Sunday, November 13, 2011

Giving Thanks

Six months ago, I vowed to appreciate the simple things. Things like truly living each day. Eating out and visiting Starbucks sparingly, and truly appreciating the abundance of green trees, waterfalls and snowy mountains in our corner of the world. Yesterday, I had coffee with a friend who just returned from teaching English in Honduras. Chatting with her was a good reminder of what it felt like to return home from months of exploring. I was reminded of the unanticipated challenge of holding onto the many aspects of life we learned to appreciate while abroad, while simultaneously conforming back into American culture out of necessity.

Last week, I was annoyed that we accidentally bought single-ply toilet paper. I had forgotten what it was like to live for two months in a place without toilet paper or running water. I recently discovered Pinterest and wasted way too much time online, I had forgotten how valuable 15 minutes on the internet could be when you are paying by the minute. I actually had the nerve to think that there was nothing worth watching on Netflix streaming, when last year I had been so grateful to watch (and rewatch) the same episode of The Office on my tiny i-pod screen. Somewhere along the way, I'd forgotten to be grateful for the roof over my head, safe drinking water, and reliable transportation. The past year has been the most exciting, challenging, rewarding and life-changing year of my life, and I decided to take some time to reflect on some things I learned along the way. After all, what better time to remember what we are thankful for?

One morning last year when we were still finding our feet in the backpacker world, Mike and I woke up in the back of our trusty old station-wagon H.O.W.E. (Home on Wheels: Explorer) in the woods of New Zealand to the sound of rain and buzzing mosquitos, and we were both really hungry. I wasn't in the best mood because I had been up late reading a Stieg Larson novel and hadn't slept well (I don't recommend reading graphic mysteries while living in a car in an unfamiliar place). The thought of another 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a carrot to get through the day just was not all that comforting. After brainstorming a bit to come up with ways to make our meal more exciting, we realized that our little car had come equipped with a tiny gas stove and a pan, and came to the brilliant conclusion to toast our breakfast pbj. This was a game-changer, and what once sounded dull was new. These are the kind of small memories I'm trying to preserve as our life at home becomes more and more routine, and we forget about appreciating little luxuries like toasters.

Last February, while woofing in Wilderland on the Coromandal peninsula in New Zealand, we temporarily adapted to a self-sufficient vegan lifestyle. This was easier for me than it was for Mike. Twice I caught him red-handed shoveling peanut butter from a jar into his mouth to supplement his zuchinni-soup lunch. One night, we retired to our little car-home around 6 pm after a long day of harvesting potatoes, and layed in bed dreaming about the foods we missed back home. We invented a little game where we would think of a category and take turns naming our favorite food. For example, "Favorite summer-time meal?" Mine was barbecued salmon, buttered corn on the cob, and caeser salad at the cabin. Mike's was a big juicy steak with Kettle chips and a beer. While on the topic of beer, we began dreaming of micro-brews such as Boundary Bay's Cabin Fever, which pairs nicely in cold weather with a lamb-burger loaded with feta. At this point, Mike's eyes actually began to water.

"Favorite holiday food?" Turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. Roasted lamb at 3 AM after Pascha service. And since we're dreaming: sweet potatoes, cranberries, green bean casserole, Aunt Lizzie's sweet and gooey corn bread, The Murphy's hot spiced apple cider (so hot you can hardly hold the cup), Mom's dinner rolls, Dad's prime rib topped with a dollop of horseradish, Dawn's meatloaf, Aunt Elaine's mac-n-cheese, and my old favorite, the Zeller's holiday themed jell-o jigglers. Top it all off with a handful of peanut m-n-m's from Grandma and Grandpa Deck's candy dish, some Cossin sister's fudge and caramel corn, and some Bailey's on the rocks with Tim. Woah. Needless to say, we went to sleep with mouths watering that night. I guess in some ways it is natural to adapt back into our home-culture. But this year, I'm hoping I can remember the things we learned to appreciate and harness the feeling of thankfulness we so often overlook.

On our road-trip in a hippie van through the Australian outback, we ran into a nice couple who was just finishing up a similar adventure. They smiled and offered us a bag of supplies (condiments, paper-towels, and bug-spray). A guy in a hostel in the Blue Mountains left us a few spoonfuls of peanut sauce that transformed our bag of veggies into a lavish meal. These generous donations made a significant difference in our trip. And now, I can't help but wonder how I went from being genuinely thrilled by a kind stranger's donation of an almost empty bottle of BBQ sauce to needing to have 6 different kinds of salad dressing in the fridge at all times.

In Thailand, we gained a new appreciation for the excessive selection of food we have here in the states. Don't get me wrong, Thailand was also where I enjoyed some of the best meals of my life, all for under $3 from street vendors. Just thinking about panang curry, som tam (green papaya salad), phad see ew, or a peeled pomelo makes me want to save up for a plane ticket back to Bangkok. However, we usually tried to limit ourselves to one meal out a day and attempted to do some grocery shopping to sustain ourselves. In some towns, this meant stocking up at 7-11. At home, I cringe at the thought of eating a meal from a gas station, but in Thailand, 7-11 is about as western and convenient as it gets. We learned by trial and error and made our best guesses about reading packaging in Thai. We learned that Thai tuna in a can also contains some sort of cream, peas, onions, and too much sugar. We ate a lot of rice cakes. Bananas were a daily staple.

In Cambodia we learned that our tolerance for spicy foods was not as high as we thought. 4 stars at On Rice in Bellingham is the low end of the spice spectrum in SE Asia. There is no such thing as a star system over there, but we noticed that it was common for cooks to tone down the spices for white people. I learned to calm it down more by mixing in rice with a ratio of 4 parts rice to 1 part stir-fry/curry/beef loklak. I also learned how picky we Americans are when it comes to eating meat (if you are squirmish, skip the next paragraph).

One night we ate at a tiny family owned cafe in Phnom Penh, I ordered the special (mostly because I had no idea what anything was). I should have taken the cue from the server's look that clearly said, "are you sure?" but I didn't. While we waited for our food, the family demonstrated the most welcoming hospitality. A man sang Khmer karaoke to us (which is beautiful, if you've never heard it, check it out on youtube). They even brought over their adorable baby and asked us to kiss him. And then we got our plates... the display was bright and colorful, there was a carrot carved in the shape of a flower. I took one bite and instantly began to sweat. My eyes watered and Mike tried not to laugh. I stirred the dish to try to figure out what it was and discovered that it was very clearly chicken. In Cambodia, when you order chicken, you receive the feet, feathers, and even the eyes. I made my best attempt at eating the vegetables and rice, our server returned to refill my water glass several times and graciously pretended not to notice that I was attempting to hide the chicken's beak with a pile of rice. I never realized how spoiled we Americans are in our meat-eating. When I order fish at home, my mind visualizes a nice symmetrical salmon fillet with all of the bones removed. When I ordered fish in Cambodia, I received just that. A whole entire fish staring up at me, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed with kroeng (spices) and coconut milk. Once I got over cutting around the parts I wanted to avoid, I found that this fish was some of the most delicious I had ever tasted.

