There’s no place like home (actual verified fact).

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The flight home could not go fast enough. I had to change in Abu Dhabi and once I got my bum on the seat of the final plane, I lost the ability to contain my excitement. I basically twitched for the entire flight. The time went FAR too slowly so when landing time finally rolled around, I was like a bouncy ball under the seat belt. As London scrolled by beneath me, I had no idea what to make of my feelings. I wanted to cry with relief, joy and sadness all at once. I was incredibly happy to be home but equally, sad to have ended an adventure and left Melbourne.

As I got off the plane into the freezing cold, it registered that I was finally home. I saw drizzle on the windows of the airport and heard that there was a tube strike on so getting to the East End of London was going to be a right royal pain int he arse. Definitely home. Overwhelmingly happy.

 

There’s a first time for everything!

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For the first time in my life I can say that I was genuinely, 100% unthinkingly impulsive. “What is this madness?!” you say? Let me dive right in.

I’d been preparing to leave Australia and continue my adventure in North America. I had hostels booked in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. My train and flights were locked in, as was an Alcatraz tour. I was ready to rock.

I’d closed my bank accounts, lodged my tax return and made the necessary enquiries with regard to claiming back superannuation in Australia.

When it came to packing, everything got a bit real. It hit home that I would be on the move again as I decanted my washing powder into a zip lock bag. That’s when I started to think about sharing a room with up to 7 other people, about queueing for washing machines. About standing in a flooded shower tray because I refused to pick out someone else’s hair from the plug hole and finally about having to wash up before being able to cook anything and then washing up again afterwards because I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave it. That’s when it all started to get real.

The day came and I dragged my sorry self to the airport. With every stop the bus made, I had felt less and less excited and more apprehensive. Not the excited kind of apprehension you expect but instead a kind of creeping doom. I genuinely felt like getting onto a plane anywhere that wasn’t London just wasn’t going to cut it. This feeling intensified as my check in time got closer.

It was check in minus 10 minutes and I was fantasising about reasons not to go to the USA and to go home instead. That’s when it hit me. Surely, just wanting to go home was a good enough reason to do it? I decided immediately that it was and marched myself to the Virgin Australia ticket desk.

During the march I decided to pay no more than $1200AUD to get home. I waited in a most un-British and impatient manner whilst the lady tapped away checking flight availability. In my head, all I could hear, was my plaintiff request to the universe ‘Please be less than 1200 bucks’ repeating over and over and over. Finally she finished on the computer and said “Oh, well with airport taxes it comes to $1150. Is that alright? It’s a fair cost for that flight”. By the time she’d finished her spiel I was in tears and thrusting my cash and credit card at her. Bless her. She was ever so worried and kept asking if I was alright but all I could do was nod, smile through my bawling and say “I’m bloody brilliant. I’m going home!”.

And that is the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done. Fact.

And now for something completely different

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As January drew to a close, it was time to begin sorting out my stuff in Australia and getting ready to continue my adventure in the US of A.

I investigated which travel money card gave the best value. As it turned out, the Comm Bank card is incredibly competitive. I already banked with Comm Bank and getting the travel money card was so easy it made my head spin. I sat down with a nice chap at the branch and, 20 minutes later, left a happy girl. I’d been sorted out with the travel money card for just $15 which is the card purchase fee. Your initial money load onto the card is free of charge. Any additional money top ups have a fee equivalent to 1% of the load amount i.e. load $1000, pay $10 fee. I’d put everything in my savings and current accounts onto the travel money card as you can swipe it in shops just like a normal Mastercard without incurring a fee.

The exchange rate is set at the time you transfer money into that particular currency. If you put 100AUD into USD when the exchange rate is 1:1, your 100AUD becomes 100USD. However, if the next day the exchange rate for AUD:USD changes to 1:2, tough luck, your USD balance won’t increase to reflect the exchange rate. This is both good and bad. It’s good because there’s no unexplained changes to available funds but, it’s bad if you’re unlucky with the exchange rate. Try and choose your time to transfer between currencies wisely.

