Author Archives: Jill

Romania

Brasov, Romania is home to Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle.  Even if Vlad Tepes (the real-life Dracula) didn’t actually ever live there, they still very much play up that myth with crazy amounts of vampire paraphernalia available and people walking around like it’s Halloween in masks and black robes.  The castle itself was rather unimpressive and not nearly as imposing as you would expect; no moat with a rickety wooden bridge a thousand feet high or even fire breathing dragons.  It is pretty much just a moderate sized house with some spires and courtyards. 

The number of stray dogs was a little disconcerting; (especially because of all the shots I got for this trip, the rabies series wasn’t included) so many poor dogs wandering the streets looking for the elusive scrap of food.   

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Out of Africa

So we made it out of Africa in one piece.  My biggest fear of getting horribly sick and having to seek African medical attention didn’t come true (I just hope that my other big fear of getting malaria symptoms once I’m back home and have no health insurance doesn’t come true either).  There were no major episodes of food poisoning and I even managed to gain weight in Africa.  We weren’t even the victims of “informal wealth redistribution”.   If there weren’t pictures to prove we actually went, you may not even believe it. 

When Matt and I booked this 21 day camping safari, I have to admit that I was apprehensive about how it would go.  Amazingly enough, I was exceedingly happy with the way everything went, so we decided to continue on with the same tour company for another 20 days through East Africa.  Keep in mind that when we decided to continue it was despite the fact that there were 18 girls and not a single guy booked.  With the addition of the second segment, our grand total came to 41 days of African camping, something I couldn’t have possibly even imagined myself ever doing, seeing that my idea of camping up until 6 weeks ago was setting up a tent in my neighbors’ backyard when I was 10.   

All in all, Africa was in some ways exactly what I expected, and in other ways I was completely wrong.   There are many African clicking languages, which are still very much used by many different tribes; however a lot of them also learn English.  Women (men almost never do) really do carry packages on their heads, which if you have good balance (I don’t) is very practical.  Southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia) really surprised me with the decent and pretty much western infrastructure and facilities (bathrooms, internet, etc.) available.  East Africa (Malawi and Tanzania) on the other hand, not so much…  If you were brave enough to endure the stench surrounding the rooms they called bathrooms, you were rarely surprised to find a western toilet and not simply a hole in the ground.  Better put, stopping on the side of the highway to find and hide in a bush was preferable to stopping at an actual bathroom, and before this trip I would have let my bladder burst before even thinking about doing that.  On the first part of the tour, I religiously showered everyday and almost always in a moderately comfortable shower.  On the East African leg of the tour, you were hardly ever lucky enough to find a warm shower. I could blame an elephant for dipping his trunk in the above ground water tank and drinking most of the water so that I didn’t shower that night (making a record three day stretch), but quite honestly I wasn’t even planning on attempting an icy shower anyway – baby wipes work almost as well. 

Being without creature comforts for a decent amount of time makes you really appreciate the western “technology” of hot showers, proper bathrooms and internet.  I wish I could say that I’ve learned to live without them, but I can’t – I simply appreciate their availability now.  Once we got to London, we were so deprived of internet time that we spent five hours at Heathrow airport sitting on the floor (by power plugs) trying to catch up on hostel reservations, train schedules, and email. 

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London

As soon as we left Nairobi and landed in London at 5:30 am we were officially homeless.  We didn’t have hostels booked because of a lack of internet and unconfirmed flights, which was not a good situation to be in when Wimbledon is in full swing and Hyde Park is hosting Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party.  Every single hostel we could possibly find was fully booked through the weekend and the cheapest hotel the travel desk at the airport could find us was outside the realms of the underground and was still $150 a night.  Then Matt came up with a brilliant idea: use his Marriott points and stay for free!   We certainly didn’t need a Marriot though, in comparison to east African camping, pretty much any hostel with a bed and a shower would have seemed so luxurious.  So we wandered into the Marriot lobby, in our complete refugee-looking status, for our two night stay in opulence.  After two nights his points were used up and it was back to life in the backpacker style of cheap hostels. 

Our indulgences didn’t stop at the Marriot though.  We were told about this great store in London called Primark, it was everything they described and so much more.  We really “splurged” buying new white socks (something I hadn’t seen since Cape Town six weeks ago) and unstained new t-shirts that weren’t stretched horribly out of shape from the African women hand-washing them in river water.

Being in East Africa, where the Lion King takes place, references to the movie were quite abundant. Everything from Hakuna Matata t-shirts, to finding “Pride Rock” in the Serengeti, to the sing-a-longs to the soundtrack on the truck brought up the Disney movie.  Everyone on the tour said that the theater version is so good, so when it was playing in London, we couldn’t resist.  It was really good, even with the British accents we weren’t accustomed to. 

