Sleepless in Santiago


We arrived to the Auckland airport thoroughly relieved that we made it in time. The whole short bus fiasco made us both more than a bit nervous, because our flight from Auckland to Santiago was the flight that we were warned about when we bought our ticket in September. Apparently, it fills up months in advance so we REALLY needed to make sure to get on the flight. When we got to the check in counter we made our usual attempt at getting an exit row or bulk head seats, but of course these were full (we really were there at the last minute). Adam also asked about the on-board entertainment since it was our first flight on LAN air (which is a South American airline). We had been flying Quantas from China and in Australia and New Zealand. Quantas spoils its customers with the most amazing entertainment system. On our flight from Shanghai to Sydney we seriously were not ready to get off the plane, because we had not watched all of the movies, television, and travel documentaries that we wanted to see. They also never close the bar and offer food on request at anytime. We were told at the LAN desk that we were to board an older plane and that the only entertainment available would be a movie on the partition screen. Bummer! LAN just doesn’t match up to Quantas, and even the flight attendants acted as they were doing you a favor to give you something as simple as water (which they did not offer enough of). They did come around through the night offering tiny cups of Coke. I awoke at one point with one of them in my face, the attendant asked if I wanted it and I replied with a very sleepy and grouchy “NO”! Why would I want a Coke in the middle of the night, when I was quite obviously trying to sleep.

When we arrived in Santiago we high tailed it through customs, immigration, got our luggage (we have done this many times now!), and then flagged down a cab. We headed straight to the Happy House Hostel where Adam’s grandparents (Pat & Alicia) stayed just two weeks before. It was a pretty nice place located not too far from the city, and had great common areas and a really nice kitchen. The whole place, including the rooms had beautiful high ceilings and since it was a really old building, really creaky floors. They warned us on arrival that the next night there was to be a party and that it might get pretty noisy. We were also offered a welcome drink upon arrival that we could get at the restaurant downstairs. Since we were pretty tired we chilled in the room for awhile, and then went to have dinner and redeem our “free” drinks. When we walked into the restaurant the waiter who came to greet asked us right away where we were from. When we told him, he brought out the Sam Adam’s and the Sierra Nevada beer that he had. He had hundreds of beers from all over the world and he was rearranging them to fit on the shelves better. he talked to us about them for a few minutes very passionately and told us that they were his love. Since we will be home soon and will be able to find Sam Adam’s and Sierra Nevada very easily Adam couldn’t resist but to order one of the guy’s favorite local beers. The restaurant also served very good sandwiches and lasagna, but when we ordered our welcome drink the passion came back with this guy. He recommended that we try the pisco sour. Wow! This was really special, as the sour part was all fresh ingredients. Pisco we were told is distilled grape juice, a type of brandy that is only made in Chile and Peru. After this seven pm night cap we retreated back to the Happy House for a thirteen hour sleep.

The next day we woke, and were feeling not too bad. We decided to go out for a walk around the city and to get some groceries. Santiago has a European feel to it and it was nice to stroll through. There were many street performers out with large crowds gathered to watch. Once we tired of wandering we walked back to rest up before the party was to begin (a little bit if peace and quiet). The purpose of the party was to celebrate two employees b-days, and to say farewell to two employees that were leaving. One of the b-day’s was for Vera, a young German woman who Pat and Alicia met while at the Happy House. They were impressed with her and thought that the three of us should meet.

Here is Shawn and Vera at the party.

South American countries, we have learned, are full of night owls, so the party didn’t really get started until midnight or so. We had a chance that night to talk with many travelers, but also to interact a bit with local people. Shawn was a little dumbfounded as to how to interact with the Chilean men, they are extremely touchy feely, and kept bringing her glass after glass of wine to “try”. It is a common custom for men to kiss women on the cheek when greeting them, but it seemed that some of the men took advantage of this, just a bit.

This party went on late into the night, so we didn’t go to bed until five in the morning. This really messed our “getting over jet lag” issue up. The next night we didn’t fall asleep again until five in the morning. This made trying to see sights and being excited to see them, rather difficult. It also rained for a couple of the days while we were there, so it gave us even more of an excuse to lay low in the room.

One day when we mustered up our energy and enthusiasm, we headed out on the subway (which is really quite good) to where one of the funiculars is. A funicular is a train that climbs at about a forty five degree angle up a hill. About half way up we stopped at the national zoo. It wasn’t really a great zoo, but we did get to see some interesting South American animals and also some white tigers. Once we were finished with the zoo we headed on up to the park that is on the top of the hill. The main attraction is the enormous statue of Mary at the top. A reminder that we were now in a very Catholic part of the world.

Shawn on the funicular.

On the way back from our outing, we came across a couple of guys with a video camera, stopping pedestrians on the street. They stopped Shawn and asked if they could teach her a new dance. She decided to be a good sport and she did it. Maybe she will be famous in South America now.

We also heard while we were in Chile that we should see the port city of Valipariso and Vino del Mar. Even though we were only sleeping through the night every other night or so, we braved a sleepy bus ride out to the coast. When arriving there we were a bit confused some of the roads were blocked off due to a student protest. We also had heard that there were certain areas that were safe and others not, so we went ahead and booked a tour right there in the bus station. It really was a bit overpriced for what it was, but we were tired and just didn’t want to deal with anything that day. Since the tour had already started a local driver high tailed us on over to where the tour group was in a really cool park that had trees from all over the world. After leaving the park we headed to Vino del Mar to have lunch. We ended up at a seafood restaurant on the coast. It was really good! The ordering was a bit of a problem though Adam had heard to try Chilean sea bass, so he tried to order it. Well, apparently, they were out of it because Shawn got her seafood chowder and Adam didn’t get anything. Poor Adam, he was starving! He finally flagged down the waiter again and had no luck communicating to him that he wanted some food. The waiter finally found our guide and the guide translated that they were out of sea bass, so FINALLY Adam ordered another fish, and this time it came really quickly and he was able to enjoy his meal.

After the meal we went for a short little stroll on the beach before heading to see the sites of Valipariso.

Valipariso is really a city with a lot of character. It is currently a fairly poor city, but in the past was a major port city. When the Panama canal was built, Valipariso suffered. You can see the extravagance of the European architecture of its heyday. It is also visually interesting because of all of the colorful houses that are built on hills all over the city. Unfortunately, the tour bus did not stop at many of the places where we could have gotten some great photos of how interesting it was. The tour ended with a ride up a funicular to an over look of the port. It had started to rain a little, but because of this there was a full rainbow at dusk making for some really great photographic moments.

We spent most of our time in Santiago either sleepless or wanting to sleep at an inappropriate time. We were also doing a lot of “getting our bearings about us”, being in this new continent. Someday we might like to return to Chile, in the winter to ski or in the summer to trek in the amazing Andes mountains that we flew over. More on the Andes later when we get those photos onto flickr.

After about a week and a half, we have mostly recovered from our flight across the south Pacific. We have fallen in love with Buenos Aires and have rented an apartment here (which we just extended for four more days). A little space of our own is just what we needed.


New Zealand: The North Island

While visiting family in Nelson, we had also planned to spend a good deal of time mountain biking and kayaking in nearby Abel Tasman National Park. This was supposed to be one of the highlights of our time in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, so we spent almost all of our time indoors. By this time, Adam was in the middle of a pretty miserable cold anyway (which Shawn mostly avoided), so this was probably for the best anyway- although a bit disappointing.

The night before our trip to the north island, we camped out on a bluff overlooking the harbor, watching the ferries come and go as we had dinner. We had to get up at 4:25 the next morning to check in on time for out boat. The critical, and early, check in made for a restless night’s sleep. Once we got on the ferry, we immediately had the sensation of being in a barn. The main deck looked, and more importantly, smelled, like it had been used for hauling cattle the night before. The ferry departed and threaded it’s way through very narrow straits and sounds…amazingly narrow for a boat this size. Sunrise was beautiful, but we were a bit too exhausted to really enjoy it. After taking some nice photos, we laid down on the floor in one of the lounges and, after one of the Maori locals turned off their loud, offensive, and downright crappy music at 6:00 in the morning, we got an extra hour’s sleep on the floor.

After arriving in Wellington, we took a short drive around the city. It was a really nice place, but we didn’t budget much time for the north island, so we hit the road without ever leaving the short bus. We drove the entire day, in the rain, up to Tongariro National Park. By the time we arrived it was already getting dark. We filled up our water tanks (illegally) at an RV park and then headed down the road to find a primitive campground. That night, we dined on New Zealand green muscles- something we really enjoyed during our time on the islands.
The next day, our plan was to get up early and do the famous “Tongarriro crossing”. This hike takes you between towering, active, cone-shaped volcanoes- particularly Mt. Tongarriro, which cameoed as “Mt. Doom” in “Lord of The Rings”. We set our alarms early, but when they went off it was pouring, cold and foggy. We really didn’t feel like an all-day alpine hike in those conditions (particularly with Adam’s cold), so we decided to get a little extra sleep and do an out-and-back day hike instead.