I’d set the currencies I wanted (USD and GBP for me) and allocated the funds accordingly. Easy as that. They even give you a spare card so, should you lose one, you have another one ready to go. Once you’ve got the cards, you can register for the online services with the cards. You can add currencies, load more money, move money between currencies, view transactions and see balances available for all currencies supported on the card. The online site really is very good and so easy to use. Overall, I’m very impressed.

Something else I needed to do was claim my tax back. As expected, the level of red tape and forms to complete is staggering. I went down to the taxation office branch in Melbourne to fill mine out and I’m pleased I did. I completed the form wrong multiple times but filling it out in branch meant that a member of staff was able to check it over for me. If you’re doing it at home and don’t realise you’ve missed a signature somewhere, it’s going to be a long process to correct the claim once you’re overseas.

You will need the ABN for your employer, amount earned and tax paid for each job you’ve had in Australia. These should all be available on your payslips. My payslips had ‘year to date’ totals on them so saved me some adding up which I appreciated.

Definitely make time to fill in the form in person at an office before you leave. You can do it at Melbourne Tullamarine but the queues at the desk are disgusting and if you need any extra information, it’s all been left a little late by that point.

They like to pay tax back into an Australian account so think about leaving an account open in Oz. I did and intend to load the refunded tax onto my travel money card before I close my final Comm bank account (the 1% load fee is cheaper than an international money transfer).

Another thing to consider is claiming back Superannuation that has been paid. I consolidated my super into a single fund before I left so that I only have one company to pester. However, you cannot claim your Superannuation back until your visa expires. This means I need to wait until August 2014 to put in my claim. I’ll have to report back on the bureaucracy associated with that.

So, I’d wrapped up the administration of leaving Australia. All that was left to do was get to the airport and fly away.

I took public transport to the airport as it’s much cheaper than the Skybus. It’ll only cost you about $7 on the train/bus but the Skybus is about $18. Just make sure you have enough money on your Myki. I got the train to Broadmeadows then took the 902 bus to the airport. It’s slower than the Skybus but I didn’t care. I had loads of time to spare so saved myself some money.

Once at the airport, I decided I didn’t want to go to the USA anymore and bought a ticket back to London Heathrow instead. That’s another story though……

Australia never knew what hit it

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When I first floated the idea of staying in Australia for a few months, one of the things I did was ask friends and family if they would visit. My eldest sister said her brood would make the trip over if I had somewhere for them to stay and acted as tour guide. Needless to say, the promise was kept and they joined me in Melbourne for 10 short days. Here, I will chronicle what we got up to over Christmas and New Year 2013/2014.

The first thing was transport. I am happy as a frog in a pond using public transport for everything but that’s not practical with four people. Instead of trying to deal with public transport for the whole trip, I decided hiring a car would be the best idea. I managed to secure a fairly reasonable deal through vroomvroomvroom.com.au with Hertz rental in the CBD. We rented a very nice Toyota Corolla which served us well in our adventures (as you’ll read). The reservation and collection procedures were fuss free and I would recommend Hertz as a hire company.

The flight my family were on got delayed about an hour so I drove down to the viewing spot past Tullamarine (to the north) and see if I could watch their plane land. Thanks to a very clever flight tracking website (which told me when they were descending to landing altitude), I did see it . Unfortunately the plane was quite a long way away so, I knew it was them but, couldn’t get a decent photo.

I’d been determined to have a proper ‘Hollywood’ type welcome for them so I’d dutifully made a sign to hold above my head as I craned my neck trying to spot them.

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There were obligatory hugs and tears between sisters at the airport. The male relatives just rolled their eyes and carried on as normal with a nod and “Alright? Nice to see ya”.

We had a hectic schedule for the first few days and we launched right into task number one but it’s not what you’d expect.

The first thing my family did on holiday was go to the dentists. My brother in law (BiL from now on) had managed to pull the cap off his tooth whilst in the airport. That means we had to find an emergency dentist willing to reattach it very early in the morning. Luckily, such a dentist existed and we were met at Elsternwick Family Dentists at 7am. Long story short, glue got applied  and we left for the Great Ocean Road on time.

Our first activity on the Great Ocean Road was surfing. As I’m British, and a fraidy cat, I’d never surfed before in any way, shape or form but it was on the bucket list. I did preliminary research and ended up booking a 2 hour session with Great Ocean Road Surf Tours based in Torquay.