We went on a day tour out to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the city of Oxford.  Windsor Castle was impressive, but really what else would you expect from the Royal Family?  Stonehenge was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as in seeing it once is more than enough.  The stones are impressive when put into perspective on how they got there, but a lot of the mystery and intrigue is lost in the presentation.  Wandering around the circular site surrounded by chain link fences with an audio guide doesn’t seem to do it justice.  The city of Oxford was cool to wander around in and quite picturesque with all of the university buildings.  The tour guide was extremely good, pointing out interesting tidbits along the way; such as the city where the original British version of The Office took place (Slough).  He also explained why the British drive on the left side of the road: all knights held their swords in their right hands, thus driving on the left allowed them to defend against would-be attackers.  The US drives on the right side of the road for no other reason than defiance of Britain.

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Sweden

After being in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and England for a total of more than four months, which all drive on the left side of the road, looking right before crossing the street finally became instinctual.  Enter Stockholm and right hand driving.  When we first entered New Zealand it was simple, I look one way and immediately remember that it’s wrong and look the other way.   I was now so lost on which side to look.  I had been trained my entire life to look one way, spent the previous four months the other way – I couldn’t tell which was which anymore.  A few honks later, I was back on track. 

Using the pound in London, I thought we had already experienced the pinnacle of expensive exchange rates – how wrong we were.  Enter the Swedish krona.  Using the ever reliable Big Mac index, the Swedish near socialist government has accomplished an $12 Big Mac meal.  It is really depressing when you can’t even afford to eat at McDonalds. 

Apparently our sense of style isn’t nearly developed enough for Stockholm night life.  Trying to meet up with a colleague of Matt’s at an outdoor bar, even our “best” clothes (we only get a choice of about 6 shirts, if they’re all clean) got rejected by the bouncer.  In our defense though, basically every local person wandering around Stockholm probably just came from a photo shoot for a J Crew catalogue.   

Other than the expense of the city, it was fabulous!  The landscape along the water was postcard perfect.  The pure number of daylight hours was also amazing.  Being so far north, the sun finally started to set around 10:30pm (this picture was taken around 11pm), even though it never got completely dark.  It was completely different than the camping schedule I was on before that; it got dark around 6pm and I was in bed around 8:30, 9:30 if it was a “late” night. 

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Zanzibar

On the ferry ride from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar Matt showed his first sign of weakness on the trip: he managed to get seasick (I of course had to make my customary trip to the bathroom as is common practice on boats unfortunately).  He maintains it was food poisoning from the chili flavored banana chips that I bought, therefore his status as superhuman immunity is still intact.  Once we arrived in Stone Town it was immediately apparent I had underestimated the Arab influence on the island; it truly looked like this island belonged in the Middle East, not a three hour ferry ride from East Africa.  The women all wore traditional Muslim dress, many with their faces completely covered.  Prayers at several times throughout the day were announced through public loud speakers. The buildings were very much what I would picture to be Arabic architecture (I’ll let you know if I was correct when I get to Jordan). 

Zanzibar is known as the “spice island” for the spices grown, probably a self-coined term to rid itself from being known as the “slave island”.  We went on a spice tour where we saw both the slave trade and spice aspects of the island.  The slave markets were quite appalling; seeing the very tiny chamber that up to 75 slaves were cramped and essentially starved for two days before being “put to market”, so that only the strong slaves would survive and would fetch higher prices.  The pretty girls had it easier though, they were sold into prostitution.  The spice portion of the tour was much more appealing to see where all the random spices actually grow on trees, bushes, etc. 

On the north side of the island was the beach section. It pretty much looked like a lot of Caribbean Island beaches.  Some local ladies on the beach set up a salon type thing under a bungalow right on the beach.  They offered manicures, pedicures, massages, etc.  Matt, most likely under the influence of being the only male on a truck with 18 other girls for a week and a half, decided he was going to get a pedicure.  He claims that I “made him” do it, however, it was most definitely under his own volition.  My only response when he told me he was going to get one was “let me get my camera first”. 

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Chobe National Park

Just outside of Chobe National Park, we stopped at a campsite that was appropriately named “Elephant Sands”.  Multiple elephants congregated around the watering hole to drink and bath probably about 100 feet from the bar where we were eating our typical lunch of cucumber, tomato and mystery meat sandwiches.  The highlight of the actual park was the sunset cruise, where we saw several elephants swim (or maybe just walk along the bottom using their trunks as snorkels).  The coolest sight was dozens of hippos eating their dinner which is strikingly similar to the game “Hungry Hungry Hippos” in the way their jaws open and close almost continuously munching plants in the water.  The video is funny, but I was on a boat when I took it, so the quality of footage is less than National Geographic worthy.

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Zambia

After paying the outrageous Zambian visa charge of $135 for Americans (not having a choice to go to the Zimbabwean side because of the absolute disaster that Mugabe has created), we saw the magnificent Victoria Falls.  They are the second largest behind Iguaçu Falls in South America, but still larger than Niagara.  The water level was the highest it has been in years, which meant not only no white-water rafting, but you get completely soaked attempting to see them, literally it was raining upwards immediately surrounding the falls. 

The only other thing of note was the anticorruption billboards along roads; “Just Say No to Corruption” or “Succeed the Right Way, Not the Corrupt Way” (which I unfortunately didn’t get a picture of), but a man in one of them looked strikingly similar to Kwame Kilpatrick…  The rest of Zambia (which I only saw through the windows of the truck), didn’t really have much of interest. 

