I usually travel alone.

I'm not antisocial, but as a teacher I usually have a decent amount of time and money simultaneously. It's absurd how rare that is with any other job. My friends mean well - they will usually say, "Yeah! Let's plan it! I'm totally in!" when I say I want to go somewhere far away. Then I get crushed when they back out at the last minute.

That's why I usually travel alone. There are hundreds of reasons to do so, many of which I mention in these posts. But what it comes down to is: Either learn to get along in strange places without your friends, or stay home.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Cuba: Cars, Castro, Churros and Che

I went to Cuba! It was fabulous.


This pic only took 5 tries and a heavy filter to look good. #progress

Even with the loosening restrictions on US - Cuba travel, the embargo is still in place and currently  Americans still need "a reason" to go to Cuba.  According to the US-Cuba embassy site :

The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba from the US are:


  1. family visits; 
  2. official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; 
  3. journalistic activity; 
  4. professional research and professional meetings;
  5.  educational activities; 
  6. religious activities; 
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  8. support for the Cuban people; 
  9. humanitarian projects; 
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; 
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; 
  12. and certain authorized export transactions.
Some of you might have a connection to one of the above reasons, but be aware that at least officially, you are expected to have plenty of documentation justifying your trip that can be checked at the border. For instance, a school ID for "educational activities" would not be sufficient. 

I've heard of people going on their own and not having to "prove" their reason, but to play it safe (who wants to spend their vacation worrying if some power-hungry border guard is going to give you issues?), I went with a tour group (Cuba explorer; I'll put details at the end of the entry). 

Now. This tour ended up being an incredible experience and totally worth the issues I had with them while I was still in the states. But jesus christ. We had issues. After sending them a (large!) deposit for the trip, I'd get an email saying "Here's your receipt for the deposit," (great!) and then months later, get another email saying "We HAVENT RECEIVED your deposit! IF YOU DON'T PAY we can't guarantee your spot!" Additionally, their site is not secure, so I just closed my eyes and prayed as I entered my credit card details for payments (for those not aware, not using a secure socket layer on web pages that are used for payments, which looks like 'https' in your browser URL instead of just 'http' is a huge, basic security no-no). Basically every email and payment I sent had to be screen-shotted and resent to prove that I did what I was supposed to do. Maybe you are the type of person who can brush this type of thing off, I found it enraging. 

Anyway, it was all worth it when I got to Havana! I flew American Airlines the whole way without incident and our tour guide was waiting for me at the gate. She gathered a few more people who had arrived on earlier flights and we went right through customs with her and skipped the long lines. The men in our group were probably sad about this expedited arrival, because the female security employees at the airport wear the sexiest outfits I've ever seen. 


I didn't take any pics but here's one I found on another blog. 

The group was mostly comprised of married retirees, with a few families. There were 15 of us total and we rode around Cuba in a lil minibus. It never fails to amaze me that families with multiple siblings a) travel as a unit and b) don't rip each other to shreds after day 4. I can only assume the family members were all heavily medicated. 

Our guide was incredible. Ari is a young (27ish?) Cuban woman who spoke wonderful English and knew everything we wanted to know about Cuba. Hundreds of historical dates memorized? Yep. Exact locations of where different battles and events happened? Yes. Entire lives of Cuban artists and their respective movements perfectly recited? Also yes. Deftly reconciling the major rift between ideologies of a pro-Fidel history professor and the people living in crumbling infrastructure on the street? Multiple times a day. She knew every type of building material, fish, cigar brand, rum brand,  and monument. She knew the best place to take a picture from to get the whole city in the background. And most importantly of all, she introduced me to a Cuban street food dessert called Chiviricos which are sold wrapped in, you guessed it, old printer paper (the kind with the holes on strips on either side). 

