Friday, October 30, 2009

Brisbane, Part II

We are on day five of our stay in Australia, about to leave Brisbane. Brisbane has been a great starting point. It's a really nice city and we've seen and done a lot so far. Yesterday we spent most of the day at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, a short bus ride from the city. The public transport is pretty good here, although I mentioned that to one of the French guys who we're staying with and he didn't agree...but for our uses it's been fine.

The Koala Sanctuary was pretty awesome. We got to hold Koalas, which despite how fluffy and cuddly they look are actually quite heavy.

We also got to feed kangaroos!

We saw a "birds of prey" bird show where two different kinds of owls and two different kinds of eagles flew back and forth between the handlers. We also saw a cool "sheep dog" presentation (although the dogs used were an Australian version of a border collie). I think I may have found my favorite dog now:

We've rented a camper van for the next couple of weeks and getting ready to hit the road! Our plan is to head north of Brisbane along the coast, return to Brisbane to pick up Michelle on the 10th after she's done with her finals and then drive all the way to Melbourne. Depending on how far north we go, this will be quite a few miles. There are overnight rest stops on most of the roads around here so we plan on sleeping in the van at these, or using the supplied camping gear to camp at times. We've also arranged a couple couchsurfing stays along the way so we can take showers, meet some locals and hopefully use the Internet (as a side note, we've found that Australian businesses are more stingy with wi-fi than American ones so we haven't been able to use as much free wi-fi as we'd hoped).

Here's the full link to our Brisbane pictures, which recaps our Australia journey so far...


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Couchsurfing in Brisbane

As reported in the last post we are couchsurfing at our second place in Brisbane. When we tell people about couchsurfing a common question is, "Are the places you stay nice?" and we usually say the accommodations vary, which is true. Sometimes they're super nice, and sometimes they are just okay. Tonight's stay definitely ranges toward the later. I was wondering how I'd describe the house, and sorry to use a reference not everyone will get, but it's kind of like staying at the original TEET house in the U-District of Seattle (the TEET boys are our most regular readers so I know at least half our blog readers will understand it). We're sleeping on a pull-out couch with no sheets using our sleeping bag-liners since it's pretty warm out and our sleeping bags would be too warm. There is a box of rat poison in the corner of the kitchen. There is stuff everywhere (I once went to TEET house when there was a keg in the bathtub which would fit right in here except that alcohol is too expensive...)

The people who live here fixed dinner for everyone (after buying groceries with money contributed by everyone, including us) and it was pretty interesting being the only Americans at the table. There were two Irish girls, two French guys, and a German guy. Well, there was another American but she was not really representing American very well so I'd like to say she doesn't count (she's a student from U-Mass-Amherst although she's originally from New Jersey). She brought up the topic of both the Death Penalty and Abortion during dinner. She thought that a good way to solve the problem of having too many people in American prisons would be to execute more of them. Of course the others wanted to know if this was a position most Americans have and I tried to politely sidestep the issue.

Here's a picture of us after dinner, drinking tea and Tim Tams. They're a good group of people and it was definitely a case where we were going with the flow...

Brisbane, Part I

Our first impressions of Brisbane were pretty positive and after spending two nights here we still like the city a lot. Supposedly it never rains here, but that is a lie because on our first full day it totally poured on us. We had planned on having a look around the city botanical gardens but ended up ducking for cover under some trees and exploring the free art museum of Queensland University of Technology.

We went to the Farmers Market in the rain, but that didn't stop us from having lots of samples of all sorts of fruits and cheeses.

The next day we took the bus out to the bigger botanical gardens at the base of Mt Coot-tha, and after looking around the gardens we hiked up to the lookout. There were great views of the city (not seen in this picture). This is me, Jaimee, Michelle and friend Yael who is also from Massachusetts and studying at the University of Queensland with Michelle.