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Malawi

Malawi was the next country in the trek to Tanzania. There isn’t a lot to see or do except the beaches along the famed Lake Malawi.  We stopped at one beach, Kande Beach, which was overly bombarded with locals trying to take advantage of tourists.  It was quite annoying leaving the camp property and being harassed by men calling themselves Mr. Smooth, 50 Cent, Jean-Claude Van Damme, etc. as soon as you took one step outside of the metal gates.  We went on a village walk to “see how the local people live”.  Learning about their belief in polygamy was interesting; it is seen as a status symbol to have multiple wives and the first wife is the boss of the next wife.  The trip to the school and hospital was basically insulting though.  The principal kept saying over and over again how they don’t want/need supplies, but how they want/need money (to line his pockets, not help the students who may actually benefit from it).  The entire community seems to depend on tourism (in a harassing sort of way) rather than trying to develop any other kind of actual independence, which is quite sad to witness.

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Cape Town

After a very lazy week in Mauritius, it was time to make our way to Cape Town for the start of our organized safari. In Cape Town, we went to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during the apartheid years.  It was quite a sad experience listening to the guide, who was imprisoned there himself, tell the atrocities that occurred there not so long ago.  Adding to the apartheid excursions was the township tour.  It was quite humbling to go through these neighborhoods, most of which wouldn’t even be adequate for farm animals in the US.  In a “hostel”, which consisted of four small bedrooms, one bathroom and a kitchen, there could be up to 12 families living there.  Those at least were made of stone, while some others who didn’t like the cramped living quarters made their own hut of a mixture of scrap metal, wood, and cardboard with dirt floors.  It was a weird experience wandering around the area that is very much lived in, with all the little kids so starved for attention that they clung to you.  Other than the still obvious effects of apartheid, the city is quite nice- a beautiful maritime landscape topped off by Table Mountain.

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Namibia

It was time for our organized tour with Acacia to begin.  The first real stop was at the Fish River Canyon which is the second largest canyon in the world behind the Grand Canyon.  It was a big hole in the ground, similar to the Arizona version, but significantly smaller (160km vs. 446km long, 27km vs. 29km wide, and 550m vs. 1.6km deep), and with less majestic colors (in my humble American opinion). 

Namib-Naukluft Park, the red sand dunes of Namibia, was awe-inspiring.  We climbed Dune 45 at sunrise, which overlooked all the iron-rich dunes in the area.  Absolutely amazing scenery. 

Swakopmund is a very German town that Brad and Angelina made famous.  It is known as the extreme sports capital of Africa.  We went sandboarding, which is like snowboarding but on sand, which hurts much less falling than on snow and ice.  We also rode down the dune on a piece of polished wood on our stomachs, much like sledding.  I somehow managed to get the least air resistance of anyone doing it that day and had the fastest clocked speed at 75km per hour sliding down the dune, before crashing headfirst into a sandbank (I am still finding sand everywhere).  We also went quad biking around the dunes, which allows much faster speeds than typical 4×4, it was ok, but nothing too spectacular except the views of the water. 

We made a brief stop at Cape Cross to see the quarter of a million seals residing in area.  They managed to create one of the foulest smells I have ever witnessed.  Despite the stench, it was a sight to see with so many seals either laying on the rocks or swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Etosha National Park had a lot less density of animals than Kruger, so it was kind of a disappointment in that respect.  They did however have a watering hole at the campsite that was light with floodlights all night which allowed good viewing of rhinos coming to drink past dusk.  The coolest part was how close the animals came to the viewing stands though.  In the middle of the night I was woken by very loud lions roaring at the watering hole. I of course jumped out of bed in time to see them wandering/laying around.  I was hoping they were going to be hunting the zebra also at the watering hole, but they weren’t hungry I guess and just kept to themselves. 

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Mom, skip to the second paragraph…

Upon arrival to Johannesburg airport I was excited to reach my sixth continent, (and most likely last, as it’s doubtful I’ll make it to Antarctica) but my tiny bit of apprehension about the African continent unfortunately grew larger the further into the airport I got. When packing my checked luggage, I was aware of the bad reputation that the airport has for pilferage, though I assumed expensive things in designer luggage was targeted and my poor backpacker’s bag would be exempt (especially because I purposefully put the dirty laundry on top). However, the guy sitting next to me on the plane did not assuage any of my fears, as he told me a story about how the contents of a simple tin of chocolate, packed within a suitcase, fell victim to the baggage handlers.Already on edge, we proceeded to the immigration lines…basically in the dark. Later while picking up the rental car we found out that the power was out, which explained the very minimal lighting throughout the entire airport, but that certainly did not help my trepidation as I was waiting in long immigration lines and for my luggage. Knowing the reputation that the city of Johannesburg has, we drove straight out of the airport to the safer Pretoria area. After checking into the hostel, we asked the guy if it was ok if we parked out front. He told us we could leave the car there, but it would most likely be somewhere else in the morning. We moved the car to the secured lot. With that, it was the end of our first day in Africa.

