Friday, April 24, 2015

Coming to Terms with Coming to an End in Queenstown

We have 15 days until we return to America. 
I'm in shock. 
Our trip, which we busted our humps towards and dreamt about for three years, is coming to an end and soon.

When I think back, I can remember the first day I started counting down for this trip. I was still working until late in the evening to save.We had bought our flights. I was obsessively reading travel blogs and stalking used kindles on Craigslist. 221 days. It seemed an impossibly long way away. I would drown Tom (or anyone with ears) in trip research or stories of places I wanted to go. I was romanticising, dreaming a fantasy future. In planning the trip I was already half way there.

So what happens when you live your dream life?

The reality of full time long term travel is definitely different than my computer screen dreams. There are plenty of moments where I've been sick, tired, cold and straight up miserable. There has been pain, stupid (expensive) mistakes, and regrets. Sleepless nights, bed bugs, culture shock, the rawness of being helpless in the face of rampant poverty and abuse. We have been cheated and yelled at. I have pushed myself to new limits both mentally and physically. There have been horrible lows which often aren't seen in this curated internet version of events.

It isn't all rainbows. Taken in Queenstown, NZ.
The another reality of full time long term travel is that it is all totally worth it. You learn to be more resilient.

It's like my first time scuba diving. The thing with scuba diving is that once you are down at a certain depth, quickly getting to the surface can literally kill you. You must stay underwater and sort out whatever problem you have there. I was terrified. When my ears wouldn't equalize and I started to panic my first instinct was to run away, get out of the water RIGHT now. My instructor saw my panic, and calmly put his hand on my shoulder- I had to face it right there. Running away wasn't an option. The panic subsidised and we safely ascended just half a foot and my ears were better. Allowing my fear to control me could have killed me.

Taken in Queenstown, NZ
We've lived a completely different lifestyle. When you travel with your whole house on your back you are forced to realise how little you need. You are forced to be flexible and choose to see the positive. You are absolutely forced to be strong and brave and recover quick when those things just aren't happening. There's no running back to your own safety net and hiding. You begin to trust yourself out of necessity. 

Taken in Queenstown, NZ
 I sit here in Queenstown, New Zealand a full 525 days later.
Here amongst the mountainous majestic beauty of New Zealand, I think of what has happened in the last 304 days of my life, and I can't imagine what it would be like without these experiences. 

 We were forced to adapt to our new way of being and my adaptations will follow me home.

They are a part of who I am now.

Treasures. Taken in Arrowtown, NZ.
Like having brown eyes, or my middle name being Maria, these experiences are in my marrow.
The friendships and hardships. Late nights and horrifically early mornings. All the way-too-long bus rides spent snoring and drooling on Tom's shoulder (sorry Tom!). The heartbreaking beauty of this world and the 101 things I thought I'd never be brave/smart/tough enough to do. Who'd have ever thought that I could I could live so simply, scuba dive, surf, or go on tough multi-day hike through the cold and rain? It certainly wasn't me.

On the Earnslaw Burn track, NZ
Every future opinion, choice, and friendship will be coloured a little by what happened on day 23, 189, 300 and all the ones in between..

Most of all, I've found such joy in others. I'm still an awkward weirdo who can be kinda shy, but I'm a much more open, vulnerable, confident weirdo because of all the lovely humans who liked me in my most simplest of forms.

Taken in Arrowtown, NZ
  So cheers to all the absolutely soul shaking-ly, kind, wonderful people who not only were so generous with us but helped us when we were lost, or forgave us when said the wrong thing, or let us invade your home, or taught us how to surf, or taught us anything, or shared what cows say in your country, or shared our wine, or made us laugh, or shared a meal, or showed us the beauty of your city, or treated us like family, or really were family, or smiled at us across the street, or gave us the darn time of day, and are about to forgive my misuse use of commas: Thank you.

Everything was 1000 times more beautiful because of you.

Love from Us

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hungry in Hanoi- Three Days in the Capital.

Nature fights back in Hanoi
Hungry in Hanoi
After *accidentally* spending the whole month of February in Thailand, Tom and I decided it was time to move on. Also, our visa ran out the exact day we left adding a little pressure to scoot.
So we bought flights from Bangkok to the northern capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.

Typical lane in Hanoi
We got off to a rocky start. We took the overnight train from Chang Mai to Bangkok to catch our flight. Somehow, in the craziness of last minute planning we completely forgot to get visas for Vietnam. Whoops. Super rookie mistake. You'd think that with almost nine months of travel under our belts we would know better.

