Saturday, April 24, 2010

holy cow.

Its hard for me to try and put into words some of the experiences of the last week. I'm going to quickly try, but I know anything I write on a whim such as this will be disappointing compared to what lives in my memories. We spent some really great days in Sydney - a city of which we were both totally surprised to love. It was sunny and the city was bursting with active people enjoying the weather in heaps of space outside in parks or near the harbor. We also have a few days in Sydney at the tail-end of our trip, so I think it felt great just to aimlessly walk the streets with no direction or agenda.

Then...we went to Cairns. The city itself wasn't much to be desired. Streets lined with horrible signage coaxing tourists to every possible activity, and where there wasn't tourist information shops, there were really gross bars where twenty somethings go to get absolutely wasted for days on end drinking two-for-one shitty beer. We had specifically made the trip to Cairns to snorkel and dive the Great Barrier Reef boarding a two-day, live aboard ship called The Kangaroo Explorer.
With a day to kill before calling the sea our home, we decided to rent a couple of scooters. Having never ridden a scooter, I was naturally terrified. I could probably write an entire blog on the fears I've experience during this trip. I'm starting to wonder if getting older is making me a more nervous person. In any case, I conquered and by the end of the day I was sad to have to give my scooter back!

The following day we boarded our boat and spent two hours making our way to the Great Barrier Reef. The ride was a large indication of what it was going to be like for the next two days in that seas were definitely not calm.

Upon arrival we were immediately briefed on what was to be expected for the next forty eight hours, including scary tales on all sorts of deadly creatures we may encounter while snorkeling and diving the reef. We were signed on to do five different snorkel times: 1pm, 4pm - then sleep - 6am, 8am, 11am and if possible, once again at 1pm. We were also given an opportunity to try an introductory scuba dive - something that in theory I knew I should do given I was in one of the most incredible places to dive on earth, but one I wasn't sure I could physically and mentally do.
We were shown to our "quarters" and then it was off to immediately suit up and hit the reef. First we were given stinger suits because after all, it is stinger season and a person CAN DIE from being stung by one. Yep. Good stuff. Then fins (NOT flippers. I was yelled at countless times for this mistake). Then a mask. Again, NOT goggles. And then poof we were swimming among coral and fish and sharks and barracudas and turtles! There were five of us in the snorkel group and the rest of the people were students completing their Scuba certification. It was Fred and Matt from France, Tina from Sweden and Tyson and I from the States. Feeling a little nerdy not with the big kids in the open water class, we decided to call ourselves the Extreme Snorkelers.

When we returned to the boat, the Extreme Snorkelers were informed that if we wanted to do the introductory dive it would have to take place at the 4pm dive session. Like, in two hours. Reluctantly I decided to do it and within minutes we were being briefed on what to expect during our dive. Dan, our dive instructor, explained that while in the water we would first be lowered down along a rope to a bar several meters under the ship. We would be asked to remove and replace the breathing device from our mouths showing him we were actually breathing under water, and not just holding our breath. We were also told how to clear our masks when water comes in under the water and how to pop our ears for the inevitable pressure we would experience being lowered deep below the surface. I'm telling you, the anxiety was mounting. By the time Dan finished, it was time to suit up.

