South Island New Zealand For Christmas

For Christmas and New Years we headed to New Zealand for 12 days of fun-filled-camper-van-exploration of the South Island.  On December 22nd we boarded a Virgin Airlines plane for the relatively short hop across the Tasman Sea. After a mere 3 hours we landed in our 30th country and set off to enjoy our first stop – Christchurch.

Our hotel in Christchurch was surrounded by beautiful flower gardens and even a moat running through the gardens. We would enjoy the flower gardens later, as we wanted to check out Christchurch before it got too dark. Downtown Christchurch was a city in progress. In 2011 a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the city.  Walking around the city center the signs of the destruction are still apparent 6 years later. However in the aftermath and rebuilding, the city is reinventing itself with numerous new buildings and public spaces. We strolled along the river, enjoying the public art and performances and had a wonderful dinner before heading back to hotel to relax.

The next day we headed back to the airport to pick up our camper-van from Spaceship Rentals. The van was a sleek Toyota minivan that had the rear seats removed to make room for storage bins, a refrigerator and a bed with a luxurious 4 inch thick mattress – much more comfort than our normal backpacking inflatable mats.  Before driving off in the aptly named, Bugs Bunny van, the rental company discovered that Todd had never gotten an Australian drivers license and he had to sign multiple waivers and acknowledgements that he could drive on the left-hand side of the road (Kelly of course had not been as stubborn as Todd and quickly flashed her Australian license to avoid the extra paper work!)

We loaded our clothes and gear into the van and left Christchurch behind us. We headed inland toward the mountains. After a winding drive through the mountains, we arrived at Lake Tekapo, where we would spend our first night in Bugs.  We checked in, parked the van and decided to stretch our legs with a nice uphill hike to an observatory that was perched on the mountains overlooking Lake Tekapo.  The hike up was steep and we were rewarded with sweeping views of the valley and lake. We scampered around on the top with the grazing sheep for a bit and then headed down to enjoy a hearty dinner of freeze dried chicken curry. Following dinner, we walked down to the lake shore and watched the setting sun glimmer across the water.  We spent a comfortable evening in the van; it was surprisingly roomy and we slept soundly even though we were surrounded by at least 50 other camper vans.

The next morning we showered, had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and headed off to Mt. Cook National Park.  Mt. Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3724 meters (12,217 feet). Once in the park area, we decided to hike out toward Mt. Cook through the Hooker Valley. The trail snaked along the valley floor crossing the river vía multiple suspension bridges. We hiked along, enjoying the rushing river and scenic vistas of the surrounding mountains. At the end of the hour-long hike we rewarded with a lake-front view of Cook Glacier with its namesake towering above. We climbed down to the lake and relaxed on the rocks to enjoy the view, while watching several ice flows that had broken off from the glacier and were floating around the lake. Following the rest along the glacier front, we hiked back to the park village and enjoyed fresh salmon on a pizza.

   

After lunch, we decided to hike up the valley and to a series of small ponds – the Red Tarns. It was an hour long climb with non-stop steps and switch-backs that left us out of breath and our legs burning. Once we reached the top, the views made the steep climb worth all the effort!  We could see the entire valley and park stretched out below us. We savoured our rewarding view and wandered around the ponds that got their names from a red seaweed like plant grew in the shallow pools giving the water a reddish tint.  The quick trip down was followed by a short 20 minute drive to our next campsite along Lake Pukaki.
It was another camper van and tent park with a communal kitchen; a setup that would become familiar to us over the next week.

We cooked dinner with a kitchen full full of strangers and then decided to walk down to the lake. Little did we know that the “short” stroll to the lake would mean that we would have to climb fence, navigate a sheep pasture, ramble through a jumble of rocks and all just to get to a two inch deep section of the lake.  After dipping our toes in water that barely covered our toes, we trekked back to our site and strung out our hammock for a bit of swaying and relaxing before crawling into our van for the night.

Today was a longer drive to Queenstown. It was more spectacular New Zealand scenery, driving through mountain range after mountain range.  When we reached the top of Lindis Pass, the mountains dropped to a broad valley covered with farms and sheep ranches.
We arrived in Queenstown and were in need of a break from the driving, so we parked and strolled around the town for a bit and got some lunch. Queenstown is a very touristy town with lots of shopping that is wedged between a ski resort and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. It was drizzling rain, so we kept our driving break short and soon headed on to our home for the next two nights – Glenorchy.

The drive along Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Glenorchy was amazing. It was a winding road and around each curve was another picture perfect view of the lake and mountains. The rain had blown over, so we had a clear blue sky that was only outmatched by the sparking blue of the lake below us.  We arrived at the end of the lake where the Dart River flowed into the valley to form the Lake.  We checked in at our camper van park, Mrs. Woolly’s.

After checking out the standard communal kitchen, showers and laundry facilities, we decided to spend our Christmas Day driving the dirt road to Paradise (why not?).  We took a right at the only round-about in Glenorchy and headed toward pastures. After several kilometers of sheep and cattle, we reached Paradise. A sign, a few houses and scores of sheep and cattle greeted us – not quite the welcome to Paradise we were expecting!
We drove on a bit further just to see what was beyond Paradise and came to a low-water crossing. We decided that going beyond Paradise was not for us if it meant crossing through a river in our low-riding minivan; so we back-tracked to Glenorchy and enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner of freeze dried Moroccan lamb and freeze dried apple pie followed by doing laundry in the communal facilities. The next morning was spent finishing laundry and calling our families to wish them a Merry Christmas (since the US is a day behind us).

Following family time we decided that a long hike through the mountains was next.
We drove to the other side of the lake, parked the mini van and headed up Glacier Burn. The hike started in the trees and we were surprised that it appeared to be a rain forest as there were ferns and moss everywhere. The trail was steep and it did not take us long to realize that we no longer had our Colorado hiking-stamina.  As we crossed above tree line we encountered a boulder strewn meadow with a creek cascading down creating multiple waterfalls. We relaxed in the meadow, filtered some water for drinking and snacked on a few granola bars.  After a bit more relaxation enjoying the view and sounds of the rushing water, we made the quick down hill hike and headed to the tiny village of Kinloch. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Kinloch Lodge and then headed back to Glenorchy for the evening.

The next day was to be a long driving day, so we got up early to back-track along the lake to Queenstown. Soon after Queenstown, we left the mountains and headed out across miles of foothills covered with ranches and farmland. We drove for about two hours through endless countryside dotted with sheep, cows and deer and reached Te Anau, where we stopped for a quick lunch break before heading on to Milford Sound.
The road to Milford Sound curved and twisted up and down the mountains making the driving very slow.

When we arrived in Milford Sound, the amazing scenery made the long drive worth the effort! The towering walls of the fjord and the waterfalls plummeting down made for quite a spectacular view.  We hiked around a bit, found a swing tied up from a tree over-looking the sound and relaxed while we enjoyed the views. We then caught the last touring boat of the day and spent the rest of the day cruising the sound listening to the tour guide talk about the formation of the sound and snapping dozens of pictures of the cliffs and waterfalls.

The next day we pulled the blinds on the camper van tight and slept in a bit as we had no plans until a late afternoon kayak trip on Milford Sound.  When we finally crawled out of the van, we wandered around the area, completed a few short hikes and then headed down to the water to gear up for the kayak excursion.  We were given very stylish striped long underwear, life vests, a spray skirt and paddles. After a quick refresher on how to handle a sea kayak, which included how to use the rudder pedals and how not to capsize, we were shuttled far out into the sound with our guide and began the paddle back.

Being on the water in the kayak was the absolute best way to experience the area. We were able to get right up to the cliff walls and even went under Stirling Falls!  About half way back, our tour guide rigged a sail and we got a break from the paddling and surfed the waves while we sailed along the quiet fjord. The 4 hour trip on the water just flew by and before we knew it, we were paddling back into the harbor as the sun was setting over the cliffs.

Following a great day of paddling, we were sad to put Milford Sound behind us and head back to Queenstown.  Since we were covering the same route, our plan was to make only one stop for a hour or two hike. We selected the Key Summit hike and were rewarded with a vigorous 1.5 hour hike to the top, followed by great views as we strolled through the mountain-top meadow.

When we finally arrived in Queenstown, we pulled into our crowded camper van park and set off to explore the town a bit more. The town was full of high end shopping and mobs of tourists, so we headed to the town park that was adjacent to Lake Wakatipu. We strolled through the park, enjoying the setting sun, before heading back to the crowded campsite where we pulled out our camp chairs and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

We woke up early and quickly ran through our routine of showering, coffee and packing up. We enjoyed the drive up and out of the valley and were soon at Lake Wanaka.
We stopped for lunch, strolled around the lake and saw the Wanaka tree – a solitary tree that was about 10 feet out in the lake. The land around the tree had slowly eroded away, leaving the tree stranded in the water; making for a very picturesque viewpoint.
After watching the ducks, kayakers and paddle boarders, we drove on toward the coast and our destination for the night – Haast.

It was a beautiful drive (as are all drives in New Zealand!) with waterfalls, fern trees and mountains. We stopped at one waterfall. In addition to the spectacular falls, there were hundreds of rock cairns stacked along the rocky river shore. The different piles of rock structures created an interesting sculpture garden at the base of the waterfall and as we walked around we felt like we were waking through an exhibit from a modern art museum.
The camper van park in Haast was pretty remote, so we walked about a mile to the nearest restaurant and after dinner we hurried back to the park to crawl inside the van just as the rain hit. We spent the night relaxing and reading in the stuffy van; staying dry and warm.
It was still raining the next morning, so we rushed through our routine, trying to stay as dry as possible and headed  out on a short drive along the coast. It rained for most of the drive and was still pouring as we pulled up to the Fox Glacier.

We donned our rain gear and hiked to the face of the glacier. As we walked along the trail, we noticed the signs showing how much the glacier had receded since the 1700s – more than a mile!  The trail wound through a rain forest; presenting quite a contrast to the snowy mountain and glacier in the distance. By the time we hiked to the end of the trail, we were so drenched that Kelly’s phone, that was in her rain jacket pocket, was ruined from the water.

After the hike, we drove to our campsite and did some much needed laundry and relaxed in the van as the rain continued to soak everything.  Since it was New Year’s eve, we decided to check out the town of Franz Josef and enjoy a dinner that was not served in a bag.  After a wonderful dinner, we strolled around the sleepy town of Franz Josef and then headed back to the camper van park and crawled into the van to stay dry and were both sound asleep long before midnight.

