31 December 2011

2011: The start of a new beginning

These end of year recap posts seem to be becoming a little tradition on this little blog of mine as I have, it appears, recapped both 2010 and 2009 previously... awesome. Who knows how long I can keep it up for =)

It is now the 31st of December, the last day of 2011, and as seems to be the case in each of these yearly recaps I realize how drastically life has changed since the one before. The jump from 2009 to 2010 was enormous (2009 was a very challenging year), and while I may not have done anywhere near the amount of activities and adventures this year than I did the last, I can say that this year I have had the biggest personal growth and transformations of all, something I am very proud of.

This year was all about finding myself, finding some direction in life, to begin shaping my life how I want it to be shaped. It was the first time in my life where I wasn't constrained with full-time study having graduated from University in April... which meant that for the first time I was free to choose what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it, something that took a little getting used to.

After some careful deliberation I settled to spend my year with full-time work simply to save money. I also moved into what has been the best share house I have ever lived in since moving out of my parents house with the awesome housemates (Massi and Jason) and the unforgettable times we had.

My enjoyment of blogging flourished further and I discovered quite a few new blogs to follow and in turn my little slice of the blogosphere increased also. I even proclaimed my love for you follow bloggers (albeit while drunk, ha!). I got more involved in the blogging community and participated in the 20-Something-Bloggers Blog Swap, received an award and then awarded it to others in turn, and have connected well with a few of my favourite bloggers which is nice (with a few cool projects currently underway).

And the biggest of all for 2011? This was the year I embarked on what is to my grandest adventure yet, a trip to New York City!

Two years ago in 2009 I announced vaguely that I think I would like to live in a city some day, in particular New York City. After hours upon hours of daydreaming about what living there would be like it suddenly dawned on me 'why shouldn't I move there, seriously?'. After failing to come upon an answer of why I shouldn't, plans were put forward and in March I officially announced that I am moving to New York City. This took up a vast amount of my free time during the year and really became a focal point for everything I did. I created the 'New York City Trip' page on my blog to gather all my researched information, I made my first steps and transferred some Australian dollars over to US dollars, and I finally applied for my visa, all with the date of March 2012 in mind for my departure date.

It is also the year I made quite a few new friends whom have all surprisingly (and seemingly out of nowhere) become quite a staple in my life; Rob, Isaac, Jim, Brendan, Polly, Carolyn, Massi (names have been changed)... that's 7 new people who I very much enjoy their company that I didn't have with me only one year before. How life could of been if I had only met them sooner. A new life has been formed that I am only recently realizing how much I will miss when I leave.

And last but definitely not least, there was the absolutely amazing, wonderful, ridiculously adventure filled holiday to China! An experience that pushed my strength and imagination to the limit, one I am truly glad I did, will never ever forget, and am a better person because of.

There was so much stuff I didn't blog about, the awesome night out with my two best mates Jason and Karl that just blew away all our expectations on what the night would hold, the reconnecting with some of my old best mates again, my new exercise regime that I have stuck with all year that has really paid off, the new sense of peace and well being that I now feel.

2011 has ended up being one of the best years I have had in a very long time and really feels to me like a 'launch pad' of sorts, where after a year of preparing myself by making future plans, saving money and keeping healthy, I'm now ready to be launched into a new beginning and adventure. And to cap off 2011 I am spending New Years Eve at a BBQ with my absolute best mates in the world... I really couldn't ask for anything more than that.

My hope and expectations for 2012? Every year I try and predict how the following one may turn out, and each time I am wrong, so this time I am just going to let 2012 be whatever it wants to be and it can throw at me whatever it wants to also.

I am moving to NYC so what is going to happen really is anyone's guess! =D

29 December 2011

Applied for my visa finally!

I have finally applied for my American visa for my New York City trip!

But wow did it take me a while to get around to it, I would have to be the king of procrastination ha. I first mentioned all the way back in March that I had officially decided to move to New York City... March! Since then any researching, planning or preparation to actually get myself there has trickled along at glacial speeds over the last 7 months since the announcement.

We are now December and I can finally celebrate the milestone of having submitted my application, yay! Eventually after narrowing down the list of visa sponsors I chose one, sent an application which got approved, then had my introductory meeting with them the other day, cool!

