Happy Ending

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There are really just two things in my head these days, these two things more than any other things. The first is the song “The End” by The Doors. No challenge in working that one out. The second thing though, is Larissa Snow.

Larissa is British. In 2012 she left her life in London and began a seven month solo tour of the Middle East and Asia. We met Larissa in Nepal, on the streets of Pokhara and invited her to trek the Annapurna Circuit with us. She was on her last week of traveling before having to return home to start her masters program at Oxford; we had eight months still ahead of us. All of us were filled with wonder and hesitation of uncertainty. None of us really wanted to do anything other than live in that moment, in complete awe of the creation story wrapped around us, feeling the weight of our packs and hiking through villages loving on the people we met and entering into their stories.

It occurs to me lately that Shaun and I have become Larissa. And also that I really miss feeling small among the giant wilderness, dragging my feet on the rocky trail and listening to the wind words of God.

So we chose accordingly. Our happy ending, the place where we spent our last six days out of the country, was tramping the Milford Track – the trophy case of jaw dropping hikes through the impossibly beautiful Fiordlands of Southern New Zealand. In the crooked fingers of the Tasman Sea, the Fiordlands reach inland through snow capped peaks, thick with the remnants of the ice age glaciers that first carved the landscape. It’s the kind of thing we’re not used to seeing on maps, sounds next to inlets next to lakes next to islands next to rivers next to peaks with names like “Mt. Inaccessible” and “The Stopper.” It’s really impossible to know what you’re about to walk into, especially if you’ve successfully averted your eyes from every postcard or travel poster printed on behalf of this place.

And then you round the first big corner. The Fiordlands are spellbinding and we barely scratched the surface of the 33.5 mile hike that passes in what feels like minutes and alternates between fairytale and the floating sensation that accompanies those long sweeping establishing shots in Lord of the Rings.

And then of course when you reach the end of the trail- in this case Milford Sound – there is a Thing which you and every other slack jawed tourist is compelled to do, because you’ve spent days on this great walk where every 30 seconds one of you says WILL YOU LOOK AT HOW BEAUTIFUL THIS IS and now you find yourself at a small cruise terminal that’s offering to take you even further, but with clean bathrooms, free hot tea and a tour guide who’ll make folksy local jokes and perhaps an uncomfortable terse statement about how the darling fur seals you’re photographing are ruining the livelihood of his fishing mates. And I’m happy to suggest that the rippling green blog hanging on the far southwest corner of your map of New Zealand is a place you might make an effort to see, while your heart is still strong.

So for us, the Milford Track was filled with exactly what we prayed for: Complete awe of creation.

Some days it felt like we were waiting for the end. Other days it felt like we were waiting for something to begin. The rest of the time, it felt like Nepal gave birth to the rainforest. We went to bed early and woke up with the sun. Shaun grew a nice face beard again and I grew a couple of feisty leg beards. We also took a great deal of pictures and we talked more than ever. These days were, after all, our last opportunity to have the kind of timeless conversations that have become part of our daily routine.

Me: Where would you go next?
Shaun: Spain and Portugal would be co—
Me: EW! The Pilgrims Way. Wine and churches. My favorite!
Shaun: Or Peru. Patagonia. Gre—
Me: EW! The islands of Greece. Ocean and olives. My favorite!

Poetry. Actually, I don’t expect this kind of conversation to stop just because we cross borders. I also do not expect this web page to stop just because we cross borders, because these may be the most adventurous days yet. There will be reunions, holidays, awkward adjustments, volunteering, and more international travel. Then there will be successes, failures, more reunions, more awkward adjustments, more of what happens next.

More happy endings.

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Categories: New Zealand | 2 Comments

Blue Skies in Queenstown

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Before we left the states people would ask me if I packed my wellies for New Zealand. In theory that sounded like a smart idea, but the reality of carrying rubber boots around for nine months just seemed wrong. Sure, New Zealand has a reputation for unpredictable weather and the locals will tell you to not bother with the weather reports on television either because they’ll just say, “It’s going to be fine today, except for the rain.”

But it was blue skies in Queenstown where it apparently only rains paragliders, because while we saw no signs of foul weather, we could lay hazily on the lawn and count dozens of spiraling fabric sails like sheep over our heads. This place is a classic flagstone chalet, mountain ringed ski town that, in the summer, is inundated with goggle-tanned adrenaline junkies. And there’s a seemingly endless supply of companies here who’ll take you jet boating, hang gliding, paragliding, parasailing, skydiving, heli-skiing, heli-hiking, heli-jet-boating. Ok I made that last one up, but it is the sort of town where you start to feel naked if you’re not at all times carrying some kind of gear or at the very least, a frisbee.