We met at the shop in Torquay on time an were dutifully sorted with wet suits and boards. We then followed the main van to Urquharts Bluff which is where we did our session. We were given an instructional demonstration and safety briefing by the instructors  and then waded in. I was hopeless for many reasons. Firstly, I am ridiculously unfit and surfing is hard. You’re constantly battered by the waves and fighting against the current. I got tired very quickly. Secondly, I kept getting mouthfuls of salt water. This is one of the single most unpleasant thing you can get in your mouth (*chortle chortle*) and I seemed determined to drink the entire ocean. Thirdly, contact lenses do not like salt water. Fourthly, I have no sense of balance or general coordination. BiL was far better than me and managed to actually stand on the board a few times. My ‘standing’ bit were more vertical sections of a fall in progress. Very embarrassing but excellent fun. Here’s an action shot where you can’t tell how shocking I was.

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From Torquay we headed along to Apollo Bay which is were we would rest our heads for the evening. We stayed at Otway lodge in their ‘family’ room. basically the family room was a dorm for the exclusive use of 1 group. We paid $160 for 3 adults and 1 child with breakfast included. I think that’s pretty jolly reasonable. The place was clean, there was parking for the car and the brekkie spread was actually fairly admirable. My only criticism was of the blinds over the windows. They let every single ray of light into the room which is not ideal. Overall, I’d stay there again.

We spent the evening BBQing dinner on the public BBQs along Apollo Bay main street before collapsing into bed. We had an early start.

The next morning, we were scheduled to do impressive amounts of wildlife spotting. We headed to Grey River Road near Kennett River to spot koalas, wallabies and kangaroos. We were not disappointed!

The first successful koala spot was made by my nephew. What you’re looking for when hunting wild koalas is a furry, round, grey bottom. I’m not joking. Look for a fuzzy , football shaped grey lump in the trees and you’ll see a koala on Grey River Road. As they are nocturnal, we went very early in the morning hoping to catch them just as they headed to bed for the day. We weren’t disappointed. We saw numerous sleeping koalas, a couple of awake but immobile ones and finally, the cutest of the cute, a very active Mum and baby. AWWWWWWWWWWW! You can just see them up in the branches of the tree here.

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As you drive along Grey River Road, there’s heaps more wildlife around the place. You’ll see colourful birds, creepy crawlies and, if you’re luck, wallabies and knagaroos. It’s pretty hard to get pictures of them though because they’re fairly skittish. We saw far more wallabies than kangaroos. The way to tell them apart is this: Kangaroos have pointy ears, wallabies have round ears. Here is a wallaby who hung around long enough for a picture.

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Grey River Road does get a bit hairy to drive on further along it so I wouldn’t do the whole road unless you’re in a decent car. I was very worried in the Corolla but needn’t have been. The car was fine, I swore a little bit though.

After the wildlife, we headed to the Cape Otway lighthouse. There are more koalas to see along the road to the lighthouse too but Grey River Road is better.

Last time I did the Great ocean Road, the lighthouse was closed because it was the off season. This time though it was open so we paid up and headed in. It’s $18.50 per adult and $7.50 for the kiddies. Overall, I think it’s worth it because there’s a fair bit to see in the grounds. You have the old telegraph station, a cafe, a war time bunker and some tall poles which were transmitters for something, maybe? Obviously the main attraction is the lighthouse because it’s beautiful.

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We headed up the lighthouse and enjoyed the spectacular view from the top. Simply stunning:

View from cape Otway Lighthouse

We wandered around the grounds and enjoyed the information on offer from both static exhibits and also the guides in the complex. It’s a really lovely place to just relax so we decided to have lunch at the cafe there. It was very delicious but the gold star for that day;s cuisine goes to the millionaires shortbread (a.k.a. caramel slice) we shared. My goodness, it was the best one I’ve had in a long time. Most places in Australia pack the biscuit base with coconut which is a crime against food really as it should be a shortbread base and there’s no coconut in shortbread my dears. This one didn’t though. It was gloriously coconut free and all the tastier for it. Go and eat one if you’re at the lighthouse.

