A Travellerspoint blog

As it flooded my lips: A tale of traveling toughness

by Izzy


View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

By the time I reached Siem Reap,
the day was dark and taxi cheap.
But a little lost just down the street,
I legged the rest in the sticky heat.

My stomach turned as I found the spot,
more than a rumble - quick dash to the pot.
Just in time, not a second to spare.
It was worse than I thought, more than I could bare.

I counted my blessings as the flush went down.
I thought it was over, until the next round.
This time it was different, my stomach did flips.
I knelt at its mercy as it flooded my lips.

You know the feeling, helpless and bleak;
I cradled the toilet as my legs went weak.
Then the power went out - are you kidding me?
Stranded in the stall, now I can't see!

The next few hours I wrangled in pain.
The lights were still off because of the rain.
But I grinned and bared it, that's all I could do,
there was nothing left after I spewed.

Sorry for the details, I mean no harm.
Just when it comes to food, one should be alarmed,
that once in a place with no rules or regulations,
things can happen above one's expectations!

Posted by triptime 22:39 Archived in Cambodia Tagged food Comments (0)

Kingdom of Cambodia

by Izzy

sunny 96 °F
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

Pat and Eli (two of my best friends and roommates from the past five years) are meeting me in Bangkok, Thailand on June 20th, so when I arrived in BKK on the 29th of May, I was in and out - like a Dwight Howard free-throw during the Finals. Destination, Cambodia.

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Cambodia is one of those places where I had no preconceptions. I knew nothing about the country, the culture or the history surrounding this overlooked jungle in South East Asia. It was time to learn.

"Rise and shine" my mom use to say to wake me up. I was headed to the eastern bus station of Bangkok at 6:45am to catch the 7:30am bus towards the border. I walked up towards the front loading and drop-off area already dripping in sweat. People started asking me questions in Thai and all I could say was, "Cambodia?" One person pointed me to another person who walked me to another outside a tiny booth in a line of many tiny booths. "Cambodia?" I asked. More Thai was spoken and as I looked for anything resembling English, I found a small sign in the corner of the window that read, "8:30". There wasn't a 7:30 bus, or so they made it seem. I bought a ticket that meant absolutely nothing to me, because I couldn't read one thing on it. The lady behind the glass could see I was hopeless and came out to lead me to the correct bus-dock. Like a little kid in trouble, I followed with my head down as she continued to rant on about something. I could have ended up anywhere, but I was on my way to Cambodia.

Three hours into the trip, we stopped. A lady got on and looked at my ticket. "Transfer - 10 minutes, wait out here." What? I was not aware of a transfer. I was a bit nervous now. But right on schedule, a filled to capacity (plus a few more) big blue bus pulled in and I squeezed my way into a yoga-like position amongst the locals. My white-ness glowed.

Close to the border (I could smell it!), I started making small talk with an older gentleman. A Cambodian curious to why I was on this bus and intrigued that I would be heading into Cambodia on my own. As we talked, the story got better. He was bringing his family back to Cambodia for a reunion. His son and daughter have not been back in over 30 years, since the family fled to Thailand during the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970's. After multiple daring tries, they became some of the first successful refugees in Thailand and then from there they received a sponsorship to move to the United States. They now live in greater Los Angeles.

Wow. There we were. A group of Angelenos on a rickety bus to the Cambodian border, but worlds apart on how we became 'neighbors' in the City of Angels.

To put this all in perspective, I am going to flash forward five days. Bare with me. I am now in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. During my first few days in the country, I have been hearing more and more about the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal operation during the years 1976-1979. Phnom Penh played host to these unbelievable/unthinkable acts against humanity. This is what I found out, in the most disturbing and depressing day of my travels.

Pol Pot
Communist Pol Pot, the Hitler of Cambodia, rose to power in Cambodia in mid-1975. His reign of terror is known as the Khmer Rouge. His goal was to create an agricultural nation, a nation of farmers - of peasants. Pot constituted an agrarian collectivization, forcing people out of the cities and into the countryside. These forced labor projects ended in nearly a million deaths due to slave labor, malnutrition and disease. Another estimated 200,000+ were executed as a result of S21 and the Killing Fields.

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I hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to take me to both the S21 Museum and the Killing Fields, 15 kilometers outside of the city center. S21 was a school that was converted into a prisoner holding post and torturing center. I didn't know what to expect. The sun was shining, but the grounds were hauntingly quiet and still. The arrows spray painted on the walls directed me through the four buildings labeled A, B, C and D. Doors/cells were all open, but I didn't really want to go in. The torture rooms were airy and roomy. A single metal framed bed sits in the middle with an old battery casing and a single shackle-bar resting near. There are stains that could not be washed up still scarring the yellow and white tiles on the floor. Bars in the windows and a single, enlarged black and white photo hanging on the wall showing a murdered prisoner after torture grabs you as you take a few steps inside. This can't be real. It's beyond awful. There is a sign just outside the building stating the rules for being tortured by electric current. Humanly impossible.

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From the balcony I could see the gallows in front of Building B. This was where prisoners were bound and hung upside down until they lost consciousness, then they were lowered head-first into the earns below filled with a rank, watery concoction of human-waste fertilizer. This process would restore their consciousness and allow for further interrogation. Others had finger and toe nails ripped out or were beaten to submission. By breaking down the prisoners, the interrogators (who were pulled from the countryside and ranged from 15-20 years old) would get a forced 'confession', 'proving' that they had connections to the old government or foreign agency - hence traitors to the Rouge - and naming numerous others (family members, teachers, neighbors...) that would eventually be 'guilty' of treason as well. Over 20,000 innocent men, women and children were tortured within this facility before they either died on site or were shipped to the Killing Fields outside of town. Only seven survived.

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Killing Fields
Once confessions were made, trucks of prisoners would then make there way through the cover of night to the site of mass graves. The prisoners had no idea where they were being transferred. Most thought they were being moved to labor camps. Once at the Killing Fields, soldiers made quick work of the prisoners. They were to be disposed of immediately. Lined up on the banks of mass pits, prisoners' heads were bashed with a thick pole, a blunt axe handle or with a hammer. One shot. The bodies would then fall into the graves where another soldier would slit the throats of anyone still showing signs of life. Music was blared from speakers hanging in trees to drown out the cries and screams. This was true evil. As I walked around the overgrown grounds, I found out that the area was once an orchard. I also came across one of the most disturbing sites (and information) of my life. At the base of a bulky tree there was a sign that informed visitors that this was the tree that soldiers smashed babies and infants against before throwing them into the grave next to it. The grave was for women and children. Soldiers would rip the infants from their mothers and commit these unutterable acts.