The second day we ventured off on foot into the South African administrative capital of Pretoria.The city is a lot like Detroit; know the areas to stay away from and you’ll have no problems wandering around the rest of it. There isn’t a lot to see or do, but the government buildings were definitely impressive.

We took off for the Blyde River Canyon area, and following in suit of the rest of our outdoor pursuits, it rained and was generally overcast for most of the day. Nevertheless, we got a few decent, though still hazy pictures of the impressive canyon, and were on our way.

It was then time for my “Disneyworld” – Kruger National Park. You basically drive around the park on the paved or gravel roads keeping the camera in one hand and the binoculars in the other, with both eyes surveying the savannah and darting from tree to tree (and for Matt – the driver- occasionally on the road) hoping to spot animals. The roads can get kind of crowded with other vehicles, but it can work to your advantage; if a car is stopped, there might be something cool there, but if there are several cars stopped somewhere, there is definitely something worthwhile. It then becomes a game of jockeying for the best position to see the animals as they move around, for the most part unhindered by the cars or spectators.

I would have never expected that I would be so willing to go to bed by 9pm and wake up at 5am, but that had become my sleeping pattern to better view the game in the park, and was well worth it. Within the first two hours of entering the park, we saw giraffe, a lion, buffalo, wild dogs (a rarity in Southern Africa), and an elephant “that was not taking no prisoners” to quote one driver in the mix of cars in the grey giant’s path. The game viewing continued throughout the three days to include a pair of cheetahs making their way to a watering hole, several hyenas with full bellies from a night of scavenging, a large group of hippos bobbing up and down in the water, and the absolute highlight: a pride of 13 lions lazily enjoying the sunrise.

I am happy to report that my initial heightened safety fears weren’t necessarily warranted (at least thus far), but it was probably a good thing to put me on edge as I had become complacent after Rio. Still, I am disappointed that I still can’t escape Hollywood pop culture. The hostel only gets five channels; one of them manages to carry “The Biggest Loser”, or some other American show that I had not anticipated seeing while so far away. I must say that it is an improvement over Australia and New Zealand TV programming though. They show either the regular American shows(including, but not limited to: “American Idol” and endless reruns of “Friends”) or knock-off game shows of “Deal or No Deal”, or my personal favorite “The Farmer Wants a Wife” (based off of “The Bachelor” I’m guessing). I probably shouldn’t complain too much, as it is American movies, music, and TV encourages and/or teaches so many people English, which makes it infinitely easier to get around in non-English speaking countries. I suppose that once I get away from the first-world infrastructure of South Africa, a lot of the western influence will be lost and I will eat my words about wanting to experience other cultures as I’m stuck using squatty pottys.

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Australia Part II

The first driving stop after Sydney was in Port Macquarie, a quaint coastal town. By far the highlight was the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. This hospital becomes a home for koalas in need of medical care for any number of reasons; whether it be loss of habitat because of development, car accidents or the common case of chlamydia (seriously). At the hospital you can “adopt” a koala, and of course the pictures of the poor little things in desperate need of care brought out my wallet. I left the hospital $50 poorer, but the proud “parent” of Bermuda Barb – a little koala who got hit by a car and had a tiny cast on her arm.

The Gold Coast is a 35km strip of coastal highway that is the most built up in all of Australia, a sort of Las Vegas of OZ, complete with tacky neon signs advertising cheap buffets. Apparently the strip is booming as 1000 people each week migrate to the area for the ideal weather, sort of a retirement mecca, as Florida is to the US. Other than the main theme parks (also like Florida), there isn’t really much to do there but lay by the beach or surf.

Brisbane is home the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, definitely one of the highlights of the trip thus far. This is where they allow people to pay extra to hold a koala, which I gladly forked over for this experience I had been eagerly awaiting for so long. The koala I got to hold was a little nervous after the group of kids in front of me were finished heckling her, but she settled down with a few eucalyptus leaves and cooperated fully with her handler and sat very still in my hands as she had dozens of pictures taken. She was surprisingly heavy, about 25 pounds, and had much bigger claws than I was expecting. Her fur was not the soft rabbit like texture I had anticipated, but very coarse and dense. I have now joined the likes of Pope John Paul II and Marilyn Manson on the list of people who have visited and held the prized marsupials. In another section of the park, is an area where the kangaroos run “wild”. Of course the definition of wild is a little skewed because a majority of them were taking a nap in a shaded area, while the hungry ones anxiously waited on their hind legs for tourists to come right up and hand feed them, and of course we were more than willing to oblige them. Most of them were quite tame and let you come right up to them to pet them or if you stuck out your hand they would nibble the food right from you, leaving your hand a saliva coated mess. One of the moms was carrying a baby in her pouch, which at first was hard to see until the little guy started moving around, and stuck his head out. The furless creature looked like a chihuahua, but we only got a short glimpse of it before the dutiful mom pushed the head back in the pouch. Overall, it was a very exciting day for me.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. The only way to travel it is in a 4WD vehicle, which you rent at an exorbitant price to drive around a jungle straight out of Jurassic Park and along the oceans beach. You set up camp, and hope that it holds up to the tremendous winds (it didn’t) and cook dinner and hope to see (or not see, depending on your views) a dingo. Dingoes are basically wild dogs that look emaciated and wander around camp sites in hopes of finding food. There was a criminal trial about ten years ago that a young mother claims that a dingo carried off her baby, she was acquitted of murder. One wandered up to our camp site, but then wandered away without incident so it doesn’t really make a good story, but I at least got to see one.

