Hidden Saigon: Wandering the Alleyways.

Saigon is a capricious city, seducing visitors with a freewheeling spirit, then maddening them with traffic, noise and heat. Transformation is all around and the sound of construction reverberates through the city as forests of shiny sky-scrapers continue to shoot up. The choked streets roar with an evergrowing sea of traffic, while the footpaths are crowded with food vendors, pedestrians and hawkers with makeshift stalls, selling everything from brooms to motorcycle helmets.

This is a city that knows how to have a good time. The bar scene is flourishing with the young and the beautiful rubbing shoulders in venues as hip and unique as anything you’d find in New York or London. If you are searching for something grittier, the wild-lands of Bui Vien St serve up the kind of full-throttle mix of music, booze and special balloons that’ll leave you feeling pretty sure you had a good time only you can’t remember how exactly.

The heat and the crowds and the noise can at times overwhelm and it can all leave some visitors feeling like Saigon isn’t really for them. Too crowded, too busy, too loud, increasingly too commercialised and too bloody hot.

Hiding behind the city’s brash and bold exterior though, lies an eclectic maze of alleyways, weaving their way behind and between the traffic-choked main roads. Here, just footsteps away from modern high-rises and flashy malls, is a whole other side to Saigon where the hustle of city life slows to a saunter and it is in this tangled web of narrow lanes that the real soul of this city can be found.

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If you want to experience Saigon as the locals see it, these alleyways or ‘hems’, are a wonderful place to get lost for a little while. Life is lived out in the open here – children play, while old men spend hours sipping coffee on plastic chairs. The doors of homes are wide open and you’ll see families sitting together on the floor, sharing meals and each others company. Around every corner is another food vendor and there are countless small cafes, quirky bars and other delights that won’t be found in any guidebook.

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Just outside my front door. My favourite place for breakfast.

It is down one of these hems that I have found a place to call home. Even though we are living in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, with a population estimated to be approaching 10 million, life in Saigon’s hems offers a local, small-town vibe, that you don’t often get in a big city.

Recently, my Vietnamese housemate, Tram, asked me –

‘Hey Carly, were you buying a coffee today down near the canal?’

‘Yeah, how’d you know?’

‘I was talking to one of the neighbors, he said he saw you’.

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Our rooftop. The perfect place to chill.

Apart from the people I live with, it’s not often I see another foreigner in the hems near my place. Most westerners tend to gravitate towards District Two, “The Bubble”, or District Seven, so when do I see another foreigner walking around near my house, my first thought is to wonder if they are lost.

I love where I live for it’s sense of community. My neighbors are friendly and warm, quick with a smile and even though we can’t say much to each other, there is a sense that we are all looking out for one another.

One evening, I arrived home and realised I had lost my house keys. I couldn’t understand how. I’d only been to a market and then to dinner so it wasn’t like I’d been drunk, wildly swinging my bag around a dance floor somewhere, but where ever they were and however they had been lost, they were certainly gone.

A couple of days later, after I’d already had new keys cut, Tram said to me,

“Carly, I have your keys.”

“What? Oh my gosh, where were they?”

“Someone found them in the street”.

“Where?”

“I don’t know where, but he brought them over for you.”.

I couldn’t believe it.

“But how did the person that found them know they were mine? How did they know to bring them to our house?”

“He thought they looked like a foreigner’s keys so he asked some neighbors if anyone knew any foreigners. Someone told him that this house has foreigners living in it, so he came around”.

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My very “foreign-looking”, keys.

There is a neighbourly kindness here that I think is becoming increasingly lost in our modern world. One morning, my bike conked out right near home. I turned the key and pressed the start button multiple times, but she was going no-where. An old lady neighbour saw my troubles, grabbed my arm and indicated to me to follow her. We wound our way through the narrow alleys, me pushing my bike until we stopped at a house. The old lady rapped on the door and a young-ish man came out. They chatted in Vietnamese, then he mucked around with my bike for a bit, got it going again. I thanked them both in my smattering of Vietnamese and took off to work.

Saigon’s hems are a people-watchers dream and a constant source of new discovery and delights. If you are visiting this city you’ll find more to nourish your soul along here than at any of the better-known tourist sites. The brilliant website, Vietnam Coracle has an excellent guide to the best hem’s to wander and get a little lost in. Check is out and let me know how you go.