“Mt. Doom”

Once we got to the end of the trail head (a 45 minute drive away) that we thought would have the best views, we talked to some local hikers and found out that the views don’t really start until about 45 minutes into the hike. We drove 45 minutes back, and then a bit farther up the mountain to the visitor’s center. They recommended some short dayhikes, which we decided to do. Since we were rained on for about ½ our dayhike, I suppose it was all for the best.

After the hike we headed up the road to Lake Taupo. This lake is situated in a very geologically active area with all sorts of hot springs, geysers, steam vents, etc and has the world’s largest geothermal power plant, generating much of the island’s power. After getting groceries and walking along the beautiful waterfront we headed out to “spa park” and went for a little hike. This hike features no mere hot spring, but a gushing hot stream, full of idyllic pools and waterfalls, some of which were too warm to spend much time in. Best of all, it was a public park, which means the stream was “unimproved” an free! The springs were a little too easily accessible, and consequently packed with people. We went back and ate, returning to the pools just after dark to find it totally deserted and illuminated by a beautiful full moon. We spent a couple hours there, and didn’t see any other visitors. It was so nice that we spent two night camping in the park’s parking lot. The next night, despite being a weekday, had quite a few visitors in the hot stream. This was actually nice because one of the downsides of camping in an RV and moving around every day is that you don’t get to meet as many people.
The spa park itself was really cool, too. It had a beautiful river running through it, and about the coolest playground we’ve ever seen, which included a really cool obstacle course and even a zip line- something I’m sure insurance wouldn’t allow in the US.

Hot Stream

After lake Taupo, we went up the road to Rotorua. The drive between Taupo and Rotorua is like a mini-Yellowstone, with tons of interesting geological features. The downside is that each and every site is separately owned, and each charge you, generally, between $20 and $100 to visit, which is about what a week in Yellowstone would cost unlimited. This was very frustrating. You just can’t road trip in New Zealand like you can in the US. If we stopped by every little interesting feature like we might have back home, we’d be spending $300-400 per day on touristy sites alone! If we drop $100 to view an interpretative site, we have high expcetations. You just can’t stop by places like that and check ‘em out for a few minutes like you can in the US, so we just skipped most of the sites. This was very frustrating.

Rotorua city was more of the same. It was absurdly priced tourist crap like Queensland, but the city wasn’t as nice. We thought we’d try a mountain bike ride until we found out they’d be $90 each for four hours. How frustrating! We did see one cool thing there though; about 100 years, a large clearcut was replanted with California Redwoods. Now these trees are pretty big, and the understory is full of the biggest treeferns we’d seen yet. It was a refreshing combination of the beauty of New Zealand and the beauty and familiarity of some of the most interesting flora of back home.

We decided to get out of the dirty, overpriced tourist trap of Rotorua ASAP. We had another rainy drive up to the northwest coast to “Hot Water Beach”. At low tide, you can rent a shovel and dig a little pool the fills up with hot water. When we were there, a lot of people were shivering while digging in their bathing suits, but nobody struck hot water.

Just up the road is “Cathedral Cove”, which is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve seen. It got its name from a sea cave, accessible at low tide, that joins the two halves of the beach. The roof of the sea cave is shaped like a gothic arch. It looked like an amazing place to go kayaking, but by this time of the day the wind and whitecaps were picking up, and it was getting late, so we hit the road for Auckland.

We arrived around rush hour, so we just decided to find the office of the rental van company so we would know where to go the next day. It was near the airport, and not the nicest neighborhood. We found a grocery store, bought some muscles, and decided to have one last muscle dinner while we waited for the traffic to die down. Unfortunately, these muscles didn’t seem so fresh…kind of slimy and fishy smelling, so we had to toss them and just have broccoli for dinner…in the ghetto grocery store parking lot with the bums and kiwi white trash. The last few days of our trip just seemed to be disappointment after disappointment.
After the traffic cleared, we headed into town to explore. Auckland looks like a nice city, but it didn’t seem particularly special, and we were getting tired, so we went to one of the few campervan campgrounds in town (kind of hard to free camp in town). This was only the 2nd time we paid to camp during the whole trip.
While taking our clothes to the laundry of the campground, a guy approached us and began talking. It was Maciek- one of the Polish guys we traveled with for a while when we were in Indonesia! He bought an old Volvo and was traveling around New Zealand with his girlfriend. Small world.

The next morning, we sold a couple of our guide books and had a nice lunch before heading off to return the short bus. They said to take it back empty of fuel, and I was just barely into the red zone. I’ve been keeping track of fuel consumption carefully (this monster averaged 25 miles per gallon!), and we had more than enough fuel to get back to the office. However, when we were about 5 miles out, we were climbing a hill and the van began to sputter. The check engine light came on, and we were stalled. I was now on a hill (I managed to barely nurse it through a busy intersection) blocking a lane of traffic. Idiot drivers began honking at me, as though I benefitted by sitting in the middle of the road with my flashers on, and was only blocking traffic to ruin their day. I checked the fuel gague again, and when I’d turn the key the needle would move from below the red zone to about half way through the red zone. With measurable fuel in the tank and the check engine light on I didn’t know if there was a mechanical problem, or if Fiat had designed the fuel tank so poorly that the car would get fuel starvation on hills. Shawn ran into the nearest house and called the rental company, reminding them that we had a flight in two and a half hours. The homeowner, a huge Maori woman named “Buffy”, came out and helped us push the van onto the sidewalk. We waited what seemed like forever, but really wasn’t so long, for assistance. He poured in five gallons of diesel and, after about 45 seconds of cranking the short bus came back to life.
We raced back to the rental office, handed him the keys and a 14 item list of some of the buses “quirks”, and caught a taxi to the airport for our 12 hour flight to Santiago, Chile.

Looking back, New Zealand was one of the most beautiful and pristine places we’d ever seen. There was almost zero litter, and there was no smog to speak of which made for amazingly clear, blue skies- even in town. However, there really wasn’t a lot there that you couldn’t see in the US. We’d joke that it is like the US, but without the ugly parts. That said, I think our trip was a good example of how NOT to see a country. While we covered most of the nation, we spent so much of our time driving that we really didn’t do that much. This was the opposite of how we’ve been doing most of our trip. With the exception of rental cars, New Zealand is also obscenely expensive. Diesel was about US$4.80/gallon, a six pack of beer is about US$10…even a couple of chicken breasts at the grocery store were NZ$14! Our ferry ride between islands was nearly $300! I’ve already mentioned the price of activities! These expenses led to high expectations but, as I said, a lot of things were really comparable to the US. I think if we were to ever go back, we’d focus on just two or three main areas, and we would bring our own gear (i.e. mountain bikes, or maybe backpacking or skiing gear).

As I post this, we’re in our own apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Stay tuned- a Chile and Buenos Aires post should be up soon.

Driving the Short Bus Through the Land of the Long White Cloud.

EDIT: We finally found a good connection, so this post has been updated with new photos as of the afternoon of 20 April, Pacific standard time. There are new pics in the photo gallery, too.

After our amazing time in Australia, we were off to New Zealand. The first polynesian settlers or Maori named it Aotearoa which translates into English as “the land of the long white cloud”. This was a country we both had wanted to visit since we were in high school so it was very exciting to board the plane from Sydney to Auckland. Upon arriving in Auckland we had a layover for a few hours before boarding our next flight to Christchurch, which is on the east coast of the south island. It was a good thing that Adam opened the laptop to check out if we had a wi-fi signal because we had been told the wrong time when we landed and now we had one hour less of a layover than we had bargained for. We confirmed this with an old man when we were eating our little meat pies (very popular in Aus. and N.Z.) in the domestic terminal, so we began eating more quickly and set off for the security check.

The flight to Christchurch was less than an hour, so we were there before we knew it. We had reservations at the Stonehurst Hostel so we were able to catch an overpriced shuttle from the airport and we were there in no time. Upon arriving we were starving so we went out to find some dinner. Christchurch seemed to be a pretty cute little town, but also big for N.Z.’s south island. It is known as the most European looking of N.Z.’s cities, and seemed to look a bit to us like a town in Colorado. We walked around a bit, and finally settled on an Indian restaurant that was advertising ten-dollar meals that came with naan and rice. Since ten bucks is pretty cheap for N.Z. we went ahead and took the deal and ordered a chicken masala and a butter chicken. The meals turned out to be huge and they were enough for the next morning as well, so it saved us a late night trip to the grocery store. Once back at our hostel we enjoyed our huge Indian food meals while other people looked and drooled. We ended up talking with a young German couple who were traveling and working in Aus. and N.Z. for the year. We chatted about the best ways to see the country and about how to free camp (find places to camp where you neither have to pay, or get fined).