A greasy, sugary fried dough specimen called a chivirico. Best enjoyed while meandering through narrow Havana streets (and not indoors, because the sugar gets everywhere).
More or less, we stuck to this itinerary, so I'll give you a few details that aren't evident from that:

The food was always lovely (although if I was full vegetarian and not pescatarian I would have been mighty hungry); basic but with plenty of herbs and spices. Rice and beans were featured at almost every meal; apparently Cubans eat more rice per capita than some Asian countries, and they import it since it doesn't grow well here. 

The old cars are seriously everywhere, but only the ones used as taxis are kept in pristine condition. You'll see plenty of classic beauties rusted over and falling apart. While these gorgeous cars make for an awesome sight, they also spew pollution constantly (which, combined with the penchant for cigar smoking, perhaps contributed to Cuba being the first place where a vaccine for lung cancer was concocted) and even the well looked after ones break down a lot. 

 

The taxi drivers will totally hook you up. There is no beach in Havana proper, you'll have to get out of the city to find a good one (playa del este worked for me), and nothing beats cruising down the highway in a classic convertible with a friendly taxi driver!

Yes I found a handsome driver who also took me salsa dancing. Highly recommend.

The Spanish: omg, so fast. Lots of slang and swallowed word endings. Beginners beware!

The tourists: people from other countries have been coming here nonstop. It's a very popular destination for Canadians, Europeans, and Russians (they go way back 😉). Americans kept asking questions to our guide and locals like "What is it like to suddenly have tourists here?" It's not sudden, dummies. The world doesn't revolve around Americans' presence in foreign countries.  But Cubans like us for some reason. There were plenty of locals wearing the American flag emblazoned on clothing. Some had the flag on every article of clothing: shoes, shorts, shirt, hat, the works. I've seen this in several other countries but have never seen it with a different country's flag, so maybe we should be obsessed with ourselves.

The money: American banks and credit card companies do not operate in Cuba. If you have a European account/card (look at you, Mr. Fancypants) you should definitely bring it. Otherwise, bring USD and convert it at your hotel or the airport (you don't risk as much changing money at the airport here since the exchange rate is tightly controlled and monitored so that it is uniform throughout the city). You'll want CUCs ("kooks") aka "Convertible pesos," since those are the ones that match best with American dollars. Don't be surprised to see prices also listed in CUP, or Cuban pesos. I didn't bother getting the more authentic Cuban pesos since anyone who does business with you (or expects a tip from you) wants CUCs due to their stronger value. While our tour included almost all meals and entrance fees, I still spent about $200 on souvenirs, tips, etc. over the span of a week, so plan accordingly. Here's a site that goes into more detail on the money. 

The internet: let's just say, if you're looking for a place to unplug, you will like it here. Internet is accessible but pretty high maintenance. Until as recently as 2011, internet was only available for university students in Cuba, and capped at 3 hours per month (!). You can buy internet by the hour (about $2/hour) from most hotels. They'll give you a card with a looooooong username and longer password which basically works like a long distance phone card from generations ago. For locals and those not staying in hotels, keep your eyes peeled for random groups of people standing around on their phones (on the sidewalk or in a park). If you see this type of group and get your phone out, a random "dealer" will come up and offer you an internet card. There are also state-run computer cafes, which are very popular and usually full from what I saw. 

The history: Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos are even more venerated and idolized than Castro. All three of those guys compete with José Martí, a Cuban hero from a different generation (Martí helped lead Cuba to independence from Spain in around 1898, whereas Castro/Guevara/Cienfuegos led mostly Cuban farmers in revolt of US-selected Batista in the 1950s and 60s). Propaganda still has a decent-sized role, as you can pick up from these comics I bought because my Spanish wasn't ready for complicated textbooks I wanted to see what kids here are taught. 

Fidel is consistently portrayed as standing up for justice and taking bullets for friends, showing mercy to enemies, and being cheeky to his teachers. Obviously it would be hard for him not to appeal to young kids. 