We literally had no more than a minute or two for reflection before we were in wet suits, weights attached, tanks clipped on, and told to JUMP into the water. The terror was beginning to make me panic, but I didn't want to hold up the group. Tyson was lowered down first. I was next. At first the feeling of breathing in and out through the little air mouthpiece was fine. I was drawing long and deep breaths just as instructed so that my tank would not run out of air by using it up with scared panting-like breaths. I kept having to clear my mask of water though, and pretty soon I had a massive anxiety attack while waiting for the others to come down one by one. Sadly I slowly made my way to the surface and breathed in a massive breath of fresh HUMAN air. Ahhh, it felt amazing. I was alive. I was not dead. I did not stop breathing and die under the water. Shortly after, Dan surfaced asking me what my problem was. I told him I couldn't do it. I was simply too scared and its just 'not for me.' He paused, told me that was all great and good but I was going to do this. My mind bordered on mental breakdown. Then Dan hit the button - whatever scuba thing it is that removes air from your pack and keeps you afloat - and the weights kicked in and soon I was descending below the water line again. I tried everything possible to stay calm. My insides were so scared I barely had time to realize that I was six and a half meters below the surface of the sea and looking at the Great Barrier Reef close up. After fifteen minutes I finally relaxed and began to realize what I was doing. And after about twenty five minutes we came back to the surface. Relieved and on the surface, I reeled with adrenaline for several hours afterward. I can't say that the experience was something I really enjoyed, but it was definitely the craziest, most intense thing I've ever done in my entire life. I'm definitely glad I did it. I'm definitely glad its over. And I'm also really thankful that Dan was such an ass about the whole thing basically forcing me to do it. Because I wouldn't have done it. I was ready to climb up the boat ladder right then and there. Its hard to even write about. I can't really explain the feeling of being so terrified for my life, and yet, people dive every day and in the end I was fine. I did it.

After the dive, it was all about extreme snorkeling. Our tight-knit group was up before dawn and hit the water at six the next morning.

We saw so many amazing creatures and had a blast the entire day.

And when the experience was all over, I was really sad to say goodbye to both the reef and our new friends. I was reminded for several days afterward though considering my extreme sea vertigo.
More stories and photos to come. We spent another three days and 2127 kms in the car driving from Cairns to Byron Bay, en route to the beach!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Zealand Roadtrip: The North Island.

We hopped our ferry waving goodbye to the south island and boy was Wellington there to greet us with a warm smile.

Having not been in anything even resembling a city for a little over three months, we soaked up the capitol city like a kid on Christmas. I also think that Wellington is very similar to Seattle in that its quite hilly, resides on a port, and is artsy, fashion-forward and filled with cafes and restaurants lining quaint streets. This is one of those moments where I realize that had we landed in Wellington first, we may not have had such a magical response to the city, but both of us fell totally in-love with the city and decided to extend our stay for two nights instead of one.

We were there to sit back, relax, and eat. Queenstown and most of the south island isn’t known for its cuisine, and we both abstained from dining out for most of our stay because the two times we did it was insanely expensive and our food was less than mediocre. In Wellington we found endless streets of adorable cafes and bistros. We walked Cuba street up and down and finally settled on this charming, little spot called Duke Carvell's and sat cozily under dim lighting and candles.

There we enjoyed: Spinach, goat cheese and walnut filo with tomato chutney : Spiced pumpkin and lentils with toasted pumpkin seeds : gnoochi with a sage and gorgonzola cream and finally, lamb and prune tagine with toasted sesame seeds and fresh coriander. YUM. I’m telling you, we were going crazy like a couple of gays at a Cher concert. It didn’t stop there and in fact we spent some time strolling the city streets afterward talking extensively about our excitement for the brunch we planned on dominating the next day.

Sure enough, we sat in the morning sun eating pancakes with bananas and hazelnuts and enjoyed amazing coffee, topped off with a mimosa. Knowing we were finally spending more than just a day in one place we leisurely strolled around town and made our way to the famous Te Papa museum and blabbed on incessantly about which place we were going to pop into for dinner.

It was then I started to marvel at how much weight we were putting into our food consumption. For both Tyson and I, good food is so important and can make for the best time ever if we can sit and enjoy something delicious. We both enjoy cooking and mostly cooking together. We just like good, real and often times, interesting food. Also, in Queenstown we spent our first three weeks with Caitlin spoiled nightly with amazing cooking. She really is a genius. However, this Wellington eating obsession had us so giddy I just couldn’t believe it.