The next morning we woke to birds chirping and no rain!  As clouds were looming in the distance we hastily cooked breakfast and headed out to the Franz Josef glacier.
It was a long walk out to the glacier with plenty of water falls cascading down the surrounding mountains.  After the hike we checked out the local hot springs and relaxed in the hot waters. We splurged and paid for our own private hot tub and room – well worth it as it got us away from the crowds and we enjoyed the relaxing soak.

The next day we drove along the coast to a small town called Okarito and hiked along the shore to a overlook from which we could see miles and miles of empty ocean.
Before heading back to the camper van park, we went for a walk along the beach amongst the boulders and watched the sunset.  Rather than eating dinner in the camper van park, we stopped by the lake on the way back and set out our camp chairs and enjoyed the great views as we ate another delicious freeze dried meal.

The next day, we drove along the coast from small town to small town. After a couple of hours we turned inland to cross back over the mountains and return to Christchurch.
We drove up the winding mountain road and stopped at the top at Arthur’s Pass. We stretched our legs with a quick hike out to the Devil’s Punchbowl, which was a stunning waterfall that dropped over 100 meters.  We hopped back in the van and finished the short drive to Christchurch and our last night in the camper van. Our camping spot was close to the airport as we had an early flight. Since we were out of freeze dried food, we called an Uber and had them drive us to a close by restaurant that we found on Google Maps. The restaurant was in a golf club that was almost completely empty; we had the restaurant almost to ourselves, watching the sunset over the lake and fairways.  After dinner we headed back to the camper van and enjoyed a rare treat – a hot shower without a timer! Taking a shower with hot water for more than 2 minutes was heavenly!

The next day we dropped off our camper van and walked about 2 miles to the airport with our backpacks for our last hike and said a sad farewell to New Zealand. It was a great trip and exploring it via a camper van is definitely the best way to see this magnificent island.

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Christmas 2017

Happy Holidays everyone!   We are sitting outside on a warm sunny December day here in Melbourne, trying to get into the Christmas spirit to write our annual holiday letter. We have had warm Christmas days in the past, but being so far from friends and family has kept us from getting into the spirit of the season and sitting down to write this is helping to get us more in the mood.

This has been our most traveled year yet! Not only did we move half way across the world to Australia, we have also visited 5 countries and explored a lot of our new home country. It’s been a great year of exploring new countries, learning about different cultures and meeting new friends.

2017 started in Cuba. We took advantage of a brief reprieve in the US/Cuba travel restrictions to do a bicycle tour of the western side of the island. We really enjoyed the perspective and interaction we had bicycling through the towns, stopping to talk with and learn about locals and their day-to-day lives. Everyone was so friendly and our tour guides were very knowledgeable; we left with a better understanding of the history and current state of the relationship between our two countries.

We came home from Cuba to the news that Todd’s company wanted to relocate us to Australia. It was a little overwhelming considering we had just moved a few months ago to the Dallas area, expecting to be there for a while. But we couldn’t say no to an opportunity to live in another country, so we ran around getting the pets ready and everything packed up and put into storage. Of course we had to do some last minute traveling to some of our favorite US cities. We hit up New York for Kelly’s birthday and then San Diego in March to visit Kelly’s friend Lucia. We also made a point of spending time with family, visiting Todd’s parents out in Jacksonville, TX and having a weekend with Kelly’s niece and nephews.

On March 22nd we put our cat and dog on a plane ahead of us, since they would have to spend 10 days in quarantine. We packed our 2 road bikes and 8 bags of mostly clothes that would be coming with us and left everything else behind as we boarded the plane for Australia on March 28th.

We quickly found a place to live in Port Melbourne that was conveniently located on the tram line, close to the beach and a block away from an off leash dog park. We both ended up working right in the CBD (central business district) within a few blocks of each other. This is a first for us; we are usually heading in opposite directions. It has totally spoiled us being able to commute together and meet for lunch most days.

  

Part of the reason they sent Todd over here was to serve as the regional compliance officer, working with high-risk areas; essentially any country where bribing and corruption are a regular occurrence. This has led him to travel all over South East Asia and of course Kelly joins him every chance she can. Together we have visited Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong. At one point, Todd spent 5 weeks in Hong Kong and Kelly joined him for 2 weeks – at the end, we were feeling like Hong Kong was our second home. Todd also made trips to the Philippines and mainland China.

Now that we are in a whole new country, we are trying to visit every Australia state. Luckily they only have 7, so we’ve been exploring them every chance we have. So far we have visited Tasmania, Victoria (where we live), New South Wales (Sydney), and Queensland (Brisbane & Cairns), where we finally dove the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, we’ve enjoyed exploring Melbourne and the surrounding area on the weekends and completely agree with the numerous surveys that rank it as one of the most liveable cities in the world.

Coming up, we have a trip planned to South Australia (Adelaide) in January for Kelly’s birthday. So then we will only have two states left – Western Australia & Northern Territory!

This year for Christmas and New Years both of our offices close down for two weeks (Australia is super focused on ensuring work/life balance). So we are off to our 29th country, New Zealand. We will be spending 10 days in a campervan (a mini van with a bed in it), exploring the South Island.

Next year we hope to have some more visitors! Todd’s parents are the only ones who have taken us up on it so far and we enjoyed showing them around our new city. We also plan to be back in the States next April/May and hope to see as many of you as we can while we are there! We are missing everyone, but Facebook and Instagram make us feel like we are keeping up with what’s going on at least a little bit.

 

Wishing you all a very Happy Holiday Season!!!

 

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Great Barrier Reef

The first time we came to Australia, 10 years ago, Todd wasn’t SCUBA certified and Kelly couldn’t justify the extra airfare to get up to the Great Barrier Reef by herself. She was frustrated to have come all that way and not be able to knock diving the Great Barrier Reef off her bucket list. So when we moved to Australia, diving the Great Barrier Reef was #1 on our to do list.

We decided to take advantage of one of Melbourne’s many sports related public holidays and we are turning a day off for the Melbourne Cup horse race (their equivilant of the Kentucky Derby) into a long weekend and heading to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef!

While researching the best SCUBA sites on the Great Barrier Reef we quickly realized either a liveaboard or flying out to a smaller island were our best options for good diving.  We opted for the liveaboard. We’ve never done a SCUBA liveaboard and when we saw that we would have the opportunity to do 12 dives over three days, we knew that was the way we wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef.

We arrived in Cairns (pronounced “cans”) after a short 3 hour flight and were surprised at the beauty that surrounded us. Looking out from our hotel you could have easily thought you were in Hawaii – tropical plants covering the mountains with lush green colours surrounded the city. Of course, this being Australia, we quickly spotted the signs warning us about crocodiles on the beach, so no swimming here. Instead of strolling along the beach, they have a lovely walkway that gives you views of the ocean, but safely away from any dangerous things in the water. They also had a large community pool you can just walk up to and jump in.

We wandered around a bit and enjoyed dinner at a Thai restaurant, overlooking the beach, and the Central Night Market where you can buy all the touristy trinkets you could ever need. Then it was off to bed, we have an early day tomorrow.

We were up and ready for our pickup at 7:30am. We were shuttled to the transfer boat, Sea Quest. We had two dives from the Sea Quest on our way out to the larger boat that would be our home for the next two nights. We were instantly struck by the colours of the coral and the quantity of fish on our dives. It was obvious that there was a lot of bleached and dead coral as well, we can only imagine how amazing it was years ago.

When we arrived on the Ocean Quest we were gathered together in the dining room and given the overview of our schedule for the next few days. Our days followed, to almost military precision, the following schedule:

5:45am – early wake up for everyone who signed up for the morning dive.
6:00am – morning dive
7:00am – breakfast
8:00am – 2nd dive
10:00am – 3rd dive
12:00pm – lunch
4:00pm -4th dive
6:00pm – Dinner
7:00pm – night dive

Each dive takes about an hour to an hour and a half by they time you go through the process of suiting up, up, listening to the briefing about the dive site, diving, and removing and cleaning equipment. With 5 dives each day, our days consisted mostly of eating and diving and then sleeping any chance we got. Scuba diving doesn’t always look like an athletic endeavour, but dragging around a large air tank and swimming to and from the designated mooring lines to begin and end our dives takes a lot out of you. The certainly fed us well to keep up our energy. Every meal was enormous and carb filled. Kelly found that she couldn’t eat that much and then immediately go diving so by the 3rd meal she was making sure to leave some food on her plate.

We really enjoyed the live aboard style of diving. They would set up in a spot and tie off to a mooring line. Then they showed us a map at the beginning of our dive and we would jump in as buddy teams; free to explore however we wanted. We also stayed at a dive site for 2-3 dives so we had multiple chances to explore different areas of the site. This suited us well, since Todd is known to run out of air before everyone else, we didn’t feel guilty ending anyone else’s dive early and we had fun exploring at our leisure.

We made a point of doing every dive offered and while we were absolutely exhausted at the end of each day, it was amazing! We saw reef sharks, turtles, eagle rays, huge parrot fish and giant clams, along with more varieties of reef fish that we can count. Every evening after dinner and before the night dive they would throw the biodegradable leftovers from dinner into the water which attracted reef sharks and fish, so that when you went for the night dive, you essentially jumped into the water right next to them (or in some cases right on top of them if you weren’t careful).

On the 3rd day after the 3rd dive of the day, it was finally time to pack up and leave. We were sad to go. We transfererd to the smaller boat and made the 1.5 hour trek back to land, we checked into our hotel in Cairns and immediately fell asleep by 5pm, thinking we would just take a quick nap and get up for dinner. We actually ended up crashing for the night, not waking until our alarm went off at 7am!

Needless to say we were nice and refreshed and ready to spend a day driving and exploring the Daintree Rainforest that is just north of Cairns and a UNESCO protected region.

The drive north of Cairns took us through sugar cane fields, along scenic coastline, and though lush rainforests. We got to drive our car on a short river ferry crossing and then entered the rainforest. To our delight we saw an endangered cassowary bird with two chicks almost as soon as we entered the park!

After several more miles of driving through the tropical preserve, we arrived at our destination, Cape Tribulation. It was a beautiful scenic beach in the midst of the rainforest region, but similar to Cairns, we were greeted every few feet by a sign reminding us of all the things waiting to try and hurt us in the water. With the numerous warnings about crocodiles and jellyfish, we limited our visit to a walk along the beach and avoided the water, but soaked in the beauty of the area around us. On the way back to Cairns we made a point of stopping at all of the scenics turnoffs and boardwalks we could, just to get out and stretch our legs a bit and enjoy the unique plants and animals this region has to offer.

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Bali

Todd had to conduct training for work in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, so we decided to enjoy a weekend in Bali, Indonesia together before he took off for two weeks.

