Thursday, March 29, 2012

My 7 Super Travel Shots

My friends Gerard and Kieu from GQTrippin tagged me to participate in 7 Super Shots, a game started by Hostelbookers to encourage travelers to share their best photos. I was floored by Gerard and Kieu's photos of India — you must hop over to their blog and check them out!

As I chose a photo to fit each of the seven categories, I realized I had already posted several of these photos on the blog or on my Facebook page. Once I snap a good shot, I just can't resist sharing it! I hope you'll forgive me for the repeats and enjoy the new ones.

And... I may have gone a little overboard for #5. Let's all just smile and act like it's perfectly normal, OK? : )

1. A photo that takes my breath away.

I spent an entire day in Hervey Bay, Australia, walking along the beach. I literally had nothing better to do, and that fact made me incredibly happy. At the turnaround point of my walk, I got a big ol' ice cream cone and watched a wedding party take late-afternoon photos by Urangan Pier.

The view as I walked back, as you can see, wasn't half bad.

2. A photo that makes me laugh or smile.

I was amazed when my sunscreen squirted out into this perfect smiley ghost face on the beach in Paihia, New Zealand. I still got sunburned, so now I think the smiley ghost was mocking me.

I'm not upset, though. Who could stay mad at that face?

3. A photo that makes me dream.

I caught this sunrise a few hours before I landed in New Zealand to begin my round-the-world trip. Most people on the plane were asleep, but I was wide awake, staring out the window and dreaming of all that was in store for me in the next year.

It was an incredible way to kick off the adventure.

4. A photo that makes me think.

I did approximately zero research about New Zealand's Tongariro Alpine Crossing before I tackled the 19.4 km (12 mi) hike, and I was shocked to see this view of the Emerald Lakes once I reached the top of an incredibly rocky and foggy climb. This is actually the most famous part of the Crossing, but, to me, it was just a stunning surprise. I think my reaction was along the lines of, "Holy shit!"

It always boggles my mind that places this ridiculously beautiful exist on our planet.

5. A photo that makes my mouth water.

I couldn't choose just one — yes, I love food that much — so I present you with breakfast, lunch and dinner:

Room service/hangover cure from Hotel Fifty in Portland, Oregon.

The best fish tacos I've ever had from Sweet Home Waimanolo in Waimanolo, Hawaii (island of Oahu). I had this for lunch two days in a row — perfection.

The greatest cupcake of all time from The Sweetest Things in Sydney, Australia. Yes, this is what I meant by "dinner." Shhh, don't question it.

6. A photo that tells a story.

This bench in Portland played a huge part in my decision to quit my job and travel the world. Here is the story of how I realized I wanted to live an unhurried life.

7. A photo that I am most proud of (aka my National Geographic-worthy shot).

I just wrote about how I captured this shot from the Harbour Bridge after a miserable, rainy morning in Sydney. It was such a surreal moment. When I think of Sydney, I will always think of how I felt as I took in this view.


Time to pass along the fun! I nominate the following travel bloggers to share their 7 super shots:

Also, if you have a travel blog and would like to participate, consider yourself tagged! I'm a rebel like that. Feel free to link to your photos in the comments!

There are very few things I love more than travel photos... like chocolate cupcakes. : )


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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 31: Magic in Sydney

After I enjoyed the breathtaking Bondi to Bronte walk, it rained all night and all morning in Sydney. Like, it really rained.

This is what greeted me upon my awakening.

I’m from Seattle, but we don’t often have rain like this — rain that makes you look up at the sky in disbelief, wondering just where, exactly, all that water is coming from. Every square inch of cloud seemed to fire a thousand massive drops per second, and, just you wait, there’s more where that came from.

I appreciate this kind of rain for its commitment. Seattle is good at half-assed rain: mist, sprinkles, light showers, sunshowers and the like. Nothing says the Pacific Northwest like that low, oppressive blanket of gray that hangs overhead and releases a constant drizzle from, oh, November through April.

But this torrential rain I’ve experienced in Australia and New Zealand doesn’t mess around. It goes full out. It says, “Hello, people of the South Pacific. I am really going to shit all over you.”

I spent the first half of the day staring out of the rain-spattered windows of my friend’s Double Bay flat and willing the downpour to stop. Despite owning a good waterproof jacket and an umbrella, I had zero desire to splash around Sydney in that mess.

I felt like a horrible traveler — just like I feel when I go to McDonald’s or fail to strike up a conversation with a stranger — but then I decided this is my trip, and I’m the only person who has to like my decisions. It still bothered me a bit to stay in, but I contented myself with blogging and catching up on other Internet stuff.