In any case, we both loved Wellington. Whether it was being in a city again and the culture, buzz and energy that comes along with it, the fact that it felt a little like home, or the five pounds we put on eating like a King and Queen, it was great.

A teeny town capitalizing on the fact that beneath it bubbles up smelling, hot gas from the center of the earth. Touristy and gross in my opinion. Nuff said.

Though I’m sure we could’ve stayed longer, we spent one night in Auckland. Anxious about getting to the airport on-time (and for the experience I wrote about earlier), we hit the town early and found a great brew pub near our hostel. On our last night in New Zealand we drank some local brews with some fun local people, shot pool, and listened to great music on the jukebox.

On to Oz!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New Zealand Roadtrip: The South Island.

The road trip has commenced.

So far in our journey, we’ve pounded 2,068 kilometers of pavement in the car in New Zealand alone. We left Queenstown and journeyed up the entire west coast of the south island. It’s on the west side we saw lush mountains, the coast of the Tasman Sea, both Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers and cool attractions such as an incredible natural mystery known as the pancake rocks.

Then we cut east en route to Abel Tasman National Park and in one of those traveling moments of magic, we were able to turn a day hike in the park into an overnight backpacking trip. Abel Tasman is a National Park different than any I've seen in that its on the coast and very beachy. Finally, we were north enough that a beach meant a little warmth and sunshine as New Zealand closes in on Autumn and starts to get cold.

From there we shed our backpacks and traded them for wine glasses and real beds in Nelson and I have to say, it felt great. We stayed in the loveliest hostel I’ve ever seen in the heart of town and I found Nelson to be a less touristy version of Queenstown. There we also met up and had dinner with one of Tyson’s friends from Aspen who was there picking fruit for work. Ahh dinner not prepared on a teeny backpacking stove. Glory.

Finally, we spent an afternoon in Picton before boarding our ferry to Wellington and the north island. Teeny Picton was beautiful, but I don’t think we needed more than a few hours of loafing around the streets and the waterfront so this worked out perfectly. This particular afternoon in Picton though did mark our last moments on the south island of New Zealand. As the days ticked away we saw new towns and cities and Australia and Seattle loomed in the distance.
I feel as though I’m abbreviating so much of this piece of the trip…but alas, we are already through Cairns and another 1,300 kilometers into Australia in the car, so I am just anxious and excited to post on everything.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Gosh, this is nutty. I’m sitting here at an immaculately clean hostel in Sydney, AUS (notably different from many of the hostels I stayed in while backpacking Europe TEN years ago. TEN in all caps because I can’t believe its been that long and I am yet again, feeling like a grandma. No offense, Grandma P, because YOU RULE). All caps.

It’s been such a whirlwind. Going from living abroad somewhere and all that comes and goes with that – still very unique, and also some sort of structure and relaxation – to traveling, which is a constant flurry of movement and forward-thinking to the next destination. I had forgotten these characteristics of traveling from that stint ten years ago. And traveling in this way is both amazing but also has the recipe for total disaster. We’ve had incredible days driving up New Zealand’s west coast for the past week plus, and eating like a King and Queen in Wellington. I will get to that portion in a later post with pictures. Yesterday was one of those disaster moments.

We were up at 4am, which for anyone who doesn’t have kids is a brutal hour of the day, especially when its coupled with the intensity and flash thinking of getting out the door and getting to the airport on-time for a 6:30am flight. The day went something like this: Out the door five minutes late. Got lost on the way to the airport = Stressful in the car. But we found it! Yay! Happy again in the car. Get to the airport on-time, however a giant line brings the anxiety back to my stomach. We finally make it to the check-in counter cutting it close and the gal behind the counter isn’t in haste. She lets us know that we are WELL OVER the 20kilo/per person limit for our bags. Um, news to us that there is a limit on an INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT. (insert me marveling at how backpackers can actually travel these days – again there’s Gramdma talking about “these days” – because its just so insanely expensive to travel and get around in this day and age). The excess charge? Yep, that will be $300. The moment she decides to drop this bomb on us is also the moment that her boss comes over to freak out that we are not yet through security. “Open the gate!” She shouts. “We need an escort to get them through!” She shouts again. Meanwhile, gal behind the counter continues to fumble through charging us for the excess. This might have been a moment where she could’ve said, “You know what, its too late and there isn’t enough time. I’m not going to charge you.” But she didn’t. And this went on for like five more minutes of fumbling while her boss freaked out about us needing to get to the gate. Seriously. Insert rage and panic starting to boil up from within me.

