Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 19 - 25: Ubud, Bali

Our first stop in Indonesia, Ubud is located in the hills on the island of Bali.  Originally a small artist village, the town has grown significantly in recent years due to the number of tourists who are drawn to its multifaceted beauty -- art, gorgeous landscapes and wonderful people.  Despite the hustle and bustle of tourists, we've loved our time here in Ubud and chose to use all our time on Bali here in this town (rather than exploring the beaches).

We were very fortunate to have our good friends Crispin and Ali come join us here for the weekend from Singapore with their amazing little daughter Clara.  We hadn't seen them since Crispin and Allison finished business school 3 years ago so it was a wonderful reunion.  Clara showed off her stellar swimming skills in our hotel's pool (look out for her in the 2024 Olympics!) and we enjoyed some great meals together, including a local hotspot for suckling pig.  The food here in Bali has been delicious and we look forward to trying new dishes at every meal.  Food was definitely not a highlight of our South American leg and so we're exciting that Asia is living up to our expectations so far.

After saying goodbye to Crispin, Ali and Clara we continued our exploration of Ubud and neighboring villages.  A highlight has been several walks through the countryside.  One such walk found us hopelessly lost in a beautiful river ravine.  The farmer whose land we were crossing helped us to find our way, proudly showing us his plants of sweet potatoes and tapioca along the way.

Hindu is the predominant religion (95%) of the Balanese.  A more ritualistic strand of Hinduism than that of India, the religion of the island is palpably felt in everyday life.  Small offering are laid out each morning by housewives before they prepare the morning meal – palm leave constructed boxes filled with rice, flowers and burning incense.  There’s a seamless transition in architecture between the temples and neighboring houses, each decorated with ornante wood carving and faces of the gods.  Perhaps most significantly, the peace and kindness of all the people we’ve met is a testament to how their beliefs influence their daily business.

At 12,000 rupiah to the dollar, our funds are also going along way here in Bali: $3 for a full day scooter rental, $6 for an hour massage, $7 for an amazing dinner for two, $15 for a private bungalow in a small hotel with a pool.  It's tempting to just settle into the relaxed luxury of this beautiful little town..... But alas, the jungle calls us.  We're off to Borneo to see the Orangutans tomorrow.  To a person, each Balinese that we've told we're headed that way has laughed at us in surprise and amazement.  For the record, this part of the adventure is Nader's idea.  But Allison was very glad he dragged her into the jungle in Costa Rica so she's hoping this one's worth the journey as well :)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February 18: Hong Kong

With an 18 hour lay-over in Hong Kong between New Zealand and Indonesia, we decided to head into the city for the night (no, Hong Kong is not even remotely on the way between these two countries but according to our plane ticket it is).

Getting from the airport to city central was a mind boggling lesson in efficiency. $8 and one easy 15 minute high speed subway ride later we arrived. Coming back to the airport they actually will let you check into the flight and leave your baggage at the in-town stop before boarding the subway.

Wanting to keep within our lodging budget, we ended up being routed to "The Mansion". The mansion is a decrepit high rise building set in the center of the upscale Kowloon neighborhood. Each floor of the building is filled with several guesthouses each and we estimated there were approximately 5,000 beds inside. Expecting to the overrun with young Western backpackers, we were surprised by the international face of The Mansion's residents -- African and Middle Eastern predominantly -- many of whom seemed to be living in the building semi-permanently. A man who ran several of the guesthouses toured us around showing us numerous rooms which looked exactly the same but which he quoted for different prices. Each had two small single beds with a miniscule bathroom, the faint stale scent of curry wafting in through the windows. When asked why this one was more expensive his response was "more cleaner". We survived the night but have decided that if we return to Hong Kong we may be spending some of our precious Starwood points on a real hotel room. Somehow "roughing it" in a large city doesn't have the romatic appeal that it carries in the country side.

Aside from "The Mansion", Hong Kong was a great short stop. Vibrantly alive with colors and lights. The energy of a chaotic international hub where squalid dim sum joints sit next to lavish four star hotels. After perusing the latest technology for sale, we took advantage of the international cuisine with some great sushi and then headed back to the airport early the next morning.

New Zealand Recommendations

While in New Zealand we spent about 1/2 our nights camping and 1/2 in backpackers hostels. There are some great campsites and we highly recommend seeking out the Department of Conservation sites vs. the fully equipped "Holiday Park" types. If you're willing to trade in the services for solitude, you will have many of the sites completely to yourself. You can download a complete guide of all DOC sites from their website.

New Zealand has some really great backpackers for very reasonable prices (we were surprised). With a little marketing, many of them could advertise as "Bed and Breakfast"s and triple their prices. But let's just keep that between us :) The best source is Budget Backpacker Hostels New Zealand. Users rank the backpackers and we were very happy anywhere we stayed over 85% satisfaction. Two that it's worth changing your itinerary to stay at (we did):

Old Bones Backpackers. Set on the coast just outside of Oamaru this place is a true gem. Modern energy efficient space, great kitchen, very friendly owner.