Finally, around 3:00, the rain stopped! I immediately pulled myself together and headed to downtown Sydney.

I absolutely love the Sydney train system. It’s easy to navigate, the cars are spacious and clean and I never had to wait more than five minutes for a train. I hopped two trains to reach Circular Quay — right on Sydney Harbour — and broke into a huge smile as soon as I exited the station.

There was the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There was the iconic opera house. There was— oooh, is that ice cream?

With a two-scoop cone in hand, I meandered toward the opera house filled with the kind of joy I only get when I see a famous place in person for the first time. It’s one thing to see a landmark on a postcard or in a magazine; it’s entirely different to see it right in front of you and realize, “Wow, I’m really here.”

I was perfectly content to sit with my ice-cream cone and just absorb this place. The sky had cleared, leaving only wisps of the angry clouds that had put a damper on my morning. All was forgiven.

The Sydney Opera House is stunning whether you view it from afar or up close. I loved wandering between its sails and examining the intricate tile work.

I had no idea that one sail actually houses a swanky restaurant! Maybe someday I'll be a fancypants and eat there, but this time, I just gawked and took photos with my fellow tourists.

I particularly loved these ladies, who were clearly BFFs (or even sisters? twins?), as they tried time after time to strike the same pose simultaneously while their patient hubbies snapped away from the stairs below. They just giggled the whole time; it was adorable.

I think they got it. Eventually.

The afternoon was growing short at this point, but I figured I could squeeze in a walk across the Harbour Bridge before the sun set. In all my preparedness, I wandered through The Rocks in the general direction of the bridge and randomly found the correct set of stairs. Win!

The bridge's walkway was filled with commuters, tourists and runners. I was so jealous of the runners, but I didn't come dressed to haul ass across the bridge. I just shuffled along in my jeans and ballet flats and took a million photos instead.

I felt a bit ridiculous stopping every 10 steps to take photos, but the view seemed to get more awesome the farther I walked.

And then... this happened.

What a surreal moment to catch sight of this after a morning of being trapped inside and feeling down in the dumps due to rain.

What a surreal moment in general.

The next day, I posted that photo on my Tumblr along with this:

If you are thinking of changing your life, do it. 
It will be hard. It will be scary. You will question yourself over and over. 
But if you relentlessly pursue what it is you really want, you will one day find yourself in such a situation where life looks more beautiful than you ever could have possibly imagined. 
Right place. Right time. And I never could have been here if I hadn’t listened to what my heart whispered to my mind, and if I hadn’t fully committed the day my mind whispered back, “OK. Let’s do this.”

And that, my friends, has been my favorite moment of traveling so far. No question.


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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 46: Something to Aspire To

From Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain:

To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. 
To feel the joy of life. 
To separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. 
To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. 
I am. 
That is something to aspire to.

If you haven’t read this book yet, please do. And do it now.

I fell out of the habit of reading for pleasure when I took a job that required me to scrutinize advertising copy and legal disclaimers for eight hours a day, five days a week.

Once I retired my red pen at 5:00 and rubbed my eyes clear of that day’s blur of misplaced apostrophes and their/they’re mishaps, the last thing I wanted to do was read. What a damn shame.

With the help of my Kindle and hours of free time on buses and planes, I’ve rediscovered my love of reading. I’ve enjoyed the Millenium trilogy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and, just this morning as I traveled from Brisbane to Noosa, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

I had forgotten what it feels like to become engrossed in a fictional work, to want the words to melt off the pages and seep directly into your body. There are books you read, and then there are books you consume.

I have endless admiration for those authors who can construct personalities, histories, interactions, conflicts, tragedies and mysteries in such a way that is not only captivating and believable, but soul-stirring. It’s one thing to translate incredible real-life events into tidy paragraphs, but it’s entirely another to conjure an intricate fictional world using only the vapors of one’s imagination.

I believe that a writer who does this successfully — whose characters and plots and masterful strings of words cause readers to erupt in joyful laughter, clutch at their throats in suspense or shed stinging tears of grief — is not a writer at all. He is a magician.

I suppose this post is not so much about travel, but about the fact that my new traveling lifestyle has allowed me to reconnect with something I’d loved for so long and then lost.

Reading — whether the books were fiction or non-fiction (I love autobiographies) — always taught me something. It helped me learn new words and phrases; it opened my mind to different ideas and worldviews; and it helped me understand that every person’s life is an entirely unique experience, but we’re all more alike than we tend to think.