Before taking off, we read that Mount Agung, an active volcano on the island, was rumbling, leading to travel warnings and an evacuation order for a 12 kilometer area around the volcano. Since our hotel was on the far side of the island, well outside the danger zone, we decided to continue with the trip and take our chances with the hope that the worst we might have to deal with would be flight delays due to ash clouds.

We arrived after a mere 6 hour flight (any flight less than 10 hours is short when living in Australia!) and met our driver to take us to the hotel in Legian.

We arrived early and couldn’t check in, so we relaxed by the pool, adapting to the hot and humid weather.  After checking in and getting our room assignment, we discovered that we had spacious patio over looking the pool that even had a full bathtub!

We unpacked and headed across the street for a walk along Kuta beach.  The beach was crowded with people flying kites and waiting for the sunset. We strolled along the beach, admiring the fancy and colorful kites and stopped to watch a festival with traditional local dancing. As the sun went down, we enjoyed nature’s colorful show, thankful for the opportunity to visit our 28th country.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped in at a small restaurant to grab a bite to eat and decided to sit outside and enjoy the warm weather. Little did we know that by sitting outside we were automatic targets for all of the street vendors and one young girl was particularly persistent. She must have asked us to buy her bracelets twenty times in spite of the firm ‘no’ she received in response each time.

After dinner we made the short walk back to the hotel and turned in early because we were getting up early the next day to go SCUBA diving.

The next day we were up early and ready to begin our hour long trip to the dive site. As we drove along the packed roads we were awed by the numerous Hindu shrines. As it turns out, Indonesia is predominantly Muslim; however Bali is more than 90% Hindu.

After a long drive through the narrow streets, we reached Padang Bai Beach, where we got on our traditional Indonesian outrigger canoe (equipped with a motor) and head out to sea.  Because of Mount Agung’s looming eruption, we were unable to go to the better diving spots that Bali is known for, but we were glad to get whatever diving we could.

Our first stop was to be a pier that supposedly had a considerable amount of sea-life under it living in the discarded refuse. Needless to say, the thought of diving in trash didn’t sound too appealing and thus we were happy when they chose another site!  We made two dives – one at Blue Lagoon and the other at Bias Tugal. The dives were good with lots of big coral, multitudes of fish and clear water (and no garbage!)

When we returned to the hotel, we decided to explore some of the nearby beaches and walked down to Seminyak beach where we found a multitude of colorful beanbag chairs lined up to offer the perfect spot for a refreshing drink while enjoying the setting sun. Naturally we grabbed a beanbag and enjoyed a local Bintang beer and another glorious sunset.

After relaxing on the beach, watching the sunset and kites, we headed back down the main beach road looking for a place to eat that had a few less street vendors.  We found a delightful Italian place along the beach and watched the scooters and cars become ensnarled in the nightly traffic jam.

The next day we made a last minute decision to hire a tour guide and see some of the island.  We hopped in the car with our driver and took off through the winding and crowded street.

On our way we chatted with our driver and when he discovered that Todd was in town to conduct compliance training regarding anti-bribery and corruption issues, the driver proudly proclaimed that sometimes corruption was good because if you get stopped by the police for speeding in Bali, all you had to do was give them money and they would let you go.

After learning a bit more about the cultural difference from our driver, we made it to our first stop – the Batuan Temple. It was Hindu temple that nearly a 1000 years old. We had to wear traditional clothing to enter the temple so we both put on sarongs and went off to explore the temple complex. We enjoyed the ornate carvings and the multitude of statutes of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (Hindu gods) and had the opportunity to observe a bit of a ceremony that was being held to celebrate the new moon.

Next on the tour was the Ubud Monkey Forest. The forest is actually a nature preserve and a massive temple complex that is now inhabited by hundreds of macaques romping around, begging for food and posing for pictures. We enjoyed the playful monkeys as we walked the paths through the steamy jungle, exploring the many temple sites.

We left the monkeys behind and headed for the Royal Ubud Palace, which was a smaller complex with a few ornate buildings. Unfortunately much of the compound was under construction, so we couldn’t see much of it.

Across the street from the palace was the massive main market that sprawled through several buildings and passageways. It was a maze of wood carvings, cheap souvenirs, paintings and clothing. We spent a few minutes quickly walking past the hundreds of stalls and then met our guide to head to the final stop.

The final stop of the day was the Tegalalang rice terrace.  The area was a steep valley terraced to hold rice paddies. The rice covered the steep valley and the patchwork vibrant greens created an amazing view as we hiked down winding trails. We hiked up and down the valley, enjoying the views and grateful for the opportunity to stretch our legs after sitting in the car and exploring the packed temples.

On the way back to the hotel, the traffic was so bad that we could have walked faster; however, the twisting streets were so confusing and packed with shops and people that we realized that we would never find our way back.

Once back at the hotel, we decided to walk down the beach and enjoy another sunset on a colorful beanbag chair. We relaxed and watched another spectacular Bali sunset and then headed back to the hotel to pack for our flights out the next day. Kelly was heading back to Melbourne and Todd was making a short hop to Jakarta for the first leg of his training sessions. It was a short trip, but we were grateful for the weekend getaway, the chance to check another country and not having to deal with an erupting volcano!

 

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Checking out Tazzy

To celebrate our 12th anniversary we decided to get away for a long weekend to Tasmania or as the locals call it “Tazzy”.  The options to get to Tasmania are either 12 hours by ferry or a 1 hour flight. We chose the hour flight so we would have more time to explore Australia’s island state.

Day 1:

After the short flight, we landed in Tasmania and headed to the car rental counter for our next adventure of driving on the left side of the roads.

While checking out the car, we were asked if wanted extra insurance just in case we “dinged a wallaby”.  We couldn’t help but smile and laugh at the wallaby warning, it was clear we were in uncharted territory.

Since the extra insurance would have more than doubled the cost of the car; we decided to skip the insurance and mitigate our risk by having one person driving and one on a wallaby watch at all times.

It was a short and wallaby free ride to downtown Launceston and our hotel.  After checking in, we had a quick dinner and turned in early as we had to get an early start the next day.

Day 2:

For our first day in Tasmania, we walked down to a farmers market where we had a deliciously fresh breakfast and then headed over to the main city park to see the exhibit of Japanese macaque monkeys.

We sipped our coffee and watched the macaques as some ran about and others stood by tranquilly grooming each other.

Next we decide to walk along the water front and check out the Cataract Gorge.

We strolled along the Tamar River and crossed over the wrought iron Kings Bridge and headed up the wilder tributary river, the South Esk.

As we walked along the path, the river narrowed considerably and the cliffs rose dramatically along side the path. Soon the easy-flowing river changed to a series of rock-filled rapids and the cliff walls seemed to close in around us even more. After a few more minutes along the trail, the natural walls spread apart revealing a wide basin that had a beautiful park spread out below us. As we strolled down into the basin, we passed a restaurant with peacocks strutting about and a chair lift stringing along the top of the basin.

We decided to try out the chair lift and headed up to the access point. Along our way we spotted our first wild wallabies!

Experiencing wallabies and peacocks hopping and strutting about and all in one place was definitely an unusual experience!

We jumped on the chair lift and were pulled across the gorge along what is supposedly the longest span chair lift in the world.

After we made it to the other side we hiked back across the gorge, crossing a pedestrian suspension bridge and then headed out of the gorge. We decided to have lunch at a place that had been recommended by our hotel called Penny Royal. Our first view of the area was beautiful waterfall, but then we caught a glimpse of the zip line and the pirate ship and we realized  we had been led to a tourist trap.  The cafe in the middle did look nice so we decided to go in and give it a try.

While we enjoyed our oysters and a panini, we got to watch while the pirates ship “sailed” around (it was motoring on tracks in the swimming pool sized pond) and fired its canons.  They then stopped at an “island” and did a ghost tour.  While cheesy it kept us thoroughly entertained as we ate lunch.

We made our way back to our car and set out for the Bay of Fires.

Along the way we experienced driving on the left side of the road and enjoyed the miles and miles of rolling hills dotted with sheep.

Our goal was to make it to the Bay of Fires in time to see the sunset. We timed it perfectly and arrived with about 30 minutes of sun to spare and enjoyed wandering along the beaches and the quiet beauty of the waves, rocks and fine white sand.

Tonight we are staying at the Edge of the Bay resort near the Freycinet National Park. We pulled up in the dark and found that our cabin was freezing cold, so we turned on the heaters and electric blankets to warm the cabin up and headed out to dinner, hoping that the cabin would be warm by the time we returned.

We enjoyed our dinner featuring wallaby empanadas and then headed back to the cabin.  Before turning in we stopped to gaze at the stars as it was a clear night and we were far enough away from any lights that we could see countless stars spread out above us.

It was a bit warmer in the cabin and as we settled in for the evening, we noticed a sound coming from the bathroom ceiling.  After exploring the outside and inside of the cabin we realized that we had a possum in our ceiling, enjoying the warmth we were creating.

We crawled into bed, enjoying the warmth of the electric blankets and the scratching of our friendly neighborhood possum.

    

Day 3:

The next morning we drove into the town of Coles Bay for a quick breakfast and grabbed lunch to eat on the trail – today’s plan was to hike up Mt.Amos.

We passed along the winding roads of Freycinet National Park until the road ended. After parking the car and strapping on our backpack, we set off.

The first 1/4 mile was a easy hike, but then the trail steepened and we were soon scrambling up rocks on all fours.  While Mt Amos isn’t too high, it is straight up and very steep!

After about 1.5 hours of climbing we summited and were rewarded with great views of Wine Glass Bay, Coles Bay and the rest of the Hazard Mountains. We enjoyed our lunch at the top and spectacular view of all of Freycinet National Park spread out below us.

After a scenic picnic lunch, we started our descent. After another hour of scambling and sliding down the steep and often slick rock, we made it to the car and headed back to our cabin.

Since the sun was still up when we got back, we grabbed a bottle of wine and went for a stroll along the beaches and watched the sun set over the mountains we had just climbed.

We decided to use the outside open flame grill to cook our meal at the cabin and as we sat down to enjoy our freshly grilled dinner inside, we heard a clamoring outside. We peered out the window and saw our possum had come out of our attic and was on top of the grill, licking the surface where we had recently cooked our dinner. We welcomed our dinner companion and finished off the night with a delicious meal.

  

Day 4:

The next day was a long drive to Hobart. More rolling hills filled with sheep, orchards, vineyards and stunning sea views around every turn.