We took the bus back into town and climbed up the tower of City Hall. Our guide book said it would cost $2 to climb the 300 foot tower but as a bonus, it is now free! You have to take the elevator (lift) which was a little disappointing as I would have preferred stairs, but hey, we saved $4!

We have more pictures (with captions!) on our picasa page but we will be adding to them for sure as tomorrow we're heading out to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where we have been promised that we can hold Koalas and feed kangaroos! It is a bit ridiculous that we've been in Australia three days now and haven't seen a kangaroo (or koala) yet.

We are writing this blog post at our second couchsurfing hosts in Brisbane. The first couple had a two night limit so we found this other house within walking distance of Michelle's dorm. It is a huge house of five students, three of which we've met so far - two from France and one from Germany. They said they were going to cook a group meal after they finished some school work, but it's almost 8PM now and with our jet lag we're hitting the wall early, but we'll see what happens...although I will say I'm enjoying the music selection the French student is playing; we've heard french-language rap, Neil Young, and a song from Grease, among others. Couchsurfing is interesting to say the least.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Arriving in Australia

As mentioned in the previous post, we took off from Boston and flew to Los Angeles. This was a six hour flight. Then we had about an eight hour layover at LAX before we flew from Los Angeles to Brisbane Australia, which was a 12 hour and 45 minute flight. We traveled for over 26 hours straight, and with the time difference of 14 hours we lost over a day. We left Boston at 10AM Sunday and got into Brisbane at 6AM Tuesday. It wasn't actually that bad though. We got to watch some movies (we both watched I Love You Beth Cooper and The Proposal and Jaimee watched Year One and Angels and Demons while I watched State of Play). None of those movies were very good but it did help to pass the time.

International flights are always nice as well because you can get free drinks, and Qantas offered complimentary cocktails or beer and wine with every snack and meal which also helped pass the time.

We arrived in Brisbane and were immediately struck by how clean and nice the airport was. Customs was a breeze; we thought we'd have to throw away our dried mango from Trader Joe's but Jaimee declared it and we were allowed to keep it. We also liked how everyone uses the word "Mate" here. The man directing people to various lines through customs had a super thick Australian accent and was somewhat of a klutz as he kept running into people as he moved through the crowd. He kept saying things like, "Sorry about that, mate" or "That line there, mate." I thought mate was the equivalent of bud or buddy, but I think it's more like a unisex word that replaces sir/madam/miss/ma'am, etc. I'd start using it as it's quite handy but I don't think I could say it and be taken seriously.

We immediately bought a SIM card for our mobile (04224489077) since we will be here for about 25 days and it will be convenient for calling Jaimee's sister Michelle and arranging with our couchsurfing hosts. Speaking of phone numbers, while abroad we converted Asa's 206 phone number to pay as you go and took the SIM card out. As you might recall, Jaimee's phone was stolen last month so we actually canceled her 206 phone number. But, we have a Google Voice number of 617-942-12421272. (Update: it turns out that I inadvertently gave out the wrong phone number! And worse, 1242 is also a Google Voice number, just not mine. I wonder how many people were trying to call me on that number during our trip? Who am I kidding, no one was trying to call...) Feel free to call or text that number and we will be able to reply to the texts on-line (of course the time difference will make it difficult to reply right away) and listen to voice mails on-line. Unfortunately there is no international forwarding to our Aussie number. Maybe by the time we finish our trip international forwarding will be implemented.

Anyway, Brisbane is a very pretty and compact city. Michelle who is studying her semester abroad at the University of Queensland met us downtown and we took the CityCat ferry to her campus. In addition to having a pretty good train and bus system there is also a ferry system that runs along the river that snakes through the city.

We hung out in her dorm room for a bit, and although we tried not to nap in order to adjust to the time difference better we couldn't help it, and apparently Michelle took a picture while we were sleeping:

We later connected with our couchsurfing hosts who live a short train ride outside the city. They're a couple in their 40s who have done lots of world travel, including a world wide trip a couple years ago. We stayed up later than we probably should have picking their brains about where to go and what to avoid (they didn't like India and said they were sick there constantly...) We're staying here two nights and then moving on to another couchsurfing host that actually lives within walking distance of University of Queensland.