Here is described how the US forced Batista into power against Cubans' wishes and votes.
Remember when the US forced puppet governments into power in foreign countries despite democratic elections resulting in other people winning? You might not have one single instance in mind because we did that a lot. I guess it's different when Russia does it to us. 

"Alright Amanda, chill with the politics and let's end this on a positive note," you say.

Many places in Cuba are famous because they were frequented by Hemingway. This one was also apparently the birthplace of the mojito. Hemingway, however, was a jerk who hunted animals for sport so who cares about him?
This is more like it. Dancing Cuban salsa in the moonlight with a live band. 

And finally.... Cuban street kitty!
More info:

  • Tour company (be sure to read my warning above): http://cubaexplorer.com/
  • Yes, you need a visa. I got one through the tour company. It was around $80 (I'm sure you can get it for cheaper but again I didn't want to risk getting the wrong thing) and it was shipped to my door. You just bring it with you and they take it from you at the border.
  • Travel buddy: Neil, fellow travel addict, whom only when we arrived at the hotel I realized I had not met in person before 😂
  • Books read: Handmaiden's tale (yikes. not my favorite), They can live in the desert but nowhere else (I don't like his writing but the topic is important).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The north island: Australia and New Zealand adventure part 5

I've been putting off this entry for several reasons:
1) I have been up for 24 hours due to jet lag that will not die,
2) I'm starting to focus more on my trip to Washington, D.C. tomorrow to protest that idiot's inauguration, but mostly 
3) Writing about it means this trip is really truly seriously over.

As you know from part 4, I wanted to weasel my way into the North Island so I could have a few sunny days before coming back to freezing Boston. The issue was finding a place to stay. Honestly, at this point I was ok with getting a hotel and sitting by the pool all day. BUT! Loyal readers may already have deduced that I do have some, albeit very loose, connections in New Zealand. Anyone remember? No? The cruise that I took in 2012. Here's the blog entry, and here's the direct quote: Probably our best buds were 3 brothers from South Africa/New Zealand whom we followed and tricked into talking in order to hear their glorious accents had some lovely conversations with and sometimes joined for dinner.

So on a whim, I got in touch with one of the 3 boys (what's up Arron!) and *happy dance* he said I could stay with him and his family in Auckland! The other two brothers lived elsewhere but I still got to see them, and I got to meet their parents, whose genetic perfection finally solved the mystery of the trio's freakishly good looks.

Side note: You know those people who look like real life Ken dolls and runway models? You know, the kinds that play villains in movies because no hero that good looking would ever be relatable to a wide audience? Don't you just wish when people like that opened their mouths they had some kind of dopey hick accent and were dumb as rocks so you could be like "Well yeah they have looks but at what cost?" This family will irritate you beyond measure. Because they are super villain gorgeous... and smart/articulate... AND HAVE AN ACCENT THAT IS A BLEND OF SOUTH AFRICAN AND NEW ZEALAND. What the actual heck?! It's troubling. It's not natural. 

It's totally awesome to hang out with for a few days though!

You're probably wondering: "What did YOU bring to the table, Amanda? Did you hold your own with witty banter and sparkling conversation?" Well let me tell you, in the form of an ACTUAL CONVERSATION that took place basically right as I arrived:

Arron: [hugs me] Wow, long time no see, thanks for visiting!
Me: [in my mind] Thanks for hosting me!
Me: [out loud in real life] Thanks for holding me!

---------awkward silence--------
---------Arron extricates himself from the hug---------


For some reason Arron didn't leave me to sleep under a bridge after that. In fact, he had some time off and quickly became the Best Guide Ever. We started off at the Auckland sky tower to get a bird's eye view of the city before exploring more in depth. 


video
Up the elevator we go!
video
Watch this one all the way to the end, it's only 30 seconds. 

And from there I was basically a spoiled brat and got chauffeured to all the best nooks and crannies of Auckland...


