Category Archives: cities

Back in England and still on the Banksy trail, this time in Bristol

Art goes technical with a car, an iPhone app and a sat nav

Modern art: art that requires a car, an iPhone app and a sat nav

Back in England, the pursuit of Banksy continued. Whilst London appeared to be a bit too much of a widespread maze in which to get lost, Bristol – Banksy’s hometown – seemed the better option to seek out some of his work. Real life work in real life places. No prints this time.

It was to be a trip centered on technology. There are benefits, apparently.

D-man, a long time fan of Banksy’s work, downloaded the Banksy Tour iPhone app. We wove in and out of city traffic, up dead-end streets and down bustling suburb highstreets in our hire car, tapping coordinates and street names into the sat nav and scanning sides of buildings as we drove by.

Some works no longer existed, others were carefully preserved. It felt a little like a grown-up treasure hunt.  Each time that we finally found a piece I was filled with an indescribable bubble of something, not too dissimilar to joy or satisfaction, maybe, and we’d park up and go and stand and stare for a few moments, occasionally muttering critiques too insignificant to report.

Maybe the most gratifying part of this urban adventure was spotting unknown works that may or may not have been anything to do with Banksy, pieces that acknowledged his style, themes and timing.

Because in amongst a sea of scribbles and expressions, there are some conscious pieces, pieces that are angry and articulate and beautiful, and they’re not all by Banksy.

Heavy weaponry - original Banksy work given a chance to fade

Heavy weaponry – original Banksy work given a chance to fade

You can just about make out bits of an elephant with a rocket launcher on it's back

You can just about make out bits of an elephant with a rocket launcher on it’s back

Early Banksy contributions

Early Banksy contributions

A framed rat trap up a steep side street

A framed rat trap up a steep side street

Rose in a rat trap

Rose in a rat trap

The mild mild west

The mild mild west

Well hung lover, naked man, hanging man, whatever you want to call it

Well hung lover, naked man, hanging man, whatever you want to call it

Is it a Banksy? Policemen are often part of his cast, but the tag says otherwise

Is it a Banksy? Policemen are often part of his cast, but the tag says otherwise

Banksy has previously juxtaposed children with amunition, but the tag suggests this might not be his

Banksy has previously juxtaposed children with amunition, but the tag suggests this might not be his

Shopping astronaut that we accidentally stumbled across... courtesy of Banksy?

Shopping astronaut that we accidentally stumbled across… courtesy of Banksy?

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Wordless Wednesday #7: Tourists lost in time

Tourists looking at a map in a square in Hereford, in front of a 17th century black and white building.

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The secrets of Amersfoort

I’m standing inside a room, if you can even call it that. It measures maybe two by three metres. My shoulders are hunched, my head lowered, and I’m listening to the house owner tell me how an entire, extended family used to live in this room.

In geographical context: the historic, medieval city of Amersfoort

In geographical context: the historic, medieval city of Amersfoort

Just a few days earlier I was gliding along the canals of Amersfoort, onboard a boat, huddled on wooden benches with my aunt, uncle and a handful of strangers. A burst of budding leaves and flowering trees lined the waterways as the sun shone down on cobbled walkways and historic buildings.

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to explore this ancient Dutch city.

Listening to the tour guide, I tried to pick out words but often referred to the English cheat sheet, noting dates that aged Amersfoort back to the late 1200s.

Seeing Amersfoort, Netherlands from the water

Setting off by boat

The western boat route took us by houses built into the first city walls and provided glimpses of Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, a 98m high tower that not only provides a visual reference point within the city but houses the middle point of the Dutch grid reference system. We slipped under bridges and floated alongside water gates and the birthplace of the famous Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian.

Houses that make up the city walls, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Houses that make up the city walls

Sturdy water gate entrances, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Sturdy water gate entrances

Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren,  Amersfoort, Netherlands

Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren

Drinking in the age of this little city, it was apparent that she had been well looked after. Despite her years, she was neatly presented, breathing out secrets of a long, knowing life.