Christina and Heather played into it like champs though, and paraglided all over the place loving every flying second of it. And while my budget didn’t allow for anything para or heli-frisbee-related, I did enjoy many sedentary hours on Queenstown’s gorgeous waterfront, counting the broken arms and legs (13 in just two days) and watched the fluffy white clouds roll in. A little ways out of town, thousands of fluffy sheep cling to the countryside like dirty balls of cotton that totter around on toothpick legs, mowing down every pasture they can gate crash. In an effort to hug one or two, we did some gate crashing of our own – well, more like gate hopping, but I think it reminded them of being shaved to the quick, because they got all skittish and tore off back to the barn. I did get pretty close two days ago, but an oncoming tour bus startled him away before I could deliver the winning hug. I’m afraid defeat may be nigh. Baaaaaa.

Pictures and video to come.

Categories: New Zealand | 1 Comment

Sydney

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With the weekend in New South Wales, we traded camping gear for bathing suits and headed to the much-hyped Beaches of Sydney for some fun in the sun. Reachable via a quick 30 minute ferry and local bus routes departing from downtown, the Manly and Bondi beaches easily made the must-do list so we must-did it UP!

On the Manly harbour we had some fish sandwiches that made us drowsy with pleasure and knockout chups (fries) before we made our way to the beachside. Manly is a delightful beach town ringed with sand and sailboats and water as cold and clear as any Colorado alpine lake. Opting to sunbathe rather than brave the chilly surf, we realized tops were optional. Christina and I played the “NO, I can’t! You do it!” game for most of the afternoon which seemed to greatly disappoint the German tourist next to us. If only we were French.

Next was Bondi beach (above) which was so blindingly perfect that I’m still not sure I didn’t just dream it into existence. The surf was a little rough for casual swimming, but that didn’t stop Heather and I from working our way into a water race followed by whistle blowers with angry arm movements yelling for us to get out of the way. Once clear of becoming triathlons, we found The Bucklet List bar – a classy little number perched on the sandy beachfront. Obligated by being freedom-bound vacationers we spent a wonderfully lazy day corona soaked and smiling on the patio of this gem.

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Back on the mainland we hit the downtown scene like an open-bar reception and trotted out the kind of spastic college kid dance moves in high heels that always, always result in sore feet the next morning. Another legendary tale of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” induced hysteria.

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Camping in the Outback

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Few vacation moments are as rewarding as taking a chance on an all inclusive three day camping trip in the middle of Australia’s outback and finding that it has, say, achieved status for being the best tour “in the world.” Such was the case with Emu Run Tours, in the big empty of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

The Park is famous for a large, isolated sandstone hill that rises over one thousand feet called Ayers Rock which reflects the light of sunrise and sunset, making it glow this powerful rustic red color (above). We walked around it waiting for the light to happen taking in the best of the scenic points. Our tour guide, Ben, was a real spark plug – knowledgeable, full of witty banter and spoke with this thick Aussie accent, so naturally he became our friend.

He would sit on the ground and tell us aboriginal stories by drawing pictures in the dirt and then end on a high note by saying, “questions, queries, doubtful points?” we would all laugh and swat the flies away. Which I guess brings up Australia’s best kept secret: the files. Smaller and blacker than a housefly they buzz around in front of your face, your arms, your back, your legs, and stick to your skin; you find them in your hair, nose, mouth and eyelashes. When it became unbearable I bought a $10 bug net for my face. A black bug net – so I played the part of a beekeeper in mourning. Poetry.

When the sun went down, it was all champagne smiles and picture taking at the Rock lookout. The flies disappeared along with my bug net so things got wild. We made friends with this Korean lady who fixed Christina’s camera, found out Ben’s nickname is Panda (still trying to figure that one out) and danced some one-legged hopping number with some French tourists (below).

Back at camp Panda showed us how to fix up our swags. Swags? This is new. Decked out in dirty denium, Ben rolled out this waterproof canvas sleeping unit with foam mattress and pillow and told us to find a spot out on the grass. With a bottle of wine we settled into our swags and talked about the day beneath twinkling little stars and the umbrella of pitch-black eons of nothingness. I thought about our creator God who made the stars and friends and love and poetry to dazzle us and I was thankful.

