Archive for the 'Australia' Category

April 14th 2008
Great Barrier Reef

Posted under Australia


We flew into Cairns in the late morning and checked into Caravella Backpackers – a far cry from our Melbourne penthouse but conveniently located across the street from the Cairns esplanade. Despite its coastal location, Cairns does not have much in the way of a beach – the tide goes out extraordinarily far, leaving a muddy, swampy shoreline. The esplanade is a beautiful area along the water’s edge comprised of walking paths, playgrounds and a park area with shade pavilions and a public man-made lagoon which, on a Sunday afternoon, is packed with swimmers, picnickers and bikini-clad sun-worshippers.

Behind the esplanade are several streets packed with restaurants, bars, and dive shops and stalls selling mostly souvenirs, beach attire, and tours. We immediately noticed that Cairns caters to the Japanese tourists – most of the signs and menus are in both English and Japanese. Eager to do some diving on the Great Barrier Reef – the seventh wonder of the world – we stopped into a few dive shops to make inquiries, pondered the options over lunch, and booked a live aboard dive trip departing on Tuesday evening.


Coincidentally, our good friends from Texas, Amy and Eric Arnold, were to be in Port Douglas for a few days. After spending the morning poking around the beach shops in Cairns, we rented a car for the day and drove about an hour north along the coast to squeeze in a visit with the Arnolds before our dive trip. We met them at their very posh resort – the Sea Temple – and spent a few sunny hours catching up over poolside cocktails. They were in town in a semi-business capacity so we kept our visit short but it was wonderful to see them again. We miss our friends in Fort Worth!


After checking out of our hostel and returning the rental car, we puttered around town until it was time to pick up our rental dive gear. We went with a dive company called Taka Divers but rented our dive gear from another shop (because it was cheaper) so we had to carry the heavy gear a few blocks from one shop to the other. Along the way, we saw huge swarms of flying foxes soaring through the trees overhead. A shuttle bus collected us from the Taka Dive Shop and dropped us off at the dock, where we and our gear were efficiently loaded onto the boat. Some of the best dive spots on the Great Barrier Reef are along the northern outer reefs, called the Ribbon Reefs, so our ship cruised all through the night, about twelve hours in total, while we ate, relaxed and snoozed comfortably in our cabins.

Wednesday through Friday

The morning began with an introduction and safety briefing over a big breakfast. Our first two dives of the day would take place at one of the Great Barrier Reef’s best known dive spots, called the Cod Hole. Since I only had 30 logged dives under my belt, Aaron and I were separated on the first dive and I went down with a small group to do a checkout dive with an instructor. It is a common practice for less experienced divers to do a checkout dive when diving with a new company. You basically go down and demonstrate a few skills such as flooding your mask and then clearing it and also tossing away your regulator (mouthpiece) and then locating, replacing and clearing it. These skills are crucial in the event that some oblivious diver’s flailing limb knocks your mask and/or regulator off your face. Panic is not an option 15-30 meters underwater.

So my little group descended to a spot of ocean floor, surrounded by a vibrant coral garden, and kneeled in the sand to begin our exercises. Less than a minute after we’d gotten situated, two giant potato cod (and when I say “giant”, I mean four feet long and about a foot wide) nudged their way in between us and hovered there for the duration of our stay. They were so friendly and curious that they kept getting in the way of our exercises. One of the cod hovered between another diver and me, resting its big fish lip on my arm for about five minutes. The instructor kept nudging them out of the way but they were enjoying the camaraderie with the bubbling aliens in space suits too much to be moved. It was adorable and amazing!

Our second dive in the Cod Hole was a cod feed wherein the entire group of divers – eighteen in all – knelt in a big circle on the ocean floor while one of the dive instructors hand-fed a couple of cod with chopped-up fish parts, which he had brought down from the boat in a plastic container. The instructor moved around the inside of the circle, stopping in front of each kneeling diver to release a few fish parts so that everyone got a close-up view of the feeding frenzy. What made the cod feed most interesting, however, was the school of red bass (a.k.a. rats of the sea) that competed for and often won the prized fish chunk. The bass, which are not small fish, have sharp little fangs that stick out vampire-style from their fish lips and, when the feed is commencing in front of you, the swarm of fanged bass and giant cod darting in all directions less than a foot from your face is mesmerizing and intimidating. When the last chunk of fish was gone, the divers paired off and went exploring.

In the Great Barrier Reef, divers are encouraged to dive without a guide because the sites are notoriously easy to navigate and the conditions are mild. This was the first time that I went diving without a guide – just Aaron and me – and I must admit that I was a little apprehensive at first, mostly because of my prima donna mentality. Theoretically, if I have a problem down there, I want as many people attending to me as possible. What I learned, however, is that diving in pairs is the way to go! You can move along at your own pace, unhindered by the weakest link in a group dynamic. You can choose to linger longer if you see something cool or move along faster in search of better coral or more action. Also, I recently obtained a little contraption called a tank banger, which can be used to create an obnoxious racket if I’m feeling particularly neglected by my cheeky little buddy. And, as it turns out, I prefer diving with Aaron as an independent pair.

