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Not So Sick. Sydney, Take Two

November 29, 2013

When I got back to Sydney after my days on the coast, it felt like a new city. (Or maybe I just felt like a new person) Lesley had gone up to visit a friend on the Gold Coast, where I was to meet her a few days later, and I met up with Robert, a friend I’d met in Vietnam. We’d visited the zoo in Saigon together and thought we should keep the tradition, so we headed over to the Taronga Zoo. The zoo is built on a hill over looking the harbor so you have spectacular views from everywhere.

One of my bucket list items for Australia was to hold a koala, but New South Wales is one of the Australian states that has laws forbidding you to touch them, so this gives me an excellent excuse to return someday and see more of Australia. I am a sucker and still paid for the zoo’s “animal friendly koala experience,” and believe me, I did everything short of climbing the tree to get as close to that sleeping creature as I could!

After the zoo we walked through the gardens, had martinis at the Opera House Bar and finished the night at an authentic “Australian-Italian” restaurant. Robert is from Scotland and I am from Florida, and although “home” is different for both us, we could both agree that Sydney was infinitely more familiar than Vietnam. I was longing to go back and he validated my decision to take my trip way over budget by buying a return ticket to Bangkok.

The next day I caught a flight to the Gold Coast to meet back up with Lesley for a week in Byron Bay. Having made the decision to go back to Asia made me feel so at peace. Not even the rain could get me down. And boy, oh, boy- did we have rain! But that is a post for tomorrow. For now, I will finish off with Sydney, Take Two:Australia 2013-92

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Sometimes All You Need is a Mom and Dad

November 27, 2013

The time I spent on Australia’s Central Coast probably saved my trip. As I discussed in my last post, I was sick while I was in Sydney. I was exhausted and frustrated and in desperate need of renewal.

Andy’s parents provided exactly the respite I needed. I took a train heading north out of Sydney and they were waiting for me at the station when I arrived. Looking back, all I remember is how exhausted I was. I was trying so hard to stay awake on the car ride back to their house! Mrs. Charlesworth, a mom and therefore natural caregiver, must have noticed my heavy eyes because she suggested I take a rest when we got home. I was so grateful.

I really can’t explain how much I appreciated a mom and dad after months on the road. When I woke up we had the first of many healthy, home cooked meals. It was everything I had been missing for months: veggies, lean meat, breads, fruit and dairy. They had planned a two-day tour for me of all the beaches along the coast and highlights of the town, so we packed a little picnic (“Oh, just tea and some snacks,” Mrs. Charlesworth downplayed) and went driving. They took me to a photographer’s gallery, because Andy had told them how much I loved photography. They bought me hot cross buns, because I had never heard of them. They even made sure I tried Vegemite. “Andrew would never let us here the end of it if we didn’t have you try it,” they said. They had reliable internet and I was able to FaceTime with my parents for the first time in two months. When my mom’s face appeared on the screen, I couldn’t say hi for a full 15 seconds for fear of choking on the tears. We sat in front of the t.v. and watched the Amazing Race one night. I remember watching it and thinking, “Wow… I’m living this show, right now, on my own.” My days there felt like “real life.”

Andy’s father is a collector of stamps. He was hesitant to pull out the books at first, but I made it my mission to convince him. I was absolutely mesmerized by the history recorded on those decades of stamps. It remains one of the coolest collections I have ever seen. His mother is not only a fantastic cook, but a gifted gardener and I walked around the yard late one afternoon with my camera, determined to capture a hint of the beauty and serenity I felt in their garden.

I needed those days so desperately. Clean laundry, fresh sheets, real pillows, baked veggies, yeast bread, hot tea, fast internet, and mom and dad hugs. When I strapped on my backpack the fourth morning to head back to Sydney I was ready for it. Whatever the next two months were going to bring, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated. And thanks to the Charlesworth’s, I was.

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Sick in Sydney

November 25, 2013

I didn’t even brush my teeth with the tap water in Asia. I followed all the rules: No ice, no mixed drinks, no questionably washed produce. I managed to make it through 8 weeks backpacking around Asia without so much as a stomachache… and then I got to Australia. I’ll tell you what, you let your guard down for a minute! The first day there- I. Got. SICK. I mean really, really, wish-you-could-curl-up-and-die SICK! Fever, cold sweats, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t keep anything in my stomach for almost a week. If it hadn’t been for my new travel buddy’s limited time in the city and desperately wanting to explore, I might have spent my first week in Australia in bed. Looking back at these pictures now, I am really grateful for Lesley’s encouragement. (Also pretty grateful that the fresh-off-the-islands tan kept me from looking as bad as I felt.)

