my exchange pickings were slim!). There are four main reasons for Singapore’s status:
- Fantastic uni
- International community
- Travel opportunities
- Amazing food
I’ll elaborate on these below, but first, I think it’s important to even be open to Asia as an exchange destination. I’m a little saddened by how many Australians seem to default to Europe – my personal pet peeve is Australians fetishising Europe and, in particular, the UK as an exchange destination. This is despite higher cost-of-living, less generous government study support (~$6,500 per semester vs ~$7,500 per semester for study in Asia), lower-ranked universities and European (i.e. Australian) culture. To each their own, but I’m secretly frustrated when someone tells me they’re off to Birmingham or Exeter. They’re fun unis, I’m sure, but not quite a headlong dive into the world’s fastest-growing region.
On to why you should study in Singapore!
I didn’t actually realise this until I arrived at NUS and saw a Facebook post shared by the uni: the year’s rankings had been updated, and NUS had come in 12th on the list. Globally. What? I couldn’t really believe that I had a. managed to accidentally apply for a uni like this (NUS had been my arbitrary second choice) and b. been accepted into a uni this good in the first place (I am by no means an exceptional student). I’m not a rankings tart, but there are certain resume advantages to attending a uni that’s ‘better than Yale’ (to put it in a rankings perspective). Speaking of Yale, there’s actually a ‘Yale-NUS College’ on-campus at NUS which bills itself as ‘Singapore’s first liberal arts college’. I’ve been told that several years ago, before NUS had advanced in the rankings, the Yale-NUS students regarded the regular NUS students with mild derision, claiming superiority based on association with both Yale and the liberal arts badge. Then, one year, the rankings were updated and… the Yale-NUS students didn’t seem so keen to point to the rankings anymore.
Anyway, a great uni is more than just its ranking – that ranking is earned by good practices, strong governance, high-quality academic output etc. My courses at NUS, which had such excellent names as ‘New Venture Creation’ and ‘Negotiations and Bargaining’, were taught by some pretty incredible people. One had been the VP of JP Morgan before coming to Asia to work in Venture Capital, another had raised several million dollars on Kickstarter. My favourite memory of the Kickstarter guy was in the first lecture, when he came in wearing a ‘Harvard lecturer’ jumper. Halfway through the class, he pulled it off to reveal… an ‘MIT MBA’ shirt. The uni is damn good, with a student/campus life to match. Stay in UTown if you can (I was in RC4) – it’s the best place for an exchange student.
Singapore itself is roughly one-third non-citizen – that is, of the 5.5m inhabitants, about 1.7m of them aren’t Singaporean. Many of this 1.7m are construction workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, but a substantial population also make up ‘expats’ and other members of the international community. Even in NUS, each semester there are about 1,000 exchange students – quite a large number for a university of around 40,000. This all means that the people you’re around are eclectic, often from all over the world. Specifically as an exchange student, for me it means that I now have good friends scattered all around the globe, and with the luxury of social media this means a helluva lot of couches to sleep on! Singapore is also a hub within its ASEAN region, standing out as the most developed and therefore the nation most attractive to foreign businesses. There’s a strong regulatory environment, low taxes and even lower corruption. What this means for a student are vast opportunities to build contacts, do an internship or even work full-time at a multinational or a startup (did I mention the startup scene is booming thanks to the ruthlessly efficient government?).
Singapore is in a pretty optimal location, however you look at it. It’s been a major contributor to the island’s success over the last 50 years. It’s especially good for exchange students looking to see South-East Asia. Over the year I visited Malaysia 5+ times, Thailand 3 times, Indonesia twice, Vietnam twice and Cambodia. Not to mention an 18-country, 26,000km overland trip I did in the 3 months after my exchange (www.allroadsleadtonoma.com). The tourism infrastructure for the whole region is fantastic, and whether you want crystalline turquoise waters, mist-shrouded mountains or a humid rainforest.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Char siew bao, nasi lemak, satay, rojak, chendol, ais kachang, laksa, oyster omelette, roast pork rice, wan tan mee, xiao long bao, mee pok — I could go on forever. The food is seriously one of the best things about Singapore. Plus, it’s available in low-cost, high-value hawker centres where it’s all in one place. I found myself defaulting to Chinese food – I could eat it every day (in comparison to some Brits on exchange who would default to Indian – maybe it’s an upbringing thing?). There’s also such a variety of good food available. You want a 70c dumpling with a ‘teh siew dai’ (tea less sweet)? Sure. You want a three-Michelin-star $300 blowout? That’s fine too. …Not that I ever actually did that. But my point is that everything is available – it’s easy to satisfy any cheese or wine cravings, you just have to pay a slightly higher price.
