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New Zealand

New Zealand is egg-chasing country. Excessively so. So much so, in fact, that my first rugby encounter is while still sitting on the tarmac in Nadi Airport, waiting for the Air New Zealand flight to Auckland to take off. The standard safety message is replaced by a video featuring various All Blacks. Should there be a crash, we’re advised to “Crouch, touch and brace yourself against the seat”. In an emergency exit, the plane may be All Black, but escape path lighting on the floor will lead you to the exit, whether you’re in the front row or the back row. Throw in a camp 80s gym guy for no apparent reason, and it’s quite unlike any other safety message. Though in fairness, it’s a long time since I’ve paid such close attention to it.

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When I decided to head to the Pacific – sometime in Vietnam – I wanted to go somewhere vaguely out of the way. Somewhere like Vanuatu, home of bungee jumping and with 100 languages among its 200,000 people. Or Tonga, where the largest island is under 100 sq mi. Or Nauru, whose economy moved from being almost entirely dependent on guano to one where 1% of the country was employed in a detention centre for foreign nationals looking for asylum in Australia. But in the end, more practical considerations decide the matter – the Pacific island with no malaria, the cheapest flights and the easiest connections is also the most touristy. Still, a few days in Fiji can’t be too bad!

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Everyone in Perth had said that it was the most expensive city in Australia. This was at least some relief for me stepping off the train in Sydney…at least up until I found out it was nonsense. In town, a hop on hop off tour bus passes me by with “$40. Why pay more?” written on the side in larger letters than I’d have thought prudent. Why pay more?! Insanity, perhaps? I decide to pass on the bus tour.

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Perth and the Indian Pacific

I hadn’t intended to go to Australia. The original trip plan was to end in Singapore, the farthest point by land from Ireland. But then Shamrock Rovers qualified for the UEFA Cup group stages. A friend in Sydney, who I hear from maybe twice a year, rang at full-time to talk about the game. I was drunk, he was drunk, the trip came up in conversation, and I was told there was a bed for me in Sydney if I wanted it. It was tempting. And if I was in Sydney, I might as well go to New Zealand, given how close it is. And from there, I may as well break the flight home with a ride on a bullet train in Japan and a trip across America.

It ends up as quite an expensive phone call!

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The following is a non-exhaustive list of things banned in Singapore – chewing gum, satellite dishes, overhead wires, Malaysian newspapers and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (though only because they refuse to do military service). A Swiss who broke into a train depot and spray-painted a carriage in 2010 got five months in jail (upped to seven on appeal) and three lashes of the cane. Long hair for males isn’t really used a reason to refuse admission these days, thankfully, although people can be requested to provide a hair sample to test for recent drug use. All proper order. It’s my kind of country!

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It’s well known that drugs and South East Asia don’t mix. Standing at the border into Malaysia, two Thais in front of me get out their passports for inspection. “Mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking” is stamped on top of each of the pages. Just the previous week, a British woman had been arrested entering Indonesia with 11lbs of cocaine and was now facing the death sentence.

When we regroup on the bus, one person’s missing. A Colombian, he had been asked at passport control just to step to one side if he could. We talk about it for a little while, then move on. It’s all we can do.

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From the Thai border town of Chiang Khong, a bus takes us the six hours to Chiang Mai. I’ve a seat beside Rob, an electrician from Sligo and the first Irish person I’ve met outside of Irish pub owners (and those I’d arranged to meet). We chat away for three hours until we stop at a restaurant, some people get off and Rob moves up front beside his Thai wife. There, she tells him that the people up front were quietly commenting on how only the Irish could chat away for three hours having never before met.

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