An interesting thing about Cape Otway is that dinosaur bones have recently been discovered there. The old telegraph station houses a small exhibit about the fossils and types of dinosaurs which have been linked to the coast and it’s very interesting. What we liked best though was the ingenious graffiti on the wildlife sign.

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We did do other things on the Great Ocean Road but I blogged about them in my other entry so I’m not going to retread old ground. If you want to know about the 12 apostles or other attractions then please do look up my older blog entry.

We got back to Melbourne from the Great ocean road at about 8 o’clock on Christmas eve. There was a quick trip to the supermarket for essentials and then straight to bed as Christmas day had a packed schedule too.

Melbourne zoo is open every single day of the year and it’s where we chose to go on Christmas day. I had pre-bought tickets online and, as a result, we breezed past the substantial line of people queuing and straight into the zoo. I cannot recommend enough buying tickets in advance for attractions in Melbourne. It saves you time and stress. We paid $30 per adult for the zoo but nothing for the kiddie because on weekends and public holidays, children visit for free.

The last zoo I went to was in Singapore and it was amazing. I knew Melbourne zoo would have to be pretty special to top Singapore zoo so I wasn’t surprised when it fell a little short. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good zoo, and they have some great attractions, but it’s just not quite on the same level of epic as Singapore zoo is. I still had a great time though.

One of my favourite bits was the fairly new Lemur Island. You basically go and hang out with Lemurs in their enclosure. The lemurs aren’t really bothered by the visitors so long as they are quiet and slow. The lemurs tend to scarper when it gets too noisy or busy so try and get in if there’s a lull in human traffic.

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Melbourne zoo is definitely worth a visit but probably only one visit.

Instead of the Christmas dinner my family were used to, we headed down to Elwood beach for a BBQ. There’s a few public BBQ spots near the boat club and that’s where we settled in for a traditional Aussie Christmas. We even threw shrimps on the barbie….

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The beach at Elwood is generally much quieter than St Kilda and I do prefer it. We were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

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The schedule didn’t really ease up on Boxing day. We had a very early start in order to drive down to Sorrento for a day of dolphin spotting.

I had booked with Polperro in order to swim with seals and dolphins at Sorrento. We paid $130 per swimmer and, I have to say, it was complete value for money. The staff at Polperro are faultlessly wonderful, the equipment is good quality and you’re served freshly baked scones on the boat. If you want to do a dolphin spotting/swimming session near Melbourne, I would recommend Polperro very highly indeed.

Anyway, You are guaranteed to swim with the seals as they tend to all hang out in the same place on a big structure. I never realised just how agile seals are under the water. They’re also very, very cheeky. They shove and push each other around on the structure then they get in the water and pretend to be sharks. No really, they swim around with one flipper out of the water to look like a shark fin. As I was swimming around, there was one seal who kept swimming underneath me but it swam upside down. I spent a while chuckling at him swimming looking up at me while I was swimming looking down at him. The seal pups played and leapt out of the water higher than you thought could be possible. It was awesome to see them so close and for them to not give a toffee about you being there.

Here’s a picture of BiL, enjoyign a hot drink, with the seal structure in the background.

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We didn’t get to swim with dolphins as the pod we found had calves with them. As they’re wild dolphins, there’s no way Mummy dolphin would hang around with her babies if we got into the water so we were limited to watching them from the boat. It was still magical. The pod came right up to the bough of the boat and swam along with us. You can see how close to the boat they came:

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They also hung out further away.

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Polperro were very clear that they couldn’t assure us of swimming with dolphins when I booked and we were obviously disappointed that we didn’t get to go in with them but understood completely the reasons for that. In the end, it really didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the day for us as, whilst we were hunting for the dolphins, the crew talked to us about the history of the coast and the dolphins we were looking for. I really cannot say a bad thing about Polperro, they were great and did everything in their power to make the trip as enjoyable as possible.

As we’d been swimming around for a while, we’d ended up with rumbling tummies so we headed into Sorrento for food and what food it was. It seemed rude to be right on the coast and to not eat fish so, we went into Fish Fetish and got ourselves a family box. It was, hands down, the best fish and chips I have ever eaten. There was not only heaps of food but it was extra tasty food (except for the potato cakes but that’s just because I don’t understand the point of potato cakes). Nom.

