Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Home Sweet Home

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Well, our trip is over. And being with our families and catching up on six months’ worth of events, stories, and mail (not to mention planning a wedding) has left us without much time to think about blogging during the last two weeks. For this reason, my account of our last three destinations will be (severely) summarized. I hope no one minds.

Sydney was an awesome city, everything we hoped it would be. Downtown is filled with modern skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, and cozy pubs. In its heart, there are some much older stone buildings that contrast spectacularly with the metal and glass surrounding them. It’s much like London in that way. There’s a huge park, and walking through it to the harbor provides perfect views of the city’s skyline and the famous Opera House.

After walking around and discovering all of this ourselves, we noticed a large crowd on the opposite side of the harbor. Heading over, we found the Sydney Aroma Festival, an annual event showcasing coffee, chocolate, tea, and spices. We got some good food and coffee and wandered through the booths. There was a showcase of espresso machines inside one of the ferry terminals, and it was the best part of the festival. Experienced baristas demonstrated how to make the perfect cup of espresso in $3,000-$5,000 machines (and gave out lots of samples). We learned a lot and got very jittery.Our second day in the city was dreary, and we went to the Australian Museum and the National Gallery. On our third day, we took a trip out to the Royal National Park, the second oldest national park in the world (after Yellowstone). That night we went to a one-man comedy show at the opera house, Possessed by Frank Woodley. It was a really unique, hilarious performance.

We left early the next morning for New Zealand. Our flight home included a stopover in Auckland, which we extended to three days. We purchased a budget flight from Auckland to Christchurch so that we could see the South Island, which we were told was even more lovely than the north. Even from the plane, we could tell that New Zealand was beautiful: rolling hills covered with green grass like you’ve never seen. We got to Christchurch in the middle of the night, and the reservation we had made with Thrifty car rental had been lost. There was no car waiting for us. Luckily, Europcar still had a cheap vehicle available (every other company was booked solid). We had originally planned to do some driving that night, but by the time it was all settled we just got in the car and slept in the airport parking lot.

The next day we set out, driving north from Christchurch along the coast and then cutting inland to cross the mountains which span the South Island. We continued all the way to Nelson, on the northern coast. It was absolutely spectacular. It was like nothing else we had seen on the trip so far. Every time the road turned we would stare out the car windows and utter “wow.” The scenery was gorgeous. First, fields of grapes. Then rolling green hills coated with the softest, thickest-looking grass you’ve ever seen, all dotted with fat, fuzzy Murano sheep. Snowcapped peaks became visible, and soon we were climbing into the mountains. We rode through a beautiful river valley, past quaint and charming towns, past hotsprings that filled the riverbed with steam, and up into the snow. We pulled over to play in it a little before carrying on. As we descended, tendrils of fog crept into the plains, casting everything in an eerie light as the sun filtered through it.

We were getting tired by the time we got close to Nelson, but a sign caught our eye: “Rutherford Birthplace.” We stopped, very excited. Ernst Rutherford was a New Zealander, and is well known for his work in atomic physics, especially in working out the structure of the atom. There was a (somewhat funny looking) statue of him as a boy and a nice monument that took you through the events of his life.We arrived in Nelson after dark. It’s one of the larger cities in New Zealand, but its center still looks like a charming small town. Our hostel, the Green Monkey, was one of the most welcoming places we’ve been yet. Looking through a booklet we picked up at the airport, our hostel choice was contingent upon the presence of two things: a fireplace and hot chocolate. This place had both (and marshmallows and lemon cake besides). The other guests were nice, the kitchen was so beautiful and well-equipped that we found ourselves hoping our future kitchen would be as good, and the owners were a married couple who had settled down into running the hostel after a youth spent traveling the world. We went to the grocery store to pick up fixings for pizza, and then took a chilly nighttime walk around town before returning for dinner.

The next day, we planned to get a very early start, but when we awoke to the sounds of a howling storm, we decided to roll over and go back to sleep. It was almost midday by the time the weather cleared and we started out. It was windy and rainy, and we went very slowly along the mountain roads. Tommy was nervous driving on the dizzying roads and took extra care while driving; we were surprised when we saw a police car’s flashing lights behind us, signaling for us to pull over. The very friendly policeman cheerfully explained to us that we had been in fact driving too slowly. We looked so stunned when he told us this that he then asked us if we understood English. It ended well, no ticket, just a New Zealand Highway Patrol postcard and a smile. “A souvenir from your holiday! Ta ta!”