We arrived in Hobart in time for lunch, which was fresh fish and chips from one of the several floating restaurants around the harbor (instead of food trucks, Hobart has food boats!)

Next was a ferry ride to MONA – Hobart’s rather unique Museum of Old and New Art. We walked around the museum not really understanding much of the art exhibits and then headed straight to the outdoor exhibit that was a trampoline. We enjoyed the setting sun, bouncing on the trampoline, sipping our wine and thinking that maybe art museums weren’t so bad after all.

Day 5:

The next day we ambled around the historic Salamanca market in Hobart, enjoyed a delicious brunch at a place called Jackman & McRoss, which was a fantastic bakery that served some of the best food we’ve had in Australia.

After lunch, we hopped in the car for the drive back to Launceston.

Along the way back, we stopped by the Bonorong Wildlife sanctuary with hopes of seeing some Tasmanian Devils. And we saw lots of them!

There were numerous exhibits of the Tasmanian Devils and we watched them scurry about and even got to see them get fed.  We also saw koalas, numerous colorful birds and dozens of kangaroos. The best part was that we were allowed to walk through the enclosure with the kangaroos and feed them. The kangaroos would hop right up to us looking for food. As we held out a hand full of food the kangaroos would grab our hands and eat all the food and then beg for more or for a good scratching on their chest.  It was amazing to be walking through the field amongst dozens of kangaroos with no barriers to separate us.

The kangaroos were all around us; begging food, lazing about and nursing their young – most would allow us to walk right up and pet them and hop away when they found we were out of food. Being so close to the kangaroos was definitely the highlight of the trip!

We finally forced ourselves to leave the kangaroos and head on to Launceston.

We arrived at our hotel after a couple hours’ drive, re-packed our bags and got ready for the flight home early the next morning. It was a great trip and a much needed break from the stress of work and finding our way in our new home of Australia.

  

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Hong Kong

Todd had quite a bit of work that kept him in Hong Kong for over a month.  After spending two weeks there, Kelly was able to join him.  Unfortunately Todd actually had to work so Kelly explored the city mostly on her own.

To start, a general overview of Hong Kong as it is a very unique place …  While it is part of the country of China, it is a special administrative region that retains some autonomy from China.  It is made up of over 250 islands and 70% of it is park land.  You have probably heard about the insanely tiny apartments they have here and when you see the limited space they have to build, most of it on recently added land mass, and the number of people that live here, it’s amazing they can make them as big as they do.  From the people we have talked to, the housing is really the only major expense.  Everything else is pretty cheap.  They have great public transportation that only costs $2 USD to get from one end of the main island to the other.  The subway system that we were using to get around had trains on every line that ran almost every minute!  That’s right, if you miss the train you only have to wait a minute or two for the next one. One lady at Todd’s office says she wouldn’t live anywhere else because for about $50 USD a month she has a full time nanny/cook/house keeper.

The weather in Hong Kong was extremely hot and humid and it was the middle of their rainy season.  Everyone seems to have umbrellas open at all time to protect them from both the sun and the rain.  Kelly took the sun for granted one day and ended up with a lovely sunburn and spent the rest of the trip in long sleeves.

Victoria Peak – the day Kelly arrived was one day in the two week forecast that didn’t have rain in it, so Kelly shook off the jet lag and took the funicular ride up to the top of Victoria Peak where you get the best views of Hong Kong.  There are several hikes down from the top if you don’t want to take the funicular back down.   Kelly chose one and meandered her way through trees and waterfalls back down to the city streets, feeling a world away from all the hustle on bustle of the city that is really not that far away.

The Central-Mid Level Escalators – Most of the businesses are along the coastline of Hong Kong and that leaves the housing spread throughout the mountainous area.  Naturally, this means almost everyone has an uphill walk home from work.  In one of the more populated and hilly areas there is a long, continuous set of escalators to move people around.  It is supposedly the longest outdoor, covered escalator and gives locals and tourist easy access to a large number of restaurants and bars, including the Monogamous Chinese restaurant that we enjoyed one night.  We used the escalators several times during our visit, it’s a great starting point if you don’t know what you want to eat for dinner.  You just ride the escalator past every type of cuisine you can think of and stop when you see something that sounds good.

Tin Tan Buddha/Lantau Island – One Sunday Todd was actually able to step away from work for an afternoon and we headed over to Lantau island to see the Big Buddha.  The island is joined with the mainland by public transport. We took the subway to the main station on Lantau and were disappointed to find out the scenic gondola ride we had hoped to take was closed for renovation (it re-opened the day after we visited ).  So instead we took a very scary 45 minute bus ride.  It felt like we were on the bus from the movie “Speed”, the bus driver did not seem to want to slow down no matter how windy the road.  When we got to our destination we jumped off and thanked Buddha we survived!

The Tin Tan Buddha is at the top of several hundred steps and when we arrived it was a rainy and overcast day and you could not see the Buddha at the top.  We trekked up to the top and wandered around in the fog, getting just small glimpses of the Buddha.  We started heading back down the steps, a little disappointed, when suddenly we hear a lot of commotion and women start dropping down and bowing in the Buddha’s direction.  We turned around and while he was still surrounded by fog, the Buddha statue was perfectly visible.  We grabbed the camera and shot a few pictures while he was still visible and a few minutes later the fog rolled back in and he disappeared again.  One woman who had been praying in front of the Buddha earlier seemed to be taking credit for the appearance, but we are pretty sure he wanted to make sure we got to see him.

Macau Island – The gambling capital of China, it’s their version of Las Vegas.   It was also a previously owned Portuguese territory.  Kelly went because of the later reason, she had been told that in the middle of Macau is a old city are that made you feel like you were walking around Europe and not Asia. After taking the ferry to Macau, Kelly jumped on a hop on/hop off bus and was quickly surrounded by casinos.  At one stop she was assured that if she walked a couple blocks past all of the casinos she would find the old city area.  Sure enough, there it was complete with tile and cobblestone walkways and catholic churches all in the style of European cities.  It was a very curious mix of Asia and Europe. Your eyes are telling you that you are in Europe and your ears and nose are telling you that you are in Asia.  Kelly stopped at a lunch place that cooked up skewers of meat in Chinese sauces and then stopped at a gelato stand for desert, just to reinforce the oddness of it all.

 

Sha Tin to Tai Mei Tuk Bike Ride – Bicycling is not a form of transport in the city of Hong Kong, which surprised us.  Someone explained it to us that because most people in Hong Kong do not drive, they never bother to get a license or learn the “rules of the road”.  Given that and the great transport and no real bicycle infrastructure, they just don’t really bother.  The further you get out into the fishing villages and away from the big city and the accessible public transport, the more biking you see.  The Sha Tin to Tai Mei Tuk is one area that is known as a great place to bike, with a paved trail that follows the cost line along the Tolo Harbour for over 60 miles.  Kelly decided to go down and check the area out.  After getting off the subway at Sha Tin, she quickly located a bike rental place and hired a bike for the day.  The trail was easy and flat and had great directional signage.  It was a sunny and hot day, so there were not a lot of other people on the trail so she relaxed and stopped as she rode along to get pictures of the small fishing villages and the beautiful mountain and water views all along the way.

Markets – One of the most colorful parts of Hong Kong are it’s many markets.  Kelly had been on the lookout for some gifts to send home to her niece and nephews, since things were so cheap.  Todd joined her for a day of marketing on the day before she left.  Together we visited the Temple Street Night Market, Ladies Market, Goldfish Market, Bird Market, and Flower Market.  Each had their own unique things for sale, and if you were good at haggling you could walk away with a lot of really cheap items.  In the end, Todd got to haggle a bit and we got a good deal on some fidget spinners for the kiddos.

Lamma Island – Todd got another day off of work and wanted to experience riding a ferry in Hong Kong (something Kelly had done several times).  So we decided to head for Lamma Island.  It is a small island that is serviced by two ferries, one at each end of the island.  This allowed us to go in one end, walk the few miles to the other and take the ferry back.  At each ferry town there are several restaurants and seafood shops that line the streets with countless tanks of fresh seafood.  Aside from the two small towns, the island is mostly wild, with a hiking path running through it for people like us.   We enjoyed the quiet and winding hike with stunning views.  We only came across a few people once we got past the main town.  We had talked to a local on the ferry on the way over.  She had smuggled her small dog onto the ferry in a baby carrier and sat next to us.  We had heard there were some beautiful beaches and had brought our swim wear with the intention of cooling off at one of the beaches along the way.  She recommended waiting until we got to a beach closer to the end of our walk, it would be prettier and emptier than the others.  She was right and after passing several very crowded beaches, we were very glad for her advice.  We enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water and dried off while sitting under some flowering trees covered in butterflies with very few other people enjoying the beach with us.

 

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Singapore Makes 25

With our move to Australia, Todd is now in charge of the Asia-Pacific region and of course everyone wants to meet him.  There were some meetings planned in several offices, so he is doing a whirlwind tour of the region and of course Kelly was not going to be left behind when she heard one of the offices was in Malaysia!

While making travel plans we realized that we had to go through Singapore and so we planned a weekend stopover in Singapore on our way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Todd had a trip to Brisbane planned first and since Kelly had already been, she opted to stay home with the pets for an extra two days before leaving them in the capable hands of a lovely pet sitter we managed to find last minute.

So Kelly left from Melbourne and Todd caught his flight in Brisbane and we both endured the 7 hour flight alone to Singapore (It’s amazing how 7 hours no longer seems like that long of a flight!).

Todd landed a little bit earlier than Kelly, allowing him to meet her at her gate as she arrived and then we both flew through customs with little fanfare and made our way to the hotel.  Because the stopover is on our bill we opted to use our points and stay at a Hilton.

It was late when we arrived, but the hotel lounge was still open and bustling, so we enjoyed a glass of wine and toasted our 25th country together (in just under 13 years) and then headed up for some much needed sleep.

The next morning, first thing we noticed about Singapore was the heat and humidity (90 degrees and 100% humidity) and the second thing we noticed was the fact that we were surrounded by Western shops. Our hotel was on Orchard Road, the main shopping drag in Singapore and we were surrounded by Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and Victoria Secrets and countless other brands from the States.  There were actually more brands we recognized here, in Singapore, than in Australia.

We wanted to experience more than western shopping in Singapore, so we decided to jump onto a hop-on, hop-off tour bus and see the city.  While it may seem overly touristy and not our normal modus operandi, we find that, at times, it’s a great way to explore a city in a short amount of time.