In the morning we woke to Panda’s pre-dawn rush of instructions and a little surprise:

Goud Mourning Eavyone
Rowl up ur swags
Chuck a lewft for the toilets

Me: Urrhhh…
Christina: A mouse ran across my face last night.
Heather: Twice!

After consulting with our trusty leader, we learned that the Australian night mouse or ‘hopping mouse’ comes out at night to feed on seeds and insects and is not uncommon. Apparently they run wild all over the outback and Christina’s face. Twice.

For sunrise we watched the sun burn deep orange over the horizon of Kata Tjuta in the vast Olga desert region of the Park. We wandered aimlessly around the bush in 98 degree heat and then had a brilliant little encounter with a swimming pool and ice cream treats to cool things off. That night it was BBQ and Bob Marley as we ate, drank and celebrated Jamming in the outback with our tour group.

In the end it was a stand out camping experience of exploring the outback with camels, emus, rock caves, aboriginal art, fantastic people and something I would do again in a hot minute.

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Riding a Camel in Context

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Since landing in Australia, I’ve been talking a lot about riding a camel. There aren’t many surreal experiences that compare to chucking a left in the outback to find an open field with camels roaming about. Well maybe one. The day you shed a few tears in excitement as you watch your best friend walk up the desert tarmac after traveling ten thousand miles to travel with you. Such was the blessing I was given two weeks ago when Christina and Heather arrived from Baltimore armed with vacation-ready smiles and just as eager for some camel action.

Lo and behold, the first stop on our three day camping trip in the northern outback was a camel farm with a pile of camels to ride. These single-humped wonders tower over the red, dusty landscape taking long graceful strides not interested in much except chewing on grass and entertaining tourists. Kneeling down with their legs folded neatly under them, you climb on as they slowly stand and for seven bucks you get a ten minute walk followed by a jackrabbit type run around the lot. Of course I couldn’t stop commenting on the size of our camel’s feet and Christina couldn’t stop worrying about possibly peeing her pants in excitement. Fortunately our camel guru (Sam) took to our playful humor like any good sweet-talking guide would.

Christina: OhmygoshTHISISSOEXCITINGI’mgonnapeemypants!!!
Sam: You still dry?
Me: Wow! I had no idea camel’s feet were THAT big!
Sam: You like camel toes?

After the ride and laughter subsided, we hovered in front and kissed that big soft face loving every second of it. I don’t think you could have pried our smiles off with a crowbar. We are having some certificates of completion printed up when we get home. Try and stop us. 😉

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Getting Baked in Princetown

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Not that kind of baked, rather the kind where I lay in a bikini on the beach, uncovered for about ten glorious minutes and then spend the next two hours covered in towels, sheets, sand, hats, books, pieces of driftwood, flotspam, jetsam, basically anything that blocks my fair freckled skin from the sun. As promised, the sun is incredibly hot on the skin here and rummaging into the depths of our backpacks for sun-blocking armor has become the norm. After seven months of traveling you can imagine the condition of the gear we find followed by statements like, “this hat is supposed to be white on the inside I think.” and “is it okay for my coverup to look like a raccoon attacked it in a dumpster?” So we worked a stop at the floppy hat and swimsuit shop into our morning commute. Nothing really says “drifters” like ducking into a sketchy bathroom somewhere to pop tags and change into some clearance sale swim trunks.

Back at our campsite in Princetown we go from the cool of sunrise to sweltering/burning in about 30 seconds. Home to the Princetown Cricket Club, this place is basically just a big, circular plot of land but with electrical hookups, showers and kangaroos for us to obsess over. As we are cooking in this double sun waiting for devices to charge, we get to watch the roos nibble on grass and move in packs. When they hear us, they become stiff, move in sudden jerks, find eyes, stare us down, then hop off.

Sometimes we’ll see one off in the distance start to box with another roo. They stand tall on their legs, ears back and with their little arms will box, doing this speed bag catlike paw movement in the air towards one another. Then they start to dance in a circle and throw out leg kicks. Don’t you worry, I’m working on getting a decent video to show how amazingly awesome this is.

When the roos disappear to find shade, we head to Campbell beach (below) on the outskirts of town which has every trapping of an Aussie beach afternoon – a couple kilometers of golden soft sand, swimmable waters and cone lickers (tourists) enjoying their double dips from Mr. Whippy soft serve. Mmmmm, double dip. Thinking about taking my own double dip in the turquoise bay, I ask a salty local what the temperature’s like.