The Whitsundays are beautiful group of islands that offer postcard perfect beaches and snorkeling. We took a day cruise to a couple of different islands, and were fed a bbq lunch, which I got to experience twice because of my wonderful ability to get horribly seasick. Despite the fact that it rained and I only enjoyed the land portions of the day, seeing Matt in his stinger suit (for the jellyfish) definitely brought a smile to my face.

In Cairns Matt and I signed up for a combination learn-to-scuba-dive course and live aboard boat trip with the company Pro-Dive. In our classroom/pool sessions, of our 18 person class, we were the only ones from the US, thus from the first ten minutes of class, we were known as “Team USA”; individually I was known as “Miss America”. You can imagine my response to such a title… After two successful days in the pool and classroom, we were off for our 3 day/2night cruise to the Great Barrier Reef. We did our first four dives with our instructor leading the way for our group in lines, just like kindergarten. Our next five dives were much more interesting as we were on our own. The number and variety of fish and coral was simply amazing! On the night of the newly certified divers’ first (and only) night dive, the crew was throwing frozen fish off the back of the boat to attract sharks.  Of course we all thought this was the coolest thing to see – a real live shark.  Five minutes later we were all called down for our pre-dive briefing.  As the instructor was going through protocol for the dive, suddenly the lights dimmed, and the theme song from Jaws could be heard over the speakers.  The instructor then proceeded to tell us what we’re expected to do in the event of a shark sighting; form a close circle with our air tanks to the outside (like a steel cage), with the most knowledgeable person in the middle (i.e. the instructor). After forming the close-knit circle, we were to shine our flashlights on the unlucky person hovering next to us for one minute, just enough time for the instructor to surface unscathed.  After that one minute, we were on our own to escape to the surface or attempt to outswim the shark.  Unfortunately for everyone, we weren’t able to implement this plan.

Off to Africa tomorrow!

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Australia Part 1 – Victoria and New South Wales

After our early morning flight from Hobart to Melbourne, we headed out to conquer the city.  First stop was Victoria Market – a huge (one of the largest in the southern hemisphere) outdoor market selling everything from organic produce to outrageously expensive Nikes imported from China to the ever stylish “Bill Cosby” sweaters.  It was unbelievable that the asking price for a pair of cheap Nikes (which may or may not have been knock-offs) was $100 US; what was more unbelievable that people were actually buying them at that price. Nevertheless, it was an interesting place to wander around and people watch. 

Federation Square is the eclectic modern art center of the city.  Not being an architect, it may be harder for me to appreciate the “beauty” of the buildings and other random pieces of permanent art set up, but to me it seemed odd to have a classic looking church overlooking the stainless steel, slanted building with electronic message boards running messages about how much water a waterless urinal saves each year (1 million liters apparently).  Regardless of your taste in architecture, Melbourne has something that nearly everyone can appreciate, and I can even more so now that there hasn’t been one available on every other street corner – 7-11.  Not only did the city have the “real” 7-11, but they even have slurpees

After a couple of days wandering around Melbourne, we picked up another rental car and headed out to the Great Ocean Road.  The GOR is a Pacific Coast Highway type road; that winds you around the southern coast which has some pretty spectacular scenery.  The main attraction are the Twelve Apostles (only eight left though) a collection of limestone formations that have been formed by erosion. 

The Blue Mountains, a national park about two hours outside of Sydney, was the next stop on the  itinerary.  Right outside of the hostel (literally I was woken up by them) were dozens of wild cockatoos.  For those not familiar with parrots, these are fairly expensive pets at around $1500 a piece in the US, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing eight or so of them munching on a berry tree three feet from the car.  I probably wouldn’t have even noticed them, but Matt slammed the car door and spooked a couple of them who took off.  On further inspection, the park housed probably hundreds of the wild birds, many of which were bathing in the waterfalls.

Sydney came next, and provided a relatively long stop of six days, which was nice to feel a little less like a gypsy for even a brief period of time.  As luck would have it, on our way to see the famed Opera House, we stumbled upon the Australian Flugtug.  This first annual event, involved homemade “vessels” that attempt to “fly” off of a 20 foot platform into the Sydney Harbour.  As expected, most of the attempts involved the people transporting it, also falling or many times intentionally jumping off of the platform in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of cheering fans. 

Then there was of course the typical Sydney attractions, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, the 2000 Olympic Park (sadly, mostly abandoned), but nothing too exciting happened and I’m tired of writing for today. 

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New Zealand

After taking the three hour ferry from the North Island to the South Island, our first stop was the town of Kaikoura.  Kaikoura is known for its marine life – most notably whales and seals.  Because paying $150 per person for the chance to view the tail of a whale was beyond our budget, we had to settle for viewing the seal colony.  Even the consolation prize of seals was pretty neat to watch as they swam around and tried to hop onto the rocks with their big bodies and small flippers.

