Sunday, June 11, 2006
Well, we made it and Jenny and I are still talking! Here are some random facts from our “Endless Summer” trip around the world:
Total days: 179
Countries visited: 12
Number of Continents: 5
Number of Oceans: 3
Hours of flight time: >125
Hours delayed in airports: 19 hrs
Total air miles: 49,000
Total photos taken: 4897
Number of McDonalds passed: hundreds
Number of times eaten at McDonalds: None
Number of games of Backgammon: ~100
Backgammon Score: Alan up by 18 games
Modes of transportation: Planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, buses, taxis, boats, helicopters, gondolas, Tuk-Tuks, elephants, parachutes and old fashioned walking.
Alan: African Game Reserve
Least favorite place:
There's really not much to write in Fiji as we take in some last minute R&R...this was really a place that we took in to sit back, relax and take in some sun. I have to admit that after learning to scuba dive in Thailand, I've seen the underworld at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia...but, Fiji had the best diving that i've seen so far. Anway, enjoy the pictures, reality is only one week away!
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Our last adventure in the south island (before spending a few days in Auckland) was a 3 day hike along the Milford Track, a famous hike. When we originally planned this part of the trip over six months ago, all 24 daily slots allotted for people to hike the track had been taken. That includes the entire month of January and February. Fortunately for us there was a company that caters to those wanting to do the Milford Track (and has the gov't monopoly) and has 50 daily slots. At first, I thought the expense was not worth it and then we made the trip. Boy was I wrong.
That's right, we did the 33 1/2 mile hike 3 days while carrying all of our stuff on our backs and dealing with a major downpour on the last day. The first two days were great! The first day was a long 11 mile hike along a creek in a valley surrounded by steep mountain peaks. There was plenty of sunshine and little clouds as we made our way up and over the mountain pass...crazy views as we journeyed through the switchbacks. On the way back down over the pass, we stopped to check out the 5th highest waterfall in the world...of which I had the pleasure to take a shower in.
They say it always rains at least one day on the track, and boy did it. The most impressive part of the rain was the sheer number of waterfalls that begin to show up everywhere. As we hiked through the rain soaked valley, it was as if someone turned on a spigot and let the waterfalls flow. Truly an amazing experience.
As we completed the track, we ultimately found ourselves at the Milford Sound. The mountain peaks all around the sound are a mile high and the blue waters are a mile deep...the views are hard to articulte, but when you look out and see a cruise ship that looks like a toy boat in a pool, it puts things into perspective. If you look closely at the picture below, you will notice a very large cruise ship at the base of this peak. Again, the Milford Track did not disappoint....a definate highlight on our trip so far!
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Jenny caving on top of Franz Josef glacier...man was it cold!
While I find New Zealand a blast, I can't say the same thing for Australia. It was nice, don't get me wrong, but I felt like I was in another part of the United States. The cities were all nice (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, etc), but they could have been transplanted into the states and it would have fit in nicely. We were lucky enough to have a few encounters with some kangaroos which was amazing. I know that many people come back from the land 'down under' and can't stop talking about how amazing it is, but after 3 weeks touring the country I can not say that it has anything on the states. I guess you can say that Australia is simply over-rated!
Unfortunately, many people do not take the time and really explore our own country other than Florida or California to escape the cold Northeastern winters. I was lucky to have my parents plan one of those trips that seemed awful back when I was 14. We spent 10 days driving around in a Camaro through the Western states including Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakotah, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and maybe a few others. I liked it so much, I spent a 6 weeks driving around much of the same area after I graduated college. There are so many natural splendors in the states that blow away Australia. Ayers Rock...Devil's Tower, Wyoming. King;s Canyon...a poor man's Grand Canyon. I will say that they're cities are nicely situated on the coast line and the weather may be a bit better. I can't say that I really blame Rupert Murdoch for moving to the states...I guess it also explains why all Ausies have major travel bugs.
Regardless, we had a great time and can't say that I regret anything from our trip down there. Hayman Island was a really sweet spot and I recommend it for anyone planning a romantic getaway.
Time for dinner -- awill finish up later.
Monday, February 06, 2006
In Sydney, we spent Super Bowl "Monday Morning" (10am kickoff) at a local sports bar that broadcasted the game. As most of you know, I am a HUGE Steeler fan and I was sure not going to miss this event!
What else can I say that this image doesn't already tell...
Congrats to Bill Cowher for completing his dream. Personally, I have a lot of respect for this man including his motivation, postitive attitude and his determination. Here's a great post-game quote from him:
"A lot of people tell you you can't do it, but you know what, it doesn't mean you don't go out and try"
Thursday, January 19, 2006
If you can't tell, Cambodia was hot...much of the water was evaporating right before our eyes.
This is what happens if you don't clean your room for 1,000 years...
