musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

From Australia/New Zealand: Photos!

Thanks to a God-knows-how-long flight from New Zealand to Tokyo (and good internet in Japan) I was much better about editing/posting pictures this time...

Shots from Australia here.

Shots from New Zealand here.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

From New Zealand: When in Rome... or Queenstown

There are only two cars in the parking lot. Three including ours. The cold drizzle reminds us that July is winter here. An old bridge juts out from the side of a round building on the side of a cliff. A rope dangles off the bridge.

I slow my breath to a pace that betrays my heart beat. I smile at two giddy young ladies rushing past, talking of something... no idea what. I'm singularly focused.

It's safe. You only have to conquer your fear.

A quick stop in men's room. One last glance up from washing my hands. You've paid for it, teases the voice from inside the mirror. No turning back now.

I'm eerily calm, as if the battle raging between my romantic and my classical sides - between my heart and my mind - is nothing but background noise. Static on the radio.

New Zealand has been wonderful to us. Incredible, drastic vistas that change at every bend in the road. Old and new friends. (Mostly) great weather. A niceness in people that can only be matched by Canadians. Whales diving deep into the ocean, leaving their iconic tails for us to photograph. Trail running Wellington's parks at night.

But Queenstown is about adventure. It's about extreme. It's about doing things once. For some, it's about doing those once-in-a-lifetime things over and over again. It's about the rush.

So here we are. Looking out at a bridge.

Cat Stevens is playing over the loudspeaker. Or is it Guns & Roses? I step on the scale. 93 is written on my hand. Note to self: exercise more.

The man we're following now is heavily bundled up. I've taken my coat off. Wait, it's not time yet is it? We're early? Lauren smiles and squeezes my hand. She is nervous yet giddy. I'm just nervous.

It's safe. You only have to conquer your fear.

The drizzle is now rain. Forrest Gump, sideways rain. It's cold although I'm not.

The old iron bridge is wide, probably made for horses and carts carrying gold from the mines. I don't look over the edge.

Small talk ensues. Texas. Austin. Music. Boston. Africa.

The towel is unceremoniously wrapped around my shins. The straps are tightened. Is that all? Aren't there more straps?

Lauren wants to know who I think should go first.

Me. I'll go first.

The ledge is a few feet away. A cord, the cord to which I'm entrusting my life, swings in the wind. We were told earlier in the day by a lovely 19 year-old man that one can jump in practically any weather off the Kawarau Bridge, the place where bungy-jumping was invented 2.5 decades ago. It's a fixed structure. Apparently.

Bound together, my feet can only wiggle their way to the edge. Or hop, but that sounds like a bad idea in this situation.

"Ok, time to go man," reminds the pleasant Kiwi who was, in hindsight, keeping my mind busy with his chatter. "3. 2. 1!"

Nope. Not yet.

"You do have to let go of the bridge you know."

What these gentlemen don't realize is that this is possibly the dumbest/awesomest thing I've ever done. What they don't get is that for me to conquer my fear, this has to be done on my terms. I've never wanted to jump off a bridge before. Yet here I am.

"C'mon man, let's try this again. 3..." This time he doesn't make it to one.

Instinctively my arms go out. My mind goes clear. My eyes stay open. I don't feel the rain. I don't feel anything.

That's because I'm flying.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

From Australia: Bizarro World

Dear Erol: Why haven't you blogged more from Australia? Dear Reader (who doesn't really exist - this is essentially me talking to myself): quite frankly I've been having way too much fun! And we've been in the car. For 3,600km i.e. a lot. And, to my utter confusion, I was stuck in bizarro world where mere survival was my primary concern.

For those of you who aren't Seinfeld (or DC Comics) fans, bizarro world is a world that looks and feels familiar but is slightly off. For Elaine, it was her three new friends that were almost exactly like Jerry, George and Kramer. Almost. For me, Australia is bizarro world.

In traveling down under, I expected the toilet to flush counter clockwise, for people to have cool accents, and for steering wheels to steer from the right. What I did not expect was that the place would be so eerily familiar. At times almost exactly like the US. Almost.

Here's an example:

We thought that the best way to see the country would be to rent a car and make our way through lazy small town - with the general store next to the one pump gas station next to the neighborhood of one story homes with large yards - after lazy small town. Beaches full of domestic tourists (and lots of kids... everywhere) on a break from school. Semis tracking police radars and testing speed limits. Genuine southern hospitality. Seemingly endless windy roads followed by a straight stretch of endless sky followed by a truck stop.