It was also in Phnom Penh (which is the closest city to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields) that my idea of what it means to live in poverty was challenged. We found an organization online that provided food to homeless people who were living on the street, and decided to volunteer with them. We eventually found our way to their soup kitchen in a dark alley. In this kitchen, we met the most generous man, Chan. We were relieved to find out that Chan spoke some English (he had taught himself by watching American television, such as the Simpsons). Chan welcomed us and introduced us to his lovely wife, and "Mama" who was cooking a huge pot of soup on the stove. We learned that Chan lived with his family in a small village about 30 miles away, and came into town every morning to buy food and cook a nutritious meal to feed some of the cities poorest homeless people. He taught Mike and I how to tie the soup in plastic bags, which we brought out to the street with a jug of drinking water. We learned that for many, this was the only food they ate. We sat on the curb with the bags of soup and gradually learned horrible stories of corruption, violence, and fear. A women knelt on the street weeping in front of us and telling us her story, which Chan later translated as "She lost her fingers in a landmine, she is going to bring this bag of soup to share with her children who are hiding on the streets, her husband is violent. She is very sick and she wants you to know how thankful she is for providing this meal." We spent our time here in silence taking it all in. We found out that most of the true homeless people were afraid to come get soup because if the police saw them, they would be taken away to a government shelter. In these shelters, starvation, murder, and rape are common.

Near Chan's home, there is a village of homeless people on Phnom Baset mountain who work and live in a rock quarry. In this quarry, people of all ages spend every hour of every day chipping away at a mountain with small hammers in sweltering heat. In one week, the entire village working together can fill one truck with stone, which is then sold for about $10 USD. This is their alternative to being taken away by the government. I've never felt so appreciative of the fact that I was born into a country that's government has it's citizen's best interests in mind. This story is not to say that American homeless people have it easy, or that our government is flawless, or to say that everyone should be as giving and selfless as Chan. It is simply to be thankful that regardless of our country's current economic concerns, our personal political beliefs, or the challenges we face, American people have a lot to be thankful for. As our resources become tighter, I'm making a strong effort to push away the thoughts of what we don't have, and place more emphasis on appreciating and being thankful for the many things we do have.

I am thankful for safety, freedom, and peace. When I watch the news, it does not always seem like we live in a peaceful place. After meeting other backpackers with firsthand stories from living through conflicts in the middle-east, and after visiting the horrifying S21 prison and Killing Fields, and solemnly walking through the War Remnants museum in Saigon, the struggles I have known seem small. I know that it is all relative and I understand that every person on earth knows what it is like to suffer. But right now, the world I know is safe and I can believe whatever I choose without the fear of being persecuted. We have no way of knowing if Mt. Rainier will erupt or if we will have an earthquake or if Mayan legend is correct and December 2012 will be the end of the world. But right now, my life is peaceful and I am free, and for that I am thankful.

I am grateful that I live in a country where it is possible to earn enough money in my 20's to afford to travel internationally. In many countries, it is impossible to earn enough to buy a plane ticket in a lifetime. I'm also grateful that I grew up in a place of opportunity. Since returning home, Mike and I have both decided to explore new occupations. Within a few months of being home, I am working full time at an elementary school and he is well on his way to becoming a firefighter. While we are both working hard and far from wealthy by American standards, we are enjoying our jobs and grateful to have an income that allows us to live comfortably.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for health. My own and those around me. This is the first year that I've ever known what it feels like to not be certain about my own health, and while it was frightening, it has helped me grow and learn to appreciate the things I love about my life. And of course, I am most thankful for my family and friends, and for the tiny little addition that we will get to meet this November. Welcome to world, baby Johnston. It's a pretty good place to be :)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Bittersweet Homecoming

We have officially returned to the beautiful Washington State, three months earlier than planned. While we love it here and it has been great to reunite with our families, this was not at all how we hoped to end our trip. We are so thankful to have explored 6 countries, have life-changing experiences, and meet so many wonderful people. It was the best 5 months of our lives and I don't regret a thing. Unfortunately, it ended in the worst week of our lives.

Mike and I had been renting a condo in Northern Thailand, in the great city of Chiang Mai. We had been in Chiang Mai for two weeks, and had planned to stay for 6 more weeks, volunteering, teaching English, and playing games at an amazing orphanage for kids with HIV. Our good friends Brian and Martha were with us their for the first few days in Chiang Mai, and we had a great time riding elephants, attending a Thai cooking school, going river rafting, and on a jungle trek.

After they left, Mike and I settled into our new home and began a somewhat routine schedule. Last week, I had a bit of food poisoning. At first, I didn't think much of it, and continued with business as usual. We knew we were eating spicy, unfamiliar food, and often visited street vendors and markets, so it wasn't too surprising to have a stomach ache. That being said, we wanted to be more considerate than usual,
because there have been 7 recent deaths in Chiang Mai this year due to a possible food related illness.

On the night of April 8th, I began having a strange pain inside my chest. I had never felt this before, and I couldn't sleep because of it. Around 2 am, I started having trouble breathing, so I woke up Mike. He asked what I thought it could be from, and I sat up to Google "chest pain" on our iPod touch. I remember typing the word "chest," and then I lost consciousness. The next thing I remember is waking up hunched over and shaking and Mike was on the phone with the man at the front desk of our building, saying "emergency."

The man from the front desk came upstairs to check on us, and asked us to come down stairs with him. We started to follow him, and I only made it about a foot into the hallway when I leaned on the wall and asked Mike to hold me up. I passed out again, and again don't remember anything until I woke up with Mike leaning over me and yelling out, "Help! Help! I need an ambulance!" My hands and legs were shaking and really sore, and later Mike told me that my eyes had rolled back in my head and my lips were blue. We were really scared.

For some reason, after the second time I passed out I felt a little better and I felt really calm and peaceful. I was telling Mike not to worry and that everything would be okay. I also told him that my symptoms were eerily similar to those of the tourists who had recently passed away, and we knew we had to take this seriously. Shortly, four medics came up and put me on a stretcher and took me to the ambulance. Mike knew I was doing okay because as I was being rolled away on the stretcher I told him that he might want to go grab a book because it looked like I might be awhile :) We got to the ER, and the staff was very friendly and supportive, although we did have a hard time conveying what had happened due to the language barrier. I stayed for awhile, got some medicine and electrolyte replenishment. The doctors ran tests, and said that they thought it was probably food poisoning and dehydration, but that I would be okay to keep drinking fluids and go home and rest.

We got a ride back to our condo, slightly relieved but still very concerned. I made it into the elevator where I passed out and began vomiting. I think we were both in shock. We decided the best thing we could do would be to call our parents, pack our things and catch the next flight home and go to a doctor there.

All that could go through my mind was the stories of the recent victims. One of the victims was a 23 year old girl named Sarah Carter from New Zealand. She and two friends all went to the hospital with food poisoning symptoms. After they had arrived, they called there parents to tell them what happened, and that they were okay. Within an hour of that call, Sarah was dead and another was having emergency heart surgery. A Canadian man also had the same symptoms, and checked into the hospital complaining of chest pain. He was there for 24 hours, told it was probably heartburn, and checked out. He died of inflamed heart muscles in his hotel room the following morning. A British couple with the same symptoms died simultaneously of a heart attack in their sleep. An American girl died on a stretcher while convulsing on the way to the hospital.

There are more tragic stories, if you are interested just search for Chiang Mai tourist deaths. It is only because of the persistence of the victims families that there has been any kind of media coverage on this. The NZ girls' father started a website to try to prevent it from happening again: The government in Thailand has said it is a strange coincidence and prefer not to let any sort of fear of illness impact tourism. Thankfully, the CDC and the World Health Organization are investigating, and while they haven't pinpointed the cause, there was a virus called the Coxsackie B virus found in one of the victims autopsies. The virus is linked to eating contaminated food and can cause sudden heart attacks. We had eaten at the same markets as this victim, and decided we definitely wanted to go home to finish treatment.