After a good nights sleep, we jumped out of bed and made arrangements for a taxi to pick us up and take us to the office where we were to rent our camper van. Adam spent quite a bit of time researching the camper van. There are so many different companies, and also several different sizes. We finally found a killer deal on a Fiat Diesel with a kitchen, toilet, shower, and a table and lounge that folded out into a bed. We definitely wanted to go budget with the camper van, but also didn’t really want to go with the company “Wicked”, that rents out old mini vans with super loud graphics all over them. We were just too afraid to end up with the van with pigs humping each other or the one with breasts randomly painted all over it. They also tend to have phrases on them that refer to either tasteless sexual innuendos, extreme far left political viewpoints, or to binge drinking and drugs. Not the kind of messages we want to be giving as we drive on the wrong side of the road in a semi-foreign country.

The couple in this van did not look very happy

Once we arrived at the rental garage and saw our van parked out front we noticed something funny about it right away. The bathroom was by the sliding door, blocking most of it, and making it harder for the driver to see (since the driver sits on the right). We first asked if there was anyway that we could possibly get a van that was put together correctly, and both women in the office said that there was no chance- WE WERE STUCK WITH THE SHORT BUS!! So the short bus did end up having a few more short falls as well, such as the missing cover on the stove, and a bed that is way to short. But really all in all, it was pretty nice and the best thing about it was that it was a place to call our own. After six months of traveling, this was ours and we were even thrilled to go to the grocery store and stock it up with all of our favorite food.

We decided to go ahead and leave Christchurch after we were finished with our grocery run. We looked on the map and decided we wanted some good scenery right away, so we headed towards Mt. Cook. We were both a bit apprehensive about driving a manual vehicle that was so big on the wrong side of the road, but by the first day driving the short bus we both agreed that it really drove pretty nicely and with a little help from each other being on that other side of the road, it wasn’t so bad. The views of Mt. Cook didn’t disappoint at all, we stopped for the night at Lake Tekapo and found a great lakeside spot (and no signs that read ‘no camping’),so we decided to stay for the night. It was a quiet evening, but by morning there were tour buses coming through with tourists combing the lakeside area, mostly because there is a tiny little chapel there that makes a really great photo op.

After leaving our lakeside retreat we decided to make the jaunt up into Mt. Cook National Park to get even better views and maybe even see Sir Edmund Hillary’s museum. Once we arrived at the end of the road we were greeted with stunning views of Mt. Cook and the other mountains in the southern Alps that surround it. We had a great home cooked lunch in the parking lot thanks to the short bus (I have to say that it is pretty great to always have a kitchen with you while traveling, maybe the novelty will eventually wear off, but for now we are enjoying it). We went in to check out the museum, but my gosh they wanted twenty bucks each! It was a national park, so we assumed it would be free, but N.Z. does not run their parks in the same way we do in the states as we would quickly find out. They do not charge a entrance fee to get into the park as we do in the U.S., but once you are in the parks they seem to charge for everything, and even limit access to some of the hikes to particular tour companies. We tend to be pro-capitalism and private companies, but it just didn’t seem to be working so well in a natural setting such as this.

After lunch, we decided to take a short hike (or “tramp”, as the Kiwis say). We walked and got some great shots of Mt. Cook and the glaciers that descend on its base. Another thing that is different about the “tramping” trails in N.Z. is that instead of posting the distance of the walk, they instead post the average time it takes people to complete. We found out that we walk a bit faster than average usually and that the times are not that helpful.

We decided after our hike was over that we wanted to press on to Queenstown. Queenstown was a place that we had been told about by travelers and read about in travel brochures. It is known as the adventure capital of the world, as it offers numerous “”extreme activities”, such as bungy jumping (which was invented in Queenstown), paragliding, down-hill mountain biking, river rafting, jet boating (also invented in Queenstown), abseiling, and so on. Driving into the town, it looks very lovely. It is set on a gorgeous lake, which seems to be a very popular trend in New Zealand. We also noticed that it looked incredibly upscale and touristy even at night. We don’t usually mind upscale, but we tend to go for more quirky and quaint when looking for a place to do outdoor activities. We ended up spending the night on a rural road where we thought we were out of everyone’s way, but kept having locals honk at us all night long as they drove by.

We decided to leave our make shift camping spot early that morning and drove to a park on the lake to have breakfast. We ended up chatting with another couple in a camper van who were native Kiwis, but living in the U.K. about the honking, and they told us that they were going to eat and get out of Queenstown as soon as possible because they thought that the locals were full of themselves. That, and seeing road signs with bullet marks on them, led us to believe Kiwi rednecks and American rednecks are cut from the same cloth. They even get the same kind of attitude that communicates, “You damn foreigners get out of my country and go back where you came from!” We even had a guy give us the finger as he was driving by, and we were doing absolutely nothing, just sitting in the short bus. Really though, for the most part kiwis are very warm and hospitable and will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. It was just an interesting thing to find this attitude outside of the US.

When we walked into town, we planned to check out a few bike shops about renting mountain bikes (a sport that we have missed like crazy since being away from our beloved trails and Santa Cruz mountain bikes in ABQ), going for a jet boat ride, and find out about cruises in Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. We found the bike shop first, and we had a guy in the shop offer us a couple of 6k shuttle runs in the local area for NZ$129!!! The proprietor was even OFFENDED when we said that sounded expensive for 7.5 miles of mountain biking! We just couldn’t help but look shocked, and thought that maybe we should go into business for ourselves in New Mexico with a similar deal. The jet boat ride on the Shotover River was NZ$109 for a 25 minute ride, which we took because we were in Queenstown and thought we should do something thrilling there. It was fun, but seemed a bit more like an amusement park ride than an outdoor adventure. We did like how maneuverable the boat was and how close it could get to the canyon walls while still going 50 mph! What topped the whole tourist trap thing about it though was the NZ$59 video of the ride and picture they try to sell you at the end. Too bad, too- we were sitting right in front of the camera, so it would’ve made an excellent keepsake if it weren’t so ridiculously priced.

After arriving back in Queenstown, we decided to take a look at some of the restaurants, especially a Mexican place that had caught our eyes the day before. We took a look at the menu that was conveniently posted outside and looked for some of our favorite items, like a burrito that was $25 and fajitas that were $30. We just couldn’t pay those prices for Mexican food, since often in the U.S. the price of Mexican food is not proportional to its tastiness. We decided to retreat back to the short bus and enjoy a great home-cooked lunch instead.
That night we decided that another night in Queenstown was not what we wanted to do so we headed up the road towards Glenorchy. I had read in the guidebook that the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy was one of the most scenic in the world. As we pulled out of Queenstown we both kind of thought to ourselves, okay the guidebook says its beautiful, but I’ll only believe it if I see it. Well, just a few k’s up the road and WOW! , snowy capped mountains began to show themselves beyond Lake Wakatipu. We stopped at a viewpoint and it just AWED us. It was such a clear and still evening and the lake looked like glass as there were absolutely no ripples in it. We ended up camping next to the lake at a perfect little spot. A couple of native kiwis from the north island were also there, and had been there fishing for several days already. They had caught several trout in the lake and had been enjoying cooking them up in their camper van each evening. They were even nice enough to give the short bus a jump start the next morning when we had drained more of the juice from it that we had anticipated. What was the most amazing about this spot though was the show in the sky we had that night. I am not sure when the last time was that we saw as many stars as we saw that night, it made it even more fun since we were in the southern hemisphere and were able to see the southern cross as well as the Clouds of Magellan.

View from the same campsite as above at night. Clouds of Magellan!

We now decided to hit the road and go to Milford Sound. Even though as the crow flies, Milford Sound is only about 25 miles over the mountains from Queenstown, you are forced to take a 160 mile detour to avoid the $400 plane ride there. So on this drive you get a chance to see plenty of sheep, cows, and domesticated deer. Driving into Fiordland National Park is a bit more interesting though. We decided to pull out after awhile and check out one of the viewpoints and although we enjoyed the viewpoint very much and the prehistoric looking forest, the coolest thing happened as we got in the car to leave. There was a very loud thunking on the roof, so Adam went to look and was surprised to see a very large parrot on the roof casually staring right back at him! We had read that there was the world’s only alpine parrot in the area that is locally known as the Kea. This bird was very funny and came down and sat on the open door to the short bus for quite awhile, waiting for us to feed it (which is strictly forbidden). Some other travelers arrived and commented to us to be careful because Keas are very smart, and they like to chew on the rubber parts of cars. As soon as they made the rubber comment, the bird began picking at the tires to the short bus! Good thing that tires are thick and strong, and that the Kea wasn’t as interested in the weather stripping! After awhile we had taken all of the pictures we could of this bird, so we parted ways and made our way into the park even further.

