I was on my way. My first experience with Vietnam Airlines. Mmmm, not sure I’d recommend them. Departed Sydney at 10am, fed lunch around 12 (meal ok – typical aircraft food) then lights out and blinds down for the duration of the flight! No, I did not want to go to sleep straight after lunch, nor did I want to read by overhead artificial light! Their reasoning when I questioned them – some people want to sleep after their meal.
My reasoning – the crew could all sit in the galley and rest and do nothing. I felt like I was in a pre-school where we were all put down for a nap after lunch. Insulting!
Needless to say, a 7 hour layover at Ho Chi Minh City was not greeted with enthusiasm. I had already read reviews of this airport and its lack of facilities for long layovers. I located the only massage salon and treated myself to a neck, shoulder and back massage, followed by a green tea and relax in the recliner. That killed an hour. They let me use their wifi for free and gave me another cup of tea and sat me back down in their recliner for as long as I wished. I was grateful, as the airport doesn’t offer free wifi – another mark against them.
I eventually wandered down to the ‘lounge’ the airline had allocated to its passengers – just a restaurant, no lounge chairs anywhere – and used my ‘meal voucher’ for dinner. A pretty ordinary Asian chicken dish was provided from a list of uninspiring choices. No drink included, you had to buy your own.
I joined a young mum who had been on my flight – with a seven week old baby in a sling and a two year old toddler in tow – travelling alone. How brave she was! She was travelling on to London to visit her family, hubby had to stay behind so she was braving this mammoth journey on her own. Her toddler had been wonderful on the flight, but was now in that overtired mode and getting grizzly (weren’t we all?). I offered to look after the sleeping baby on a chair beside me, while she took little miss two to burn off some energy.
She was so grateful to be given a break, that she jumped at my offer. A big call – trusting a complete stranger with your newborn – but I think her instincts told her she had nothing to worry about. She let her toddler have a run around and returned within ten minutes. Baby Charlie woke for a feed, I had a nurse and minded him again while she set off to get Miss Two changed into her pyjamas. This seemed to work, and finally she gave in and fell asleep on a makeshift bed. Poor mum, such a big trip for her.
The next leg of my journey went without incident, and given that we departed at 11.30pm, I didn’t object to ‘lights out’ after dinner – I was ready for a sleep. Arrival at Frankfurt Airport however, didn’t happen without incident.
Travelling up the steep escalators to baggage claim, the frail little old Vietnamese lady who had sat beside me on my flight, was in front of me. Her carry on bag fell and knocked her backwards beside me. I pushed my right hand against her back to try and push her upright, but she just kept falling. Next thing, my legs have gone from under me, I’ve fallen backwards down a few steps, landed on my tailbone – and taken out the poor lady behind me, who then fell on to the person behind her.
It was like a pack of dominoes! All I was worried about was that this little old lady or I were going to get our hands caught in the escalator, but fortunately someone below us had the sense to stop the escalator. I checked the Vietnamese lady for any injury and she was fine, wandering off oblivious to the rest of us that had fallen. I however, was not that fine – my tailbone was hurting and I had managed to pull a muscle behind my (bad) knee. What a start to my travelling! And what an adrenalin rush I hadn’t anticipated!
If I hadn’t been involved in the incident, I would have found the whole thing amusing – it must have looked funny to anyone not involved!
Luggage collected and I headed off to the station for my train to Munich. This ‘budget flight’ I had booked proved to be false economy, as it did not fly to the cities I was to start and finish my journey. So extra transport costs had to be added on. Unfortunately, it was all I could afford at the time of booking. Lesson learnt.
Munich was an exciting city! I located my hotel within an easy walk from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), was given an upgrade to a double room as my single wasn’t ready, and showered and changed. I was pleased with the hotel – modern, spacious rooms, restaurants all around, and close to the station.
My daughter’s friend and her new love greeted me at the arranged time and we headed off to the local biergarten for a late lunch. Wow, what a great place! Shaded by beautiful plane trees, this huge park in the centre of the city was crowded with Bavarians all out enjoying the sunshine – and beer. Lots of men in lederhosen, women in dirndl’s and giant pots of beer made for a great atmosphere.
A quick ride on the metro trains took us to Marienplatz, the main square in Munich – home to beautiful historic buildings. We emerged from the underground onto the square and were greeted by thousands of people attending a gay pride demonstration. The square was jam packed with people from all persuasions, bands were playing, speakers giving their opinions, police everywhere.
We wove our way through the throngs to a number of beautiful churches and cathedrals around the square, then along the main shopping street and into Viktualienmarkt, an amazing food market that was obviously popular with the locals.
Back to the metro where I bid farewell to my friends and headed to my meeting place with the Diverbo team and fellow volunteers for an orientation dinner. Two enthusiastic organisers, a dozen excited ‘Anglos’ as we were called, good German food and a few wines made for an enjoyable evening.