We checked out, got our deposit back, and asked for a ride to the airport. When we got in the car, I got sick again and told the driver to go straight to the hospital instead (looking back, this poor guy had to be very confused). We checked back in, they remembered me, but this time said I looked worse and they admitted me to a room and hooked me up to an IV. They did an EKG (where they put clamps on your legs and arms and chest to test your heart), and blood tests. A nice women from our condo came to check on us, she spoke English really well and helped translate. They took good care of me for two days, as soon as they said I was okay to travel back to the US, we got a cab to the airport.

We bought the next plane ticket home, which left at 5:20 the following morning. In the hotel that night, we set alarms every hour to drink water and make sure I was still breathing okay. It wasn't really necessary because I was too afraid to fall asleep. I just layed there holding onto a necklace that I had bought in New Zealand. It is a Maori (Native New Zealand) bone carving of a spiral symbol, that means "explore far and long, but always return to your roots." I was praying over and over, "Please, please just let me make it home."

At 3 AM we went to the airport and spent the next 20 hours in a daze, only able to concentrate on the next step we needed to take. We had a 2 hour layover in Tokyo, and we found out later that our plane took off to Seattle 45 minutes before a 7.0 aftershock that shut down the airport in Tokyo. I'm starting to think we are a strange magnet for close calls.

We arrived at Sea-Tac and were greeted my parents, Mike's parents, and my Uncle Steve. We hugged and caught up for a bit, then went straight to UW Medical center for a 2 hour appointment with a great doctor, who asked me tons of questions, ran a bunch of tests, and did x-rays on my heart and lungs. The x-rays looked normal, which was the best news I have heard in a long time. She said that it is possible to have contracted a less severe version of the Coxsackie B virus, and that many people get sick and do not die from it, or it could be something entirely different. She said I was okay to go home, and gave me a list of symptoms to be aware of. If I have any of those symptoms we will go to Harborview immediately, but thankfully today I feel better, just exhausted and sore. Depending on the results of the test, we may need to do more tests, and I am also meeting with a specialist in Infectious Disease to follow up.

Last night we both slept for 12 hours straight, and we have been getting spoiled by my parents with homemade soup and cozy beds and all the relaxation we need. Being sick is never fun, and being sick halfway across the world is significantly harder. I am blown away by how nice our wonderful friends and family have been. I received so many supportive emails while we were in the hospital in Chiang Mai. People were sending there love, thoughts, and prayers, and even medical advice, translators, offers for medical referrals, and heartfelt condolences. My Mom even offered to fly to our hospital if we couldn't leave. Our volunteer coordinator from the orphanage offered to come to our room and hang out with me so Mike could rest. We've received multiple offers for rooms to stay in until we feel well enough to think about cars, jobs, and real life again. Our travel insurance agent could not have been more helpful, and have assured us that we'll receive refunds on our travel expenses as well as related medical coverage for the next year (including coverage in the US). Mike brought me popsicles, insisted on carrying all of our luggage so I didn't overdue anything in the airport, and most importantly held my hand and sat by me the whole time.

Awhile ago, I was thinking of an idea for a blog entry about all of things I have learned to appreciate and be thankful for in America. Sort of a comprehensive list of what we've learned that we used to take for granted on our travels. It would include things like being able to use tap water to brush our teeth and not worry about getting sick, and knowing that the police are in favor of the public's well being, and that no matter what your views on politics are, we have a government that looks out for it's citizens more than I ever understood before. We will still write the blog posts about the places we went and didn't have time to write about, and we may still write this one. However, right now, all I can get my head around is that I am thankful to be alive, to have the love and support of so many people, and that Washington just might be the best place in the world.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mekong River Delta

After spending three jam-packed days in busy, crowded cities, we were very ready for our 3 day trip through the Mekong River Delta. Day one started out bright and early with a bus ride from Ho Chi Minh to catch our boat to visit Coconut Island and Unicorn Island. 
Our guide, Hai was full of interesting tidbits along the way, and he had a great sense of humor. He told us about cultural differences, like how in the Thai culture when people go to visit the Temple for doing bad things, they will buy nice fish to let free in the river. That river flows into the Mekong. Hai said with a mischievous grin, "In Vietnam we are lucky, we don't believe that so we all go fishing get big harvest of fish! Yeah!" 
When we drove by rice paddies, we noticed what appeared to be tombs and gravestones. Sure enough, Hai explained, "Many parents work hard all their lives to grow their rice. They do not want to risk their children selling the property to pursuit other things. So, they have themselves buried in the middle of the field to guilt the children into keeping them!"
When we got stuck in traffic (which was the majority of the time) he told us, "Very bad traffic in Saigon. You see, now the government has decided to hire workers to build a freeway. Maybe you will come see it in when finished? That will be 2025!" 
When we crossed the river he told us, "Many Crocodiles in the Mekong river. But do not be afraid, most have been taken to the farm on the island to make shoes! You can buy them!"

When we arrived at our boat, it looked pretty worn out, but not much different than other boats we had been on. It was clearly a first SE Asia boating adventure for part of our group. Five Dutch men in there 50's nearly refused to step foot on the boat, stating, "this boat is sure to sink!" Hai laughed it off and did what he did best,  told us more facts, "Bad, mean fish  live in the river. We say every boat has a spirit, just like people. We paint big eyes on the front of the boat so the ugly fish will swim up and be afraid and say "agh I must swim back to deep water!" The men eventually got on board, and the boat successfully arrived at our first destination.

The group trekked through the beautiful island to find a bee farm, used to make honey and honey tea, a Vietnamese favorite beverage. A women who worked there brought out a wooden tray covered in buzzing bees to show us the process, we all took a step back to prevent getting stung. Just as Hai was telling us that these particular bees are very friendly, he stopped mid sentence and said "Ow!" A large friendly bee was attached to his ring finger, stinging him. Hai said something in Vietnamese that, based on tone alone, was along the lines of, "ow! ow! I have been stung! it hurts badly and I am ashamed in front of my guests!" Then, as our trusty and noble tour guide, he removed the stinger, smiled, slathered on some honey, and said, "okay! this is good! You see the honey resolves the problem! Always bring a jar of honey into the jungle while you are hiking. Very helpful!" What a trooper.

We took a seat around a table and sampled many local treats including tiny teacups of thick honey tea,  locally made sweets such as candied Ginger, peanut brittle, and sweet dried mango.

 While we were finishing up our snacks, we noticed a young boy from the village coming out with a very large python around his shoulders. The snake was twice as long as the boy was tall, and bigger around it's middle then the circumference of the boys neck, but they were clearly good pals. Hai noticed the guests begin to sit up straight and scoot there chairs back, preparing for an escape, and Hai said, "who wants to hold the python? I promise it is very friendly!" (smirking as he realized we were reluctant to believe him this time, knowing that honey won't do much in the attempt to fend off a snake attack). Mike was the first to volunteer, and our young snake handler gently assisted him in transferring his pet over. I had a surge of bravery, and figured if Mike and a little boy can do it, I should too. It was a bit frightening, the snake was strong and wasn't in the mood to hold still for a photo. I was pretty quick to return him to his little owner.

After morning tea, we took a row boat ride through the mangrove forests, and got to wear the traditional hats worn in the rice fields to block the sun. When we arrived at the next island, we were treated to bright fresh fruit plates where we tried jack fruit and dragon fruit while we watched a show of traditional singing and guitar.

 Our next mode of transportation was a horse drawn carriage, which Mike and I had the good fortune of riding with Hai. He was telling us he just saw Rango and how much he loved it: "Good movie because I agree with the values. You know, follow your dreams and you will get good things. Yeah, just like my other favorite movie Yogi bear, (then in his high pitched bear voice:) 'I am a bear and I am very good at problem solving! I can always find food when I am hungry!' what a great story." Then I said, "hey Boo Boo!" and he cracked up and said, "yes! Yes! Hey boo boo!"