It really was a gorgeous drive, with waterfalls on the edges of cliffs and the road just seemed to meander through the mountains. We eventually came to a tunnel in the mountains, and were forced to wait fifteen minutes for our side to open up. Because of the tour buses and their enormous size, during the day there can only be traffic in one direction. Inside it looked like an old mining tunnel, not really finished off or lighted very well, and was a bit spookey. On the other side of the tunnel, we stopped at a trail that was labeled “The Chasm”. A few seconds into the trail we were awed by the place. The rainforest was absolutely stunning and idyllic. There were several different species of ferns here and some of them were enormous. Just a few more meters down the trail was “The Chasm” which was a very narrow passageway in the rock where massive amounts of water flows through and falls into a waterfall. It was noisy and incredible!

(About an hour after complaining that New Zealand looked just like home, and wondering where the primeval-looking forests were, we found this!)

After “The Chasm” we quickly made our way to Milford Sound. We took a little walk just as the sun was going down on the sound and found it incredibly peaceful and beautiful, but also knew that we needed to find a spot to stay for the night. Since we didn’t see any remote roads along the way, we were pretty resigned to the fact that we were going to need to stay in a “camping park” for the night. In Milford Sound there is only really one option on the west side of the tunnel so we had to stay at the park that charges $18 a person. $36 a night to park is a bit insane in our frugal opinions, and the only response we could get from the employees of the place regarding this matter was that we were in a national park and they were forced to pay a 5% tax to the park system. What a racket that was! It is just a bit uncomfortable when there is another campervan parked a few feet from you, so you end up closing all of the curtains while you are enjoying your meal and feeling a bit like a hermit because of this.

The next morning we awoke to enjoy a delicious breakfast in the short bus before boarding our cruise of the Milford Sound. We decided to take the “encounter cruise” since it is a smaller boat and allows less people on board. Once on the boat it did seem rather empty and we later found out that a whole tour bus that was scheduled to board, arrived ten minutes late and the boat was forced to leave to keep the schedule. Good for us! It was a beautiful day for the sound, and the sky was as clear as a bell! We were a bit worried about that since the area receives seven meters (21 feet) of rain annually. We also noticed that we were by far the youngest people on board, in fact our parents might have also been the youngest as well. The captain did a great job of giving us great information about the geology and history of the sound and giving us great encounters. Some of the encounters included bringing the boat so close to the walls of the fiord that you could touch the rock and plants on it. Oh yeah, I should mention that the Milford Sound is technically a fiord, but since fjord is a Norwegian word that was unknown to the people who named it, it is still known as Milford Sound. Technically, a sound is formed by a river and a fjord by a glacier. The Milford Sound was formed by a glacier. The captain took us the whole length of the fiord and back. On our way back we had the very best “encounter”. As we approached a 100 foot waterfall the captain made an announcement that he wanted everyone outside as we approached the falls, but also to take care of electrical equipment. The captain slowly approached, and drove right under the waterfall!! I was enjoying myself so much and was so preoccupied with the ice cold water pelting my face, and the amazing sight of seeing water falling from such a height that I didn’t even notice that everyone else on the boat had dashed inside for cover. As we drove out of the falls Adam tapped on the window he was taking photos from and asked me to pose as I continued to get drenched.

While driving out of the national park we decided to stop and take a bit of a hike. We were drawn to a spot on a very idyllic stream where the only reason the water looked green at all and not just completely clear was because the minerals in the rocks had a green hue to them. As we sat enjoying the place we also noticed that the birds were not afraid of us in the same way that birds back home are. They were much more inquisitive and would come much closer. The more time we spent there the more we were seeing. We both agreed that this “encounter” was the best part of our day.

We had been noticing for a few days that the short bus was leaking oil and we were having to check the levels regularly. At fifteen dollars a liter for replacement oil, the costs were really going to add up. We decided to go ahead and call the van company and ask if it would be possible to get the short bus fixed. Adam ended up talking with the mechanic and he apologized straight away saying that he changed the oil in all of the vans a week ago and he noticed that he put the wrong cap back on one of them, but didn’t have any way of knowing which of the vehicles was wrong. He then gave us a name of a shop to take the short bus to so it could get fixed, and before we knew it it was fixed, and we were back on the road.

We decided to spend the night in Wanaka after hearing that it was a pretty laid back town. It was a truly beautiful, on a pristine lake (of course) and was much more quiet than Queenstown. We ended up driving out of town for a ways, by a couple of sites from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scenery was spectacular! As we drove, we were trying to find a good place to park for the night, it was pretty frustrating because every nook and cranny or even pull out along the road had a sign that said “No Camping”. Finally after driving for a while we came to a ski area, and we could get a bit off the main road and park for the night. Since most of New Zealand is grazing country, we had many nights where the only sounds we heard were those of sheep and cattle moaning. It was quite humorous really.

Our journey continued north to Manapouri where we enjoyed another lakeside camping spot and Shawn enjoyed a morning hair washing in the lake. Whooo! Very refreshing.
We then moved on to make our way through Mt. Aspiring National Park. We found a quiet place to rest our heads for the night and then woke up early the next morning to take the hike around Lake Matheson, where the morning hours bring beautiful reflections of the southern Alps on its glassy waters.

Later in the day we took some time to walk through the unreal fern forests. We couldn’t help thinking that just around the corner we would see a brachiosaurus munching on the tops of the trees. These ferns were huge, some well over 20 feet, they were so big that they resembled palm trees more than ferns. You had to get closer and look at the fronds to recognize that these really were huge ferns. There were also many other smaller species of ferns and vegetation on the floor of the forest that really made the forest look amazingly lush and green.

The next day we woke early for our day of glaciers. New Zealand has the only two glaciers in the world that descend into a rainforest. These are the Fox glacier and the Franz Joseph glacier, and they are only a few miles from each other. We decided to get up early and see both of these massive blocks of ice. There is an opportunity while at these places to do glacier hikes, but they require that you take a guide, which is really pretty expensive. Since we have both done some mountaineering with my dad in the Cascade Range and have walked on many glaciers, we decided we didn’t really want to pay for this experience. Also, Adam had come down with a cold and wasn’t feeling his best.

That night we managed to find a place to park the short bus right on the beach in the tiny village of Barrytown. It was great to listen to the waves all night, and wake up and see the beautiful beach. We took a little extra time for breakfast and enjoying the view.

A couple weeks before when we were in Sydney, Adam called his grandmother Mari to say hello. During their conversation it came up that we were going to New Zealand. Mari was quite happy because her sister, Sharon lives there, which Adam did not know. He wrote down her number and gave her a call right away. We made arrangements to see her in Nelson, which is on the north coast of the south island.

It was really nice for Adam and his aunt to reunite again. They hadn’t seen each other since Adam’s great-grandmother passed away in the early 90’s. It was great to be able to have a real house to rest in.

By this time we both had colds and the amazing weather that we had been enjoying as we toured New Zealand was changing to rain. We enjoyed catching up with Sharon and drinking some nice local wines with her in the evenings.Now that we have nearly completed our tour of the south island, we will spend sometime in the Marlborough region for a day or so and then take the ferry across to the to Wellington to spend sometime in the north island.

The Great Barrier Reef & Sydney

On our last day in Brisbane, we went to a magnificent lunch at Murray’s sister’s house, went back to pack, said “goodbye” to the dogs, and headed off to the airport for our flight to Cairns. On the way there, we stopped by the waterfront in Brisbane. It was beautiful and spectacular. It is centered around this HUGE pool/lagoon thing, completely artificial, but complete with sand beaches and beautiful landscaping. Anyone is free to drop by for a swim at their leisure. Of course, it is the tax dollars that pay for this place, but it makes the waterfront area of downtown SO nice, in a way that wouldn’t be possible if the place were fenced off and charged admission.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t hang out for long. We were waiting for the last minute to go to the airport, and if we dilly-dallied any longer we’d miss our plane. Murray & Kerri dropped us off at the Departure section. Immediately after checking in and going through security, we found that they had parked the car and were right behind us to see us off! You don’t need a ticket to get through security on domestic flights in Aus, so they were able to get through just fine. We haven’t had anyone see us off at the gate in the US since 9-11 due to security restrictions. They were excellent hosts, and so nice. They come to the US to ski every now and then, so we’re looking forward to seeing them again.

We really weren’t ready to leave Brisbane (which reminded us SO much of Portland), but if we were going to see anything else in Australia, it was time to go. We landed in Cairns pretty late, but it was easy to find the shuttle bus to our hostel. The old lady who checked us in was scatter-brained as hell. She reminded us of the Amsterdam hostel lady from the movie “Euro Trip”. She was, however, nice enough to check us into the “honeymoon suite”, complete with AC, a nice sitting area and a surprisingly comfortable and un-cheesy waterbed.

We were tired from our late flight and our GO-GO-GO schedule in Brizzie, and the bed was sooo comfortable that we wound up sleeping in late. We were starving when we got up, so it was time to shop. As an aside, for the past few months (mostly in Asia), we just can’t seem to pass up the familiar and mundane sight of a supermarket. We just haven’t been able to walk by one without going in for a look! Weird- we know. Anyway, now we were actually going to be able to buy a few days groceries for the first time in nearly six months. It was nice, but like most things in Australia, things were nearly 2x as expensive as in the US. Even produce they grow locally, like bananas, were about US$1.25/pound.- a far cry from the 40 cents per pound for our imported South American bananas we were buying in the US when we left.