The trend of wildlife continued was we moved south along the eastern coast with a brief stay in Oamaru, known for their penguins. Apparently, the penguins are quite mobile out of the water and even make their way across roads often enough to warrant “penguin crossing” signs posted frequently along the coastal roads.  There is a popular overlook where you can view the penguins making their way from the water to the sandy shores for the night, and we were lucky enough to see four little guys waddle to their homes. 

Hamner Springs is known for their thermal pools full of minerals. These basically hot tub type pools each have different mineral contents, the most noteworthy pool is chock full of sulfur.  That particular pool’s stench emanates and envelops any who dares to enter the area, which we of course did.  Our skin reeked of rotten eggs for several hours after, not surprisingly we didn’t make any friends that night. 

 Our next destination was the college town of Dunedin; there isn’t really anything too exciting to do though.  The civil engineers might find this interesting (for the rest of you, it is sort of a ‘world’s biggest ball of twine’ attraction), the world’s steepest street is proudly located just outside the town center.  The average slope of the street is 1:3.41 with the steepest section registering at 1:2.86.  The street has its own souvenir shop, complete with certificates for climbing the 1/10 of a mile long street.

 When I went sky-diving a couple of years ago I promised my mom that it was a once-in-a-lifetime, so true to my word, I skipped the adrenaline-laced activities of Queenstown (that and my bare bones health insurance doesn’t cover extreme “sports” such as voluntarily jumping out of planes).  I instead substituted learning to drive a manual.  It wasn’t as hard as I had thought to stay focused on staying on the wrong side of the road.  The only complication involved getting used centering myself in the lane with a right-hand drive car – I may have slightlyveered left, which is far better than steering into oncoming traffic in my opinion. 

Christchurch is used as a major jumping off point for Antarctica, and as such of course banks in the tourism dollars at the International Antarctic Centre.   Matt and I were seemingly sick of the perfect mid-70’s and sunny skies weather, and needed something a little closer to the Michigan winter we were ‘missing’ out on.  In the Antarctic Centre they had a snow and ice experience, where temperatures reached about 20 degrees F, and wind chill was about 0 – not much different than a Michigan winter, though for some reason we were drawn inside the setup for the ‘storm’.  A group of several guys didn’t even bother putting on the parkas provided, and when asked why, their only response was “we’re from Canada”. 

In Christchurch, a historical jail was converted to a hostel.  Few changes were even necessary to complete the renovation, as the doors to the rooms were left alone, creating cells for patrons.  The irony of the hostel was that it was the best nights sleep I had gotten in awhile because the walls were made of concrete two feet thick. 

Making our way back across to the North Island to catch our flight out of Auckland, we stopped at the Tongariro National Park.  Our first attempt to do the acclaimed Tongariro Crossing trek got rained out, but luckily our second attempt the weather cooperated and we completed the day hike.  During the hike you get to see a very diverse landscape – a volcano, the crater, the “emerald lakes” (which are by far the greenest body of natural water I have ever witnessed), then down through forest – not a bad variation for a 6 hour hike. 

Our final stop before heading to Auckland to turn in the car and catch our flight to Australia was at the Waitmo Caves.  These caves have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and contain the highest concentration of glowworms of any of the numerous caves in New Zealand that house them.  It was kind of cool to see them, but in the end I feel like I paid $28 to see lite-brite pegs glued to the ceiling of a cave.    

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Monopoly Money and Pokémon Cards – North Island New Zealand

Because Matt has chosen to write an editorial, I guess it becomes my job to provide a synopsis of New Zealand thus far…

After spending a few days wandering around Auckland, we got our rental car (a little Ford hatchback in surprisingly good condition for $20 a day) and took off for the rest of New Zealand.  I don’t know how to drive a stick-shift and refused to learn while driving on the “wrong” side of the road, so Matt has gotten drive quite a bit of driving time in the last two and a half weeks. Luckily he’s only had a single incident of looking left instead of right entering one of the numerous round-a-bouts.  Besides that lone honk I am happy to report no accidents while driving or crossing streets, especially because unlike Great Britain, there is no paint on the streets telling tourists the proper direction to check for oncoming traffic.

Our first stop was in Rotorua, where we saw a Maori show and ate a traditional hangi  meal.  A hangi is a type of cooking that literally a hole is dug in the ground and filled with hot volcanic rocks and food and then buried in the ground for three hours when it cooks.  It was here that we also discovered the amazing desert New Zealand calls pavlova, where I felt the need to make up for the 25 years I didn’t know this wonder-food existed.  

While in Taupo , having little else to do because of the poor weather, I decided to go be a science geek and learn about volcanoes at the Volcanic Activity Center.  The outside of the building says a lot about it; its main purpose is to entertain (and maybe slightly educate) six year olds going on school field trips.  However, the façade didn’t dissuade me from the $9 entrance fee, which was money well spent for the “earthquake simulator” if nothing else. 

