Saturday, November 21, 2009

Losing the War in VIETSCAM

You know that old adage... If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Well, that's the main reason for my silence about Vietnam. It's not that I don't have anything nice to say. It's just that for every good experience here, I've had about 20 bad ones to follow.

I came to this country with the same earnest and excitement with which I entered the 7 countries that preceded it. I had heard great stories. I wanted to love Vietnam. But every time I started to warm to it, something incredibly annoying, insulting or underhanded occured.

A few examples...

I left Cambodia with two sisters, Gill and Amanda, who I've been traveling with for the last few weeks. We hopped on a bus from Phnom Penh at silly-o-clock in the morning to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known as Saigon. We arrived completely knackered, so instead of trying to figure out where we were on the map, we simply hopped in the first taxi we saw. When we told the driver the name of our hotel, he looked at us in complete bewilderment, drove around the corner, then told us to get out of the car. He pointed to the exact spot where we flagged him down and he showed us that we were standing directly in front of it before he picked us up. He then had the nerve to charge us 9,000 Vietnamese Dong for the mishap. Our belongings were locked in his trunk, so we figured the only way to get of the situation was to pay him his $0.50 and get on with it. Since we were fresh off the bus and had just procured some cash from the nearest ATM, the smallest note we had was 100,000 Dong. We handed him the bill and waited for our change. But instead of giving us the 91,000 we were owed, he handed us 10,000. Gill looked at me and said, "Should we just forget it?" accepting defeat. But I adamantly said, "NO!" and proceeded to have a 5 minute argument with the shady taxi driver in which I whipped out my calculator and did the math for him, demanding the rest of our change. At long last, he handed over the other 80,000 and cursed us under his breath as he got back into the car.

Not exactly the warm welcome we were expecting! Considering this an isolated incident, we tried to have a positive outlook and forget about it. But the scams were only beginning.

In Sapa, we booked a 3 hour tour of the countryside. After driving a mere 6 miles out of town, stopping at a couple villages where we were harassed to buy cheap handicrafts, the driver informed us that our tour was actually over and he would need to take us back to town after a mere 45 minutes. I demanded to get the booking agent on the phone to clear up the discrepancy, but he informed us that the tour only takes 3 hours if we spend quite a bit of time in the villages. Considering that we had no interest in spending our afternoon selecting which annoying lady to purchase a tacky embroidered handbag from, we decided to head back to town. The tour operator suggested we ask around town about the same tour, and if we were able to find another company to offer the same tour for less money, he would refund our money. So we headed straight to the first company we saw, got a quote for a lower cost, and marched right back to his office. When we provided him with the information, he refused to hand over our money. After a heated argument and the realization that he was not ever going to refund a cent, I determined the only course of action was to park myself in front of his office and tell every passing tourist that they should avoid this liar and cheat at all costs. I would have preferred a refund, but causing him a loss of business was nearly as satisfying.

When we arrived in Hanoi, we decided we would avoid tours of any kind and take a walk to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. It turns out his body had been sent to Russia for re-embalment, so there wasn't really anything to see. Gill's feet were aching, so she suggested grabbing a taxi back to town. There are only a couple of legitimate taxi companies in Hanoi, but after about 15 minutes of trying to track one down to no avail we finally gave up and grabbed the next one we saw. BIG MISTAKE!!! After about 10 blocks, I glanced at the meter and saw that the cost was skyrocketing at rate of about $1.00 per second! I started screaming, "Stop the car!" "Pull over!" "STOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!" The driver rounded the corner, pulled over and asked us to pay the equivalent of $9 US dollars for the 2 minute taxi ride. When we refused, he got very angry and started screaming at us to pay. Trying to open the doors and roll down the windows, we realized that he had locked us in the car and was holding us hostage. The girls got scared and whipped out a 100,000 Dong bill (about $6) and handed it to him, but this wasn't enough. "$50,000 more!" he screamed. He then began fidgeting with the window lock and accidentally switched it off. In that split second, I managed to get the window down and began screaming, "HELP! HELP! POLICE!" at the top of my lungs. I guess we found his weak spot, and the doors miraculously unlocked. We scooted out of the car faster than bats out of hell. I said goodbye with a few of my favorite 4-letter words and kicked the door as hard as I could, denting it only for a moment before the ingenuity of Japanese engineering popped the metal back into place.

It was then that I realized how strongly I hate this country. After 3 weeks of being given unfavorable exchange rates by hotels, being overcharged at restaurants for food or drinks never ordered, and just generally feeling like a walking ATM, I've reached my max on being swindled. The bank of Miranda is closed. Operating hours are over. This ATM is out of service!

But the thing is, there is always a silver lining. Despite the stress and frustration that this country has caused, I have found an amazing group of cohorts to share the pain with. Last night for the final dinner of this journey, I enjoyed the company of 6 friends, a couple bottles of good wine, and many laughs about the underhanded schemes of the Vietnamese. We licked our wounds and bonded over war stories. Truth be told, it really does feel like I've been through my own version of a Vietnam War, only I've more aptly named this one the Viet-SCAM War. And like the War waged 50 years ago, the Americans have lost again. Only this time, the casualties aren't human lives, but bank accounts, credit cards and sheer dignity.

I'm headed to the airport in about 30 minutes, and I have never looked forward to a 17 1/2 hour journey with such relief and enthusiasm. I am more ready to go home than I ever could have imagined just a few short weeks ago. Pinkberry, Annie the cat, and playing cards with my family are just a few of the simple pleasures that await. Clean laundry, dry toilet seats and the ability to walk down the street without being solicited to buy a moto taxi ride, photocopied book, or bruised bananas will be a little slice of heaven. There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home.

And because I can't end on a completely sour note, I'll leave you with this video clip that should provide a chuckle or 2. The sense of accomplishment of crossing the road in Saigon was equivalent to what I imagine Michael Phelps felt after winning his 11 gold medal. Check it out!


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Complexity of Cambodia

Cambodia seems at once part of, and removed from, the rest of SE Asia. It borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, yet seems worlds away from them all. I was warned that the people would be aggressive and to hold on to my purse tightly. And although Cambodia is incredibly impoverished, it is also a country of immense beauty. Its history is both glorious and tragic, mesmerizing and bewildering, noble and shameful. Cambodia is perhaps the most complex country I have visited, and one that takes more than a few days to comprehend.

I started in Siem Reap. From here, I spent two days touring the temples of Angkor, the ancient city built in the 12th century. There are 72 temples within the Angkor region. Walking amongst these stone towers, decorated with intricate carvings of both Buddhist and Hindu gods, one begins to imagine what this place must have been like 850 years ago. Monks would spend their days praying, while the king and royal court would watch dance performances within the grand palace. Villagers would hold market and sell their wares, while flute music floated through the air.

I toured about a dozen of the temples in this region, with the crowning jewel being Angkor Wat itself. The temple is considered one of the best examples of of Khmer architecture, with stone towers soaring high above the once-crocodile-filled moats below. Bas reliefs adorn the walls, depicting Hindu stories of battles won and lost amongst ancient gods. One cannot help but marvel at the strength of these buildings to withstand centuries and the timeless artistry within their walls.

Though Angkor is the pride of Cambodia, it is only a piece of Cambodia's real identity. There is a story of unbelievable horror and tragedy that lives alongside Angkor's glory... the story of genocide under Pol Pot's regime from 1975-1979. Today I visited the killing fields of Choung Ek, a place where thousands of Cambodians were executed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. A stupa has been erected to house the 8,000+ skulls excavated after the genocide ended. I stood there, looking at the stacks of skulls of men, women and children, and an overwhelming feeling of grief washed over me. I choked back tears and forced myself to wander through the grounds and try to gain some understanding of what exactly transpired in this field where over 100 Cambodians were executed daily during the nightmare.