After wandering around town, and checking in with the dive shop we’d be seeing the reef with, we passed a car rental place on our walk back to the hostel. Murry & Kerri recommended renting a car to see the towns to the north (Palm Cove and Port Douglas), so we checked it out. They had a roughly 8 year old Toyota Corolla “Ascent” (read: crappier) that was probably refurbished from a totaled collision for about $60/day. But, unlike most of the cheap rental places, this car was an automatic (with AC, too). I can drive a stick just fine, but having to worry about one less thing while learning to drive on the other side of the road & car sounded nice, so we went for it. We decided to drive around town a bit to get the feel of things. WEIRD! Adam hadn’t driven anything since his 15-minute drive in Marcus’s Mercedes in October, so it felt strange to drive at all- let alone on the wrong side! It took a bit of getting used to. Even the turn signals were on the opposite side, so he’d wind up turning on the wipers every time we wanted to turn. Making left turns was especially disconcerting (I’d always want to do a head-check over my right shoulder before turning). Still, the sense of freedom this piece of junk gave us was very nice! We decided to take a little drive to a small beach town north of Cairns to get the feel of things (Cairns is a beach town with no beach- only mud flats).

The next morning (Easter), we got up early and headed up to the rain forest. Our first stop was the “Crystal Cascades”. Apparently, this is normally a great swimming area, but all the rain they’ve been getting lately made it a bit too treacherous to swim. All that water helped our most notable stop- Baron Falls. This waterfall was HUGE. Very scenic.

Next we headed up to Port Douglas. We wandered around a bit through an artisan market area and up and down the main street. We discovered a “Peter Lik Photo Gallery”, too. This guy takes amazing photos- very inspiring. Ultimately, however, there wasn’t a whole lot to do there. We stopped by the grocery store to get a Coke and “Lemon, Lime & Bitters” (our new favorite refreshment, since Kerri offered us one at her hotel- and NOT bitter) and headed back down the scenic coastal drive to Cairns. We stopped by Palm Cove on the way. Nice town. The unfortunate thing about these beach towns though is the Box Jellyfish. There aren’t many, but those who’ve been stung have said it is about the most painful thing one can imagine- like a red-hot poker that is never pulled away (they can even be deadly- quite the overkill for a plankton eater, eh?). Consequently, swimming is restricted to a few small, netted-off areas.

After getting back to town, even though it was raining, we were reluctant to give the car up. We just drove around aimlessly for a while. We had to get up at 5:00 the next morning for our dive trip though, so we turned in the car and headed back to our hostel.

Even though breakfast was supposed to be included on our dive, we’ve been disappointed with these promises in the past on this trip, and since we still had half a dozen eggs left from our shopping trip, we got up early and made a big breakfast. After the van picked us up, swung by the shop to get our gear, and dropped us off at the boat, we were presented with quite the breakfast spread in a relatively large galley area on the boat, so we dug in for ‘second breakfast’. We asked how bumpy the ride out to the reef would be. The reply was “if you have to ask, you need to take something. We took our Aussie brand “Kwells”, which work the same magic as Dramamine, but for only four hours. Immediately on leaving the harbor, we were joined by a small pod of dolphins surfing our wake (which, unfortunately, we wouldn’t see again for the remainder of the trip).

It took about three hours to cruise out to the reef, during which time we ate and had our introductory safety briefings. Getting 11 dives in, in two and a half days would be a challenge, so immediately upon anchoring everyone put on their stinger (jellyfish) suits, wetsuits, and scuba gear. When diving, everyone needs a “dive buddy”. Since Shawn isn’t certified, Adam found a dive buddy (Randy, an Alaskan bush pilot), who’s girlfriend was taking a PADI certification course during the trip. Morning dives were particularly beautiful, with the sweet, morning light coming in at an angle giving a particularly good sense of direction and vibrance. The underwater housing for our little Canon SD800 quickly began to pay off, with some of the best shots Adam has ever taken.

Four dives a day may not sound like a ton, but with getting geared up, diving for 30-60 minutes, taking the gear off and cleaning up, and taking a break, we were onto our next dive before we knew it. The schedule on the big white board read like this (starting at roughly 6:00 AM).

Dive brief & prep
Dive brief & dive
Night Dive
Party and cake for 45 minutes and go to sleep

The dives, for the most part, were amazing- the next one always being better than the last. While visibility wasn’t quite as good as that day at Byron Bay, it was usually as good as it was in Indonesia. The coral formations (either “Bombies” or “Balmies” in Aussie) were absolutely enormous, and spectacular. I’d see a sea turtle on almost every dive. As you can see in the photo gallery section, they’d let you get VERY close. A couple of times, I even got directly eye-to-eye with a turtle (I have a few great shots of this, but would’ve preferred a shot from the third person perspective). The turtles are just so docile and mellow they just go right on grazing on algae on the coral, not really caring what you’re doing.

On a night dive, we were even fortunate enough to spot “Brian”- a 140 year old sea turtle with a shell the size of a large dinner table, sleeping under a rock. Even with half a dozen flashlights shining on her, the old girl (a visiting marine biologist later discovered “Brian” was a female) didn’t lift an eyelid. They just mind their own business and, so long as they don’t think something is actively chasing them, don’t care about anything but grazing on algae and seaweed.

Speaking of algae, one of my favorite little fish on the reef were these little farmer fish. Often, when taking an interesting photo of some coral, a little fish would come up, stare directly at me, dart off for a couple of seconds, and then come back. These fish had little algae crops on the reef. When they see something take interest in their little patch, they automatically think “this algae is MINE, and I know you want it, but ya’ can’t have it!” They go between making mock attacks at you, to trying to lure you away from their precious slime patch. I’m sure they were very frightened, but they were very cute.

A very similar fish was the anemone fish- or “clown fish”, famous from “Finding Nemo”. These little guys would display similar behavior when you approached their anemone, although they were a little more skittish and defensive. Still, they could often be found in groups and were absolutely adorable- not to mention photogenic.

We were also told that they have become more rare on the reef after the movie came out, because they are now more collectable. It reminded us of our Thailand trip two years ago, when we were on Phi Phi Island and we watched several Japanese tourists bag reef fish in Ziploc baggies and photograph the whole event. The whole affair just makes us sick and very frustrated that people do not understand that this is wrong. There were tons of other beautiful fish on the reef- the most notable of which were reef sharks.  Speaking of sharks, at night the “munchies”  would hang out around the boat to chomp on the fish attracted to our flood lights.  They’d put on quite a show, chasing fish out of the water, with their dorsal fins piercing the surface.  Even though reef sharks are shy with people, it was a little disconcerting to be the first one in for the night dive.  It was fun hanging out under the boat and watching them though.  You just shine your light around, and then you see their eyes glowing green in the reflection, and then see their sleek shapes going in and out of the shadows.  Cool experience.

After a day and a half of snorkeling, and taking a few puffs off of Adam’s regulator, and being the only person on the boat not diving, Shawn decided that diving the Great Barrier Reef was an experience she’d like to have, too. She was all ready to go when the crew found out she was on a prescription medication. The drug is only an anti-inflammatory, so we didn’t think it’d be an issue. After the dive master called a doctor on shore, however, we found out that in some cases, this drug can cause scaring on the lungs while breathing pressurized air. Unfortunately, Shawn’s GBR dive experience was not to be, although some of the best sites could be seen at snorkeling depth anyway, and her comfort level in the water increased tremendously. She was nevertheless very sad, as she had overcome many fears of the water (and the creatures living in it) and was truly ready to take on this challenge. Still, she was able to see most of the same things as Adam saw (reef sharks, turtles…..).
After a few days of eat-dive-eat-dive, it was, unfortunately, time to head in. The next few days in Cairns were spent making arrangements for Sydney and New Zealand, with evenings spent hanging out with Stephen and Becky. They were a remarkably similar British/American, Engineer/Teacher couple who were also on a 9-month around-the-world on the same ticket (although in the opposite direction).

After a couple of days in Cairns, it was time to go back to Sydney to spend a couple of days there before catching our flight to New Zealand. While Brisbane reminded us of Portland, Sydney was very similar to San Francisco (except warmer).

Of course, the first thing we did was walk downtown to see the famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge.. These sights were absolutely spectacular- particularly on this day. Since the population in Australia is so low, even in their biggest city the air is amazingly clean. On this day, there were huge, billowy clouds right around where the sun was at sunset. This made for spectacular skies, where you could see the shadow cast by the clouds all through the sky, making it go from deep blue to even deeper blue. The conditions were so perfect that Adam took about 3 of his top 10 all-time best photos this evening.