Billy Brown's. Nothing around you but 600 sheep, a gorgeous ocean view, and Billie Holiday playing on the old record player. Change you plans to find this place. It's about 20 minutes outside of Dunedin on the East Coast.

Does raman noodles cooked on our camping stove count?? We really only ate out with Mom and Dad in Queenstown.... Fish Bones was very good.

Tour Operators
Ultimate Hikes - our Milford Track outfitter (the only way you can do a guided trip on the Milford Track). They were EXCELLENT. Not a backpackers budget option but very reasonable for what you were getting (at least that's what the people who paid the bill told me :).

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 13-17: West Coast

The last 5 days have been a mad rush up the West Coast to get back to Auckland for our flight tomorrow morning.  We didn't have as much time to explore the little places, but it felt like the West Coast was much more of a circuit with the same couple sites that everyone stops at.  But again, that was probably just our limited time. 

We did manage to squeeze in some fun, camping on yet another beautiful beach, kayaking through a bird sanctuary, and checking out New Zealand's most famous glacier, Franz Josef (which of course led to us calling each other Franz for a day or so.  This is what happens when you spend half a year interacting primarily with one person.)

So, I think we've gotten to the bottom of New Zealand's problems.  There are none really.  It is just a simple society, people living contentedly within their means, without the desires or aspirations that drive the capitalistic growth we're used to in North America (and increasingly the rest of the world).  Besides tourism, which overall is fairly low key, the major industries are sheep (wool and lamb) and fishing.  With the exception of Auckland which has some internationally focused businesses, most people run the farms that their parents did, maybe try and save up for a little place on the beach.  I'm torn. There is a part of this lifestyle that is incredibly appealing, to raise a family outside of the modern day rat race.  But there is something I love about the entrepeneureal spirit that drives innovation back home, working hard to create something new and useful for the world.  And everything that comes along with that, different ideas, people, etc.  Greg Caimi, a friend from Hawaii, once said "Culture is for people with bad weather."  The answer as with most things surely lies in the middle ground...
Tomorrow we shift gears.  With significant exceptions, like Bolivia, we've spent the last 7 months exploringly and experiencing the beauty of the natural world, from Alaska to Patagonia to New Zealand.  While this will always be something we look for and an environment we love being in, it's hard to say, but after so much beauty you do begin to get desensitized to it. (Who knew we would have seen so many glaciers this year?) So as we begin our foray into Asia, we're looking forward to a larger focus on experiencing different cultures, while I'm sure there will still be some natural beauty thrown in there.
Due to our weird round the world air ticket, the best way to get to Bali was through Hong Kong, which if you look at a map, is not at all on the way.  So perhaps some quick dim sum in Hong Kong, before we head to Ubud to meet up with Crispin and Alizanne, our long lost friends now in Singapore, who are meeting us for the weekend.
Good Bye New Zealand.  We'll see each other again soon.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 5 - 12: Milford Track and Queenstown

We spent a wonderful week with Allison's parents -- five days on the Milford Track with a day in Queenstown on either end.  Self proclaimed as "one of the best walks in the world", the Milford Track had a lot of expectations to live up to.... It meet and exceeded all of them for us.  Our first day on the track was mostly a transportation day from Queenstown through Te Anu and into the first hut with only a mile of walking.  The real trek began on Day Two.  10 miles through a beautiful valley along the Clinton River.  There was a swimming hole a few miles from the end of our day and we started a trend braving the frigid waters... Followed first by Yutaki, who according to our guide was the first of the many Japanese travellers on the track she'd seen go for a swim all season.  Not to be outdone by his kids or the Japenese, Dad quickly joined in as well.

Around 4 pm we arrived at Pompolona, our second of three lodges along the track.  A quick note on our trip which was organized through Ultimate Hikes.  There are two options for doing the track -- independent hikers carry their own food and bedding, sleeping in basic huts along the way (how we would be living without Mom and Dad as travelling companions :).  We were on the guided version which meant luxury huts complete with showers, 3 course dinners and wine at the end of the day.  Thanks Mom and Dad!! It was an amazingly organized trip from start to finish --great guides and a wonderful group of travelling companions.  The most noteworthy was 84 year old Jack from Australia who jogged down the steep descents on our trail and closed down the bar around midnight on our last night.  An inspiration for us all to say the least.

Day two was the big one.... 9 miles over Mackinnon pass.  A challenging hike in good weather, we woke to torrential downpours that didn't let up until late in the evening.  The most magical parts of the Milford Track are all the waterfalls, many of which only show their true splendor when fed with a fresh rainfall.  And so our dread of a day trudging through the rain quickly changed to wonder and amazement as we witnessed some of the most beautiful and unique scenery any of us had ever seen.

Our third and final day of hiking led us through another beautiful valley and near many beautiful waterfalls.  The rain had cleared and so we had some bright sunny weather for our trek.  Upon finishing the track, we were shuttled by boat over to our lodge for the night which had the most stunning views of Mitre Peak in the Milford Sound.