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Human bone fragments can still be seen throughout the fields, some piled near the graves they once laid. The memorial stands tall and somber, an eerie erection layered with found human skulls from the fields around. The pain and the terror still lurks. Cambodians killing Cambodians. The suffering still present today, only thirty years later. As I circled the memorial, an elder lady sobbed quietly, wiping her tears. This was the horror and reality that my new friends, from the bus, had escaped. It is estimated that 1.7-2.2 million Cambodians died under the rule of Pol Pot - upwards to 26% of their entire population. How could this happen - and continue to happen in countries around the globe even today?

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Back on the Bus
History lesson over for now, lets head back to the bus as it pulls up to the Thailand/Cambodia border. The family of four offer to help me across, translating along the way. That was a big help. Coming off the bus, hordes of people jockey for your attention, offering rides, information, trinkets, food and scams. The first thing I noticed was a little kid no older that seven loading my bag onto a two-wheeled cart and marching off. I caught up with my bag and happily took it back into my possession. The five of us stamped out of Thailand and then played along with the corrupt Cambodian Visa department, paying $10 more than the sign on the window stated. You win some and lose some. Then we patiently sweat-ed through the line to receive our official stamp and entrance into the Kingdom of Cambodia. My new friend San, the 37 year old son making his first journey back, was nervous throughout the process. He still had chills and hidden memories of what he and his family had escaped during his childhood. They were the lucky ones. And now all four of them proudly presented their American passports. San told me that this, holding his US passport, was his country - where he lives and where he will die, not Cambodia. It was amazing to see the pride, someone never once taking freedom for granted.

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With the sense of accomplishment and the border at our back, I was kindly invited by my new friends to join the rest of their family for lunch in the next town. How could I resist? Three generations, some meeting for the first time, collided in a reserved room at a some-what fancy (I thought) restaurant a half-hour down the road. Smiles and stories exchanged and those who spoke English kept me informed of what was being discussed. An onslaught of food was brought out. Heaps of rice, still bubbling plates of Cambodian carp, platters of mud-fish, sour soup with hunks of catfish and all the cold beverages a parched little guy could drink. It doesn't get better than the hospitality of others. Cambodians had already won my heart and stomach (more on that to come).

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As the meal ended, the family put a group effort together to get me to my destination of Siem Reap. They negotiated, wheeled-and-dealed, a flat rate for a busting-at-the-seams Toyota Camry to take me to the hostel a good hour and a half further. Six people, plus my luggage, made the journey... and not quite to the hostel. But I guess close counts in a country like Cambodia. It had been one hell-of-a-day, an adventure and a learning experience and I had only just arrived.

Posted by triptime 05:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged educational Comments (0)

The Hong of Kong

by Izzy

rain 84 °F
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

It had been almost three months of comfortable westernized living. New Zealand and Australia were a nice break, but it was time to get the show back on the road.

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The land of Bruce Lee and kung fu movies. The city of impressively tall sky scrapers and a harbor that ships in and out more mass-produced pieces of junk the world could ever want - welcome to Hong Kong and the official hustle and bustle of the East.

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Monsoon season. The rain is at a constant drizzle, then without warning, the clouds fully open. It pours down hard and often and it's hot. Things are different here, but not totally unfamiliar. Up until 1997, Hong Kong was controlled by the British. Now, depending who you talk to, HK is its own country - though China likes to lay claim. Either way, I was there and figuring things out, like how to get from the airport to my inn in the heart of the madness.

With the help of another traveler, I managed to find the Yes Inn - on the 5th floor of a smog spattered building near the Fortress Hill metro stop. It was dark and the popular neon's of the city were glowing, blinking and pulsing for attention. I was hungry. So I went for a stroll in the early night-time streets surrounding the area of the inn. It was sticky. You could feel a glue-like resin settle all over you as you walked. Big beastly air-conditioning units hung out of every window from top to bottom, adding additional texture and ugliness to the massive, towering, concrete blocks above. They leaked and dripped as well.

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I wasn't intimidated. Not anymore. Like I said, there was something familiar to this place. The smells, the humidity, the sounds, the lights - memories of Tokyo from five years before sparked in my head. I found a local eatery and ducked in. A bit surprised, a waiter showed me to a booth towards the back with a view overlooking the rest of the diner-like atmosphere. There were a few other fellow diners, but the place was quiet for a Friday night, only the slurping of broth and noodles could be heard. An English translated menu soon followed without question. Too easy.

I ate my shredded pork congee (a rice porridge) and deep-fried dough rolls and paid the bill. It was good.

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The next morning I awoke to more rain. Every ten minutes or so I would peek through the blinds down to the street for an umbrella report. The rain wasn't going anywhere and I was growing hungry again. By mid-day, I left the inn and tackled the dreariness outside. The sidewalks are packed with vendors selling, selling just about everything and anything you would never want nor need. Street polls, signs, stalls and bins add even more dodging maneuvers to the minimal walk-space. But now add in the umbrella factor. Thousands of people browsing, waiting or pushing on through to their destination all armed with over-sized personal canopies with pointy ends protruding from all angles. I wonder how many eye injuries each year come from street accidents involving umbrellas? As I walked, I was constantly preparing my next move, my next step. Oncoming traffic would sometimes lift their umbrellas while I ducked and then vise-versa through the next group. Organized chaos at its best.

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I found a corner place that looked good. There was a lunch crowd inside, so I decided to give it a try. I stuck out, bad. A six-foot white guy with big hair held up with a bright bandanna and an accent still containing bits of my southern education. Again, the foreigner menu without hesitation. I sat at a table across from a couple and their plates of noodles. Communal dining is popular in the East. I made a selection on the menu and pointed to it. The waitress then followed it over to the Cantonese characters to the left and shook her head. Within ten minutes my mustard-spiced pork was served with a mixture of ginger and garlic, onions, peppers and a green, leafy veggie I didn't recognize. It wasn't as much as my stomach had hope for. But then, I was offered rice - words were used and recognized by both parties and my smiling face said, "Yes please." The meal was savory and delicious. But I felt paranoid throughout. I was struggling with my chopsticks and felt the gaze from the couple across the table. I kept my head down and continued to eat, a bit embarrassed.