Sunday morning I headed back to our meeting place from the night before, grabbed a quick coffee and joined the other Anglos on the coach for our five hour trip to Schwarzwald – the beautiful Black Forest region of Germany. Lot’s of ‘getting to know you’ conversations on the bus – we were all friends by the time we arrived. Some cute little towns passed by us – Hornberg, the closest to our destination was filled with cuckoo clock shops and alpine houses – very quaint.
Finally our chalet for the next six days appeared – it was beautiful! My room was fabulous, on the top floor with a balcony overlooking the most gorgeous valley between forests of pine trees, and red geraniums spilling over flower pots – picture perfect. I couldn’t have been happier!
Lunch was provided on arrival, three courses of delicious authentic German food and a glass of wine. If this first meal was anything to go by, we were in for a great week! The German guests gradually arrived one by one and by dinner time our introductions were made. What a nice bunch of people! Mostly business people, whose companies were providing this English Immersion course for them as part of their job requirements, they were excited and enthusiastic to meet us Anglos.
If I thought this volunteer programme I’d enrolled in was going to be a relaxing holiday, my illusions were quickly squashed. What a full on week it was! But all thoroughly enjoyable, and really well planned out by the team leader and co-ordinator. The only time any of us had to ourselves was an hour or so after lunch – we either made use of the pool and spa, or went to our rooms and crashed for an hour!
Our days went like this:
Breakfast; 3 x one on one sessions of 50 minute duration each (where we went for walks in the forest, sat around the pool, under a shady tree or on the terrace – and talked). And talked. And talked; participated in a group activity; lunch.
One hour free time; another 3 x one on one sessions; a group activity or presentation; dinner; entertainment by some of us; exhaustion and bed!
The group activities were a great way of getting people out of their comfort zone (me included), lots of team work, lateral thinking, participation. I volunteered to do a presentation of some sort (what was I thinking!), I ended up reading my ‘chook story’ to everyone. And everyone laughed – Germans do actually have a great sense of humour, they just choose not to display it.
Another group activity was acting out fairytales. We were divided into teams of four and chose a story. Ours was ‘Hansel and Gretel’ – no prizes for guessing what role I played!
I had another fall on day two. Walking along a forest trail with our Swiss student, I was fumbling for my phone to take a photo of wild Lupins and tripped over a protruding tree root. Stumbled about ten feet before falling on my knees – what is going on with me? I haven’t fallen over in decades, and now twice in three days!
As part of a group bonding evening around a campfire (complete with guitar), we were all made to sing a song exclusive to our country. Given that I was the only Australian and I don’t do solos no matter how drunk I am, I was allowed to team up with a Kiwi couple on their honeymoon. (Well, they were three months into a six month travelling honeymoon). They were amused when I told them that for some obscure reason, I knew all the words to Pokarekare Ana, a traditional Maori song. For reasons unknown to me, the school curriculum of my era saw fit to teach us Maori folk songs, and American Indian history – but not Aboriginal culture. Go figure!
The night kicked off with the lighting of the fire and a round (or two for some of us) of Jagermeister shots to loosen us up. So with Esther on guitar, we lead the singing with our beautiful rendition of this pretty love song, and set the tone for the night. The 4 or 5 English followed, the American contingent of 8 sang ‘Oh When The Saints Come Marching In’ and the Germans sang a traditional song, in German of course. Our one lone Swiss girl Edmee, a shy little sixteen year old, surprised us all with a solo Swiss folk song.
A singalong with our tour leader on guitar followed – he was pleasantly surprised at how many of us actually participated. As most of you know, I can’t help myself – if there’s a song to be sung, I’m in it! Just not solo! We enjoyed it so much, that eight of us decided to form a choir for our end of week performance, lead by yours truly (of course!) After much discussion, we settled on ‘Oh Shenendoah’, ‘Country Road’, ‘California Dreaming’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. Went down very well, and we had great fun.
Our week passed by so quickly, and we all became great friends. By the end of the programme, I was vowing not to speak to anyone for a week! We were all exhausted! And that was just the Anglos! The Germans must have been more exhausted, having to talk so much in a language that isn’t native to them.
A last night party was held, complete with disco lights, balloons, streamers, dj and bar staff. I danced till 1am when I just couldn’t dance anymore. What an amazing experience I’d had.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! Tiring yes, but extremely fulfilling and the bonus was I now have a whole new group of friends. I will look into participating in a Spanish programme in the future.
Our last morning was spent presenting certificates to the participants and us Anglos. We were presented with a nice bottle of German red wine by our German ‘buddy’, that we had been paired up with for the week. Nice gesture.
My ‘buddy’ gave me a lift to Hornberg railway station where I promptly missed my booked train thanks to the goodbyes dragging on for too long at the presentation. I had to spend another 44 euros for the next train, and stressed the whole journey to Stuttgart that I might miss my flight. I sadly had to dispose of the bottle of wine, as it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase and I couldn’t take it as hand luggage – so gave it to two young ladies who helped me out on the train. Better than handing it to airport staff at security, who must get more than their fair share of gifts.
I made my plane and headed off to stage two of my travels – London.