Me: How’s the water?
Him: Fine, nice swim today.
Me: What do you suppose the temperature is?
Him: Oh I don’t know, I just get in it (squints up at me with disapproving eyes at the state of my coverup) You here on holiday then?

Yeah, we’re here on holiday you could say. And back floats and sunburns in sunny Princetown make it feel like the real deal.

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Categories: Australia | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Frying Nemo Fish & Chips

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The no-nonsense Aussie couple who run the Frying Nemo Fish & Chips company in the small fishing village of Port Campbell looked at me like I was from another planet when I asked the difference between “flake filet” and “whiting filet.” She fumbled for the words to answer a question she’d clearly never been asked because everyone else in the world, or at least everyone in Port Campbell, just knows. After I made my order (flake), she gave me a wry smile and asked, “Where are you from?” not in the manner of passing traveler’s curiosity, but more like “where are you from, spaceman.” We all had a good laugh about this and then it was out of this world goodness after the first bite of these mouth watering, pillowy cod fillets and perfect chips. Double points for eating it within view of the ocean.

Categories: Australia | Tags: | 1 Comment

Roadside Attractions

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Lots of jokes are made at the expense of Australia’s ever present retro flavor and one previous visitor gave me a warning of sorts before I arrived. “It’s like the 1950s over there, except with lots of Japanese cars,” he said. I would actually say it’s a little more like the 1970s but with more microbreweries and German tourists. Either way, one of the most enjoyable remnants of days past are the bevy of quaint, family owned and operated roadside attractions that dot the sweeping countryside of Victoria. We took in a few of these along a portion of The Great Ocean Road called the gourmet trail where twelve local food artisans open their farms and shop doors to visitors for tastings. And if there’s one thing I seem to gravitate towards it’s free food – especially when wine, gourmet cheese, handmade chocolates, fresh berries and single-malt whiskey is involved. Does this trail allow sleeping in vans? Doesn’t matter. We’ll work that out later.

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Port Campbell to Timboon 15 mins. Simpson to Timboon 20 mins. Timboon to Camperdown 35 mins. = full day of fresh, affordable and awesome:

Berry World – Stop here first because they close at 1pm we were told. Abby gives us a large plastic container and instructs us to find Jerry out in the field and he’ll tell us where to pick em.’ Abby and Jerry have owned and operated Berry World for 43 years. They are a vibrant, salt of the earth type elderly couple that have mastered the art of living simple and loving berries.

Picking your own berries is a back-to-basics type pleasure; passing over the ones still touched with a hint of red and those that squish to the touch, pulling off only the perfectly ripe ones until our fingers are rosy. Turns out the taste of sun-warmed berries just picked off their jagged leaves is so profoundly fresh, that you start to question if this is in fact the first time you’ve ever eaten an actual strawberry.

The next two farms are neighboring small growers that each have less than five acres and should be a mandatory part of any Aussie visit. At Apostle Whey Cheese we sampled twelve different cheeses and fell in love with twelve different cheeses. Soft and almost creamy, or aged and strong as a barnyard. The Smear Ripened is salty, crumbly and rich and then our jaws hit the floor in awe after tasting a Blue Vein called Bolte’s Bonanza. At Gorge Chocolates they make about 40 different belgian chocolates in cute little ocean shapes like fish and seashells. Then we round the corner and I spit out a mouth full of half chewed chocolate turtles to proclaim, “SHUT UP! They call their sprinkled chocolates Full on Freckles!” And so we buy the lot. The chardonnay at Newton’s Ridge Winery may be the best white I’ve ever had. Peach-tinged, buttery taste with just a faint hint of oak. Yum. Then there was the smooth Pinot rose blend that was crisp like summer buds all bottled-up and delicious.

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We finish the day at the Timboon mico-distillery where the whiskey samples are stringent and soothing. Located in a renovated railway shed circa 1910, this place makes a killer single-malt, refreshing ice cream and colorful spirits with a twist of rich history. Legend has it that this Irish mate used the shed to produce hundreds of gallons of illegal whiskey, cheekily badged with the government stamp of approval. It’s all stuff of renegades and outlaws; raids and detectives (boy stuff), but it gives the place a rustic charm. Plus the new owners remain to practice distilling in a single copper still by kerosene lamp to keep the story alive. We sipped our way across the grounds taking it all in. As we leave I smile real big after hearing one of the old-timers say, “There’s no trouble in this world so serious that it can’t be cured with a swim in the ocean, a glass of whiskey and the Book of Common Prayer.” I couldn’t agree more.

