Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Is it over already?

Getting to the end of a year long trip abroad is not easy. Ok, I'm not exactly saying anything mind blowing there, but it is just starting to hit home now that soon I'll be back to the real world.

The World Cup is over, I've just entered the last country on my journey and in a week and a half I get on that flight back to Australia.

While I'm looking forward to the first week of being home - seeing friends and family and doing all of the things that you miss while on the road - that feeling is sure to last only until I start getting back into routine. 

First will come job hunting, following closely by house hunting and then paying rent and bills and the 9-to-5 routine where you spend your weekend wishing Monday would never come. For the last year Monday has been exactly the same as any other day. A day where I can do anything I want. 

I am still enjoying my last few weeks it must be said, but I do have an eye on the trip home which is in just ten days. I've been making the most of the tail end by trying to enjoy as much good food and wine, and experience some different things, while also trying to relax as much as possible, because I know it will be a long time before I will be able to leave Australia again - and certainly never again be able to do a trip like I have in the last 12 months. 

There are some things I am looking forward to at home of course. Here's a list of some of the things I'm genuinely looking forward to once I get back to Melbourne.

Friends & Family
This one may be obvious, but this is the hardest thing to leave behind when you leave the country for an extended time. I've been fortunate enough to meet up with friends (and even some family) all over the globe on this trip and that has created some of the highlights. But there's nothing quite like having the bulk of your loved ones live a short drive away for those random catch ups family get-togethers. Skype just doesn't quite cut it.

My Mexican family

Being able to just hang out with people who you know and that know you is also a big plus. While travelling, you'll find new friends, but each time you do you'll find yourself having to give an abridged autobiography. Where are you from? What do you do? Where have you been? Where are you going? How long for? Where has been the best place? There are days when this conversation can be had dozens of times and it can get a little exhausting. Back home those conversations are much rarer and you can just get on with hanging out. 

Food & Drink
I've had some great food on this trip (the extra baggage I'll be carrying upon return will be proof of that) from curry in India, steak in Argentina, tacos in Mexico and bbq in Brazil, I've been enjoying as much of the gastronomic delights of the many countries I've visited as possible. Having said that, there are always going to be things that I'll look forward to eating and drinking once i get home that you just cant get on the road (or at least not the same). For me it is going to be; meat pies, dim sims, chicken parmigiana, Farmers Union Iced coffee, steak, Vegemite, Coopers beer, BBQ Shapes, Twisties, Yarra Valley wines, my mum's home cooking and my friend's cupcakes (you know who you are!). 

Milenesa Napolitana in Argentina - pretty much a parma

Coffee
I could just as easily have put this in with the food and drink, but for me it is even bigger than that. Being a typical Melbourne coffee snob, travelling the world can be a bit of a struggle in terms of finding some good coffee. You find yourself asking every other person you meet if they managed to find a decent brew before inevitably settling for some brown water that passes for coffee in most countries. 

Cafe in Valparaiso, Chile with a very enticing name

Interestingly, this last part of my trip has been one of the best legs in terms of coffee. Buenos Aires in Argentina certainly has a great cafe culture that feels very Melbourne like, and with some hunting you can find some good coffee. What I'm looking forward to though, is being able to visit any corner and finding a delicious cup of wake up juice.

Not being a tourist
While travelling is still without a doubt my favourite thing in the world, there are times when you need a break from it. You're constantly trying to make sure you're maximising your time in any place because you'll "never be back there again" and this can lead to wearing yourself out a bit. The other part of this that can get a bit exhausting is not knowing what is going on half the time. Turning up at an attraction, a bus stop or a restaurant and not knowing the local rules on purchasing (or even what it is you're supposed to purchase) can be tough. There is something to be said for hanging out at your local bar and knowing exactly what is good there and how to get everything done as easily as possible - also without any language barrier.

Local Sport
This has obviously been a great trip for the sports junkie in me. Not only did I attend the World Cup, but I went to NFL, NHL and NBA games in the US & Canada and visited several other important stadiums in many of the countries I visited.