The executions were part of a "purge," that sought to rid the country of any resistance to the communist party. Any person seen as intelligent or suspected of resistance would be interrogated, tortured, and eventually killed. Their family members would be executed as well in order to avoid any future revenge. The methods of the torture and killing were unthinkably brutal. Electrocution, strangling, and bludgeoning to death were only a few methods used in the "extermination" of these innocent people.

After almost 4 years of genocide, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead... one-quarter of the entire population.

It is impossible to understand how or why something like this could have happened. How can millions of people be systematically murdered under the nose of agencies like the UN and nothing be done to stop it? How can young boys be brainwashed into murdering their families? How can someone hold a baby by its legs and smash its head against a tree?

And why does the dark side of human nature rear itself so horrifically in a place of such deep-seated faith in Buddha and his tenants of love and kindness?

Herein lays the complexity of Cambodia and the contradictions that trouble these people. At first glance, Cambodians are happy and proud of their country. School children on bicycles wave to Westerners in tuk-tuks. Waiters recommend the local Angkor beer. Hotel staff say goodbye as if you are their distant relatives and they hope for the day when you return again to say hello. But underneath their cheerful veneer is the sadness of loss and the pain of unending grief. Most people have a friend or a relative who they lost during this dark period. Some people, including the current king, lost their entire family.

How does a country heal in the aftermath of such atrocity?

Although I will leave Cambodia tomorrow with more questions than answers, I will also leave with inspiration. To see a people face their days smiling in the shadow of such a tragedy proves that their resolve to move forward is perhaps even stronger than the stone that built Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Experience: Thailand to Laos

Some take the road less traveled; I choose to take the river less traveled instead. Opting out of a bus or a plane, I cruised for 2 very long days down the Mekong River via a slow boat from Thailand into Laos. About 20 minutes into the journey on day 1, another boat blew its gearshift and the 50 passengers on board that one climbed onto ours. All of a sudden an already crowded boat became absolutely packed. I was lucky enough to have a seat on one of the very luxurious wooden benches. Most of the crowd from the broken boat were forced to sit on the floor in the center aisle, preventing anyone from being able to move about the boat without stepping over arms, legs or weary heads. The alternative for the shipwrecked passengers was to find a spot amongst the luggage, where the comfort of sitting on the soft packs was marred by the diesel fumes and loud grumble of the engine. The reality was that no seat was particularly comfortable after 3 hours, or 5, or especially 7. My butt became sore, my joints ached and my head grew tired.

But there is something really unique about entering a country via a river… to see the nature before you see an airport or a bus station. The landscape is beautiful and serene: steep cliffs covered in thick jungle, the murky brown Mekong giving bath to young children, and long fishing boats docked to the shore of tiny bamboo villages. Dragonflies skim the surface of the water and birds soar aimlessly in the clear blue sky.

Being amongst 100 travelers, held captive on the boat with no television, cell service or wifi, we are forced to find another means of entertainment. We exchange tips and itineraries, share a Beer Lao and a baguette, and get to know each other. There are certainly faster ways to travel from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, but there is something special about taking the long way. For lack of a better word, it is an Experience.

I’ve realized that gaining new Experiences is what this trip is all about for me. Doing things I normally wouldn’t or couldn’t in the good ol’ U-S-of-A is the essence of my intention. Therefore I’ve packed as many Experiences into a short amount of time as possible. Since I last blogged, I’ve zip-lined through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Imagine being rigged to a wire and flying through the trees like a monkey on crack. Better yet, watch!

I also jumped off a 12-foot high waterfall into silver-blue water near Luang Prabang. After eying a couple of Laos kids jump, I was the first “farang” (i.e. white person) brave enough to break the ice, and thankfully not break a leg. And then, I spent an entire day bar hopping along a river in Vang Vieng via an inner tube. Each bar had a different style of music playing and some sort of contraption that you could probably kill yourself jumping off of, but I somehow managed to survive both the buckets of whiskey and red bull and the strong river current with only a few minor cuts and bruises (though I did say goodbye to my favorite pair of Haviana flip flops as they sailed downstream faster than I could swim… a small price to pay for a day of lascivious debauchery).

I read a traveler quote recently that struck a chord, “I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.” I have tried to capture the most poignant moments, people and places in this blog. I have focused on the major events, the Experiences with a capital “E”. But there are so many experiences with a lowercase “e” that fill in the gaps of my days. And I wonder how time will play a role in defining which experiences become Big and little in importance. In the end, what will I take away from it all… the echo of my scream as I soar through the trees or the smile of the little Laos boy on the road as I wave to him from the back of a tuk-tuk? The rush of excitement as I jump from the waterfall and plunge into the cool water below or the pride of negotiating the cost of a taxi ride down by 75%? Getting into a mud fight along the river in Vang Vieng or getting off a 4-hour bus ride and replacing the cramp in my leg with the surge of excitement that a new destination awaits me? I hope, in the end, that I will not only remember the Experiences with a capital “E”, but that I will be able to conjure the smallest moments as well. Because this journey is not defined by one Event or single Experience, but it is the sum of it all: big, little, easy, hard, good, bad and beautiful.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Will the Real Thailand Please Stand Up?

In a tiny village 2 hours north of Chiang Mai, a fellow tourist turned to me and said, “Now this is the Real Thailand.” The thought struck me as odd. What does that mean about the rest of Thailand? That it’s not real?

But I got her gist. She meant that because this village is removed from busy city life, it is more authentic in some way. That old traditions are slower to vanish high in the hills. That the way of life of villagers is a glimpse into Thailand’s past.

I agree to an extent, but I don’t think it’s quite that clear or simple to define what is “real.” Outside a straw hut, with pigs roaming in the yard and rice growing in the fields, there was a satellite dish. MTV and CNN now flash before the villagers’ eyes nightly. Call it modernization, Westernization or globalization… they all indicate the same phenomenon: influence of the new on the old. Although the old women of the village still dress in the traditional costume, the young people wear Adidas and Levis.

In a former life at Reed College, I read many versions of this same story. Anthopologists tend to seek out the most remote, isolated, “authentic” cultures. There is a desire to understand ways of life so completely foreign and removed from mainstream society. But there are very few places in the world where MTV and Levis don’t exist. And I sort of find the whole thing a little ironic. It’s as if Westerners are searching for the most remote and removed people to get a glimpse into the “real” way of life, and the people who live in these places are longing for Western influence to understand what’s current and cool. It’s a viscous cycle, because once the isolated village is discovered, it is no longer isolated.

I’ll stop with the academics for a minute and get to the point. I think the “real” Thailand is everywhere, not just tucked away on a dirt road up in the jungle. The real Thailand for me is the kindness of the people, the way they greet you with sincerity. It’s removing your shoes when you walk into a store or covering your shoulders when you enter a temple to signify respect. The real Thailand is the women parked in front of their massage parlors, hollering “Massage for yoooouuu, I give you good price” in their nasally English. It’s the chaotic markets and street food vendors displaying their dried squid like badges of honor. It’s everything and everywhere.

After 25 days in this amazing country, I will say goodbye tomorrow. I will head north and spend one last night on the edge of Thailand before entering Laos and cruising on a slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prapang. Thailand is beautiful country and I hope someday I can return to uncover more of its magic. But until then, I just want to say thanks Thailand… for keeping it real.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Plight of the Domesticated Elephant in Thailand

Once upon a time in a land called Thailand, there was a beautiful young elephant named Jokia. She roamed freely through the jungle with her mother, grazing on grass, bananas, watermelon or whatever she could get her trunk around. She loved to bathe in the river, especially on hot days.