Now, some days later I find myself as a guest inside the tall windowed grandeur of one of Amersfoort’s oldest houses, peeking in through secret doors and into the more recent history of the Second World War. A Jewish family hid away inside this little, little room.

It’s this kind of history, the human component, which really resonates with me. I stay for a short while, hunched and imagining how one lives a confined life, and a life full of fear.

And then the owner pulls away some wood to reveal a tiny window with views directly over to the synagogue. There, within those views, I realise, must have lain some comfort.

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5 things to do in London in a day

Over 30 million tourists visit London every year. 30 million. That’s nearly half the UK population (and doesn’t even take in to account the residents). One city with so many people? Somehow it works.

As a Brit, I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the city, and after brief breaks to the place I’ve always been happy to retreat back to ‘normal’ England. Now, though, I was seeing it through tour guide eyes, showing D-man around and trying to pack in as much as possible within a short amount of time.

So here is a list of what you could do in a day. More realistically, you will probably want to spread the activities out over a couple of days. I’ve not even included museums or galleries, gardens or markets or shops. The Science Museum, Tate Modern, Kew Gardens, Brick Lane, and more and more and more. So much more. Ah, another time, another list.

For now though, let’s run with this very standard tourist list of things to get the London experience started:

1. Start your day by swinging by some famous streets, sights and places

Watching the shooting of a Bollywood music video in Trafalgar Square

Watching the shooting of a Bollywood music video in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square cliché?

Trafalgar Square cliché?

Picadilly Circus curves

Picadilly Circus curves

Of course it exists. At King's Cross train station.

Of course it exists. At King’s Cross train station.

Big Ben put into perspective

Big Ben put into perspective

2. Squish in amongst the crowds to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace

When did this become such a HUGE tourist attraction?

When did this become such a HUGE tourist attraction?

Crowds start to gather outside of the palace

Crowds start to gather outside of the palace

Fighting our way through the crowds at Buckingham Palace

Fighting our way through the crowds at Buckingham Palace

Perfectly in time.

Perfectly in time.

3. Boat trip down the River Thames

Let's go join to procession

Let’s go join to procession

Spying St Paul's Cathederal

Spying St Paul’s Cathederal

Tower Bridge and the Shard

Tower Bridge and the Shard

One less thing to worry about at the Tower of London

One less thing to worry about at the Tower of London

Every room has a river view

Where every room has a river view

4. Watch the sun set over the city from high on board the London Eye

Ready to join the queues?

Ready to join the queues?

Views down on to the South Bank

Views down on to the South Bank

Time it right to get the best dusk views.

Time it right to get the best dusk views.

5. Wind down in one of London’s many theatres

Cultured. We can but try.

Cultured. We can but try.

And then you could finish the day and party on until daybreak at Fabric or one of London’s many clubs or squat parties. We didn’t. Wiped out from a day of flights and now a day in London, D-man, me and my mum headed back to our comfy airbnb find.

My guess is that at the end of the day you too will be tired. Your feet will hurt. You may decide that you don’t like the shuffling crowds, that this city of 8 million people and hoards of tourists is too chaotic and the depths of London’s underground belly too claustrophobic. You may groan about high prices, about sold out shows, about the fact that this city doesn’t seem to sleep.

But stop. Take a breath. You can’t really deny that London is a bold, beautiful city, alive with diversity and culture, can you?

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Terror threat touch down at Heathrow Airport

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Walking towards the unknown

The airport had been shut down. No one was allowed in. Police pointed us along cordoned off walkways, away from Arrivals, away from where my mum would be waiting. We were displaced ants, stumbling confused inside a massive, empty anthill.

D-man was here with me, his first trip to Europe. What a welcome.

We queued as per usual for passport control and customs. People muttered. No one knew what was really going on. No one would tell us. Something about an abandoned car? A car bomb, maybe?

Dusk was falling. Like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film we dragged suitcases up the centre of a road sided by concrete towards silent flashes of blue and the next set of instructions. Neon yellow policemen jackets stood out against the low light greys, orders barking out of big guy mouths.