This might be a good time to mention how friendly New Zealanders were. You hear talk about friendly people in different places in the world, but none of the people we encountered anywhere else we have been on this trip could possibly compare to New Zealanders. Of course, the lack of a language barrier is a big help–we may have missed out on some really friendly countries due to our limited fluency. But in New Zealand, everyone we met went out of their way to help us or guide us, even when it wasn’t asked for. When you dealt with people, whether it was behind the rental car desk at the airport or behind the grocery store counter, you felt like they were really listening, really caring, and really thinking about you as an individual person, not just another customer. I strongly suspect that being constantly surrounded by the beautiful scenery of New Zealand would make anyone friendly, given enough time. What a wonderful country.

We drove around the sounds along the northern coast, but couldn’t see much. The weather cleared as we drove down the east coast back to Christchurch. It was an interesting contrast: blue-green water as beautiful as that on any Thai beach, rolling green hills like the Italian countryside, and snow-capped mountains to rival the Alps, all in a single glance along the coastal highway. We pulled over to see some seal colonies on the rocks at the shore’s edge, and someone else, either a local or an Australian visitor, told us we should hike ten minutes up a nearby trail, and we would find a group of baby seals playing in a waterfall pool. We followed his advice, and there they were, adorable baby seals hidden in a little forest pool. Seals are surely a wonder of the animal kingdom: all the adults seem to do is sit, and all these babies seemed to do was play. Someone had thrown some balls in the pool that they were happily pushing around, and when Tommy threw a stick into the water, they turned it into a toy as well. They came very close as we tried to snap pictures in the dim light.It was later than we expected when we finally arrived in Christchurch. Our hostel pamphlet helped us find another good place to spend the night. We cooked a pasta dinner and went to sleep–our last night on foreign soil!

The next day, we had the morning to do a little more sightseeing. We drove towards Akaroa, out on a small peninsula south of Christchurch. After only twenty minutes’ drive out of the city, we came to some of the nicest scenery we’d seen yet. There are some bays that cut into the hilly terrain and just create the most lovely view as you look down from the road. We were sorry to turn around at noon.

We flew from Christchurch to Auckland, where we had a six hour layover before our flight to Los Angeles. Auckland Airport wins the Gold Medal of Security Excellence from ever since we were in Bangkok nearly two months prior and had found that one of our souvenirs had broken while packed in our checked luggage, we had started carrying our bag of souvenirs with us onto airplanes. They were mostly breakable, and so were wrapped up carefully. This time, in Auckland, security saw something suspicious, and began rooting through my bag. They would take a few items out and run it through again. They repeated this multiple times, and the table became strewn with odds and ends from everywhere between Morocco and Australia. Finally, the security guard found what she was looking for: the khanjar we bought in Oman. A knife, with a three-inch blade! And we had taken it on no less than twelve flights without it being caught by security (making us even more resentful of one self-important security guard in Darwin who had haughtily informed us that our duct tape was a dangerous item). Obviously we knew we should not have the knife on the plane, but we begged them to let us check it because of its sentimental value. Because we had already cleared customs, we could not return to the check in (a precaution taken so people do not test security). It took a lot of complaining, a lot of rule clarification, and a little begging, but we managed to get the khanjar checked in Tommy’s backpack. And we’ve never felt so safe boarding a plane before!

A thirteen hour flight sounds like an awful, boring ordeal, but not these days. We immediately turned on our personal TV screens and selected which movies we would watch on the flight home. We enjoyed them while eating dinner and drinking multiple glasses of New Zealand wine. Not a painful journey!

We arrived in LA, feeling strange to be back home in the states. The immigration officers were impressed with the number of stamps in our passports. My brother Joey picked us up at the airport and brought us back to his place just outside of downtown LA. We went out to dinner and then saw some of LA’s best attractions–the shopping malls!

The next day we went to mass at the Cathedral of the Angels. Then we went to Universal Studios for some good old-fashioned American fun. We finished the day with an improv comedy performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade. We met some of Joey’s friends and hung out for a while after the show.

On our last day, Joey had work–at Warner Brothers Studios. Being the awesome brother that he is, he got us visitor passes and showed us around a bit. Among other things, we saw George Clooney’s parking space, the set from ER, and Matthew Perry (thus fulfilling our Los Angeles goal of seeing someone famous).  Joey dropped us off at the subway, and we did some sightseeing. We went to Hollywood Boulevard, of course. We also went to the Walt Disney Opera House and did the free self-guided tour, which was particularly well-done and informative. The Opera House was designed by Frank Gehry (like the Dancing House in Prague). We went to the Grand Central Market for fish tacos, and then took a bus to Rodeo Drive. Our last stop was the lovely Santa Monica pier. Getting back from there took longer than we expected, but we made it back in time for some Mexican food with Joey.