The corals that comprise the Ribbon Reefs are stunning and diverse. I am usually content to hover around the walls, mounds and pinnacles of coral and admire their beauty, regardless of the fish life. However, the Great Barrier Reef is known for its shark population. Being a victim of the Jaws phenomenon, which caused millions of terrified viewers worldwide to develop an instantaneous and intense phobia of ocean swimming, I was naturally nervous about diving in shark-infested waters. Most avid divers will tell you that, when it comes to underwater exploration, seeing a shark is the ultimate experience. It equates to seeing the big cats – lion, tiger, cheetah, leopard – on a safari. There is always a chance that a shark could attack a diver – they are wild animals after all – but it is a very rare occurrence. Despite the Jaws implications, sharks are not coldblooded killers. Humans are not their food source. In most recorded incidents of shark attacks, the unfortunate victim was either mistaken for food or the victim of a shark’s curiosity. That is why most shark attacks involve a single bite rather than a full consumption. The shark takes a bite, realizes the person is not food, and swims away, leaving the victim to seek emergency medical attention or bleed to death. At least that is what we are told by scuba professionals, Great White Shark cage diving guides and everyone else in the shark tourism business. While the words of these experts certainly reek of bias, the experts do have the greatest interest in educating themselves in shark trivia.

I kept reminding myself of the low odds of getting attacked by a shark in order to overcome the Hollywood-inflicted Jaws phobia of my youth. I’ve never in my life stepped into the ocean without thinking of sharks. I was afraid but often the danger in something is what makes that it exhilarating. As Aaron omnisciently predicted, I developed an immediate obsessive fascination with the sharks. We spotted sharks on more than half of our dives over the course of the trip. On one dive, we hovered behind a pinnacle while three sharks – two white tip reef sharks and one larger, more intimidating grey whaler shark – patrolled back and forth on the other side. Their sleek, grey bodies moved powerfully and gracefully through the water. Their eyes were black and merciless…soulless. When a shark comes into your sights, you stare intensely – your eyes widen, your pulse quickens, you remind yourself to breathe – until it swims away and disappears into the blue. You exchange little cheers and underwater dance moves with your buddy and then resume your study of the reef.

We dove ten times over the course of three days, including two night dives; following the second night dive, I vowed never to do a night dive again. I did one in the Red Sea as part of my Advanced Open Water certification and it was the only Red Sea dive that I hated. I vowed then never to do it again but decided to give it another chance since so many people swear by night diving. After three night dives, I have determined that I hate everything about them. I get disoriented in the dark and hate that I can only see what is directly in my torch beam. I can’t see all of the beauty that surrounds me which, in my opinion, is the reason to go diving in the first place. I don’t care about lobsters, crabs, free-swimming eels and whatever else only comes out at night. Also, it is colder at night and, after a full day of diving, I would rather drink beer than struggle into a wet wetsuit for a night dive. And that’s final.

All in all, we were very satisfied with our dive experience on the Great Barrier Reef. The crew on our boat was young, fun and professional; the ship was well-equipped and comfortable; the professional chef dazzled us with decadent buffets at every meal; and the diving was superb! It is always a little sad when good times come to an end but we disembarked with ear-to-ear smiles which remained on our faces until the excitement of the four-day adventure melted into fatigue.

And now our Australian exploration has come to an end. After spending a month Down Under, we have barely scratched the surface of this enormous country but we are nonetheless pleased with our experience. The Aussie culture is so similar to American culture that we found ourselves under-stimulated at times, though the splendid scenery, the wine lands, the wildlife and the diving have been spectacularly thrilling. We have enjoyed the Western comforts but not the Western prices. We must admit that we are eager to return to Asia where the culture is a bit more interesting and the travel a bit more challenging; where we can be minorities again.

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April 11th 2008
Melbourne: Footy and Funny Men

Posted under Australia

We left the Great Ocean Road behind and drove into Melbourne through a fierce windstorm. Our lightweight Hyundai Getz rental car was manhandled by Mother Nature for most of the journey but Aaron kept us on the road. There were two reported fatalities caused by the collapse of construction scaffolding. Motorcyclists were discouraged from riding during the storm. The 140 km/h winds had stirred up so much dust that thick orange-brown clouds obscured the buildings and trees on both sides of the highway. News outlets later reported that it had been one Victoria’s worst wind storms in more than a decade.