This would be entirely normal for me, except that I'm not talking about a road trip through Texas... This is Australia!

After a great few days in Sydney, we flew to Brisbane and drove right up to Airlee Beach in our pursuit of yet another box (the one next to 'Great Barrier Reef') checked off the list. Nothing bizarro about the reef, mates... just pure amazingness!

Cruise Whitsundays afforded us the (admittedly very touristy/full of vacationing children) opportunity to see the outer reef, something that is not really an option from most places along the 2,300km long collection of barrier reefs that are collectively known as 'Great'. Essentially what that meant is that we took a boat out 3 hours into what felt like the middle of the ocean, only to find... well... you really have to see it to believe it. And to think that almost everything we saw scuba-/snorkel-ing is currently (or was once) a living organism? In. Cred. Ible.

In keeping with our with our 'we have backpacks but aren't really backpackers' theme, we concluded our day on the reef with a helicopter ride back to the mainland, flying over the appropriately named/shaped 'heart reef' and spotting a few breeching humpback whales along the way.

But, after that quick detour into 'amazingness', we were back on the Bruce Highway and thus back into 'bizarro'. Roadside motels that should've been $35/night but were actually 5 times that price. Passing Sunday (i.e. slow) drivers on the highway, just doing so on the right rather than the left. Townspeople waving to us exclusively with their left hands... ok, I might've made that one up.

Skippy (an old Iraq era friend) and Shiralee's town of Amamoor was no exception to the bizarro. In addition to all of the above, we happened to be there on July 4th, the most American of American holidays where sports are watched, arteries are clogged and fireworks are enjoyed. Minus the latter, our lovely hosts facilitated the most non-traditional (i.e. bizarro), traditional independence day I've ever had. There was actually football on the tele, only it was the Queensland Maroons playing the NSW Blues in the clincher of the Origins series, rugby league (i.e. football to most Aussies) style... not the Cowboys against the Redskins. And grilled steaks, potato salad and more chips/dip than I've had in years nicely facilitated the clogging of arteries. Top it off with a quick ride on the Harley the next day? God Bless America (and Australia of course)!

Last but not least, the hospitality of our friends was, in a word, overwhelming. After spending a bit more than planned on everything (!) thanks to the obnoxiously strong Aussie$, not only was spending a few nights with Skippy/Shiralee and the fantastic Kelly family in Uralla refreshing to our pocket books, it was a welcome foree back into the land of families and friends, something missing since Thailand (much like distance in DC is measured by the number of Starbucks in any given route, I've started measuring the passing of time in terms of countries).

I guess I shouldn't be surprised... after all Skippy is quick to tell you that Aussies are the real purveyors of southern hospitality!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

From Australia: Top 11 Things that Make Sydney Spectacular

Dear Sydney - It's pretty difficult to describe how great you are. There are so many reasons and so many facets to your awesomeness. So to say thanks for hosting us I figured I'd just give you my top 11 things that make you an awesome city (other cities take note):
11. You have a chain of stores entirely devoted to cupcakes.
10. You are an infinitely walkable city with excellent running options; because jogging around the Sydney Opera House is almost as amazing as jogging around the White House. Almost.
9. SoCal-style beach livin', surfing and surfer dudes/dudettes are but a 30 minute Manly ferry ride away.
8. People refer to 'ol Mr. McDonald's restaurants as 'Mackers'.
7. As you boast few cafes (at least that we found) that have free wifi, people actually go out to read the newspaper (like the actual print version - remember that?) and drink coffee. Or wine.
6. There are decidedly more active people (running, playing lunchtime rugby, etc.) on your streets than there are overweight people.
5. Snapper pie at the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay.
4. You intertwine the arts into everyday life (through urban gardens, chic shopping, museums, etc.) better than most.
3. Your ever-fashionable citizenry have cool accents and while you are having some difficulty these days with your immigration policies (aren't we all?), you are a land of tolerance, immigrants and opportunity; a place where world traveling backpackers (not us, don't worry) can easily earn US$15+/hour as a minimum wage doing... well... just about anything.
2. You have an opera house that is not only architecturally mind-blowing but also constantly in pursuit of new, innovative ways to entice all cross-sections of the population (including orchestra-loving septuagenarians, skateboarders, Janet Jackson aficionados, toddlers and everyone in between) to step through your doors.
1. Except for the horrendous value of my hard-earned US$ on your streets, you are a very livable place. Other great cities of the world (New York, Istanbul, Tokyo, London, etc.) have many of the above qualities but are they really as livable as Sydney...? Guess I'll just have to find out some day!