Then, one day, reading wasn’t about learning and growing anymore. It was about ensuring that words were cobbled together in a specific way to persuade the reader to buy this, join that or subscribe/enroll/call TODAY! For a LIMITED TIME ONLY!

The words didn’t have to inspire anyone or elicit joy or even make sense. They just had to sell.

Those are the words that have cluttered my brain for two years, the words that made my life a tiny bit worse each day. Those are the words I’ve spent the last several months clearing out.

And now there is room for new words — words like those above from Garth Stein. Those are the kind of words that I want to bounce around in my mind, emitting echoes of hope and lightness and peace in the days and weeks after I read them.

To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am.

I am.

That is something to aspire to.

I am so happy to have room for words like these.

I am so thankful for the magicians.


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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 10: Mountaintop Horse Trek at Blue Duck Lodge

Many of my childhood vacation memories are set in one of two places: at the homes of family members and on the rides of theme parks in Southern California, or somewhere around the 3,000-acre grounds of Sun Mountain Lodge above Washington's Methow Valley.

I think of Sun Mountain Lodge like I reflect on a dream. My last visit was more than 10 years ago, so rather than crystal-clear memories, my brain has held onto wisps of details: the anticipation of stopping for a two-scoop ice-cream cone in Winthrop; the delight of spying on a stunning outdoor wedding from the window of our guest room; and, most of all, the joy of riding horses along rocky mountaintop trails with my mom. (My dad and brother were tough guys, so they rode mountain bikes instead.)

When the Stray bus wound its way along a single-lane gravel road to Blue Duck Lodge on the North Island of New Zealand, the property's remote beauty reminded me of Sun Mountain. I knew I had to explore it on horseback.

The lodge is situated on Retaruke Station, which boasts more than 5,000 acres of tracked land. My group only had time for a three-hour trek, but apparently one can ride for at least a week without using the same trail twice!

Four other girls and I met up with Chad, the lodge’s resident horse whisperer, and saddled up after a brief overview of how to mount and ride a horse. I needed the review after 10+ years!

With two incredibly well-trained dogs at our sides, we slowly headed out of the corral and onto a winding path.

It took me a few minutes to relax on the horse and remember that it knew what it was doing. I just needed to sit there and not fall off!

Chad asked us what we’d like to see, and we simply requested scenic views of the area. Luckily, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery at Blue Duck.

I absolutely loved the serenity of touring the grounds on horseback. Chad did a fantastic job of telling us about interesting plants and bugs (he found a stick insect at one point!), and the dogs occasionally cleared herds of cattle from the trail for us.

Our trail became really steep for a while as we headed to the top of a ridge, and Chad instructed us to lean forward and hold onto the horse’s mane for dear life. Occasionally my horse would stumble over a rock and do a little jump to recover, and, holy crap, you can bet I gripped that mane like no other. Chad said this doesn’t hurt the horse at all, but it still felt weird!

As the steep trail leveled out, incredible views unfolded before us.

We tied our horses to a fence and scrambled up an even steeper incline to get a better look. Blue Duck apparently plans to build another lodge near here that will take full advantage of this view, which is just about the best idea I’ve ever heard — it’s insanely beautiful.

(I’m writing this poolside in an Australian resort town called Surfers Paradise, and still, I’m wistful for those New Zealand vistas.)

Chad pointed out the dark, hazy clouds in the not-so-far distance and informed us that we’d soon be the lucky victims of a massive downpour. Sweet! After a few minutes of taking in the view, we hopped back on our horses and headed a different way down the ridge.

Now begins the surreal portion of this adventure. Imagine riding a horse down a steep, narrow path as you watch torrents of fat raindrops creep closer and closer. When the storm finally hits you, the sun peeks out and lights up the lush valley below. You’re soaked to the bone in less than a minute, but you don’t care — you just laugh and look around and wonder how exactly it was that you ended up riding a horse down a mountain during a sunshower in New Zealand.

The rain let up after about 10 minutes, and we enjoyed the rest of the ride in sunny peace. We even saw a rainbow! Simply magical.

Near the end of our three-hour trek, we passed the main building of the lodge…

…and the dorms where my fellow backpackers and I stayed, and the horses easily put a smile on every onlooker’s face as we clip-clopped along.

Of all the awesome things I’ve done in New Zealand and Australia so far, this horse trek has been my favorite — no question. In fact, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!