One happy sports junkie

I am, however, very much looking forward to getting home and seeing some of the sport that I grew up with. I've missed almost all of the AFL season (some will say as a Saints fan that is a blessing) but I'm lucky enough to be getting back to Melbourne in time to see the farewell tribute match for one of the clubs greats, Lenny Hayes, which I'm pretty stoked about. 

The other club I grew up watching though, the Melbourne Tigers (Australian basketball) has ceased to exist since I've been away (due to short sighted owners) which is all kinds of devastating. While I cant see myself supporting the new entity, being a big fan of Australian basketball I look forward to still supporting the league and the local talent.

With the Asian Cup due to take place in Australia later in the year too, it will be a good chance for our country to get behind the Socceroos as they chase some serious silverware for the first time ever. Hopefully that will help being back some of the amazing feeling that I (and the other Aussies) felt watching our boys in Brazil. 

Unpacking
A year on the road involves carrying your life on your back. I'm looking forward to finally unpacking my backpack and having the choice of more than seven shirts or two pairs of shoes. I'm not usually a big fan of "stuff" but having access to everything I own again, rather than just what I can carry is looking pretty enticing right now. 

Going Home
Finally, in a week where almost 300 people perished on flight MH17 (many taking their own trip of a lifetime) I look forward to getting home to all of my family and friends and the comforts of home. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

So what now?

After the high of being in Brazil for the group stage of the FIFA World Cup, the last week spent in Buenos Aires and Montevideo has very much been at a slower pace.

With my whole trip based around being in Brazil to cheer on the boys in Green and Gold (Australia, not Brazil) and with just one month left on my trip, I was a bit worried that I'd be a bit "over" the travelling by now. While it is definitely true my journey has peaked (you can't really top watching the biggest event in the world in the country that not only loves it more than anyone else, but has a well deserved reputation for being able to party) my trip is far from over.

For a start, the World Cup is still on, and fortunately enough for me, the country I'm in at the moment, Argentina, has a very good shot at winning it. That means that World Cup fever is alive and well, so while I may no longer be in the host country, I am still feeling very much a part of it. You can't go ten feet anywhere in this country without seeing Messi's face on a billboard, statue or packet of chips. You see his famous jersey everywhere you go too, on men, women children and also dogs.

Argentina fans in Plaza San Martin ahead of the clash with Switzerland

The people here are convinced their team has enough to get it done and with the chance of a nationwide party, I'm hoping they at least make the final - a sentiment I wasn't able to express while I was in Brazil.

All four teams left in the cup have a good chance of winning. I definitely feel for the people of Brazil with their superstar, Neymar, out with a cruel injury. The chance to play for the World Cup on home soil is a once in a lifetime opportunity (if you're lucky) and it has to hurt him to not be able to get out there. The Brazilian fans were such great hosts while I was in their country, so I'm hoping they at least make it to the final game.

Messi is EVERYWHERE

Meanwhile, the progress of Holland to the final four proves Australia were without a doubt going toe to toe with a world class team. To date nobody has bettered the two goals that Australia scored against the Dutch in the group stage.

While I'm favouring the two South American teams in the semi finals, I'm genuinely just hoping for two good, clean and fair matches. It would just be a bonus if diving superstar Arjen Robben were sent home.

Messi statue in the "La Boca" neighborhood

Aside from the World Cup though, I've easily stepped back into regular backpacker mode. Buenos Aires and Montevideo are two beautiful cities with a lot of history and culture and its been great exploring these cities and finding some fun outside of football for the first time in a while.

Anyone who knows me, or has read this blog will know I'm a big fan of trying the local food while travelling. While the food in Mexico was among the best I've ever had, the rest of Latin America failed to live up to this level. There were some good dishes here and there, but for the most part, it was endless rice and beans until I got to Brazil and was treated to the delights of their form of barbecue. Definitely a highlight.

Argentina though, is known the world over for two things - red wine (specifically, Malbec) and beef. These two, aside from going together so well, are among my favourite things to consume, so of course I've taken full advantage of my surroundings. The good news is it lived up to all expectations.

Steak and red wine in Buenos Aires

So while it may seem as though there is not much left of my trip, I've still found plenty to enjoy after my time in Brazil came to an end.

Of course, there are three more games to go to round out the World Cup, and on those days, I'll be right back in to football fan mode. Just maybe with a nice steak. 

