Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crickets

Now that I'm in Auckland and have the base I've been waiting for, I'm off to explore for a bit. This means that you're going to be hearing crickets around here for the next few days or so because I'll be out of pocket and nowhere near a computer. I promise I'll be back soon, though!


Have you been to my Flickr page recently? Lots of pics over there, so that should keep you busy for awhile. :-)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bird poo

Since I plan to be here in Auckland for awhile, I'm taking it pretty easy so far. As proof: I arrived in Auckland on Tuesday around midday and met up right away with James, my CS host. He was on his way to visit his 93 year old grandmother and asked me if I wanted to come with. Sure, why not? Within a few hours of my arrival, I'd met James, his cousin, and his grandmother, all Kiwis through and through (well, except for grandma, but she's lived here for more than 50 years, so that's close enough). James had other couchsurfers staying with him, but they were out when we returned to his house so we spent the night listening to music and talking about our various travels. It was a chill, low-key, but still fun way to spend the evening.


Low-key was just what I needed since I woke up Wednesday morning and went for an adrenaline rush first thing. If you've been around here for awhile then maybe you've figured out by now that the bird poo title is in reference to my father's thoughts on bungee jumping and, if you've gotten that far, you've probably also figured out that I did another bungee jump.


I hadn't planned on it, actually, but the Marshes told me that there was a winter special and you could jump off the Auckland Harbour Bridge two times for the price of one. So it was their fault (and with their encouragement) that I decided to go ahead and make it three bungee jumps in three weeks time. :-)


These two jumps were from one-third the height as the last one, but I jumped in different ways each time, so all three jumps were totally different. I got the added bonus of walking up the bridge to the jump off pod, getting views of the Auckland skyline along the way. It was first thing in the morning, it was crisp and clear, and I was the only one jumping; what a way to start the day!


Afterwards, when my legs were no longer jelly, I walked to the area of city center known as Sky City where the Sky Tower is located. Sky Tower is the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere (328m) which means that I've now seen the tallest structures in both hemispheres (although one is actually the tallest in the world and beats out the Sky Tower by quite a bit). I had fun snapping pics and had the same happy I'm-in-a-city feeling that I had last week in Wellington.


Like I said, I'm taking it pretty easy, so not much else exciting was on the agenda for the rest of the day. I ran a couple of errands and hung out with James and a couple of other couchsurfers. Oh! And I tried hokey pokey ice cream, a New Zealand tradition!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Eggy

Rotorua is nicknamed Sulphur City and for good reason. There's heaps of geothermal activity happening and that means that there's a distinct eggy smell throughout town. When it doesn't smell like eggs, it smells like. . .smoked meat? Odd, for sure, but not altogether unpleasant, I suppose.


I head to Auckland tomorrow so I wanted to fit in as much as possible today AND not spend too much money. I was g-chatting with my CS host in Auckland last night and he referred to Rotorua as Rotovegas which isn't too far from the truth as there are all kinds of ways to spend your money here. You can: white-water raft, kayak, climb an indoor rock wall, sky-dive, take a scenic flight, ride a luge, go zorbing, or bungee jump, just to name a few. 


I'm feeling cheap (ahem, frugal), though, so I decided on a walking tour instead. I started out with a walk through Kuirau Park because I'd read that it's one area where you can soak your feet in thermal pools for free. I ended up not doing that because the water wasn't quite as warm as I'd hoped, but I still got steamy, bubbly water pictures. You should be glad these don't come to you via smell-avision!

(Steamy thermal waters at Kuirau Park)
From there I walked to St. Faith's Anglican Church and the Tamatekapua Meeting House to see some traditional Maori carvings. Both are located on Lake Rotorua and by then the previously cloudy day was clearing up and getting sunny, so it was really quite nice.
(One of the carvings at the meeting house)
(St. Faith's Anglican Church)
Right around that time I was feeling peckish and started thinking about lunch. That's when I came across a chocolate shop. I figured I could either have lunch OR some expensive chocolates and tea, but not both because I didn't feel like spending the money. Hmmm. What do you think I chose? Here's a hint. Yeah, that wasn't a hard call at all! :-)
(Chocolates for lunch!)
My energy back up, I made my way to the Government Gardens. The gardens borrow some English concepts and have croquet lawns and bowling greens (where you play the game bowls, but I have no idea what that is!). The Bath House, opened in the early 1900's, and the Blue Pool, swimming pools dating back to the 1930's, are both here, as is the Rotorua Museum of Art & History. I briefly considered going into the museum, but seeing all the pools and spas was getting me in a relaxing kind of mood.


I haven't stopped my DIY run, apparently. I headed back to my hostel, changed into my swimsuit, and got into the "spa pool," aka hot tub, there (for free!). I also did a mud face mask courtesy of a souvenir that I bought for myself last night. I spent a grand total of $13 on today's DIY spa treatment rather than the $50+ I would've spent at one of the spas in town.