I have recently read this description of eating Chinese food by my favorite author Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island:

Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food? I spent a perplexed hour stabbing at rice, dribbling sauce across the tablecloth and lifting finely poised pieces of meat to my mouth only to discover that they had mysteriously vanished and weren't to be found anywhere. By the time I finished, the table looked as if it had been at the center of a violent argument."

My thoughts and actions exactly Bill.

When I finally looked up, after pushing the remaining food into my mouth directly from the plate, I noticed that the couple had not been gawking at the guy who just made a mess of his meal, nope, they were watching the afternoon Chinese-Soap (opera) on the mounted TV behind me. I didn't feel so bad and quickly paid up and went back out into the soggy mayhem of the streets.

The rest of my time in Hong Kong followed the same pattern. I got use to being wet and sweaty and tried to take in as many sites as possible. Public transit was dummy-proof and got me to all the places I needed to be. I tried to find some of the requests from my interactive scavenger hunt list, but struggled. I'll blame it on the weather. But here are a few of the pictures that I was able to capture during my week in the Hong of Kong.

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Posted by triptime 23:20 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged photography Comments (0)

Fremantle v. Hawthorn

by Izzy

78 °F
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

Aussie's love their Footy. Yes Footy - an evolutionary hybrid of rugby and soccer. It's a passion, like Americans and our 'grid-iron'. They pack the stadiums and local pubs proudly wearing the colors of their team. Ah, Australian Rules Football - get into it!

I was trying to get into it, it being the Subiaco Stadium two stops from Perth's central rail station. I had just arrived in Perth a few hours before when I met a local on the bus from the airport. I had been shut out so far in my journey to see 'Football' in South America, Rugby in New Zealand and now Footy in OZ. He told me there was a game tonight between the neighboring Fremantle Dockers, of Western Australia, and the Premier Champs (from last season), Victoria's Hawthorn Hawks. He said most likely it would be sold out.

I still had time. It was only 4:45pm and the game wasn't slated to start until 6:45pm. I hiked my bags to the hostel, dropped them and checked-in, asked for directions to the stadium and set off. "Head to the train station and follow the crowds." Easy enough. I fidgeted with the electronic ticket machine and then made my way towards the platform with all the people adorning jazzy team-appropriate scrarves in the 80 degree heat. It didn't make sense. There are plenty of ways to show team spirit besides wearing warm neck-gear on a hot day. Anyways, I got on the packed train and then exited when everyone raced out, following directions to a T.

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Welcome to Subiaco - Home of Football. I couldn't believe my eyes. They were claiming to be the home of Football! How dare they! With the popularity of American Football growing around the world and the proclaimed world sport of Soccer, better known as Football to everyone outside of the 50 states, how could a stadium in far-off Western Australia vindicate this title? I had to see this game, I had to find out more about this Footy.

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My hopes were soon shot. A sign in the ticket window read 'Sold Out'. I approached anyways. "Does 'Sold Out' really mean sold out?" I asked. The lady smiled, then smirked and said yes. I wandered through a few groups of people off to the sides, waiting to head in and quietly asked if they had an extra ticket. Each group said sorry, shaking their heads no. I searched for scalpers, there were none. This was the hot ticket in town and I was determined to get one.

I walked to the front of the stadium where the majority of fans were entering. I found a trash can that was overflowing and pulled the lid off. Under an assortment of bottles and wrappers, there was a half smashed box. I ripped off a section and found a place to write. I was making a sign. I was begging. I have seen a lot of signs, both living in big cities and traveling about. I have wondered if the beggers put much thought into their signs, if they have a plan when they write, or if they try to keep it simple to get the point across. What works? What doesn't? It was time to try and find out.

I came up with this:
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Thank God I always carry a Sharpie in my bag. I tried to be creative, but not too long-winded. I wanted to play the sympathy card. Then I stood on the side of the entrance, at the heart of the hordes coming to the game. At first, it was very awkward. I was that guy. I was begging. And everyone was looking at me. So many people streaming by, making uncomfortable eye-contact with me. They would read the sign, then read me - or the opposite way. I put on a smile, but kept quiet, letting the sign do the work. After 20 minutes of nods, smiles, shoulder shrugs and blank stares, two policemen made there way over to me. I was nervous. Is this type of soliciting illegal in Australia? Was I in a restricted area? Uh-oh... They read the sign themselves and laughed. They thought it was a great idea! We made small talk, one on each side of me with their fluorescent green vests over their navy uniforms and their checkered caps. I was drawing even more attention from the crowds now. The cops even started asking people for tickets for me. What chums! But to no avail. They wished me luck and continued their rounds.

Time kept ticking and the people started thining. I had given a solid effort, I thought, and was about to call it a night when I felt a tap on the shoulder from behind. I turned to see a jolly 40-something year old man. "We have an extra ticket, would you like to go to the game with us?" "Yes, yes I would!" John had come through. John and his mom, Caroline - an avid AFL enthusiest, were on their way into the stadium when they passed me and my sign, gave a quick thought and decided to share the experience. John's wife was pregnant and due any day now, so she stayed home while I got to go to the game. I love their dedication.

I was grinning from ear to ear as we headed through the member's entrance, into the stadium and to our seats. 45,000 seats were packed full that night. After introductions, I slipped out to buy a round of beers and grab a bite to eat. The lines were long throughout the concrete corridor. I ordered a 'Subi Burger' and hot chips and then hopped into another line for the beers. No worries though, I was at the big game with big John and mom, soon to be grubbing on stadium food, sipping on a cold one and taking in my first Footy game. Life was good.

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The game was fast paced and high scoring. I was a bundle of questions and tried not to interupt all of the hootin'-n-hollerin' with my querries. John and mom were seated to my right and another die-hard sat on my left. Between the two sides, I was a certified expert by game's end. The energy was constant. But when it was all said and done, the Dockers had come up with the short end of the anchor. Every ball bounced Hawthorn's way as the Hawks won 65-87.