The city itself was a gridlock nightmare, exacerbated in part by its shocking contrast to the peaceful, easy beach towns from which we’d come. We fought our way through the narrow streets of downtown Melbourne, congested with pedestrian and auto traffic, to inquire at a few hostels and budget hotels, all of which were full on account of several special events that weekend. We finally secured the penthouse of all hostel rooms at a place called Urban Central Backpackers. Despite the “factory-esque” ambiance of the common areas and the throngs of twentysomethings, the hostel was top notch. We were somehow upgraded from a regular double to a “family room”. It was a wonderfully spacious top floor “penthouse” with two walls of huge windows framing a view of downtown. We could have held a small yoga class in the space left over from the bed and sitting area. We giddily settled in for four nights of suburban comfort.

We decided to return the rental car a day early (since driving in town had proven to be a nightmare) and tackle Melbourne the same way that we took on Sydney – à les pieds. Central Melbourne has a grid like structure with outlying parks, botanic gardens, public art galleries, high-end shopping, Chinatown, classic European architecture and yet a distinctly American feel. The areas along the narrow Yarra River, which runs through the city has been masterfully developed into a chic promenade lined with trendy restaurants and luxury hotels overlooking the cityscape and its sparkling nocturnal reflection on the water. There is a prominent café culture and we spent a good part of every day sipping lattés at sidewalk tables while absorbing Melbourne’s eclectic mix of locals and tourists. The streets always seemed full of people playing music for coins or selling jewelry or drawings from a small table or tarp on the sidewalk. The downtown streets are swarmed with people, the young and hip, both day and night. If you didn’t know where you were, you would probably assume that you were in some big American city – a fact that disheartens Australians in the same sort of way that many Europeans condescend to American pop culture and politics.

Since we were fairly certain that fields of kangaroos and koala-filled trees were not an option in the big, bright city, we decided to dabble in a few of the activities that give big cities their urban charm. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the second largest in the world, was in full swing. We had stumbled upon a booth at Town Hall that sold half-price tickets to comedy shows on the same day so we indulged in three performances over the course of two nights. It felt wonderful to laugh uncontrollably for hours on end and it must be good for the abs because mine were certainly sore after each evening’s hysterics.

And both nights, after the show, we walked back to our penthouse along the glittering promenade, entranced by the city lights, soft, romantic music playing on golden lit patios, clinking of bulbous glasses, and the purr of dinner conversation. The promenade at night was one of my favorite backdrops in Melbourne. You had only to stroll along it to feel as though Van Gogh himself were painting you as part of an idyllic scene like Starry Night.

On our last evening in the city, we went to an Aussie-rules football game (Aussies call it “footy”) at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds (MCG). Needless to say, this activity was Aaron’s pick but I found myself equally exuberant as we followed the colorful crowd toward the entrance. Watching sports on television has never really tickled my fancy but I love tickets! The whole spectacle at the arena/stadium/field – the obnoxious couch potato fans, little kids sporting their team’s colors while eating hot dogs as long as their arms, the roaring crowd, the overpriced beer and salty finger food – charges my senses into an adrenaline-infused frenzy. There is so much more to the experience than the game itself.

“Footy” was born in Melbourne and nine of the Australia Football League’s fifteen teams still represent different areas of the mothership. Aaron had read the rules online and relayed the abridged version to me as we waited in our seats for the match to commence. The game seems to share rules with both soccer and rugby and is surprisingly easy to follow. It is high-impact and fast-paced since the “footy” is almost always in play.

In true Aussie style, we drank beer from large plastic cups and ate meat pies while cheering for our chosen team, the Carlton Navy Blues (chosen because I liked their little white shorts). The two teams were evenly matched and it was a close game, but the Essendon Bombers came from behind to win in the fourth quarter. MCG, which seats over 100,000 spectators, was packed with rowdy, roaring “footy” fans. We stayed through the end and then walked back along the promenade – it was bustling with activity on a Saturday night. We might have joined in the revelry had we not booked a flight to Cairns at “oh my God” early the next morning. It’s hard to make choices when there is so much to do, especially in a vibrant, thriving metropolis like Melbourne. I find myself wishing that there were two of me so that I wouldn’t have to miss anything. Every day is a new adventure and, while I felt a twinge of sadness as we left the penthouse the next morning, I was bursting with excitement about the new day’s possibilities.

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April 7th 2008
Great Ocean Road: Apollo Bay and the Otways

Posted under Australia

Our next stop (and, as it turns out, the last stop) along the Great Ocean Road was about 150 km down the coast to Apollo Bay. We found a place to stay just a stone’s throw from the beach, fixed some lunch, and went out for a long walk. Along the Great Ocean Road lies the Great Ocean Walk a beachside trail that takes about ten full days to walk from end to end. We picked up the trail just across the road from our hostel and began walking west, stopping often to marvel at the powerful waves. There were a few families enjoying the beach but swimming in this area is strongly discouraged due to riptides and currents. We stopped for a while at Shelly Beach where the shore was comprised of porous rock; the high tide was washing over the intricate designs on the surface, flooding pores and contours into streams and pools and leaving deposits of tiny shells. We spent about an hour sifting through the colorful shells and playing “chicken” with the incoming tide. It was a beautiful day and we were both playful and energetic. The beach walk was a nice change of terrain from the forest-covered mountains.