‘Going saaarf, get in that line. Norf, ova there’. Arms flailed.

I didn’t know how I’d find her, but I did, holding a place in a queue of people trying to push on board a snaking bus.

And finally, after nearly two years, I got my mama cuddle.

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Singapore snapshot

Time for a rooftop swim? (Pic from nationalgeographic.com)

Time for a rooftop swim? Probably not. (Pic from nationalgeographic.com)

The New York Times lists Singapore as one of the must-go places of 2013, and so, as a lover of lists, I ensured that I found time to drop in and explore the ‘densely populated city-state’ that is gaining  recognition for its green credentials and leading the way in vertical farming.

Only I had about, oh, forty minutes to explore the place. What snapshots could I get of this city country?

We were arriving in from the south-east, up from Australia and my legs were starting to swell after eight hours of inactivity. I circled my feet as I looked down over a palm-fringed coastline and a port dotted in big boat traffic.

Singapore. A place that sounded exciting and progressive and buzzy, yet somewhat terrifying to someone like me who craves space and openness and a calm retreat.

The airport (and this was all the ground level, stopover sightseeing that I was going to get) had a retro-futuro ambience and an east-west blend of facilities.

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No way. Not today. These legs of mine need walking.

A well-fed, moustached businessman – some airport official – whizzed by me on a segway, into the belly of a grey-brown-orange colour palette. I skirted the sci-fi appeal of the travelators and got my legs marching, all the way to the toilets, where I joined a queue and waited in line for the seat toilets whilst others queue jumped to the squats.

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Happy to queue?

I wondered why I made the decision to wait. Familiarity? Previous travels in Asia and South America meant I was fully okay with whatever facilities were on offer, and who sits on public toilet seats in any case? ‘Maybe if I was  really desperate’, a middle-aged women said to her friend, and they giggled but stood firmly in line.

Ducking out of the way of a speeding buggy loaded up with suited types, I did another lap of the travelators, watched a film star from the 2005 indie hit movie, Waiting, get accosted by two fans, and went through an oh-so-stern-and-somewhat-confusing security scan. I counted down my last Singapore seconds to the soundtrack of an MTV assault.

There hadn’t been enough time to get out of the airport confines and touch and feel the ‘high-rise buildings, landscaped gardens and heritage-rich precincts’, and I didn’t get to experience the ‘harmonious blend of culture, cuisine, arts and architecture’ of Singapore. But whilst I was pretty damn disappointed with what I’d seen of the place (it was just, well, an airport, much like other airports) I was one journey step closer to London.

London, where I anticipated everything would run smoothly: flight landing on time, bags arriving – intact – after three country transfers, my mum waiting with an armful of cuddles.

Ah, if only.

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Show me some Melbourne street art

www.travelola.orgI first became aware of street art tours when a fellow blogger posted photos of a trip that they’d been on in Buenos Aires. Street art seems to be growing in popularity and gaining acceptance; it’s been associated with enhancing community cohesion and giving disenchanted youths an outlet to express their frustrations. Of course there’s far more to it all, but I’m not the one to talk about this sub-culture. What do I know? I just like looking at some of the stuff. Little more.

With the rise of street art acceptance, street art tours were always an inevitable progression, and they’re too gaining in popularity. Go to London, San Franscisco, Bangkok or Melbourne and you can find a tour that promises to give you a taste of the latest contemporary art trend.

Whilst I have some questions about how such an underground scene sits within a commercial and mainstream context, I do lean towards street art over concept art, and so, following a tip off from a local, I skipped the tour and just went to the art direct.

This is easy enough for anyone to do as Melbourne’s laneways are infamous and printed up guides tell you exactly where to go. You’d struggle NOT to see any street art. But there is a good chance that without a guide you might miss the really good stuff, just like I probably did.

I’m also pretty sure, though, that there are walls of undiscovered street art away from the tourist eye, and like with any industry, what the mainstream get access to is hardly representative of the overall scene.

