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2019: The Year That Was

Perhaps a little later than I should have done, I wanted to sit down and take a break from chronicling my adventures to reflect upon the past year, where I’m at now, and what I am hoping for in 2020.

I left my job in June 2018, so 2019 was my first full-year on the road. So what did life on the road look like for me? It was a busy year. I was on five continents: North America, South America, Antarctica, Asia, and Australia, including two I had never been to before 2019 (Oz and the Great White One).

I trekked my way through 15 countries, 11 of them new to me in 2019 as well: USA, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Australia, and New Zealand. And if you count countries where I did not spend the night or Antarctic bases (which I don’t), you can add in Myanmar, China, and the UK.

To get to all these places, I took a total of 27 flights (that’s counting legs, not individual flights – so a flight leg with a stop over counts as one). Staggeringly, that added up to 298 nights away from my beloved homeland of Virginia.

Where I’m at right now: Queenstown, New Zealand. Where I’m at emotionally right now: tired. Traveling all the time sounds like the dream to many, but honestly the life of a nomad is a tough one. I am tired of living out of a suitcase and wearing the same shirts all the time. I am tired of having the same conversations with people I meet in hostels. I am tired. I am tired of constantly being on the move, figuring out what I am going to do, where I am going to sleep, and how I am going to get there every day.

I honestly did not think I would get to this point. I thought for sure the money would run out before the energy did (and let me tell you, it’s close)! But this is quite a common sentiment among travelers, and I thought it was worth mentioning here. It isn’t all wonderful experiences and glamour. Homesickness is real and there are pros to comfort and stability. Every day is a struggle to get out of my head and live in the moment. But I’m doing it (the abundant natural beauty of New Zealand certainly does help).

While I may be starting to feel like settling back down, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a wanderlust bucket list that is constantly in development. Returning to Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Australia are definitely in the running, and I am overdue for a Eurotrip for sure. But here are my top 3 travel bucket list items as of right now:

  1. Go on safari in Africa. As my last remaining continent, getting to some place in Africa tops the list – and what better way to do it than to go on a classic game drive hunting the perfect pic of the big five.
  2. Cross the Arctic Circle: Well, I’ve been down across the Antarctic Circle, so it just seems natural to want to get to the northern side. The wildlife will be totally different (polar bears!), but big ice is usually what thrills me most.
  3. Go on a SCUBA focused trip: Now that I am a certified PADI diver, I’d like to put those skills to use. While Indonesia and Malaysia were spoken very highly of by divers I met in Asia, I’d be fine with going somewhere in the Americas.

Here’s to hoping I can check off at least one (or more!) in 2020. Happy travels.

New Year, New Zealand

I was originally going to come home for the holidays. I had never been away from home during Christmas before, and traveling solo during this time just seemed too sad. But then some dear Kiwi friends of mine helped me to see how silly it was to spend money to go home after SE Asia and then come back to explore Oz and NZ. They invited me to stay with them instead, and I said yes! So I got to enjoy Kiwi Christmas and ring in 2020 before pretty much anyone else in the world.

In some ways Kiwi Christmas is very similar to that in the US – focused on big meals and spending time with family. However, there are some key differences. It involves a lot more cream. Kiwi dip and cream based desserts, like ambrosia and pavlovas, are the standard fare (love it!) They tend to not be big on showy light displays or gaudy decorations. And, of course, it’s summer here! So you aren’t freezing to death and can actually play outside or even hit the beach.

I feel so blessed that my friends and their lovely families welcomed me so fully into their homes. It was really special to have this opportunity to meet so many wonderful people, including two other Christmas refugees from Jersey. It means more than words can ever say, and I thank Jess and Matt from the very bottom of my heart.

During Christmas week, we went camping which is pure Kiwi holiday style. Or so I’m told. I hadn’t been camping in a good long while, so I was unsure how I would feel about it. But I really enjoyed it! We stayed in a holiday park right on the beach, went tubing (or biscuiting, as they call it in NZ), and took in views of the recently erupted White Island. We also went camping up on the Coromandel peninsula and hit up a concert by NZ hit saxophone band Drax Project. I really liked their music, and can’t get Woke Up Late out of my head (and even cooler, they did a version in the Maori language Te Reo).

Other highlights of the week were taking in majestic views of Hawkes Bay and Gisbourne, as well as eating an award winning potato-topped pie which converted me into a bit of a junkie. For New Year’s Eve we were in art deco haven Napier, at a concert on the top of a mountain. After a day of literally doing nothing but ordering pizza and watching movies, it was time to hit the road and explore this magnificent country.

The Emerald Cities of Oz

It is impossible to talk about a trip to Australia without mentioning their fabulous cities, the jewels in the crown of a truly wondrous land down under. As a city girl, FINALLY visiting these cities that I have heard about forever was the juicy cherry on top of a gigantic sundae.