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One of the most interesting things I learned, was that Fremantle, a relatively new club, cannot use the word 'Dockers' on their uniforms or any of their merchandise. A little company by the name of Levi's owns all rights and branding of the word. Someone in research marketing didn't do their homework.

The day and the mission was now complete. I had figured out a way to get into sold out Subiaco Stadium, made friends with Footy Fanatics and witnessed my first game at 'The Home of Football' - it was a good day and a good way to start my stay in Perth.

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Posted by triptime 22:06 Archived in Australia Tagged events Comments (0)

On the Road (again)

by Izzy

sunny 66 °F
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

I received the final word while in Byron Bay. Confirmation came on Friday that Monday it would begin, right after my night bus pulled into Sydney at 9:25am.

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Byron Bay is a distant cousin to that of my old stomping grounds in San Diego - the bro-dude life style with beautiful people everywhere. It was nice just being. Just mincing around, following the sun throughout the day. I even caught a couple of waves, struggling to remember what it was like. I almost felt 22 again. Then it was back on the all-to-familiar night bus, jammed in this time. I was next to a smoker and his nagging cough. He smelled smoky and I had the aisle seat. Each mid-night stop, he puffed and puffed and then coughed and coughed. Cause and effect, makes perfect sense. I took the opportunity during one break to down a chocolate milk, like back in grade school, and then took pictures of the Giant Prawn that loomed over the station. There are a collection of these 'Giants' along-side the Australian roadways. From oversized crustaceans to exotic fruits to the enlarged and endangered Cassowary, Australia likes big. Anything to sell a few more postcards.

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The best part of an awful overnight experience is that it will end. Thirteen and a half hours later it finally did. Now I was warmed up, now I was ready for a road trip.

The bus was on time, but Priscilla was a few minutes late - not bad though, for a girl. I threw my bags in the back of the Pajero and we were off. Except, we had no directions. I being the out-of-towner was under the assumption that the local would have that department under control. Wow. I needed a coffee - I mean a flat white. This was going to be interesting. (Note: For the record, Priscilla was in her road-tripping outfit and kindly asked not to be photographed during this portion of our adventure.)

I got my flat white and a cinnamon swirl, Priscilla grabbed a few waters and the Pajero got some petrol. I will never forget how overly nice and shining the lady was that made my coffee - unbelievably gleaming. I needed her energy. Ten minutes down the road, we were lost, still in Sydney. "Priscilla, don't you live here?" We followed our noses and ended up on the M4 Western Motorway. This seemed fishy to me, heading west to go south. I tried to just sit back and relax, enjoy the open road during day light and enjoy the company of a friend. At 10:19am, we pull off and into Peders Suspension. Under the snorting bull sign, two mechanics were conversing about shocks, struts, grease and stuff. Priscilla got out and did her best damsel in distress bit while I sipped from my sippy-cup. She had them repeat the directions to me. "Get back on the M4 - then a few k's down, exit Cumberland..." 10-4 good buddy.

10:28am. We pull off again. We were not focussed. We never saw a Cumberland and now we were at a gas station persuading a man in a suit to help us out. He got out his MAP. What a concept. Being the visual learners that we are, we were soon vrooming down the 31 Hume Freeway - Melbourne or bust!

If you know me, you know I love a good road trip. Windows down, music up, soaking in the landscape. It is also a great way to get to know someone, forced to confinement and hopefully contentment. Priscilla and I knew each other, but really only on a social basis. We got to talk. Being a friend of Marisa's, Priscilla was all questions about our ever-changing story. It was so nice to be able to talk about Marisa. I opened up and shared feelings I rarely get to express while on the road with strangers. It was heartening. Marisa is always on my mind. It was the best part of the day.

Tom Petty was singing about the Great Wide Open and we were literally driving through the wide-open, brown, rolling plains of New South Wales, spotted with occassional gum trees and sheep. At 12:42pm, it was time for a pee break, but the exit we exited was worthless. "Should I just get out and go here?" questioned the captain. "But what if there's snakes?" Back on the freeway we went. Next service station was a brief 39km away in Yass.

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One of my favorite things about road trips is eating all the junk food you normally wouldn't eat. Road trips justify the need for jerky stix and big gulps, for greasy diner foods and anything chocolate. For lunch, I had a bacon, egg and cheese burger, hot chips, capachino and a glazed donut. Back on the road, we munched on gummie bears and chocolate caramels. The sugar high lasted the remainder of the trip.

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At five hours in, I got my big shot. I got to saddle up and take the wheel. It was like being called in from the bull pen to finish the game, but as a middle-reliever. I was a bit nervous. "Left, left, stay left..." I constantly repeated to myself. A few minutes in, I was making my first pass. Then at the next little town, I successfully completed my first turn-about. Nothing to this. As I plodded along, Priscilla slipped into Blackberry mode and I was left taking in the scenery. I passed numerous signs pointing towards the town of Wagga Wagga, crossed over Bilabong Creek, chuckled at Kuala crossings and pitied kangaroos 'sleeping' right next to the road. The radio was in-and-out, but I did catch a commercial disturbingly asking its listeners... "Does the thought of sex make you cringe?'' Followed by the number, 1-800-953-double 'Ohhh'-1. I guess they had the remedy. Where was Priscilla taking me???

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I got us within the city limits, but was frantic to try my luck downtown. In proper road trip fashion, while on the exit ramp of Docklands Drive, Priscilla made an executive decision and called for the chinese fire-drill. The light was green and I didn't believe her until she was half-way around the back. I followed suite. Eleven memorable road hours had come to an end. We had made it Melbourne. And to finish things off right, we hit up a local burger joint where I proudly ordered the 'Double-Double Happiness' - the burger of the week. We ate our dripping delights in the car. Success!

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PS- Melbourne was rad. It had the grit and grime that Sydney washed away. I met some locals, was treated to amazing French meals courtesy of Priscilla's sister's restaurant (spoiled, I know), chatted it up with her mom, met the guys from Travellerspoint.com (based in Melbourne) and felt like I got an honest feel for this cultural conglomerate. Thanks to all!

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Posted by triptime 08:48 Archived in Australia Tagged transportation Comments (0)

A Confusing Cup of Joe

by Izzy


View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

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"Yes, can I get a coffee please?" The barista nods and answers, "What kind?" I continue with, "A regular." She shows concern on her face and a bit impatiently repeats, "No, what kind of coffee do you want?"