 He also told us about how there are not McDonalds, "only The King Burgers! And also KFC, but not open 24 hours." 
Then we stopped for a mysterious lunch that I think I would have enjoyed had I known what it was. Our plate contained rice, a square egg dish with polka dots, vegetable stirfry, and meat. It was probably pork, but having just heard about the market stalls that have rows of cages of dogs for food, I stuck to the veggies. 

After lunch we visited a village that makes coconut candy and rice paper. It was neat to see the rounds of rice paper drying on bamboo racks over the river. We had samples of each, then Hai pulled us aside to try some "wine" (later we learned that the term wine is used for all alcohol other than beer)
While pouring Mike and I samples of really strong fruit wine made in the village, he said to Mike, "you drink lots of banana wine because in Vietnam we believe that whatever food shape is, it will make good health for that body part. Men drink lots for strong banana! Women drink much coconut wine!" then he giggled and refilled his own glass with banana wine and poured me a hearty shot of coconut wine.

On our way back to the boat we walked by a big water buffalo with intimidating horns. Hai asked if we would like to feed it, and not knowing if this opportunity would ever present itself again, we said yes. The animal seemed very lethargic and calm, but it did get my heart racing to be so close to such a big creature. 

Most of the group members were only doing a one day trip on the Mekong, only one other couple joined us for the next section of the trip. Hai explained that we would meet up with a new guide and group in 30 minutes at a rest stop. We understood and didn't think much of it when the bus pulled over and left the 4 of us on the side of the road with our luggage in the middle of nowhere. An hour later, we began to wonder if our new guide knew about us. Luckily the other girl in the group spoke Vietnamese and had a cell phone, she called the tour company to ask what we should do. After several minutes she hung up and told us that the company said, "no worries." We have learned from experience that here, "no worries" can be roughly translated to: "hmm, that is a problem to which I do not have a solution, and would prefer not to look into it further. In order to make sure you don't become upset, this is secret phrase that will make you hang up smiling." Another 30 minutes passed. We were worried. Finally a bus stopped, but no one approached us. We flagged down the guide and told him what happened, and he said he wasn't supposed to pick anyone up, but maybe his friend was. I showed him a picture of our first guide on my camera. He said, "oh," called a friend, and eventually someone agreed to let us on their bus. No worries. 

The bus took us to a small town called Can Tho. We had a late dinner at a place that had a menu of grilled rats, stirfry birds, snakes, eel, and whole frogs (I opted for seafood stirfry because I have heard it is not uncommon to order beef but get meat surprise, but shrimp are pretty easy to identify). Later, we went to our dark, damp, tiny hotel room. We were laying on separate sides of the room on rotting foam pads with rusty twin bed frames. The only blankets were the size of a beach towel, and made of old, cheap velvet, but it was too hot to need them. There was no air conditioner, but above our heads was a dust covered rickety fan, that when running, actually shot pieces of dust and mold around the room. I had to tie a scarf around my nose and mouth to mask the overwhelming smell of mold. The only tiny window in the room was covered in industrial bars and there were ants crawling all over the walls. Every once in awhile, we do miss the comforts of home and wonder what in the world we are doing out here. This was one of those nights.

We did not really know what to expect from the second and third days of the Mekong. We were greeted in the morning by our new guide, named Thanks (pronounced Tong). We had a long shuttle ride, which allowed us to get to know 3 great people who were all traveling alone on trips similar to our own. Katie, who was soon returning to Europe where she would be a sailing instructor in Spain; Paul who worked as an engineer building off-shore wind mills in Australia; and Gabriel, a Syrian girl who was living and working in Sweden. It was a good thing we had some interesting people on board, because we spent several hours in the back of a mini-bus, without much of an idea of an itinerary.

 At one point, a Vietnamese women dressed in yellow got on board our bus, she didn't say a word to anyone, just took a seat in the front row. After a few minutes on the bus, the driver and the women exchanged a glance. She stood up, opened the sliding van door and again, without a word, grabbed a newspaper from a man who was standing on the side of the road. Curious, we silently peered over the seat as the women unrolled the newspaper, and revealed that there were many large bills rolled up inside. She counted the money while Mike and I exchanged a strange glance. Day two was beginning to get strange. 

An hour or so later, still driving down the same mysterious road, the women stood up in the moving van again. She again glanced at the driver, and again, a lone man stood on the side of the road. This time she just opened the, window, stuck out her hand, and grabbed a purse that the man held up just as we drove by. Without a word she sat back down and began counting more money. Very peculiar. 

After several hours of driving, Thanks announced that we would be stopping at a crocodile farm. This was definitely not on the itinerary, but we were anxious to stretch our legs so we all got out of the car. It was a funny building in the middle of nowhere, karaoke bar in front, crocodile farm in back. We were given a whooping 15 minutes to explore. We walked through the park with one of the workers, and saw several full cages of crocs separated by age. The worker was very happy to answer our questions, although some sentences were lost in translation. We asked what they fed them, and he replied with a big smile and said, "yes, sometimes!" While telling us about how we could buy purses and shoes in the lobby, Paul asked how they killed the crocodiles. With the same big smile, he replied, "electricity!" and demonstrated by shaking as if he had been electrocuted. After our quick tour we were rushed back to the van. When we sat down, Paul said, "well that was a weird stop!" And we continued driving. We noticed that the women got back in the car, but her recently acquired purse and newspaper were left at the crocodile karaoke bar... Peculiar second day on the Mekong indeed.

Later in the drive, we made our third stop for the mysterious lady in yellow. This time the car did stop on the side of the road, and she was handed first another purse and second a small child. From the little boy's reaction, it was clear he knew her (perhaps her son). The driver pulled over again and let them both out in a slum like small neighborhood. We will never know what happened on that long ride in the van. 

We made our second (and much better) 
stop at Sam Mountain. A small jungle mountain with a beautiful cave pagoda at the top. We hiked to the top and were really amazed by the beautiful temple, that had mazes of underground caves to explore. Each cave contained Buddhist sculptures, small ponds, and incense. It was hot inside but very peaceful. We spent a long time at the top looking out at the rice fields. We also got a really interesting lesson in Buddhism. 

That night, you had the option to stay in a hotel or pay extra for a homestay with a local family. Gabriel had previously payed and signed up for the homestay. For some reason, Thanks was really trying to persuade her to go to the hotel instead. He had been trying all day to convince her, but she insisted she wanted the homestay experience. At one point, in the middle of our bus ride, he woke her up from a nap and they had the following conversation:
Thanks - hey! Wake up! Do you want homestay or hotel?
Gabriel - I already told you 13 times, homestay.
Thanks - no, I think you want hotel. You are alone aren't you afraid?
Gabriel - should I be?
Thanks - hmm no you will probably be fine. But the house is far away, you have to take a motorbike. No taxi.
Gabriel - that's fine.
Thanks - well I think your host does not speak English. Aren't you afraid? Or are you superwoman?
Gabriel - no, I am superwoman.
Thanks - okay. I guess. Well you know 911? Here it is 113. You can call it I will be waiting. 
Gabriel - thanks.
Thanks - goodbye forever!

She did make it back to us safely the next day, but said it was an odd experience, they didn't speak English at all, and served her dinner outside on the porch while the family ate in the kitchen.