Seriously. Just overboard really at this point. Ok fine I won't keep them to myself: Arron's insta, Smatchimo's insta, Damian's insta
Auckland from faraway by night

The water was cold but I still got in! #majorprogress

We even got out of Auckland and into ("the?" not sure if it requires an article) Coromandel, a peninsula with some amazing beaches and bushwalks. 


For bearings

Here's a handy map for you

There were multiple highlights here: Cathedral Cove, a natural rock formation on the beach which was extremely peaceful even though there were tourists hanging about, Pohutukawa trees (for some reason I pronounced this correctly on the first try, yet "Bondi" eluded me for days) aka New Zealand Christmas trees since they are green with lovely red flowers and only bloom around Christmas, a secret swimming hole with a rope swing, a "hot beach" with geothermal springs coming up through the sand, steaming like crazy and people digging holes to sit in them, and a ridiculous moonrise that was so big that - no lie - I originally thought it was the sun setting.


Christmas tree with Cathedral Cove in the background
This reminded me of so many country songs. "Summertime" by Kenny Chesney, mostly.
Hot beach sands
Sunset and moonrise. You know how it is, pics won't do it justice, but there's an idea. P.s. read this poem about not being able to capture moments like this. 

When it was finally time to go home, I packed up and grabbed a healthy juice bottle to glamorously sip on the way to the airport. Of course, one of the greek statue brothers (what's up Smatchimo!) (that's really his name, weird huh? ;)) decided that was a great time to introduce me to the World's Second Best Ice Cream (surely you haven't forgotten about Hokey Pokey already!) which is made out of DARK chocolate. In ice cream. I think it's like 72%. Wtf, New Zealand? Can the US please have some of your dairy product goodness?

So my last moments in NZ, instead of sipping juice like a celebrity coming out of yoga class, were spent inhaling vast quantities of this ice cream in Arron's house AND car. 


worth it.


So the moral of the story is: plan as best as you can, but don't stress about changing things around when you're already abroad. And for the love of god, make friends when you travel, then you can go back and visit their amazing cities. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU all the people who helped and hosted me on this trip. My heart is so full right now, and I'm taking all that good energy with me to Washington tomorrow, where I'm sure it will be sorely needed. 


Bye bye silver fern! 



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The South Island: Australia and New Zealand adventure part 4

I made my way to Oamaru, a small town in the state of Otago, where a long-time family friend (what's up Sophie!) now lives. I didn't see much of Oamaru right away, because as soon as my bus arrived in town I was repacking bags: Sophie had planned an incredible getaway for me and her friends to go bushwalking in the Catlins.




Fun fact: I thought bushwalks were a uniquely "down under" thing requiring specific vegetation/bushes. It's actually just their word for "hiking."

Anyway, Sophie had rented a "bach," or little summer cabin, for us to stay in. I quickly picked up on the lingo and would provide poignant commentary like, "Party at the bach!" Alas, this was yet another word I was pronouncing incorrectly. It's supposed to be "batch" (rhymes with catch), whereas I was pronouncing it like the name of the 18th century German composer (bok), known for such hits as Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Party at the Bach. We ended up being a group of 7 people and 1 rambunctious dog (what's up Figo!) going on a 4 day mini-trip, and we traveled in true NZ style - an ancient van which at times had to be pulled via rope by a very sturdy SUV down careening cliffs and gravel roads.


video
That guitar would be put to very good use.
The van would later be named "Sassy Shanay" because during certain points in our driving conversations, the horn would beep without anyone touching it. This was considered to be Shanay voicing either agreement or displeasure, based upon individual interpretation.
Sassy Shanay taking a break.
video
 Some sweet little runaway sheep.

Glamorous: Unfiltered photo of a quick stop on the winding roads of the South Island. Less glamorous: we were probably stopped so one of the boys could pee.


Figo, the faithful pup, could always be counted on for snuggles and sudden fits of biting (he's teething). He would also lovingly hump his pillow at night before bedtime like clockwork. If he also did this during the day (which he did, usually in front of small children who had come to pet him), Sophie would quip, "Figo! That's for the late night showing of your parlor tricks!" and at least get a chuckle out of the concerned parents. 