We'll also post more pictures as we explore around as we'll be in Brisbane until Saturday before we decide what we're doing next.

Vermont Weekend

We spent the final week before our departure to Australia in Vermont visiting my family. We stayed in Guilford the first night at my Aunt and Uncle's house. They live in a perfect Vermont house, complete with a wood stove for heating so naturally we were put to work helping stack firewood for the winter. Here I am stacking wood out of the tractor scoop.

Here's Jaimee horsing around in the tractor scoop:

Actually we did real division of labor: while I helped Uncle Neil with the wood, Jaimee helped Aunt Betsy prepare a dinner for 14 that was happening later that day. That evening we had dinner with cousins and other family in Brattleboro. We had the dinner at the condo of the man who put me and Jaimee up in New Orleans earlier on our trip. He's a friend of my Aunt Betsy and since my sister and her wife were up from Boston and my cousin from Scotland was visiting he graciously let us all stay at his condo that he has in Brattleboro. So this is twice now I've accepted accommodations from someone I've only met briefly. In fact, the condos are really two condos connected by a passage way in the attic and the condos were just perfect for a nice game of Sardines which we played after dinner. Sardines is a variation of hide-and-seek but only one person hides and everyone else searches. It was great catching up with family over an enjoyable evening.

The next day we headed back to Jaimee's dad's house since we hadn't packed for Australia and beyond yet. We met up briefly with our Seattle friends Brendan and Sara Anne and Greg and Laura who are living in Boston for a year and visiting Boston for the weekend respectively. Those who have been following our blog from the beginning may recall that Greg and Laura are the couple we stayed with in Seattle for the two weeks before we left. It was really nice seeing them as well.

We didn't finish packing until the morning when Jaimee's dad and step-mom drove us to the airport to catch our flight. Here we are with our bags before heading to the airport:

Our schedule was to take a flight from Boston to Los Angeles and then a flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane Australia. We knew it was going to be a long day, which we will describe in our next post.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Day in New York City

As mentioned in our previous post, we needed to go to New York City to get our India visas. If you arrive by 9AM you can get same day processing so we left Shrewsbury, MA around 4:45AM and cruised into New York. We actually didn't hit too much traffic and arrived with time to spare. We dropped off our paperwork (along with $98 each!) and since they weren't going to be ready for pickup until 5:30PM we had the entire day to spend in New York.

I hadn't been to New York city in about five years and Jaimee had never really spent any time in the city. We parked our car in a garage near the Travisa office and started walking around. We did have the whole day, but we decided to just see what we could on foot. (Notes: we didn't go see the Statue of Liberty because tickets to climb the crown were sold out and I figured if you can't go to the top of something, why bother. Also, we didn't feel like spending $20 apiece to climb the Empire State Building so that was out too.)

We started by walking to Times Square. Wow, I surprised how clean it is now. There are a ton of cops milling around and all the stores are fancy and clean.

Times Square used to be really grimy and seedy but it's actually nice now. There wasn't much to do here except admire all the neon so we moved on to Rockefeller Center to look at the ice skating rink and the building (which offers tours of the roof for $21 apiece, which we declined). We also got to see the statue from the beginning of one our favorite TV shows.

We rested here for a bit watching all the other tourists before walking up into Central Park. Partly it was because the weather was so nice (sunny in the mid-60s) but Central Park is really nice now too (I suppose it's always been nice, but I was impressed by how clean it was). The park reminded both Jaimee and me of the big parks of Paris. There were street musicians (including entire bands) playing music and people strolling around enjoying the good weather. We also saw lots and lots of bikes, including bikes for rent.

It's really pretty inside the park and we walked through the southern section and across (from the East side to the West side).