For now, this was all I was getting.

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www.travelola.org www.travelola.org www.travelola.org www.travelola.org www.travelola.org

Do you reckon they’d let me buy the Ganesh spray job from Hosier Lane (see top pic)? Would anyone really notice if I bought those bricks, say for $1000,000? I’m just going to hunt down a Monopoly set.

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Melbourne in a day

Image from wikipedia.org

Image from wikipedia.org

I’d never really rated city tours, but then I’d never really rated cities, and yet the times that I’ve merged these two personal indifferences, things have changed and I’ve changed my mind.

Would it work for Melbourne?

Back during my travels to Peru in 2011, I had bussed into Cusco full of apprehension, excited to immerse myself in the oft reported beauty of this Incan-colonial UNESCO World Heritage city, but Cusco just confused me. With a scruffy exterior that seemed no different to other South American cities, dingy hostels and streets of competing touts and tour agencies, it took Yonathan from Free Walking Tour Peru to show me the snippets of the other Cusco before I started to even like the place. I ended up staying for nearly two weeks.

Then, when I first arrived in Australia and had only one day in Sydney, Max from one of Sydney’s free walking tours gave me my city bearings, a condensed (yet relatively comprehensive) history lesson of the city and an introduction to an end-of-day-glass-of-wine buddy from Sweden. Sydney suddenly seemed to make sense and I was comfortable and ready for the city

So Melbourne. Should I do a tour? Wander around by myself? How would I get to see snippets of Melbourne that would show me why the city is so popular?

It’s really European’, said a friend, ‘there are all these cafés, and the music scene is great. The creative scene is great’. Push. Pull. Why would I chase Europe when I was in Australia? I love Europe in Europe. I want to see Aussie in Australia. But a vibrant creative scene? Music? Art? Yes, please.

I was staying at the Pullman on the edge of Albert Park, a twenty-minute tram ride from the city centre up the wide, tree-lined grandeur of St Kilda Road. Crammed in amongst tourists and sharp suited and booted business types, I watched how people scanned in and out with myki cards, I listened to an English couple tell their young boy that his grandparents would soon be visiting. And then I was there: Federation Square.

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Arriving into the city

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Federation square entertainment

I skirted a group watching a contortionist climb into a small glass box and made my way downstairs into The Melbourne Visitor Centre, an underground hive that swarmed with adults and teenagers and children, with Spanish and German and English, with leaflets on the Comedy Festival, on city eats, on tourist buses. It was almost too much. I took a ticket and waited to talk to an actual person and shut out the hum of confusion, indecision and excitement that was going on around me.

Twenty minutes later I was on board the free Melbourne Visitor Shuttle. Relative calm returned.

But there is only so much sitting and looking through a smeared window that a girl can do, so it wasn’t long – maybe two or three stops – before I stepped off the bus and walked through the Carlton Gardens towards Fitzroy. A couple posed for wedding photos in amongst the elm and English oak trees. Virgin whites against lush leafiness. It definitely was a visual contrast to the dry, barren browns of Far North Queensland scrub, or the eucalypts and pandanus of tropical northern New South Wales.

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Carlton Gardens, Melbourne

In Fitzroy itself, I ambled along terraced residential roads and down boutique-lined streets, feasting my eyes on textiles and crafts and arts carefully arranged in window displays and drinking in the smell of freshly ground coffee rising from the cups of cool cats sitting outside indie cafés.

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Terraced Fitzroy life

And then I seemed to go wrong because somewhere along Smith Street it all stopped being cute and cool, and signs and shops started to sprawl into a bit more of a chaos (or maybe it was just normality, but I wasn’t chasing normal-anywhere life in Melbourne).

I headed back towards Gertrude Street. Despite feeling a little intimidated by the trend on display, I took a seat inside Sonido, only to realise that – even in Australia – I had again been drawn back to South America. I ordered a black bean and feta arepa, and it was beautifully simple. And filling.