Then one day she was taken captive by humans and sold to a logging outpost. Her future became bleak, and the long days spent in the river were gone. She never saw her mother again.

The loggers wanted to use her to haul huge logs out of the jungle, but first they had to train her. Training meant locking her in a very small cage and stabbing her with a stick that has a nail attached to the end. This was repeated daily for weeks until her soul had been "broken" and she would obey human command.

By the time Jokia was broken and put to work, she was pregnant. When she went into labor while pulling a log up a hill, the loggers wouldn't let her stop working to give birth, so the baby rolled down a cliff to its death. Jokia sat down and refused to move, stricken with grief. Her keeper then stabbed her in one eye and partially blinded her in order to get her back to work. When she refused to work again another day, her keeper stabbed her other eye and blinded her completely for life.

Logging in Thailand was outlawed in 1989 and suddenly Jokia found herself blind and out of work. Eating about 300-400 lbs of food a day, she became an unwanted expense. But she couldn't return to the jungle, as she had no herd and her domestication left her without the proper tools to fend for herself.

If only this were a fairy tale... But don't fret, there is a happy ending to this story, at least for Jokia.

One day Jokia met a woman named Lek, who would change Jokia's luck for the better. Lek rescues domesticated elephants and brings them to her sanctuary north of Chiang Mai, where she sees that they have proper medical care, nourishment and the freedom to become wild again. It is a magical place. Jokia found happiness, and even got pregnant again at Lek's sanctuary, something that would not have happened if she still felt threatened and scared.

I met so many elephants and heard so many heartbreaking stories, that I could fill a novel with their darkest moments. Lek has 32 rescued elephants: some that stepped on land mines, some that were orphaned, some whose tusks had been poorly poached leaving them with deep infections, and many who were used for tourism and are too old and run down to work any longer. The stories of their plight and rescue are both heart-breaking and inspiring.

There are approximately 2,500 domesticated elephants in Thailand. Some beg for money with their keepers on the streets of Thailand. They drink polluted water and don't get enough vegetation to eat, nevermind the ill effects of the city sounds and lights. Some are used for trekking tourists through the jungle. Others are used for elephant shows, where they play music and paint. All of these trades utilize the same training methods used on Jokia.

But there is no easy solution. Domesticated elephants cannot be released into the wild because there is not enough jungle for them to survive within given the extensive logging practices pre-1989. So unless there is a serious shift in tourism and people are educated about the conditions, tourists will continue to fund their torture. Lek cannot solve this problem single-handedly. Until there are more elephant sanctuaries and fewer elephant shows, the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand will persist.

If any of my faithful readers ever visit Chiang Mai, I strongly urge you to spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park and soak up its beauty. I spent the day feeding the elephants, bathing them and admiring their majestic grace. They are amazing creatures and my reverence of them has grown infinitely deeper after this experience. They are enormous, yet docile. Playful and mischievous. Wise, yet innocent. Their love of Lek and the mahouts who care for them is both visible and enduring.



I have lived so many incredible experiences during this journey, but only a handful have given me the sort of inspiration that will touch me forever. This is one of them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Calm Gets Calmer in Chiang Mai

Thailand in 3 parts… First came paradise in the islands. Then came controlled chaos in Bangkok. Now, it's peace in the jungle. It’s easy to understand why so many Europeans and Australians settle permanently in Chiang Mai. It is both lively enough to be engaging, but calm enough to be peaceful. The old city is a mile-wide square block of narrow cobblestone streets that randomly curve into each other. Each turn of a corner brings a new set of guesthouses, massage parlors, and fresh juice bars. It is a city where the number of bookstores outweighs the number of 7-11’s. It is a city where an entire day can pass without notice.

I wasn’t planning to update my blog until I had experienced a few of the incredible excursions I have planned over the next few days. But then I realized that the way I’ve spent the last few days in Chiang Mai perhaps better exemplifies life here than any of the adventures slated later this week.

Sitting next to an infinity pool as still as glass, eating fresh pineapple and listening to the silence, I have officially settled into the northern way of life. Clouds fill the sky and a thunderous rain quenches the earth for an hour or so each night. Shopkeepers nap in their plastic lawn furniture, unsure whether a customer is worth the waking. Vanilla-scented incense wafts slowly out of windows. Tuk-tuk drivers recline with a cigarette and watch the market-goers stroll by, more content to people-watch than keen on securing a fare. I enjoy my sweet, Thai iced coffee each morning and languidly linger with a book. When it's time for a change of scenery, I find the next cafe and repeat the process. The weather is warm, but not sweat-through-your-t-shirt-by-9:00-in-the-morning-hot like the islands. The people are kind, not like the where-are-you-going-do-you-want-to-buy-some-fake-jems-overbearing people in Bangkok. The food is spicy and the massages are cheap. At $8 a night for accommodation, $3 for a used book and $1 for a cold beer, it's probably less expensive for me to stay than to leave. Except, of course, I may run into a problem with my Visa eventually expiring. Details.

Today I took a cooking class. Tomorrow I will visit an elephant sanctuary. The day after, I will tour the secluded hill tribe villages. Perhaps I’ll find a day to mimic the monkeys and zipline through the jungle. So much activity may come as a rude awakening to my blissed out being. But I may invest in a few extra days here just to breathe in the calm and savor the silence. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Chiang Mai so far, it’s that slow and steady would win the race, if there were a race, but there’s not… so just relax.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Alone Again in Ayuttaya

Apologies for the dead air space. But as you may know, I spent the last 2 weeks with my dear friend Megan. It’s certainly difficult to find the time to blog when you have a travel companion. So, if you have been checking for updates recently, you can blame Megan for your disappointment.

Having travelled for 2 months on my own, then having travelled for 2 weeks with a friend has drawn a strong contrast for me. I get asked the question all the time, “Do you like travelling alone?” The answer is, “Yes and no.” There are things I love about travelling solo: the freedom to go where I want when I want, the ease of choosing a restaurant, the people I meet… because I have to. But there are times when it all just feels difficult: I can’t go to the bathroom at the airport without bringing all of my belongings with me, I inevitably miss a spot on my back when applying my own sunscreen, there is no one to consult the map with when I’m lost, and mostly… there is no one to share the experiences with.

I said goodbye to Megan on the streets of Bangkok and I was instantly struck with homesickness for the first time this trip. Knowing I would need to get back into the swing of making every decision, peeing with my backpack on and getting odd shaped sunburns suddenly felt overwhelmingly challenging. In the taxi to the train station I got a little teary-eyed. Having the comfort of a friend, then feeling abruptly alone in this big world made me wonder if I was ready to pack my bags and catch the next flight home.

But then something happened. Sitting on the train from Bangkok to Ayuttaya, I watched the city fade away to beautiful grasslands and rice fields and realized that this is what I signed up for. The struggle. I wanted to challenge myself in different ways. Hence bungy, hence ice hiking, hence getting on a train and facing the unknown alone.

When I arrived in Ayuttaya, I checked into a beautiful guesthouse and met a lovely English woman with whom I had dinner, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t alone anymore. We had a couple Singhas in the garden of the guesthouse and laughed like old friends about the lady boys, ping pong shows and other sexual transgressions of the Thai. I went to bed ready to conquer the next chapter of this adventure with total affirmation that I am not done yet. Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam await.