First stop for us was Melbourne. For seven years, the world’s most livable city until recently dethroned (by Vienna). It isn’t difficult to see why. Downtown is compact and walkable, their public tram system is fantastic, and there is plenty to see and do. Museums? They’ve got it. Rowing on the river? They do it. Spending all afternoon doing nothing but drinking in a pub? Yes, let’s! (We did that). I hear tell they even have a beach… with penguins. There are great museums, theaters, and parks too. For me, this is what *makes* a city. Looking back, mostly I remember just how pleasant it was.

Next up: Canberra. Did you know it is the capital of Australia? No one would blame you if you didn’t. It doesn’t make a lot of must-see lists, but it is a good stopping point on the road between Melbourne and Sydney. It didn’t feel much like a city. In fact, it felt like a sprawling suburb for a city that was never built. Now this doesn’t sound particularly charming… but it kind of grew on me. The days were sunny, there was never any traffic, and we stumbled upon some good eats and drinks. If I had more time to explore, I feel like I would have uncovered some hidden gems for sure. It is well worth a visit just to see the Parliament and National Museum.

Is a trip to Australia really complete without a visit to Sydney? I don’t think so. With its shawl of fire haze, it maybe wasn’t looking its best, but the thickest smog couldn’t hide all the charm and wonders Sydney has to offer. The harbor is incredible, and setting eyes on the harbor bridge for the first time is so exciting! I could have spent endless days just riding the ferries around, taking in the sites and visiting the different beaches. As evening rolls in, what is better than a trip to the famous opera house. It is gorgeous, and as soon as we took a tour I knew I had to come back and see something, anything, in the cathedral to the arts that is the symphony hall (check).

Finally, I ended up in a city that I had never really dreamed of going to: Brisbane. It was here that I most felt the Christmas spirit (or, as they would call it, Brismas). Light shows and Christmas spectaculars were the order of the day. But it is also just a really chill city with a great food scene, perfect for stuffing your face or grabbing a pint with a new friend. Brisbane also takes beaching seriously. Surfers can catch the gold coast express to hit the waves not too far from the city. If that’s too far, you can go to the beautiful man-made beach right in the heart of downtown alongside the banks of the river. Serious, Alexandria needs to get on this.

Could I pick a favorite? It would certainly be hard. Sydney is hard to beat, especially if you are a beach bum of the highest order,… but I think I would give it to Melbourne. It’s chill, with access to spectacular coastline (the Great Ocean Road heads out west from there), good food, good brews, and has all the culture you could ask for.

Water, Water Everywhere

I feel like I really focused on dryness, desert, and fire last post, so I figured I would have a go at another basic element in this one: water. Similar to the US, Australia covers a continent with a long coastline that borders on two oceans. This means there is a lot of spectacular coastal scenery, and probably the first things you think of when you think of Australia are beaches, surfing, and the Great Barrier Reef.

While I haven’t tried my hand at surfing (honestly, I am still working on mastering walking), I did check out a few beaches – some famous even in the States and some that I had never heard of. Probably most famous are the beaches of Sydney, prime among them being Bondi, which I did not go to, and Manly, which I did and loved. What a blessing to live in such a fabulous world class city… yet be able to get to the beach on public transit within an hour. Had me feeling a little jealous of the Sydney dwellers, to be quite honest.

My folks and I got to explore much of the coastline of Victoria as well, tackling a portion of THE Great Ocean Road, out to the Twelve Apostles (rock formation), before heading up the coast between Melbourne and Sydney. (This is where the fires have gotten way out of hand now, if you are following the news). This is less of a beach bumming kind of beach and more just stunningly beautiful. More Pacific Northwest, less SoCal. I would never get tired of going on drives or walks (and trying unsuccessfully to make the sand squeak) and taking in the scenery here.

Although it was too cold for me to go swimming, plenty of animals disagree. This is prime whale watching coast for a good chunk of the year, although we just missed it, and you have to get to the southern coast in Australia if you want to see the penguins. I also saw the largest manta ray I have ever seen in my life, swimming just off the pier in some small town. The road trip took us to plenty of cute little one-horse towns near the coast, where there was one inn, a couple shops and restaurants, and maybe a gas station. My favorites were Tilba, Meeniyan, and Pambula, in case you want to know.

If you are looking for more of a “surf’s up dude” vibe, Noosa fits the bill. It’s one of the best in Australia. The Sunshine and Gold Coasts of always sunny Queensland seem lousy with surfers, although they are literally everywhere in this country. Noosa was the perfect spot to crash for a couple days of vacation and enjoy a beautiful beach, lovely state park, and the cleanest, clearest river I have ever seen. We also did some sitting by the river, watching the fires worsen, with mom and dad’s friends at their vacation place in Little Wobby.