And now? Well, now I go on a search for dinner and have a quiet night since I have an early bus to Auckland tomorrow.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mish-mash

I've had another couple of days in a row where not much happened and it was kind of just what I was looking for. There's not a whole lot of coherency in how I can recap it all, so I think bullets are in order.


* My whole point of going to Napier was for the wine. It's serious wine country there and there are wineries all over the place. It's really easy to get from winery to winery by bicycle and that woulda been a great thing to do. . .if it was summer rather than winter. Besides, it rained all day on Saturday AND I figured I didn't really need to spend another $100 on a wine tour. So what did I do? DIY wine tastings, that's what! I went to the Pak 'n Save, the cheapie grocery store here, and bought a couple of bottles to share with Joe and Paul, my CS hosts. Both bottles were from the Hawkes Bay area (where Napier is located) and I gotta say, I had just as much fun with this tasting as I did with the last one.


* I've had a lot of couchsurfing firsts recently. I'm sure Grandma was happy to read about Diane, my first ever female host. Then there were the Marshes, the first family I ever surfed with. And finally, Joe and Paul were the first gay couple to host me. Everyone was great, as usual; it's just cool that even after all the traveling and surfing I've done so far, I can still experience some firsts.


* This has nothing to do with the last few days, but. . .my hair fits in a ponytail now! Remember when it didn't?


* I went out for breakfast this morning before leaving Napier for Rotorua. At my table were an American (me!), an Aussie (Joe), and a Kiwi (Paul), plus Nico (French) and Ruth (Taiwanese), two other couchsurfers. How cool is it that there were five nationalities represented? And how come this doesn't happen to me more often in the US? Is it just because as a traveler I'm hanging out in traveler circles? 


And, uh, I don't know. I guess that's all I got.

Friday, July 23, 2010

East is east

Sometimes you have to go to a place just because of what it is and not necessarily because there's a lot to see or do there. The last time I did this was in India when I went to Kanyakumari because it was the southernmost tip of the country and a convergence of three waterways. That turned out to be not so great, so I was a bit hesitant about my latest plans for a special trip.


[As an aside, there were actually two potential special trips that I could choose from. The one I didn't pick was a trip to the place with the world's longest name: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.]


The trip I did choose was to Gisborne which has the distinction of being the very first city to see the sunrise every day. If you're going to try to fact check me on this by Googling or looking at a map, you'll probably notice that there are other places farther east than Gisborne**, in particular the Chatham Islands, also part of New Zealand. I noticed the same thing and asked Sean about it when I was in Christchurch. His answer (and the one I'm going with, too) is that sure, there are other places east of Gisborne. But you wouldn't exactly call them "cities." With a population of about 35,000, Gisborne is a proper city, at least by NZ standards, and that was good enough for me. 


The bus ride from Wellington to Gisborne was a long one, about nine hours. It was rainy and gray the whole day and I was beginning to think that this special trip o' mine wasn't turning out to be such a good idea. After all, there are no spectacular sunrises on rainy days. But I'd checked the weather ahead of time and saw that it was supposed to clear up, so I just kept my fingers crossed.


I checked into the Flying Nun Backpackers, a former convent with heaps of character. (If I didn't already have a CS host lined up in Napier, my next stop, I'd stay at a place that used to be a prison as recently as 1993. Talk about character!) During a walk around the city in search of dinner, it didn't take me long to be glad that I was only staying one night in Gisborne; there was not much of anything to see or do. Before I went to bed, I looked out the window and saw that the skies were clearing up. My hopes for a photo-worthy sunrise looked promising. . .


And, well, not too shabby. I didn't have the absolute best vantage point because that would've required a car, so I made do with a 30 minute walk to the beach instead. My pictures are just so-so, not at all fabulous, but that's okay because the point was more about being able to say that I'd seen the first sunrise of the day, rather than photograph it. 

**In doing some fact checking of my own, Wikipedia has another explanation entirely, but I'm still gonna stick with what I already had.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Revival in the city

Everyone probably knows by now that I'm a city girl through and through. And yet, I still seem to be surprised by it myself occasionally. Since leaving Christchurch I've been in "cities" that have fewer than 10,000 people. Today, walking around Wellington, I felt revived and rejuvenated. (Guys, it's a city of less than 400,000. It doesn't take much for me, really, I just like when it's a proper city.) I had an extra spring in my step that had been missing the last few days. I was taking pictures for the first time since my glacier walk. While I'm at it, I'll go ahead and be cheesy about it, too: I was happy to be alive and walking around (yet another) brand new, never-before-seen-by-me city.


One of the reasons why I think I like it so much is because it reminds me a lot of Seattle, on a smaller scale of course. They have a cafe culture like you wouldn't believe - more coffee shops per capita than NYC which, I think, puts it at the top of the list. Like Seattle, Wellington is a city built on a hill. Here, take a look for yourself:




And, oh, I don't know, I guess those are the only two reasons why it reminds me of Seattle. Maybe because I was in such a good mood that I couldn't help but think of other places that make me happy and Seattle is a place that I like so much I'd move to in a heartbeat?