Now I foolishly thought that we Americans were the coffee consuming experts on this planet. Always starting off the day with a fresh pot or a stop-off at our favorite cafe before hitting the old office. Then taking the mid-morning break, refilling the cup or thermos to ensure productivity and longevity. So naive am I. I was dealing with experts down here. No one in a civilized culture drinks the dreaded drip-coffee. Who would be so low on the proverbial food chain to openly sip filtered coffee? Americans of course. And that is what I was looking for when I went into this so-called coffee shop. I was looking for MY coffee, just like McDonalds brews it - premium roast!

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The tension was mounting. I felt like I was under the gun to make a decision, but I didn't know which way to go. Then her head began to turn as she raised her finger to the board above the side counter. Options. And lots of them. The chalked sign neatly and creatively listed the following: Short Black, Long Black, Flat White, Chai Latte, Cappuccino. and Mocha. Now I'm not an idiot. I have heard of, thanks to Starbucks' world domination (minus Australia - not one to be found!) the frothy foo-foo drinks towards the bottom, but where was the simple option of 'coffee'? The problem was they were all coffee and I needed to make a decision before the four middle-aged ladies behind me with over-sized sunglasses, and little dogs tied up outside, got impatient.

"Uh, uh, ummm... I'll have a flat white!?" I felt relieved and curious. What was I ordering? I took a number from the counter and found a stool near the window to sit. While waiting for my 'coffee' I continued to examine the board of options. All of the prices were basically the same no matter which option you went with. This was coffee made from premium beans, ground on location and served to order. I felt out of my league here.

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The flat white arrived with wonderful presentation. From what I could tell, the foamy milk-based brew came with a slight dashing of cinnamon, giving it a decorative and distinguished look. Well, while in Rome, do as the Romans. I took a healthy sip and went right after it, pulling away from the cup lip with a mustache full of froth. Delicious! Eureka, they are on to something here! Mikey likes it.

Now invested in the Down Under coffee connection, I have tried each from the list. I have learned that all coffees are based on the finest grade of espresso, or so they say. A long black is a shot of espresso with water added to give more volume, the short black, a pure shot of espresso coming in a small sippy-cup and finally the flat white consisting of a shot of espresso with a healthy helping of swirled and heated milk, providing a tad less foam than your typical cappuccino.

Enough already.

This was all way too much information and aggravation for a guy that just wanted a coffee!

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Posted by triptime 23:29 Archived in Australia Tagged food Comments (2)

SYD

by Izzy

sunny 73 °F
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.


I was crashed-out in Auckland awaiting my upcoming flight to Australia. I checked my email account... I had mail. There was an email from one of my best friends, old house (and apartment) mate and confidant - the "Chef" Pat McGuire. The subject read: "dude!" I could tell already that this was good news. I clicked... "I got a present for you! It comes in the form of two of the raddest Aussies of all time. They live in Sydney and have agreed to have you live with them for as long as you want, and show you around and take care of you and all that stuff!" Pat, you the man. I read on..."You will love these girls, they are so fun and funny and kind and love to travel. They spent a few weeks in the states on a sightseeing fun tour. They are 28 (Sophie) and 27 (Paulie). Are you going to Sydney? If you changed your trip, you should change it back so you can go there. Give me the word and I'll put you in touch!" It's not everyday that I get emails like this.

For the back story, Pat was invited out on the town by a friend that was hosting the Aussie duo in LA a week or so earlier. After a little of this, some of that and a car-towing later, everyone was best-friends and Pat had managed to mention his old buddy Izzy out in the world needing some help. He caught them at a weak moment and then held them to their word. Linguistic blackmail. I'll take it.

Not long after, our friend Priscilla (an OZ native moved to LA and then back to OZ) insisted on picking me up at the airport and showing me around - a proper introduction to Sydney. This was too easy! I hadn't even reached the island and I had ladies lined up. Sorry Marisa, but that's just how it was... you understand, right?

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Smooth as a baby's butt, I landed in SYD, was swooped up by Priscilla and into the city. Trying to take it in and talking all the way, we landed at a bar in Paddington. It was Friday and 5:00pm. Beer thirty. After downing a vegie pizza (she is Marisa's friend first) and sucking down a cold Coopers, we were joined by some more of her mates. I was now christened.

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As the evening ended, we made the switch. I was dropped off at the stoop of Sophie's place. Sophie was there to greet me. Hugs all around. I truly felt welcomed and quickly made myself at home in her Manly neighborhood apartment, up top with a view stretching to the bay.

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Backpacker turned tourist, I took the ferry to the heart of touristville - The Circular Quay. As the ferry chugged around Port Jackson and into the Sydney Harbour, everyone flocked to the deck, camera in-hand. The weather was picture perfect and the setting was stellar. I snapped and snapped. Once docked, I walked amungst the ant-like crowds toward the World Heritage Sydney Opera House, the icon of the city. I'll admit, it was pretty cool. Every angle offered a new view, a new vantage point, another picture. I later learned that the iconic sails of the house were not originally intended to be sails at all - mimicking the numerous vessels in and out of the harbour - but coincidentally merely sections of spheres, a play on geometry that suited the architect's (Jorn Utzon) fancy. I snapped and snapped some more.

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The Harbour Bridge in the background, The Royal Botanic Gardens in the foreground and the Sydney Harbour wrapping all around, it is and was fantasically aesthetically pleasing. This was why heaps of tourists make there way to Sydney, for the post-card experience. After a five day intensive, I can now declare Sydney as the most beautiful metropolis (at nearly 5 million) in the world. Visually pleasing, easy to access, clean as a whistle and plenty of 'tourist' friendly services - what more would an overseas visitor want?

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But Sydney was missing some grime, some grit, the dirt that makes a place buzz in the streets and hiss down the back-alleys. It was too clean, too nice. There were areas that made an attempt, but I feel Sydney plays favorites to the international arrivals, the financially comfortable and the business-like blokes that fill its streets. And rightfully so. Sydney works on all cylinders and is a must stop while in the neighborhood, so to say. And I haven't even mentioned the beaches...