“So, what are the negatives?” I hear you say. I have actually thought long and hard on this, and surprised myself with how few I could think of. The main one that sticks out for ‘westerners’ is that if you come from a very liberal, ‘freedom’-loving country, you might have some trouble adjusting to Singapore’s tight governance/authoritarian government. Some would call it a benevolent dictatorship, others a paradise – but whatever name you choose, it’s a very efficiently-run country. Just look at its short history for proof. Another negative can be costs. Singapore famously has one of the highest rent costs in the world, but if you stay on-campus it’s actually very affordable: my air-con room was $140SGD/wk, or $3700 per semester including a meal plan. Speaking of costs, the ‘base cost’ (i.e. minimal travel/partying) of my exchange was about $12-15k SGD for an entire year, bumped up to about $20k with an insane amount of travel. On that budget, most weekends I was off exploring South-East Asia with new friends. Also, food is incredibly cheap in Singapore – $2-6SGD per meal at a hawker centre (when you’re not eating the meal plan!). In my mind, the negatives are negligible compared to the incredible positives of studying in Singapore.
I hope I’ve managed to convince some people to apply to study in Singapore (especially NUS!). If you have any questions or comments feel free to get in touch.
Also, feel free to check out my website for a trip I took after studying in Singapore. I travelled 26,000km overland solo from Singapore to Denmark to visit a restaurant: www.allroadsleadtonoma.com
‘Til next time,
Speaking of mushrooms ‘tasting great’ in my last mushroom post… I found a large patch of these underneath an oak in the Adelaide Hills. For those who don’t know, these are Amanita phalloides. The deathcap. Yes, it will kill you, violently. After ingestion, you get some violent vomiting, nausea, the usual. You then think you’ve recovered, about 24 hours later, but in reality the toxins are smashing their way through your liver and kidneys. 72 hours later you’re dead or in a critical condition, curled up in a mushroom-like ball, cursing the fungal gods. If you manage to survive you’ll probably require a kidney or liver transplant/dialysis. These are the mushrooms which killed the mad emperor of Rome, Nero, after his wife fed them to him – fun fact. So yeah, unless you’re an insane monarch with a death wish, don’t eat them.
Identifying these suckers is fairly easy if you know what to look for. All deathcaps have a ring around their stem, along with a ‘vulva’ at the base of the stem. The vulva is like a cradle in which the mushroom rests. This is less pronounced on the left- and right-hand mushrooms, but on the middle one the vulva is very clear. Deathcaps often have a ‘steep’, conical cap (though not the left hand one) and a greenish-brownish tinge on the cap. They always have white gills. Their impact on mushroom-picking ‘culture’ (yes, it does exist) is an unfortunate one, as many people are scared away by the possibility of ‘accidentally’ eating one of these. The truth is, if you know what you’re looking for and what not to eat – in other words, you have a positive ID on anything you put in your mouth – there is very little danger in mushroom picking.
[I just realised I hadn’t posted this, even though it was written last year – oops! Better late than never… hope none of you ate one]
We’re halfway theeeeee-eeere
As so astutely stated by Bon Jovi lyrics, I’m now halfway through my exchange year in Singapore. I figure I should break my unintentional blogging hiatus and take the time to reflect on what I’ve done and what I’d like to do next semester.
So far it’s been a fantastic blur, with more friends and drunken nights than are reasonable to recount. I’ve started carrying around a little notebook and pen, both of which fit in my pocket. It was inspired by Richard Branson, of all people, after I read Losing My Virginity – a great book, by the way. Often mistaken for my passport, I bought a few of these notebooks and pens from Muji, a sort of Japanese IKEA – I love it. They’ve filled up with all sorts of funny little notes, signatures and promises of friends, comments from people I meet on nights out, daily to-do lists, bucket lists, even a signature from Owl Eyes (of Flight Facilities’ “Heart Attack” fame). I look forward to flipping through the accumulated volumes of these notebooks in a year or so and reminiscing. I highly recommend that anyone reading try this out!