The next day in Sydney, we spent the morning making arrangements for New Zealand, and the afternoon exploring Bondi Beach. This place was amazing- particularly for a place right next to a major city. Although it is autumn in the southern hemisphere, the water was still warm enough to swim in, so we went for an impromptu dip before a walk along the beach to “Coogee”. The locals were all remarking about how lucky they were to still be swimming this late in the year. “Sydneysiders” are SO lucky to have not only one of the world’s most beautiful and cleanest cities, but also to have such an amazing city beach.
The next day, Adam called his grandparents to discover he has a great-aunt (on his mom’s side, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a child) who lives in a place in New Zealand we were already planning on visiting! We finalized our hostel, campervan, and airfare reservations there as well as giving her a call to make arrangements for a visit. After that, we visited Sydney’s other beach, the macholy-named “Manly Beach”. This place is nice, but if you have limited time in Sydney, Bondi is better. We finished off the evening with a harbour ferry cruise and another visit to the Opera House and Bridge. While we had planned on doing the famous Harbour Bridge climb, we discovered they had jacked the price up to $225 each to climb it at sunset (and only a paltry $175 the rest of the day). To top it off, you can’t even bring your own camera with you. They take a picture for you and try to sell you that for another $40 each! It seemed cool, but not a weekend-luxurious-ski-vacation cool, so we passed that one up. We finished the evening off by grilling up some kangaroo at the ole’ hostel.

Oh yeah- one more cool thing about Australia: Bats! At night, HUGE flocks of enormous “flying fox” bats would fly around the cities. Very cool!

We’re already writing our New Zealand post, so hopefully we’ll have one up soon. In the mean time, you can see some of our New Zealand photos in the Photo Gallery section (in the upper left, below our picture)

We Love Australia!

Arriving in Sydney, Australia was a very exciting event for us. After almost five months of hard core traveling in Asia we were finally going to be in a western country again. We decided to celebrate our arrival by drinking several of the complimentary mini red wine bottles on our Qantas flight. Once we arrived in Sydney we had to
make a mad dash to catch our plane to Brisbane (known by the locals as Brizzy), which is an east coast city in the south of the state of Queensland. We arrived in Brisbane late at night and immediately fell in love with the place. It reminded us so much of where we grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is relatively the same size and has many of the quirky, cool neighborhoods. After checking into our barebones hostel room, which set us back $80 (ouch!), we went to get something to eat. As we wandered, everything seemed to be closed, but then suddenly we saw a beacon of light in the darkness. It was the Burger King logo, but in place of the Burger King name, it said “Hungry Jacks”. Inside, it was just like Burger King and had the same Whopper hamburgers. We were told that Australia has another restaurant with the name Burger King already, so they were forced to call it a different name in Oz. After scarfing down our Whopper meals (I have to admit we don’t eat these at home, but it tasted pretty damn good) we decided to go for a bit of a wander around the city. It was around 11 pm but we were not tired at all. After walking for a while we came across a botanical garden, which was quite beautiful. Adam jokingly said something like “OK…we’re in Australia now. I want to see a marsupial”. About two minutes later, we noticed some really cute little fuzzy animals, and noticed that they did not try to run away. In fact if you stood in one place for a while they would come to check you out. We were told later that they are a type of possum, and they are much cuter than the hideous ones we have in North America. Instead of having a horrible pointy face and a rat tail, these are cute and have a fluffy tail and a cute face, a bit like a little raccoon.

The next morning we decided to get a good pancake breakfast, it just sounded really good. It did turn out to be very tasty, but I don’t think I have EVER paid $14 for a short stack, a piece of bacon, and a coffee! I really do miss our cheap breakfast joints. After breakfast (or breakie) in Oz, we went to go drop our luggage off with our friend Kerri. We met Murray and Kerri while on a tour of Thailand two years ago. They were a lot of fun in Thailand, so we exchanged emails and have kept in contact. When they heard we were coming to Australia, they were nice enough to open their home to us, as well as take some time off work to show us their area that they are so proud of (and rightfully so)! After a trip to Target for Shawn to buy a pair of jeans (she missed jeans too much) we met Murray and Keri and the BMW that they borrowed from their friends to take us around in, and we headed towards their home in the Paddington area of Brisbane. We had a great evening eating pasta, and drinking great Australian red wine. It was just one of those evenings when you just keep saying to yourself, “Isn’t life great!”

Our plan for the next day was to get up fairly early, have breakie and head to Byron Bay. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for this. Once we arrived at Byron we had lunch and a beer and then we all made a mad dash for the beautiful beach and water. We read the conditions sign on our way to lay our towels on the sand and it read PERFECT!!, and that was exactly right. The water was refreshing, clean, and clear and we just had a ball body surfing and swimming in the water. I really don’t think we’ve ever seen water this clear, with the possible exception of Crater Lake. It had to be at least 30-meter visibility! After our great time in the water we just couldn’t resist a fruit flavored New Zealand gelati. It just topped it all off. We also visited the butcher to get sausages and satays for our BBQ later that evening. Before leaving Byron bay, however, we decided to drive up to the lighthouse that overlooks the bay. It was incredible up there and we could even see a few sea turtles swimming in the surf below. We also took a little walk out to the most eastern spot on the mainland of Australia.

After leaving Byron Bay we began to make our way out in the county side to a park called Natural Arch, named after a rock arch that goes across the river. This is where we decided to have our BBQ. Murray and Keri decided to bring their own grill that evening, but it is very common in parks to have community grills set up and we saw many, many people cooking on them. After eating we made our way down to the arch where there is a cave behind the waterfall that is behind it. We had been seeing glowworms all the way down the trail, but once we got into the cave it looked like a night city on the cave. Small bats were flying in and out and once our eyes adjusted we didn’t even need our lights to see by. It was just really magical! It also turned out that we enjoyed the cave just at the right time, because just as we were leaving a couple of highly obnoxious tour buses arrived with stupid tourists thinking that it would be a great idea to take a night hike in the rainforest wearing high healed shoes, they also were making a lot of noise, so bolted out of there once we reached the car. This was a great day, but very busy and I think we were all asleep that night before any of our heads even hit the pillow!

We decided to take the next day a bit easier. Murray and Kerri introduced us to Hot Cross Buns for breakie. As a fourth grader learning to play the recorder in music class, Hot Cross Buns was the first song my class learned how to play. I always wondered what they were, but my teacher didn’t know either and we just learned the tune without knowing what it meant. Now I know! Hot Cross Buns are little cinnamon and raisin buns and on the top they have an X or a cross. I have also seen chocolate chip ones in the stores, but we just stuck with the cinnamon and raisin ones. At Murray and Kerri’s we would usually toast them in the oven before buttering them up to drink with our morning coffee.

Adam and I were dying to see some of Australia’s cute marsupial mammals, so Murray and Kerri took us to a conservation center where we could see some. These animals were in captivity, but it was our best chance to see a duck-billed platypus. This is a very odd animal that appears to be pieced together with parts left over from a duck and a beaver. He was very active while we were there and we really enjoyed watching this little guy. We also found out that they have venomous spurs on the back of their legs. What isn’t poisonous or venomous in Oz though! Sometimes you think that the country was meant to kill you. A good policy is to remember not to touch anything when out in the bush, as even some of the plants are poisonous. While at the center we also had our first chance to pet a kangaroo. They are very soft and so, so cute. After leaving the center we decided to go to the fish market to get our supplies for our seafood BBQ later that evening. Murray and Kerri had been telling us about the Morton Bay Bugs and so we had to try them. Morton Bay Bugs very similar to a lobster and are very tasty on the grill, Murray also grilled up some great prawns that evening as well. What a feast!

The next morning we decided to head up to Noosa Beach, which is just north of Brisbane. When we got there the water wasn’t as nice as it was on our perfect day in Byron Bay, but it was a beautiful coastal city and we had a great lunch there with a beautiful view of the ocean. It was a really nice city to walk around and had cute little clothing boutiques, so I thought I would take a look. An adorable little cotton skirt caught my eye and it was on the 50% off rack so I took a look at the tag. Oh my! It had been marked down to $250 from $500! Holy Crap! I would have paid $20- $30 for something like that, but $250!! Kerri just laughed and said that Noosa was a VERY expensive place to shop, even by Aussie standards. On the way back to Brisbane we had our first glimpse at a wild kangaroo, hanging out by the roadside. Kangaroos are plentiful and are known to be a major traffic hazard, like deer are in North America, so many people in Australia, especially in the rural areas, have big front bumper cages on their cars. People joke in Australia about the fact that they eat the animal on their countries emblem. Kangaroo meat is low fat and apparently very tasty and there is plenty of it, so…..