The interview went well, the lady just asked me a bunch of questions like 'Where do you plan to spend most of your time', 'What skills do you have', 'Have you got a plan B'. In return I asked her a heap of questions like 'What's the job market like at the moment' and 'What tips have you got for accommodation', with all my questions being about aspects of the trip I am most concerned about (finding a nice place to live and getting a job) as with the terrible global economy lately I've heard things can be quite tough.

Thankfully she actually seemed rather upbeat about America's current employment and accommodation opportunities, mentioning that housing shouldn't be too bad right now as due to high rent a lot of people have moved out of the city area (win for me), and that there are always jobs available if I don't limit myself too much (eg. am willing to do casual jobs such as retail, which I am). So hearing that put my mind somewhat at ease.

A few days after the interview the realization of 'this is really happening and in 3 months time I will be in another country' started to dawn on me. But only slightly ha. I am still in my 'dreaming' stage where even as I am filling out visa forms the idea that this is actually going to happen still hasn't quite hit yet.

Even as I write this post I still don't truly believe it =)

22 December 2011

Nihao! - Part Eight

Part seven can be found here. We pick up from our imminent arrival at Chengdu airport, and I am pondering how my next day will go as Isaac says goodbye and I venture forth on my own.

Day eight - 3pm: I carry my luggage through the doors of Chengdu airport, Isaac and Vivian by my side. The flight doesn't board for another two hours, cool, that means I can spend thankfully some more time chatting to Isaac, making extra sure I have got all my tickets, times and places I need to be in order before he leaves.

This was all cut short however because suddenly Isaac turns to me and says "Ok man, it's been an amazing trip, I wish you a safe trip home".

I'm stunned. "What! You aren't staying with me until I board? How do I check in? What if I get lost? What if there is a problem with my ticket? No one speaks English!" Yes I admit there was the slightest moment of panic ha.

He laughs "Sorry man but Vivian needs to go. Don't worry you'll be fine."

We hug, and I try to express my sincere thanks for offering me this chance to accompany him on this amazing trip, one that has changed my life, but words escape me and I think all I managed was a rough 'thanks for everything' and a look away of the eyes. I watch them as they walk away towards the doors until I can't see them anymore, then look at my surroundings to get my bearings.

There is two hours before boarding, the airport is packed, and everything is literally in Chinese. I realized I was being silly at being nervous of being on my own, I mean how am I meant to travel on my own to New York City for a year if I can't manage 2 days in China (although to clarify it wasn't being on my own overseas that was the worry, it was more the language barrier that was the daunting part...crazy imagination). From my Yoga classes I have learned how to (with some degree of success) calm my mind and breathing, so I found an empty floor space, sat down, and read my book. Within minutes I was completely calm, it was nice to know I have much more control over myself than I initially realized.

Long story short I got through check-in and boarded with no worries and was soon fast asleep on the two and a half hour flight back to Shanghai. Cool. In fact being on my own was kind of fun, it gave me a small feeling of being a 'mystery traveler' ha!

Day eight - 9pm: The flight touched down in Shanghai, this is where the real test of being a foreigner in another country would begin, I was excited! After collecting my luggage I hauled my way to the taxi line, caught one, and showed the taxi driver a piece of paper where Isaac had written the address of my hotel in Chinese. After my repeated questioning in Chinese mandarin "do you understand?" and him insisting that he does, we were on our way.

Funny story here. After the 40 minute drive we were in the city. I had absolutely no idea where I was but I trusted the driver. Thankfully he finally starts to slow, points up ahead and says a bunch of stuff in Chinese that I couldn't understand at all, but I assumed he was saying something like 'the hotel is up ahead, just across the intersection'. He pulls over, I give him a thumbs up, then lug my extremely heavy bags into the direction he pointed. As I was waiting at the lights however I was looking up and down the street to where he pointed but I just couldn't see where the hotel was, but figured it must be just up ahead.

25 minutes go by and I am still wandering the streets, in which case I had already traversed each street of the intersection, got into a lengthy discussion with a security guard whom I asked for directions (despite the fact I had no idea what he was saying and he couldn't speak English), and got waved at by a disturbing number of 'massage' girls, and I still had not found where the blazes this hotel was. It was around 11pm now, and my bags with the addition of all the extra gifts were extremely heavy. Sigh... just my luck.

Eventually I decided to walk back to the spot the taxi driver dropped me off at to start over. As I was gathering my bags to get ready to trek out again a sign just in front of me caught me eye... a sign that looked rather similar to the hotel logo I was looking for. I stand up straight only to see that the hotel I had been looking for this whole time had in fact been exactly where the taxi guy dropped me off ha!