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Australia’s been on the top of my list for as long as I can remember, I mean… my dog’s name is Sydney! Warm, beachy and laid-back, similar to where I grew up, but with better accents and waves, I guess I had always imagined that when I finally made it to Australia I might never come home. Sydney has some great photo ops: Opera house, gardens, bridge, bay… it’s a beautiful city. It’s young and alive and expensive, and that about sums up my feelings on the city. Maybe I should blame it on the fact that I was still in Asia-mode, or on my ridiculously high expectations, or maybe that my body decided it hated me upon arrival, but for whatever reason, Sydney didn’t blow me away the way I expected it to. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the city, I truly did, and I would love to go back someday, but my experience there didn’t quite live up to the hype.

On our first full day in Sydney, we found a free walking tour, modeled after the New Tours that I always rave about. I love hearing the history behind buildings, statues, and parks that tell the story of a city. And Sydney has a pretty cool story.

On day two we made our way out to Bondi beach. I had surfed a little bit while in Vietnam, but I had enough trouble summoning the strength to walk down the stairs to get to the beach- so I didn’t fool myself for a minute into thinking I might be able to paddle out. Instead I settled into the sand, sipped a bottle of Pedialyte, and promptly fell asleep. 

Day three meant Lesley was leaving to meet another friend, which left me to check in to a “budget hostel.” Let me tell you something, when you are coming out of Southeast Asia, where you can find room and board for about $10 a night, into Sydney, where a bunked in a dorm room with 5 other girls costs $60, it’s a bit of a culture shock. (Quick side note on “reverse culture shock.” In my experience, it’s been the return to Western societies that most shocks my system. My theory is that when you are headed into a culture that you know will be vastly different than your own, you expect that everything will feel foreign. However, after you acclimate to these differences, returning to I think you expect to be blown away by the differences when you are heading into a third world environment, so all of the changes are well anticipated and often appreciated. What you don’t expect (or what I didn’t expect) was how much I would acclimate to a culture so different than my own, and how difficult it would be for me to readjust to what had been normal, only months before.)

Okay, back to Oz. I had put on a brave face while Lesley was around, but when she left, it was as though the wind left my sails, and my body just collapsed. I carried my backpacks, through the train station and out to King’s Cross, which sounded British and lovely on the map. (I didn’t know at the time it’s also infamous for drug raids and prostitution.) I made it to my hostel around 2 pm, carried my bags up to the room, made my twin bunk bed, and fell asleep.  My roommates, three British girls in their late teens/ early twenties came in after I had been asleep a few hours. We chatted briefly and I told them to feel free to play music as they were getting ready to go out that night. I didn’t expect that I would be able to fall back asleep anyway, but I did. I just remember laying there fading in and out, listening to the giggling anticipation of three girls, getting ready for a night on the town, intermixed with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry and Kanye West. At no other time in my life can I fathom sleeping through that, but for some reason I found their chatter comforting and allowed myself to doze in and out. For 16 hours. It was exactly what my body needed. I woke up the next day and managed to stomach the first meal I had had in days.

I wrote a post (months ago now) about the cool relationships you form while traveling. The highlight of my Australia trip came from one of those. After being sick for about a week, all I wanted was a real bed, a real shower, and real food. Not restaurant food, not street food, but a home cooked meal. I messaged my friend Australian friend Andy, (who I met six years ago in London) and asked if he could help me out. Andy’s family lives on the coast a few hours north of Sydney. He spent Thanksgiving with my family in the States a few years ago and has always wanted to return the favor. He called up his parents and two days later they welcomed me with open arms, warm sheets, and phenomenal food. It was the half way point in my trip, and exactly what I needed to recharge.

Thai Island Hopping

October 5, 2013

So here is the truth about my break in blogging: There is only so much you can write about the beach. I have documented the first half of my trip city by city, and I really want to keep things chronological, but it has left me at a bit of a loss for a while. (Not to mention, all kinds of other big changes which have occupied my time and attention lately! I’ll get into all of that in detail one of these days!)
 
But here we go, back on the horse, ready to finish up the story of my four months in Asia! After leaving Cambodia, I flew to Phuket to meet up with my friend Lesley, who had flown over from the States. We took the first ferry out of Phuket and arrived in Koh Phi Phi (pronounced P.P. or peepee) on February 15, then ferried out to Koh Lanta for a few days on February 17. It was lovely, but altogether, somewhat uninspiring. Don’t get me wrong… I love beaches! I loved kayaking, snorkeling, feeding wild monkeys, and finally starting to get a tan… But I stopped taking pictures and writing much. I left my good camera in the room, opting for an iphone camera. Even now as I look back trying to decide what to share, I come up a little bit empty.