After grabbing a quick bite to eat at a hole-in-the-wall place (not very memorable, but cheap considering we were on 73rd and Central Park West) we walked back down Broadway and all the way to Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street.

Here's Jaimee admist all the hustle and bustle of the station:

From there we walked over to the United Nations building and took a quick self-guided tour of the areas open to the public. There's not a ton to see inside (you see more on a paid tour) but there was a really cool photography exhibit called "the house is small but the welcome is big" where orphans who lost their parents to AIDS or women living with AIDS were given cameras to take pictures showing their daily lives. Some of the pictures were great and reading the biographies was very touching. By the time we got done with the UN it was time to go back to pick up our visas.

Driving out of the city during rush hour wasn't the most fun thing in the world (and I was surprised that you pay the $5.50 toll on the RFK Bridge (formerly known as Triboro Bridge) in both directions - in all we paid $14.25 in tolls roundtrip to get into New York!) and at one point our GPS freaked out and thought we were in the East River:

Luckily she (the GPS) came to her senses before the next turn and guided us safely back to Shrewsbury by around 10PM. All in all a beautiful day in the city although driving there and back in one day isn't something I need to do again for a while again.

Now we're finalizing a few things and heading to Vermont for tonight and tomorrow before coming back here to pack up and head to the airport on Sunday. We're super excited about our departure and we'll post again before we go with details of our plane tickets and how our packing went.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Welcome to New England

After our wonderful visit in Catskill we headed into Vermont. We took the "scenic" route, but really all the roads are scenic in New England, especially in the Fall. As it turned out though, the foliage was actually prettier in New York. Prior to leaving Catskill we went for a neat walk along the Hudson Valley Art Trail, a series of trails and viewpoints corresponding to spots where famous paintings of the 1800s were painted.

It was a perfect fall day - crisp air, sunny skies, exactly what you imagine a New England (or New York apparently too) day should be like.

On our way into Vermont we stopped in a few places along the way. First, Bennington where there was an art show of Moose. I assume it was some sort of fundraiser where artists build these huge moose and then they are auctioned off for charity. Catskill was actually doing something similar with cats, and Seattle has done pigs and orca whales in the past.

We stopped briefly in Manchester, Vermont and then Weston, Vermont to go to the famed Vermont Country Store there. When I lived in Vermont I used to go here a lot but I hadn't been back for quite some time. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from visiting if you haven't been before, as it is quaint, and Weston is a super-cute town, but I was kind of disappointed. It seemed to be full of a bunch of junk and being that it was Columbus Day weekend it was so crowded you could barely walk inside. That area of Vermont is a great place to visit though, and I have great memories of seeing musicals at the Weston Playhouse.

Back on the read we made a stop at the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth. His childhood farm had been recently renovated as State Historic Site so we went to check it out. It's actually still under construction but it was fun to walk around and there's also an old cheese factory where they make artisan cheese.Then we visited briefly with my Mom in Woodstock and spent the night at my cousin Jenny's house in Norwich. It was getting noticeably cooler and in the morning there was snow!

It didn't stick, but even for Vermont, early October is pretty soon for snow. From Norwich we went south to Massachusetts, stopping briefly in Brattleboro, Vermont (where we'll again be next week) before ending up in Shrewsbury, Mass where Jaimee's dad and step-mom live. We've been using this as a "home base" to finalize some things for our trip.

Good thing we've had the time too, because it turns out we have to make a trip into New York City to get our India visa. You can apply by mail (sending in your passport), but they say if it's less then 30 days before your trip you should apply in person. I found it sort of ironic that India outsourced its visa processing to Travisa Outsourcing. And there are only five processing centers in the US (San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, New York and Washington DC). You drop of your passport and paperwork in the morning and they try to get your visa to you by the afternoon, but they don't guarantee it. We're going into New York on Monday.