We walked back to Apollo Bay along the shore rather than on the trail, which was slightly more challenging with stretches of beach rock to climb over while timing the tide and a knee-deep stream to cross which soaked our shoes and chilled us to the bone. It was a nice afternoon adventure with just enough excitement to satisfy the thrill-seeking Bear and tire him out enough for a relaxing evening indoors.

The next day was the most sunny and warm in the week’s forecast and we were determined to take full advantage of it. We packed some peanut butter sandwiches and apples and drove into Cape Otway National Park to do some hiking. Our reference materials listed several trails, most leading to a waterfall, with an average duration of an hour so we endeavored to walk one trail after another until our legs gave out on us. We walked to a couple of the waterfalls through lush rainforest trails with moss-covered trees, thick ferns and tiny waterfalls trickling down the mountainside into mossy rivulets. The growth overhead was sometimes so dense and healthy that it created a dim, cavernous ambience on the trail, even on a bright, sunny day.

Throughout our drives along the Great Ocean Road, I had been watching the trees intently for koalas and, on our way back to Apollo Bay, I finally spotted one in a thicket of eucalyptus trees. We quickly pulled off the road next to another parked car. The two girls standing there told us that there were koalas everywhere in the trees! We almost immediately spotted a few of the cuddly grey bears perched in the highest branches of the trees. As we spent the next hour canvassing the area, we found koalas everywhere indeed! Some were sprawled out in the treetops, snoozing the afternoon away; others climbed nimbly among the branches, inching toward new bunches of leaves while still others mimicked the curious stares of the audience below and posed for pictures as the mood struck them.

As we got back into the car and drove away, I declared that our Australia experience was now complete! We’ve seen so many amazing animals in Oz: black swans, parrots, goannas, flying foxes (a.k.a. giant furry bats), kangaroos, koalas and a porcupine…and we haven’t even been diving yet!

The Great Ocean Road has been a perfect contrast to our urban Aussie adventures. The coastal waterscapes and rainforest landscapes have been stunning and refreshing, the small towns quaint and relaxing. It is good to get away from the crowds, cigarette smoke, gridlock, noise, constant stimulation and endless distractions of cities to give yourself a little room to breathe and time to think once in a while. While it is a crucial element of maintaining balance, it is incredibly difficult to cut out a sliver of time from the rat race to accomplish it. As we continue to enjoy this rather colossal slice of time out from the race, we often think about how we want our future settled life to differ from the past. I hope to take more time away from the noise for prayer, quiet contemplation and solitude. I found this seemingly small task difficult to manage with a dog, a job, a husband, a social calendar, and a portfolio of memberships and philanthropic activities (it makes me dizzy and a little stressed just recalling it all!) I can only imagine the additional difficulty when you add children to the equation but I am convinced that it is a question of priorities.

A long trip, or simply a significant “time out” really helps to put things into perspective; it gives you time and space to think about what is really important to you, what inspires you and what makes you happy. My perception was constantly skewed while I was tangled in my whirl of activities and commitments and I never quite felt like I could catch my breath. Two poems (and books of the same titles) that I absolutely love – “When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple” and “If I Had My Life To Live Over, I Would Pick More Daisies” – are written by mature women who have looked back on their lives and reflected on what was really important. Aaron and I are both so thankful for this opportunity to step out of the mold of insatiable suburban workaholic consumers and get reflective and philosophical before time slips away from us as it inevitably does. Seeing the world is an added bonus.

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April 4th 2008
Great Ocean Road: Shipwreck Coast

Posted under Australia

The Great Ocean Road stretches from Warrnambool to Torquay along the rugged southern coast of Australia. The beaches along this coast are not the idyllic vacation beaches of postcards and dreams. The waves are fierce and powerful, thrashing against the coast, carving limestone like a jack-o-lantern, and rolling out stellar tubes for the discriminating surf bum. Inland from the Great Ocean Road lies thick beech forest and the vibrant rainforest of Cape Otway National Park with bushwalking and camping opportunities to satisfy the nature lovers. The best way to do the Great Ocean Road is to drive leisurely, take in the magnificent coastal views, stop at the quaint beach towns along the way and fit in a few of the countless outdoor activities on offer.