Our hotel was much better than the previous night. We checked in and then met up with Katie and Paul for some noodle soup in a market nearby. We had a nice dinner, and decided to share a bottle of Vietnamese wine for $3. While we were drinking it we saw Thanks and invited him over to join us. We all shared another bottle of wine and got to see a funny side of Thanks. He told us that Lionel Richie was his brother, and proceeded to serenade us with very heartfelt songs. Then, he told us that he had an American brother in law and wondered if we might know him. I started to say it's a big country, but he was already dialing on his cell phone. Before I knew it I was having a 20 minute conversation with a friendly 66 year old Texan who had recently married Thanks' sister. Nice guy! We finished up and went to bed.

The third and final day on the Mekong, we had another new guide and a new group. When we got downstairs to board the bus, we were instructed to hop on the back of a bicycle with our luggage. It was an awkward, wobbly ride to a bus stop 30 seconds away. The rest of our group walked behind us and arrived at the same time.

Our first stop was a boat ride to a floating village. Each house floated on the river, and below the ground was a large net the size of the house. In the nets were hundreds if fish being farmed to sell in the markets. The owners fed the fish through holes in the floor. It was really neat to be welcomed into their home and get to see the inside of the house. Wedding photos with bright dresses hung on the walls, two men sat on the floor tying knots in fishing nets, and the living room consisted of a tv, a hammock, a giant speaker, and a case of beer. We learned an interesting fact about the tv. The Vietnamese government, in an attempt to combat overpopulation, provides televisions and electricity to villages as a form of birth control. The explanation to us was that if the women is busy watching tv, she is uninterested in her husband's propositions.

Our next visit was to a village of the Cham Muslim minority. We got to watch a women using a loom to weave beautiful sarongs and scarves. The locals were really enthusiastic about showing us their traditional outfits, and insisted that Mike and I try them on. They wrapped us in sarongs and scarves, it was a neat experience. Some of the children approached us, wanting us to buy little cakes. One girl really latched on to Mike, and used very persuasive phrases to convince him to eat a cake: "You buy my cake. Very good. Money to help my school we are very very poor." luckily, before he did he read the sign nearby that said, "please do not eat the cakes from the children. They are very old and may cause colic."

After our visit, we got on our boat for a six hour sweaty, noisy ride to the Cambodian border. We played a lot of tic tac toe and enjoyed going through the villages and watching the kids playing on rope swings in the river. Once we arrived at the border, we all went our separate ways and ventured into the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penn.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Saigon, Vietnam

Aka Ho Chi Minh City Aka the City of Too Many Motorbikes

After a wonderful week in Bangkok we flew east to Saigon, Vietnam. We weren't exactly sure what to expect and were surprised by how few people there were in the airport and how easy it was to get through customs. Without incident we found the driver for our guesthouse and made our way through what can only be known as motorbike madness. It is estimated that there are 10 million people living in Saigon and nearly half of them have motorbikes. They are everywhere... but more about them later.

We arrived at our guesthouse and were thrilled with such amenities as air conditioning, a bathroom, a TV, and free breakfast (Woohoo). Our guesthouse was located in the backpacker area so we were surrounded by travel agencies, motorbike taxis, and vendors selling everything from baguettes to pirated movies. I don't think we ever walked more than ten feet without being asked if we wanted to take a motorbike taxi.

We didn't have much planned for our arrival, but after a little research we decided a city tour would be the best way to make sense out of the madness.

City Tour

On our first full day in Saigon we started our tour at 8 AM. Our guide Viet (who explained that people often called him Vit which means duck, and we could also call him either Donald or Don and his wife is named Daisy... funny guy) was great and we took a quick liking to him.

The city tour was a great way to see the sights of Saigon without trying to navigate their crazy intersections and argue with motorbike taxi drivers. The first stop on our tour included the War Remnants Museum (the Vietnam War, which here is known as the anti-American War). I won't say much about it, but it was very eye-opening and very depressing. The effects of the Vietnam war are still very evident in Vietnam today and although we were glad we went it was a sad stop. To us it is something we learned about in history class but it effects many peoples everyday life here. When asked about how Vietnamese people feel about America today our guide Viet said, "We cannot look back, we can only look forward. Young people want to make our country great and all we can do is create work for ourselves so we can feed our families. We want to look to the future. I say please leave the terrible images you see at the museum inside those walls, they are not good and they will give you nightmares." After the museum we went to the Handicapped Handy Craft Center. This Center was set up to give work to people who were born with defects due to agent orange (from the war). There were many beautiful crafts using paint and crushed egg shells. We bought a small picture of a fisherman on a river. We also visited the Post Office and Vietnam's Notre Dame Cathedral (a fifth of the size of the one in France). They were elaborate Western buildings that made French history here evident. We sat outside and were discussing how scary it is that the side effects of war still effect millions of people here today. As we were chatting we noticed the women sitting next to us was carrying her teenage son in a sling like backpack. He was missing one leg and his other was very short. His hands and face were physically deformed. We had heard about agent orange before, but we were not prepared or expecting for the effects to be so visible.

We also got to visit a huge wholesale market that sold everything from fabric to dried fish. Near the wholesale market was a Chinese Buddhist Temple. Outside of the temple we noticed a cage of little birds. Our guide informed us that when people go to the temple to repent they believe it is good luck to set a bird free, so they buy them here. Sadly, the vendors like to reuse the birds and clip the wings so that they can go pick them up later. Last was the Reunification Palace celebrating the reunification of North and South Vietnam. It very much reminded me of visiting the White House in Washington DC. There were lots of interesting rooms and we got lost a few times as we were exploring. After a long day of touring we dined at a cheap roof-top bbq. It had some major advantages... a great view of the city and street vendors couldn't approach and insist you buy something from them. A good finish to a good day.


Megan loves Pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) and enjoyed at least one bowl every day we were there. I partook in a Vietnamese pancake (stuffed with shrimp and veggies). We also visited a few street carts and tried the "McDonald's of Vietnam." McDonald's is not allowed to open stores in Vietnam because they were not willing to use Vietnamese beef. Viet informed us that that street carts that serve baguettes stuffed with various meats, pate, and veggies are the most popular fast food here. I got to enjoy many a Saigon beer as well.

Urban Chaos

Back to the motorbikes... there are many features that make this city feel overwhelmingly crowded. It seems as though everyone drives a motorbike, and it is amazing that they can fit as much on them as we can fit in our cars. Traffic rules seem to not apply to motorbikes and they often weave in and out of traffic, on the wrong side of the road, on the sidewalks, and even in buildings. Another feature of Saigon traffic is their love of honking horns. The first night I observed that perhaps they weren't honking their horns, rather continuously honking and occasionally letting off. Crossing the street on foot is an adventure in and of itself.

We quickly developed two games... First counting the seconds between hearing a honk (six seconds was the record, average under one second). Second, and most fun game, was "How much can I fit on my motorbike?" Winners include: six sacks of rice, about 30 buckets, loads of boxes, a queen size mattress, four kegs, a refrigerator, a family a six, six garbage cans, eight cases of bottled water, two full grown pigs, and a live cow.

The female motorbike drivers were often covered from head to toe. Most people wear medical face masks due to the pollution. Many females, however, cover their entire bodies. This is because it is very favorable to have light skin as it implies higher status (working inside instead of out in the fields). They were long sleeves, long pants, glove, and large hats in very hot and humid weather. Also, the grocery stores carry all kinds of skin lightening products and lotions. Interesting contrast to the multitude to tanning salons back home.

Another thing that adds to the craziness is their electrical wiring. Never have I seen so many disorganized wires connected to a power pole. Each pole looks like a spider web with so many wires going off in various directions. I had to snap a picture and send it to my old work buddies back home. We even saw an electrician crawling along the wires like a sloth, tying them together. Wow.