Anyway, I took a bus into town from the Marsh's house. I checked out the parliamentary buildings for awhile and then I met up with Lefki Marsh for coffee and a cheese scone because she works in the area. More wandering followed, into and out of shops, just kind of going where things looked interesting. (And, by the way, not getting lost at all even without the help of a map! I've come so far!) I had lunch at a kebab shop run by an Iraqi guy who was very intrigued by the idea of traveling by myself for so long ("why didn't you ask a friend to come with you?") and who was also a bit surprised when I thanked him in Arabic as I left. :-)


I wrapped up my wandering with stops in two museums. The first was a tattoo museum that I'd been very keen to visit because I wanted to find out more about moko, Maori tribal tattoos that are commonly inked on the face. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a letdown because they've recently moved locations and are still in the process of putting everything back in place. It was kind of a hassle looking through everything, so I didn't end up spending much time there at all (but at least it was free!). I didn't arrive at the second museum, Te Papa (all about NZ history and culture), til about 4:30pm. I knew I wouldn't have enough time to look around before they closed, but I wanted to check out the museum shop and also get an idea of a game plan for my visit there tomorrow. Yes, a game plan is actually needed. There are six or seven levels and I've heard that a whole day can be spent on one level alone. I only have one day, so I have to be choosy about the exhibits I go to.


Afterwards I made my way back to my adopted-for-the-next-few-days home and well, hung out with the family. We had dinner, cleaned up the dinner mess, chatted, and watched television. A good, full, happy day and now I must sleep.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Base

I've been on the move quite a bit for the last few days, so much so that I've barely had time to even mention them. Ready for the rundown? (ToadMama, are your tracker map listening ears strapped on, lol? The SPOT updates just are NOT working!)
(A terrible picture, really, taken through a moving bus window, but goes to show that not all of NZ's mountains are snow-covered.)


As I already mentioned, I spent a night in Greymouth, a total of less than 24 hours actually. There's not a whole lot to do there, really, it was just a good stopping point on my way from Franz Josef to Nelson. What I did manage to do was a brewery tour. I figured since I did my first winery tour on the road, why not add a brewery tour to the list also? For $25 I got a brewery tour, seven beer tastings and one cider tasting, a glass of beer of my choosing, and a meal afterwards. We could choose one of three restaurants to go to, but I'm pretty sure my entire group went to the same place. I met a bunch of people and had a lot of conversations, but there was one really funny conversation to tell about. (Background info for this story is that as one of the few females present, I was getting quite a bit of attention.) Olly, who I believe was one of the owners, kept introducing me to people. At one point he introduced me to a group of old guys. One of them, who had to be at least 80, shook my hand, kissed my cheek, and asked me if I was from Greymouth. I told him I wasn't, I was from the US. His response? "Oh! I thought you were from around here. Ah, well, you're still pretty cute anyway!" I was cracking up!


From Greymouth I went to Nelson where couchsurfer Diane picked me up for the night. Diane is from the States and just moved to NZ about a month ago. We didn't do a whole lot during my stay, but she showed me around a bit and pointed out the very center of New Zealand. The day was crisp and sunny, so perfect for being out and about and walking. For my second night in Nelson I checked into a hostel. Diane mentioned that she's been late to work every day since she's started her new job and I figured I wouldn't add to her morning stress. :-)


The next morning, today, I left Nelson and headed to Picton. I was only in Picton as a transfer spot for the ferry, so I spent all of three hours there. Good thing, too, because it didn't look like there was much to it! After a four hour ferry ride, I landed in Wellington where I was met by the Marshes, a couchsurfing family that will be hosting me for the next few days.


I'm looking forward to being in Auckland and having a base for a few weeks. Not that I'm not looking forward to the places I'm going to hit leading up to it or anything. But having Auckland as a base will allow me to feel a little more settled than I've felt recently and I will still be able to take weekend (or - heck, I'm on vacation - mid-week!) trips to explore.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Population. . .2?

One of the things that makes traveling in NZ different from anywhere else I've traveled so far is the population size. There are just over four million people living here (and about 36 million sheep!). Don't quote me on those numbers because I'm pulling them from memory based on what I've been told or have read, and I'm too lazy to go look it up. You may be wondering why this affects travel and I'm about to tell you.


With so few people spread out over a comparatively large space, it means that cities and towns tend towards the small side. Let me give some examples. Approximately one-quarter of the population lives in the capital of Auckland. Greymouth, where I just spent one night, is the largest city on the west coast of the southern island with 8,500 inhabitants. And on the drive from Franz Josef Glacier (pop. 321) to Greymouth, our bus stopped in a place called Pukekara. Population: 2. (Yes, only 2! A husband and wife.)