We road the entire route, listening to the information about Singapore and planning our next move as we saw stops we wanted to explore more.  Some of the informational facts that jumped out at us as we motored along:

– In order to manage traffic and CO2 emissions, Singapore requires drivers to pay the equivalent of $50,000 USD to get a permit to own a car and then  pay an additional 100% tax plus a lot of yearly fees once you buy car.  That permit is only good for 10 years and then they have to pay the $50,000 and start all over.  So owning a car in Singapore is three times as expensive as it would be in the US.

– Singapore’s population is 74% Chinese, 13% Malaysian, 9% Indian with the rest being a mixture of Western countries.  Its diverse mix of residents are reflected in the fact that there are 4 official languages in Singapore: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

– Singapore has the second busiest container port in the world and the third largest financial district.

– With a booming population Singapore has increased its available landmass by 25% by bringing in sand and slowly adding to their islands and mainland space.

– Because of the two previous points, real estate is crazy expensive and over 80% of Singaporeans live is government assisted housing.  Once they turn 35, they can apply for a 99 year lease on a spot from the government.

– With the heat and the lack of available land, Singapore has recently started developing downward.  There is an underground network that gets you just about anywhere in the city, meaning you could spend days without ever seeing the sun (or experiencing the heat).

Once we completed the bus circuit we decided to head over to the marina area and get off to do some wandering there. The first thing we did was to purchase tickets for the Singapore Flyer, the large ferris wheel that gives you good views of the city.  The most impressive thing we noticed as we got to the top of the ride was the number of ships that were lined up to get into the port.  There were dozens of large ships stretching off into the distance, each anchored just waiting its turn.

After descending from the ferris wheel we headed across the river to the gardens. On our way we crossed over a bridge that was shaped like a DNA double helix. The structure twisted and turned around the walkway across the river, leading us to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the Marina Bay Sands Mall/Casino and the lotus-flower shaped science museum.

After enjoying a respite from the heat we wandered through the Gardens by the Bay. It is a massive garden on reclaimed land that spans more than 100 acres. We strolled over the bridges and along the paths, enjoying the greenery and statutes. The gardens have two large glass building that serve as conservatories for various plants and a grove of several “supertrees” that tower more than 100 feet above the gardens. The Supertrees are man-made structures that are covered with ferns, vines, orchids and other plants that serve a variety of functions – they produce solar energy, collect rain water and function as air intake and exhaust outlets for the glass conservatories.

Next we caught another hop-on-hop-off bus and headed over to Little India and wandered around the shops and alleyways before heading back to the hotel for a refreshing and much needed shower.

That evening we met one of Todd’s co-workers for dinner.  They picked out a lovely restaurant close to our hotel that had a large selection of local delicacies.  We chose to sample some Chinese dim sum and other Chinese dishes.  It was good to catch up with Todd’s co-workers from Denver and enjoy a delicious dinner.

The next morning, we decided to explore the seemingly endless underground shopping zone of Orchard Road. The shopping went 2-3 levels below ground and several above ground and stretched over several city blocks.  We seamlessly passed from one mall to the next in what seemed like a never ending shopping maze.

We bought a few items that we couldn’t find in Australia; however we quickly gave up on shopping for clothing because the sizes were for locals – with Kelly buying one dress she fell in love with in size XL (in the States she is usually a S or M)!

After we reached our limit of window shopping, we packed our bags and headed to the airport for the quick hop to Kuala Lumpur. Upon arrival in our 26th country, Malaysia, we had to stand in an obscenely long immigration line filled with rude tourists groups that kept pushing us from behind. After 30-40 minutes of being pushed and jostled we made it to the front of the line only to have one of the tourists cut in front of us. In the end we had the last laugh as the offending tourist got pulled aside for extra questioning by the immigration officials – karma!

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We hopped on the train for a short ride to our hotel. When we exited the train, we knew that the hotel was right across the street; however the train station was also connected to yet another shopping mall with no clear sign as to which way to go.  So after wandering in circles for a bit, while dragging our luggage, we finally found the way out, checked in to our hotel and collapsed into bed.

Our first day in Malaysia was a state holiday, celebrating the coronation of their new king.  Apparently, Malaysia was the combination of 13 states that were all independent at one point.  9 of the 13 had royal families and so every five years they have an election among the 9 rulers and determine which one is “in charge”.  Of course they are a figurehead ruler like the royal family in the UK, with the Prime Minister being the actual governmental leader.

Since it was a holiday, Todd got a few things done in the morning and we  took advantage of the quite day to do some site seeing.  We jumped on a train and headed to the Batu Caves.  One of the amusing things about the train was that two of the cars were marked “for women only”.  Although no one seemed to be abiding by that rule, we are guessing that during rush hour it is enforced more.

We found Malaysia an interesting culture to observe.  There is a large muslim society, with most Malay women wearing a hijab; while some cover with the full burqa, and they have signs on public transport and in public areas indicating that it is not appropriate to show PDA in public (something Todd had to be reminded of constantly). In our hotel room, in place of a Gideon Bible, there was a prayer rug and an arrow showing the direction of Mecca so that you could face the correct direction to pray.  In seeming contrast to the dress and convenient prayer rug,  Malay women are very independent and most work, drive and seem to be not all impacted by the conservative culture.  Every lawyer in the Malaysian office that Todd deals with is a woman – a very intelligent, capable and fun group!  We did not observe any violence, mistreatment or subservience of women – no women walking behind men or segregation of any type other than the train cars.

After the brief train ride, we arrived at the Batu Cave stop.  One of the first things we noticed was the the tourists wrapping themselves in sarongs and shawls.  When we travel, we try to be mindful of the culture that we are traveling in and adopt our dress and our actions accordingly.  This usually means that shorts and sleeveless shirts are not permitted in religious areas – the Batu Caves were no exception, with their multiple Hindu temples.   For their part the Malaysians were making good money charging $3 for those tourists to borrow shawls to cover up with, since there was a dress code that included covering everything between your knees and shoulders before they would allow you to climb the 272 steps that lead to the caves.

At the base of the steps is a towering (apparently the second largest Hindu statue in the world!) gold statue of the Hindu god Lord Murugan.  If you are appropriately covered, there is no fee to explore the caves.  As we got ready to start our climb, a gentleman tapped Todd on the shoulder and pointed to several buckets of sand sitting nearby.  “You carry to top?”, he asked.  Apparently they are doing construction at the top of the steps on one of the temples and do not have any way to get their needed supplies to the top without carrying it up in small batches.  Todd and Kelly each gladly grabbed a bucket of sand to help them along.

As we climbed the 272 steps, with buckets of sand in hand, we started seeing monkeys.  They were everywhere and obviously counted on tourists to feed them.  We saw one monkey with a soda in hand, trying to get the last drops out of the can and another munching away on a bag of chips.  Several were eating bananas that were sold to tourists to feed the monkeys.  The monkeys were quite brazen, with their hands out to beg, holding their ground until you got right up to them.  Once they realized that they weren’t going to be fed, they would dash off to another group of tourists for another try.

When we got to the top of the steps, we dutifully dropped off our buckets of sand and continued into the cooler caves.  There were several Hindu temples with rituals being performed as tourists gawked and took pictures.   While we enjoy learning about and experiencing different religions, it always feels somewhat sacrilegious to walk into the middle of a religious ceremony and start taking pictures, even if that religious ceremony is happening in the middle of a large tourist attraction.  So we respectfully kept our distance and made our way through the caves checking out all of the “scenes” they had depicted throughout the caves.  We heard there was an audio tour that you could do, but we never saw a place to get it.  We wish we had though, because the scenes were intriguing with statues depicting Hindu gods with humans and animals; we wish we knew the stories behind them.

The caves themselves were immense and beautiful, with large stalagmites and stalactites everywhere.  The roof of the largest cave was over 300 feet high!

There was a seperate “Dark Cave” that you could only get into through by an organized tour where you get to spelunk through a 2 kilometer path in the dark.   After waiting out an afternoon shower and enjoying the cool interior of the caves, we made our way back down the steps and headed for the train.

We took the train to the Kuala Lumpur city center to check out the Petronas towers.  They are the tallest twin towers in the world.  They were the tallest buildings in the world for about 6 years, but have since been surpassed.

There is a walkway between the two buildings, about half way up the towers that you can buy tickets to walk across and take pictures.  We decided to skip it and instead explore the park behind the towers.  It was a large park, with meandering trails and little gazeebos set up periodically.  There was a lake in the middle and a large playground with a splash pool .

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in the train station for a delicious and refreshing cup of lemon Bingsoo.  We’ve seen several of these shops advertising “shaved ice cream”.  Apparently it comes from South Korea originally and is an interesting mix between shaved ice and ice cream.  The lemon flavoring was a seperate bowl of liquid you just pour on top of the plain vanilla bingsoo.  

The next three days Todd had to work, so Kelly was on her own to explore and enjoy Malaysia.  She started her time alone by checking into the spa in the hotel next door for a massage and facial.  That was followed up with exploring the mall close to the hotel, which turned out to have more hijab stores than anything else.

The next day when Todd headed off to work, Kelly jumped in a tour van and made her way to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary.  It was about two hours away from Kuala Lumpur and the tour guide proved to be very talkative, so Kelly got a lot of local viewpoints on Malaysian life.

The most interesting tidbit pulled from the tour guide was about the complex culture in Malaysia that resulted from the mixture of several extremely devout and different religions.  The tour guide was Muslim and he talked about his Hindu neighbors.  Apparently some Muslim celebration involve slaughtering a cow and his Hindu neighbors keep trying to stop him (cows are sacred to Hindus), yet they generally roast a pig for Hindu celebrations and Muslims consider pig a dirty animal and not to be eaten or handled in any way.  So it sounds like the block parties in his neighborhood are quite the contentious experience 🙂

With one of the main exports in Malaysia being rubber, the tour stopped at a rubber tree plantation (the tour guide kept referring to it as a condom farm) to demonstrate rubber harvesting from trees (like maple syrup) and how bad it smells in its raw form (like a rotting corpse).

The next stop on the tour was an “exotic animal farm”.  While some of the animals were somewhat exotic (a boa constrictor and several colorful birds), most were animals commonly seen animals in the US; apparently exotic here.  There was a house cat, racoons, deer and prairie dogs.  Kelly posed for a picture with the boa, so it made the stop worthwhile.

The next stop was finally the elephant sanctuary!  The sanctuary shelters injured or orphaned elephants.  If they are under 10 years old when they arrive at the shelter, they are kept at the sanctuary for their entire lives.  If they are older than 10, the elephants are rehabilitated and reintroduced back into the wild as quickly as possible.  The sanctuary also offer its expertise in elephant management to relocate animals to other areas if they start interfering with plantations or causing issues with human populated areas.