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Thanks again to the ladies of Sydney that took care of me. Sophie, I won't hold your flu-related, jet-lagged, partied-out exhaustion against you - it happens to the best of us. At least it wasn't contagious. I owe you one. And Priscilla, ha! Sydney was just our appetizer, there was a road-trip still to come!

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Yes, there are more if you'd like:
http://s427.photobucket.com/albums/pp359/triptimephotos/TripTime/Sydney/?albumview=slideshow

Posted by triptime 06:39 Archived in Australia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Glenorchy

by Izzy

all seasons in one day
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

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Glenorchy... gateway to Paradise.
Paradise... even smaller than Glenorchy.

Glenorchy... a hamlet hanging outside Queenstown.
Queenstown... where people escape to Glenorchy.

Glenorchy... across the lake from Kinloch.
Kinloch... access to another paradise.

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Glenorchy. Population 300. Not much to it, but it works. It works because it knows its role in the grand scheme of things.

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I dropped my over-abundant bags on the ground just past the turnabout leaving Queenstown. In order to save a buck or two (in this case $20), I threw out my thumb for another go at hitching. It was a beautiful autumn day and within twenty minutes, I was crammed in the back of a station-wagon, ridding along with two other American blokes heading to Glenorchy.

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I spent almost two weeks in this area. Most of those days were spent on the trails that spindle off from the Glenorchy hub. Some of the best tramps in all-the-land are accessible from this blip on the map. That's the role of Glenorchy (playing host to the Routeburn, Greenstone/Caples and Rees/Dart tracks). But for the days I spent, camped out at the all-in-one holiday park, I enjoyed my time meandering the five or six streets of town, entranced with its simplicity, its old-school appeal and quaint (I mean quaint) little buildings of yester-year.

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It also helps that Glenorchy sits on the beautiful Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by mountains that remind you of the Coor's Light logo. This was my kind of place. I was happy here. I got to be a mountain man. This was the New Zealand I had pictured in my mind and was trying to find. Nature, in all its splendor, was at the doorstep of Glenorchy and I was there to greet it!

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Posted by triptime 03:23 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Hut Life

by Izzy

all seasons in one day
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

The New Zealand Underground does not consist of an immigrant mafia, a foreign cartel or basement-dwelling, rum-running speakeasies. In this land of lamb, back-country huts host New Zealand's version of the 'underground railroad,' providing shelter, comfort and a meeting place for the diversity of trampers that turn up nightly. There is a whole culture that exists out in the bush, up in the alpine or down in the glacial-carved valley. This is the culture I dived into, the culture that I was looking for and the culture I learned from while in NZ (pronounced 'En-Zed'). I was leading the life of a tramper. These were the days of my Hut Life.

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Options
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New Zealand is criss-crossed with trails, routes and Great Walks (nine hyped, referred and diversified tramps that take the cake - and make you pay for it too). I tried a few of each. And throughout these tramps, there are huts, lots of huts - almost 1,000 in total - which are built and maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC). They range from the 50-bunk resorts with running water, lights, gas cookers and heater, flush toilets, hut-warden quarters (making weather updates available), stainless steel counter tops, tables and benches to the much simpler four-walled, four-bunk shanty - just enough to keep the elements out and the possums at bay (if you're lucky).

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The cost for these huts range from the steep $45NZD a night for the luxury of a Great Walk hut to $0 for the tin-roofed tent two days from nowhere, just down from the saddle and across the ridge line. After completing the Tongariro Circuit and Able Tasman Coastal Track (both Great Walks), I wised up and purchased my back-country hut pass (6 month pass for $60NZD), my pass to the land of trampers, trappers, hunters and others like me. This pass allowed me access to almost all huts outside of those on the Great Walks. I paid off my pass on my next excursion and no longer had to tote my tent on the trail.

Back-Country
There was nothing better than walking into a DOC office and looking at the grand maps of the area. Looking for the trails less traveled, figuring out time tables, routes, elevation and anything else that would aid in the tramp. Nelson Lakes National Park is and was one of the best places to go and explore - unlimited options that could be strung together to form an overnight get-away to a two week intensive that dropped you out at Arthur's Pass, some 160+ kilometers (over a hundred miles) as a crow flies. You could go get lost. And people did. While I was there, each time I introduced myself to other hikers and hut-goers as "from the States," many would then take a look at my feet to see if I was wearing Nike shoes. This was not because they were interested in my choice of footwear, but because a young American male was missing (for several weeks) and was last scene wearing Nike's.

You heard stories like this. People lost, hiking in conditions they shouldn't, choosing routes outside of their experience level, making bad decisions when confronted with the power of Mother Nature - and with these stories came a lot of troubling outcomes. These stories made me think twice, these stories made me do my homework before starting and these stories kept me 'using good judgment' along the way.

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In Nelson Lakes, I was hiking with Gerald the German (from a previous blog) for the first two days. We moved at an amazingly quick pace. On the first day up Robert Ridge and on to the majestic setting of Angelus Hut, the DOC signs and information said to plan on 6-7 hours... we were there in just over four. This was one of my favorite days of hiking. For an hour, we walked straight up with almost no shade, but was compensated with amazing views of the lakes. After we hit the ridge, we were in a different realm, an alpine area that stretched on forever in all directions. At one point, I counted seven different ridge lines and valleys extending off to the horizon. The trail was constantly rolling up and down over boulder fields and peaks, while vivid blue-green mountain streams and lakes found their homes in nooks and pockets below. As a bonus, that night we were treated to a still and colorful sunset over the lake next to the hut. And once the sky went dark, a heavy fog rolled in from nowhere and covered camp until the sun burnt it off the following morning.

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A lot of people hike to Angelus Hut. Its combination of accessibility and setting make it a must do in the area. But from there, we went off the beaten track, and followed a route up to the peak of Angelus Mountain 2075 meters) and then over the saddle to the optimistically ironic Hopeless Hut. The difference between a route and a trail is that routes are not marked or maintained by the DOC. We were told to follow the rock cairns (stacks of rocks leading the way) by fellow trampers. This made hiking that day a lot more interesting. We had to always be looking ahead, picking the best lines and choosing our paths accordingly. We made it to the summit by noon and spent an hour talking with the four others already there. Of those four, was the famous outdoor photographer of New Zealand, Craig Potton (http://www.craigpotton.co.nz/). I listened while Gerald and the two Israelis talked to him about shooting in places like this, snapping photos and making adjustments on their expensive camera gear. Mr. Potton was working, he was at the office, punching his own special time-clock. The tramping dream job.