The next morning, he brought us to the airport and we boarded our last two planes. We stared out the window in awe as we descended into New Orleans. The man in the row ahead of us had a GPS and helped us figure out where we were as we flew over Lafayette and continued east. We marveled at the sight of the swampy land surrounding New Orleans. It truly is a landscape like nothing else we have seen on this trip.

Our parents were at the airport, eagerly awaiting our return. It was so good to see them again. We went back to our house in Mandeville and had a big dinner. We had a great time recounting the trip and hearing more about everything that had happened during the three months since we had seen them last. We had called, emailed, and even videoconferenced, but nothing is the same as talking face to face.And so we’re home. And it’s really nice to wear different clothes, to sleep in our own beds, to be with our families, and to not have to unpack and re-pack every few days. But every now and then our minds wander back to one of the wonderful places we have been to and we hope that we will have the opportunity to travel there again. But for now, we are just thankful that we have been privileged enough to take this trip. We have been gifted with understanding and encouraging families, and we have also been lucky enough to have found the perfect lifelong traveling companions in each other. When people ask, “How was it?” there is no easy answer. It was, quite frankly, the best six months of our lives.

Photos from SydneyPhotos from New Zealand

Photos from Los Angeles

Photos from New Orleans 

Time away: 6 months and 3 days

Continents visited: 5

Countries visited: 28

Cities visited: 68

Different languages spoken: 20

Different currencies: 24

Flights taken: 42

Airports visited: 48

Trains taken: 27

Busses taken: 27

Hostels stayed at: 74

Rental cars: 7

Hospital stays: 1

Bags lost: 0

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”  -Henry Miller

Singapore Fling

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

We were sad to be leaving Ko Tao, not only because it marked the end of our paradise beach stay but because we had to repeat the long and painstaking boat and bus trip back to Krabi, and then follow it with a long travel day to Singapore. Fortunately, it ended up going much smoother this time and we arrived in Krabi late at night and decided to just stay with one of the hostel touts fishing for people at the bus station. Our flight plan to Singapore wasn’t too fun; we had to switch planes in Kuala Lumpur over a 5 hour layover. It ended up going by a bit faster than expected because we spent a significant amount of time talking to baggage claim services- my leatherman pocketknife was stolen and my bottle of Armani cologne had been smashed. The latter must have been endured an especially impressive hit. I’ve dropped that glass bottle several times. It is quite thick and was also packed inside multiple bags-short of someone telling me the bag got nailed with a crowbar, I have no idea what could have happened to it. Nevertheless, the backpack smells a lot better now and our travel insurance is supposed to cover 80% of the cost of our stuff due to damage/loss by the airline so hopefully this will end just being a minor inconvenience. We loved our arrival into Singapore. On the plane we read the accompanying wikitravel article we had. A comedian had apparently coined Singapore as “Disney World with the death penalty;” another deemed it “the world’s only shopping mall with a seat in the UN.” In some ways, both of these sentiments proved to be true. Singapore is a tiny city-state, about 3.5x the size of Washingon DC. According to the CIA Factbook, its GDP per capita is ranked the 8th highest in the world (the US comes in at 9th). In the old days, customs officials would force dirty looking backpackers to have a haircut or take a shower before entering the country. Many of these seemingly martinet restrictions have since disappeared but chewing gum and pornography are still illegal (as are publications by Jehovah Witnesses); being caught trafficking drugs results in a mandatory death sentence. As we took the subway from the airport to our hostel, I couldn’t help but liken Singapore to being something like an Asian London. The city struck us as being very safe, somewhat expensive, and very clean. The humidity made it a bit sticky (this was actually the closest we have ever been to the equator) but like living in Louisiana, you can spend most of your day in the air conditioning and hardly get affected by the heat.

We were a bit exhausted from the long day so we did little that night except eat dinner and fall sleep. We found a nice Indian place to satiate our hunger. As always, it was superbly delicious. To recover from our flight from the day before, we decided to sleep in a bit our first day. Most of our hostels on this trip have supplied breakfast quite generically, ie Western-style breakfasts, such as eggs and toast. But now and then, we’ve been able to get a little something extra. This time it was “kaya,” a delicious coconut jam that comes in unfortunate green color. We were also served dragon fruit, but somewhat to our disappointment, no durian. Being an obviously very urban city we spent most of our days walking around town. We first went to go see the legendary Raffles Hotel, so that we can imagine where we would be staying on our next trip to Singapore. Afterwards, we found ourselves stumbling down Orchard Street, the miles long home of innumerable shopping malls. We stopped into one that also had a cinema and we went to go see Get Smart! The sun had set and everyone had left work for the mall by the time we were let out of the cinema. We decided to spend a little bit of time looking for anything interesting that we could also find on sale- we both found a few things but being hungry, we decided to return tomorrow instead. We had been craving, though hesitant, to eat sushi over the past few weeks. Seeing as we were in a country whose hygienic standards are likely stricter than that US’s, we sought out to find the perfect sushi restaurant, which we eventually succeeded in another mall down Orchard Street. We enjoyed an after-dinner street-side snack of ice cream sandwiches as we strolled down Orchard looking for yet another mall, this one known to contain a huge Border’s store. We found this as well, but we were dismayed by the prices that were sometimes double the US prices. We had hoped that the multinational chain would have lower prices than some of the local shops we had peering into earlier in the day but we were a bit disappointed to find that this wasn’t the case. We returned back home close to midnight with the intent of waking up a bit earlier the following day.