Since Murray and Kerri had to go back to work on Monday, it gave us a good excuse to lay a little low for a couple of days. The rains also came and went so that was another great excuse. Kerri’s birthday was on Monday and even though we stayed home that night, Murray had a few tricks up his sleeve for Tuesday night. He came home at lunch to go through his enormous wine fridge picked out numerous bottles of champagne and red wine. The plan was to have a multi course catered dinner at their friends amazing water front town house. However, Kerri just thought that we were going to go there for a drink before going to dinner at a restaurant. Once we arrived at the town house and Kerri saw the beautifully set table she asked Murray, “So will we be having dinner here tonight?” That was when everyone came out of the woodwork and the fabulous night began. We started with champagne, sparkling red wine (which we had never had before, but loved), and a cheese platter). The night was pure indulgence, especially after roughing it for so long. We were given a tour of the town house and it was just beautiful. On the main level, was the open living area, kitchen, and dining room. There was a retractable roof on the front of the house that was open to show off the tops of the historic buildings in the neighborhood. The wall on the back of the house also opened to face the river, so the whole place had a great airy feeling to it, and it was a perfect evening so having the house open and breezy was great. After our starter of wine and cheese, we were invited to sit down for the meal. Adam was given one of the leather, head of the table chairs, so he looked like quite the dignitary sipping on his wine. Our first course was some great scallops, they were sweet and just perfect. As if the scallops were not enough, out came the lamb with figs, which was equally as amazing. We also had a great dessert- it was a caramel bread pudding, with a caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. That was he best dessert I have had in awhile. Of course, as we ate all of this the wine continued to flow. Murray did a great job of choosing the perfect champagne, pinot, and shiraz for the evening. Poor Kerri! Since she is pregnant got to be the designated driver at her own party. She graciously loaded us funny people into the car and carted us home, and then poured us all into bed.

We decided since we were in Australia to go ahead and do something more touristy than we would usually do, and go to the Australia Zoo. The Australia Zoo was founded by the parents of the late Steve Irwin- the ‘Crocodile Hunter’, and is now left to Steve’s wife Terri and their two children Bindi and Bob. Immediately upon entering you notice that this place is a memorial to Steve. I understand that he was a big part of the place and was very famous after his television show, but it was really a bit much. He was everywhere! Life size cardboard cutouts, television monitors (even on the shuttle bus), and if I don’t have to hear the word ‘crikey’ again it will be too soon. But even after this, the Australia Zoo is really a good place and most of the animals seemed to be very happy there. We watched the Tasmanian Devil try to make a running jump to escape for quite awhile. This was also the first place where we really felt that the tiger that they had in captivity was pretty happy. We also enjoyed seeing the adorable koalas there, they were just irresistible! Kangaroos were also plentiful there and we liked being able to walk around the kangaroo park and being able to pet the kangaroos to our hearts content.

After seeing the Australia Zoo we hopped on the free shuttle bus and met our friends in Maroochedore, a small coastal community where Murray was having a work function that evening. Kerri also drove up with Murray so when Murray was at his function the three of us hung out at the two bedroom condo we had for the night.
The next morning we took a nice beach walk, had breakfast and headed back to Brisbane. We still had plenty of planning to do for our Great Barrier Reef portion of our Oz trip, so we spent the afternoon online taking care of that. Since it was Thursday and the next day was Good Friday (and everyone has Good Friday off in Oz), once Murray got home we went out and celebrated the fact that they were now on their two week holiday off from work.

Good Friday morning we slept in, took some time on the back deck drinking coffee, and enjoying the beautiful morning. We had been invited to Murray’s sister’s for a BBQ that day, so we had yet another chance to gorge ourselves on the amazing seafood in Queensland. We had a couple of kinds of prawns to eat, a salad, and of course a great cake (Aussies really like their cake!). After this we had to dart back to Murray and Kerri’s to get ready to fly out that evening to Cairns. What a great time we had in Brisbane!

Coming up next- Our dive trip on the Great Barrier Reef. Another great experience that we will never forget!

Aussie Speak-
Aussie- an Australian person
Breakie- Breakfast
Sunnies- Sunglasses
Boardies- Board Shorts
Mate- Friend
Togs- Bathing Suit
J.C.’s- Short for Jesus Christ, but referring to sandals.
Uni- University
Brizzy- Brisbane
Barbie- BBQ
Torches- Flashlights
Eskie- Cooler or Ice Chest
Boot- Trunk of the car
Feral – Dirty, smelly hippie. A wild human- commonly has ratted matted hair sprouting from his head, even if he is white.
Munchies- Sharks
Salties- Saltwater crocodiles
Cracker- Used when making a positive comment such as “It’s a cracker of a day” or “Wow! That’s a cracker of a view”.
Hire- Rent
Bush- Forest
Bush Walking- Hiking
Give it a go- Give it a try
No worries or No Dramas- No Problem
Bloke- A man or a guy

China: The World’s Chinesiest Place

After a few days in Tokyo, we took a short flight to Shanghai. The airport is quite a ways from town, but they have a REALLY cool way to cover that distance- a MagLev (magnetically levitated & propelled) train! This is the world’s longest maglev (because they are ridiculously expensive to build- dozens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars per mile), but it is still relatively short. The train smoothly accelerates to nearly 300 miles per hour, and almost immediately begins slowing down. We hoped to see the famous Shanghai skyline from the train, but the air here turned out to be lung-burningly thick, so we unfortunately couldn’t see very far.

From the end of the MagLev line, it was a short Taxi ride to meet our friends from California- the Littles ( The Littles lived a few doors down from us when we lived at Vandenberg, Sara Little and Shawn used to work together at the Children’s House Montessori school in Santa Maria, and two of the Little children were in Shawn’s class. We met them at a TGI Fridays of all places, but decided to eat at Papa Johns instead. It was surprisingly nice to eat familiar food for a change, although they charged familiar prices, too, which wasn’t so nice.

After lunch, we hopped on another high-speed train (although this one only went about 130 mph) to Nanjing, China. The Littles are spending two years here, where he is working on a Master’s degree while learning Chinese. They graciously invited us to stay with them for a couple of weeks. Their townhouse was large and modern, in a beautifully maintained neighborhood. It was great to be in an actual house…with bedrooms…and a kitchen…and a living area- and it was all set up in an American style. Sometimes it was easy to forget we were in China if we didn’t go out for the day, but the first night we definitely knew we were somewhere different.
We arrived on the last night of Chinese New Year, and this night was the grand finale of about a month of constant fireworks. This made our 4th of July look tame in comparison. They had been lighting off fireworks for so long that the Littles children didn’t even seem very interested, at least not until they started to really ramp up at about 8:00 PM (an auspicious hour, I believe). These were HUGE pro-size fireworks, exploding about level with the top floor of their townhouse complex, but on all sides. Cardboard fragments were raining down in a constant stream. We decided to walk around, and were able to stand right next to where they were being launched. That was definitely an interesting experience- although definitely unsafe, too. The next morning the ground was blanketed in a coat of debris, although the groundskeepers quickly cleaned it up.

Our time in Nanjing was…definitely slow paced and relaxed, which is just how we wanted it. Every couple of days, we’d go out to explore the town, or go shopping, or see some of the historical sites around the town. When we’d go out with the Little’s blond haired, blue-eyed two-year-old son, throngs of Chinese would surround him taking pictures like paparazzi surrounding a celebrity. Most of them wanted to touch him, too. The little guy always took this pretty well though. Anytime anybody would point a camera at him, he’d just put on a coy little smile and wait for everyone to go “ahhhhhh”. Of course, the Chinese all thought the little guy was severely underdressed- they bundle their kids up so much that they can barely move whenever the temperature drops below 55 F….except Chinese kids have a slit down the back of their pants when they’re being potty trained. Their parents just hold them over then nearest garbage can or bushes and….yeah. Oh yeah, they also believe the reason that many western kids are fat is because they drink milk, and cold water messes with your chi and causes cancer so they are appalled when they see parents giving their children cold water. BTW- since Chinese people only have one child, their only child is often very pampered and many of them are quite chubby, as well.

Overdressing their kids and letting their butts hang out so they can crap into a can wasn’t the only strange cultural trait we noticed. They are generally very pushy with each other and very opportunistic. People have no qualms of cutting right in front of you in any kind of line- including in cars. They’re completely blatant about it- very rude. Once, we even saw a scooter crash into a cyclist while cutting her off. The scooter driver looked IRRITATED with the cyclist, rather than remorseful, and nobody stopped what they were doing to see if she was okay. We felt horrible for her, and stopped and made sure she got up okay. This was interesting to us since we heard that a common conception that many Chinese have about western people is that we only care about money and that is the basis of all our relationships, where as the Chinese people take care of each other. Interesting. Shawn just knows when she crashed her bike last spring in Albuquerque, she had someone stopped to make sure she was okay before she had even realized that she had crashed. While in China we also came across a cultural boundary that we were not really willing to break. That is the willingness to eat just about any part of an animal that could possibly be cooked into something possibly eatable. The Chinese use all sorts of animal products in their cuisine, which makes going to a restaurant there a particularly stressful affair. We just were never quite sure what we were ordering- Is it tripe? Is the red sauce on the dish blood? Which organs are in this dish? While making a beef stew at the Littles house one night, Shawn learned first hand that Chinese butchers and western butchers are not the same. She ended up spending quite a bit of time cutting out bone fragments and other excess ‘stuff’. Sara just laughed, as this is just the routine for her now when she buys and prepares meat.