So, there is a hate-thread about me over at Lonely Planet.

So, there is a hate thread about me over on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree site.  Bored at work one night, I Googled myself and there it was. People I’d never met, united together in a massive slag-fest about what an awful human being I am. It’s from a long time ago but I still remember being absolutely mortified when I found it. 

It was all because of a piece I wrote about travelling, that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald  and seems to have got up the noses of quite a few people who enjoy travelling. Like this person-

Wow that lady is so bitter!

I hope I don’t sound like as much of a self-righteous, pretentious, bratty snob when I say I would prefer to travel independently rather than on a package tour as that lady (Carly Smallwood, or was it Smallbrain?) does!

Smallbrain? I have feelings too you know, random internet person.

Written at the age of 24, the article is a lot more caustic than something I’d write today, but if you actually read it, I never knocked travelling, or budget travel or independent travel. I was simply critical of the idea that going off backpacking somehow makes you superior to those that don’t.

                             “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller.”

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Call yourself what you like, but no-one else cares, and in any case we are seeing different places not curing cancer here so let’s not get too enthusiastic about how wonderful we are.

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Thanks hippy. If you hadn’t posted this wise meme on Facebook, I might never have left the house.

Being lucky enough to live in a part of the world where you can have a job that gives you a disposable income, then choosing to save some of that disposable income and get on an aeroplane doesn’t make you any better than people that don’t. Just because you  want to find yourself on a yoga retreat in Guatemala doesn’t mean that life is for everyone. I have friends who have little to no interest in travel. Being away from home and the people they love to go to somewhere stinking hot with limited access to clean water and sending themselves broke in the process is not their idea of a good time.

And that’s cool.

Some people like to go away on holidays and stay in fancy resorts.

And that’s cool too.

For people that pride themselves on being open-minded, “travellers” can sometimes be a judgemental lot. 

Travel, don’t travel, stay in a fancy resort for a week, go hiking alone for three months or stay curled up on your couch with your dog. Your choices are yours and what you do isn’t right for everyone else.

And that is ok.

Food Rescue in The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

As places go, Managua probably isn’t at the top of your “somewhere I’d like to live for a while” list. There is Paris of course, and Rome. Maybe you imagine yourself living it up in Manhattan or getting away from it all in the Caribbean, but Managua? I’m sure living in Managua “some-day” hasn’t wandered into your day-dreams lately but it’s exactly where I have been living these last few months.

Not quite sure you know where Managua is? Neither had I until a few months ago, turns out, it’s the capital of Nicaragua. Don’t know where that is either? Go and find yourself an atlas of go on Google Maps.

Nicaragua is a beautiful land of lakes and volcanoes. Since the beginning of my trip, I had always planned to live here awhile, improve my Spanish and do some volunteer work. I day-dreamed about living somewhere like this

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Beautiful Ometepe

Instead, I ended up living here.

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Managua might not be the most glam of cities. It’s constanly hot and humid, it’s not pretty and the traffic is a nightmare. I found myself staying in this chaotic city because I decided to volunteer with an amazing food rescue NGO. And you know what, I love it here. I live with a gorgeous Nicaraguan family and the work I am doing has become a passion bordering on obsession.

I work with Eat United a grass-roots food rescue group based on a simple concept. We rescue good food that would otherwise be wasted and share it communities in need. It’s a logical, local solution to a global problem, and its working. We run on an absolute shoe-string, our “office” is the kitchen table of one of the volunteers. Despite this, over 25,000kg of fruit and veggies have been saved since 2013 and we regularly share food with 200 a week.

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Eat United team in front of our haul of resuced food!

Eat United team in front of our haul of resuced food!

We throw out around a third of all food produced in the world, while at the same time, hundreds of millions of people go hungry. Obviously as far as shit things happening in the world go, good food getting chucked out while people starve is right up the top.  Even in a developing country like Nicaragua, where one in five people go without enough to eat, tonnes of good food is thrown out every day. Our food system is broken and Eat United is working to do something about it.

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Some of the food we rescue goes to a soup-kitchen that gives lunch to 50 -70 kids a day!