I nearly balked at the $150 cost, but I’m so glad I chose to go for it. You just can’t put a price on the kind of unforgettable moments I experienced.

My only regret? I wish I had more than one afternoon and evening to experience Blue Duck Lodge. The owner is always looking for backpackers to stay and work for a minimum of one month in exchange for free lodging, and I would’ve done it in a heartbeat if I had a working holiday visa and the time to spare. Two people from my bus actually did stay!

I would just love to unplug for a month (no Internet or cell reception) and learn my way around the ranch, work with the horses, hunt wild goats and make goat curry for dinner, zoom around on a four-wheeler, discover new running paths every day and more.

Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll do just that.


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Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 40: In Transit

As my Greyhound bus pulls out of Sydney’s Central Station, I watch hordes of girls in tight dresses and sky-high heels totter toward the entrances of bars and clubs. They hang on to the arms of boys who are clad in festive green shirts, hats, beads and more.

It is that most epic of drinking holidays: St. Patrick’s Day.

I won’t be celebrating tonight, though. I’ve just flown in from Melbourne and hopped on a train to reach the Greyhound pickup point. Now, I quietly observe the massive queues of party goers stretching from every hot spot as I settle into my seat for a nice 12-hour overnight bus ride. I can’t help but smile.

I’ve had my fair share of green beer and soda bread. I’ve uncoordinatedly bounced along with Irish step dancers. I’ve desperately borrowed green clothing from friends and wickedly pinched those who didn’t put in the same effort.

Tonight, I’m happy to miss out on all that as I hurtle up Australia’s east coast to my next destination. I’m happy to be in transit.

I often feel this strange contentment wash over me as I watch the world shrink below me through an airplane window, or as I navigate a city’s public-transit system for the first time. It’s the feeling of knowing exactly where I’m going, yet having no idea what awaits me there. I have no fear — just delicious anticipation.

The sun rises over the South Pacific on my flight to New Zealand.

I think back on my life in Seattle and remember how I hesitated to venture out to nearby neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill and Queen Anne, because I didn’t know quite how to find my way around. (Part of that was because I disliked driving and hated trying to find parking, even though buses were available.) I usually stayed in my little corner of Ballard or ventured back to my familiar hometown of Woodinville. In other words, I played it safe and explored very little.

There is no bad view in New Zealand.

Out here… well, I have no choice. Every day, I find my way around new places using all types of transportation: buses, trains, trams, ferries, water taxis, airplanes and — my favorite — my feet.

That’s not to say that I’m a master of all these things. I’ve definitely embarrassed myself trying to figure out where to buy a Melbourne tram ticket, and, when I have to ask for help, my American accent screams, “LOOK AT ME! I’M NEW HERE!”

But that all comes with the territory, and the initial fumbling inevitably gives way to understanding. Mastery. Blending in.

Most of all, once I’m on a bus or train or ferry going wherever, I love that I feel capable. Maybe I used to stay so close to home because I feared I wouldn’t be able to figure things out.

Now there’s no question that I’ll figure everything out eventually. It may not be the most graceful process, but I have confidence in myself to do it.

The unknown is no longer a deterrent. It’s an invitation.

I lost my return train ticket out of downtown Sydney, so I hopped on a commuter ferry instead. I've never been happier to lose something.

I’ve done plenty of exciting things during my 40 days of traveling, but I’m finding that these little, happy moments to myself are the most meaningful.

I can look back on my thousands of travel photos to remember all the fun I had, but to summon this particular good feeling, I need only to drink in the scenery from the window of a moving vehicle or take a deep breath as an airplane lifts off from the tarmac.

I always look forward to the doing. Now I remember to savor the going, too.


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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Day 32: Foodie Heaven at Taste of Sydney

"Testicle #10!" the woman yells. "Testicle #10?"

The surrounding customers snicker a bit as I step forward with my ticket.

I am, as it happens, testicle #10. File that under things I never thought I'd type.

Before you start getting any crazy ideas, this scene took place at Taste of Sydney, an annual pop-up restaurant festival that features many of Sydney's leading restaurants, wineries and artisan producers. My friend's roommate casually mentioned to me Friday morning that this was going on, and I was immediately sold. As in, how quickly can I get there?

After buying a $55 ticket online — which included my entry and $30 worth of Crowns, the festival's currency for buying food and drinks — I walked 3 km to beautiful Centennial Park for the noon session of Taste of Sydney.

Almost there!

I collected my ticket, book of Crowns and menu card at the box office and was ready to go!