And last but not least, as I mentioned I did hit the GBR. I accessed it from Bundaberg, at the southernmost tip. Lady Musgrave island in the reef proved to be a great day trip, although I definitely need to go back and do a multi-day beach hopping and diving reef tour. It was so nice being out on the water all day, snorkeling, watching the sea turtles and dolphins, riding around in the glass bottom boat, and strolling on the island. Bundaberg also ended up being quite the cute little stopover since it had the turtle center I mentioned last post and is home to the best rum in Australia. 

The Aussie coast offers so much to see and do – there is really something for everyone. And although we drove for miles and miles, we only covered just a small portion of it! I can’t wait to go back someday.

Do You Come From a Land Down Under?

Ever since watching the classic MK+A movie Our Lips Are Sealed (has anyone else ever seen this?), going to THE land down under has been on the top of my bucket list. I mean, who doesn’t want to go surfing with kangaroos and eat vegemite sandwiches with Men at Work? Even if literally everything in Australia is trying to kill you. So mom and dad and I popped on down. under.

Fortunately I haven’t had too many close calls with the nasty animals (we did see a snake while strolling down our first trail – but we high tailed it outta there and didn’t find out if he was nasty or not). But I DID get to see most of the legendary strange furry Aussie mates. We saw loads of wallabys and kangaroos, even some on a beach (not surfing though). Koalas galore, even one that MOVED, which they practically never do! Saw that kookaburra sittin’ in the old gum tree, an emu, and even a handful of…llamas?

 

While we faced no danger from the native fauna, the flora was going up in flames all over the driest inhabited continent. We saw some pretty serious dark smoke as we were driving by one of the biggest fires in the area, but the smoke is so thick that it is impacting visibility and breathing all over New South Wales. Although not helped by the severe drought across much of Australia, the fires are mostly natural and a necessary part of maintaining the ecosystem here… but those poor koalas didn’t stand a chance.

 

The drought has negatively impacted the sea turtles, as I learned on my visit to the Mon Repos turtle center near Bundaburg. The sand is so dry, they sometimes can’t build their nesting burrows and give up in frustration. Also because it has been so hot, most of the turtles are being born female since incubation temperature determines sex. This has biologists concerned about the long-term viability of turtle species, if there are a lack of breeding pairs. Yay global warming. Thank god good ole Bundy produces the most famous rum in Oz… so you can drink away your worries.

 

Speaking of hot (check that smooth transition there), I have also been out to the red hot center of Australia. I made the pilgrimage, like many tourists do, out to the middle of nowhere to see Uluru. The sun was sweltering, the flies were miserably annoying… but the desert was spectacular. It was surprisingly green out there, and the colors of sunset and sunrise were incredible. There are actually a few other large monoliths in the area, which I didn’t know – some even bigger and wilder looking than Uluru.

 

I reckon Uluru just played a bigger role in the creation myths of the local indigenous folks. It is considered a sacred site (which is why you are no longer allowed to climb it), and like a holy text it tells the story of some of the most important cultural myths and legends. It also served as an important gathering site for the Anangu people, where they would meet to pray, share stories, and instruct the next generation on how to survive in the desert. Cave paintings 5000 years old present the lessons for us to see today.

 

Most recently, I have been kicking it in small-town Oz. Friends of mine I met in Antarctica (seriously, who says that) bought a country tavern and are running a super charming little local bar. It’s all very chummy and Cheers like (there’s even a Norm!). For a couple days I hung out at the bar, had some good food and drink, and took a country bike ride (I can still ride a bike… sorta). We had live music one day and fire action on the mountain the next.

 

It’s been such an amazing couple of weeks, and it was so great hanging with some beloved locals. There have been too many highlights to even count. I’ll keep’em coming in the next one.

The Highs and Lows of the Tour

After Thailand, my parents and I had two more stops in SE Asia on our tour: Luang Prabang, Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Little did we know they would prove to be my favorite and least favorite parts of the journey.

Luang Prabang sits up in the mountains of Laos, so not only does it have beautiful rugged terrain surrounding it, it is also quite a bit cooler than other places I’ve been in SE Asia. Backpackers have made it there, bringing good coffee shops and some more diverse food. But it hasn’t been overrun with tourists, and still feels inherently Laotian. At least for now. A fellow traveler said it reminder her of Chiang Mai… 25 years ago.

There are plenty of temples to explore, featuring wonderful mosaics. We strolled through a couple, even though we were starting to feel temple saturation by this point. We even woke up early one morning to participate in the ritual of giving sticky rice to the monks that go around collecting their daily rations. We also went to the cave temples on the outskirts of town, down the Mekong.