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The rest of the afternoon was secluded scree slopes and boulder fields. Sliding, stumbling and scratching our way to Hopeless. It was farther than we had thought and my shoes had taken a beating, but with each strenuous day comes the relaxation of night. Hopeless Hut was heartening. And it also had history. This hut had been opened by the man, the myth, the legend - Sir Edmund Hillary: The First Man to Climb Everest.

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There is nothing better than taking off your shoes and socks, airing out your feet and putting your pack down at the end of a day. The simple things in life become appreciated again. Instant noodles and potato mash, maybe some dehydrated peas or beans and some salt and pepper (if your lucky or remembered) was something that I looked forward to, something I thought about throughout the day. That night in Hopeless, six of us sat around an old 'Cooker' wood-burner drying out damp clothes, sipping down warm tea, listening to the wind whistling, sharing stories from the past and wondering who would be the next to fetch the water from the nearby river. I slept like a log that night.

Back-Country Folk
Each night you are brought together by the trail.

There were days that I had hiked for eights hours by myself, dripping in sweat and covered in blobs of suntan lotion from the exposed hillsides. There were days that I hiked with a friend through the cover of trees and over their slick roots and surrounding rocks - landing me on my ass once or twice. And there were times that it rained for hours on end. Those were the days that I remember best. No one likes being cold and wet. But sometimes there is no choice and once that choice has been made, I found myself in the shoes of an ornery six year old, looking for the puddles, the pools of water to jump in to see how far I could make the water splash. It was a form of entertainment I guess, something to look forward to when the hut still seemed so far away. I also found that I moved much faster on the days it rained. No picture stops, no rest breaks really, because once I stopped moving I got cold.

It had been a long first day on the Rees Track. There was a constant rain soaking the valley and everything in it. The rivers were rising, the pastures were bogged in spots up to my knees and the cow patties from my fellow grazers were starting to mix with the mud. Then there was a steady climb. And as the fifth hour of hauling my drenched self and belongings along, my head rose as my nose picked up the smell of the stove. It was a smell that was familiar, but from my childhood. Coal. The hut was now just across the way, marked easily with the dark smoke escaping from the black pipe poking through the roof. Someone had already made it to the hut and started a fire. The day got brighter from that point. Being cold and wet no longer mattered, because the rest of the night was going to be spent in the cozy confines of a hut - with complete strangers.

Huts are communal by design. And with this simple design, everyone shares - not because they are forced to, but because that is how communities function. Out there, I was part of this sub-culture, this greater hut community. Hut goers share food when they have extra, break open their first-aid kit to patch up a cut or provide pain relievers for those nagging injuries. They supply information and experience to those needing it. They pack candles to ensure light past sunset. They carry cards to add entertainment. Hut goers are good people.

I was on day three of the Greenstone/Caples track and heading up and over the saddle. It was raining even before I woke up. No one else from the hut was heading that direction. It was a lonely and intimidating hike. Within an hour I reached a bog that had no alternate route around and decided to walk along an underwater log to cross the deeper section. Three-quarters of the way across, I slipped and went waist deep into mud and murky water. It was hard to move and as I pulled myself out, my mind started racing about the possibilities of being stuck out there for the night - wet and dangerously cold. I knew I was the only way heading in that direction and most likely, because of the rain and steep decent, no one was to be coming from the other side. I became very aware of my surroundings and took extreme caution with each step and decision. I sang out-loud to keep my spirits up and to pass the time, making up songs and verses that I could never reproduce again. There was no one to judge. When I reached the hut that day, I was greeted by a bloody dear head sitting next to the outside sink and doorway. I had never been happier to see such a sight.

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Ed and his son George were natives out for a bonding experience. A day earlier George bagged his first ever dear. They had come in on a heli(copter) and would be leaving the same way in a few more days. Ed soon after got the fire going while others wondered in from the trail from the other valley. He was an outdoor professional, guiding both fishing and hunting excursions throughout the South Island. He showed me a simple fire-starting technique, using a piece rubber from a bicycle tire. I will now carry a strip of tire in my survival kit - rubber will burn even if it's wet. That night, George proudly shared slices of his fresh venison with the eight of us hut goers. It was like having a five star steak dinner. The generosity was greatly appreciated by all.

During my time on the Rees/Dart track, I was befriended by Kiwis Dave and Bain. These guys were hard-core adventure racers. They have biked, hiked, paddled and raced all over New Zealand. This was not their first rodeo by a long shot. Towards the end of the hike, they realized I was running low on food and gladly gave me pumpernickel bread and cheddar cheese. They even offered to throw in some vegemite (a down-under condiment of concern) and I graciously declined. Another good German, Markus, picked me up at strenuous Cascade Saddle with multiple sections of chocolate dripping with caramel. These simple gestures and their companionship on the trail made all the difference in my moral.

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On the third day of my Nelson Lakes NP adventure, I arrived at my next hut early in the afternoon to find a bow hunter (Jade), his seven year old son (Jordy) and his mate, a trapper (Buck). I am not making this up. If West Virginia exists in New Zealand, they were from there. A bit back-woods in the back-country, these three kept me entertained with their local political, educational and parental stances. Jade only has Jordy for two days a week, mom has him the rest of the time, and he was attempting to toughen him up. Jordy and I explored the golden high-grassed delta area following rabbit trails in search of their holes. Jordy was set on bagging himself a rabbit. Jade showed him how to make a snare and once we had settled on a few locations, he helped Jordy set the trap. While we were off doing that, Buck was strategically placing nine possum traps. The rest of the time, Buck was catching up on lost sleep in between chain-smoking sessions. All three came up empty. No deer, no rabbit, no possum. But they did share some sausage links in the morning during breakfast and Jordy left me with with one of the finest quotes of insight I had ever heard.

"Do you know why people sneeze? Well it's because sometimes when you breathe, things - like bits of dirt - get stuck on the dingly in the back of your mouth and a booger forms. Then it tickles. Then you sneeze!"