Today we woke up to more snow. Here's the Est dusted with snow:

We're headed to Boston this afternoon to visit my sister Keturah and her wife Suzanne then it's off to Cape Cod tomorrow to visit some friends and family of Jaimee and New York City Monday. Then Vermont again on Thursday. It's a typical whirlwind tour. We leave for Australia a week from Sunday. We're waiting for our India visa before we purchase the rest of our plane tickets, but stay tuned for details as we have a firmer itinerary in mind but we didn't want to buy any non-refundable tickets until we have our India visa in hand.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

From the South to the North

We've almost made it to New England. We're currently in Catskill, NY, staying with my Aunt Lisa and her husband Dick at their lovely house right on the Hudson River.

It's amazing to think that our US portion of the trip is coming to a close. We're staying in Catskill for the long weekend visiting with my Aunt and Uncle and my sister and her wife came up from Boston for the weekend as well. The foliage is turning and today turned out to be a beautiful fall day.

After camping and hiking in the Smokies we went to Durham, NC to visit some friends of ours who moved there from Seattle last winter. We actually have seven Seattle friends who have moved to Durham. They moved there for cheap real estate, more sun and change of scenery. I thought Durham was a pretty nice place. There were some nice places downtown and you can have up to ten chickens at your house, unlike Seattle which only lets you have four! Here's our friend Mike dealing with one of his chickens.

There's also a lot of cool history in the area, much of it involving the Civil War. We went to Bennett Place, the site of the largest Confederate surrender involving over 20,000 troops.

From North Carolina we made our way north, stopping in Snow Hill, Maryland to stay with a couchsurfing friend who had stayed with us in Seattle. Mary and her husband Dave were super hospitable and we got to stay in their historic house from the 1800s.

We also went to Ocean City, Maryland for dinner with Mary and Dave. Ocean City is kind of a cross between Atlantic City and Cape Cod, but apparently with antique cars. There was some sort of car show so people were cruising the strip in their cars.

The next day we traveled north through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and finally into New York. Luckily we didn't run into very much traffic and got to my Aunt's house . We did conquer one more "peak" on our way - Ebright Azimuth, at a lofty 448 feet it's the high point of Delaware. I'm not going to count it as Peak #35 but I thought I should record the "accomplishment".Now, for the next two weeks before we head for Australia we'll be visiting family and friends in New England and do any last minute preparations for the international portion of the trip.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Six peaks, four days

We settled up the bill at our hotel in New Orleans. Somehow the $45 per night hotel ballooned into $76 after adding in all the taxes and fees! Apparently Louisiana state law requires safes in all hotel rooms and hotels charge $4 per night for this? That was just one of the many hidden fees charged. I felt a bit duped with all the extra taxes and fees, but we were glad to see more of New Orleans. It's a great city and one that I hope to visit again in more depth some other time.

From New Orleans we cruised through Mississippi and most of Alabama to camp at Cheaha State Park in northeast Alabama. We got there right as it was getting dark and we found the campground to be a little difficult to figure out. There was an area for RVs but the tent area was labeled "semi-primitive" without designated camping sites. Plus there was a group of American Heritage Girls building fires and roasting marshmellows all over the area. Although the one group leader seemed very nice (they're so polite in the South) we decided to go back to the RV area and pitch our tent in a RV spot.

The next day we got up and climbed the 75 foot tower marking the highpoint of Alabama.

We also discovered the other tent camping area lining the road leading to the tower. But again, there were no designated sites. People just pulled their cars over and camped on the side of the road. I've seen more orderly homeless people in Seattle.

We left Alabama and crossed over into Georgia, seeking out the highpoint of Georgia. There was a road almost to the top, but it was a 6/10 of a mile walk to the actual highpoint.

From Georgia we headed into the Smokies, camping for a night at Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This is the busiest National Park in the country and October is the second busiest month of the year (after July) although we did find a spot in the campground. In the morning we drove up to Clingmans Dome, the highpoint of Tennessee, and also the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. I thought the structure they built on the top was pretty ugly and wouldn't mind seeing them tear it down to make the highpoint more natural.