It was easy for me to recount the first half of my trip because everything I saw was still so fantastically foreign. I was interacting daily with natives of the lands I was traveling through. My camera was attached to my hand every where I went. Every breath I took inspired me. And then I went to The Beach. Seriously… “The Beach” from the aptly named Leonardo DiCapri movie that made everyone wish they could get lost on a deserted island in 2000 (minus the dark twists). All of a sudden nothing felt that foreign. In fact, it felt surprisingly like every other Jamaican, Bahamian, {insert spring break location here}, vacation I had ever been on… the people around me just had better accents! It was as though every Brit and Aussie party-goer between the ages of 18-22 had flooded the island… And all I wanted was a nap. This was the moment I realized that I was officially old and boring at 27.

Anyone who knows me at all is reading this in complete shock, because there is almost nothing I love as much as a good beach, but let’s face it: We’re from Florida. We grew up on some of the best beaches in the world. Before leaving for Asia, I came home to this view every night:

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(Not gonna lie, looking at this picture right now, and then looking out my window at the brick wall of the apartment building next door makes me wonder sometimes why I left it all behind. But if pumpkin spice lattes are here, that means Christmas is coming too, and not even a beach view beats Christmas in Manhattan. Ok, I am losing focus. Back to the beach!)


 
I had come to Asia seeking new experiences, and as much as I loved Thai Island hopping, it just didn’t feel that special to me. This was meant to be the end of my trip. I had been planning to go to the islands on my way to Australia, and then return home, but as I realized that this was going to be my last taste of this continent that I had grown to love, I started having second thoughts. I realized how much I was longing to continue exploring the mainland, the jungles, the remote villages, even the big cities. I just wanted to feel like I was back in Asia! So I decided to extend my trip for another two months. It cost a very pretty penny to make all of those changes at the last minute, but to this day, it is one of the best decisions I ever made.

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With all of my complaining aside, there is no arguing that Koh Phi Phi is absolutely gorgeous. There is a reason they picked it to be the setting for the movie The Beach, and there is a reason that it graces the computer wall paper of about half of the Americans who are stuck behind desks all day, every day (I too once had a stock image of the picture above). Koh Phi Phi is breathtaking, but it is anything but a deserted island these days. It’s nearly impossible to find a stretch of sand empty enough to stretch a towel out on, and the island literally reverberates bass music from rivaling clubs from about noon (when people start waking up) until at least 4 a.m. (about 6 hours after my desired bedtime).

Boring as I might have been compared to the club-hopping energy level of the island- it would be impossible not to have a good time! We took a day sailing tour that included visits to Monkey Beach and Koh Phi Phi Leh/Maya Beach. We went snorkeling, tubing and kayaking. We explored every shop on the island, buying the requisite neon-colored tourist tank tops and filled ourselves with as much pad thai and tom yam as our tummies could hold.

Koh Lanta was the opposite of Phi Phi. Laid back, relaxing and perfect! We arrived at our resort, checked into our two-bed bungalow and never left that beach. Restaurants lined the water behind every resort and we would walk until we were hungry or thirsty, stop for a bite and then keep going. We read, wrote and soaked up the sun in hammocks. Everything about it was heavenly! I could have stayed for weeks, but Australia was calling.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t as camera happy as I should have been while we were beaching it, but you can only take so many bikini pictures before you start feeling a little bit… misguided. So here are a few of my favorite iphone specials from our week in Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. Basically we’ve got beaches, monkeys and boats. Three of my favorite things!

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Of Peace and Incense

August 11, 2013

I was never a particularly big fan of the smell of incense. It’s always kind of reminded me of poorly ventilated dorm rooms and poorly “deoderized” people. I generally gravitate toward lighter scents like fresh linen or clean cotton.
 
When I first landed in Bangkok in January, I was overwhelmed by the smells. It has a uniquely “sweeter” smell than anywhere else I’ve been. Anyone who has visited Bangkok knows exactly what I am talking about… It’s impossible to describe, and even more impossible to forget. I’ve had many conversations about the distinct smell of Bangkok with other travelers after leaving, and the best description we came up with was a combination of rotting fruit (specifically Durian, a sickeningly sweet fruit whose scent just clings to the air and lingers forever), rancid cooking oil, decomposition, and that steamy every-big-city sewer smell.
 
When I arrived, incense just got lumped in with all of the other smells that bombarded me. But as I traveled deeper into Asia, and away from the big city smells, incense took on a familiar and peaceful significance. Naturally, you expect to find it in the temples, but it wasn’t limited by the walls of holy places. You find incense everywhere. In Vietnam it’s in the lobby of every hotel, in altars up and down the sidewalks, and in the doorway of every tailor shop or store. In Indonesia, you could find it sticking out of tree trunks and propped up in bamboo altars on the hoods of cars. After taking motorbikes to the beach, I found that it made me feel like we were “close to home” when I started smelling incense again. After camping in bamboo huts in the-middle-of-nowhere Thailand, I smelled incense on the trek and felt like I was “almost home.”
 