Did you catch that? Our bus stopped in a place that only has two people living there. And this is what makes travel different. I think New Zealanders figure that if busloads of people are making their way from one end of the country to the other, they might as well capitalize on it. Because although these stops are called "comfort stops," they should really be called what they are: encouragements for you to spend your money on snacks, hot food, coffee, souvenirs, pellets to feed goats, pellets to feed salmon, and whatever else is on offer. After all, with a toilet on the bus there's really no reason to stop once (and in a few instances twice!) an hour. The amount of time the bus is stopped ranges from just a few minutes for a photo opp up to about 45 minutes for a meal break. As you can probably imagine, all of this stopping lengthens a trip quite a bit, usually making it about twice as long as it would be if driven by car. The buses I'm referring to, by the way, aren't even tour buses per se; they are public transport buses similar to Greyhound.


Don't get me wrong. I'm not exactly saying that I prefer the crowded-with-people-and-livestock buses of India or the treacherous road conditions of Indonesia. The buses are comfortable and the roads are in great shape. It's just that every now and then I'd like to shake the driver and tell him "We JUST stopped! Do NOT stop again! KEEP driving!" Oh, and there was that one driver who took a breath, started talking (over the P.A.), and didn't stop for almost four hours. Yeah, I wanted to shake him, too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Glacial

Yeah, so, about that glacier walk. I arrived at the Franz Josef Glacier Guide center at 12:30pm, got geared up with rain jacket, over trousers, boots, and crampons, got on the bus, and made the 10 minute journey to the starting point of the hike. You can see the glacier from across the valley and it doesn't look that far away, perhaps a 10 minute walk. It's an optical illusion, though, as it's actually 2.5 kilometers and about a 35-40 minute walk.




I chose to do a half day walk, so I had about two hours of ice time. I was hoping for photo opportunities to rival those of someone else I know, but - to be perfectly honest - I felt kind of meh about the glacier itself. I actually thought the surrounding scenery of the glacier valley and the glacier guide was much superior! It was fun tramping around on the ice, though, glad I wore two pairs of socks. :-) Seeing the blue color of the ice and knowing that the water was clean enough to drink were pretty neat, too.



Franz Josef Glacier

My internet time is just about expired, so I'm just going to share some photos from the glacier walk that I did today and I can tell more about it at another time.





Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wide awake me

Would someone please remind me that since my coffee consumption has greatly decreased over the last 10 months I no longer have the tolerance level I once had? That where once having a cup at 3pm or 8pm was no big deal, it actually now is a big deal? That if I do this to myself I.will.not.sleep?


Grrr. I've been awake since 6:30 this morning; it's now 1:30am in NZ and sleep doesn't look anywhere in sight.


How about a pretty picture of my drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier today to take my mind off of it?



Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Southern Alps

As I said before, the drive from Christchurch to Queenstown was lovely. The day was crisp and the skies were blue. The conditions were perfect for viewing Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in Australia and New Zealand at 3755m (12,319ft). Also seen along the way were lakes (including the largest one in NZ), lots of sheep, and of course the Southern Alps, a mountain range running along the west coast of NZ.




Queenstown itself is a quintessential ski town. It's cute and quaint and the streets are filled with tourists going into and out of the overpriced shops. It's very pretty, though, and everywhere you look you can see snow-capped mountains. My hostel is a bit further out of the town center than I'd like, but the price was right and I'm only staying for two nights so it's not a big deal.


Today I slept in after being kept awake for two hours by a drunken roommate who made her appearance at 4am this morning. Dorm life is grand, eh? Then I. . .well, actually, this is where fathers and grandmothers - or at least MY father and MY grandmother - might want to stop reading or skip ahead quite a bit. Queenstown, after all, is the extreme sports capital of the world.


It's the extreme sports capital of the world AND the birthplace of the bungee jump. Which means that I did what my father couldn't comprehend and "emulate[d] bird poo." I took a 40 minute drive out to the Nevis river and the world's first gondola bungee jump. It also happens to be one of the tallest jumps in the world at 134m/440ft. There were two guys riding out with me who were clearly very nervous and they kept asking me if I was scared or anxious. And actually, considering that I do have a little fear of heights, I wasn't really nervous at all. That is, until I was standing on the ledge, about to make the leap overboard. I may have uttered a few words that are blog-inappropriate. I may have screamed my head off. Then I was falling and bouncing and the skies were blue today also so the scenery was amazing. It was perhaps one of the craziest things I've ever done and I can't wait to do it again sometime.


(That's me!)


Once back in town, I treated myself to a glass of mulled wine to take in the scenery. Oh, okay - and bring my heart rate back down, too. It's an early night for me because I have an 8am bus tomorrow to Franz Josef Glacier. I've never seen a glacier in real life before, so I'm looking forward to some good photo opportunities.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Catching up on Christchurch

Hey, so, I'm in Queenstown! I barely managed to say anything at all about Christchurch and I've already left. Unfortunately, that's how it's going to be for the next week or so as I make my way around the south island because I'll be on the move quite a bit.