With road prep complete, we had only one last stop left before the bach - pick up our final traveler! Serendipitously, a friend from Boston (what's up Mei!) was in New Zealand at the same time as me and hitchhiked to meet us on our way to the Catlins. Hitchhiking is reeeeeally common, and we picked up a hitcher here and there. No, mom, don't worry, I didn't do it myself (this time!).

We made it to the bach and set out for our first day of bushwalking: a loooooong (6 hour) trek through thick forest with hardly a path to speak of. I thought I was pretty amazing for doing this, and then Sophie casually mentioned that her 98 year-old granny had just done it last month. What a boss!


Ukelele Mei and Me hiking: Bad Bitches from Boston to the Bach. I'll tell you where her nickname comes from later since it's impossible to guess. 


Sophie crossing the treacherous bridge.

Picture taken from the bridge
Sophie and Mark, tree nymphs

 That night, we came back starving and had an awesome dinner made mostly from the veggies from one of Sophie's many projects: a community garden. Here I'll introduce the other campers, since they are about to have a musical role: Sophie's boyfriend, Mark, aka Marky Mark, who beat me so swiftly at the card game I had just taught him (Egyptian Rat Screw) that my head is still spinning; Sophie's roommate Alessandro, aka Ale, an Italian who was always polite and drove like a bat out of hell down narrow gravel roads; Ale's friend from Italy named, of course, Fabio, who was on vacation visiting NZ just like us; and their friend Mauro, an Italian cook working in Dunedin with stunning green eyes and a man bun, who could pick up a guitar and strum along to even my most tone-deaf warbling. Plus me, Sophie and Mei.

After dinner each night at the bach, the group would follow a strict schedule of
1) smoking hand-rolled cigarettes (dammit, Italians)
2) ignoring the game that I tried to get everyone to play (brutal flashback to teaching high school) and
3) singing songs with the ukelele and guitar going strong

We sang lots of folky style songs (you are my sunshine, riptide, etc), but the main event came about every 30 minutes, when Mei and I could no longer resist belting out the Cranberries "Dreams." I started out on guitar with Mei on Ukelele, and when Mauro finished his cigarettes he would mercifully grab the guitar and leave me both hands free for my air microphone. These campers were treated to the Deluxe Version of this song, complete with my (*cough* spot on *cough*) Irish brogue imitation of Dolores O'Riordan. If you are verrrrrrrrrry kind to me and I have a guitar, I will sing this for you, IF I can fit it into my busy schedule. If no one is there to sing harmony we can video conference Mei in there. Does Tuesday work for you? How about 3pm? I'll bring the guitar. You can just sit there. No, really, I don't mind. SIT DOWN AND LISTEN.

Anyway, at the end of that song, there is a yodeling section which always got pretty out of hand. Our best version featured Mei and me doing the standard harmonies at glass-shattering volume, climaxing to Sophie and Mark bleating like sheep and Ale screeching a falsetto and mooing. It was magic.

We did a few more days of hiking.


For a more profesh version of this pic, see here.


At the southern-most point in NZ, the wind is so strong that the trees grew like this. 
Fabio spots some vivid fungi en route.
One of my favorite parts of the entire trip happened when we were tramping through the bush to the beat of Sophie singing her own version "Down by the bay." In case you don't know this diddy, the general gist is that you add an absurd rhyme to each verse. The bulk of our song was:

Down by the bay
Where the little ferns grow
We're off to tramp
But before we go
My mother would say...
Have you ever seen a ___[noun]____, __[verb] ing a _[noun]_, down by the bay!

So as we're walking we're each adding silly stuff to it, like:
Have you ever seen Elvis, shaking his pelvis! or
Have you ever seen a bear, wearing underwear! etc.