Some of the awesome people I work with with some rescued tomatoes, saved from the bin, headed for bellies!

Some of the awesome people I work with with some rescued tomatoes, saved from the bin, headed for bellies!

All this beautiful food was going to be thrown away.

All this beautiful food was going to be thrown away.

Everyone deserves access to healthy food in sufficient quantities and no one should be hungry when we produce more than enough food for all of us. In 2016 we want to expand our work, double the amount of people we share food with and create a paid role for a local Nicaraguan person.

To help us get there we have created Snap Your Snack, a campaign that’s all about celebrating snacks with a selfie! Snap Your Snack isn’t about giving massive donations, but it is about coming together, celebrating food, and using the global reach of social media to support a local solution in Nicaragua.

Getting involved is fun and easy.

  1. Snap it. Take a selfie celebrating your snack.
  2. Make a small donation to Eat United Nicaragua through our crowd-funding page, either as individuals or a group.
  3. Post your selfies and screenshot of your donation on social media with the hashtag #SnapYourSnack.
  4. Tag friends to do the same.
Here's mine!

Here’s mine!

My fellow bloggers, I need your help in sharing the shit out of this campaign to get the word out.

Have a look at this awesome (short) video that shows the impact Eat United is making in a way words can’t 

and share it where you can

Get on Twitter and search the hashtag #snapyoursnack and follow twitter.com/Eat_United and re-tweet links to our campaign.

Anything you can do to help us grow this campaign would be amazing.A little bit of help from lots of people adds up to a big help for people that need it.

Talking to Strangers.

I’ve been in this country just a day and already I have found the people of El Salvador to be wonderfully warm and friendly.

Even before I arrived, waiting for the bus in Guatemala City, I got to talking to Chris, a young Salvadoran guy. I had a ticket to the capital, San Salvador, but what I really wanted to do was go “to the beach”  only I had no idea which beach or how to get there. Chris told me about the different beaches in El Salvador and even took the time to write down some names and how long it would take me to get there.

“Come and find me if you need me” he said as we boarded.

When we arrived in San Salvador Chris came up to me and asked me if I needed and help. When I told him I needed to change money he took me to the currency exchange shop.

“Is there a catch?” a little voice wondered, “why should this stranger go out of his way to help me?”

After I exchanged money, he walked me to the taxi stand and told the driver where I needed to go. As I was putting my stuff in the boot he asked if we could share the cab.

Every thing seemed legit and I assumed Chris was a good bloke, so I agreed. I have been in dodgy cabs before though, and as Chris chatted away to the driver in Spanish a tiny thought crept into my head,

“I really hope everything is all cool here and this isn’t some set-up. I have just exchanged a wad of cash and no-one other than these guys, knows where I am.”

As we pulled up at the bus terminal, I reached into my bag to pay.Chris waved my money away,

“I’ll get it” he said.

I tried to insist, but he laughed and shook his head, “You women, always worrying.”

I collected my bags and thanked Chris. He waved as he drove off in the cab, to wherever it was he was heading.

Sometimes, lots of times, people really are just kind for no reason.

Beautiful El Savador.

Beautiful El Savador.

This experience got me thinking. When travelling, especially when travelling alone, how do you find the balance between being trusting and open and being wary and street smart? No-one wants to be taken for a mug (or worse) but if you spend your entire trip assuming everyone is out to cheat you, you may as well stay at home.

Years ago now, I was on a train in Morocco with my girlfriend Katie. We had planned to arrive in Tanger in the afternoon and take the boat back over to Spain, however delay after delay meant there was no way we were going to be getting a boat that day. Chatting to a young Moroccan dude on the train, we asked him if he could recommend a hotel in Tanger.

“You don’t need a hotel, just stay with me.” he said.

It turned out he lived with his aunt and uncle and their four children, none of whom seemed the least bit phased by their nephew bringing home to young Aussie backpackers at ten o’clock at night. They welcomed us into their home, fed us and made us and made up a bed for us both and even gave us breakfast the next morning.

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Way back when. Katie and I in Marrakech in 2006.

Sometimes, you just have to trust people.