I really enjoyed the freedom of being on my own actually. After checking in to the hotel (thankfully one of them spoke a little English), I went down the street and bought some supplies and just generally wandered around for a while. A very relaxing way to end the night.

Day nine: My flight to take me home to Australia wasn't until 8pm which meant I had the entire day to explore Shanghai. My parents had recently come back from a holiday to Shanghai themselves and highly recommended the Shanghai Science and Technology museum, so my destination was set.

But to no surprise, due to my weird luck, it was closed that day ha! Sigh. The taxi I had arrived in had already driven away, and the street I was on was completely deserted, so alas I am forced to do more walking with my array of luggage. I better gain some muscle mass after this trip ha.

I made the most of my walk and took in the sights, Shanghai is such a beautiful city.

Shanghai Art Exhibition.

After a highly confusing conversation with a taxi driver (how do you portray 'Shanghai Museum' in charades ha!) I spent my day at the awesome Shanghai Museum. It was rich of the countries history and had some seriously impressive works of art and collection of artifacts. Some of the artifacts you see below are literally over a thousand years old!

800 years old!
With the museum complete and still another hour before I must leave I wanted to soak up the city one last time.

As I sat on the park wall, in the pleasant weather and the peaceful air, I felt completely at peace. Thoughts drifted to the question "could I live here one day?". After some thought I had my answer. Yes, I could definitely see myself living here sometime in the future. Time was running low before I had to head to the airport, it was at this moment I was highly reluctant to leave. Could it really had been 9 days? To be honest it did feel like it, my mind and body was thoroughly exhausted, what a roller coaster of tempo the trip had been.

It was hard to imagine that so much could be fit into such a short amount of time; chasing taxi's in Shanghai, traversing the Forbidden City, riding bikes through the peak hour streets of Beijing, exploring the wonder of the Great Wall, strolling through Beijing Olympic Park, meeting all those exciting new people, learning mahjong in Chongqing, haggling with merchants in Chengdu, drinking all that tea and eating all those traditional meals, not to mention the five plane flights and one train ride, and still that is just the tip of the iceberg of my trip. The recount of the trip could of easily been twenty parts or more (so be thankful it only made it to eight ha).

After another 15 minutes I tore myself from the view, chased down a taxi and went to the airport, savoring these last moments.

My last glimpse of Shanghai as I head to the airport.

The plane ride turned out surprisingly amazing. It is a 10 hour flight which I seriously dread (I get headaches and insanely bored on planes) but somehow, and I have no memory of this, I managed to fall asleep for 8 hours! Before I knew it the flight attendants were waking me up for the breakfast meal which meant there was only two hours remaining, win! On the flight also I made good friends with the guy next to me, his name was Matt and he had just come from Italy to try and get a job in Australia... how cool is that! We chatted for ages.

Alas, after what seemed like one of the most hectic weeks, I was home.

I'm home.

17 December 2011

Nihao! - Part Seven

Part six can be found here. The last two days spent in Chongqing were simply awesome, but it was time to move on.

Day seven: Isaac and I woke up early, said a big goodbye and thank you to Ava, and made our way to the train station for the two hour trip to Chengdu, a small city to the north-west. The train ride was a breeze (everything is so cheap for foreigners that we opted for first-class seats), and Vivian (Isaac's friend) was nice enough to meet us at the station once we arrived and drive us to our hotel.

Something I found on a brochure at the train station. I thought it was rather appropriate for the moment =)
After a quick lunch it was time to explore, in which they took me to one of the coolest places ever!.. although again the name escapes me ha. Something like 'Chingni'? Anyways, it was a market of sorts, much like the one in Chongqing the day before but much cooler. Best of all there was a plethora of gift stores, and being late in the trip my Chinese mandarin speaking skills were at a good enough level that I could get by on my own when shopping. It was awesome =D

My poor attempt to try and take an 'artistic' looking photo.

These guys looked great!
Isaac, Vivian and myself stopped for some tea at a tea house, a common past time here in China. The place was so magnificent looking and peaceful I can easily see why the Chinese love these tea houses. With a group of friends around you, maybe a deck of cards, some tea and snacks, and the day could easily drift by with pleasure.

Taken from our seats. Such a peaceful setting.