Our first day on the road was waterlogged by torrential rain and strong winds blasting in from the sea. The gray and gloomy skies cast a foreboding shadow over the coast so we decided to make our first stop in Port Campbell to wait out the storm. After striking out on our first attempts to secure budget accommodation, we happened upon a sign for a cottage along the main road. I inquired at the service station next door and a friendly, older gentleman produced the keys to a lovely three-bedroom house behind the station. We had the house to ourselves and it was the perfect place to wring ourselves out and wait for the rain to subside. The owner stoked up the large gas heater in the living room as we settled in. It’s been a long time since we enjoyed the comforts of a real house and I reveled in the pleasure of the privacy and space. Just as I began to get really comfortable, the clouds decided to call a cease fire and, although the skies remained ominous, we dared to venture out to a few of the coastal viewpoints.

The coastal stretch between Port Fairy and Cape Otway, which includes the Port Campbell area, was a notoriously deadly area for sailing ships due to rough waters, hidden reefs and dense fog. The truculent stretch earned the name of Shipwreck Coast when its waters claimed more than 80 ships in a period of 40 years in the mid-to-late 1800s. The most famous of the wrecks was an English ship called the Loch Ard, which hit a reef on the final night of its three-month voyage in 1878. The vessel was so badly damaged that the crew were unable to assemble the life boats. Of the 55 people on board, only two survived. Much of the debris and cargo as well as one of the survivors from the wreck were washed into the gorge that now bears the name Loch Ard Gorge. Only four bodies were ever recovered and they are buried in a commemorative cemetery on the edge of a cliff. There is a great walking path along the gorge with signs telling the story of the shipwreck and ending at the cemetery. Shipwreck Coast is daunting for its ghostly tales, which are easy to believe as you stare out at the power and ambivalence of the waves.

Over millions of years, the constant pounding of the waves has sculpted the coastal limestone cliffs into brilliant formations, the most famous of which are the Twelve Apostles. At one point in time, twelve rock stacks protruded from the sea just off the coast but the same eroding forces that carved the stacks initially have caused several of them to crumble into the sea, leaving only six Apostles remaining. There are bridges and blowholes where water has carved a hole through a cliff and caverns of stalactites formed by water and minerals seeping out of porous limestone walls. There are sheer cliffs with waves pounding into them, slowly, gradually sculpting the next masterpiece.

We managed to get in a few more lookouts, walking over paths surrounded with colorful indigenous flora, before the rain came back with a vengeance, forcing us to jog back to the car and ending our brief afternoon of sightseeing. I didn’t mind, though, because I was eagerly anticipating a wonderfully cozy quiet night inside the cottage.

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April 3rd 2008
The Interviews

Posted under Australia

The idea for the interviews came to us during a hike in the Otways. That night, over a beer at “the pub” in Apollo Bay, we scribbled down a list of questions and then later answered them independently. It was fun to read each other’s answers for the first time. Even after spending every waking hour together for the last seven months, we still learned some things that we didn’t know.

What is the most prized possession in your backpack?

Tina: The laptop. It’s amazing how much free wireless internet there is in the world…even in Africa. It’s been essential for keeping the website up because we can type the long-winded posts and respond to emails offline rather than paying by the hour at a drab, characterless internet kiosk. Those places make me crazy! Also, we have all of our photos and our music collection, which I definitely enjoy browsing through when I’m homesick or craving some background music. We have a really elaborate trip planning spreadsheet that helps keep us organized and, since our itinerary is ever-changing and my short-term memory is ever-waning, the spreadsheet is crucial. Not a day goes by without opening the laptop. We have said numerous times that, if God forbid something happened to it, we would replace it immediately!

Aaron: Our laptop computer. It has been an invaluable resource for staying in touch with friends and family, researching future destinations, managing our trip expenses, and keeping my ADD brain occupied on rainy days.

What have been your top three destinations so far?

Tina: India (all of it, especially Pushkar and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan), Paris and Zanzibar, in that order. India is the craziest place in the world. I’ve never seen anything like it. We talk about India all the time. I miss the constant sensory overload, the shock factor of every scene, the erratic nature and volatility of the crowds, the bright colors and beautiful people. People say that you either love India or you hate it. I am totally enthralled!

Aaron: Our sun-kissed day biking around the Chateau in Versailles; walking around the streets of India – every day was an eye-popping experience; and sailing in the Bay of Islands

Name one thing that you’ve learned about yourself.

Tina: I’m a chameleon with an attitude.

Aaron: That I truly only have one speed – full throttle. When we were planning this trip, I thought that along the way I would find myself relaxing more and that we would travel whimsically, letting the wind blow us around the world. But I still wake up early most mornings (often waking my soundly sleeping wife in the process), ready to start the day and set our agenda of activities. Thankfully, Tina prefers a more leisurely approach to travel and she ensures a healthy dose of spontaneity in our adventure.

What do you miss most about home?

Tina: Lena. I’ve lived away from home for more than ten years now so I’m used to only seeing my family once or twice a year. I miss my “pupperoni”, especially at bedtime. We look at pictures of her all the time and dream of having her again full-time. She’s such a sweet little furry bundle of joy!