Another night, this time in Barcelona, too much beer made me miss my hostel lock-out time. This left me with two options, roam around Barcelona alone in the early hours of the morning until I found more accommodation, or go back to a bar somewhere and stay out drinking until the sun came up and my hostel opened it’s doors once again. I was tired  and a bit drunk and just wanted to go to bed, so I sat down to have a think.

Out of the darkness, along came a young guy around 16 or 17 years old, riding on his bicycle. He pulled up when he saw me and sat down to talk with me. When I told him why it was I was sitting outside alone in the middle of the night, he insisited I come and stay at his place. I hesitated, but with just a few euros rolling around my purse, I didn’t have a whole lot of other options. He doubled me on his bike back to his flat, me sitting on his handle-bars, balancing precariously.

When we arrived he showed me to a bed in the spare room and left me to it. I woke up some time the next morning to an empty flat, made my bed and headed back out to the street, closing the door behind me.

Lots of times, people are just kind for no reason.

There is good and bad everywhere though. No matter how much you pride yourself on your good instincts or judge of character, sometimes, shit happens. In Bangkok one evening, I met one young Canadian bloke who had made friend’s with a local guy. He remembers going for a few drinks with him then nothing until over 12 hours later when he woke up on the street somewhere with his wallet and passport gone.

Sometimes, at home as well as while away, people are just total dicks.

There is no magical formula for deciding who to trust and who not to trust when travelling, but I think, for the most part, people are basically the same all over the world and people are basically good.

And, when inevitably while on the road, you are tricked, robbed or ripped-off, don’t let it spoil your trip, or lose your trust in all people. There is good and bad everywhere, but most people are pretty alright.

Va-Va -Voom Vegas!

Britney Spears first broke onto the scene around the same time I was visiting my bestie Brandy in California back in 1999 .We were both 16 and every time she came on the radio we’d scream “BRITNEY” and turn the volume right up. We had dancing in the car down to a fine art.

17 years later, I get off the plane at LAX and the first thing Brandy says to me is,

“I got us tickets to Britney Spears in Las Vegas!”

Oh.My.God.

It's Britney, Bitch.

It’s Britney, Bitch.

After a couple of days in California, we packed up the car and road tripped to the bright lights of Las Vegas. This city is insane. Not only can you gamble everywhere – including at the petrol station, but they have 24 hour buffet passes.

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I love food, but even I think maybe that might be too much of a good thing.  We still hit up a few buffets and I spent almost my entire time in Vegas with a food baby.

I’m not really a gambler but gambling in Vegas means free cocktails. If you play very, very sloooooowly it wouldn’t be hard to get pissed on the cheap.

No luck for me! I may as well have taken $20 and set it on fire. At least I got a pina colada.

No luck for me! I may as well have taken $20 and set it on fire. At least I got a pina colada.

Jackpot! Brandy had more luck than me.

Jackpot! Brandy had more luck than me.

The night we went to see Britney, we  stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, just off the strip.

Lights of Vegas outside our window.

Lights of Vegas outside our window.

Hot Vegas tip – if you want to party on the cheap, go mid-week. Our room cost something like $30 for the two of us.

Britney was really fun. There was a lot of Vegas razzle-dazzle and we spent the whole show up dancing. I had a couple of cocktails during the show (at $24 a pop! I suggest smuggling in a hip flask if you want to drink). Cocktails combined with the pre-Britney drinks I’d had left me a little bit sloshed by the end of the show. When Britney walked off, I tried to get her to come back by starting a chant of “One more song, one more song, encore, encore” but no one wanted to join my chants. A few people gave me funny looks, probably thinking, “look at that one woman gronk-show.”

After partying with Britney and eating our way through Vegas we headed back to Brandy’s place in California to spend our last few days together.

Huntington Beach.

Huntington Beach.

On my last day, we headed into Los Angeles to see ifwe could spot any celebs before Brandy dropped me at the airport. Brandy and I cruised around Beverly Hills and picked out which houses we want for when we get famous for something. I thought I saw Al Pacino but then I realised he was driving a pretty shit car. Maybe Al Pacino likes shit cars and it was him, I can’t be sure. You never know what you’ll find in LA.

View from Mulholland Drive. The Internet says we drove past Madonna's house.