We detoured south into South Carolina for a quick walk up Sassafras Mountain, the South Carolina highpoint before getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway to head toward Asheville. We had a quick beer and dinner in Asheville, but apparently it wasn't quick enough because when we got to the campground at Mt. Mitchell State Park it was padlocked shut! We couldn't get in, and if you were already in I don't see how you could get out either! We also saw a black bear on the road going in to the park.

We continued on the Parkway for a few miles hoping there would be another campground but there was nothing out there. Eventually we gave up and ended up sleeping in the car. It was raining so camping might not have been that fun either. After 50+ days on the road, to have to sleep in the car for the first time wasn't that bad and we slept pretty well actually.

In the morning when the state park opened we drove up to Mt. Mitchell and walked the short walk to the top.

We then drove further on the Blue Ridge Parkway up into Virginia where we camped at Grayson Highlands State Park, probably the nicest campground we stayed at yet. It was super clean, there were free showers, the host was very hospitable and there were tons of trails. Plus, ponies! (Seriously, there were ponies grazing in the "high country".) We also saw another bear crossing the road.

In the morning, admist lots of rain and fog we braved eight miles (round-trip) of the Appalachian Trail to the top of Mt. Rogers, the Virginia highpoint.

We are now in Durham, North Carolina visiting several of our Seattle friends who have moved here. Durham is an interesting place. It's definitely a place of contrasts. Block to block it changes a lot and while there are some nice areas there are also some very scary areas that I definitely would not venture into at night. But overall, we're having a nice visit here. Tomorrow we head north for our final push to New England. We'll stop one night in Maryland and then it's on to the Catskills of New York for the weekend...

Here's a link to the rest of our pictures from our highpoint frenzy. Also, I have now done 34 peaks of my 35 peak challenge. I'm open to suggestions as to what the 35th peak should be. Let me know in the comments what you think...

Southern Highpoints

Friday, October 2, 2009

Safe and Sound in New Orleans

After we left San Antonio, we had a very long drive ahead of us. We wanted to drive all the way to New Orleans but we still did not have a couch lined up for our stay. Asa's aunt and uncle passed on the phone number for a couple they know in New Orleans. We called Don and Mary hoping to be able to sleep on their couch. Don phoned us back and asked how he could help us. I told him it would help if he could find a couch for us to sleep on. He said he would get on it and then call us back. So we drove...

Don called us back after 6 o'clock and offered us a patch of floor in his medical clinic. He said it wouldn't be fancy, but we were welcome to it. We called him back to accept the offer but he had already made a reservation for us at the Parisian Courtyard Inn. I was a bit flabbergasted by this generosity, we were totally ready to sleep on the floor. But Don assured Asa that he wanted us to be safe during the night and that it was not a problem for us to stay at the Inn. We arrived at 10 p.m. and settled right in to bed.

After our breakfast of apple fritter bread and chickory coffee we headed to the French Quarter. We walked around and enjoyed some beignets from Cafe Du Monde. We even found a National Historic Site and Museum!

We visited Don at his medical clinic to thank him for our lodgings and chat with him about his work here in New Orleans and our trip. Don gave us a lunch recommendation and we were on our way.

We have been on this trip for 49 days now and it wasn't until we arrived in New Orleans that people started to caution us about our safety. Everyone we spoke with mentioned some danger or another in this city. It made me feel a bit nervous, but we've found New Orleans to be beautiful and its people to be nice enough. They aren't near as friendly as Texans, but they certainly are not dangerous seeming. I worried about the car a fair amount and we stayed together, "just in case"!

We decided to stay another night and got a hotel. It is the second time we have payed for a hotel during our trip. We were able to relax in the hotel room, listen to the concert in the park next door and then go get a delicious dinner at Jazmine Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant by the college campus.

Today we hit the road for the mountains of Tennessee. It's raining out there, but I'm hoping to out drive the rain so we can camp in dry weather.
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