Aaron: I definitely miss our little dog Lena and I miss having a place to call home. But most of all I miss my road bicycle. There is something so invigorating about going for a long solo bike ride.

If you could re-locate now to one city that you’ve visited thus far, which would you choose?

Tina: Paris. Aaron says that I would hate the weather in Paris and he’s probably right but I love the architecture, the parks, the language, the food, the Louvre, the fashion, the café culture and all of the crazy, rude Parisians. Maybe I’d hate it after a year but now I’m intrigued. I could probably spend every weekend for a year at the Louvre and still want more!

Aaron: Sydney

What has been one of your favorite activities?

Tina: Diving in the Red Sea. Aaron was right when he said that the Red Sea would forever skew my diving standards. We saw some amazing things there: pristine coral reefs with great visibility, Thistlegorm!!! Nothing else has compared so far and I have become a dive snob. Now I only want to dive in world class dive spots. Anything else is a waste of time.

Aaron: Swimming with dolphins on Zanzibar. They were so playful and they allowed us to snorkel with them for nearly an hour. It’s also where we met two great couples who quickly became friends: Jerry and Haley – the Kiwis who we visited in Zambia and again in New Zealand and Olaf and Nicole – the Germans who we’ll stay with when we visit in September.

Describe a really bad day on the road.

Tina: There hasn’t been a whole bad day on the road…only difficult moments like freezing our buns off in the sleeper car of an overnight bus in India, freezing our buns off at the top of Mt Sinai while waiting for the sun to rise, freezing our buns off in Rishikesh through a mountain of blankets. I really don’t like being cold. Also, the first day in a new country (especially a Third World country) can sometimes be a little tense when we don’t yet have a feel for how things work. You can’t really take a deep breath until you’ve checked into the first hostel. Aaron tends to stress more than I do on those days and snarling is contagious. It never lasts long though because the excitement of the new place always takes over.

Aaron: You are awakened by the chime from your stopwatch at “oh-my-God early” after five hours of sleep only to discover that the mosquito net covering your bed had a hole in it and you were attacked by a gang of probably-infected-with-malaria beasts in the night. After hurriedly packing you depart the hostel and, even before a cup of coffee, you encounter your first negotiation of the day – the taxi fare to the bus station. After threatening to board a matatu instead and walking away two times, you finally agree to pay the driver about fifty percent more than you thought that you should. You arrive without fanfare at the station, and with a cursory glance at your tickets, the conductor lets you board – after extorting a baggage handling fee for your two backpacks that are stowed below (you do want them to arrive, don’t you?). The seats are narrow, they don’t recline and it feels as if you’re sitting on a plywood bench. Thankfully, you remembered to pack a couple of snacks for the ride. Because your bus full of foul-smelling Africans, rambling over a narrow, two-laned potholed road for nine hours will only stop twice (and you don’t want to eat what the “rest stop” restaurant is serving anyway). After only an hour on the road, the ride is briefly interrupted by a massive accident which has managed to block both lanes of traffic and has halted traffic in both directions. After a 45-minute wait, a new off-road route has been created to circumvent the four or five vehicles involved in the accident, one of which is an overturned petrol-carrying tanker that is now engulfed in flames. You think to yourself, “Hmmm, this should be an interesting ride.”

You finally arrive at dusk (nerves a little frazzled but otherwise intact) without a place to stay and you step off the bus to brave the crowd of twenty taxi drivers all reaching to grab your bag and secure your fare. After verbally beating away the first fifteen, the remaining five convince you that the exorbitant price they quote is more than equitable. You begin walking to the randomly selected hostel from your trusty guidebook when you finally negotiate a deal with the only taxi driver who has continued to follow you. Your hostel has a room with a couple of twin beds overlooking a noisy intersection. It has one creaky fan to circulate the thick, humid air, a mosquito net with more holes than a brick of Swiss cheese, and a toilet with no seat. Perfect. What time does the first bus leave in the morning?

This was our journey from Nairobi to Mombasa and I’m ashamed to say that we repeated almost this exact itinerary the following day (but only a six-hour bus ride) over equally rough roads on our way to Lamu. The only redeeming fact about our horrific day trip to Mombasa is that after dropping our bags at the hostel (and paying another overpriced taxi driver), we treated ourselves to an upscale Indian food restaurant in town. We definitely needed it.

Where was the most uncomfortable bed that you’ve slept in?

Tina: Hmmm…lots to choose from. My twin bed in Petra had a dip so deep that I stuck my pillow in it and it was just about even. Our bed in Chiang Mai had so many springs sticking up through the mattress that I couldn’t sleep in any position. The bed in Swaziland had dips and springs poking through. I’m a stomach sleeper (a bad habit that I can’t seem to break) and the springs dig into my ribs. I never got used to sleeping with a mosquito net in Africa or in rooms with no cooling system in the heat of summer (Aaron is a human furnace, which doesn’t help). We’ve slept in so many awful beds that we’ve become more adaptable, learning to curl around the dips and contort our bodies to avoid the springs. It makes you so much more appreciative when you climb into a nice, soft, perfect bed with clean sheets and a duvet. It’s like Heaven!