View from Mulholland Drive. The Internet says we drove past Madonna’s house.

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I think that big white house there might be quite nice for when I’m famous.

After a wonderful week it was time to say a sad good-bye to Brandy and hop on my plane to Guatemala for the next leg of my trip.

How Not To Catch A Cab In San Jose.

There are towns and cities in this world that I have visited and just instantly fallen in love with. Places that have left me feeling like, “Wow, I could see myself living here for a while.”

San Jose, Costa Rica was not one of those places.

Simone and I arrived there after a week working on a farm in the jungle, to meet up with our friends Amy and Cathy.

Here we are, all together!

Here we are, all together!

I’d already heard that there wasn’t much to see or do in San Jose and the couple of days we had there did nothing to change my mind. We’d only really gone there at all because that’s where the girls flew into and we were all happy to be getting out of the city and heading to the Caribbean Coast.

Walking out of the hostel, loaded with bags, one of the hostel staff members asked me, “taxi?”

“Yes please” I said.

Conveniently, waiting right out the front of the hostel, was a cab with a smiley, jolly driver. The hostel guy and the taxi driver had a quick chat then our taxi man started loading our bags into the cab. We four girls squeezed in and away we went. As we drove away I realised we hadn’t agreed on a price first. Rookie mistake.

I tried asking him how much, but he said something about clocks and drew circles on his hand. I had no idea what that was about so I gave up.

“Dammit”, I thought. “Now he is probably going to overcharge us, like ask for $10 instead of $4 ho hum.”

Our driver was all smiling and friendly. He asked us where we were going. When we told him Puerto Viajo, he recommended us many things.

“I recommend you keep pass-a-port close, like baby”

“I recommend you looking, no talking blah, blah to people at terminal”

“Keep money close, no in big bag, many dangerous peoples at bus terminal.”

“Here, see” he rolled up his sock and showed me an old scar, “for iphone, at bus terminal” then he made his fingers into a gun shape and said, “bang, bang”.

“No ATM near Caribbean, I recommend you get money now”

I sort of had doubts. No ATMs in a popular tourist are in 2015…… really? But I guess we don’t want to get stuck without money. He pulled up at an ATM and we all got out and withdrew a wad of cash. The moment we got back into the cab and started driving, my heart sank.

I suddenly just knew he was lying about there being no banks in the Caribbean.  Now he knew we all had a few hundred dollars cash on us. I looked around the cab to see if his taxi licence was displayed anywhere, and saw none. My heart sunk a little further.

He got on his mobile and started talking in a low voice to someone.

“It’s going to be OK.” I told myself, but I felt a little bit sick.

He pulled up in some random area nowhere near the bus station and told us we had to walk a block to the bus terminal and that he couldn’t drive up that way.

He then asked for a fare of 68,000 colones, or, around $160.

“That can’t be right” I thought. I figured he must mean 6,800 colones, a rip-off for sure but I was happy to pay the equivalent of $16 or $17 to get away from him. I handed him a 10,000 note, expecting change.

He shook his fat head.

He drove forward a little.

I asked him to write it down, that I didn’t understand.

68,000.

“That can’t be possible” I said.

“Si, possible”

He drove forward some more and the smile was gone.

He got back on his mobile phone. My heart rate went right up.

He then dropped the price to around 35,000.

I tried to argue some more but I was getting really scared, he kept driving forward, further from the busy street. Mr Happy Cabby was now Mr Pissed Off and Mr. Pissed off had us trapped and wanted his money now. I was waiting for his mates to pull up at any moment.

In the end he reluctantly lowered his price to 20,000. He gave me this look, as though I was ripping him off. A look that said, “the fare is $160 but I guess I’ll just take $50 because what more can I do you selfish woman”

I shoved the money at him as he kept driving along. “Stop, stop” I said, feeling a little panicky wondering where on earth he was going to take us.

He pulled up on the corner of Shady-As Rd and Shithole St in Downtown Ghettosville, then drove off.

There we were, with all our bags, our passports, our electronics and hundreds and hundreds of dollars in cash between us in some dodgy-arse part of San Jose.

There were groups of sketchy looking dudes huddled around on the corner, staring.

“Hey Lady,” one called out.

One started walking towards us.