For brevity’s sake, I’ll dot-point the things I’ve done this semester which I think are noteworthy:
– Travelled to Indonesia (Batam)
– Travelled to Malaysia (KL and Penang)
– Travelled to Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap)
– Travelled to Thailand, three times (Bangkok, Chumphon/Koh Tao, Krabi)
– Completed two ‘Technopreneurship’ classes: New Product Development and New Venture Creation
– As part of the above, I’ve been part of two teams and taken ‘startup ideas’ from ideation to an investor pitch: J.A.N.E, a revolutionary medical endoscope, for the first class, and Rentle, a locker system for consumer-to-consumer rentals, for the second class
– Completed (tentatively, results not out yet…) Product and Brand Management, Consumer Behaviour, and Negotiations and Bargaining classes at NUS – a total of five in one semester
– Volunteered and attended Neon Lights Singapore, seeing Chic feat. Nile Rodgers, RIDE, Damien Rice, RUFUS, Mogwai, Ratatat, and FLIGHT FACILITIES – even meeting and getting a picture with Owl Eyes (the highlight of my exchange so far)
– Developed more of a taste for classic rock, especially the Rolling Stones
– Had more crazy nights out than I can count
– Turned 19 surrounded by friends, as they surprised me with a meal at Hooters… followed by getting very, very drunk
– Literally fallen asleep outside Ce La Vi (I know, that’s actually what it’s called..) on top of the Marina Bay Sands for a good 30 minutes
– Sung Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of my lungs at 4am in UTown
– Eaten a ridiculous amount of incredible food
– Finally started an Instagram account (part of a more overarching goal of becoming more active on social media)
– Swam in the Clarke Quay river outside Jimmy’s
– Started an internship at Sprooki, a ‘location-based retail marketing solution’ (simply put, we make smart apps for malls)
– Started planning my end-of-exchange trip: All roads lead to Noma – more on this later
Looking back at this list, I’m happy I’ve done so much this exchange, but there are still some things I wish I had done/regret not doing:
– I wish I had been on more group trips in the beginning: the Krabi trip during exam revision week is the only one so far with over 3 other people (this one was >12), and it was heaps of fun. I still made heaps of great friends this semester, but I wish I had met a lot of them sooner (i.e. on those early group trips). Next semester I’ll make an effort to go on group trips earlier – maybe I’ll organise one to Penang.
– I wish I had tried to improve myself ‘professionally’ a bit more: attended more startup events/consistently attended NUS Enterprise events/attended Startup Weekend Singapore (just happened last weekend…). This is, after all, the Silicon Valley of Asia. I’ll attend at least one event per month next year.
– I wish I had been more physically active: running a bit more, going to the gym occasionally. I can count the number of times I did this outside of ‘general activity’ (‘biking with friends’, etc) on one hand.
– Joined more local clubs/societies. I joined the German Club on an impulse at the beginning of the semester and never attended any events… I’d like to be in at least two clubs next semester, maybe a sport for one of them. Ultimate Frisbee, anyone? As part of this, I’d also like to meet more locals and have more local friends.
And stuff I want to do next semester (both distilled goals from above and other things):
– Travel to Vietnam and Myanmar, possibly the Philippines
– Travel to Malaysia again! Penang is just too good.
– Do ‘dedicated physical activity’ 2-3 times a week: sports training, gym, or running – whatever
– Join at least 2 clubs/societies
– Attend at least one startup/professional event per month
– Learn Russian via Duolingo: 5 sessions of 15 minutes per week
– Travel early with a group of the new exchangers – seek out the budget travellers! The best are those who make it a game to find the cheapest accommodation possible.
– Learn Chinese via an NUS class next semester
– Take some ‘alternative’ classes: something other than “Capitalism 101″/”How to make money”
– Read at least one hour per week. I have a bunch of good books in my room/on my e-reader, but I just need to stop watching Conan on YouTube.
– Write something at least once a week. This can be a plan, a weekly recap, a blog post to store away and post for my big trip when the time is right.
I think it’s good to occasionally sit down and make lists like these to both remind yourself what you’ve done and what you want to do. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people on exchange and get caught up in the mentality that you’re somehow inferior or falling behind. Most of my friends were busy this semester turning down Goldman Sachs internships in favour of Bain & Co or being an astronaut or something. But I can’t forget – all of my friends here are 2, 3, even 6 years older than me – hopefully by the time I’m their age I’ll be in a similar position. Or, better yet, maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to others in the first place!
Well, that got longer than I expected! Hopefully I can act on this list and have an even better semester next year. ..I’m already apprehensive about going back to Adelaide, though – I can’t imagine the transition back to normalcy.
‘Til next time!
P.S. A word on my end-of-exchange trip:
In late April or early May 2016 I’m going to be travelling solo from Singapore to Denmark by land. Over 3 months this will take me 23,000km across 15+ countries. I’m doing this to eat at the world’s best restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen. More on this soon…
Site building in progress at www.allroadsleadtonoma.com
Due to launch early February 2016.