The street vendors here are much more aggressive than any we had seen before. One man even slammed Megan's taxi door because we refused to ride on his motorbike. We noticed a linear progression of the products vendor's will approach you to buy on the street. In the afternoons it's sun glasses and lighters. Around dinner it's pirated DVDs. After dinner the movie salesmen start to offer drugs as well. After dark anything goes and they put away the sunglasses in order to offer drugs and girls. No thanks.

For our last couple days we explored the city on foot and spent some time at the Thai Embassy sorting out our Visas. After several days we became overwhelmed with busy crowds of the city and decided to move on. We knew our next big stop would be Cambodia so we were very happy to find a tour that would take us down the Mekong River by boat and end in Phnom Penh, Cambodia... but that is for another post.

Bangkok, Thailand

Getting There

Our travel from Sydney to Bangkok turned out to be a long day of planes, trains, and automobiles. We woke at 5 am, said our tearful goodbyes and thanked our friends for their hospitality, and took a shuttle to the airport. Upon checking in we learned that we needed proof of leaving Bangkok within 30 days of arrival. We had planned to play SE Asia by ear, and travel via train and bus, so our tickets to leave Bangkok were for four months after we arrived. The poor guy who gave us the bad news was really hesitant and had to check with his manager a couple times, but sure enough they were not letting us on the plane. Without the proper tickets we had to scramble down to an Internet cafe and book the cheapest flights we could find to Vietnam just so we could board the plane. In the end it worked out fine since we planned to go to Vietnam that month anyway, but the plane was about $150 more than the bus we would have taken. We later learned that this rule is rarely enforced , and sure enough after our ten hours in the air the Thai customs agent made no request for our proof of onward travel.

After withdrawing some Thai Baht (currency) we made our way to our hostel via two trains. We got off our second train very tired and disoriented, having been awake for 20 hours. After walking around many dark, crowded, foreign streets lugging giant bags, and looking at maps for half an hour we figured out which way was up and found our hostel. It was located down an alley off a side street which had a bustling night market going on. Had we not been so tired we would have been more tempted by the delicious scents wafting from the food carts but it did get us excited for the food we would be enjoying soon enough. The hostel ended up being in a really good location near the skytrain line and it felt very safe and quiet. Sleep came fast.

Bangkok International Food Fair

The next day after a good night's rest we enjoyed our free hostel breakfast, got our bearings, and set off to explore. We didn't make it too far before we stumbled upon the Bangkok International Food Fair. Several streets were lined with tables of food. Each table had a chef and a flag representing the country it was from. There was bright colored deep fried flowers from Thailand, sautéed shark fin soup from Japan, giant bowls of curries and Naan from India, and the good old USA was represented by a sandwich artist from Subway. There were several stages of live music, Barista competitions, and contests. At about six, people began to gather at the main stage. Intrigued, we took a seat and watched the show. Camera men with news cameras filtered in. The front two rows had reserved signs attached, and the people who filled them were dressed to the nines and seemed very important. They had two nice hosts who introduced the events throwing in a little English here and there so we knew what was going on. First up was a celebrity chef cooking competition. Next was a fashion show featuring four women who strutted their stuff while carrying platters of food and donning hats covered with fruit, sushi, and toast. After the fashion show they moved into some music first featuring four guys wearing chef hats banging on pots and pans. Next was a female singer with a beautiful voice. After her set the hosts interviewed her and we found ourselves laughing along with the crowd even though they were speaking Thai. Apparently the hosts noticed us laughing along seeming to understand and they felt it necessary to call us out. In the middle of the interview they started talking to us and the cameras zoomed up tight on our faces which were projected on the big screen that was broadcast over the whole event. The hosts asked us if we knew what was happening and noted that we were obviously tourists. We admitted that no we did not know what was happening and yes we were tourists. We were more than a little embarrassed. They warmly welcomed us to the country and said they hoped they made a good impression on us. After that excitement we made our way back to the hostel stopping at a 7-11 (they are everywhere!) to pick up a beer and a Gatorade. Our hostel had a rooftop garden so we enjoyed our refreshments up there and exchanged travel tips with a nice French backpacker. Not bad for day one.


Thailand's food is the best! We already have some reoccuring dishes and are so glad we will have so much time to enjoy them. At the train stations, and in the streets there are booths with tons of fresh tropical fruit (we love Pomelo, pineapple, and mango - and it's been a treat to try all kinds of new fruits). They also make fresh squeezed juice with all kinds of fruits and veggies. A lady outside our hostel makes the best crepes stuffed with all different things, we got one with a banana and chocolate. And another of Mike's favorite treats are these small, delicious waffles stuffed with your choice of maple, chocolate, cream, or fruit fillings. I love getting Thai Iced coffee and Iced tea, it's pretty sweet but very refreshing to have on a sweaty, sticky day of walking around the town. At the night market below our room, we have a favorite street vendor (who has even memorized our order) of Chicken Phad Sei Ew. Also, of course we've had our share of the classic Phad Thai (but I have to say On Rice in Bellingham does a really nice job of every dish we've had). Sometimes the language barrier can make ordering a challenge, but it's usually pretty easy to just point and smile (this only resulted in a couple mystery meals, "oops, I thought that ginger was noodles!") One surprising place to eat a delicious, cheap, meal is in the mall. The malls here are a lot different than at home. They are really fancy, one of the only places you can spend some time in air conditioning, and decorated with chandeliers, waterfalls, and elaborate displays. The food vendors sell the same food you can find in the streets, but sometimes it's nice to be able to sit down and enjoy your food inside. There, we enjoyed some spicy bbq pork skewers, and I found a new favorite in Papaya Salad. It's really spicy because they take a young papaya, shred it, and smash spices into it using a mortar and pestle. In my opinion, the best way to end a long day of exploring is by sharing a dish of mango and sticky rice, delicious!

Exploring Bangkok

We didn't do any organized tours here, and instead took to the streets (and rivers) on our own. We've found so many valuable travel websites to get directions, advice, and itineraries. These are so helpful to bring along, because if you get in a pinch you can just point to the address and a taxi driver will know the way. We haven't used many taxis here because the public transit is really easy to use. Every day we take the skytrain over the busy streets, although it is very uncomfortable at rush hour when you are crammed in with hundreds of sweaty people. Every time the door opens, more rush in (Mike has a huge advantage when it comes to breathing, being about a foot taller than most).

We also have explored town using the river boats along the waterways. This is sometimes an adventure in itself, going by all sorts of temples, giant buildings, and houses built on stilts over the water. One day we took the boat to Khao San Road, the famous backpacker street. It's full of vendors, resteraunts, hostels, and nightlife. Fun to see, but we're glad we decided to stay a way off the beaten path. While buying a t-shirt, one nice women laughed at Mike for ordering a medium, "Haha! No! Large! You giant!" She forced him to buy a large :) It was pretty funny (and the shirt does fit).

We visited the Wat Pho temple, home of the massive reclining Buddha statue. It is a gold statue that takes up an entire building. It's beautiful and very detailed. Behind the statue there is a large row of metal bowls, and you can buy a bag of small coins to drop in for good luck. It makes for a neat addition to the atmosphere, always hearing "plink, plink!"

Floating Market

We visited a floating market, which we've heard has changed a lot to target tourists, but we still enjoyed our visit. You get to take a small row boat and be paddled around to the different stalls selling food, clothes, and souvenirs. There are also vendors in boats paddling around selling fruits, and mobile phad thai making stations. We bought a beer (for Mike) and a coconut (for me) to drink while in the boat, very fun! There were so many boats in the small river that at times there were traffic jams, and we ran into several other boats.