Another looked at us and made some hissing sound.

Every single shop on the street was boarded up. I can’t speak for the others, but I was shitting myself. Up ahead was a busy looking street full of cars and people, “If we can just get there without getting stabbed” I thought, “we will be ok”.

After the longest hundred metre walk of my life, we made it to the busy street and my heart rate slowed just slightly. A young guy asked us where we were headed, and he was very nice and helpful. We were still a fair way from the bus terminal and he advised us not to walk because it was dangerous so we reluctantly got into another cab – this time agreeing on a price first. Our new driver took us to the bus station, without a drama, for 2,000 colones, or around 4 or 5 dollars.

I don’t like to think about how much worse it could have been, but it’s all behind us now and we are chilling in the Caribbean paradise of Puerto Viajo.

 

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Adventures in France

I am in Northern Spain with a girl I met working on a farm in France. Her name is Ida and she is like a Swedish Brandy – for those of you who don’t know Brandy is my crazy wonderful bestie. We had plans to travel to Portugal together to go to Boom music festival, but it has sold out. Ida bought her ticket in January so she is going to go, and I am now trying to come up with a plan B (and trying not to cry with disappointment).

I have been without Internet for awhile, so I am a bit behind with the blog. Anyway,  here are some more stories from my time in France.

I loved Paris – apparently France lets people have working holiday visas up until the age of 35, so I am thinking of moving there and delaying adulthood a little bit longer.

I did a lot of the typical tourist stuff-

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This Mona Lisa sheila better be worth it!

This Mona Lisa sheila better be worth it!

I waited in line, in the rain, for over two hours to get into The Lourve, but I am glad I went.

The main attraction of course, is The Mona Lisa. There was, as there apparently always is, a crowd of people pushing there way to the front to see her. Most people were more interested in taking a photo of the Mona Lisa and a selfie in front of The Mona Lisa, rather than just having a good look at the worlds most famous painting.

While I waited all I could hear was,

“Oh my god, what is taking so long?”

“Come on people, just take your photo and move.”

“It’s those Asians, they are taking so long! Hurry up Asians!”

“Asians can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em”

“Who says you can’t live without ’em?”

“Oh gawd hurry, I need my selfie!!!!!!”

Really? Rude and racist, what a charming combination.

Imagine if The Lourve banned cameras and you had to actually just walk around and enjoy yourself?

I did take a few photos though.

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My favourite part of Paris was the Montmartre area, where the Sacre-Coeure is located.

I accidentally deleted some photos, so here is one I borrowed from the internet.

I accidentally deleted some photos, so here is one I borrowed from the internet.

 

As I was walking through the streets of Montmarte, a French man started talking to me. He seemed nice enough and I thought it might be fun to chat with a local so I agreed to have a wine with him. We ended up getting a bottle and drinking it in the park.

Unfortunately, this is not the beginning of a Paris love story.

We sat and talked and within about 20 minutes he decided I was “beautiful, wonderful Oh Mon Cherie!”

He grabbed my hand in his.

“Oh my bizzarre  hair girl.”

I sort of smiled awkwardly and gently pulled my hand away. He was a nice enough bloke, but I had no interest in being his ‘bizzarre hair girl.” I drank some more wine and shoved some cheese in my mouth so he wouldn’t think of kissing me. I tried to think of a polite excuse to leave.

“Oh I want to know you,”

Oh, want to leave.

When he grabbed my arm and kissed it like Gomez Adams would Morticia, it was time for me to go.

Despite that experience, I could have stayed in Paris a lot longer, but my bank account said otherwise.

I headed south to a town called Montlucon. Thinking it might be fun to stay with a local, I hit up a few people on Couchsurfing. One lady got back to me to let me know I could stay at her place, she wasn’t actually going to be there, but no worries, the front door is unlocked.

I arrived at 9 0’clock at night and felt a bit like a burglar as I let myself into her empty flat. It was a bit weird and I was nervous to touch anything, but very kind of her to give me a place to stay for the night.

From Montlucon I headed to a little farm called Rapato and hung out with these people,

Some of the great people I met in Rapato

Some of the great people I met in Rapato

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My home for 11

Life on Rapato is a whole other story so it’ll have to wait for another blog post.