Aaron: We stayed two nights at a hostel in Swaziland. It rained non-stop for two days, the entire hostel was damp and musty and smelled like the two big resident dogs. The double bed that we shared was at least twenty years old. Of course there was no box spring so the bed just sort of sat on the floor. It had absolutely no support, sagged in the middle and the springs poked us in the back as we tried to sleep.

A close second was the bed at our hostel in Johannesburg. It had the same affliction as the Swaziland bed – it was much too old and it sat on a quasi box spring that provided no additional support. It felt like fabric was draped haphazardly over some coil springs strategically designed to poke you in all of the wrong places. Here we endured three restless nights. After sleeping in nearly a hundred hostels we’ve become bed connoisseurs. Doubles or twins, bunk beds or futons, there is one universal truth: a bed that’s too hard is much better than one that’s too soft, especially if you’re a stomach sleeper.

What future destination are you most looking forward to?

Tina: All of Europe really. So many distinct cultures in such a small area. Spain and Italy have always been at the top of my list of dream destinations. They both seem so romantic!

Aaron: Nepal and trekking in the Himalayas. Do you know a good Sherpa?

Name one hard lesson that you’ve learned on the road.

Tina: Bad attitudes are contagious.

Aaron: In high season, book your accommodation in advance. It is always stressful trying to find a place to sleep when you arrive in a new city.

What experience do you most regret missing out on?

Tina: Kashmir. All of the books that we’ve read about India portray Kashmir as a magical, almost mythical mountain paradise.

Aaron: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t something that was important to us at the time and it would have meant buying a lot of extra gear, but I wish that we would have done it.

What destination NOT on the itinerary do you most wish to go?

Tina: There are so many places that we’re NOT going! I wish we could spend more time on islands but they are always expensive to get to. I would love to dive in Palau and in the Galapagos Islands.

Aaron: Antarctica. It just seems like one of the last frontiers on earth.

What advice would you give to someone trying to plan a similar trip?

Tina: Just do it! Also, don’t buy the “around the world” plane tickets. They have too many restrictions and we have loved having the flexibility to change our itinerary at will.

Aaron: First of all, just do it. No amount of planning will prepare you for all of the inevitable surprises that you find on the road. Second, don’t try to see too much. After racing around Africa, we’ve slowed down considerably and we both prefer this pace. It’s a big world and it is impossible for us to see everything the first time around. Plus, our budget simply can’t support traveling as much or as quickly as we first planned. Our single greatest expense on this trip is our transportation costs, but it can be surprisingly inexpensive when you stay in one place for a while.

How do you envision life after traveling the world?

Tina: Barefoot, pregnant and unemployed. It will undoubtedly be a struggle to satisfy my champagne taste on a beer budget, especially because we will basically be starting over. The trip has, unfortunately, failed to curb my shallow materialism. A good friend once told me that he would live in a trailer if it meant that he or his wife could be home to raise their children and I totally agree. Besides, I kind of like trailers.

Aaron: Unless something compelling motivates us to stay abroad or start a business, I’ll probably go back to the corporate world for a while, hopefully securing a good relocation package to live where we want. God willing, we’ll start a family and have some babies running around before we know it…and we’ll need good medical insurance!

How have your experiences changed your views on religion?

Tina: As we’ve traveled through countries like India, Egypt, Jordan, and Thailand, in which Christianity is not the primary religion, we have learned a lot about other faiths. We have observed the worship of cartoon-like idols, listened to stories of multiple deities and prophets, and seen women oppressed in the most hideous ways. We have seen firsthand and read about the caste system in India and I have personally experienced the ultra-conservative, sexually-repressed, offensive expressions of Muslim men on the street and also observed the beauty of Ramadan. I think that the idea of religion is a good thing. People need incentive to be good or perhaps just enough fear to keep them from acting on their evil thoughts. It is the man-made element of organized religion that I find unsettling and the social aspects of some religions, as mentioned above, that I find utterly disturbing. Organized religion is big business and a powerful machine for manipulating the minds of masses. Suicide bombers are the perfect example of our day. Take a man from a poor mountain village with no prospects in life and convince him that he will be granted eternal paradise with seventy-one virgins if he blows up a shopping mall full of women and children (a.k.a. infidels) along with himself and you have a powerful (well-funded with Saudi oil money) weapon. I am appalled by the notion of religious war and religious persecution. We saw a great slogan on a camper van in New Zealand that read something like this: “Religious war is like two children fighting over who has the stronger imaginary friend.” I’m not renouncing Christianity or any other religion for that matter. I’m just skeptical of the thousands of years of hands skewing the words of the hand-me-down stories and, in many cases, of the real origin of the stories themselves.