Friday, 27 June 2014

10 Things I Learned in Brazil at the World Cup

As I leave Brazil its time to reflect on the four weeks I've had in the country enjoying the people, the culture and the biggest sporting event in the world.

1. Brazilians know how to barbecue
Forget telling your mates to turn up to your house with a few snags and hamburgers, the Brazilians have thing thing down to a fine art. Hiring a specialty barbecue chef for the party, they'll have food coming off the grill all day long ranging from all kinds of skewered meats, including a few (like chicken hearts) that are a little odd. If you're ever in Brazil and get invited to a barbecue make it your first priority.

Brazilians know what they're doing with this thing

2. Brazilians like their beer cold
No, really cold. They don't even seem to care what kind of beer it is (mostly really light lagers) but if its not virtually frozen they'll send it back. It'll usually come served to the table in a large bottle with its own cooler, which you then pour into tiny glasses so as to keep it cold as long as possible. I can only imagine what they must thing when they go to the UK.

3. Tim Cahill is the greatest Socceroo of all time
This has to be a bit of a no brainer, but with five goals in three tournaments now - along with countless other heroics while wearing the green and gold - he has given his best performances when on national team duty. Hopefully he goes on to play for us for a few more years yet, but whatever the case, he's certainly proved his credentials to be regarded as the best ever.

Tim Cahill

4. Brazilian people are crazy friendly.
Look, I know I've said this about several other countries now (Burma, Mexico, Colombia) but the Brazilians have to go close to topping the list. It could well be that the celebration of the World Cup has brought out the best in the locals, but its hard to see how they're not this friendly all of the time. They're just great people. You couldn't go a moment without a local coming up and introducing themselves, offering advice, or wanting to join you for a drink. They're exceptionally warm, generous and I was lucky to meet countless great locals throughout my stay



5. Travelling Aussies are as bad as ever. 
Yeah I know I'm one and probably no exception, but it has to be said, the only negative experiences I had in four weeks of Brazil during the World Cup were caused by Aussies. I'm not in the "avoid other Aussies at all cost" camp of travellers, but nor am I in the "Australia is the greatest country on earth" cheer squad (usually spouted by people  who've been to very few other countries). 

Generally it was a combination of booze and boys hanging out in large groups thinking they could do or say anything in a developing country, but it was truly disappointing to see so many of these guys representing my country.

That isn't to say that is representative of the Aussie fans in Brazil as a whole. Far from it. The overwhelming majority of my country men and women I encountered were doing us proud, it is just a shame when a few bad eggs spoil it for everyone. 

6. This wont be my last World Cup
While the prospects of me going to Russia or Qatar are pretty slim, I'd like to think I'll get to another World Cup sometime in the future. Ideally, I'd love Australia to be able to host so that I could attempt to be as good of a host as so many of the Brazilians have been (difficult job!) and with any luck, something happens with the 2022 World Cup.

I want a chance to support our boys on the big stage again

7. Australia needs better chants/songs
Arriving in Cuiaba ahead of the first game one thing was perfectly clear - the Chileans had much better chants, cheers and songs to sing for their team. Never mind the fact they had us outnumbered about three to one. I'm not sure what it is with Australian sports fans, but we've never really been much for the singing and chanting, and when we get to a big stage like this it becomes obvious.

I'm sending out a challenge to anybody with more creative and musical ability than me (really low bar) to rectify this for the next world cup. We've got four years to think of some chants or songs, or even re working some Aussie classics so that they work in the football song environment. I'm thinking someone can do something with the Hunters & Collectors classic Holy Grail or John Farnhams, You're the Voice.

I'm setting you this challenge Australia!

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Chilean fans in full voice

8. Brazilians can dance - but I can't
Ok, admittedly I knew the latter already, but Brazilians really like to hit the dance floor. Whether it's samba or some cheesy "country" song with its own dedicated dance routine, you cannot stop a Brazilian from getting out there and shaking it.

9. Anyone can be Brazilian
More so than any other country in the region, Brazil has such a wide mix of cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities that literally (and I'm using this word properly) can look pass for being Brazilian. Part of what makes Brazil such a great place to visit is the diversity of backgrounds and the completely different feel from one city to the next. Walking down the street its virtually impossible to pick who is Brazilian and who is a foreigner - even for the locals.