This is Jenny and I in front of Ankor Wat, a very interesting place in Cambodia to explore the ruins of the ancient Ankor civilization. After hearing from many people that this is an amazing place to explore, I was expecting a let-down. This happenend when I was the last one of my friends to see the first Batman movie...by the time I saw it, I had heard how great it was...only to be let down. Both Ankor Wat and the Taj Mahal are two places that were amazing and neither could be further from an over-hyped "let down". Ankor Wat is only one temple (Wat means temple for those of you actually paying attention) that makes up the entire area known as Ankor Wat and there are many other ruins scattered about around the 40 square mile area. We visited the region for 3 days and say the sun rise and set several times over the temples, truly a tranquil experience.
Regardless of how cool this place is, what this picture doesn't show is that we had become walking "dollar signs" at this point in our vacation. In all reality, this phenomenon started the day we arrived in India several months ago, but I think that I was just in a state of denial. Everywhere we go people approach us asking us the standard opener, "Where you from?". You see, they ask you the open to get your attention and to size you to see how big your wallet might be. People all over the world's impression of America comes from movies and TV...they think our country is entirely like Desperate Housewives. Well, I suppose that is true in some areas. However, all foreigners know that Ausies don't tip, Brits are cheap and Americans use dollar bills for toilet paper...we are truly walking $ signs. Well, after changing between New York or America, I decided to switch it up and use Canada (especially in Vietnam) for my response. Australia was helpful since all the Asians think they're cheap. My personal favorite became "our hotel"...this shut them up. When I was really bored, I just answered "No Engrish". No matter what our response was everyone wanted to sell us something...it was hard to escape since we quite simply stuck out like sore thumbs.
For those of you needing a visual, think back to the Bugs Bunny episode where two friends were stuck on a deserted island only to find Bugs as the only source of food. However, after many failed attempts at catching my fuzzy hero to make tasty rabbit stew, the two guys had given up. By the end, the two friends began to drool and the tall skinny guy looked like a hot-dog to the other and the stockier guy became the hamurger to the skinny guy. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, please move on.
Regardless of our new slogan, I grew increasingly tired of everyone trying to suck more money out of me and was becoming a bit impatient. Everywhere we went, things were grossly inflated given our tourist status and I had to bargain for everything. You have to realize that due to extensive inflation over the past 20 years, the exchange rates for most of Southeast Asia is absurd. Thailand was the best at only 4,000 Baht to the dollar, but Laos was the craziest at 40,000 Kip (prounounced keep) to the dollar...yes, a Coke is roughly 30,000 Kip if you properly bargain, otherwise, you're talking about 80,000 Kip. I was finding myself arguing over several thousand Dong (Vietnam) only to have to put things back into perspective.
I was a bit disappointed to find out that the entrance fee to Ankor Wat was $25 per person for a three day pass. Now, it was well worth it and it's still a hell of alot cheaper than a day at Disney World (you hear that Bob Iger), but I'd be surprised if the Cambodian government actually spends 1% of the fee for the upkeep of the site or to the people that live there. Unfortunately, the governments in Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam for that matter are extremely corrupt. I can write this since I am typing this in the free republic of Australia...I am proud to say that there is NO corruption in the United States (in case U.S. immigration gets a hold of this -- we plan to come home some day!). And as such, much of the entrance fees for many of the state controlled tourist sites go directly to someone's pocket. You have to remember that the $25 entrance fee for Ankor Wat is more than a month's salary for the average Cambodian (this is not an exaggeration). Most of the upkeep costs are almost purely labor costs...of which are very low. Even more strange is that many other countries have taken certain temples within the Ankor Wat complex and "adopted" them in good faith for restoration and maintenance which includes both money and manpower. So where does the money go? You get the idea. Same Same, But Different!
So, I mentioned that I had gotten a bit irratated and have to admit that I got in a few fights that I wasn't actually proud of. The first was in Northern Thailand with a Tuk-Tuk driver (motorized rick-shaw) that was trying to charge me $5 for waiting time as Jenny and I took our time at a store. Now, this trip of ours cost 30 cents for the 20 minutes to get there...but to have him wait a half hour was $5?? Not to mention that the shortage of tourists meant that they were begging for our business. This became a nice little fight..but I have to admit, I am bigger than most people in Asia. I can't that this is the case everywhere, but in Asia, I can safely say that I can kick some major ass (I'm still not sure what happened to Gene). Another time, I got in a fight with a laundry person that was charging us double than what we discussed since the clothes was ironed. It's the silly things like this that was really starting to get on my nerves. Oh, one more involved
Regardless, bargaining became a sport and a way of life for our time in Southeast Asia. Sometimes I would start bargaining with someone just to see how low I can get them just for the pure entertainment value. If someone caught me looking at something and offered me a price, off I went to play my game -- my goal was to get half price. Even if I had no intention of walking off with the marble chess set, the mother of pearl chopstick set or the bamboo hat, it became a contest. Most of the time I was able to get the half price or better bogey. If I really wanted to win the battle, the key is just to simply walk away. That is the key...always be willing to walk away. As soon as you do, the price drops to the floor. Anyway, while arguing over a few dollars doesn't sound like much, it is a matter of principal given how far the money actually goes. Tourists are taken advantage of and overcharged for everything and you have to be aggressive no matter what you buy. I used to think that my dad was the king of bargaining, but after spending the past few months in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos an Cambodia, sorry Dad, I'm the new king!