I can’t possibly fill you in on everything I’ve experienced so far in Thailand. But I will say that camping on “the beach” (where the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed), swimming in a hidden bay of warm turquoise water and playing cards into the wee hours with new friends on Ko Phi Phi Leh was one of the best nights I’ve had this trip. Listening to chilled out house music, perched atop the Mellow Mountain Bar and watching the fire jump ropers below at the Full Moon Party in Ko Phag-nan, was an experience burned as deeply in my memory as the scars on the people who missed the right moment to jump over the flaming rope. Eating crispy spring rolls while watching the sun quietly set behind majestic cliffs, eating a Thai pancake smothered in Nutella while wandering the cobblestone streets, having the most amazing foot massage of my life in a perfectly air-conditioned room , or climbing to the top of Phi Phi Don to see the panoramic view of this paradise island… these are the memories from Thailand that I will carry with me when I eventually move on. And although I know that traveling alone is making me stronger, I am grateful that there was a witness to a piece of this journey, and that for a while, I had someone to share the memories with. Thank you Megan, for watching my bags while I used the toilet, for thoroughly applying sunscreen to those hard to reach areas, and for sharing a piece of this incredible adventure with me. You are truly a great friend and a good sport, given that I kicked your ass about a hundred times in hand and foot :)!

Tonight I catch the overnight train to Chiang Mai where I plan to take a cooking class, take daytrips to tribal villages and visit an elephant sanctuary. Should be blissful!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Doing Nothing Well in Perhentian Kecil

From Kuala Lumpur, I took a monorail to a train to a plane to a taxi to a boat to an island called Perhentian Kecil, which is off the north east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. I knew the journey had been worthwhile when the speedboat pulled up to an island paradise covered in lush rainforest that reaches almost to the turquoise sea, barred only by a strip of soft, powdery, white sand.

There really isn’t much to this island. About a half dozen “hotels,” an equal number of dive schools, 4 bars and 3 restaurants dot the shore. The reason why I’ve used the term hotel loosely is because the accommodations are actually what Malaysians term chalets, which is a grandiose way of saying they are groupings of wooden A-frame structures that I would more aptly term “shacks.” My shack comes complete with a light bulb dangling precariously from the bathroom ceiling from which I shocked myself trying to close the bathroom door, a faint smell of mildew permeating the walls and bedding, and a requisite 5-foot long lizard who lives underneath the building (if the photo frightens you, imagine waking up to this every morning).

It’s clear the island has not quite figured out the meaning of infrastructure. Electricity on the island is powered by grumbling generators and for the most part, no electricity is available during daylight hours. Wires are loosely strung along pathways that if you’re taller than 5-feet, you have to duck to avoid. Trash is also a major problem. What isn’t burned is taken on boats to trash stations in the middle of the sea… occasionally. So there are piles and piles of trash bags that lay in waiting behind the beachfront façade until the owners scrounge together enough cash to pay a water taxi to haul it away. Let's just say a nose plug would have come in handy at times.

But none of this seemed to matter when I was laying on the beach under an umbrella and pondering absolutely nothing. Or when I was wading in 75-degree, crystal clear water watching the clouds roll slowly across the sky. Or when I was sitting at a beach front café eating spicy curry and sipping on a watermelon smoothie. Or when I was snorkeling, imagining that I, myself was actually a fish (I want to be one of the blue and pink bio-luminescent ones whose shit glows).

The questions that passed through my mind during the course of the day were very deep and philosophical. Questions like, “Is it time to reapply sunscreen?” “What do I want to eat?” “Do I want to go back in the water or lay here and read?” Tough choices were made every minute of every day.

What the island lacks in refinement it makes up for in beauty. The sun is about to go down on my last day on the island and I have to admit, I’m a little sad to leave it behind. With the jam packed days of New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur behind me, it’s been quite nice to ease into this life of leisure. And it’s not a lifestyle I plan to relinquish anytime soon if I an help it.

Next up: meeting Megan (hooray for the first, and likely, only brave soul to join me in this adventure!) and heading to the full moon party in Ko Phagnan, Thailand. No doubt island life will take on a slightly different slant with 30,000 revelers filling the beach with their glow sticks and blinking necklaces, but I’m certain it will be a memorable experience.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kuala Lumpur, In a Nutshell

I've been wrestling with what it is precisely that I like most about Kuala Lumpur and there isn't a neat and tidy answer. It is not the cleanest city. The streets form no particular pattern and it's easy to get lost. It's hot. I mean the kind of wet, humid heat that makes you start sweating at 8:00 in the morning and not stop until you take a cold shower at night.

But there's something that makes me incredibly happy here. I find myself walking down a street, soaked from the humidity and all of a sudden a blast of cool air-conditioned wind flies out of a storefront. Or I think I'm on the brink of passing out, and I find a street vendor selling ice-cold coconut juice for 29-cents. Or the way traffic rushes by, but the people on the street can't be bothered to walk faster than a snail's pace.

Like Singapore, it's a place where East meets West. Muslim mosques are perched beneath corporate high rises. Chinatown is home to Burger King and McDonald's. Veiled women shop for Gucci and Prada.



In fact, the most notable buildings in KL are the Petronas Twin Towers, designed by an American Architect. These towers rank 9th in terms of the tallest structures in the world, but held the record as the tallest from 1998 to 2004 stretching 1,482 feet into the sky. Like the Sydney Opera House, I found myself astounded by their beauty and magnitude. Check out the photo link to see more.

I'll leave this post short and sweet as I have to wake up at an ungodly hour tomorrow to catch a flight to Kota Bharu, take a 40 minute bus, then an hour jetty to finally arrive at the paradise island of Perhentian Kecil. 5 days of snorkeling, reading, and working on my "tan" should peel the layers of dirt and sweat right off me. Oh and people, please, step up to the plate and leave a comment dammit! I'm starting to wonder who's reading this besides my wonderful, supportive, slightly worried parents. Love you mom and dad :)!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stranger in an Even Stranger Land: 2 Nights, 1 Day in Singapore

I left Cairns, Australia, and arrived in Singapore 2 days ago. Cairns has a population of 158,000 people. Singapore has a population of 4.86 million people. Cairns is a small beach town. Singapore, a bustling city. There are no high rise buildings in Cairns. There are no surfer tans in Singapore. Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore. Clearly.

After 46 days spent in New Zealand and Australia, where life is relaxed and familiar, it was a bit of a jolt to arrive in my first Asian destination. The night I arrived, I decided to stroll through Little India and find a bite to eat. Easier said than done. I didn't recognize most of the food on the menus and it all just seemed so... well... foreign. After walking in a huge circle, I decided to dine at the Beach St. Scissor Cut Curry House. For $3.20SGD (i.e. about $2.50 US) I got a plate of chicken, rice and curry. Since this restaurant is set up almost buffet style, you need to get your own cutlery. I sat down with my food, a drink and a fork. Apparently I was also supposed to grab a spoon, which I missed, and ended up getting a few sideways glances as I picked up my chicken wings and ate them with my fingers. Social awkwardness aside, the curry was delicious!

Today was my big sightseeing day as I leave for Kuala Lumpur in the morning, so I tried to pack it all in. I started with a Mr. Bean Cheese Pastry, hit the shopping Mecca of Orchard Rd., meandered through Chinatown, snapped a few photos of the famous Raffles Hotel and cooled down in the icy air-conditioned National Museum of Singapore. I'm fairly certain that I learned a semester's worth of history on this fascinating city-state in a little under 3 hours.

What is most striking about Singapore is its lack of a singular identity. There is virtually nothing known about the "native" people who inhabited the island before the Europeans showed up. The only thing that survives from pre-15th century is a 6-foot piece of stone with some incomprehensible writing and a few shards of pottery. What this means is that Singapore did not really exist in a sense, until the British decided to set up port here. Once the Brits got the trade industry moving here, the population grew tremendously with Indians, Chinese and Malays. There was the British colonization, a period of Japanese rule during WW II, a period of independence followed by a merger with Malaysia, then another period of independence. Sorry to bore you with the history lesson, but there really is a point coming. Or maybe, rather, a question.