After the $300 mess, we begin running through the airport with our escort who is getting us to the front of every line possible, including customs and security. At security we are rushed, rushed, rushed – “Leave your shoes on!” Needless to say we are both flagged to have a bag searched. I’m baffled, as I have no idea what could possibly be liquid in my things. …Except the really expensive bottle of wine I bought to bring back as a souvenir! EFF. How could I have not known it was in my carry-on? And the snotty woman asked me the same thing, which incidentally started the tears. And the tears came down with a furry. Bawling. It was all I needed to tip the scales of sadness and exhaustion. Again we begin to run. I’m crying the entire time I’m running while Tyson is carrying nearly all of my things and trying to tell me its going to be okay. Patience of a saint is all I have to say. We go down escalators and we board a small bus that drives for seemingly ten minutes across the tarmac. When we finally get to the staircase to board our plane I notice that I do not have the laptop I took out of my bag at security. Amid the rushing and wine-taking and tears, I have totally forgotten about my laptop. A piece of my world containing so many things that are important to me i.e. all of my New Zealand photos, the book I’m writing, important renter and work documents etcetera etcetera. And as if we needed any more bludgeoning, Tyson realizes he too has left his identical laptop at security. This time I do not cry and instead I go into preservation mode. We flag down a ground crew man and tell him of our crisis. He sort of shakes his head knowing we need to board the plane and that we are so far away from security having had to take the bus to get there in the first place. Reluctantly he gets on his radio asking if someone has found two laptops. All I can think is that I do not care if we have to board a later flight, I’m not leaving without my macbook. Not today. Not after the baggage charge and the wine and my tears.

Someone has them.

Someone is rushing them to the plane.

We board. I’ve started bawling again. I don’t know why. I’m an emotional mess. A flight attendant is shocked by this and gives me a hug meanwhile another flight attendant is politely asking Tyson if I’m ok.

Ten minutes later that same ground crew man boards the plane with our laptops in-hand and gives them to us saying “Merry Christmas”.

All before 6:30am.

Ahhh traveling. Happy stories and photos to come. I think I just needed to purge this experience from my brain to start new again here in AUS.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Posts coming

So, we're traveling. And I forgot how A) exhausting it is. And B) that it costs money to spend time on the WWW. Which kills me inside a little. Just a little.

So yeah, I'd love to post and write and gush and vent about my experiences...but alas, you'll have to wait just as I have to wait.

Hope everyone is well!

Currently in Sydney...heading to Cairns tomorrow to snorkel and dive the Great Barrier Reef!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

the final adrenaline rush.

Today was our last day in Queenstown. For months we've talked about which activity we should do in the long list of "adventure tourism" this town has to offer. Today was the day to lay our cards on the table. I'd been talking about either paragliding or skydiving and Tyson was pretty keen on Bungy jumping. So, in a whimsical decision, we did it.

Luckily, I was able to bounce along on the bus out to watch Tyson swan dive 43 meters down to a river off of the Kawarau Bridge. He absolutely loved it. I was terrified just watching him.

Then we hopped into a little van and wound our way up to the top of Coronet Peak so I could run and fly off of the mountain paragliding. It was so great.

We leave tomorrow at 8am. I can't believe this part of the experience is already over. Its been great and I have so many memories to show for it. Today included. Goodbye, Queenstown.