Bangkok Sunrise
So we arrived in Bangkok at 6 am with our flight to Hanoi just a couple hours later with no visa at all. Unlike many other countries, Vietnam requires an application for any kind of visa, with a stamped letter of approval, various other documents, and photos for possible admittance in to the country. It normally takes about three days. We had three hours.

Fortunately, there are options for dummies like us. We paid about $70 to rush order the letter of approval. We'd heard horror stories that we would be held up at immigration for this "super urgent" visa for hours, even possibly denied. Of course, it went completely fine and took barely any time at all. Onto Hanoi.

Hanoi is loud with the sound of incessant beeping, wet, chilly, and not definitely the cleanest or most organised place.

Still, Tom and I love it. I love the way the traffic is a like river that flows around you as hold your breath and cross the street. I love the old buildings that tell secrets of the history, some mildewed, and broken with time. I love the way the sidewalk is simultaneously a coffee shop, a restaurant, a parking lot, a veggie market, and sometimes an extra street if need be. The feel of a hot soup on a cold misty day. I love the ginormous trees that tear up the pavements with their roots like they do in New Orleans. I love the French influences that show up in it's cafe culture and food. I drool over the tiramisu-like egg coffee. and the food. I love all the food.

Places we recommend so far:

Cafe Giang 
Down a tiny alley way and up the stairs you'll find a packed room full of locals and couple tourists all sipping the same drink and munching on sunflower seeds.

The website explains:

"Giang Café was founded by My Father ,Mr. Nguyen Giang in 1946, when he was working as a bartender for the famous five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel. Although the café has been relocated twice, its egg coffee recipe is almost the same as in its early days, with its chief ingredients being chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese.
The coffee is brewed in a small cup with a filter before the addition of a well-whisked mixture of the yolk and other ingredients. The cup is placed in a bowl of hot water to keep its temperature.
My father developed the recipe in days when milk was scarce in Vietnam. He used egg yolks to replace milk."
It tastes like tiramisu with the texture of custard. I dream of it.

Bun Bo Nam Bo
This spot is another place that is a hit with locals with a couple tourists mixed in for a good measure. Their bun bo nam bo is spot on. The crispy onions, crunchy peanuts,  sweet lightly vinegary broth, oodles of noodles, and fresh herbs made it a dish I know I'll crave.

Dong Xuan Market
This massive covered market in the most northern part of the old town is a thrill. A little more off the main tourist beat, you'll find basically anything from hair bows to live eels to sacks of cinnamon taller than most Vietnamese people. It's great fun. If you venture out side of the market on the back streets you'll find all sorts of roadside sellers, restaurants, and shops. Much of Hanoi is organized into vendor streets. One street might sell exclusively silk , another pots and pans. Tom and I enjoyed a less touristy afternoon dodging overloaded motorbikes and taking in everyday life.

BBQ Chicken Street
Self explanatory. Just as you have a silk selling street, this street outside of the old town sells BBQ chicken. As we walked up we could smell the mouth-watering smells of 25 restaurants competing for  best bbq chicken.  This chicken was juicy smoky and served with sweet potatoes, honey grilled bread, and draft beer. We tried foot, leg, wing, honey bread, and sweet potatoes. My favorite was the juicy thigh and tom loved the wings.

The only picture I have from BBQ Chicken Street.
Le Soleil Bar
Ending up at the Le Soleil bar for their open mic night was consequence of a bunch happy accidents. We bumped into the same couple both at our obscure lunch and dinner locations a good 45 minute walk away from each other. We decided it was fate and shared BBQ chicken dinner and a wild night at the French run Le Soleil bar. The owners/bartenders were fun and made some delicious cocktails. The crowd was mostly young international expats. The open mic night performers were great including an epic beatbox battle. This bar is definitely somewhere we would frequent with friends at home.

Bun Cha
For our final lunch we hunted down another local favorite: Bun cha. This is a garlic grilled pork soup served with fresh herbs, noodles, fresh chillies, and Nem Ran, a type of egg roll. This has to be favorite meal yet. The grilled flavor of the pork went well with...everything. I can't explain the perfection of this dish. It was served on huge tray on a tiny stool while we sat on even tinier stools on the sidewalk. Fabulous.

 Thank you Hanoi for a couple wonderful misty 'winter' days. Next up we take the overnight train to Dong Hoi to visit the Phong Nha cave system.

you ever been to Hanoi? What did you think? DId you enjoy it as much as we did? Please message me if you want exact locations of these places.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

January Joys: the UAE & The Philippines

Warning: This a picture heavy post, and pretty long to boot. Forgive us- I tried to cut down but January was Written on February 4th.