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After stuffing our faces there, we needed a brew so we went to Just Fine Food a few shops down. We had a ‘famous’ vanilla slice but I didn’t think ti really deserved the acolades to be honest. It was an average vanilla slice that didn’t taste like it was made using real vanilla beans. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t amazing. What it was was expensive.

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Anyway, a drive back to Melbourne and one speeding ticket later, we collapsed. Knackered doesn’t even cover it. We spent the next day chilling out before undertaking more sightseeing.

We’d seen a fair bit of the countryside around Melbourne by now so the next logical thing to see was the city itself. One of the things we definitely wanted to do was go up to the Eureka Skydeck. I had bought the tickets in advance and enjoyed 10% off thanks to being a YHA member (Youth Hosteling Association). We went at about 10 in the morning and ti was basically empty. When we left at about 11:30, the queue sprawled out of the door so, go early.

From the 88th floor, you can post letters (which we did) and get a great view of the city. It’s so easy to forget the size of places when you’re at ground level. Melbourne is big and impressive when you see it from so high up. Here’s a snap of Flinders Street station and Federation Square.

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There’s a very cool attraction at Eureka Skydeck. it’s called ‘The Edge’ and it’s basically a glass box which is ejected from the side of the building. Ok, ejected is a little dramatic but, it does extend away from the rest of the building so that you are 88 floors up with nothing under you. It’s absolutely, such a cool thing to do. It’s worth the extra $10 or so to go in it. We were very lucky again though as ti was so quiet, there were only four of us in the box. I’m sure they pack it much fuller at peak times. You get a cool picture to take home too (for a price though).

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Eureka Skydeck is well worth the money. Go if you can.

As it was Christmas time, we admired the decorations around the city whilst wandering. My favourite decoration had to be the giant mistletoe on the footbridge behind Flinders Street Station. I’m sure we were not the first, or last, people to strike this pose under it.

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We explored the city and took in the sights before heading to some green space. Fitzroy gardens are very picturesque and have a decent amount of things to look at. There’s a model Tudor village, multiple fountains and, most importantly, Captain Cooks cottage. That’s right, the cottage was moved from England and rebuilt in Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne! The poor roof was probably very confused when it had to deal with sunshine and not rain. Here it is:

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You can go round it for an entrance fee but we wanted to play catch instead so we didn’t.

The last thing we did in Melbourne, before it was time for the flight home, was to enjoy the New Years Eve Family Friendly fireworks at Yarraville Park near the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

Melbourne did a good job with the fireworks and organisation of New Years eve. The City centre was marshaled to within an inch of its life. It was good to see such care had been taken in the planning. New years in London is just a free for all of pushing and shoving but in Melbourne, they’d barricaded off certain sections and had a one way pedestrian walking system working. It was wonderfully efficient. The fireworks were pretty too.

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So happy new year and Happy holidays from a bunch of Pommes in Melbourne!

It’s that time of year, again?!

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It is with utter indignation that I acknowledge the passing of another year.

When I look back at the last 12 months, I can genuinely say that I am staggered at what a single, and fairly insignificant human being, has done and seen. I’m about to list it all out in a chronological type post so you can see and be astounded along with me.

  • Rang in 2013 in Hong Kong
  • Welcomed the Year of the Snake in Taiwan
  • Did some serious sight seeing in Japan
  • Spent a surprise, and divine, 2 weeks in the UK
  • Experienced the madness of Bangkok in Thailand
  • Felt the sorrow and unwavering optimism of Cambodia
  • Was baffled by the anger:acceptance ratio in Vietnam
  • Relaxed properly between terrifying mountain road bus trips in Laos
  • Learned how to cook, SCUBA dive and feed elephants (not all at the same time) in Thailand
  • Toured the tea and food spots of Malaysia
  • Felt all shiny again in Singapore
  • Fell into lust with Australia
  • Found beauty, nerd fests and family in New Zealand
  • Moved to Melbourne
  • Missed THE wedding because of the strongest typhon ever recorded
  • Made amazing friends
  • Welcomed some of my mad family to Australia for the holiday of a lifetime
  • Said hello to 2014 from a different hemisphere

That list is absolutely redonkulous and it’s very heavily abridged.