So who are Singaporeans? There are 4 official languages and 6 commonly practiced religions. It is a mish mash of cultures and yet they all seem to live in harmony. At a single restaurant you may see a Sikh in a turban, a Chinese family speaking Mandarin, an Indian stock broker on his blackberry and a European tourist all eating Singapore noodles and drinking Tiger Beer without feeling the slightest bit out of place.

The phenomenon that is Singapore fascinates me. It is a confluence of people, culture, business and beliefs. I can't say I would ever want to live here, and probably don't even need to visit again, but I'm glad I've seen it.

The culture shock of arriving in the East is starting to wear off and I'm getting my bearings. I ordered my $3.20SGD curry dinner again tonight with conviction and even remembered to grab a spoon on the way to my table!

Next up: Kuala Lumpur and Pulau Perhentian.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Raising the Bar on Beauty in Fraser Island & the Whitsundays

“The sun. Yellow stars like the sun, to give off so much steady heat for ten billion years or so, are balanced like on a knife edge between the inward pull of gravity and the outward push of thermonuclear reaction. If the gravitational coupling constant were any smaller, they’d balloon and all be blue giants; any smaller, they’d shrivel and be red dwarves. A blue giant doesn’t last long enough for life to evolve, and the red dwarf radiates too weakly to ever get it started. Everywhere you look, there are these terrifically finely adjusted constants that have to be just what they are, or there wouldn’t be a world we could recognize, and there’s no intrinsic reason for those constants to be what they are except to say God made them that way. God made Heaven and Earth. It’s what science has come to believe. Believe me.” (a passage from John Updike’s Roger’s Version by a character named Dale)

Dale is a scientist who attempts to prove that God exists through mathematical equations. His argument is that there are so many variables that if even the slightest bit different, would negate the possibility of life on Earth. He goes on and on about how the expansion rate in the Big Bang theory, the strong force, which binds atomic nuclei together and the mass of neutrons had to be precisely what they are in order for Earth to exist. He reasons that so many finely tuned variables could only be managed by a Higher Power, since it is too unlikely all of these variables would miraculously fall into place without such a force.

I don’t know much about the physics and statistical probability of all this, but what I do know, is that whoever had a hand in fine tuning the ecosystem that exists on the world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island, or the coral reef systems that give life to thousands of different species under the Whitsunday Islands did something right.

Fraser Island was created entirely of sand moved from the far south-east of Australia and some from thousands of kilometers away from Antarctica over millions of years. Miraculously, plants learned to grow on this island and over time the island gave birth to coastal heaths, eucalyptus forests, rainforests and wallum heath lands, in addition to 40,000 migratory shorebirds.

I spent 3 days and 2 nights in this World Heritage listed magical place, swimming in crystal clear lakes, hiking up huge sand blows that are reminiscent of the Sahara Desert, and strolling through lush rainforest.

From Fraser, I made my way north to the Whitsunday Islands, where I spent a couple days lounging at a luxurious resort (that I wasn’t actually paying to stay at), snorkeling the reefs off Border Island and sunbathing on Whitehaven Beach. The sand on Whitehaven is 99% pure silica, which basically means that it feels like silk and the locals recommend sitting by the water’s edge and exfoliating the skin with it.

The past week has been a slice of heaven: warm weather, turquoise water, vivid marine life and pure relaxation. It’s easy to see why Dale’s theory may hold some weight. There must be Something or Someone at work to create so many astonishing natural wonders.

I only have a handful of days left in Australia. I will snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, check out the night market in Cairns and head to the tropical rainforest that extends to the ocean in Cape Tribulation. The natural wonders ahead may seem even more remarkable than those that came before, if that’s possible. And it leaves me questioning my basically atheistic viewpoints. I don’t want to get all preachy here, but there is something so absolutely stunning and carefully balanced happening within each unique Australian landscape that it seems more than just a coincidence in physics. I ask myself everyday how it came to be that I am so lucky to see so many beautiful places and experience so many once-in-a -lifetime moments over and over again, day after day. Just when I think I’ve hit the greatest height of amazement, something else comes along to raise the bar. We’ll see if the wonders of Asia will hold a flame to the beauty of Australia and New Zealand. If nothing else, at least the food will get better as I don’t think I could look at another slice of flavorless pizza or over-battered fish n’ chips if you paid me!

My next blog post will likely be from a high rise hostel in Singapore. Apparently I can’t bring chewing gum or cigarettes into this country, so not sure how my relaxed Australian attitude will jive of the Singaporean way of life, but I guess we’ll find out.

Til next time, cheers mates!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Blue Parrot: An Unusual Hostel in Sydney

Written and Directed by Miranda Molen

Cast of Characters (in no particular order)

Claire – blond party girl from somewhere in England who is everybody’s best friend and supplier of random groceries (since she’s lived at the Parrot for 6 months)

Henning – German guy, desperate to sell his beat up station wagon after spending the last 6 months driving 30,000 kilometers across Australia, rarely showering

Jean – Frenchie from Lyon who stole 180 bottles of 12 year old whiskey from his previous job in Sydney and was on a mission to see how quickly he could consume all of it (sharing with the fellow hostel guests of course)

William – Dutchman with fitted jeans and a cowboy hat, often seen texting his Aussie girlfriends or planning the launch of his next company from his Apple laptop

Greg – incomprehensible Cockney Brit with shirts so tight they may give Right Said Fred a run for their money

Linnea – Swedish blond with impossibly long legs who found work for a couple days in the strip club down the road only to realize it doesn’t pay much better than cleaning the hostel

Liz – Frenchie who doesn’t actually live at the hostel, but takes the crew out every night for some free drinks and good laughs

Kalston & Tobias – my German roommates who like to debate which is superior: East or West Germany

Random Frenchies – crew that travels in a pack of no less than 3, chain smoking and refusing to speak English, though they all do so fluently

Thomas – 18 year old Dutch guy who spends his days eating chocolate chip cookies and strumming his guitar

The Setting

Back patio filled with tables, chairs and a BBQ that doesn’t actually work (though repeatedly tested).

Kitchen, where all dishes can usually be found in the sink and everyone’s food is stolen at will.

Dining room consisting of a table used for late night card games and a counter covered in a jigsaw puzzle.

TV Room where Hellboy 2 is on the big screen and any number of the cast listed above lay quietly on the couch wishing their hangovers would subside.

Modern, but not quite stylish, home décor shop 2 doors down with a windowsill ledge used as a bench for late night smoking after the patio is closed.

The Scene

Frenchies sit on the patio smoking, speaking French and laughing loudly.

Claire and Linnea plan which nightclub may suit them best this evening.

William and Greg discuss the awkward morning after conversations they’ve endured with the locals of the opposite gender.

Thomas eagerly takes inventory of everyone’s plans for the night before decided where and when he’ll join.

Kalston and Tobias speak in German while discussing how terrible the sausage is in Australia.

Miranda, Henning and Jean sit at the dining room table and play a card game while Jean tries to convince Miranda to switch from her bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to whisky, unsuccessfully.

The Plot Summary

Short days and long nights are what best categorize my time in Sydney. I did see the sights: Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach, neighborhoods like the Rocks and King’s Cross, shopping on George St., Oxford St. and at Bondi Junction. In terms of the sights, I was completely captivated by the Opera House. It is such an iconic building and one that makes the average person feel dwarfed in its presence. I sat on a park bench and marveled at its beauty for the better part of an hour and returned several more times over the course of my 5 days in Sydney if only to see its glory from a new vantage point or with differing amounts of daylight.