Kelly’s tour ended up including all the bells and whistles, with bags of peanuts and buckets of papaya to feed the elephants.   So Kelly was in heaven, wandering around the facility that holds  23 elephants of all ages and feeding several of the elephants and learning their stories.  She noticed that most of the elephants would vacuum the peanuts out of her hand with their trunks and then place them in their mouths, while a few would turn their trunks upside down, patiently waiting for you to drop the peanuts into their nostrils.

The sanctuary also has a show featuring  several of the adult elephants that they have had since they were young.  They showed off their skills picking things up on command and offering their legs and trucks to their handlers to climb on up onto their backs for a ride.  For the finale they bring out their youngest elephant, a two year old that was abandoned by its herd, and feed it out of a very large baby bottle.

After the 2.5 hour ride back to the hotel, Kelly quickly changed and jumped in a taxi to meet Todd and his co-workers for dinner at a restaurant called Souled Out.  It was a very touristy restaurant, but had a good variety of local dishes.  We decided to eat family style and just ordered several items and shared them around the table.  It was an evening of great food and fun conversation.

Our last day in Malaysia Todd went off to work and Kelly jumped on the local hop on/hop off bus.  Unfortunately Singapore’s version was much nicer.  There was no information provided and since the sites in Kuala Lumpur are pretty spread out with bad traffic on the roads between them, there was a lot of sitting around on the congested roads.  The entire circuit took over three hours and Kelly came back with a nice sunburn and no idea what she had just seen.

For our last evening in Kuala Lumpur, we decided to head back downtown for dinner at Fuego, a restaurant, that overlooked the Petronas towers.  It was a nice dinner, relaxing on the outdoor patio on the 23rd floor of a sky scraper; however, the view of the Petronas towers has recently been obstructed because they are building a Four Season Hotel right in front of the towers and it blocked Fuego’s view of one of the towers!

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to turn in as we had to get up early for the flight back home to Melbourne.

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Holidays Down Under

For Easter, Australia gets the Friday before and Monday after Easter as a holiday.  We decided to stay in Melbourne for the long Easter weekend and be tourists in the city.

IMG_9429On Friday, we decided to check out more of the downtown area. We took the tram to the downtown and strolled along the banks of the Yarra river enjoying the sites. We passed the massive Crown casino, the arts district and eventually made our way to the parks along the river. We enjoyed watching the rowing clubs as we walked along toward the botanic gardens.

 

We walked around the Shrine of Remembrance, which is a massive memorial to the Australian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.

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IMG_9440After descending from the steps of the Shrine of Remembrance, we walked over to the Royal Botanic Gardens and spent a few hours getting lost along the winding paths.  It was an impressive garden that had plants from Australia and all over the world – the cactus section made us feel like we were back in Texas!

 

IMG_9452On our way back home we tried out a few of the beer gardens along the river and even found one right in the middle of the river under a pedestrian bridge.

 

 

 

On Saturday we got our bikes out of the bike boxes, assembled them, bought a pump for the tires and headed out for a quick ride along the bay. As this was our first time to bike in a couple of months, we kept the ride slow and only rode for about 2 hours through the waterfront neighborhoods.  We got good practice on staying to the left and interacting with traffic, but there are a lot of bike lanes and trails so it wasn’t too hard.

IMG_9456For the rest of the weekend, we explored our neighborhood in Port Melbourne and the many shops and restaurants along Bay Street.  Todd got his driving lesson in and managed not to kill anyone, so we are both officially trained to drive on the left side now!

 

 

IMG_9500We also took Dharma to the beach a few times after discovering that she loves to sprint along the shore and splash in the surf. She’s already forgotten the Colorado mountains and seems to be enjoying the beaches of Australia.

 

 

 

 

IMG_9467We finished our weekend of tourism by heading down to St. Kilda beach to see the penguins coming ashore. There is a colony of penguins that lives amongst the rocks along St. Kilda beach about 2 miles from our house and we heard that every night you could watch them coming ashore to nest for the evening.

We arrived at dusk and joined the dozens of people perched on the dock and rocks waiting for the penguins to swim ashore. One by one the little penguins swam up and waddled onto the rocks. Some immediately hopped off to their nests to greet their mates, while others found a perch and preened and shook themselves with the crowed watching a few feet away.

IMG_9486Finally the sun set and it was too dark to see any more penguins coming home to roost so we hoped on the tram and headed home – happy with the thought that we’re lucky enough to be living where we can have such adventures without even leaving the city! We’re looking forward to exploring our new home in Melbourne even more.

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Off to the Land Down Under

After selling our car, storing everything we hadn’t given away and shipping the pets off to quarantine it was our turn to take the long trip (16 hours from DFW to Sydney and 1 hour from Sydney to Melbourne).  For once we broke our “no checking bags” rule, since this was the only way to get anything with us to Australia.  The logistics involved in getting ourselves, two bike boxes (yes we brought our bikes) and 10 bags of luggage to the airport, checked, through customs in Sydney, re-checked and then to our new place in Melbourne from the airport are more harrowing than you could imagine.  But, we managed with the help of some angels that showed up to help us drag our luggage along just when we needed it at the airports and one Maxi Taxi in Melbourne that we managed to stuff everything into and just make one trip (we had anticipated each having to get a taxi to get it all).

View from our temporary house.

View from our temporary house.

We are staying in temporary housing in South Melbourne.  It is a lovely house (if you are coming for a long’ish visit, We highly recommend checking out www.boutiquestays.com.au) and we are very close to the South Melbourne market.  It’s a huge, mostly outdoor market, very similar to Pike Market in Seattle.  Kelly has gotten into the habit of walking over daily and shopping for the evening meal in order to get out of the house and see the area a bit.  We are noticing that each suburb has it’s own shopping district and everything is extremely walkable.  There is also great public transportation, our goal of not having a car while we are here seems very doable.

Todd’s company provided us with a relocation agent that drove us around the first few days we were here.  She gave us a bit of an orientation to Melbourne and the surrounding suburbs and set up some appointments to look at rentals in the area that met our specifications we had sent her.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that most rentals will consider pets even if they do not mark themselves as pet friendly.  Apparently we also have a bit of an advantage, coming in with a relocation agent immediately tells the realtor that we have a company that’s paying to get us here, we must be good tenants.

This turned out to be a very good thing, because renting in Australia is a bit different than in the US… First of all you never have any contact with the owner, it is all done through the realtor.  They are basically the go to even after they rent you the place. If you need anything fixed or have any questions about the place you contact them. There is also no such thing as an apartment building as we know them in the US.  There are no buildings that are fully for rent, everything is for sale and if the owner then decides to rent it out  only then is it available for rent.  Which means options can be limited and you can not just go to one building and see what all they have available.  They also only show rental properties at one time a week for only 15 minutes.  We showed up at one on a Saturday and literally had 30 other people there looking through the same small apartment with us and they shooed us all out at the end of the 15 minutes.  So after looking through several places we let our relocation agent know which one we liked best and she called and followed up with the renting agent to let them know we were with her and kind of pushed us as good tenets.

It worked!  We found a wonderful townhouse in Port Melbourne with several outdoor spaces, close to the beach and still close to the CBD (central business district, where Todd’s office is), with a light rail that drops Todd off almost at his office doorstep.  We have a park near by that allows dogs off leash and the main shopping drag is just a couple blocks away.  It is a little larger than we had intended, but we now have two extra bedrooms for visitors!

Now that we have been here a week, some things we have noticed that are different from the US:

  • The drive on the left.  Obviously quite different and we will be taking driving lessons.  We are also having to learn to walk on the left as we keep drifting right. Crossing at cross walks we keep saying to ourselves, “look right then left”. It is becoming more natural with each passing day.
  • There are no familiar brands of anything. We know that sounds weird but it is amazing how much we associate with a brand name.  Like Walmart, oh that is where you get cheap stuff but they have everything… we are totally lacking that with the Australia brands and we are having a hard time picking it up.  We are sure it will come, just slowly.
  • They do EVERYTHING online or through SMS text.  It’s amazing and very frustrating when you don’t have a local mobile phone.  I have not signed a single piece of paper anywhere, it’s all online and while you have to remember a million pins and access codes, it is quite remarkable.
  • Everything is more expensive.  Some of it is due to the currency conversion rates between USD and AUD, but certain things like US brand products are just ridiculous.  It costs us $4 to buy a single can of Diet Coke here, We will definitely be breaking that habit soon!
  • Australians are super friendly!  Like woke up and drank 5 cups of coffee friendly.   In the brief time We have been here we can tell if a customer support agent is from Australia originally or not, even while texting with them, it’s that noticeable.
  • We think the reason they are so friendly is there are no guns and almost no crime in Australia!  Kelly’s theory is that there are so many deadly insects, reptiles and animals, that all the humans have pulled together and said lets not have something else to worry about, mate.
  • So far we have not seen any spiders, snakes or sharks.  From what we hear we are blessed to be in Melbourne and the colder weather we get here keeps them away for the most part.  It is also funny that while talking to the locals, we have realized that they are more afraid of all the crazy gun toting people we have in the US than they are of any of their poisonous critters or sharks.
  • BBQ – only because several people asked me to scope this out specifically. It is not something you go and get in a restaurant here and they don’t have BBQ sauce, it’s just something you do in your backyard.  The grills have been an endless source of amusement for Todd and I as we have looked around at places to rent.  They look just like our grills in the US from the outside and they have gas or coal options, etc.  But, when you open them up they look like a George Forman grill on the inside.  Just a solid piece of flat metal that you cook your food on.  At first we just thought we had seen a weird one, but every single one we have opened looks the same. I think our relocation agent thinks we are slightly insane the way we giggle every time we open a grill.

 

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Happy as a Cow in Cuba

Day 1

We spent the night in the Miami airport hotel, so we dragged ourselves out of bed around 3:45 a.m., grabbed a cup of coffee and were soon through the security lines and sitting comfortably in our upgraded seats on our way to Cuba.

The arrival and getting through Cuban customs was uneventful. We had 2 hours to waste until our tour guides showed up, so we exchanged our euros for the convertible pesos (CUC) and browsed the few airport shops, ordered coffee and settled in to watch the families laughing and crying as they greeted each other at the customs exit.

It took quite a while to get everyone gathered, their luggage out of the airport and onto the bus.  We slowly met the 8 other people we will be biking with in addition to our guides Chris, Jorge and our bus driver, Pancho. Once we were all aboard, we headed to a restaurant for a late lunch.

After lunch, Jorge gave us a brief history lesson and pointed out prominent buildings as we made our way to downtown Havana, where we then continued with a walking tour of the old town.

