They Say “You Can’t Go Home Again,” But…

I came back home two weeks ago, after I finished up my jaunt in Vietnam. Honestly, I had been ready to come home for awhile. The energy ran out and the bank account was skint. But I couldn’t live with myself if I went all the way to the other side of the world without going to Vietnam.

I am really glad I went, but I am also happy to be home. Coming home when I did allowed me to surprise my dad with not only my homecoming, but we also threw a surprise party for him for his 65th birthday. The party was a hit, and was celebrated a few days before Dad’s birthday on the actual birthday of my brother who turned 31 this year. It sucks when you have to tell people your younger brother is 31! We are all old.

Speaking of old, the number one worry of old people is starting to plague my family: slips and falls. Mom fell while out walking with Bro and Dad just a few days before I got back and managed to break both her wrists. She had to have surgery and stitches and two casts and everything. She can’t really use her hands well, so she’s become pretty useless. But at least she’s not in pain, and she is being quite the trooper. There is no good time to break both your arms, but mom timed it well with me coming home anyway.

So here I am, finally at home, enjoying “beautiful” February in Locust Grove, VA, hanging with the ‘rents, visiting friends up near DC, and reminiscing about my adventures over the last year and a half plus. I’ve had plenty of time on my hands to practice Spanish, so I have been making sure to schedule time with my tutors almost every day. And I have been experimenting with some off the cooking skills I have learned – I am already tried out two Thai dishes that came out pretty well! So I am still keeping it pretty international around here.

I have some trips I want to do, of course, but my goals for this year look a lot different than they did a year ago. I am starting to apply for jobs, which is everyone’s favorite activity. So hopefully in a matter of months I’ll be an employed, productive, maybe even home-owning member of society once again! Cross your fingers for me!

Incredible, Intrepid Vietnam

When I originally set out on my journey, I told people that I would keep traveling until the money runs out or the energy runs out. I said it a little jokingly, since I did not think it was possible for my travel energy to run out but guess what… it did. The heat and humidity of SE Asia sucked it right out of me, and my Asia-Pacific adventure had be moving at quite a rapid pace. Changing accommodations every night or two is a grueling pace – and very different from my leisurely jaunt around South America. So I was feeling pretty exhausted (poor me!) and definitely tired of living out of a suitcase – I swear if I ever see that turquoise fleece again I’ll scream.

And yet, I couldn’t leave that side of the world without going to Vietnam, which was probably the Asian country I had most wanted to see. I am not usually an organized tour kinda gal, but I just did not have the emotional and mental fortitude to navigate another SE Asian country where I didn’t speak the language. I had heard good things about Intrepid, especially when it comes to reasonably priced single supplements, and they were having a sale around black Friday. So I scooped up a headache-free Vietnam Express Southbound tour.

The whole thing, including the single supplement, cost $1,263 for a “10” (really, 8 as day 1 is arrival and day 10 is departure) day tour. Could I have done it for cheaper? AssuredlyWould I try to do it for cheaper? I would love to go back to Vietnam and do a self-guided/solo trip someday, but honestly – I found myself really enjoying the group trip. Much to my surprise!

It was nice after coming off three weeks of full solo travel in NZ to travel with others, and I think we lucked out with our group. We all got along well, even though the age range had a wide spread. There were a couple other youngsters I could hang with though. Plus, Intrepid max group size is 16, which is much more manageable than the 40-50 people on Gate1 (my parent’s usual choice of tour operator). And our tour guide, Huyen, was phenomenal!

She guided us expertly and effortlessly as we whipped around on motorbikes in Hue, visited the imperial lantern city of Hoi An, and got to know the bustling metropolises of Hanoi and Saigon. I went to train street, took a cooking class, learned about the Vietnam War, and ate everything I could get my hands on.

Much like my feelings in Korea, I was surprised at how far Vietnam has come given that up until very recently it was suffering through some extremely tough times. So it seemed like fitting bookends that I started this part of my trip in Korea and ended in Vietnam. Life has a funny way of working out beautifully like that.

To sum up: Vietnam definitely makes the list of countries I would love to go back to (although, there are admittedly few that don’t make that list). And now I’m dying to try out some of my recipes from my Peruvian, Thai, and Vietnamese cooking classes…

South Island Wonders – And How I Saw Them All For Free!

When you think about New Zealand, probably the first thing that comes to mind is spectacular scenery, glaciers, and Lord of the Rings – not necessarily budget travel. And while yes, activities are expensive, a night in a hostel dorm can set you back 20 USD, and gas costs a bit more than I am used to, I found a very economical way to road trip around.

And no, I’m not talking about #vanlife – camper vans, while extremely popular in NZ, are actually not cheap, and neither are the camp sites or the gas to run them.

I am talking about transfercar. Have you ever rented a car one way? It’s quite common and not only does it leave you as the renter with a whopping one-way rental fee, it leaves the rental car company trying to figure out how to get cars where and when they need them.

Enter transfercar, a website in NZ (Australia has it too) where rental car companies can post cars that they need relocated and willing drivers can pick them up and use them for free. Sometimes they even throw in a free tank of gas!

I put 3,417 kilometers (2,123 miles) on different transfer cars across the north and south islands of NZ, trying my best to see all the things. All without paying a rental fee! It felt good to hit the road, have the flexibility to do what I wanted – and learn to drive on the left!

I spent most of the time on the south island, taking in the wonders of seal colonies, glaciers, whale watching, and misty Milford Sound. Highlights included wine tasting in Marlborough Valley, rafting through a cave under a glow-worm sky, seeing the pancake rocks, and taking a ski plane and helicopter for a snow-covered glacier landing. And Abel Tasman National Park is a can’t miss.

However, if I am being honest, I didn’t love the south island as much as everyone seems to. Maybe it is just an issue I have in managing expectations with reality, but I did not find it to come to the level of what Patagonia has to offer.

The NORTH island, however, is underrated as far as I am concerned. The thermally active area around Rotorua is super cool (or super hot, rather?) Tongariro National Park was easily the most spectacular place I saw in all of NZ. Wellington and Auckland are lovely cities, you can visit Hobbiton, and I got to get my ZORB on! I gave a hard pass to bungee jumping though (you’re welcome, Mom). 

In the end, NZ left me wanting more – so I am definitely adding it to the list of places to return to.

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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.