So let's catch up on Christchurch (CCH), shall we? It shouldn't take much to cover my days there because I didn't do a whole lot. I kind of feel like just picking a city in NZ, hunkering down, and staying awhile. In fact, if I didn't know that I'd hate myself for doing it, I'd fly straight to Auckland and do just that. But the south island is pretty and nature-y and stuff like that, so I'm here for a little while at least. Anyway. . .




My first full day in CCH got off to a late start because I didn't wake up until almost 11am. I hadn't been sleeping well my last few days in Melbourne, so I guess my body was catching itself up. Then it took me awhile to get out of the house because I was trying to time my leaving in between rain showers. I was staying with couchsurfers near Lincoln University which meant I had about a 1km walk to the bus stop followed by a 40 minute ride into the city center. (Oops! Forgot to mention I was surfing. My hosts this time were Sean (Kiwi), Merf (British), and Christine (German)). Once into the city, I followed Sean's advice and hit up some of the more popular sightseeing destinations: CCH Cathedral, Canterbury Museum, and CCH Art Gallery. I wandered around a bit, too, taking a few pictures, even though it was cold. In the evening I met up with Sean so that he could help me experience some of the CCH nightlife. It was quite fun. We went to a lot of pubs that had heaps of character and then wrapped up the night with cheap and tasty falafel sandwiches.


Saturday I didn't leave the house. That's it. That about says it all. (And no, I wasn't hungover. I was just feeling lazy. It was cold outside and the fire inside was warm and cozy.) Oh, well, wait a minute. Merf and Christine had a bunch of friends over for brunch on Saturday and I was welcomed into the fold. Most everyone in the group were expats, but there was one Kiwi to balance things out. It was interesting to learn people's reasons for moving to a far-off country and the french toast and bacon was yummy, so it was a good time.


Sunday I almost didn't leave the house again. Then I came to my senses and realized how silly that would be. Around 1pm Merf and Christine went out to run errands and Sean was doing some work on his car (his "ute"), so I figured I might as well get out, too. I ended up just hanging out in a coffee shop, doing some writing and people watching. I thought I might meet up with a friend, but she never showed and I just assumed she didn't get my email. After a couple of hours, I met Sean at the bus station because we were going to go to a little town outside of CCH called Lyttelton. Guess who wandered over while we were waiting for the bus? None other than Marina! No, it wasn't totally coincidental, I'd told her I would be there at that time, but I was having my doubts that she'd show. Unfortunately, she couldn't join us for our trip to Lyttelton because she had other plans, but at least we got to see each other, however brief it was. We also forced Sean to take a commemorative picture, lol - five countries now! He probably felt a bit like Will did, listening to us blather on and then be all goofy waving goodbye from the bus, but oh well. There's not much to Lyttelton except a harbor, but it was pretty and I got to see another kitschy, character-y kind of bar, too.


Finally, today, Monday. The plan had been to wake up early, super early, like 5:30am early, to go into town with Sean to watch the World Cup final game between Spain and the Netherlands. I was scheduled to be on a bus at 8:30am, so it was the only way I'd be able to see most of the game. The waking up was painful, but I managed it. Everything was going according to plan. Then. . .the car wouldn't start. Grrr. The car is more than 20 years old and I think it was just too cold for it. Sean and I grudgingly conceded defeat and went back inside to watch the game there instead. I stayed as long as I possibly could before I had to catch the bus into town and Sean figured he'd give the car one more try. Damn thing started up right away, wouldn't it figure? We were in town early enough to pop into a place that was showing the game, but couldn't stay til the end (don't worry, I heard on the bus that Spain won. Yay, that's who I was rooting for!).


I made it onto the bus - with a hot coffee in hand (legally!) - and settled in for an eight hour trip south to Queenstown, where I am now. It was a lovely ride, but more on that later. . .

Same same, but different


Now that I've been out of Oz for a few days and have had time to reflect on it, I suppose it's a good time to tell about my overall impressions of Australia. The big thing is that it's really similar to the US, but there are enough differences that it's noticeable. It's a bit hard to describe in writing, but there's a saying among backpackers, particularly in Asia: "same same, but different." (And, actually, I'm surprised I haven't mentioned it here before. I know I sent a shirt home for my brother with this written on it, though!) What comes closest for Americans (or at least Marylanders) is the phrase "same difference." In comparison to the US, it describes Australia well.