Animal Encounters

Sometimes when you take trips out of the city, you have unexpected stops along the way, usually involving animals. One of these was a place where you could ride elephants (we didn't do that because we will be going to an Elephant sanctuary with Brian and Martha). We did get to feed them a basket of bananas, it was crazy how fast they took the bananas, bunches at a time, with their trunk. We also fed a lot of koi and snapper fish food in a lake.

Teak Woodcarving

Another place we found fascinating was a teak woodcarving shop. There were about 20 people carving elaborate jungle scenes into tables, statues, and wall hangings. They were so talented, and we enjoyed watching them.

Tiger Temple

Perhaps our most adventurous event in Thailand was a visit to the Tiger Temple Forest Monastery in Kanchanaburi. It used to be a place for Buddhist monks to live and study, but has evolved over the years to be a giant animal sanctuary that tourists can visit or live and volunteer at to study both tigers and Buddhism. The first tiger cub was brought to a monk after being rescued by local villagers. Poaching is still pretty common here, and the cub was left after it's mother was killed. The monks raised the tiger, and the trend continued, more and more rescued tigers were left in their care. Now, they host 17 tigers, some of them have begun breeding. They are currently building centers to train the cubs to be rereleased back into the jungles. People have brought many other animals to live at the temple too, and we saw camels, wild boar, cows, buffalo, goats, and chickens roaming freely.

We were a bit nervous when we saw a medical helicopter pad near the entrance, but they have never had an attack and people visit daily. The process of actually petting the tiger was exciting and a bit strange. You get in line, and then a local guide and volunteer holds your hand while another guide takes your camera to take pictures of you with the giant cats. There were several rules, no wearing red or pink, no sunglasses or purses, only touch the tigers backs near their tail. It felt safe having people telling you what to do and guiding you around, and the tigers were mostly sleeping or lazy, but my heart was beating really fast the whole time I was in the tiger habitat. A couple picture suggestions were funny and a bit awkward, they kept wanting us to hold up the tigers tail. I guess maybe sometimes it works, but these photos turned out to be more of a joke to us.

After visiting the giants, we had the pleasant surprise of getting to spend some time with the cubs. They aren't always out, but we had good timing and got to pet them, watch the monks play with, train, bottle-feed, and bathe them. That was the highlight of my day. They act just like a bigger, more ferocious house cat. All in all a neat experience, that I don't think could be recreated anywhere else in the world.

Other Highlights

One of Mike's favorite moments was sitting on top of our rooftop garden with a Chang beer during the biggest thunder storm we've ever experienced. I stayed in the room, and after seeing bright flashes and hearing thunder that sounded like gun shots continuously for a bit, I ruined his fun and drug him down back to the room. The window shaking was still intense and exciting, but I felt at ease knowing he wasn't being struck by a bolt of lightning :)

One of our best dinners here in Bangkok was with our old friend Trevor. Trevor was a friend from WWU who we hadn't seen in years. He moved to Thailand to get his Master's degree, and has lived here working for World Vision for a few years. He brought his friend Youi (not sure how to spell it), who was really cute and fun to chat with. She works at a Thai news station, and had recently volunteered Trevor to sing on stage with a Thai Pop Star in front of 10,000 fans. It was fun to hear that account and see pictures. She is from Thailand, and we all decided it would be best if she ordered our dinner for us, we had 6 delicious dishes (family style) that we never would have known to order on our own. Trevor also generously brought us an old phone he had so that we can use it if we have an emergency. Cell phones are so much easier here, there is no contract and you just buy a sim card and add minutes on the street corner. Thanks Trevor!

Another great dinner was with our old friends Sarah and Davey. They are from Enumclaw, and had just completed a trip similar to ours (only they stayed in SE Asia the whole time). It was their last night in Bangkok before they returned to WA, and we had just arrived. They had so many great tips on places to go and things to see. We ordered a tower of Chang beer and some Thai food and chatted for a long time. We felt spoiled seeing some great familiar faces halfway across the world, and it made the transition to an unfamiliar place pretty easy.

Our hostel has an awesome feature, in that they allow long term luggage storage for free. We were able to be true minimalists and leave all but our small backpacks with them. It was definitely a challenge(especially for me) to get a month worth of clothes and toiletries into such a small bag, but the payoff is worth it for sure. Not having to lug around our 30 pound bags has made a big difference in travel days. Bangkok is turning out to be a great jumping off point for our 4 months in Asia, and we're sure to return several times before heading home. Next up: Vietnam and Cambodia, then back to Thailand to meet up with friends before starting our teaching project.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Great Ocean Road Trip - Victoria, Australia

For the last week of our time in Australia, we rented camper van and took a road trip through Victoria. We started in Melbourne, went down the Great Ocean Road, the Surf Coast, and through Otway National Park and finished with a camping trip in The Grampians National Park.

Torquay and Bells Beach

On the southern coast of Australia, there are two of the world's best surf beaches. The waves were much bigger than we could attempt, but there was still plenty to see in the area. Torquay is where Quicksilver and Ripcurl were born, and there is a surf museum and large shopping area full of all the brands associated with surf culture. I got a new pair of Reef sandals for $5.
We watched the surfers and walked down the beaches, then continued on.

Apollo Bay
A darling little fishing village. Spent awhile walking around the wharf. Mike was incredibly patient as I took a zillion pictures of old boats (one of my favorite subjects). We made some stirfry at our campsite and camped out in the van (which felt very spacious compared to our NZ rental).

Otway National Park
The moment we got off the main road and into the rainforest, we saw several wild koalas in the trees right off the road. We parked the van and I got out to take a picture, and surprisingly, the little guy stood up and began lumbering down the tree trunk all the way to the ground. I didn't get too close because they can be aggressive, but he sure was curious. We drove to a trailhead where we did a hike through the jungle. Parts of the trail were covered by a nice boardwalk,  but the rest was very dense. I actually felt pretty claustrophobic with the low branches and giant leaves and humid heat.  The sounds were incredible, loud squawking parrots, hundreds of cicadas, and lizards crawling through the dead leaves. I jumped a few times when mistaking a lizard for a snake. And found myself nervous to pull leaves out of my hair in fear that they were the killer red back spider. It's a funny shift from hiking at home, where you keep your eyes out all around for huge bears and cougars. Not sure which I prefer.

12 Apostles (and other cool rock formations)

The 12 apostles are a series of large cliffs standing tall out of the ocean, they are an icon of Southern OZ, and found on many postcards. They were beautiful but really crowded with tourists. Around the area there are other parks with all kinds of coastal caves, blowholes, and miles of sharp cliffs. There is nothing blocking the massive waves from Antarctica, and they crash constantly across the southern coast. After taking in the sights we continued along the road, which runs the length of the coast winding above the cliffs. We made a stop at a couple really touristy places, including a whale nursery viewing dock (no whales, wrong season). When we saw the roadside sign stating "cheeseworld" we had to stop for a cheese museum, tour, and shops. 