That is, of course, until we open our mouths. While Portuguese may look on paper, a lot like Spanish, when it is spoken it sounds more like Russian. My feeble attempts at speaking the local language made it instantly clear to anyone I was talking to that I was a foreigner. Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Rio is just one of many place to visit in Brazil

10. I have to go back
I loved my four weeks in Brazil, but it just wasn't enough. You could easily spend that time just in Rio and still feel there was more to see. Brazil is a very big country and there are so many other cities, like Recife, Salvador, Brasilia and Manaus that I didn't get a chance to see. If these places, and others are as diverse and interesting as the cities I did get to visit, coming back to the country that has treated me so well is merely a matter of when, not if.

 While I'll be in no position financially to commit to any travel in the forseable future, with Rio hosting the 2016 Olympic Games, it would seem like the perfect opportunity to combine another Long Road to Rio with seeing more of this beautiful country.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Socceroos: A Work of Art

While travelling through Brazil watching the Socceroos at the FIFA World Cup, I've tried to make a point of seeing more of each city hosting games than just the inside of stadiums and bars.

Arriving in Curitiba a few days before Australia's last match of the tournament against soon to be former world champions Spain, I looked around for some sights. Curitiba, like its neighbor to the south Porto Alegre, fancies itself as more of a European city with more culture and sophistication than many of the other cities in the country. As such it has a well known museum, the Oscar Niemeyer Museum, which focuses largely on modern visual arts.

The Oscar Niemeyer Museum

I'll be the first to tell you that I don't really understand modern art. All too often it is a splash of colours on a canvas, or a series of seemingly bland objects stuck together. I'm sure there's some reason for it all, and that it takes great talent to express yourself in such a way, but I just don't get it. This museum was no different. Aside from the building itself (shaped like an eye) there really wasn't anything there that I was terribly impressed with. I walked around really struggling to understand just why people bother.

It seems that, while I struggle to understand modern art, some people back home are struggling to understand why me and many thousands of my travelling compatriots are proud of what our Socceroos have done on the pitch in this World Cup. I've read musings from some commentators and many armchair experts suggesting that Australia did exactly what was expected of them - lose all three games - so what do we have to be proud of? Others suggest Australia even turning up to the event is pointless.

I don't understand what this piece is supposed to be saying, but at least it has Brazil colours

Many of these people aren't fans of the team (or the sport) to begin with, so their negative attitudes towards the side aren't that surprising. Most Australians grow up watching a sport that only we play (Aussie Rules Footy) or that we do well in, but have very few competitors globally (Rugby, Cricket, Netball, Swimming). When it comes to world events, we're used to being a chance of winning the whole thing, so when it comes to a sport that everyone in the world takes seriously, they struggle to understand that winning cant be the only goal every time.

The way Australia has played has given those of us fortunate enough to attend matches (and those watching in the middle of the night) numerous rewards for our support. Our first two encounters, against Chile and Holland saw Australia give their much more fancied opponents everything they could handle. For large periods in each game it not only looked possible that we would get something out of the matches, but likely. In the end, in both games, the quality of the opposition won out.

Bresciano and the boys soaking up the applause of the Aussie crowd

It was not through lack of effort though and the boys gave us more than we could realistically have hope for given the difference in squads. The fact that we left the games feeling we'd let chances slip, shows just how close we were.

The one thing the Socceroos managed to do was give us belief. While the results inevitably went against us, there was a belief that we were genuinely in this games - something that was lacking before the matches kicked off.

When we eventually played Spain there was a bit of a let down. With Cahill out through suspension and Bresciano limited in minutes, Australia lacked any real shape or attacking options and eventually went down 3-0 to a side worth hundreds of millions of dollars. While once again the boys gave everything, there was very little to get the Aussie fans excited. And there's more proof that the Aussies had exceeded expectation at the tournament - they'd actually raised our level of expectation that we could compete even given our limitations.

Aussie fans celebrating in the streets after the loss to Spain

Some people may not understand or see the positives in a loss. Winning will always be the only thing that matters to many, but I think this group of green and gold wearing Aussies have shown that its also about how you play, not just how well you play.