The biggest and most obvious similarity is that both countries are English speaking. You can find Target, Costco, KFC, and a lot of other familiar stores and fast food chains - but not Burger King! (A local chain was already called Burger King and they refused to sell out to the bigger chain. Instead, the exact same restaurant, complete with Whoppers, are called Hungry Jacks.) Bathrooms with hot showers and toilet paper are the norm. Before anyone questions why something so silly would be included on this list, you have to remember that I spent six months in Asia where the same could not be said. ;-) And french fries/chips! For the longest time for me, fries were a special treat that were hard to come by and usually overpriced and/or not that good when you could get them. In Australia chips come with everything. Sure, it makes sense for fries to come with burgers or sandwiches, but lasagne? That's just weird. Aussies like their chips so much, that I'm pretty sure if you cut them, they'd bleed chips.



As for the differences, let's put them in bullet form because there's quite a few more of those.
* Americans could learn a lot from the water conservation practices of Aussies. There's almost always a drought somewhere in Australia so everyone is really conscientious of their water usage. It's a bit hard to enjoy those hot showers when there are signs everywhere encouraging showers lasting four minutes or less! Also, toilets are equipped with two flush modes; one gives a full flush and the other gives a half flush, so you can choose how much water you're using.


* Larger than life food portions. I thought portion sizes in the US were huge, but I think they're actually bigger in Oz. After a few meals, Will and I realized that we could save money by splitting entrees. When he left, I continued to save money by turning one meal into two.


* Expensive! Yes, at first I had sticker shock just because I was used to prices in SE Asia. Eventually, though, I realized that everything just costs more, even when you take into consideration the currency exchange (which is pretty crappy for Americans right now, almost even to our dollar). A cocktail costs $17, a pair of souvenir underwear costs $20, a movie costs $18, internet is at least $4/hour, and a candy bar is $3. I even saw a box of PopTarts for sale that I was initially VERY excited about. . .until I saw the $17.95 price tag. I get that it's imported and all, but it was still five times as much as in the US.


* No drip coffee and coffee with names like flat white (cafe latte) and long black (espresso with hot water added). Took me awhile to figure those out. The coffee's still good, though, it's just espresso based instead. No Nescafe in sight!


* Early closing times/shorter business hours (or "trading hours" as they're called there). With the exception of a handful of 24 hour supermarkets or McDonald's, and Sydney where most places are open late, everything closes early. My first night in Perth, Will and I were catching up over a beer when we realized that the bar was closing. At first I thought we must've been chatting for hours and hours for it to be closing time already. In reality, it was only 8:45pm. In Melbourne, I went into a restaurant/bar at 5:30pm and was kicked out a half hour later because they were closing. Even shops are generally open from 10am to about 5pm and that's it (with even shorter hours on the weekend).


* Music videos. This is a bit of an odd one, although it's harmless and even a little bit fun. Lots of bars and restaurants in the States play music in the background as they do in Australia. But in Australia, the music video that goes with it is always playing on at least one of the large screen tvs. 


* (Road) Rule followers. Aussies love to follow the rules! At crosswalks only a few rogues dare to cross before the little green man tells them it's safe to do so. If the speed limit is 80km/hr, you can bet that that's how fast people will be driving. No hot drinks are allowed in cars or trucks and bus drivers and tour guides actually enforce it. (Hot drinks aren't served on planes either. I think it's an actual law of some sort. I have no idea how Aussies make it during a morning commute without coffee for the road, though.) 


I'm sure there are many others that I'll remember as soon as I hit 'publish,' but this is a good sampling, I think.


Two remaining thoughts as I wrap up Australia: 1) The similarities between the US and Australia are what made me so homesick because the sameness of it all only made me remember how far away I was from home. But those are the same things that make it easy for Americans to travel to Australia, so YOU should go if you ever have the chance. 2) If and when you go, try to spend more time on the west coast than the east coast. People were super friendly there and there's not nearly as many tourists. I wish I'd spent more time there and that's where I would head if I come back.

Friday, July 9, 2010

What's left of the plan

I made it to New Zealand! I'm officially on the other side of the planet from home!

I was g-chatting with ToadMama the other day and she commented that she enjoyed seeing my "map points getting closer and closer to North America" on the tracker map. It made me realize that I haven't updated anyone with my itinerary recently, so I thought I'd do that now. 

I will be in New Zealand for seven or eight weeks, spending the majority of my time on the northern island, most likely in Auckland (the biggest city in NZ). From there I will spent about two weeks in Fiji before heading back to the States (flying in to San Francisco). I haven't quite decided how much time to spend in California. Part of me really wants to do a two week driving tour of the California coast and also hit up Napa and Sonoma valleys for more wine tastings. But the other part of me knows that California isn't going anywhere and I can do that trip any time. So, it's still up in the air, but either way I'll spend at least a few days in San Fran before heading back to B-more.