And after most of us had had a go, Fabio still hadn't contributed anything. We would egg him on and he would just be silent or say "no you guys do it." And then we started the song again and out of the blue Fabio belted out joyfully: 

"Have you ever seen a shark! Eat a little kid!?"

And he sang the "down by the bay" by himself because we were all shocked into silence. Even more disturbing is the fact that he happens to be a scuba diving coach by trade. I'm shaking with laughter remembering it.



********


Here's a pic of the gents. By the way, there is a "not blog friendly" portion of this trip, I can tell you in person or privately if you're curious.


Mauro, Fabio, Ale, Mark ready for adventure, Figo looking like he didn't sign up for this.

We finally left the lovely bach and came back to Oamaru. Most people had to go back to work, but Fabio and Mei and I had some more exploring time, so we took a day trip to Lake Tepako and to see the Maori rock drawings.






Maori rock drawings. Tourists had carved their names over everything. 😡
Don't you hate when tourists do that? Like, does anyone care that you "wuz here 2009"??? It's like, "Man, I wonder who was here. Omg! Look! STEVEN! He was totally here... but WHEN? That is the question. Will we ever know? Oh, look! He really thought of everything. 2009. Mystery solved. Thanks Steven!"

To wit: You can see penguins coming back to nest after fishing if you come to a certain part of Oamaru at the right time. As we were on our way to see this sight, Ale warned us that we might see a "crazy lady" there, screaming at visitors to stay "5 METERS BACK" from the penguins. It turns out that penguins are pretty skittish and if you get close to them, or shine lights on them, or stand in their path to their nesting young, they might bail and go back into the water for safety. This is really really bad since their babies will die if they don't get fed.

So we went there, trying to be as respectful as possible. First, the good news: we saw penguins! You can watch what I saw here.

Then we saw the tourists. People in cars who would deliberately shine their lights on the penguins to get a better look (it was past dusk and pretty dark). People who would bumble right up to the penguins and crouch in their faces to take a picture. People who would stand right in front of the penguins as they (the penguins) looked anxiously toward their nesting rocks. The first 5 minutes of this was understandable: "Ah, they must not have heard, you're actually not supposed to do that." But after 30 minutes my blood was boiling and I was calling out to people to get away. I had basically become the crazy "5 meters back" lady within the scope of a mere half hour. Imagine if you were there, seeing that every day!?


Penguins stopped cold when this tourist group got all up in their face.
On the day we left Oamaru, Mei provided this addition to some sidewalk art in front of a cafe. 

A few more tidbits: Mei and I tried to ride a bicycle built for two. Obviously, we named the bicycle Daisy. It was really hard and we didn't last more than a few blocks. You can bet we sang the heck out of that song though.


Daisy was soon traded in for Moa, a single seater. 
Little known fact: Oamaru is known worldwide for... you guessed it... steam punk! So regular buildings and even playgrounds (yes, playgrounds) had this somewhat eerie theme of Victorian-Space-Locomotive vibes. You could tell that every shop in the neighborhood eventually got on board since many people came from all over the world to the steam punk festivals that seemed to be quite common (there's one coming up in June). 


I didn't even know this was a thing.


Looks pretty fun, huh?

It started with the understandable (a second hand clothing shop had major steam punk style clothes like corsets, top hats and monocles) and eventually devolved into the senseless (a handmade soap shop also sold jarring Victorian brooches and helmets with goggles on them). It's nuts!



Pic from http://steampunkoamaru.co.nz/blog/

------ DEPRESSING ART PORTION --------
We went to a small museum in Oamaru and I saw one of my favorite art pieces to date. The main exhibit was one of metal works, which were all really impressive; but one artist focused on "medals of dishonor" and really hit it out of the park. One huge medal (taller than me), hung from the ceiling. Along the ribbon part of the medal, which looked like a bandage, was printed "a drill chant used in the preparation of US Navy personnel for the invasion of Iraq (Quoted from 'The Ground Truth’: The Cruel Fate of Iraq War Veterans,” http://www.wsws. org/articles/2006/oct2006/grou-o25.shtml):


Bomb the village, kill the people, throw some napalm in the square.
Do it on a Sunday morning, kill them on their way to prayer. 
Ring the bell inside the schoolhouse, watch those kiddies gather round. 
Lock and load with your 240, mow them little motherfuckers down!"