Cruising along the river for the afternoon was for me the highlight of the trip. It was hard not to enjoy the fresh air and fabulous scenery. In fact, I could easily see myself returning to explore some of the incredible nature around… or sitting in a cafe all day, doing nothing but soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the town.

Siem Reap is a whole different story. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s flat, with little of geographic interest. The food doesn’t match up to its neighbor to the west (Thailand). It’s dirty. As you head out of town, it gets dirtier. Roads are bad. Tonle Sap is a disgusting body of water that smells like open sewage. Yes, Angkor Wat is an extremely cool place, and I enjoyed learning about the ancient city and seeing the beautiful temple complexes covered by carvings and jungle. It is impossible not to feel the sense of history here.

But Siem Reap moves into my #1 position as least favorite place I have ever been. A spot formerly occupied by Cartagena.

It did have me wondering, though, about development and the role that recent history, culture, and attitude play in what countries look like today. I can’t help but compare Cambodia with Colombia. Both struggled through really dark times were violence and murder was the norm, the government was completely corrupt, and the people were left behind as power hungry men pursued their own interests.

But to look at Colombia today, you almost wouldn’t know that there were ever any struggles (and the height of their dark days is more recent than in Cambodia). Sure nothing is perfect – the agreement with FARC goes too far for some and not far enough for others, there are parts of the country where instability continues to reign, and thousands still mourn the loss of their loved ones. But whereas Colombia seems determined to pull itself out of the shadows, Cambodia appears resigned to be there.

Maybe it’s just me. Some people I have talked to really love Cambodia. Travel bloggers rave about how “authentic” it is. But authentic doesn’t mean beautiful. Authentic doesn’t mean pleasant or enjoyable. Authentic doesn’t even mean interesting. I am sure it’s not fair to judge Cambodia by this one corner of it, just as it wouldn’t be fair to judge Colombia by Cartagena… But with so many beautiful places in the world to see, I can’t say I am in any rush to go back.

What’s Wat, Sweaty Crap, and More In Thailand

Wow, I feel like it has been ages since I have sat down and reflected on what I have been up to. And since I have last posted I’ve been playing absolute tourist, moving fast, in five countries. But I am getting ahead of myself…

After Indonesia, I made my way to Thailand where my first stop was Phuket. I didn’t love it. There were more Russians than Thais, the beaches were meh, you couldn’t get away from touristy restaurants and massage parlors begging you to come in, and the whole thing really had me missing Virginia Beach (and VA Beach is nothing to get excited about). Don’t get me wrong, I did get my fair share of massages and still relaxed on the beach, but where I stayed (Kamala then Kata) lacked charm and any sense of place.

One thing that was super fab was, after many years pending on the bucket list, I obtained my PADI Open Water certification for SCUBA diving. That was pretty awesome, and it sounds like I will have to return to Malaysia and Indonesia for some of the world’s best dive spots.

After a week of chilling at the beach, I made my way to Bangkok where I met up with my parents and we began a two-plus-week tour mainly through Thailand. I was super-thrilled to see them and we did get have some wonderful experiences in Thailand, including visiting the modern art spectacle that is the White Temple, getting family Thai massages, and watching lanterns floating into the river and the sky for Loy Kathong.

I also took a cooking class with mom in Chiang Mai. I have always enjoyed Thai food, and now my appreciation of the food has expanded, and I *may* even have enough confidence to try out a few dishes when we get home. But overall Thailand was… as meh as the beaches in Phuket. There wasn’t a single city or town that I have a need to go back to, not even hipster mecca Chiang Mai. I feel overloaded on temples, or “wat” in Thai. And the pictures of the King everywhere and (legally mandated) positive vibes towards him is downright creepy to me.

The most interesting part of Thailand to me was the language. In addition to all the “fun” jokes about ‘what wat?’ that one can make in Thailand, men also great people by saying sawadee krap. It sounds like “sweaty crap” in English (which, with the heat and humidity, is probably what you are feeling like). But the interesting thing is that men say this. Women would say sawadee ka. This is the first time I have come across a gender distinction in language based on the gender of the speaker rather than the thing/person being spoken about. And it extends to about every utterance. Not just “hello ka,” but “thank you ka,” “how much is it ka,” and so on.

While in Thailand we actually also took a day trip to Myanmar. The difference between Myanmar and Thailand is sharp. In Thailand, roads are perfect and paved, the countryside is litter-free, and everyone looks happy and healthy. In Myanmar tuk tuks rattle over rutted dirt roads, rolling by rivers clogged with trash, and some of the most grim looking street dogs I have ever seen. The temples were beautiful, though, and honestly if I had to live in Myanmar I would become a Buddhist nun and live in one.

At the end of the day, I can’t say I was unhappy to leave Myanmar and come back to Thailand. “Meh” was looking pretty good. Here are some fave pics from the trip.