The next day we set out to try to take advantage of the month-along summer annual “Great Singapore Sale,” where retailers evidently discount their wares. We ended up both buying enough clothes to realize we would have some problems on our next flight with its 15kg/person weight limit. I also bought durian flavored ice cream sandwich. Durian has often been described as smelling like “sewage” or decay. Officially, it is an offense to carry it on public transport or bring it into a hotel room, the smell is so bad. The best way I can describe its taste is to say that it is something close to the “warm” sweetness of a fruit that is about to go bad. It didn’t leave the nicest aftertaste in my mouth and Katie deplored the way it made my breath smell so we decided that we likely wouldn’t need to try the real thing. Interesting enough though, it made us realize that the awful smell we often perceived in fruit markets all over the tropics was nothing more than durian (and that all the fruits for sale were not rotting, as the overlaying stench suggested)!

We had been needing to finish up some blogging as well as submit a scholarship application so we returned to the hostel during the hottest part of the day to take advantage of their free internet. For dinner that night we found a small food court where Katie got half a barbequed fish and I was able to satiate my rekindled Indian food craving.
We spent our final, half-day doing nothing more than wrapping up a few loose ends. Having spent the previous few weeks with unreliable Internet, we video conferenced with our parents in the morning. After that, we picked up a copy of Jane Austen’s Emma (We enjoyed Persuasion so much we decided to keep reading the Austen series, albeit backwards). After getting our final Asian noodle dishes for lunch but before having to take the subway to the airport, we went to go take some pictures of the Raffles Hotel, something we neglected the day prior.

Aside from having to both carry on an additional bag of “stuff” so as to avoid the overweight baggage fees, we were stunned to discover that Australia requires a visa for all nationalities. Though we have no idea how we missed this, as we checked and rechecked visa requirements for all the countries we were visiting, as Americans we qualified for an “e-visa” which the airline took care of for us in less than 15 minutes by just making some mouse clicks over the Internet. Though a bit annoyed by what was essentially hardly anything more than a governmental tax, we were grateful that we had no other surprises till our arrival in Australia. (I tried to use my Polish passport as I am a bit low on free visa pages in my American one, but I was told that Poles don’t qualify for an e-visa.) One thing that we did encounter when we landed in Darwin, almost 4 hours later, was how incredibly strict the custom agents were. Many people were having their luggage hand-inspected and a number of items which are typically not a problem in other countries were highly scrutinised by the agents. We were nervous about our wooden nativity scene we purchased in Bethlehem. Though sealed with lacquer, we were afraid of problems as one particularly macho looking agent gave an Asian fellow hell, as he hand-inspected his luggage one pair of undies at a time, for having a wooden elephant statue with him. Deciding to act a little more sheepish and naive than perhaps we really are, we guiltily declared our can of Nescafe as food being brought into the country. We had a cordial chat with a young officer, during which we continually expressed concern about the Nescafe. A bit charmed and likely annoyed, he checked with a superior and said it would be okay. After a pass through an X-ray machine and not having to endure a moment more of further scrutiny we passed through with our souvenirs not earning a second’s more attention.

The Packing List

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

When we started traveling and going abroad, we got in the habit of writing a post about what we were bringing with us. It proved to be an invaluable way to help us pack for the next time. So, here’s what we’re bringing with us for the next six months! All in all, Tommy is carrying about 40-50 lbs and Katie around 30-40. Our parents are meeting us in March and will bring us some new clothes, take off some of our cold weather clothing, and replace our reading material.