After our heads were filled to the brim with more than 500 years of Cuban history, our ears had heard the famous Cuban song, Guantanamera, on every corner and from every restaurant and our feet worn from walking around the Spanish Colonial plazas and churches, we made our way to our hotel for the night, the Memories Hotel Miramar.

We were pleasantly surprised at how nice our hotel and Havana in general was. We have heard conflicting things about the area and weren’t sure what to expect.  But the people and the charm of the area are everything we hoped for and more.

Back at the hotel, we relaxed to a band playing Cuban renditions of classic American songs and turned in early.

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Day 2:

We started off the day with a bike fitting and meeting our new guide Danny, who will be replacing Chris.  As with most things in Cuba, options are limited; so they only have a handful of bikes available. Apparently the guides bring over a few bikes at a time, so “fitting” is really just choosing one that is best and adjusting it enough to fit.  There aren’t a lot of people over 5’7″ that ride bikes in Cuba; but luckily they had another tall rider for whom they had brought a bike over for their last tour, so Todd was lucky enough to get an easy fit and Kelly was done with a quick seat adjustment.

We rode the bus to San Antonio de Los Baños from Havana to start our ride.  On the way we peppered our guide Jorge with questions about Cuba and general political and socioeconomic topics. It’s very interesting to hear their side of the history we have learned about Cuba over the years.  It has become obvious that the “People to people” tours are set up to give Americans access to Cubans to hear their stories.  It’s very subtle but a very smart tactic for whoever came up with the idea and I have to say we are really enjoying learning a local’s version of Cuban/American history and hearing about their perceptions of Americans in general.

We arrived in San Antonio de Los Baños and the amazing bus driver navigated the narrow streets to find a spot where we could unload and begin our ride.  Our ride today is a 32-mile ride to Las Terrazas or a 46-mile ride that goes over the mountains and continues on to Soroa, where we will be spending the night.

We had a beautiful sunny day and after a mile we left the narrow city streets and were enjoying the countryside.  We passed scenic mango trees, sugar cane and banana farms.  We notice that several farmers tied their livestock along the roadside to graze; a very natural way to trim the lawn!

About half way into our ride we started getting some rolling hills and some beautiful views of the surrounding valleys.  Everyone we passed smiled and greeted us with a wave or an “hola”.  While Todd was in heaven with the cycling, Kelly was struggling a bit with the steep hills. So by the time we got to the scenic mountain town of Las Terrazas; Todd decided that he would continue on with the remaining 14 mile ride (with a 600 foot climb in the middle) and Kelly decided to enjoy the beautiful Las Terrazas a little more and take the bus into Soroa.

The remaining ride for Todd was filled with winding mountain roads with a killer finish that was as steep as any Colorado mountain road! Straight up for about mile!

Once we both got to the hotel for the night, the pool was our first destination.  The cold water was a perfect reprieve from the hot bike ride.

While the pool was rather chilly, we were surrounded by the cute little cabanas of the hotel in a very scenic valley, making it an ideal spot for a swim. Later, after dinner with our fellow riders, we came out hoping for some stargazing and a refreshing cerveza and were not disappointed.

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Day 3

To begin our bike ride this morning, we were shuttled to the top of one of the mountains that Todd rode up yesterday during the optional additional mileage. It was a morning full of rolling hills with beautiful vistas. As would be the routine for the entire trip, Danny led the pack and Jorge brought up the rear with the bus crawling along behind.

After about 10 miles we stopped for a “people-to-people” experience with a coffee farmer/charcoal maker. We spent about 30 minutes chatting with a 70 plus year old farmer who was spending the non-coffee harvesting season making charcoal. Through our interpreter, he explained the charcoal making process and re-forestation process that he was required to implement when he cleared the timber.

Next up was Bahia Hondo where we got to wander about the town with a few local pesos graciously given by our guides (in the smaller towns they do not accept the CUC for which we had exchanged our money in the airport). We enjoyed some delicious chocolate ice cream (about 60 cents) and ambled along the bustling main street and the town squares.

Before we got back on our bikes, our guide, Danny sang out his now familiar “We Ride Guajiros”! Guajiros is a Spanish term meaning “country peasant” and is a part of the song Guantanemera. The famous lyrics are about a Guajira Guantanemera or country girl from Guantanamo.

As a group, we had decided to make a brief detour to see the harbor. When we arrived at the water’s edge, we discovered a small inlet full of fishing   boats – the perfect opportunity for another “people-to-people” event. We saw pictures of the gigantic marlin and sharks that the fishermen caught on the tiny dinghies and listened to their tales of how they caught the big beasts from the ocean – it’s amazing how fishermen tell the same tales around the world!

The remainder of the ride was a little bumpy but much flatter.  We enjoyed the ride and chatted with our fellow cyclist.  There always seems to be interesting life stories shared among our fellow travelers.

We stopped for lunch at a bus stop with good shade to give us some protection from the hot and humid day. In addition to the cool covering we had a splendid view looking out across hilly pastures; watching cows graze with palm trees and sugar cane swaying in the breeze and with the mountains we were approaching looming in the background.

As we enjoyed our lunch, we learned about Cuban livestock.  Apparently, pigs are the most common animals and almost every family has one. Cows, on the other hand, are in short supply and are almost exclusively used for dairy products.  There is such a shortage and premium on milk that the government strictly regulates the cow population and every farmer must obtain permission before slaughtering a cow, which means most beef for eating is imported and expensive.  As we finished our lunch and watched the cows under the palm trees, we couldn’t help but think that the cows had it pretty good in Cuba. We then mounted our bicycles and rode on, telling each other that with the perfect weather and beautiful scenery, we were as happy as a cow in Cuba!

The rest of the bike ride passed pretty quickly as we entered flatter terrain. We finished the bike ride at a tiny village, Tres Palmas, and were bused to our hotel near Vinales.

The area of Vinales is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site due to the “migotes”, which were towering limestone mountains riddled with caves and the quaint Spanish colonial town of Vinales itself.

We dropped off our luggage, jumped into the pool for a quick refresh, enjoyed a dip in the “Medicinal Baths” offered at our resort and then boarded the bus for a quick trip into town. We wandered around Vinales, enjoying the bustling plaza and shops. After checking out the local baseball field where we watched a little league game, we found a nice patio and sipped a mojito and watched the sun set over the migotes.

We then bussed back to the hotel where we got a break from the traditional chicken, pork, and fish options we have had at each meal and enjoyed a delicious local specialty for dinner of shredded beef called “ropas viejas” (literally translated as “old clothes”) along with the standard rice and beans that we have received at every meal in Cuba. It was a delicious meal followed by a cold cerveza fuerte called  “Bucanero” while watching the stars from the hotel pool area.

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Day 4:

We woke up to no running water and were about to give up on having a shower when we noticed the water had started dripping.  Determined, Kelly washed her hair in the cold drips and Todd decided he could live without a shower until we got to the next hotel.

Our ride today started off at the hotel and took us through the national park area of Vinales. The scenery was stupendous and the ride was extra slow, allowing for us to stop regularly and take pictures of the limestone cliffs towering above us.  After each stop, Danny prodded us into motion again with his customary “We Ride Guajiros!”

As we rode, we passed another charcoal production site and stopped halfway through the ride for a lesson from Jorge on the national park system in Cuba and the Vinales area in particular. The Cuban system allows people to live and farm in the area; but there are more restrictions on what they can do with the land and they have a reforestation process that is followed if anyone cuts down trees.  For every one tree that is cut down, they must replace it with 25 saplings.

Our ride was a short 22 miles today through tobacco and yuca fields and ended in Bahia Esperanza, a small town on the water.  We had some time to wander around the town before lunch and enjoyed watching the locals playing a very competitive game of dominos.

We have noticed Cubans are always more than willing to talk and share their stories.  They seem very excited just to be asked about their daily lives.  They are very friendly and while it was suggested to avoid politics, they seem to be willing to answer any questions we have about their day-to-day life and country.

We have also noticed that a lot of Cubans (including our tour guide) have American branded clothes; some even have the American flag as shorts and shirts.  We have been told that most of this comes from relatives in the US and that almost every Cuban has a relative in the US.  There isn’t a hatred for the US that we were expecting; but rather a strong desire for the embargoes to be lifted so the country can prosper and with it, the people.

Next up was the most amazing lunch we have had so far in Cuba and definitely the most food.  We ate at a small local paladar, Troncos Viejos. It was owned by a lovely lady named Rosa and she served us more food than a group three times our size could have eaten.  All of it was amazing, we had mamey shakes (mamey is a fruit), fried malanga fritters (similar to a potato), paella as an appetizer, a giant filet of fresh red snapper for the main entree and of course all the sides and fixings that we have come to expect in Cuba (rice and beans, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and yuca).  After we had all eaten as much as we possible could, Rosa announced that for dessert we would be served her world famous flan!  No one wanted to disappoint her by not accepting the flan, so we all ate it (it was wonderful) and rolled ourselves out of the paladar and onto the bus.

We all fell into a deep food coma on the ride to the next hotel in Pinar Del Rio, the Hotel Vueltabajo. We will be here two nights; so with our two hours of free time, we strung up our camping clothesline and did laundry in the sink of our hotel room.  Hopefully it will be dry when we leave.

Later we met up for a brief walking tour.  We were taken to a state run store to buy cigars and rum.  Everyone stocked up on gifts to bring home and we grabbed a few cigars ourselves.  We also got to wander through a local distillery and learn about the process of making one of the local liquors.

As a group we opted for a late dinner, since we had such a large lunch.  So we had some time to relax, smoke one of our cigars and enjoy a drink of the local rum.

Most of us opted to walk to dinner, trying to work off as much of the lunch as we could before we sat down to dinner.  Dinner proved equally filling, the portions here are enormous and we have decided that after today we will start sharing our meals or, even with all the biking, we are going to come back 20lbs heavier that we left.

After dinner we were offered the opportunity to take salsa lessons. For Christmas, Todd gave Kelly a gift certificate good for dance lessons of her choosing, so she redeemed it for the salsa lessons.  A few others from the group joined us and we had fun laughing at ourselves as we attempted to salsa with the locals.  All in all we did pretty good, but we definitely didn’t get the hip action going that the locals were showing off.

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Day 5

It was hard to get out of bed after the late night of salsa dancing. We dragged ourselves through the motions of getting ready – showering and eating breakfast – and enjoyed several cups of coffee  to get us up and going.

This morning we were shuttled to the beginning of our ride, which was to be a 32-mile ride through a picturesque farming valley.