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South American dining @ Sonido, Fitzroy

After handing over the solo experience baton to another female traveller I got back on and off the tourist bus a couple more times. I looped through the areas surrounding Lygon Street, up past shoe stores and pizza and gelati parlours, and then on through the grounds of the University of Melbourne .

In an effort to keep the day cheap I didn’t get out at the Queen Victoria Markets nor the harbour area but instead watched women, men and children clamber back on board laden down with bags and bags and bags of new purchases. Sculptures down the Harbour Esplanade distracted me from any further thoughts of retail therapy, particularly the upside down Cow up a tree sculpture said to draw attention to the issue of flooding and droughts in Australia.

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Ready for some modern art?

Ending my Melbourne day tour down in the Arts Precinct was possibly a bad idea. I wandered around the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and I stood and stared, tried to make sense, to understand obscure splodges and installations, but clearly my creative evolution has some way to go as I remained baffled about what constitutes art in a modern world.

It seemed, although at times beautiful, to be a party of concept driven madness, and I wasn’t cool enough to get an invite to that party. Nope.

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Capturing the sound of crystals. Interesting and thought provoking, but art? Okay, maybe.

And so I got back on a tram with a fair idea of where I’d head the next day for a follow up snoop around. I fumbled with my myki card, held it up against the scanner. This time it beeped, and I saw a load of credit disappear in a flash. As we trundled back down St Kilda Road, past the Royal Botanic Gardens and La Trobe’s cottage, I felt that end-of-city-day weariness and then, there it was, a teeny bit of homesickness, of longing for my family and friends.

Had Melbourne – with its café culture and the leafy façade, with its spacious layout and cultural buzz, with its European association – gotten under my skin and reminded me of a world I once loved? Or, was it showing me that I could maybe love a city, after all?

I stepped back off the tram into late afternoon sunshine and wrapped myself up in a scarf to fend off the fresh autumn breeze. Back at the hotel I took the lift up to the eighth floor, flung myself and my aching feet onto the bed and into the simple luxury of a nondescript hotel room. This, I thought, could be pretty much anywhere. It’s nice, sure, but nothing special. That, out there, however, is Melbourne. And Melbourne is, well Melbourne. Not England or a Euro blend, but Melbourne, familiar yet unique.

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An outsider’s view of St Kilda, Melbourne

I nearly applied for a job in St Kilda, back at the end of 2011. It was a job that would have merged my  experience in media, education and writing, but the timing wasn’t right. I’d only just taken voluntary redundancy from my teaching job in the UK and set off on some South American and Oceanic adventuring, and so I deleted the job from my saved list and pushed that idea (and St Kilda, whatever and wherever St Kilda was) into a later space.

And now, a year and half later, I find myself sitting in a fairly plush hotel room overlooking Albert Park in Melbourne, just around the corner from St Kilda. I have paper and pens, a fridge full of overpriced drinks, thousand threader sheets on the bed, fresh towels to wrap myself up in, and a bathroom full of pampering potential. But as much as I could sink into this room of contained comfort, my travel devil won’t let me. Go see stuff! Go do things!

I’m here with D-man who is speaking at an international conference, so the days are mine to do as I please, an opportunity for some solo travel snippets. But the nights, they are for sharing.

D-man, having lived for a time in Melbourne, knows where to take me, and we stride through Albert Park in a dizzy state of handholding and holidaying, down Fitzroy Street and to the top part of St Kilda. And I’m a little underwhelmed. I mean, it’s okay, nice enough, but just a nice enough street in a any city precinct.

We walk around the beachside, Luna Park with its gaping clown mouth glowing out in the dimming light. A man walks towards us, an awkward mess of long, straggly greying hair and missing teeth. I look at D-man, avoiding eye contact with the other. ‘How long you been married?’ he shouts after us. ‘16 years’ humours D-man. ‘You should see how she looks at you’, adds the stranger, and I’m amused at the reading of my eye contact avoidance. I’m also surprised at my discomfort, at my taking on of cautionary tales, and how I tonight seek reassurance from D-man. Where is my head at?