But the majority of my time was spent at the Blue Parrot. There was simply too much fun to be had to want to do much else. Everyday brought new arrivals of crazy characters and new laughs to be had. Every night was spent at the local bars or sitting around the dining room table playing cards and misunderstanding each other’s broken English. By the end I even found myself speaking without verbs so that everyone would comprehend. But it all worked. We ate. We drank. We played together. And by the end, I didn’t want to go. I easily could have wasted another week, or month with this crazy international crew. But alas, the world is a big place and there are many corners undiscovered, many sandy beaches not yet walked upon, many fish yet to be seen through the mask of my snorkeling gear. It’s time to move north.

I’m in Brisbane now, but start making my way further north tomorrow, where I’ll set off the following day to Fraser Island. It is one of Australia’s most wild and untouched nature reserves, where I’ll stroll through a subtropical rainforest, swim in turquoise water and soak in bubbling seawater. Should be a splendid reprieve after a couple weeks of city life and will hopefully help me move on from my fabulous stay at the Blue Parrot!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Signs of Life in Melbourne, Australia

The population of New Zealand is 4 million. The population of Melbourne is 3.5 million. Imagine going from an entire country, spread across two islands, to a city with nearly as many people. The vast openness and barren countryside of New Zealand has been replaced with Melbourne’s skyscrapers and traffic.

I decided to throw myself straight into the mix, starting with a trip to the Queen Victoria Market. This bustling market is every chef’s wet dream. Stall after stall is filled with fresh fish, organic meats, colorful and obscure produce and the most fragrant (read smelly) cheeses you can imagine. I had to restrain the urge to buy everything in sight since the kitchen at this particular hostel consists of a couple of hot plates and a microwave. I opted for some pesto/ricotta dipping sauce, a baguette and some fruit.

I then took a tram to the Fitzroy district to see what treasures I may find amongst the thrift stores and trendy boutiques. The neighborhood reminded me of a cross between Haight/Ashbury and Hayes Valley, with cafes on every corner and brightly colored graffiti livening up the back alleys (see Picasa link on the right for some pics). I kicked back with my book and a glass of wine and took in the dreadlocks and combat boots that mistook the Brunswick St. sidewalk for a catwalk.

Other highlights of Melbourne included the Melbourne Zoo, Royal Botanical Gardens and Quentin Tarintino’s new flick “Inglorious Bastards.” But I won’t go into much detail on any of these.

I only tell you this to give you sense of how much there is to do and see here, and why I felt the need to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and get out to the sparsely populated Phillip Island for a day to see the renowned Penguin Parade. For those of you not familiar with this nightly event (i.e. all of you most likely), the penguin parade is the march of hundreds of tiny penguins out of the ocean, up the beach and through the hillside to get their land-based homes. The fairy penguins, as they are known, reach only about 12” tall and typically weigh 2.2 lbs. So basically the penguin is the size of a bag of sugar and weighs half as much!

These penguins spend anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months out at sea, then come onto land for 3 or 4 days at a time to rest, lay eggs or tend to the babies. It is a different set of penguins that come onto land each night and the number of penguins who march the beach vary between 100 and 2,000 nightly. They emerge from the sea in small groups of 5 or 7 at a time for hours starting just after dark.

Of all the things I learned, what really stuck with me about these little guys is that they live in constant fear. When they are out at sea, they are afraid of birds of prey from above. This is why their backsides are dark in color, so that when birds flying high above them look down, they are camouflaged by their dark blue feathers. They also fear the sharks below. When sharks look up, they see the light from the sun creating a white surface to the water, which is why their little bellies are white. Isn’t Mother Nature remarkable!

When they get to shore, they fear just about everything, so they do a bit of a dance as they come in. The first penguin on the beach stands there looking around to see if there might be any predators lurking about. Once the other penguins come up behind him, they usually all turn back and dive into the ocean for cover, even if the coast is clear. They do this anywhere from once or twice to twenty times before they finally muster the courage to cross the beach. There is always a leader and seemingly always the scaredy-cat straggler. I sat on the beach and watched the nervous little ones play this mental game for about an hour in the freezing cold because I was so mesmerized. Sometimes it would take a group of penguins up to 10 minutes after reaching the water’s edge before they dared cross the beach and begin the long trek home.

Their houses are holes in the hillside and can be as far away as 2 kilometers from the shore. Once they get close to home, they make a loud gurgle type sound and call out for their partner. They mate with a variety of partners, but they only breed with one partner their entire life. It’s sort of like an open marriage, but they must use birth control with everyone except their partner. If they don’t find their partner on a particular night, they may find someone else to shack up with and hope they find their #1 when they go back out to sea.

To be so afraid of so many viable threats at every moment of their lives must be so stressful. It makes me think of the Jews during the Holocaust, the Slaves before the Civil War, or any number of oppressed people. And yet, they summon the strength to live their lives in and out of the ocean because they must do both to survive. I think there’s something to be learned from the little ones. Namely, you never know when the death bird or demon shark is coming to get you, so best get your belly full of fish and find someone to snuggle up with for the night while the gettin’s good!

By the way, there were no photos or videos allowed, since the little guys are sensitive to light, but check out this link, or this one or this one for some pics.

Next up: Sydeny Opera House, Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach. Fingers crossed, I will shed this damn scarf and finally don a skirt if the temperatures rise!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Jump: Bungy in Queenstown

The fear set in when I was asked to fill out a form with my name and country of residence, only it wasn’t a typical release waiver, it was a TOE TAG. In other words, in case I die today, it would obviously be too much trouble for the folks at the bungy office to fill out this little form, so best I do it now, myself, to ensure I’m properly identified when my body turns up in the river a mile away. Great. That’s reassuring!

The ride to the bridge felt a lot like what I imagine an inmate riding to death row may feel like. My stomach started doing somersaults and I realized that the coffee and the terror weren’t really mixing very well. I decided to check in last to give myself ample time to watch the other lunatics jump and try to build my confidence.

I sat on a wood ledge atop the Kawarau Bridge while a man with a beard attached harnesses to bungy cord and tied my ankles together with thick rope. The chilly wind whipped straight through my clothing. Shaking, partially from the cold but mostly from fear, I wondered to myself, “Why am I doing this?” “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I really go through with this?”

Once all the knots were tied and leashes fastened, I stood up and hobbled onto the ledge, holding the metal railing behind me with all my might. “Don’t look down,” the bearded man said. So naturally, I looked down. 141 feet below me was the rushing Kawarau River, a yellow raft to find me after my descent and a lot of distance between me and the obliteration of my fear. The man with the beard said he would count down from 5 and that I should jump when he reached 1. He told me that the longer I stand there, the harder it gets, so best to jump right away without thinking. Easier said than done.

Bearded Man: 5-4-3-2-1.

Me: (still standing there looking out into the distance) I don’t think I can do this.

Bearded Man: That’s natural, just don’t think about. I’m going to count down again and when I get to 1, just jump. 5-4-3-2-1.

Me: Nope. Do it again.

Bearded Man: 5-4-3-2-1.

Me: Um. Hmm.

Bearded Man: Ok, let’s try this. Take your hands off the railing.

Me: I can’t.

Bearded Man then forced one of my hands off the railing.

Me: Oh my god!

Bearded Man: You can do this. Just take your other hand off the railing.

Me: I can’t.

Bearded Man: Yes you can. 5-4-3-2-1

I JUMP!

There are no words to describe the sensation of falling 141 feet, watching the size of the river beneath me grow larger with each passing second. I held my breath the whole way down and prayed to God, Allah, or whoever would listen, that the damn bungy cord wouldn’t fail. Just as I thought I might actually plunge into the frigid waters below, I was flung wildly back up into the air, dropped again, bounced back up, then down, then up and down one more time for good measure. When I finally stopped bouncing around, I began swaying side to side and was told by the men in the raft to grab hold of a long stick and pull myself aboard.