It's our last day in the Philippines and Tom and I agree that this the saddest we've felt leaving a place. 
Don't get me wrong, tonight we land in Bangkok and a whole new adventure begins. I'm eager for whatever comes next, especially since we will be meeting up with some dear friends from home.

Still, somehow February has crept up on us and January, our seventh month of travel, is already gone. 
And what a marvellous January it turned out to be. 

Places visited: 

UAEAbu Dhabi and Dubai 

Philippines- Coron, Manila, Bacolod, Danjugan Island, and Siargao Island

An amazing moment diving in Coron


It seems like only a week ago that we celebrated the New Year in Abu Dhabi, barefoot on my friend Mattie's dock. I can remember (despite the champagne) the crack of not-so-distant fireworks and the fierce hugs that Byrd sisters do so well. I remember squeezing my eyes shut tight, thinking that if 2015 is as wild, weird, and wonderful as 2014, I might just collapse from too much happy.

After New Years we spent ten more days in Abu Dhabi and Dubai which consisted of a lot of family time, beach lounging, desert drives, shockingly delicious dinners, some fishing, and couple really fun nights out on the town.

At the Top of the Burj Al Arab, the tallest building in the world

On one of our last evenings in town we decided to visit the largest mosque in the world outside of Saudi Arabia, the Sheik Zayed or Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi. The mosque is the beautiful brain child of the late great Sheik Zayed, who was the countries first ruler post-independence.The golden light of the hour before sunset illuminated the white marble making it glow like something out of a fairy tale. We opted for the group tour and learned so much about the mosque, it's construction and purpose, and of course Islam.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was learning how many different people of varied backgrounds and faiths went into making the 32 domes, the ginormous carpet, the turrets, and the chandeliers. There was a chandelier made by a German, calligraphy by Turkish master, marble flowers climbing the walls crafted by an englishman and many more I've already forgotten.

For a detail oriented person like me, I was mesmerised. Each stone had a meaning, each flower was a story, everything was a reference or a remembrance. Sheik Zayed never lived to see his dream place of worship finished. Moments after the tour the sun sank low and the call to prayer sang out. It was strong and melodic, and even though I am not Muslim, I felt spirituality of the moment.

On the 11th we arrived in the little town of Coron on Busuanga, an island on the western perimeter of the Philippines. In Coron we took a crack at something Tom had wanted to do for years and that I had been absolutely afraid of for years: Scuba Diving.  

Wreck diving
My favorite picture from our dives
Coron is famous for it's eleven WII Japanese shipwrecks sunk with in the same two days back in 1944. With the goal of seeing at least the top of a wreck we decided to get certified. After only one or two moments of panic (have you ever cried with a mask on? It's weird), I let myself fall in love with it and we ended up going on a total of seven dives in seven days.

We dove with Rocksteady Dive, which turned out to be an amazing choice. Our instructor, Dennis was the most calm individual I've ever met. We refer to him as the dive ninja- he was super professional but also really funny and friendly. The crew was a mixture of Filipinos, Germans, Koreans, and an American and ALL awesome. 

Coron also is famous for it's various beautiful lakes and lagoons which are all accessible by public or private boat tour. We decided to go with the later and for only $28 we rented the whole boat, the crew, and a huge lunch. The boats can hold up to six people meaning that the whole tour can cost as little as $4.60 a head. One our tour we opted to visit just a couple spots so we could relax a little. We chose to snorkel at Siete Pecados, go lake swimming in stunning Kanyangan Lake, and chill out on Banol Beach.

*picture break*

Kayangan Lake

Snorkeling at Siete Pecados
Banol Beach

After Coron, we visited my childhood best friend in her family home in Manila. Lena and her family took us in and treated us like family despite the fourteen years since I had last seen them. In Manila we ate great food (mmm still dreaming about the molten lava cake), Tom killed it at trapeze school, and we met tons of Lena's lovely and talented friends.
Lena, Solo, and CAKE at Calle in Bacolod

Lena invited us to join her in her friend to visit Danjugan Island, a private island sanctuary reserve off the coast of Negros. The island is special, as are the people who live for it. Since it's purchase in 1991, the sponsors of Danjugan have been running various kids' camps focusing on conservation and preservation of wild life and natural resources. Prior to heading off to camp we spent a day and night in Bacolod, hosted by Lena's friends. They were the epitome of hospitality and generosity and we basically just ate cake every thirty minutes. My kind of town with my kind of people.