Nanjing has the biggest, longest wall of any walled city in the world. The city was never occupied until the Japanese came in WWII. Today, much of the wall is in excellent condition, and makes for a very interesting place to visit. When we first visited it, Shawn said “Wow- this place is really Chinesey!”. Adam replied “Yeah- there are a lot of Chinese people here, too!”. Nevertheless, the main gate to the walled city was the first place in China that we visited that had an unmistakably feudal Chinese look to it. It was such a classic, photogenic spot that Barry Little, who was being promoted from Captain to Major, decided to have a ‘little’ promotion ceremony there. Since Adam still holds his commission in the reserves, he swore Barry in- something he’d never done before, and never expected to since he is no longer active duty, AND he did it in China!

After the promotion ceremony, we took a walk in the park between the city wall and the river. There isn’t a lot of green space left in many Chinese cities, so people were out there taking advantage of the beautiful day by flying kites (which they can reel out to over a kilometer away!), doing Tai Chi, and playing a chess-like game.

After our time with the Little’s we decided to stop by the cities of Suzho and Tongli on our way back to Shanghai. Suzho is famous for it’s many Chinese gardens (I suppose they just call ‘em “gardens” there though). They were beautiful, but probably would’ve been nicer in the spring or summer. They were also very crowded since it was a weekend. While they were nice, we were frankly more impressed with the Chinese garden in Portland. Suzho also has a huge pedestrian street lined with western-style shops. They seemed nice, but many of them carry the same things we could get back home. We did enjoy the Japanese noodle shop with a girl winking on the logo though. After laughing at the winking girl, that shop became “winkey noodles” to us.

Tongli, on the other hand, was excellent- Very Chinesey. We were thrown for a bit of a loop when we arrived though. The man from our hotel met us just outside of the city to show us the way. Once we were about half way there, he said we had to buy a ticket, which cost more than the hotel itself. A ticket! To walk to the hotel!? The ticket was for entry to many small museums, but we had no intention of going to any of them. We explained how we weren’t going to any of the museums, and how it was very misleading to not mention this was about the only city in the world that CHARGES ADMISSION when we booked the hotel. Finally, we talked our way in. The city is built around an intricate canal system with wide sidewalks, but few roads. The city has been preserved with classic traditional architecture. The canals, old buildings, and few motor sounds made it the most peaceful town we visited. There really isn’t a ton of stuff to do there, but one could easily spend a couple of days just wandering around the streets, breathing the relatively clean air, sampling all of the food, and taking pictures. It was also interesting perusing all of the little shops and taking a look at all of the Mao paraphernalia that you see at all of the tourist places in China. Some of our favorite stuff was the communist leader stacking dolls and Mao’s “little red book’.

(Funny side note: as China moves away from Communism, the official policy is that 70% of what Mao did was good, and the other 30% not so good. Can’t lose face now 🙂

After Tongli we moved to Shanghai. This city is very modern and western (at least by Chinese standards). Although air pollution there is terrible, our hotel was close enough to the waterfront to get an excellent view of their impressive skyline.

(View from our Hotel window)

They also have an ‘old town’, which is a historic-looking pedestrian-only area. By this time, however, we’d been in Asia for about five months, and were getting very ‘Asia-ed out’. We were giddy with excitement looking forward to going down to Australia, which, naturally, would have to wait an extra night due to a problem with the airplane. Fortunately, Australia didn’t disappoint….

(Tip: If you go to the photo gallery section, you can usually find our photos much sooner than you’ll see a blog entry)

A Quick Stop in Tokyo!

Since our round the world ticket required us to go through Tokyo to get to Shanghai, we decided to spend a few days there and get a bit of a taste of Japan. We did some research on where to stay before landing in Tokyo and were shocked by the rates as they are some of the highest in the world. As a way to save some money, we decided we would look into the couchsurfing program ( We created a profile on their website about ourselves and then gained access to other people’s profiles in Tokyo who had spaces in their homes to offer. We looked over several of the profiles and emailed two of them. One of them wrote back that they were not available, but the other offered for us to stay with him. He even offered to pick us up at the train station near his house. He only asked that we pay him around ten dollars each since he had many guests and he had noticed that his utilities and food bills had gone up. This was fine with us since it definitely beat the price of a hotel there, so we agreed to this.

Our flight arrived in Tokyo at about 7 a.m. and our couchsurfing friend had agreed to pick us up at 7 p.m. so we had the day to wonder Tokyo, but most importantly to find the Apple store in Shibuya to get our computer fixed. Our first stop after getting through the immigration line was to find the transportation counter. At the counter we came across a very friendly young woman who spoke nearly no English, but also was very successful at communicating to us that we needed to take the bus to Shibuya since it would be much cheaper than taking the train and we also wouldn’t have to wait so long for it. We thanked her, and bought the bus tickets which while cheaper than the train were still around twenty dollars each! By the time we got to Shibuya we were starving so we found the first convenient store we could find in the shopping center where the bus dropped us off. We decided to get a couple of the soft meat filled buns, mostly because they looked familiar since we ate quite a few of them as quick snacks in Bangkok. After purchasing them we started to eat them right outside the door of the store in the shopping mall. Just as we were about to finish, the security guard came to us and said in very direct English, “Don’t EVER eat anything in this building AGAIN!!!”. He was very direct and very angry and all we could say to him was, “okay”, and we walked out of the shopping mall. This was our first brush with a disgruntled Japanese local and also our last, everyone else was insanely friendly and helpful. We walked into a real estate office to ask for directions to the Apple store and walked out with highlighted maps that were copied and given to us. Armed with our great map and many people along the street that offered to help us interpret it, we found the Apple store pretty easily. We walked into the store and used one of the new Macbook Air computers to check our email and noticed Adam’s mom had written us a message telling us that she had set up an appointment at the Shibuya store for that afternoon, but since we were already there we went ahead and asked if they had any earlier appointments. They first said that they were all booked up, but asked what we would need. Adam explained to him that we were positive that our hard drive had crashed and that we would need to have it replaced. The guy said that it would be a three day turn around time for that repair, and both of us immediately raised up our hackles and explained to him that that would not be possible and told him that we were only in Tokyo for two days and just happened to be in the only city in Asia that has an Apple store. He then spent about 30 seconds trying to sell us a special warranty that would qualify us for expedited repairs. We told him that we didn’t want to buy something like that when changing out the hard drive was only a ten minute job, so he wandered over to where one of the Apple “geniuses” was available behind the counter. He explained our situation to the “genius”, G-man and in no time he ran with our computer to the back room and had swapped out the hard drive! Problem solved!! What a relief, you just never know how difficult these things will be. The Japanese staff at the Shibuya store were highly competent and helpful, and we have to admit the service was far superior to the Apple store in Albuquerque. G-man allowed us to sit at the “genius bar” for a few hours and download a new operating system as well as download much of the free software that we had lost.
Here is a pic of G-man helping us out.

After leaving the Apple store we both exhaled with a sense of relief. Our computer was functioning again, and now we were free to wander the streets of Tokyo! We noticed immediately that there was a sense of peacefulness in this massive city, as everyone follows the rules and will help out whenever needed. For lunch we hopped into one of the many noodle shops and had a massive bowl of noodles. After we paid, Adam went over and left a tip on the table. On out way out the server came running handing the money back to us, we learned later that it is not customary to tip in Japan and is even a bit embarrassing to them when you try. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering the Shibuya area (Tokyo’s Time Square), taking pics of all the crazy Japanese stuff and taking great photos of the hordes of people that cross the diagonal crosswalks in front of all those crazy, massive Time Square or Piccadilly Circus like television monitors.

Since we were going to be picked up at the train station on the northern end of town by our couchsurfing host at 7 p.m. we had to brave the Tokyo rush hour on the train system. First, we had to decipher which line to take and then how much money to pay. Next, we had to squeeze ourselves and all of our bags into the packed train and hold on for dear life as the train stopped and started again down the track.

When we arrived at the station, our guy picked us up and we headed for the grocery store to pick up something for dinner. We had a great evening with the three of us and three more couchsurfers sharing his tiny, tiny apartment.

The next day we headed out to do a bit more exploring. We ended up in Electric City and spent several hours exploring all of the levels of the biggest electronics store we have ever seen. For lunch we ate at the sushi (of course) restaurant on the upper floor and had a great feast. The top of the weird Japanese electronic gadgets that we saw was the horse riding machine. They had several models and had a video to watch while doing it. Very funny!

The next morning we were off to Shanghai, China. Stay tuned for the post Adam has begun on that.