Acland Street Precinct is a whole lot more buzzy with lights and people and places to eat. We duck off to find Lentils As Anything and I’m back in my comfort zone surrounded by leaflets advertising meditation and yoga classes. I flick through a collection of creativity from a local writing group, and D-man and I chat life and eat wholesome food.

And I realise over the next few days of wandering in and out and around St Kilda that, despite some uppity potential that I’d been warned had started to tar the soul of place, it is still a place with some heart, creative intention and choice. Sure, I can eat at the expensive Italian or I can get a cheaper pizza from the neon-signed takeaway next door. I can posh shop it or just look for deals and the low-key options. It doesn’t have to be excessive. And there is still a creative spirit, from what I can see.

If I had applied for that job back in 2011 and been selected for what would have undoubtedly been a competitive position (St Kilda, I can see, is totally up there in terms of city living desirable), it would have been no bad thing. I could still have lived modestly, gone for morning runs in the park and beach strolls at sunset. I could even have paid off a good chunk of my annual rent by sub-leasing a room during the Grand Prix every March.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda. So often the case. And really, I’m pretty okay with just visiting.

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Keeping it cheap in Cairns

Cairns surprised me.

Because despite a glitzy facelift of the esplanade area, Cairns hasn’t risen to big city status and gone down the ‘we’re-so-good-we’ll-rip-you-off’ route. At least from what I could tell.

Cairns doesn’t seem to be an overly exciting place, with it’s a grid system of functionality, trimmed and watered grasses and all the anticipated visuals of palm city tropics. Before you shoot me for such a low impact first impression report, know that I’m not a city fan. It takes me to know a city to love a city. More on that later. But Cairns, well, on first impressions it seemed pleasant. Surprisingly so.

All I really knew of Cairns – previous to this short exposure – was that it happens to be where many people set off on Great Barrier Reef adventures.

L-man, D-man and me were on a different kind of adventure, a road trip drive-by exploration that had already seen us cover some 2,000km from Ballina in New South Wales. Our destination was the Eclipse 2012 festival, a few hours inland from Cairns, our food was cheap camping cook-ups and our accommodation a couple of mismatched tents.

But on our first night in Cairns we called a friend and crashed his family holiday. So strong was the call of a shower and a social.

‘If we get caught’, he said as we skulked down the side of the holiday apartment building, ‘you guys are gonna have to pay up’.

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$8.50 breakfast + a proper coffee from next door = sorted stowaways

The next morning we breakfasted with two other stowaways at a hole in the wall offering $8.50 big breakfasts before wandering around the free public pool on the ocean’s edge. Ah, the irony. All that salty water so close, a forbidden territory of jellyfish deadliness, and you have to make do with a man-made structure and a dose of chlorine. But at least there is a man-made structure, I guess. The heat of the day was rising and even a paddle in the shallows of the pool brought some cool-down comfort.

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Lagoon on the ocean’s edge

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Heaps* of paddle space (*loads for non-Aussie speakers)

Before leaving the pool area I noticed a sign and I realised that if I didn’t dislike organised aerobics quite so much, Cairns would be a great place to live. Here in the park, every day, were free fitness sessions. No ‘I’m too poor’ excuses for anyone. Aussies and their mission to stay on top of health and fitness, bold and in full colour. Gotta love it. Or at least appreciate the intention.

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What’s your punishment? What’s your happiness?

So what were the tricks to keeping Cairns cheap? Dishonesty in terms of accommodation, grease in terms of nutrition, killer chemical in terms of health and fitness and keeping cool.

More realistically, though, we barely spent any time in Cairns – half a day – so of course it was easy to keep it cheap in this compact city centre.

Why this blog post focused on budget, who knows? The main thing I realised is that I like Cairns enough to go back, maybe to spend some time exploring it’s surface normality a little deeper (whilst not doing zumba classes). It was that kind of place, and it surprised me.

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