Aaron: I think that religion is a good thing in so far as it creates peace, harmony and interdependence among people. But there are countless examples throughout history where men have distorted religion and religious teachings for their own advancement in wealth and power. And there are many examples in recent history where religious differences have led to war, not peace. No matter how just or virtuous our religious leaders’ intentions appear, there is always more than meets the eye. Whether you look at the Evangelical preachers on television every Sunday, the Pope delivering his Easter sermon, mullahs teaching at Madrasas, or Rabbis extolling the virtues of Judaism, all of these pundits are still human. And like all humans they have the potential to be influenced by earthly desires. Do they aspire to higher office? Do they have families to support? Are religious leaders immune to the consumer marketing campaigns which seduce millions of laypeople to overindulge each year?

Now more than ever, I believe that God exists. But I have become much more cynical and skeptical of organized religion. Did you know that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in the Old Testament of the Bible? It’s the idea of prophets where they differ. The more places that we visit and the more religions that we learn about, it seems unlikely to me that only one group has it all figured out. But in my quest to find answers I dig deeper, and uncover only more questions. How many of us have read the Bible from cover to cover? The Koran? The Torah? What is the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? Protestant and Catholic Christians? Orthodox and Reform Jews? Are these differences worth killing for? Dying for? How much of our own information on religion is spoon-fed through media outlets on television, in print, and online? Is our preferred media source truly unbiased? The same news story seen on Fox News, Al-Jazeera, and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp) is never reported exactly the same.

For those of us who follow an organized religion, at some point most of us will question the teachings of our respective religious doctrines or the existence of our prophets. When the body of evidence presented fails to fully convince us, we are told to have faith. And even as an analytically-minded and scientifically-trained individual, I do. Because for all of its warts, organized religion creates cohesive communities, it strengthens families, and it compels individuals to be more charitable. For me, traveling has reinforced the idea that everyone should evaluate their own religious beliefs if for no other reason than it creates a greater understanding of our fellow man. My final point is this: If we spent less time arguing about the differences in our religions and spent more time discovering the similarities, could we live in harmony with mutual respect and greater understanding despite our different beliefs?

What is the most beautiful place you’ve seen so far?

Tina: The most beautiful landscapes were in Kenya, especially at Lake Nakuru. I don’t know if I realized it at the time but I look back at the photos now and my jaw still drops. The most beautiful beaches were on Zanzibar. The most beautiful cityscape is a tough one: either Paris or Udaipur.

Aaron: Just about anywhere on New Zealand’s South Island. The landscape is awe-inspiring and pictures cannot possibly do it justice.

Describe the most physically difficult experience?

Tina: That would have to be a three-way tie among three painfully steep ascents: Mt Sinai (because we were too stubborn to take one of the countless camels on offer along the way), our Chiang Mai trek, and the hike that we did on Aaron’s thirtieth b-day in Coffee Bay, South Africa. Brutal!

Aaron: Lamu, Kenya. After indulging in grilled white fish prepared Swahili style at a beach front restaurant, I spent the night and the next two days with the worst food poisoning that I’ve ever had. What’s worse is that we were in a sweltering, dirty, mosquito-infested hostel with a toilet that wouldn’t flush! I spent the night sweating, covered in DEET, lumbering to the bathroom every ten minutes. I couldn’t stomach a regular meal for a week and I didn’t eat fish for the next four months!

How do you feel the trip has changed you as a person?

Tina: The trip has transformed me into a person who will stop at nothing to follow my dreams. I am ashamed to say that I formerly pushed my greatest dreams aside in the interest of practicality and pragmatism, out of fear of failure and mediocrity. I want to spend my life doing things that make me happy.

Aaron: I’m more confident in my ability to solve problems. I’m still wound too tight and I don’t always handle adversity with the same grace as Tina, but I’m getting better.

What has been your biggest challenge on the trip thus far?

Tina: Keeping my weight down. You would think that all of the hiking, biking and pounding the pavement of cities would be enough to naturally keep us fit. The problem is that we love to eat, drink and be merry. Sampling the local cuisines of each place is an integral part of the overall experience. We eat out a lot and we love to cook so even our self-catered meals are often elaborate. If I left Aaron in charge of our diet, we would eat pizza and fried food for every meal with sweets in between. I credit my veto power for keeping us from ballooning beyond the capacity of our cargo pants. “I love sweets. I just looooove sweets!” said Aaron while alternating forkfuls of ice cream cone and caramel slice.

Aaron: Maintaining a healthy diet and not gaining weight. I thought that I would be skin and bones after spending months in Third World countries like Zambia and India, but everywhere that we’ve traveled we have eaten well. Sometimes too well.


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