On solid ground again, the euphoria of what I had just accomplished began to set in. My head was light and walking felt weird. It’s like the rush that comes from surviving a potentially life-threatening jump makes all other actions seem trivial and pointless. Staring fear in the face and overcoming it in such a bold fashion makes you feel superhuman.

It’s been about 32 hours since that fated jump and I am still high from it. I play it over and over in mind to try to regain a piece of that feeling and understand how and the why I ever did it. Here’s what I’ve pieced together in my day or so of reflection.

The How

Somewhere between “I can’t do this” and the jump, something happened. It’s like a switch flipped in my mind and the part of me that was holding back finally gave way to the part of me that needed to do this. The battle waged in my mind was won by the stronger, braver version of me. It’s like I envisioned myself chickening out and walking off the bridge a sore loser and couldn’t accept that as reality. There was only one way off this bridge for me, and that was down.

The Why

I turned 30 this year. I do believe age is just a number, but there is something pivotal about turning 30. It’s like society thinks you can’t really mess around anymore. It’s time to get your shit together and be an adult. Well I’ve lost my job and I’m frivolously (though thriftily) gallivanting around the world. I’m basically giving the finger to the ubiquitous “THEY” who say that I should work hard, pay taxes, get married, have kids and be happy, or at least pretend to, until I die. Screw that! I want to live it to the fullest every minute of every day. I want to see the world through my own eyes, not just images in movies or someone else’s photos on Flickr. I want to do it my way.

But also, there was something very personal about overcoming fear behind my motivation to jump. I think I had to take that leap to prove to myself that I am more courageous than I give myself credit for. I’ve seen myself give into fear too many times, so making a bold statement that fear is like a little peanut in my hand that I can crush with one swift clutch of the fingers is something I needed to do. And in some intangible way, I do feel stronger, more self-assured, more fearless, because of that jump.

I can’t believe this journey through New Zealand has only lasted 19 days so far. I feel like I’ve done, learned, seen and grown so much in these short weeks that it must be longer. I have driven on the left side of the road. I have ridden in not one, but two helicopters. I have hiked glaciers, rafted rapids, skied mountains, zorbed, and of course, bungy jumped. I have made new friends and skyped with old ones. I’ve tasted fine wine and eaten my fair share of fish n’ chips. I have seen magnificent landscapes and reveled in their beauty. I have taken risks and grown stronger because of it. I have loved every minute.

It will be incredibly hard to say goodbye to New Zealand, but the clock is ticking and more adventures await. In a couple of days I fly to Melbourne, where I will throw a shrimp on the barbie and wrestle some crocs. Ok, maybe not, but it just sounded good. Till next time, g’day mate!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Braving It All in Abel Tasman, Franz Josef and Beyond

A Maori man recently told me that there is a relationship between the land and the people who inhabit it in New Zealand. I immediately thought about the land as a source of food, shelter and beauty. But really, the impact that the landscape has on people here goes far beyond these basic needs. It was only when I began to explore nature in this amazing place did the statement begin to make sense.

I arrived in Nelson a bit earlier than expected and decided to get back in the car and drive another hour to Abel Tasman. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I heard it was beautiful and thought it might be a nice way to kill a couple hours. I parked the car, grabbed my iPod and started walking. It was an overcast day, but the air was fresh and clean from the morning rain. I came to a little bridge and looked out over the expansive coastline and my breath was taken away for the first of many times that day. The beach was dotted with rocks and in the distance were mountains of varying shades of blue and grey. Alone on this trail with Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marching” filling the silence, an indescribable feeling of peace and gratitude swept through me. Just a couple short weeks ago I was on the other side of the world. How unbelievably fortunate I am to be able to take in the beauty and magnitude of this place. I spent two hours walking, and with each bend in the path or crest of a hill, a new and equally remarkable view came into sight. If I ever come back to New Zealand I will spend 3 whole days trekking through this national park and try to take in every inch of it. Words and even photos cannot do justice the powerful grace of Abel Tasman.

The following day I drove west to the coast and then began the drive south along the famous Highway 6. This drive is ranked as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Roadtrips, and for good reason. The coastline resembles that of California’s Highway 1 near Big Sur, only the water is a brighter shade of turquoise and the flora looks almost tropical at times. I decided to splurge on the night’s accommodations and checked myself into a lovely single room in Hokitika where I had ocean views and a double bed all to myself. I woke up to birds chirping, the smell of salty ocean air and the soft lull of waves crashing gently on the shore. This might be the best $37 I’ve spent so far!

From Hokitika I drove south to Franz Josef, where I had booked a helicopter ride and glacier hike. I will spare you the 7 minute version of the video footage from the helicopter, but you must check the Picasa link on the right side of the page to see the photos to get a sense of the adventure.

Once my stomach settled and my heart slowed to a healthy pace after exiting the helicopter, I was completely awestruck by the sight of this enormous glacier. Our guide, Ty, took us through blue ice formations and up into the depths of the glacier. It was here on this glacier that I had another moment of clarity. I was admiring the way the ice jutted wild and careless into the sky. I noticed how the mountains seemed rugged and fearless. I watched the glitter of sunlight off the dimpled faces of the ice peaks and listened to the glacier create streams of fresh water underneath the cracked ice floor and all of a sudden it came to me… There is something unbelievably courageous about nature here: the way the rocks hold strong against the fierce ocean, the mountains extend bravely into the clouds, the ice bends and cracks to form deep cervices, the water proudly reflects an iridescent shade of blue/green. And I hear in my mind the Maori man talking about the land and the people and it all makes sense.

The people here are so deeply impacted by the courage and beauty of nature that they internalize that feeling and try to mirror it in their lives. They do things like bungy and skydive because they are inspired to be as fearless as the nature that surrounds them. They live in a place where they can go from tropical coastline to mountain glacier in a matter of hours and all of a sudden anything seems possible.

After two weeks in this special island country, I believe the land has begun to have an impact on me too. Each day brings bigger thrills than the day before, and I seem to have developed an insatiable thirst for adventure. Tomorrow I ski Cadrona. The day after I will helicopter into a river and manage Level IV and V rapids. The finale will be the 43m bungy jump off Kawarau Bridge (the first commercial bungy jump in the world). Naturally I’m a bit timid, but something about this place has inspired me to step fearlessly ahead, or off a bridge in this instance, and accomplish the extraordinary. I imagine the next installment of Adventures in Funemployment may have some video footage of me screaming my way to the bottom of a bungy jump, that is, if this spirit of adventure doesn’t fade with the winter sunlight before I take that leap of faith. Pray for me!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stark Contrasts: A Weekend in Wellington

New Zealand is a land of contrasts. The North Island competes with the South Island for bragging rights as the best New Zealand. The Maori hold on to their distinct culture despite the arrival of the British a couple hundred years ago. Even nature here is riddled with contrasts. Dark green cliffs jut magnificently into the deep blue sea. The kiwi bird cannot fly. The weather can change from dark grey clouds to bright blue skies within the course of 5 minutes.

When I arrived Thursday night in Wellington I grabbed an airport shuttle to the hostel. A man in an LA Dodgers hat hopped on as well. I struck up conversation to find out if he was from LA, which indeed he was, only to discover he is the tour director for an LA based hip hop artist named The Game. Dontay showed me some video footage of the Maori welcome they received at the Auckland airport (imagine men in skirts doing warrior dances while women robed in native attire sing rhythmically). New Zealand was the final stop on a tour that travelled all around the world, and the crew was headed back to LA after a final show in Wellington. To my good fortune, Dontay offered to put Maz and I on the guest list!