We ended up driving back to the coastline where we sprawled out on an empty beach and had a little picnic (above) with our ‘roadside attraction’ winners. A little taste of heaven mates. A little taste of heaven.

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Categories: Australia | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Unfamiliar Groceries

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We didn’t do much self-catering in Asia, because amazing meals were pennies a serving and markets were mostly for gawking (“they want how much for a sack of purple frogs?”). But the cost of living has taken us a little by surprise in Australia and meals out tend to be exorbitantly priced in local dollars, save for the shared portions of fush n chups we’ve enjoyed by many a seaside. So what that means is lots of time spent in Woolworths and Coles and Countdowns and our favorite, Pack n Saves, where you do literally pack (your own groceries) and save (lots of coins with kangaroos on them). Not surprisingly, foreign groceries double as a source of cheap entertainment, an easy kind of culture shock that lets you giggle and wonder at your own pace. Pop quiz: What’s the difference between chow chow and picalilli? We’re still scratching our heads on that one, never mind the fact that they’re both types of relish with American-ish origins that neither of us had heard of until we strolled into a backcountry bodega. There’s the bizarre selection of breads, divisible by kinds specifically labeled for “toast” and those for “sandwich,” which is a mistake you only make once. Unrefrigerated eggs are the norm, nearly every brand being free range, some manner of organically fed and packed in cartons that often still have feathers in them. The obligatory stack of unusual candy bars always rounds out the checkout experience (Picnic bar anyone?) and then there’s the staggering variety of common items rendered unusual by new brands and cuts; in Australia this is mostly true when wandering the dairy and meat sections. I lost my mind in the bacon case, which features:

1. middle bacon
2. middle eye bacon
3. streaky bacon
4. rindless streaky bacon
5. shoulder bacon
6. gammon/leg bacon
7. green bacon
8. middle rashers
9. rindless middle rashers
10. short cuts

Now some of these refer to the same thing, but the sheer number of different packagings make it seem like we live in a pathetically under served world of American strip bacon with that special little window cut in the back for viewing fat content. Anyway more proof that bacon makes everything better, even shopping in the downunda. And middle rashers is my favorite I think.

Wait… no, spoke too soon. This ice cream popsicle treat just might be the winner:

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Categories: Australia | Tags: , | 5 Comments

The Great Ocean Road

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I suppose the other sure way to know you’ve arrived in a remarkable place is when you immediately have the feeling that you should have picked up more sunscreen because, “OMG will you look at this beach!?!” So it was when we rolled up to our spectacular beachfront camp spot (above), tucked away off the scenic coastal highway of The Great Ocean Road.

The Great Ocean Road was built after WWI as a make-work scheme for veterans. It took fourteen years to construct and you can see why at once, because for most of its 187 miles it swoops along an impossibly challenging coastline in a hair-raising manner, barreling around rocky headlands and clinging to the edges of sheer and crumbly cliffs. Here and there in the water stand giant pinnacles of rock with star-power names like,”The Apostles” and “The Grotto.” Wild currents crash against the formations in loud, thunderous cracks and you begin to understand why this stretch of coastline is famous for shipwrecks. They say if you took all the water away, you would see twelve hundred ships lying broken on the seabed, more than almost anywhere else in the world.

So with shipwrecks to explore and curving beaches to admire, we find ourselves skidding to a stop at every gravel turnout to bolt from our van and bask in the awesomeness. Gasp-worthy emerald colored water, foamy surf, rocky outcrops that fog over during sunset, perfect lagoons that beg (chilly) swims, dense patches of semitropical hills and clouds like phosphorescent cotton rolling on the horizon. The countryside round about the coast is dry; reminds me of Oklahoma or western Kansas. The brown scrubs look anchored, as though you could pull on them all day and they’d never give. I break a piece in my fingers. It’s got that pine tree smell. Smells good and clean, like bottled-up Colorado. And while the weather has been unseasonably hit or miss (desert hot one day and freezing wind the next), we are gathering enough sun break evidence of The Great Ocean Road to easily make it one of our favorite places in the world.

20130228-162417.jpgThere used to be a natural rock arch that linked these two formations together, they called it The London Bridge. You could walk from one to the other and stand above the sea. Then in 1990 it collapsed, sending tons of debris into the surf below. When it went down there were two American tourists stranded on the seaward stub. They had to send in a helicopter to rescue them. I really hope they were singing The London Bridge is falling down when it happened.

Categories: Australia | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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