All in all New Zealand is a very welcome change from South America – it is so nice to be able to understand what people are saying, even if they overuse the words “cheers”, “mate”, and “wee”.  English does apparently come at a premium on this island however, as most things are ridiculously expensive.  The basic staple of any college diet, ramen noodles, which provide a decent meal for a mere 10 cents in the States, cost over a dollar here.  The same economy-priced crap that you find in a $1 store in the US, is now conveniently located in the $2 store in NZ.  The fact that this is a relatively small island has something to do with costs I’m sure, however the declining value of the US dollar certainly doesn’t help the cause either.  One radio dj here valued the US dollar to be somewhere between Monopoly money and Pokémon cards, which unfortunately I am finding to be the truth. 

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Chile

In Santiago, we of course had to visit a winery so Matt could hone his connoisseur skills.  He chose “Concha y Toro”, which apparently is rated in the top 10 brands of wine in the world (who knew?).  The tour wasn’t all that interesting; they showed us a few grapes and took us to a cellar.  Matt then proceeded to drink all three of his generous sized “tester” glasses of wine, plus my three…  

After another day of meandering around Santiago, we took off for Punta Arenas, Chile – the gateway to the famed Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. 

Once we arrived in our refugio (basically a hostel located in a log cabined façade building, named as such in my opinion to charge double the price of normal hostels), we took off for the “Towers” hike.  Looking at the map, the hardest section of the treks distance was labeled as 5 and the contours ranged from 500 to 1500.  I figured 1000 feet over 5 miles shouldn’t be that steep – the metric system didn’t register in my mind until I saw the outrageous slopes of the mountain trail.  The trek started off in beautiful weather – 70’s and mildly sunny and blue skies freckled with only a few clouds.  That lasted about an hour.  Then it became blatantly clear to us why the guide books advise against going to the park in the southern hemisphere summer.  That perfect 70 degree weather dropped to probably the 50’s, the sunny sky turned a dismal grey and started spitting out rain mixed with hail, and worse yet, the infamous 100 mph winds picked up.  We made it to the nearest camp (most likely still 2 miles from where the weather turned) to hopefully wait it out and continue our journey.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon.  We started our trek back, and since you are reading this, we obviously made it back safely – certainly not without incident though.  I can’t even tell you the number of times I assumed a near fetal position to keep from getting blown off the mountain.  Since the wind (and rain) was at our backs, the back of my jeans (yes, jeans – we came very ill prepared in regard to hiking gear and apparel – we were wearing running shoes and carrying a laptop backpack instead of having the proper hiking boots and fancy hiking backpack with the long water straw) was a vastly different color than the dry front of my pants.  But alas, it was an experience and luckily our one and only set of warm clothes managed to dry by the fire that night.

The next day, we apparently had forgotten the incident of the previous afternoon because we set out again, this time on a 15 mile round trip hike in the same beautiful 70 degree, sunny weather this time to see the “Horns”.  I am happy to report that the weather maintained its good front and the only difficulty was suffering from being out of shape – but I’ll just attribute that to the “fat butt disease” (The Office anyone?) of a desk-job. 

We set up our flights from Punta Arenas to Santiago and Santiago to Auckland with about an 8 hour layover in Santiago so that we could maximize our time spent in the Admirals First-Class Lounge (the joys of coach travel with elite status) enjoying the freebies.  That extra time was needed as our first flight was delayed by almost 5 hours, so sadly a majority of Matt’s birthday was spent with the “regular travelers” in the domestic terminal. 

We got to the Santiago airport on February 24 and thus got our passport exit stamp from Chile on the 24.  We didn’t enter New Zealand until February 26 (taking into account the 15 hour time difference from Santiago – 17 from EST), as a result, according to our passports, we spent an entire day in limbo.

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Sao Paulo

Basically Sao Paulo is a big city.  There really isn’t anything too spectacular to distinguish it from other large cities around the world, except that is it the fourth largest, with a population of about 19 million.  Because it isn’t really on the tourist radar, English is harder to come by than other foreign cities; my high school Spanish to the rescue – well, sort of.  It took me a few trys to make sure the movie we were going to see had only Portuguese subtitles (not dubbed), but I managed to get it right.  Given that I haven’t had any Spanish in almost seven years, and Spanish is still a different (though quite similar) language than Portuguese, I think I did fairly well for myself (and Matt). 

 

While sitting in a churrascaria (Brazilian restaurant, basically a meat buffet – though Wikipedia describes it a little better) Matt wants to order a beer, though is completely unable to communicate that to the waiter, without the typical point and grunt method provided by a menu.  I step in and end up getting him exactly what he wants.  I then ask Matt what he would do without me; “go to McDonald’s” was his only response. 

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Rio de Janeiro

After our red-eye flight from Miami, we arrived at our hotel in Rio Saturday morning completely exhausted. Our early arrival paid off though, when we got a complimentary upgrade to an executive suite.   The hotel that we staying in for free (hotel points – courtesy of Matt’s days as a consultant) has a going rate of over $700 US a night.  I’ve decided that Matt needs to go back to his job because the perks are so good for me: this hotel is significantly better than paying $100 a person for a bed in a 16-bed hostel during peak Carnivale times. 