Upon entering Taste of Sydney, I was immediately thrilled to be there. It was a bit fancy-schmancy and not very crowded. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. And I've been making food from the grocery store all this week, so I was totally ready to gorge myself on delicious bites from local restaurants.

Note: I photographed everything I ate, so if you don't want to see animal testicles, this is your fair warning to jump ship right now. Run, don't walk.

I did a lap of the festival to get my bearings, and then studied the menu card to figure out which dishes were worthy of my Crowns. The first item that caught my eye was the traditional charcoal BBQ lamb and veal kebab, smoked eggplant and Chobani Greek yogurt from the Turkish restaurant Efendy. Yum!

I headed over to the Efendy stand just in time to overhear an older Australian gentleman inquiring about lamb testicles. Oh, yes, I had seen those on the menu, too: pan-fried lamb testicles with almond tarator — only 20 available per session.

The woman behind the counter confirmed that they were still available, and the guy was so freakin’ happy. He was then handed a numbered slip of paper and became, naturally, testicle #9.

I asked this man if he’d eaten testicles before and if they were good, and he responded, “Of course. They’re gorgeous!”

But of course. Ah, what the hell. I decided to abandon my original plan and get some testicles, too.

I wasn’t grossed out by the appearance of this dish, but I made sure not to think too much before I dug in. I can only describe the texture as sort of like fatty, oily chicken. There wasn’t any particularly strong flavor involved, and the almond tarator didn’t add anything exciting. By the time I’d reached the third… um… piece, I was very aware of what I was eating. I didn’t want to wimp out, though, so I polished off the whole damn thing.

So… what do you even eat after that? I resumed my search for a tasty dish and settled on the slow-cooked and caramelized short rib with bone marrow persillade from Quarter Twenty One.

This. Was. Heaven.

The short rib was impossibly moist, tender and rich. The mashed potatoes were whipped into smooth perfection. I set down my knife and fork after the first bite and just reveled in the flavor. I’m not a super-sophisticated food connoisseur or anything, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I wanted it to go on forever.

What the hell are these people eating? Short ribs for life!

Pause. Breathe. Make it count.

I chatted with a woman who also had the short rib, and she said she visits Taste of Sydney every year and uses about 150 Crowns ($150 worth of food and drinks).

“30 Crowns are never enough,” she emphasized. “Not even 100 Crowns are enough.”

Hardcore. But I was beginning to think she was right.

I knew no other meat could top the short rib for me, so I went with seafood next — the Hiramasa kingfish double crunch sushi roll from Saké Restaurant and Bar.

It was a miniature raw delight featuring a refreshing flavor I didn’t expect: parsley! I just love me some sushi.

With that, I was out of Crowns, but I knew I had to have some dessert. On my way to purchase a $10 booklet, I spied a Chobani truck giving away free Greek yogurt.

The (very cute) guys in the truck informed me that blueberry was the best flavor, so I chose based on their advice. I plopped down on a red bean-bag and enjoyed it in the sunshine.

I then perused Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine for a bit in order to give my stomach time to free up some space for sweets. I found a recipe for prune and fudge brownies — I’m an unabashed prune-lover — and the first direction is to soak the prunes in Cognac for two to four days. Jeeves, fetch the decanter!

Back to the eating. I could have easily chosen one of many desserts that cost 10 Crowns a pop, but where’s the fun in that? With a little strategy and a little more guilt (which I promptly squashed), I chose Black Forest cake gelato for four Crowns…

… and one of these magnificent creations for six Crowns. Can you guess which one?

If you guessed the most chocolate-y combination of cupcake and frosting available, you win!

My God, it was beautiful. And delicious. I’m pretty sure edible glitter significantly improves lives.

After devouring the cupcake, I was out of Crowns and really out of stomach space — but I didn't want to leave quite yet. I was happy as a clam at Taste of Sydney and wanted to hang out a bit longer.

Luckily, I happened upon a cooking demonstration by big-shot Sydney chef Justin North.

He spent 45 minutes whipping up some delicious dishes involving pears and duck fat and some other stuff. I was paying more attention to the pear samples being passed around along with blue cheese and brie, but I did catch Justin's advice that everyone should keep some rendered duck fat in their fridge for everyday cooking. It keeps beautifully, you know.


After this, I headed back to my friend's flat in a state of utter contentment. The 3 km walk back was wonderful, as it helped me digest and featured lovely tree-lined, sun-drenched sidewalks like this:

Yup. It was pretty much a perfect day in travel-land.


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