And there you have it, what's left of my plan. Is anyone else kind of amazed that after all this time, there's only weeks left to my trip instead of months? I know I am. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rules are made to be broken



Today I'm breaking my own (unspoken) rule about only using my blog to wish family members a happy birthday. Will's birthday is today (maybe you figured that out from the picture of him on a hippo? lol). He's in a new city and his friends and family are far away, so he can't celebrate with them. I know a little bit about this (although what isn't mentioned in that post is that I celebrated my birthday with a friend of Toto's named Emily who was also celebrating her birthday; I still got a party even though I didn't know anyone!), so I just wanted to say Happy Birthday, Will! Even though I'm now almost a full day ahead of you - 19 hours with me in New Zealand and you in San Francisco - I wanted you to know that I'm thinking about you and hoping you have a great birthday.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Something to wine about

As I wind down my time in Australia, there was still one thing I wanted to do before I left: a wine tour. Australia is pretty well known for some of their wine varietals and since I've never been to a winery for a wine tasting before, I figured now would be the perfect time.
(The view at Domaine Chandon)


The wine tour that I chose was suggested to me by the owner of my hostel (who has been super helpful in more ways than one). We rode an hour outside of Melbourne to the Yarra Valley to get us started. At the first winery there was an informal wine tasting tutorial of sorts. We were taught the process of tasting wine - look at the wine color, swirl the wine in the glass, notice the aroma, take a small sip, and finally take a bigger sip and kind of "chew" the wine to help aerate it. Afterwards there were a number of wines that we could choose to taste, both lighter and heavier varieties.


At the second winery there were more tastings, but this time the goal was to choose a wine that we wanted to have with our lunch. I'd selected a lamb ragu pappardelle for lunch and decided that a pinot noir would be a lovely pair for it. Our tour group consisted of probably about 24 people and at lunch I was able to chat with Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indians, quite the international group. The restaurant also serves and sells a dozen different types of fudge and after lunch we were able to have free tastings of as many of them as we wanted. I'm pretty sure I tried almost all of them!


After lunch there were still two more wineries to visit with the last one being Domaine Chandon (of the Moet and Chandon family). At Domaine Chandon we were given full glasses of wine instead of just tasters and I chose a sparkling shiraz because I'd only ever had a sparkling red wine one other time before. Along with the sparkling wine there were cheese and chutney plates, as well. 
(Not a great picture, but it was one of only two of me taken during the tour.)


When all was said and done, we were given the opportunity to taste 60 different wines at four different wineries. I lost track of how many I tried, but I didn't even come close to trying half of them. I just know that I tried chardonnay, fume blanc, sauvingnon blanc, cabernet sauvingnon, sangiovese, fortified cabernet, dessert wine, and a number of sparkling wines. So, uh, yeah, I tried a bunch. :-) We had a wonderful lunch and enjoyed really pretty scenery on the way to and from the Yarra Valley. I'd say that's a great way to spend a day!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Three

When I left the States back in October, my youngest nephew Joey was a few months over two years old. He couldn't say "Aunt Shannon" so he just called me Sha-Sha (which was cute because that's what his mom used to call me when she was a kid and couldn't pronounce my name either). About six weeks later, I was Skyping with ToadMama, my sister, and all the kids. Luckily someone blogged about it because I just checked and it wasn't me. What isn't mentioned in that post, though, is that at one point during the Skype call, Joey ran over to the computer screen, grabbed at it, and said "Aunt Shannon, got your nose! Got your nose, Aunt Shannon!" before running off again. Ok, so that's cute because of the got your nose game happening via Skype, but the only thing I could think was, "When did he learn to say my name?! I haven't been gone for that long."


And now, today, Joey turns three. I realized way back in November that this little guy wouldn't stay two just because I was on the other side of the planet. I can only imagine how much he's grown (literally and figuratively) since then. I've missed it and that makes me sad, but I know I'll be home soon enough. Til then, Happy Birthday, buddy! And to use Joey's words: I miss you whole bunch! Someone give that kid a big hug and kiss for me!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Brings back memories

It's the age old backpacker's question: "So, where are you from?" For me this late in the game, if I haven't been to the asker's hometown, we've at least traveled to a lot of the same places, so there's some common ground there. 

(On the St. Kilda pier where, as you can tell, it was quite windy.)


When I met Nagla on my first full day in Melbourne and he told me that he was an Egyptian from Cairo, well hey, I've been there! And we were off with the chatting. It was already late in the day because a) I was being lazy and didn't even shower until 1:30pm and b) Nagla, having flown direct from Cairo a couple of days earlier, was jetlagged and slept until after noon, but we decided to continue our chat and pal around for awhile. We walked to the St. Kilda beach area and hit up the shopping area of Chapel St. on our way back. The next day Nagla woke me up bright and early (8:30am, at which time I begged for an extra half hour of sleep!) and we went into the city. We went to the Immigration Museum, shopped at Queen Victoria Market, and wandered Federation Square. Blah, blah, and it's not all that exciting and you can see pictures of it here. That's not the point of this post.