In this situation, beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, and who knows, this may mean I now understand modern art. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Aussies hot in cold Porto Alegre

If you ask any Brazilian their thoughts on the southern city of Porto Alegre and they'll generally all say the same thing: it's cold. While they'll tell you the city is nice, the people aren't as friendly as those in the rest of the country, especially the north. The only thing colder than the people they'll insist, is the weather.

Arriving in the city a couple of days ahead of the Socceroos clash against Holland, it was clear they were right about one thing - the weather is certainly much colder than our previous host city of Cuiaba. While they temperatures may be cold, the people are anything but, with thousands joining in street parties and the procession to the stadium on game day along with the hordes of travelling Aussie and Dutch supporters.

Yeah, I was there!

Porto Alegre certainly does feel different from any other city I've been to in Brazil (or other parts of South America) and with its cold wintry weather, park lined river and plenty of trendy night spots, it almost felt like being back home.

That feeling carried over to game day, where Aussies turned out in their thousands to support our boys. In Cuiaba we were completely outmatched by the fans of Chile (both in number and in voice) but against Holland we were able to match the travelling orange army in number and (I believe) better them vocally. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say it actually felt like a home game.

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When the Socceroos gave up a goal early to the talented but sneaky Arjen Robben, many in our crowd feared we could be in for the sort of punishment the Dutch dished out to the Spanish in the opening game. If they could put five goals past the reigning world champs, what were they going to do to us?

All those fears were quickly swept aside just seconds later when who else but Tim Cahill scored one of the best goals of the tournament so far, volleying a great cross in to the back of the net. Cahill, who is normally known for using his head, showed he's just as talented with the ball at his feet and has ben applauded across the globe for his wonder strike.

With fellow Aussie fans

Australia was back in the contest and the fans were in full voice. As the game continued Australia stood strong. Not only were we competing, we were a real chance here and everybody knew it. Early in the second half this game was still up for grabs and those of us in the stands were dreaming whether we could in fact grab the chance to go ahead - and then we did. A Dutch penalty led to Aussie Captain Mile Jedinak calmly slotting home a penalty and putting the Socceroos ahead 2-1, and sending the Aussie crowd into hysterics.

Unfortunately that wouldn't last very long. Like with Holland's first goal which Australia answered almost immediately, the Dutch were able to get back to level almost immediately, and at 2-2 this game was back up for grabs. When Holland scored again to put them up 3-2 moments after the Socceroos squandered a chance of their own at the other end, Australia had ran out of gas. With Cahill and Bresciano already on the bench after giving everything they had, the young side battled hard to get back to level in the dying minutes, but were unable to do so and once again fell short.

While disappointed, the masses of Aussies in the stands let our boys know how much we appreciated their efforts. The applause received by the vanquished side as they completed their lap of honour was every bit as equal as those given for the victorious Dutch who had booked their ticket to the next round.

Super Timmy Cahill

The biggest applause was saved once again for Tim Cahill. As I wrote about last week, Cahill has to now be considered the greatest player ever to wear the green and gold. The way he gives 100% every time he puts on that Socceroos jersey and not only competes but delivers time after time is unparalleled. Cahill, who was the last Aussie on the park was clearly soaking up every moment. A yellow card in the first half (along with a terrible refereeing decision which gave him one in the opening game) means he wont be able to play in Australia's final match against Spain. Cahill, a man who has given everything for his country will have to watch while Australia battles for its first points of the tournament. It also means we've seen the last of Cahill at the World Cup, an event he's scored at three consecutive times and shown just how good football in Australia can be.

Hopefully he can be convinced to play for Australia at least one more time - at the Asian Cup in Australia in January 2015. While the crowd may have felt like a home crowd at times, I can think of no better for Cahill to finish of his national team career than chasing some silverware in front of his actual home fans.

Aussie fans getting behind the Socceroos

For now I'm off to Curitiba to see Australia play its third and final game against Spain. The people of Brazil have told me similar things about Curitiba as they did about Porto Alegre.

So I'm sure that means I'm gonna have a great time.

Go Socceroos!