--------- END OF DEPRESSION ----------
In case the Southern Island hadn't already enchanted me enough, Sophie introduced me to what is now my lifelong unrequited love: Hokey Pokey ice cream. It's kind of like a mix of birthday cake/cotton candy flavors... maybe with a bit of honey? I don't know, it's just crazy good. You can't get it in the US though. Because the world is a terrible place.


Come back, my love!
------- ACTUAL END OF DEPRESSION ----------

Sadly, it rained most of the time I was in Otago, except for our last day, on which of course I got a wretched farmer's tan and sunburn. But it was worth it.
Southern Isles, baby

Not too much drama going on in Otago, as judged by a penguin molting by the pool being front page news. This is the kind of world I want to live in.




I was scheduled to spend the rest of my trip in this rainy little town, but I just couldn't sit with the idea of going back to Boston without some significant time in the sun. When I complained to people about this, they all had a common refrain: "If you want sun, you need to go to the North Island!" Little ol' me thought that NZ was such a tiny place that it would mostly have one climate. I was so, so wrong. NZ has everything from Antarctic tundra to rainforest to geothermal springs to tropical beaches, all with a 1st world standard of living. But I digress. It was time to change my plane ticket and make a last ditch effort at sitting in the sun: the North Island. Now, if only I knew some people there... 


TBC in part 5!

Book for this part of the trip: La chica del tren by Paula Hawkins

Monday, January 16, 2017

Surfing couches and kangaroo pouches: Australia and New Zealand adventure part 3




After the new year, my host and his roomie had to go back to work, so I planned an extra little one-night trip to Newcastle to meet another former Couchsurfer from Australia (hi Ollie!) and his divine Chilean girlfriend. It's easy to take a 3-hour train ride from Sydney to Newcastle. Unlike Sydney, however, Newcastle doesn't have much intra-city transit, so we were pretty reliant on cars there. On the morning before I left to come back to Sydney, Ollie took us to one of the highlights of my trip: the Blackbutt animal reserve. He told me to google it to get the opening hours but I couldn't find anything with that name. I see now that I was typing "blackbart" because I assumed he was dropping the R's like everyone else in this part of the world. Or perhaps I assumed no one would ever name anything "blackbutt."

We went quite early in the morning, which Ollie said must be the way to go since he never saw the animals so active when he came in the afternoon.

You guys.

I petted.

A WALLABY.


Wallaby love.




A koala snoozing. 


video
A baby kangaroo getting into his mom's pouch.


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Aussie accents talking about wombats. My life has definitely peaked.

After my quick Newcastle visit, I came back to Sydney to have a lovely and much needed home-cooked meal with a family friend (thanks, Karine and Thora!). From there, I spent one last night in Sydney before being on my way to the north and south islands of New Zealand, which will be what I write about next! 

Surfing couches and sipping champagne: Australia and New Zealand adventure part 2


After some much needed family time in Texas, I went to Sydney, Australia to celebrate the new year with a friend. My bag decided the trip was a bit far so it stayed in Los Angeles for an entire week, but at least I had myself and my phone in the right place.

This particular friend (hi Andrew!) was someone I had met when I hosted couchsurfers in Dallas. In fact, most of the people involved in this trip have a couchsurfing connection, with the exception of the very last people I stayed with. It's weird, because now I generally pay to stay places when I travel (hello, airbnb), probably because I'm 30. But 24 year old Amanda was all about hosting and traveling without any money exchanged, and present Amanda is definitely reaping the benefits from that period. So I stayed with a Sydney local and had the most amazing time!