And then we were on the bus for the four hour ride to camp.
My friend and fellow camper puts it well:

"We visited the Marine and Wildlife Camp last January 23-25 at Danjugan Island, Cauayan, Negros Occidental. The camps are offered by the Philippine Reef & Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI), with usually two summer camps for children and one camp for adults annually. The camps were originally created to inspire children (and now, adults too) to become conservationists, and to raise awareness about past, current, and future conservation efforts.
The island itself is a place of wonder. It has 7 eco systems (in one small island!) and is teeming with beautiful wildlife. The camp hosts lectures on topics such as ecosystems, marine life, coral reefs, bats & caves, biodiversity, and climate change, as well as activities that genuinely inspire and urge us humans to contribute to conservation efforts."

Camp was ridiculously fun. It was basically the summer camps of my youth complete with competitive games and sandcastles but made adult by the late music and beer sessions. The combination of silly fun, the serious learning, and inspiring people made it an indescribably meaningful weekend. I can honestly say that those short three days on the island sanctuary made me think much more clearly about my own effect on the environment and for that I'll be forever grateful.

amazing campers
Our last week of January was fittingly spent in probably one of my most favorite places in the Philippines, Siargao Island. I know I can't properly explain the magic of Siargao Island. Tom and I have been annoying all of our friends with tales of how much we loved this place (Sorry Jonny). The combination of wide coconut palm lined streets, the relaxed surfer attitude of the people, and the startlingly untouched beauty of the landscape made it hard to leave. 

Like Budapest, Iceland, and Portugal- we extended our stay on our first day. Somehow we just know almost instantly. I remember walking the narrow cobbled streets of the Alfama district of Lisbon with our hosts, and the feeling would just settle over me like a warm breeze. Falling a couple steps behind, I looked at Tom and thought,"I think we're going to like it here".

Similarly, I was on the back of motorbike, holding onto a surf board, chatting to a Filipino surfer about life, counting palm and bamboo huts when I just knew it would be hard to go. We surfed about four days out of the seven. It was hard. I am not a very fit person but the adrenaline rush of catching a wave kept me going. I am still not a good surfer but I can say I am enthusiastic. I don't have any pictures of us surfing because...well...we were surfing at the time. I can officially add surfing to the list of new hobbies that I simultaneously love and suck at.

 Like Coron, there a bunch of tiny little islands dotted around General Luna. Together with two new friends from our fabulous surf hostel/resort, Kermit we went for a sun-drenched island hopping day. We visited Guyam Island which was tiny and covered with palm trees, Daku Island which was larger and inhabited, and Naked island which is neither people or trees on it.

As with many other places, the people were the most beautiful parts of life on Siargao. While traveling sometimes we make friends with locals, or expats, or visitors like us. On the sand-floor restaurant of Kermit Surf Camp we made friends with a seamless group of all three. Kermit has the perfect vibe- relaxed, clean, and with all the delicious food Tom and I could manage. We felt included and lucky.

Not-So-Awesome Moments

This month was filled with highlights. When I started jotting down ideas for this post I had twenty-one highlights, and realised I'd listed basically everything that we had done. Still this month hasn't been as perfect as the colorful pictures make it seem. No amount of time spent traveling is without a couple not-so-awesome moments. In retrospect the things I am about to list are really not bad at all. Mildly annoying perhaps but much worse things have happened since then.

First we burnt our selves to a crisp our very first day surfing. A big blistering red rookie mistake, I still have the rash guard marks and peeling skin three weeks later. Ouch. Similarly, I got a weird sinus infection in Manila that hung out for a week. The salt water forced into my head while surfing helped clear it up.

Because the Philippines is an archipelago there are two ways to get around: fly or ferry. We had a month and several places to go so we decided to fly the budget airline Cebu Pacific Airline. It tends to be a little cheaper and whole lot more unreliable. I can't tell you how many times we spent hours in the airport waiting for a flight that would either not happen or happen three hour late.

We also spent a far bit of money in the Philippines- about $2000 but we did fly seven times, and were enjoying all the great food. I don't regret a single Philippines peso.

And finally the worst moment of January was leaving the Philippines. We fell in love with the country and it's citizens and I can't wait to go back and continue exploring. 

a pristine lagoon in Siargao

Head Chef Gringo

What's next
Up next we head to Bangkok to meet up with a bunch of our friends from New Orleans, followed by four days in Koh Tao, and five in Chang Mai. Anyone have any advice?