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One night I was up talking about religion with a mom. Everyone else had gone to sleep and we were having a heart-to-heart. Then the hut warden came in and told us to prepare - 15 teenage school-kids were coming up the trail with their three supervisors. The night had gone from comfortably quiet and blissful to complete madness. Then there are the snorers. There is no way to avoid this. Each hut night, there is bound to be one, and you just hope you are tired enough to sleep through it. I always carried ear plugs. But not even ear plugs were enough from keeping me, and the rest, up for hours the night the keas invaded. The kea is a large indigenous mountain parrot who curiously roam the skies of the alpine areas of the South Island. These birds are the clowns and pranksters of the avian world. They are intrigued with trampers and mischievously investigate anything left alone. And that night, from 4:00am on, a crew of 10-12 keas pecked, scraped and slid on the tin roof - cackling and partying at our expense. They were having a ridiculous amount of fun and sleep was not on their agenda.

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I always carried a book for times when the hut was quiet, usually early in the afternoon or just before bed. But most of the the time was filled in conversation, or listening in on others. And when worldly news, weather and equipment talks ran low, there was always time to fit in a card game or two. A couple Israelis introduced me to Yaniv. It became the hut game-of-choice and I spread it like the swine flu. It's a combination of Rummy and Uno, but with a Hebrew twist. I lost every round that first night, but became Yaniv savvy by the end of my hut tour. Cards could be used as the universal language, a common denominator between barriers. And it was fun.

In Conclusion
There is no single demographic to describe hut goers. They range in age, race, religion, body type and nationality. Some come for exercise, others for the sense of accomplishment. Some bring the family and others go-it alone. There are those that are gadget and gear loaded and those that minimize to the extent of sawing their toothbrush in half. But when I asked fellow trampers why they do this, no one had a straight forward answer. So then I turned the question on me. I did this, I tramped for 27 days, I slept in 13 different huts with over 100 strangers, I carried 35 pounds of necessary life on my back for over 350 kilometers during five multi-day tramps and four day hikes, I drank from streams and lakes, I ate more than 60 granola bars and consumed scoops upon scoops of powdered milk mixed with water, I went without showering for up to six days at a time, I 'forgot' to shave for two months and I made many life-long friends and contacts because I enjoyed being outside. I also enjoyed pushing myself, enduring the elements and completing a track. I loved learning from those out there that knew more than me and sharing with those who knew less. I tramped because of the lifestyle it breeds and the community it attracts. I guess there is no simple answer, but I do know that I can't wait to get back out there, back to the Underground, back to Hut Life. Another trip to New Zealand will ensue.

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Posted by triptime 18:02 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

134 Meters to the Bottom

by Izzy

sunny 59 °F
View Izzy's Travel Itinerary on triptime's travel map.

I started seriously thinking about it two days before my jump. I was still out on the trail hiking through the Dart Valley. It has been on my list since a list existed. I have passed up other opportunities until now. New Zealand is its birthplace so it only seemed fitting to make my initial jump here.

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It went like this. I came out of the woods, hitched a ride with two middle-aged tramping-mothers into Queenstown, booked a hostel and then booked my jump. It was non-refundable.

AJ Hackett has created an empire. The bungy guru now has jumps in New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia and his biggest creation dangles from the Macau Tower in China – a quick ferry boat away from Hong Kong, a future destination of mine.

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I was now standing on site at the third biggest bungy jump in the world – 134 meters (440 feet for those who are bad at math). It was a crisp-clear day, 10:30 in the morning and time for jumping. We weighed in for a second time (69kg), were given our tickets and directed to the viewing platform. Next, a quick pep-talk followed by some bungy humor and then our jump order. I would be the 9th to jump out of 12 for our hour block.

Scared? Nope. Anxious? Yep.

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I had those pre-game jitters. I miss those jitters.

This was not my first jump. Back in 2003, I jumped from 13,000 feet out of a perfectly good plane while on a date. This was different though. I wasn’t on a date.

Only six at a time could ride the cable car out to the launch platform. So I watched a half-dozen thrill-seekers inch, fall, lean or attempt to jump. Most could not sync their body and mind in this decision. One guy next to me said that he had been out there earlier; he had bungeed before, but never from this height. He got to the edge and turned around. That was an expensive ‘NO!’ at a ripe $240NZD (around $140USD). He just couldn’t do it.

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Time was moving slow. But I did reach the platform. Music was pumping… something by the Beastie Boys, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the song. I was taking it all in. My senses were buzzing. Part of the floor and the bench where you sit to have your ankle straps strapped on were made of clear Plexiglas, enabling you to see all the way to the riverbed. Crew members were talking over the tunes, jumpers paced about, camera flashes flashed and the bitter breeze from the canyon plowed through the open side of the platform. “5-4-3-2-1…” And another ‘jump.’

Next up, me.

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My harness was secured back on land and now while sitting in the on-deck chair, all the clips and carabineers clicked as they connected everything from my ankles to waist together. It looked like they had done this before. Time sped up – slow motion was over. ‘Cling, cling, click, click’ … “Do this, pull that… and don’t forget to yell!”

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I waddled to the edge of the platform. I took my time. They counted down but I didn’t jump right away. I wanted to take it all in. I paid good money for this experience – I didn’t want to feel rushed. Then once the tingling started in my knees, I took a deep breath, raised my arms and jumped as far as I could straight out.

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Gravity took me from there. Head first, I plummeted towards the river, beard blowing in the wind. It took a second or two to remember to yell, but once I did, I was no longer tense – free falling at its finest! I smiled the entire time.

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There was no jerk. No whip-lashing affect. It was smooth sailing. And as the river appeared closer and closer, there was still a good 40 feet or so to go when the tension of the bungy reached its max and I began to spring back up. On the second bounce back, I pulled a release chord, unhooking my feet and sitting me upright in my harness. Success.

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I gave a few cracking claps with my hands and let out one more good grunt, which echoed against the canyon walls. The view on the way up was as good as it was on the way down, but quieter and slower.

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All done, mission complete. As the crew pulled me back in to the platform, they asked, “How was it?” “Rad,” I said, “If I could do this every morning, I’d never drink coffee again.” The adrenaline lasted for another hour and my smirk stayed on for the remainder of the day. Anyone for the Macau Tower?

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Posted by triptime 00:22 Archived in New Zealand Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

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