Saturday, 14 June 2014

There's only one Timmy Cahill....unfortunately

I'm not sure if I've ever been more nervous before a game in my life. Any Aussie, if they're being honest, would tell you they were nervous too. Lining up against Chile with a team of mostly unknowns and a few aging veterans, nobody gave the Socceroos a chance of getting anything out of this game. 

When Australia found itself down 2-0 after just 15 minutes, if seemed all of our worst fears were going to come true. 

Ready for kick off!

But then it happened. After desperately hanging on to not go further down for the next five minutes, Australia started to get on top. The young team started to find some poise and then they found something else - Tim Cahill's head.

There was no hiding what Australia was trying to do, but as he's done time and time again when he wears the green and gold, Tim Cahill delivered. His goal late in the first half means that he's now scored in three straight World Cups, and along with recently becoming the Socceroos leading all time goal scorer, I think it's clear he can be considered the greatest ever to pull on the jersey. 

This Aussie team did us all proud

The Socceroos kept going back to the well in the second half, and for a time it looked like they were going to get the equalizer, when Cahill again hit the back of the net, before being waved off for offside. In the end, while Australia were clearly the better team in the second half, they couldn't take advantage of their opportunities, and Chile's goal in injury time sealed the deal.

While we may not have won the match, the way Australia fought back after going down two goals so early is certainly something every Aussie can be proud of. This young group (with a sprinkling of veterans) will learn from the experience and hopefully rebound. 

Off the field, the experience couldn't have been much better. While the Chilean fans had us outnumbered at least two-to-one, the banter was generally very friendly, and helped make for a fantastic atmosphere. 

The people of Cuiaba are incredibly friendly

The locals of Cuiaba were also keen to get involved, many attending the game and then inviting us to party with them afterwards. The streets of praca popular were filled with people celebrating a good game and a great night. 

Today as we wake up and shook off our hangovers, we look forward to the next challenge, a red hot Holland team in Porto Alegre on the 18th. If Australia can play with the same assertiveness they did after the first 15 minutes, then we should be able to compete. 

The game plan wont change though - get it to Timmy's head! 

Friday, 13 June 2014

Game Day!

It's finally here!

Today Australia take on Chile in their match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and I'm not afraid to say, I'm pretty damn excited!

Arriving in Cuiaba several days ago it was clear that the fans from Chile have us well outnumbered and they're very, very vocal about it. Walking around the streets you get swallowed in a sea of red shirts. If you're not among them though, you certainly hear them, with their various chants echoing around all corners of the city.

Fan Fest!

Watching the opening match - Brazil V Croatia - at the FIFA Fan Fest was a great way to kick off the tournament, with fans of both Australia and Chile as well as thousands of locals turning out to see Brazil shake off some rust and eventually win 3-1. The locals present were very passionate about their team, and when Brazil gave up the first goal - an own goal no less - that passion may not necessarily have been a good thing. Luckily, through some Neymar magic and overall quality, Brazil was able to turn things around and the place turned into one giant party.

Hanging with some locals

While the banter was friendly between the Aussies and Chileans, the rivalry had already started. The game was 24 hours away, but we kicked off the competition by competing for the hearts and minds of the locals. I'll give the Chileans their dues, they have better chants than us (Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi just doesn't cut it) but I think we were more popular in the end.

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Fan reaction after Neymar's penalty

Today though, its all about the game. Few people give the Socceroos a chance of winning this game (fewer still give us a chance of winning the other two group games) and many believe we'll actually go the entire tournament without a goal. 

Its definitely true that this team will have its struggles in front of goal, but I think the Australians can learn from the Croatians. Nobody gave them much of a chance against Brazil, but by being aggressive and taking the game to the hosts, they were able to force a mistake.

Arena Pantanal, where the match will be tonight

Australia's attacking options have certainly been limited with injuries preventing guys like Josh Kennedy, Tommy Rogic and Robbie Kruse from making the squad, but with leaders like Tim Cahill and Marco Bresciano as well as the quiet talent of Mile Jedinak, this side has some top class talent, albeit a bit thin on.

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Chilean fans at the Fan Fest

Whatever happens tonight, there are thousands of Aussies who will be alongside me in the stadium cheering on the Socceroos and hopefully watching them give their best.