The point is that spending time with Nagla has made me recall my time in Egypt and in Dubai, and all the friends that I made while I was there. I spent more time with Amiri (who, wow, didn't get an official mention until well after I'd met him, sorry Amiri!) than with anyone else and I was glad to find that all of the slang Arabic words and phrases that he taught me (those that I could still remember anyway) came in handy all these months later. It's wild how much you can see culture in a person. By this I mean that the way Nagla acts or talks or feels is really similar to how my other Egyptian friends act, talk, or feel. A lot of times when he says something, it reminds me of Peet or Morgan or Mickey. I find myself having to explain to Nagla why I'm grinning at something he just said or did, so that he doesn't think I'm laughing at him. :-) Also, I think Egyptians more than anyone else I've met are the ones who are trying their hardest to improve their English (even when it's already damn good and WAY better than my Arabic). They are persistent and will say a word over and over again to get it right, often using it in a sentence at a later time. It's really cool.


This is coming out all mushed sounding and I have no idea if I'm making any sense. I guess there's really two things I'm trying to say: 1) Culture and the things in life that join together to make a group of people who they are is really fascinating, and 2) I really miss all of my Egyptian friends! I hope you're all well and that our paths cross again soon. Sorram ya nefisa sorram if my words to describe how much it means to me to have met and gotten to know all of you aren't as eloquent as they sound in my head. 

MADE my day

The other day when I was experiencing travel FAILS and feeling particularly homesick, I got an email from my friend David that totally made my day.


David is a Canadian that I met in Istanbul. I never mentioned him by name (sorry David!), but he's one of the CSers mentioned here. He and I stayed in touch over the last few months and even thought that we'd meet up somewhere in SE Asia, but our schedules never jived. You see, he spent four months in India and Nepal, even doing some serious trekking, before heading to Thailand. By then I was long gone. And he'll be coming to Australia, too, but won't get here until about a month and a half after I leave. So about that email. Attached was this picture:




See what I mean about it making my day? Don't worry, I asked his permission before I posted it. Just so you don't think that's the only picture he sent me, there were others, too:


(Annapurna in the Himalayas. David and his friends trekked for 26 days to a height of 5400m/17,716ft. Wow!)


Thanks, David, for cheering me up just when I needed it most. I'm still hoping our paths will cross again at some point soon.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Travel FAIL

I don't know if you all have heard about FAIL Blog, but it was the first thing I thought of when I experienced a major travel FAIL this week (this, of course, after my minor travel FAIL, also this week).


On Monday, I booked a ticket from Melbourne to Christchurch, New Zealand on 8 July.


On Wednesday, I booked the exact same ticket. Because I FORGOT that I had already booked it. I mean, it was only a difference of two days. How could I have forgotten??


Of course it was a non-refundable ticket, those are always the cheapest ones. I figured I'd call the airline and see if they'd have pity on me. I thought that even if they didn't refund it, perhaps I could use it as credit on another flight without penalty. My explanation kind of went like this: "You see, I've been traveling for 10 months. I must be getting tired. My brain is mush."


And. . .it worked! The airline refunded the second ticket I purchased which was actually the more expensive ticket. All's well that ends well, I suppose, but let's hope I don't make this mistake again because I don't think the airline would buy it a second time!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Seven minutes


Seven minutes doesn't seem like such a long time, does it? I didn't think so, either, but apparently it is to Tiger Airways. I missed my very first flight ever (out of 20 flights in the last 10 months and many dozens of flights in years prior) trying to get to Melbourne from Sydney. Check-in closes 45 minutes ahead of the flight with Tiger; it seems to me that most other airlines close a half-hour ahead of time. I'd like to blame slow trains or long lines or even Tiger, but the reality is that I just didn't plan very well. I have no one to blame but myself - I made a stupid, newbie mistake in not allowing enough time to get to the airport and I should know better after all this time. Although. Part of me also says "come on! seven minutes?! an exception? please?" Particularly since as I was sitting at the gate, there were multiple calls for five other passengers who weren't on the flight yet while I was sitting there, waiting, ready to board a flight! Grrr.

It's not really that big a deal. I booked myself on the 7pm flight instead of the 4:35pm flight (although the $70 fee I had to pay is about the same amount of the original flight, so that sucks). So why was I in tears as I walked toward my gate (and no, I'm not PMSing)? I was in tears because I want to go home. And instead of being stuck in the airport as I head home, I'm going to Melbourne. Where it's cold. And I'm kind of tired of traveling. Plus, I got used to having a travel buddy in the last month and I'm back to being alone again.

BUT! I will be okay. I've suffered homesickness before and I won't let it stop me this time either. Besides, I may not ever have another chance to visit Melbourne and I'm already here so I HAVE to forge on to New Zealand. I finally got into Melbourne around 10:30pm or so and I'm having Tim Tams (my new addiction!) for dinner. The picture below relates to nothing at all, but I like it and wanted to share it. :-)


(My last night in Sydney was spent writing postcards with chocolate and a glass of wine close at hand.)