 

Though we were tired, Carnivale festivities wouldn’t wait for a nap, so we headed to Ipanema beach for the street parades.  Overall, the streets are fairly similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans:  a lot of drinking, eating, and standing around.  The biggest difference is obviously the temperature, mid-80’s here!  Another notable difference is instead of everyone wearing beads, people wear head bands with bobbly ears and a lot of men dress in drag.  A couple of “nurses”, complete with dresses, heels, and wigs made our bus ride quite entertaining.   The bus driver even made a special stop for a beer run for these nurses.

 

Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t exactly been cooperating.  Beyond Saturday, it has been rainy and overcast. Ipanema and Copacabana beaches just aren’t the same without the hundreds of umbrellas and even more people. It is true that the beaches attract the scantily clad; it was quite common to witness old men wearing nothing but a speedo and running shoes out for their afternoon jog. 

 

We wanted to watch the Superbowl on Sunday.  Matt asked the concierge desk where we could watch it, and they told us we needed to go to Shenanigans, a bar in Ipanema.  So we hopped in a cab and were in line at the bar before the game started.  Unfortunately, this being one of only a few bars in all of Rio playing the Superbowl, and it apparently being more popular than people thought, we didn’t get there early enough.  We proceeded to wait in line for over two hours (with fellow Americans travelling as we are), occasionally getting updates yelled down to us from the balcony of the bar, while we watched Brazilians, who mind you didn’t even know who was playing, stumble down the stairs to exit.  After two hours of waiting as the sixth and seventh people in line (thus making us the “official gatekeepers to the bouncer”) we gave up and headed back to the hotel.  There is nothing like waiting two hours in line at a fake Irish bar in Rio de Janeiro during Carnivale.  Upon entering the hotel, we heard cheering from the bar, to find out, unbeknownst to us (or apparently the concierge desk) that our own hotel was playing the game.  So after $30 in cab fare, and waiting around for two hours, we at least got to see the fourth quarter, which apparently was the most exciting anyway. 

 

The huge event of Carnivale are the samba parades held in the Sambadromo on the Sunday and Monday nights before Ash Wednesday.  It is AMAZING!  The costuming, the floats, and the atmosphere are unlike anything I have ever seen before.  There are six different samba schools that put on their show, each lasting about an hour.  The sheer number of people participating in each parade is amazing (about 5,000 people per school according to Matt’s Fermi estimation), not to mention how detailed each and every costume is.  The crowd participation is also something to be seen; the Brazilians sing and dance along with the schools while waving the school flag.  Matt even got swept into his surroundings because he “liked the song”, though he doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese, or even Spanish.   Much different than Detroit’s Thanksgiving Parade. 

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Walt Disney World

Jill has been telling everyone that I am the one that wanted to come to Walt Disney World. And it’s essentially true. I haven’t been here since I was 12 and only went to the Magic Kingdom at that time. The time before that I got lost at Epcot when I was 3. So it’s been awhile.

We stayed at the economical “All Star Music” Resort on Disney property. Our first day we went to visit the Magic Kingdom where I tried to attain “Galactic Hero” status by scoring 999,999 points on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. Unfortunately, my shooting prowess was no match for the Evil Emperor Zurg, where he stopped me cold with 752,300 points that promoted me from Space Cadet to the second highest rank of “Cosmic Commando. The Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square was probably my favorite attraction at the Magic Kingdom behind Buzz Lightyear…

Another honorable mention was Epcot, where I didn’t manage to get lost this time. Epcot has the “World Showcase” where they have areas set up for many countries (no, this isn’t our trip around the world). They had an exhibit where you could try all of the Coke products from around the world. The drink “Beverly” from Italy is by far the most disgusting drink in the world -it tops straight hard liquor. Jill tried it in Atlanta at the Coca-Cola museum and found how disgusting it was. And low and behold, Epcot had the same exhibit, and Jill thought for some reason that Beverly was going to somehow taste better. Enjoy the video below.

In any event, we are headed to the Miami area, the Florida Keys, and the Everglades. On Friday night, we head to our first “real” destination, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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Pre-Trip

An excerpt from The Alchemist:

A certain shepherd sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him he didn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours. “Meanwhile, I want you to do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.” The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was. “Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?” The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him. “Then go back and observe the marvels of my world”, said the wise man. Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen. “But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man. Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone. “Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you”, said the wisest of wise men. “The secret to happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.” The shepherd said nothing. He had understood the story: a shepherd may like to travel, but he should never forget his sheep.

After about six months of planning destinations, transportation, vaccinations, etc., the countdown is at last, just a single day. As I finish up the final details, I am overwhelmed with excitement mixed with a little apprehension. Have I overlooked something important? How am I going to lug around all of my belongings in a single bag for eight months? How are Matt and I going to put up with each other for that long? This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, with the chance to see world-class museums, architecture, and learn about fascinating cultures. This doesn’t come without sacrifices though; when we get back, we will both unemployed and homeless… Hopefully it is worth it…

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