Grampians National Park

After driving a long time through desert plains, Grampians NP sticks out of the ground like two massive, tree covered shark fins. We had a pretty big letdown after driving all day only to find the road to our campground closed about 20 miles before we would arrive. We thought about camping out until morning in hopes it would open up. Luckily, we asked a local who let us know that there had been a flood and landslide and the road would probably reopen in about four months. We followed the detour route for another two hours and decided we really wanted to have a straight up American BBQ when we finally arrived. We stopped at a little red grocery store with cartoon roosters painted on the walls. It had a huge poster advertising chicken feed. As we walked up to the doors we were greeted by a nice lady who took one look at our van, gave us a strange look, and said, "sorry, we are closed. Just about to have a staff meeting." It wasn't even 6 pm. As we made our way back to the van, we were pretty bummed and about to give up on our dinner plans when we noticed the neighboring building, a supermart. How could such a small town have two grocery stores back to back? We took a second look and realized that the first store was actually a feed store, had a good laugh, and picked up our Budweiser and dogs. When we arrived at our campsite at 
Halls Gap, we were greeted by hundreds of wild kangaroos all over the park. As we cooked the hot dogs, the cute little guys perked up and watched closely, but they just love eating grass and didn't get aggressive at all. I also saw several kookaburras and was shocked at how much they really sound like loud laughing monkeys.  Another group of birds that visited our camp a bit too often was a gang of cockatoos. They look cool but they were real punks. They surrounded us every morning as we ate cereal, tried to get in our van, and even jumped on Mike's shoulder to snag his pbj. When we refused to feed them, they began the really ridiculous antics: squawking and fighting with each other, hanging upside down to drink from our faucet, chewing on our extension cord, and trying to steal our towels. Little buggers. 
Across from the camp was a row of cute shops along a little creek. We had a nice time checking out the stores and I discovered a new fascination with coffee flavored ice cream. 

Brambuk aboriginal cultural center was full of artifacts and history of the area and the aboriginal people who had been living there for hundreds of years.   It was fascinating to see how similar the struggles in Australia are to those of the Native Americans. You could also participate in a guided bushwalk to learn about the medicinal plants. The center offered boomerang classes and traditional bush food (emu, kangaroo, and crocodile). 

Sadly, the same nasty weather that blocked the main road into the park also caused landslides that closed off many hikes. Upon checking into the ranger station we learned that the hike we had our eye on (the wonderland loop) was blocked. However, they provided us with a map of hikes that were safe to tackle. We settled on Boronia Peak and made our way to the trail head. We had bright blue skies and lots of heat on our steady climb to the summit. The last 50 yards or so was a rock scramble to a 360 degree lookout featuring views of lakes, forested hills, cliffs, and farmland. We took a well deserved break and as we started in on our oranges we were joined by a school group of 20 or so thirteen year olds. We could almost watch the chaperone's hair go gray as his class carelessly hopped around the rocky peak with steep falls on every side. More than a few times he mentioned all the paper work he would have to fill out if any of his students fell. We extended our break until the school group was a good ways in front of us and then made our descent back to camp where we refueled on leftover hotdogs and baked beans. 

After our camping trip we returned our van to Melbourne and flew back to Sydney to spend our last two nights on  Bondi with Jessica and Chris. To our surprise, when we arrived to their apartment there was a package waiting for us. It was a gift from our wonderful friends Britta and Jeremy, full of Valentines candy, travel supplies, and a nice card. Britta had emailed Ray and sent the package to her work, so thoughtful! For our last evening, we decided to have something we would soon be missing: cheeseburgers! Then we packed our bags and set our alarm for a jam packed travel day to Thailand

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bawley Point - WWOOF Job Australia

We couldn't have hoped for a better WWOOFing experience than we got in the small town of Bawley Point, NSW. It was a genuine exchange where we worked 4 hours a day and received a wonderful place to live and we were welcomed in as family members with some really wonderful

Our Host Family

Zora and Scott are a married couple and they have an adorable 5 year old daughter, Bella, a little dog Dingo, a horse Pebbles, and two pet mice Rosie and Susie. From the minute we arrived we knew we were lucky, Zora picked us up from the bus stop and she and Scott welcomed us into their home and we got to know each other over tea. They have travelled the world and shared many incredible experiences and photos with us (including living on a deserted island in Indonesia and trekking in Nepal). Scott is a doctor and he and Zora (who is also a Naturopath and Yoga Instructor) opened up the town's family practice at the front of their property. They were incredibly accommodating and we really enjoyed joining them every night for delicious family dinners including BBQ Lamb, Indian Chicken, Prawn Stir fry, Salmon, and Bacon and Mushroom Risotto.

The Property

The family lives in an amazing furnished yurt at the top of a hill overlooking a peninsula. From the living room, you can see several surf beaches which suited Scott well (he considers himself a surfer first and doctor second). They have perfected living simply and living well at the same time, and we learned a lot about what we want in our future home. Their lot is 100 acres of native bush, full of wildlife. The terrain varies from rocky ridges to lush rainforest. One of Scott's surfer buddies, Vince, also lives on the property and takes care of the vegetable and fruit gardens (while he is not teaching Special Ed). Our cottage which
we called our Treehouse, is the most creative guest house I've ever seen. It started out as a shipping container, and was a converted into a beautiful cottage with windows on all sides surrounded by gum trees. Several mornings we woke up to wallabies hopping around nearby. How cool is that!?

Our Jobs

Often when they were not working, Scott, Zora and Bella joined us for our jobs and our encouraged tea breaks. The jobs included: clearing some brush with a nice view for a picnic area and fire pit, transplanting strawberry plants with Vince, removing bush-fire hazardous understory near the house, chopping firewood, maintaining the herb garden, and some weeding of tick-bushes and "farmer's friends."  

When We Weren't Working

One of the best parts of this experience was how much we were able to really experience the beautiful surroundings, and feel like we got to live their day-to-day Australian life. On the first day, we went for a swim with the whole family and built sand turtles with Bella, then came home and had a congo drum concert in the living room. The second day, Scott offered to take Mike and I out for a surf lesson, which of course we accepted. It was REALLY fun, he let us borrow two surf boards and wetsuits and drove around to a couple beaches to find the perfect waves. He gave us a lesson on the sand, then came out with us and helped push us off into the good waves. Mike stood up on the board for a second, and I got to my knees before having a couple wipeouts. While we were out in the waves, we saw something big moving, and Scott said, "It's a stingray! Want to surf over it?" I was nervous because it was about 4 feet across and had a really long stinger (made the ones we saw in NZ look like babies). But, we trusted Scott and paddled right on top of it from the safety of our boards, it was really amazing. Our second surf trip ended quickly when Mike took a big spill and came up with a broken board, oops (luckily, Scott was understanding).

Zora and Bella took us for a guided tour through the property, and we learned all about the native plants (some of which were so old they were dinosaur snacks, and a massive 400 year old spotted gum tree). We also grabbed a net and participated in several Bug Safaris, Bella's favorite activity. We caught several baby dragon lizards, skinks, grasshoppers, stickbugs, and praying mantis. Bella built lovely habitats for them, and always released them back to there home within 24 hours. She was a great guide, and made sure we didn't catch any of the poisonous snakes, spiders, or ants. However, we did manage to get the true Australian experience when Mike got a tick bite, I got a leech bite, and Mike squashed a venomous white tip spider in our cottage.

They even provided two bicycles and Zora gave us a map of the best places to go. We took a couple rides to local Shell Beach and Pretty Beach. Pretty Beach was my favorite, because it was full of wild kangaroos and wallabies with lots of babies. They weren't afraid of us, so we were able to bike along the forest trails and watch them hop along and watch us from only a couple feet away.

Bella and I played school and pirate legos and made some books. Mike learned how to play backgammon and even beat Scott on our last evening. Zora gave us some bird feed one night to hand feed the birds from the yurt. It was such a blast to feed the bright lorikeets and king parrot. Our last evening, Scott dropped us off at our bus-stop and we took an overnight 12 hour bus ride to Melbourne (not something I hope to do again, but a worthy backpacker experience). We were sad to leave our cottage and new friends, but excited for the next part of our trip. We feel incredibly blessed to have had this experience, and hope that we'll get to see them again someday!