Shame about the picture quality.
Isaac and Vivian clearly had a lot of catching up to do so after a third failed attempt to teach them some card tricks, I thought I should leave the two friends alone for a while and make the most of my time as a tourist. By this stage in the trip I knew about 25 Chinese mandarin words and could get by surprisingly well. Words like 'hello', 'thank you', 'no thanks', 'good' and so on were now second nature, and I had managed to move onto longer phrases such as 'how much does this cost?', 'too expensive', 'I don't understand' and my personal favourite 'I think you are a very beautiful girl' (which I used quite a few times with hilarious results ha).

I really love haggling with shop keepers, I don't know why but I find it to be so much fun. With the language barrier it became more of a challenge which only fueled my enjoyment. Soon enough I had a few gifts under my arms, but still had about 6 people left to buy for that I just couldn't find anything for. That was until I met this awesome old guy!

He would of been about 60 years old and if you provide him a name (in Chinese) he would paint on the spot these beautiful calligraphy portraits that represents a message of well-wishes and include the name as well. And luckily for me as soon as he heard me greet him and ask him some questions in Chinese, his eyes lit up with surprise and was immediately my fan, win!

The level of detail with just a paintbrush was impressive!
These made for the perfect gift, I was very pleased. I ended up buying six of these and after I had learned from Isaac how to say 'this is for you' offered him a generous tip for his work and friendliness. I don't think the Chinese are familiar with the gesture of 'tipping' for he gave me a very strange look and I had to insist that I wanted him to have it (and that I hadn't simply mistaken how much I owed him), in which he gave an awkward glance then a big smile once I think he finally got the idea ha.

Interestingly while walking around this market I seen heaps of foreigners (around twenty or so), something I hadn't expected to see what so ever, especially because Chengdu seems even more remote than Chongqing and in Chongqing the day before I had only seen two my entire time there. I didn't say hello to any of them, partly because I thought it was a little too cliche' (Hi, another foreigner, cool, let's form a club) and secondly I wasn't sure if they spoke English (most seemed European). It was a very unique experience to be able to watch how people from countries other than my own (Australia) interact and carry themselves amongst the Chinese.

Alas with my bag full of gifts and my wallet emptied of money it was time to head home. We had dinner together with Vivian that night (she didn't talk to me much, I think she was shy) at a Pizza Hut (while I do thoroughly enjoy Chinese food, it is all we had eaten all week so it is nice to have some Western food to mix it up).

Isaac challenged me to eat this entire pizza by myself. I won!
Afterwards we said our goodbyes to Vivian then Isaac and I decided to make the most of our remaining time here (as we were leaving the next day) so we walked to our hotel, soaking up the Chengdu very lively night atmosphere.

Back in our hotel I turned on my laptop and checked my emails, enjoying the down time. It had been a very relaxing and most enjoyable day. I remember sometime during the day while drinking my tea I had to remind myself that the trip is nearly over. In the first few days it felt like the 9 days I was to be here felt like forever away... but with the end so near I had trouble remembering where the time had gone. We packed our bags to be ready in the morning as the next day we were once again on the move, then went bed.

Day eight: About 1am in the morning I deeply regretted accepting Isaac's challenge to eat the whole pizza... my stomach was on fire haha! Thankfully it passed and I fell back to sleep. About 10am we both awoke, checked out of the hotel, met up with Vivian again and went out for breakfast/lunch at a nearby restaurant.

I was a little nervous that day. Why? Because for the next day and a half I would be on my own in my travels here in China. That afternoon I had a flight to take myself to Shanghai, and the following day I had another flight to take me from Shanghai back home to Australia and with Isaac staying in China for the next few months over summer he obviously wouldn't be joining me any further than we currently were. We spent a while organizing how I was to be catching flights, directing taxi's and booking into hotels without Isaac with me to translate.

On our drive to the airport I was thinking about how my next day and a half would go on my own, reiterating through my head all the Chinese words I knew. I wasn't too worried as I knew a lot of people in Shanghai speak English (especially at airports and hotels) so that was fine, and Isaac would be with me at Chengdu airport to see me off so if I ran into any problems he could come rescue me. No worries!

Or so I thought...

Part eight here. Let's see how my time alone went...

14 December 2011

Nihao! - Part Six

Part five can be found here. Yesterday we had our first relaxing day since arrival with a tour of Chongqing. Today we continue our sight seeing at some amazing local markets.