I moved to the Upper West Side of NYC last weekend and as I was exploring my new neighborhood, I caught a whiff of incense. I was immediately whisked away, back to Asia, back to Bangkok, back to Hoi An, back to Bali. I followed my nose to a little Thai restaurant and felt this deep longing for street vendors hawking $1 pad thai and people bowing their greetings, thank yous and goodbyes. Incense has taken on such a secure and familiar significance to me now that for a moment I felt homesick- for Asia.
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Templed Out, Angkor Wat

July 16, 2013

“Templed Out” is an expression used in Cambodian guide books, to describe the point at which you have seen so many ancient temple ruins that you can no longer appreciate them. This varies from person to person, but I discovered that, for me, after about eight hours of exploring the glorious Angkor temples- rocks just start looking like rocks, no matter how they are carved or stacked.
 
You can buy 1-day, 3-day, or week-long passes to visit into the Angkor temples. Passes are $20, $40 or $60 U.S. dollars respectively. It’s about another $10-$15 to rent a tuk-tuk driver for the day, making my visit to Angkor Wat the single most expensive thing I did while I was in Southeast Asia. It’s almost funny how I balked at the price, but I tell you what… you get used to paying $1 for a full meal and suddenly you start thinking in SEAsian prices.
 
During my backpacking trip I traveled with several different travel buddies, Brian being the one I started and ended the trip with and spent most of my time with. We parted ways in Hoi An, Vietnam so that I could do Saigon and Cambodia alone on my way to meet my friend Lesley, who I explored a few islands and Australia with. The thing I love about traveling, especially when hitting the main backpacker points in Southeast Asia, is that it is impossible to ever be truly alone. On my first night in Cambodia, I almost literally ran into a guy named Norbert, who I had spent a few days with in Luang Prabang. He introduced me to Amok (a classic Khmer coconut curry steamed in banana leaves) at the night market and then we parted ways, so that I could get back to my hostel for a good night’s sleep before my early morning temple-ing commenced.
 
People have often asked me if I ever felt that I was in danger while I was traveling alone. To be honest, I really never did. I love traveling alone… however, on this particular night, I did find myself in a position that left me thinking, “Well this might not work out well for me.” As it turned out, everything was okay, but you can read the whole story here later this week. (Mom, you will likely want to skip that one).
 
And now, back to the highlight of my visit to Siem Reap: Angkor Wat.
The Angkor temples are the largest religious compound in the world. There are dozens of temples, and like I said earlier, many history and archaeology buffs can easily spend a week exploring the area, but my tuk-tuk driver and I were both ready to call it a day after seeing:

  •  Angkor Wat
  • Angkor Thom: (Including: Banyon, Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Phimeanakas, and the Terrace of the Leper Kings)
  • Victory Gate
  • Chau Say Tevoda
  • Ta Keo
  • Ta Phrom

In desperate need of someone to take a picture for me, I approached another seemingly solo traveler. He obliged, and we started naturally taking the same path among the ruins. We quickly came upon a couple who were denied entrance to Bayon because her shoulders were showing. Gallantly, I came to the rescue, offering her a pair of elephant pants that I had just purchased (because you know I can’t resist a good bargain on those!) to drape over her shoulders like a shawl. She gratefully accepted and two became four as we made our way around the perimeter of the temple.
 
Exhausted and sweating, the four of us decided to grab lunch and cocounts as our tuk-tuk drivers waited. As we were sitting down to eat, Dan (the solo traveler I met earlier) said the most interesting thing about traveling alone is how difficult it is to find any alone time. We all kind of laughed about his statement, but realized how much truth there was to it. We continued temple-ing together after lunch, and though none of us had cell phones, we all had access to facebook and exchanged information so we could meet up later for dinner.
 
I’ve thought about that phenomenon a lot since coming back to the states. When you are traveling, you immediately have something in common with everyone that you meet: you are traveling. You already know that you share a similar desire to see the world and experience new places, that many people don’t feel. You even have the more specific similarity of geography in common. You have all chosen to spend the time, money and resources to come to the same place. There’s something very unique about the friendships that I have formed while traveling, as I have addressed in previous posts. There is a certain quality of camaraderie that many of my stateside relationships are lacking. It makes me wonder if I could turn the city of New York into a small town by having the mindset that we are all in this together. We all chose to live in this city, to work in this city, to experience the city. Then I step off the curb and almost get side swiped by a speeding taxi and chuckle at the thought.
 

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Faces of Cambodia

July 3, 2013

Some of my favorite faces of Cambodia. The Cambodian kids, like just about all of the kids in Southeast Asia, absolutely captivated me. There were kids selling bracelets, kids selling coconuts, teenage monks rocking out to rap music, and lots and LOTS of posing for pictures… (Some of them clearly not as interested as others) but all just about as darling as can be.
 
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kids selling bracelets, faces of angkor wat, faces of cambodia, cambodian kids
 
faces of angkor wat, faces of cambodia, cambodian kids

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