So Friday night, Maz and I hopped on the train to Porirua, 20 minutes outside of Wellington. We then walked confusedly through a suburb that clearly has an aversion to utilizing street signs. The arena, which was more like a high school gymnasium than a concert venue, was packed with teenagers, primarily Maori, dressed in baggy jeans, caps turned sideways and oversized sweatshirts with pot leaves embroidered on the back. We were amongst the very few white people in the arena and definitely the only people over the age of 22. That phrase about a sore thumb comes to mind here. But once the lights were turned down and The Game finally took the stage, there was no stopping anyone from getting down on the dance floor. I can’t say it was the best hip hop show I’ve ever seen, but it was definitely a night to remember.

The following night I ventured to another suburb of Wellington, only this time, for a very different set of circumstances. My dear friend Carie suggested I get in touch with her friend Vaughan while I was in Wellington. It turns out that it was Vaughan’s 40th birthday weekend and he was hosting a James Bond themed party complete with dirty martinis and an Aston Martin parked in the driveway. I made a quick stop at the $2 store earlier that day and purchased a fake strand of pearls and a toy gun to spice up my otherwise non-Bondish outfit. The party was composed of 40-something professional couples from in and around Wellington garbed in their finest cocktail attire. A couple martinis and few new friends later, I hopped in a cab back to the city to get a good night’s sleep before my 7:30 a.m. wake up call.

Wellington is a spectacular city and one I hope to come back to at some point in my life. The streets are dotted with modern sculptures. The people are friendly and hip. The cafes have outdoor seating. And the eateries are neverending.

But as with all good things, it’s time to move on. As I sit on the ferry to Picton, I cannot help but silently giggle at the extreme contrasts of my weekend in Wellington. From a hip hop show packed with urban teenagers to a black tie affair in an upscale neighborhood, anything and everything goes here.

I have just crossed the Cook Straight. Goodbye to the North Island and hello to the South Island. Up next: wine tasting in the famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc region and roadtripping along the epic West Coast.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Entering Adventure: Waitomo & Rotorua

Kiwis are thrill seekers if I’ve ever seen any. They see a hill and turn it into a winding luge course. They see a bridge and attach a bungee cord and jump off. They see a rock and repel down it, zip line across it or use it as a launch pad into a lake. There are many adjectives I could use to describe these maniacal blokes, but boring isn’t one of them. I’ve committed myself to doing my best to fit in around these parts.

I started this commitment by venturing down into a cave to see some glow worms. In the frigid cold we stuffed our bodies into damp wetsuits and gum boots and headed into the depths of the earth. The descent into the caves was a little daunting. The rocks were so narrow that I had to twist the top half of my body right while the lower half of my body carefully maneuvered the steps beneath me to the left. Once under the earth, the view was stunning: big limestone rocks immersed in water below my feet and a ceiling dripping with stalactites above my head. Ducking and dodging rocks that may cut through the wetsuits, we walked, waded and swam through this magnificent cave. Deep in its bowels we finally encountered the luminescent creatures we traveled so far to see. And… it’s all a sham! It turns out the famed Glow Worms are actually more similar to maggots than worms. Ew! The sound of Glow Maggot Caves doesn’t really have the same ring to it, so it’s all just a marketing ploy to lure naïve tourists. However, drifting through the caves in an inner-tube in pitch black darkness while the “glow worms” illuminated the rock ceiling in a constellation-like fashion was nothing short of spectacular.

But this was merely the tip of the iceberg for discovering adventure in New Zealand. Today I finally realized my dream of zorbing. Ever since I first heard of this wondrous activity, I knew I must experience it. In fact, this was the main motivation for driving 3 hours from Auckland to the stinky (I’ll explain more on that in a minute) town of Rotorua. Zorbing is, well, ridiculous. You go to the top of a hill, dive into a big plastic ball that reminds me of a toy my pet hamster used to play in, and go rolling down a hill while you slush around in the water within. Maz was designated cinematographer while I endured this madness. But due to technical difficulties, she did not capture my wild ride. Instead, I took some footage of the next person to go to give you a sense of the experience. While you watch this, imagine me inside screaming at the top of my lungs and laughing hysterically.

Since I was already in my bathing suit and soaking wet, Maz and I decided to venture on to take a soak in a famed stream. It’s actually the vortex of two streams. One stream is cold mountain spring water. The other stream is hot, volcanic water. If you sit at a particular part of this river you actually feel both the hot and cold currents, concurrently, which is an incredibly bizarre sensation. The whole Rotorua region is filled with natural thermal wonders. There are a number of geysers, naturally heated mud pools and thermal hot springs, which fill the region with an intense sulphorous stench that gets into your clothes and skin to no avail. Some of these natural wonders are big tourist attractions and cost good money to enjoy. Others, like the stream we visited, are entirely free so budget travelers like ourselves can enjoy as well… that is, if you can find them. We had been told that this stream we were seeking was quite easy to locate. This assumed that we would not turn onto the first Loop Rd., but would somehow instinctively know to turn down the second street by the exact same name. Obvi!!!

Tomorrow I head back to Auckland to catch a flight to Wellington. The weekend will hopefully be relaxing (think a glass of wine and a good book by the fire) and I will recover from the first (though certainly not the last) onslaught of New Zealand adventures. I may sprinkle in a James Bond-themed birthday party for someone named Vaughan, whom I have never met. More on that next time. In the meantime, if you have any Bond girl costume ideas that can be produced by the articles contained within my 30-pound backpack (such as khaki pants, black fleece, sneakers, etc.), please leave a comment.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Arrival

I imagined the flight from LA to Auckland would be 13 hours of torture. I envisioned being trapped in the window seat, needing to pee constantly but wary of waking my sleeping neighbors, unable to sleep, seated next to some overweight, smelly man who wanted to chat endlessly. I suspected that every second would feel similar to someone taking a tiny needle and poking me in the eye with it repeatedly. To my pleasant surprise, this was not the case. I was seated next to a very cheerful couple from Auckland who gave me some great tips and only chatted me up for the last 30 minutes of the flight. I slept for 8 hours, watched a cheesy, but entertaining movie called Adventureland and witnessed a breathtaking sunrise over the horizon of puffy white clouds somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. It may have been the easiest (nevermind the only) 13 hour flight I've ever taken!

The other fortunate event was meeting an English woman named Maz
while waiting for the bus from the airport to the city. She was on the same flight from LA and is also traveling alone. She and I have spent the last few days sightseeing together and she has quickly become a fantastic travel companion. The only problem is that her thick Cockney accent allows me to understand only about 50% of what she says and it's likely I'll start using words like "bloody," "diabolical" and "half six" as compared to six-thirty.

I've spent the weekend here in Auckland. I can't say I've really fallen in love with this city, but I suppose it's a good jumping off place. It is, perhaps, the cleanest city I've ever been. There is no trash on the streets, no homelessness and seemingly very little crime. The downside to this city is that there is very little character. The buildings look like those you may find in Any City, U.S.A. The racial diversity is lacking: there are Pacific Islanders, Asians, Whites and Indians, but I haven't seen a single Black or Hispanic person. And from what I can tell, the American restaurants outnumber the local ones. There are at least 6 Subway sandwich eatiers within a 12 block radius, a couple of McDonald's, a Burger King, a Wendy's and a couple of Starbucks.

Tomorrow is when the “adventure” part of this whole adventure really begins… Maz and I set off on a driving expedition to Waitomo, where we’ll put on full-body wetsuits, grab an inner-tube and float through caves illuminated by glow worms. Should be bloody brilliant!

Reading: Almost French by Sarah Turnbull (thanks Robyn)

Listening: Computer Love by Glass Candy

Eating: The best fish & chips I've ever had from Ponsonby Fish & Chips