After Cambodia, we spent a few days in Koh Samui, an island off of Thailand where we simply relaxed. I got my PADI Open Water Scuba Diver certification and had a few nice dives while there. This will come in handy at the Great Barrier Reef in a few weeks...also Fiji and Jamaica for that matter. I really enjoyed the peace and quiet and the feeling of flying under the water and staring at all sorts of cool things. I've always had a fish tank growing up, but now I can swim in the tank. This was also to be our last few days in Southeast Asia. I have to admit that the region was truly an amazing experience and we really had a wonderful time. The food was great (I am an addict), the people were nice (despite my prior comments) and the scenary was spectacular. I can't say that any one place was better than the other since tehy were all so much different. My one regret is our decision to skip China on this trip since it was much colder that far north (although Hanoi was a bit frosty). We decided to leave it for another time....hopefully soon.
So long for now...we're heading Down Under.
PS - I'm up 7 games on Jenny in our Backgammon tournament...I don't think she has what it takes to recover.
Friday, January 13, 2006
After a few days in Hanoi, we spent a few days on a Chinese "junk" boat tooling around Halong Bay, about 3 hours from Hanoi. It was very relaxing and just amazing scenery (see above). We had great weather and wished that we could spend a few more days of sunshine and pampering. Unfortunately, we had to leave the North for a few dreary and dark days in Hue, the site of the Tet Offensive and a good place to tour the DMZ Zone and the rest of the American War (as they call it). There wasn’t too much left to see from the war since the government attempted to erase all history shortly after reunification in 1973. However, over the Vietnamese government has recently realized they are dollars to be made from tourist looking for a bit of history. There were some newly constructed museums and monuments, but really takes a bit of the ’ole imagination to really understand. We spent a day visiting sights like Khe San, Quan Tri, the DMZ Zone and Voc Minh tunnel systems used by the North on the other side of the DMZ. We also spent some time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail as we visited some out of the way military cemetery that went on for miles. The area is still littered with craters left from the massive bombings that took place here and much of the area is still contaminated with land mines and nasty chemicals that stunts vegetation growth.
It was interesting to get the other perspective of the war, but it was too over the top and the propaganda was so skewed that it was almost comical. Not that I agree with the Vietnam War and our meddling (or today’s Iraqi version), but in our history books, we skipped over the part where the U.S. invaded Vietnam to begin a massive colonization of Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). This in turn would lead next to the colonization of China…and so on. An example of some text would start like this: “The Imperialist U.S. government, in an attempt to enslave and colonize the Vietnamese people, landed in our great nation just as the reunification of our glorious comrades was to take place…” I really can’t do it justice, but after spending some time in the country, you really get a sense that the anti-American propaganda was used to re-unite the people (North and South) using some evil scapegoat. There were so many historical sites that were also destroyed in the war and many times were heard “this too was destroyed by the Americans”. No doubt we had some big guns blowing shit up everywhere…
Interestingly, there were many places that we saw downed U.S. aircraft (helicopters, planes, etc) as well as rusting military gear (guns, uniforms, shovels, packs, etc). There were also some people selling old war junk that included some old medals and even some American dog-tags. I read a few and almost wanted to take them home with me to reunite them with the fallen soldier’s family. It was tough enough to see the rusted junk, but seeing people’s names, hometown, religion, etc etched into the metal, it really made the event much more personal. Regardless, it was good to see all the war time stuff and get a sense of what the soldiers went through during the dark years of our country. Much of the heaviest fighting took place along the Ho Chi Minh trail that is basically thick jungle and relatively mountainous. I can’t imagine that our troops were even remotely prepared to fight this type of battle. The Vietnamese clearly used this to their advantage.
After a depressing few days, we went to Hoi An, a charming French colonial village that is well known for the tailors. They can make and copy anything from scratch and have it ready in a few hours. Luckily I was able to get a few pairs of boxers made since I lost a few in Hanoi. All I did was pick out the fabric and after some careful measuring, new underwear. This was comforting since the only replacement I was able to find at this point wasn’t exactly comfortable…who the hell still wear’s tight underwear? And to boot, Asians are small people…am I really an XXL? Don’t answer that. Since it was raining, we got creative and bought a few things. Jenny picked up a beautiful dress and a few tops while I was able to get a couple of shirts and pants made up. They can make anything as long as they have the right fabric. Hoi An was a good change of pace and we really enjoyed the town’s people, food and French colonial architecture. Lastly, we visited the hustle and bustle of Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam. It was pretty much as expected and took in a tour of the Mekong Delta. While the tour wasn’t too exciting we met some a couple from New York that recently graduated from college that are doing a similar tour to ours. After a night out with them at the local bowling alley (bowling is HUGE in Vietnam), I was feeling a bit old.