Andrew picked me up at the airport and immediately started what would become the trip-long chore of getting me to sit on the correct side of the car, since they do EVERYthing on the opposite side down under. You'd think it would be limited to driving on the other side of the road, but no: steering wheels, sidewalk and escalator etiquette, even bathroom door locks require major mental acrobatics to get right. "Just do the opposite of what you think, Amanda," you say. "There are only two options, after all." Get out. You know that sort of logic is not welcome on this blog.


I finally got used to this... the day I came back to the states.

Andrew works for a major alcohol distributor, and we mostly hung out with his coworkers and their friends. This meant that almost every gathering featured rare and luxurious champagne that you've probably never heard of because you're not a millionaire. I knew it was going to be a swanky visit when we went to dinner at his friend/coworker's penthouse apartment which overlooked Sydney harbor. The view was stunning, and I took it in from my perch for the night: a multi-thousand dollar massage chair. I'm not kidding.




When I finally extricated myself from the loving embrace of this incredible chair, it was to have champagne with the boys on the balcony. I know what you're thinking: "They probably opened the champagne by cutting off the entire top part of the bottle with a huge knife, leaving the cork in it and just leaving a perfectly smooth glass opening, right?" Why, yes. Yes they did. Apparently this is called "sabrage" and people who are cooler than you and me do it all the time.

Here's that happening: https://www.instagram.com/p/BOj9CYbgIah/?taken-by=manda_goes

Andrew showed me all the beaches which, let's be honest, was my main focus since I was the color of receipt paper (white yet translucent). When I told him I wanted to go to Bon-dee beach, he looked at me quizzically. "You know, the famous one," I added. "Oooooooh," he said. "Bon-die." Hence began what would be another shameful chore I foisted upon my hosts: correcting my pronunciation of very simple words.



The beaches are of course, stunning. There is a great walk (or in our case, jog) to be had by going from Coogee beach to Bondi along the water. It's about 8 km (I hope you weren't trying to use metric down here!) and makes for some gorgeous pics.


Along the Coogee to Bondi beach trail.

On December 31, we made our way next to the Opera House to set up shop and watch the 9pm and midnight fireworks over the bridge. I still had no bag, so had to throw together a hasty NYE outfit at a shop that is the Australian equivalent of Hot Topic. I tried to go to other shops first. I told Andrew what I was after and he patiently texted his female friends and helped me ask shopgirls where I might find such an outfit, since all the shops seemed to favor very prim formal wear.

Australian girls must either never dress up (most likely) or only dress up for work, because the dresses were mostly loose and long. I went from trying to sugar coat things: "Do you have anything a bit shorter?", "Do you have anything a little more fitted?" to eventually just leveling with people: "Do you have any skanky dresses, please?". More than once I was directed to what can only be described as a dominatrix lingerie shop. IS THERE NO MIDDLE GROUND, AUSSIES?
That "I'm about to have New Years in Sydney" smirk
video
Fireworks over the harbor in Sydney.

This fence kept out the thousands of other people trying to get at this view.

The night was gorgeous and super fun, even though the DJs were the type that play only their own stuff so you don't recognize any songs at all but the DJs have the time of their lives.

Side notes: the Sydney subway system is clean, efficient, and QUIET. This Boston girl was very impressed. Also, I had lunch at an amazing place called "Urban Orchard" which had tons of vegan/vegetarian options and which I definitely recommend.

This restaurant is located in "Circular Quay" and that Quay is pronounced "Kee" because nothing I do will ever be right.


http://www.gatewaysydney.com.au/retailer/urban-orchard/v

Sydney and my host treated me so well! As they began getting back to work, I had one last Aussie adventure in Newcastle, which will be the next entry.


Got both the bridge and the opera house in the handstand pic!


Book for this part of trip: The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman, Why not me? by Mindy Kaling, Lies my teacher told me by James Loewen, by far the best one!