– 2 internal frame backpacks, 105/90 L capacity

– 2 booksacks

– 2 cotton towels

– money belts (passports, immunization certificates, credit/debit cards, international/us drivers license, international student id cards, health insurance, scuba diving license)

– nylon travel hammock

– PDA + collapsible keyboard, charger, SD to USB converter, and 2gb SD card (2007 CIA World Factbook, entire Wikipedia sans images, English dictionary, Eng/Spanish dictionary, entire IMDB, international dialing code spreadsheet, unabridged Shakespeare, US Army survival manual, The Count of Monte Cristo, Civil Disobedience, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, wikitravel articles on all cities we’re visiting, all hostel reservations, airline reservations, trip budget spreadsheet)

– Ipod + charger, all of our combined music libraries, podcasts (Advanced Spanish grammer, introductory Arabic), Polish for beginners course

– cell phone + charger, world SIM card

– rechargeable batteries (8), charger

– books (His: The Fate of Africa, Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse, The Haunted Land, In Spite of the Gods, Palestine and the Arab-Isreali Conflict, The Pol Pot Regime, Spanish verbs; Hers: A Short History of the World, A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, The Selfish Gene, The Lying Stones of Marrakech, Colloquial Polish beginner’s course with book and CD’s on iPod)

– birding field guides (Princeton Field Guides: Birds of Africa south of the Sahara, Birds of Europe, Birds of India, and Birds of Southeast Asia; Birds of Australia by Graham Pizzey and Roy Doyle)

– binoculars

– field bag

– 2 Moleskin notebooks and pens

– sketchpad, pencils, eraser

– converters, step down transformer, extension cord

– sunglasses

– handheld digital scale

– magnetic chess set

– Leatherman

– lighter

– bug spray

– toilet paper

– clothes line/retractable reel

– utensils in linen cloth

– locks (cable, padlock, three-wheel)

– lexan wineglasses and wine bottle opener

Princeton tec impulse flashlight, Petzl TIKKA headlamp

– small pillows

– digital cameras + 2 2gb SD cards, 2 4gb flashdrives, pelican strongbox, manual, small tripod

– Repair Kit (zip ties, sewing kit, spare batteries, duct tape, electric tape, twist ties, zip lock/garbage bags, rubber bands, spare straps, connectors, paper clips, safety pins, shoe laces, pencil, marker, carabiner)

– First Aid kit (doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, malarone, acetazolamide, ibuprofen, immodium, benadryl, fibercon, melatonin, midol, fluconazole, zyrtec, tape, gloves, betadine, alcohol pads, band aids, ors powder, theraflu, activated charcoal, tweezers, eye drops, earplugs, neosporin, antibiotic drops, iodine tablets, gauze, space blanket, scalpels, needles, thermometer, vomit bags, cavi wipes, ace wrap, moleskin, hand warmers, handsanitizer, Field Guide to Wilderness Medicine)

– toiletries (standard stuff)

– document wallet (flight reservations, plane/rail tickets, insurance policy, dive charts, extra passport photos, passport xeroxes)

– compasses

His clothes:

– Socks (6 calf, 5 ankle length)

– Boxers (4 cotton, 3 under armour)

– pants (1 khaki, 1 jean, 1 NorthFace converter, 1 Hyvent rainpants, brown leather belt)

– beanie, gloves, nack gaiter, thermal underwear

– Marmot Radiator 300 wt Polartec fleece

– NorthFace Hyvent rainjacket

– undershirts (1 longsleeve cotton, 2 underarmours)

– shirts (3 longsleeve, 1 cotton polo, 1 coolmax polo)

– shorts (1 nylon, 1 cotton)

– rubber overshoes

– reef flipflops

– Lands End ankle hiking shoes

Her clothes:

– pants (1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of Northface converters, rainpants, gym shorts)

– skirts (1 short, 1 long)

– shirts (4 short-sleeved cotton, 2 long-sleeved, 1 tank top, 1 underarmor)

– Marmot fleece with rainjacket

– light jacket

– hat

– gloves, neck gaiter, thermal leggings

– 7 pairs of underwear (4 cotton, 3 Ex-officio)

– 3 bras

– Reef flip flops

– Lowa hiking boots

– socks (4 ankle-length, 3 higher smartwool pairs)

Around the World in 190 Days

Friday, December 28th, 2007

Two and a half years ago, we got a crazy idea. What if we graduated a semester early and took a six-month trip around the world?

Well, it seemed crazy at first, but somehow we knew it had to be possible. After factoring in hostels, budget airlines, and a few helpful hours of AP credit, we realized that we would have the money and time to do it. And we would never get another opportunity like this.

So, on January 13, 2008, we are setting off on the adventure of a lifetime. This blog will document our travels with stories and photographs. You can check our itinerary by clicking on the link to the right, and the photo thumbnails will take you to our Flickr photo page. Currently we have some shots up from our trip last summer to Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia.

So if you’d like to follow our travels, check back frequently during the next six months!