The next morning we took a boat cruise through Milford Sound before getting on the bus back to Queenstown.  It was really an amazing journey..... I'm also very proud and impressed that my parents breezed through it without any trouble!  We hope that at age 60 we can be doing the same :)

Our two days in Queenstown on either end of the trip were also lots of fun.  Despite being 100% tourist gears, it's a very cute town set on Lake Wakatipu.  Before heading out to the Milford Track, Mom Nader and I went paragliding which was so cool.  You really feel like you're flying.  We had a great dinner with JP and Kaki Smith, friends of my Aunt Coco and Uncle Steve who were also here in Queenstown to do the Milford Track.  On our day after the track, I went bungy jumping (couldn't convince anyone else to join!) and we celebrated our last day with some wine tasting at a few local vineyards.  Thanks again Mom and Dad for a wonderful week.... We had so much fun!!

Oh, and Nader is making me post these videos.  If you watch the first one (I was a bit overserved the night before, thanks to JP!) please do watch the second one also.... I redeemed myself on the bungy :)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

January 29 - February 4: Otago and Southland

It is official.  I am in love with this country.  The past week we've been working our way down the east coast of the South Island where things have got progressively more remote, wild and beautiful.  There is so much to see and do here, we've realized we could come for another month sometime and do a totally different trip. 

From wine country we had a big driving day to get to the small coastal town of Oamaru, famous for the blue penguin colony that lives outside of town.  The blue penguins are the smallest penguins in the world.  We watched them climb out of the water at dusk after a full day of catching food for their young.  A nearby yawning seal sent them fumbling back to the water to regroup which was comical.  These little guys are less than a foot tall.  Nearby there were also the rarest of penguins, the yellow-eyed penguin.  We watched some of those from afar as well.  Unfortunately taking photos of penguins is not recommended as they're afraid of humans, so no penguin photos.

Oamaru itself is an interesting little town, with a lot of intact 19th century buildings, a cool local jazz bar, and a great single malt whiskey brewery.

This is the beach in front of the great place we stayed at.
With all the sheep you would accept some great lamb.  We cooked some up and indeed it was some of the most tender we've had.
From there we drove by the bizarre Moeraki Boulders, five million year old, perfectly spherical boulders, now lying on a beautiful beach.
On our way down to the Otago Peninsular, we drove further inland to check out the Otago Central Railway, a defunct railway line which has been converted into a 150 km long hiking/biking trail, going by tiny mostly abandoned settlements.  We hiked one leg of it through, green hilly terrain and by a chilly yet refreshing river.
Allison's birthdays** fell over the time we were in the Otago Peninsula.  This is a spectacular area, famous for its accessible wildlife.  At the very tip of the peninsula is home to the only mainland royal albatross colony.  With a 10 foot wing span, these are the largest flying birds in the world.  Too fast for our camera though.  We walked a beautiful beach dotted with lazy sea lions (although surprisingly active if you get too close) and went for a hike from a huge chasm down to a bay over steep duney terrain.  The walk back up over the sand got us sweating.  It reminded me fondly of the the 'big' dune at the beach in Saudi that we used to roll down into the sea.  (For those that know what I'm talking about picture one 5 times bigger).
While exploring the Peninsula we stayed on a sheep farm a few kilometers away.  Billy Brown, the hospitable owner educated us on the dwindling sheep business (we just missed the semi-annual shearing).  We really enjoyed his woodstove and amazing record collection.  They inspired us to pick up a player when we get back.
Here's the field of sheep out our window.  No better way to wake up in the morning.
From there we head all the way south to the appropriately named region of Southland.  Specifically we spent a couple days in the remote and unpopulated Catlins.  Every turn off the road led to something spectacular.  
A New Zealand traffic jam.
Beautiful Nugget Point.  On both sides was a steep drop-off to rocks covered in frolicking seals.  There were hundreds of them, teaching there pups to swim in little tidepools, the males play fighting.
Matai Falls.
Another amazing campsite.
Cooking our favorite camping meal, veggie fajitas.
 A hike through rainforesty terrain, that reminded us of Corcovado in Costa Rica, minus the jaguars.
We stopped for lunch one day at Porpoise Bay and were treated to a full on dolphin show.  They were playing in the waves and doing full flips completely out of the water.  The photo doesn't do it justice.
At low-tide, at the very southern tip of New Zealand in Curio Bay, a 170 million year old petrified forest is revealed.  An ancient volcano turned all the trees in this area to stone and you can still see the logs and stumps.  To put that in perspective that is before there were any birds on the planets.  Way older than the dinasours. Allison wasn't impressed :)  Even without the historical significance it was a fun place to explore.
Another fun place to explore were the nearby Cathedral Caves, five massive caves extending 200 meters inland.   If you walk in deep enough, past where natural light arrives, you'll feel some slimy things crawling over your feet.  I felt like Indy.

** We realized on Feb 3rd, the day after her birthday, that it was Feb 2nd in the US and thus it was her actual birthday that day.  So she got two celebrations.  The benefits of living in the future...