Day six: After a great nights rest at Ava's house (it was nice to be out of a hotel for a change) it was time to explore the sights. You've probably noticed a dramatic drop in the tempo of our trip... it was a welcomed relief. The group today was taking us to a very traditional Chinese market which I regrettably forget the name of. This place looked and felt fantastic, it was bustling with people and had really cool small stores with heaps of gift ideas, which was perfect because I had yet to buy presents for family and friends back home. With us for the day was Ava, Bette and Mary.

I don't have many pictures of this place I have just realized which is a shame because it really was such a cool place, I guess I must of been to preoccupied with chatting to the group and shopping.

How cool!
I played this! Much to the delight of the shop keeper and passes by.
Stopped for some delicious lunch.

A local.
We had already spent hours at this place, I went into every store both to buy gifts for people and just to have a look around. This kind of China is what I prefer by far, with the small local shops, traditional gifts and food and little foreign influence, not the department store lined streets catered for tourists like Shanghai. If I wanted that I could of just stayed home.

Isaac knew I was eager to learn a traditional Chinese game called mahjong so after lunch we went to a tea house where the tables are specifically set up for it. It was ridiculously confusing at first but I think I finally got the hang of it towards the end, great fun!

View from the second story of the tea house. A very cool place I thought.
Bette about to start the game.
Ava and my mahjong team mate Mary.
Isaac thinking carefully before his next move.
Mary and Bette were the coolest. They were at the dinner the previous night but I didn't get a chance to talk to them much so I was very glad I could today. Mary was heaps of help when it came to buying gifts and we chatted for hours, and Bette is moving to America for study next year so there was talk of maybe even meeting up some time when I go to New York City.

Reluctantly it was getting late so we had to rap up our mahjong session and head into town in time for another dinner with a few others friends I had yet to meet and even an appearance by Isaac's parents.

Chongqing busy as always.
An accidental rather 'artistic' looking photo of Ava.
Ava, Penny, Isaac and Mary. Great people.
Dinner was much like the night before but much more fancy, and gratefully I got to meet another of Isaac's friend who turned out awesome, Penny. Today was to be our last day here with Isaac and I having a train scheduled the next morning to take us to our next destination, so as soon as dinner finished I enthusiastically suggested that we make the most of our remaining time and hang out some more. A quick brainstorming session later and they had decided to take us to the habour, which reminded me very much of Sydney Harbour (Australia).

Some random building taken on the drive to the harbour.

A very awesome view.
It was such a good time, the place looked amazing. The whole length of the river was lit up with buildings and cruise boats, there was music playing in the background, the night was pleasantly warm and there was plenty of people about to give it a nice bustling feel. We chatted and laughed and strolled and gazed, all the while telling stories of our own lives and taking many pictures. Then out of no where a very memorable moment happened, and I don't think it was just me whom it impacted upon.

I was on my own leaning against the rail, just looking out over the river, completely lost to the world in thoughts, enjoying the peaceful night. Suddenly a voice appears next to me, ripping me out of my ravine and back into reality.

"Thinking about home?" It was Mary. A welcome surprise.

"A little. I am having so much fun here that sometimes I forget about home to be honest." It was true. Then I asked "Have you ever been to Australia? You definitely should."

"No, I haven't done any traveling." She said in a lower tone "I am too busy with work now. Maybe in a few years time I guess."

"A few years time? No way, you need to do things now! Work can wait, trust me."

She laughed, gave an unconvincing nod of agreement, and went silent. Suddenly inspiration struck for I remembered that I just happened to have a photograph in my backpack that I just knew I needed her to have at that very moment. A quick rummage through my bag and I had found it:

Penny, Issac and Mary holding the photo. It says "Quit your job. Buy a ticket. Get a tan. Fall in love. Never return."
And on the back in pen I wrote:
"To Mary, never wait for life to pass you. 
Live big, 
love deeply. 
I expect to see you in Australia soon, Aaron"

Everyone thought it was amazing, and I was pleased with myself that I rolled with it so well when inspiration struck, not a care in the world, just letting the motions take me. Mary loved it and I could tell she would keep and remember it for quite some time. I definitely need to live like that more often I think.

The night was late and it was time to leave. I said my last goodbyes, although I never know what to say at the time, and Isaac, Ava and I headed home, my time in Chongqing coming to an end. It had been such an amazing time here, although of course it was definitely the people I met that made it so. They will be surely missed.

Part seven can be found here. Tomorrow's plans? A train ride in the morning to a smaller city called Chengdu.