The ride wound around limestone mogotes, over ancient rusty steel bridges and through tobacco fields. The scenery was stunning and Kelly practiced her balancing and riding by capturing it all on camera while riding – and perhaps using it as an excuse for why she was hanging at the back of the group for today’s ride.

As we rode along we noticed the labor-intensive farming. They were hand planting tobacco and plowing the fields with oxen and water buffalo. It was like we were riding back in time.

Thankfully the ride was flat and we covered the route quickly as much of the group was definitely dragging a bit. Every time we stopped, Jorge attempted to encourage us by telling us that we only had 5-8 more miles to go. We are pretty certain that we covered Jorge’s 5-8 miles at least 3 times!

After the ride we visited a tobacco farm. The famous Robaina farm – apparently Alejandro Robaina is the only tobacco grower to have the honor of having a cigar named after him during his lifetime.

We learned the process of planting, growing, harvesting, curing and rolling the tobacco leaves into cigars. We then loaded back on the bus, headed back to the hotel, showered and took a well-deserved nap. We then found a nice patio spot to sip our Cubra Libres, watch the traffic rumble by and try not to asphyxiate on the diesel fumes and the thick cloud of smoke from the mosquito fumigation truck that passed. Dinner was at a nice restaurant with the traditional Cuban choices of chicken, pork or fish served with rice, black beans and yuca.

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Day 6:

After a really good night’s sleep we woke up ready for another day of bicycling.  We had another hearty breakfast and then hopped on our bikes and road outside of Pinar Del Rio and jumped on the “Carretera Central”, the highway that serves this area.

The Cuban definition of highway is a two way street that is slightly better maintained. It did have a bit more traffic; however, we saw just as many horses and bicycles on it as we did trucks and cars.  The condition of the road made for much faster bicycling and the first half of the trip flew by.

It also meant we rode through several towns, so navigating local traffic proved tricky, but we all made it through without any incidents.  We took a break in one of the towns, bought a snow cone and found a shady park for a bit of relaxation.

As we gathered to start our ride again (and after Danny’s customary “We Ride Guajiros!” and Jorge’s “Only 5-8 More Miles!”) one of our tour members informed us that they had talked with a local who had beehives and was willing to give us a tour of their hives and talk us through the honey making process. While most of the group wanted to see that, because Todd had a childhood allergy to bees and we didn’t want to push our luck, we decided to skip the bees and instead ride on with a few others to the next town.

Since we were going to have to wait for the others anyway, we took our time and stopped for some pictures and discussed Cuban history, politics and all the things we have heard so far while in Cuba with our American tour guide, Danny.

When we arrived in San Diego de Los Baños, we went in search of a local park and a cerveza, knowing we had at least an hour until the others arrived.  As we were asking around, we ran into a Cuban with a really nice road bike (not common at all in Cuba) and he spoke English!  He told us that he was an English teacher in the town for the grade school and in Pinar Del Rio at the university.   He told us about his extensive library of books he had managed to collect over the years and we asked if we could see them.  We figured we had missed out on the bees, so we would have our own people to people experience.

His library was only a block away and he gladly showed it to us.  He had about 4 bookcases of books that had collected for the school. The collection contained books in several languages and covered a variety of topics, including topics such as “Canadian History for Dummies”.  He proudly showed us the shelf full of US books that he used for his advanced students – The Kite Runner, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and many more. The sad thing was that the library was infested with termites and several of his books had severe damage. He also showed us the government issued soccer balls they received for PE at the school. They were flat and falling apart.

After our tour of the single room library, he pointed out a restaurant and joined us for a cerveza and some fried banana chips. He talked about the education system in Cuba and how it is mandatory for everyone to go to school until they have completed 9th grade.  He also discussed how he tries to use literature to convince the kids that it’s not all roses and happy times in the US.  There is apparently a lot of desire amongst the current generation to immigrate to the US.

He can’t buy books to use at school very easily, so he requested a donation for soccer balls and if any of us had books that we finished reading that we would be willing to leave behind.  We obliged on both and left him with a book and a donation for 4 new soccer balls.

By the time we were done with our discussion with the English teacher, the rest of the tour group had arrived and we joined them at the park for lunch. We ate while Jorge explained how the Cuban government gets elected in more detail.

After lunch we got back on the bus and headed back to Soroa and the same hotel we stayed in on the second night.  Right next to the hotel was an orchid garden and we decided to do a tour.  It turned out to be more of a botanic garden with several varieties of orchids and local plants and trees.  The Cuban orchid guide amazed us with not only his knowledge of the orchids, plants and trees around us, but also with the fact that he could explain it all to us in perfect English and another group with us in perfect German.

After we had our fill of orchids, we wandered back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and some relaxation time.

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Day 7

It was a day of wind, a bit of rain and bike falls. It was another fast ride for about 30 miles along the main highway. The countryside transitioned from the mountainous tobacco and coffee fields to rows and rows of flat fields planted with sugar cane.

We stopped in each of the main towns along the route to learn a bit about Cuban history. In each town square or plaza there were statutes of celebrated Cubans who were either heroes from the Spanish American War or the Cuban Revolution and at each stop, our Jorge related the history to us from a Cuban perspective.

In the second town, Jorge was upstaged during his lecture when a group of children drove by in motorized toy cars. Leading the pack was a little girl with a tiara who was driving the large black truck with the little boys chasing after her in their smaller pink cars. We laughed as they scooted about the plaza all the boys trying to catch the princess driver.

The best part of the morning occurred when Todd received a text message from his work letting him know that they had won the arbitration for which we had spent 9 months in Houston.

A few of miles into the ride, we had our first major bike fall – Kelly swerved to miss a Cuban woman walking along the road and lost control.  We all took a brief break, Kelly cleaned up her road rash and we mounted up to finish the ride.

After the last major town, the wind picked up considerably and we rode right into a blustery headwind with the first rain of the trip.  We made it without any further incidents until we were within a mile of our destination when another bike swerved on some muddy pavement, and he too lost control on the wet road and went down. Thankfully he suffered only a few minor scrapes as well.  It was our last day in the Cuban countryside, as we will spend the next two days in Havana. Even with the few scrapes, the wind and the brief rain, it was a good ride.

Once the bikes were loaded on the bus and we arrived in Havana, we headed to lunch at a very nice restaurant called La Fontana. We made quite the entrance wearing bike shorts, jerseys and looking ragged from the windy ride. We enjoyed our mojitos and delicious lunch as the relaxing fountains filled with koi fish splashed and gurgled around us.

After lunch we hopped back on the bus for the short trip to see the house and neighborhood of the artist Jose Fuster.   He is a Cuban artist who is internationally known for his work in ceramics and tile. His entire house and the surrounding neighborhood was covered in colorful tile mosaics. There were tiled terraces, fences, statutes, chairs, tables, walls, fences – every inch was covered in brightly colored mosaics showing everything from people and historic events to Picasso-esque shapes winding up and around the house.

We spent about 30 minutes wandering around the masterpieces and then headed to our hotel for the next two evenings, the Memories Miramar. We had stayed here our first night and had been looking forward to returning to relax by the huge pool and soaking up the sun on one of the numerous decks.

We enjoyed a quick plunge in the pool and then walked to a very nice restaurant called Santana. At the restaurant we shared stories with the other riders, ate delicious Cuban food (chicken, pork or fish!) and shared a bottle of Chilean wine with some of the riders in celebration of Todd’s victory in the arbitration. After desert and coffee we walked back to the hotel and strolled around the pool deck watching the stars.

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Day 8:

This morning started with a decision.  Today’s ride involved riding through the city of Havana.  Kelly is not comfortable riding in the city and after yesterday’s spill she really was not looking forward to the ride with the busy Havana traffic.  After talking it through with the guides, she jumped into the car with the photographer, Jonah, to follow the bicyclists.

By the end of the ride, Todd decided that after riding close to 20 miles dodging buses and potholes big enough to swallow the buses and inhaling a lifetime of diesel fumes – Kelly made the wise choice by skipping the ride.

The tour of Cuba ended at Earnest Hemingway’s Cuban farm, where we wandered around the grounds with hundreds of other tourist.  This day was by far the most tourists we have seen in one place so far in Cuba!

For lunch we went to the town of Cojimar,  where Hemingway did his fishing and was the inspiration for his book, The Old Man and the Sea.   We wandered around the little town as we waited for our reservations at Bodegas Las Brisas.  Once again many other tourist surrounded us and the kids in the city were running around asking us for candy or money.

After lunch we were taken to a market in Havana for our last minute souvenir shopping.  Since neither of us enjoy shopping, we found the area of the market that had a view of the water and relaxed and waited while everyone did their shopping.

We were given 1 hour back at the hotel to get ready for dinner.  When we came out to our designated meeting spot, the tour guides informed us that they were having problems with our reservation and to hold tight as there would be delays.  When they came back they told us they had bad news, the bus was having problems and wouldn’t be able to transport us to dinner and they weren’t sure how we were going to get there.  Right as they gave us the “bad news” three classic convertibles pulled up and the guides surprised us with a fun ride for our last evening together.

We all piled into the cars, ours was a red 1946 Plymouth.  We enjoyed the wind blowing through our hair as we rode through the city in a driving tour on the way to our dinner spot.  We had so much fun and we thanked the guides for the wonderful surprise!

We had dinner at the beautiful el Jardin Del Milagros restaurant (the Garden of Miracles). The restaurant was also a garden that the owners used to supply a lot of its own vegetables. The main garden was on a rooftop deck, which they allowed us to tour as we finished up our meal.  They also had a line of hives on the roof that contained what they assured us were non-stinging bees to provide honey.

The couple that owned the restaurant used to be an electrical engineer and a civil engineer, but opened the restaurant to make more money since Cubans were now permitted (since 2011) to have private businesses.  We have heard similar tales from many Cubans; there is so much more money in the tourist industry that many Cubans were leaving their traditional jobs to work with the recent influx of tourists. Our tour guide Jorge brought his girlfriend to dinner for us all to meet and they informed us that they had both been in the IT industry and are now both tour guides.

After dinner the mood started to get sad as we all realized we were getting close to the end of our time together.  They were several speeches and thanks given all around and Danny had a notebook that he asked us all to write something in.  Several people had purchased maps and Danny marked up the route we rode over the past week.

We finished up around 10:30pm and we headed to the bar to watch the New Years Eve festivities in the hotel pool area. Danny and one of our fellow tour members, Judy, joined us and we spent the last bit of 2016 sharing stories about our lives and watching salsa dancers and fireworks as we welcomed 2017 with a toast of Cuban rum and well-wishes for a good year.

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