I will leave 2013 behind me forever knowing that it is probably the most privileged and special year I will ever be lucky enough to live.

More time, please?

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Where on earth is time going? Is it rocketing along for everyone else too or am I stuck in an accelerated time field or something? I honestly don’t know where the two months since landing back in Australia have gone!

I think I’ve done a fair bit of ‘life’ related activities but nothing really blog worthy. I baked.

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I biked.

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I bought from the British shop.

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I’ve found job(s) and am working hard to replenish my dwindling funds. I’m getting to know house mates and work mates. I’m getting thinner. I’ve had my eyebrows and eyelashes tinted. I’ve had my hair cut. I’m getting lots of stuff done but it’s not interesting stuff.

The next interesting thing I do will happen in early November and I’ll definitely be reporting in after that. Until then, sorry about the radio silence but, I’m just being a bit dull.

Melbourne Madness!

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Before leaving Wellington I had booked myself into a hostel for 3 nights. To my delight, they offered a complimentary shuttle ride from the airport when you booked 3 nights or more with them. This meant that I had no worries about getting into Melbourne city, I just had to look for the correct shuttle bus. I found it and was transported directly to Home @ St Kilda.

Home is an ok hostel with decent facilities. They don’t provide any frills and charge you handsomely for any you might want. There’s no free Internet access at all but it’s not a bad walk to the library where there is free Internet. The dorms were a middling standard of clean. The shower screen was broken and the bunks squeaked hideously. There are no lockers in the rooms. The staff are very friendly. All in all, an acceptable stay but I wouldn’t go back. The hostel is in St Kilda but a 10 minute walk from anyaction.

I was insanely busy in my first few days in Melbourne so I didn’t get to explore St Kilda at all! Here’s what I did.

After checking into the hostel, I went to find a supermarket for some food. That mission was successful so I then got my mobile sorted. I still had my previous sim card but needed to add credit for an amazing deal from Amaysim. For $39.95 AUD a month you get a contract free package which gives you 4GB of mobile data, unlimited texts to Australian mobiles and unlimited calls to Australian land/mobile phones. It’s a fantastic deal. Once I’d got that done, I started looking for jobs.

My main job hunting resources were http://www.gumtree.com.au and http://www.seek.com.au. I found seek to have a higher quality of job than Gumtree but, with careful filtering, there’s still a decent selection on Gumtree. I found this gem for a start.

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I spent a good few hours applying for jobs before I had to attend my diet appointment.

Regular readers will know that I have been losing weight for the last 10 years or so but more dramatically in the past 3 or 4 years. I’ve used the Cambridge Weight Plan in the UK and Hong Kong. It has never failed me so I was delighted that it exists in Australia too.

I have a dear friend’s wedding approaching in November. It’s a beach wedding on Boracay, in the Philippines, and I want to be my thinnest ever for the event (and associated photos). Cue the trusty Cambridge Weight Plan.

It’s a meal replacement style diet managed by a consultant whom you see every week for your products and your weigh ins/measurements. You can’t buy the products anywhere other than a consultant and they’re all trained. It’s a really supportive system that works fabulously. I went to meet my consultant and pick up my products. My consultant is based in Brighton which you can find a couple of KM south of St. Kilda. She’s a lovely lady called Mandy Smith, a fellow Brit! Brilliant!

After that, I’d made an appointment to see a room in a house after seeing it advertised on couchsurfing.org in the Melbourne section. I didn’t want to stay in a hostel any longer than I had to. I trotted off from Brighton to Ormond. Ormond is a lovely suburb about 4km east of Brighton. I liked the room and the housemates, they liked me and offered me the room. Hoorah!

During all this being busy, I’d received an email inviting me to interview for a job the next day. I kid you not when I say I’m an efficient person when I need to be.

Went to the job interview (for door to door sales with The Smart Group) the next day and was offered the job. I started the job training the day after that.

Busy doesn’t really cover it does it?

The adventure continues next time.