Anyway, after seeing so many images (albeit, one sided) I still can’t help to somewhat sympathize with the people of Vietnam who fought for so many years against the Chinese, French, the Americans and in their own civil war to re-unite its people in the eyes of Ho Chi Minh. Seeing the many places around the country (Danang, Saigon, Mekong Delta, Hoi An, etc) I realized the extent of the war was so far-stretched across the country and extremely brutal (on both ends). Again all this made me think many times of what is going on in today’s Iraq situation…I guess history repeats itself.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Time to make the rice patties....
I am demostrating how bad I can make their home made guitar sound...notice a member of the Long Neck community.
After saying goodbye to India, we boarded a quick 4-hour red-eye destined for Bangkok, Thailand. It was a real nice change of pace (and drastic) from what we experienced for the prior few weeks. The hotel started things off right with a flower petal heart laid in our bed and a fruitcake that read "honeymoon." We've been telling everyone that we're on our honeymoon to get some free stuff (bottles of booze, lots of drawn baths and a few cakes to date). After a quick nap, Jenny and I set out to conquer the country that has really become our favorite stop so far. The people are very friendly and the landscape is absolutely serene. I am officially addicted to the ancient art of Thai Massage...the best $4 one can spend (w/o the happy ending). Also, I have to say that I am in love with the food and can easily eat Thai food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So, beside eating and getting massages, we've spent the past 2 weeks touring Bangkok and the Northern provinces. As one of our more pampering moments, Jenny and I decided long ago to splurge on a few hotels during our trip. One of them was at the Four Seasons in Chaing Mai that is actually up in the hills above the city. I can honestly say that it was one of hte most beautiful hotels that I've ever stayed at. The rooms were very large, private and had balconies overlooking rice fields (why rice fields? Trust me...see it and you will know).
We borrowed some bikes one day and rode around the hills looking for some waterfall. Well, we didn't ever find it, but we managed to find a shooting range. Now, Tommy, Snyder and Corwin all remember my last trip to the shooting range and they vowed never to go with me again. Not that I was a bad shot, but they were worried that I'd go postal (long story and no, I'm not crazy). Well, we had a .22 caliber rifle with a small target placed 37 meters away. I had 25 shots and then Jenny would have her turn. I was excited that I hit the target (12 cm x 12 cm) in all 25 shots with many around the tiny black center. The results were something a man could be proud of. Well, Jenny only hit 23 shots in the target, but she had an overwhelming number in the tiny center...in fact, more than me. I was beaten by a girl, but at least it was her. After, she told me that she was on the rifle team at camp. Well, I wish that camp could have tought her how to ride a bike, because it wasn't pretty. Regardless, we got back the comforts of the hotel just before dark...a good evening riding through the hills. But, I have to admit that I'm pissed that we didn't that waterfall...it still haunts me.
Most people go to Chaing Mai and take day trips to other areas and/or sites, but we had enough time to hire a driver for 5 days to take us around the area. His name was Daecha (means power in Thai) and he was full of corny jokes and showed us some Thai culture. It was a bit rushed since we covered 1,000 kms (p.s. I am now a metric system convert), but we did see some natural beauty including the highest point in Thailand (2,500 meters), caves, springs and what could have been the windiest road I'd ever been on. I think there are something like 1,950 turns between Chaing Mai and Mae Hong Song, but we did much more than that on this trip. If only I had my motorcycle! Ok, that can be reserved for next time (you hear that Lampe?). Actually, I'd really like to come back to Thailand, South Africa (and India if they fix their roads) on a motorcycle since the scenery is amazing and the roads just twist off into the horizon. I may have to wait until the next time I quit my job...or retirement, i suppose. Some go to Florida, others ride through the jungle on a motorcycle.
So, back to our trip. We made a big circle from Chaing Mai heading west and stayed at a little (very) town called Mae Cham in the hills. Next, we went north to Mae Hong Song a touristy area that people fly to and from Chaing Mai. After, Mae Hong Song, we went West and back around near the Four Seasons, but we headed North toward the Burmese (now Myanmar) border town of Mai Sae. After some border shopping and a quick peek into Myanmar, we headed further west to the Golden Triangle, the point connecting Thailand, Myanmar and Laos (China is only 50 miles away) that was governed by drug lords until recently. Apparently, the opium trade moved to Afghanasthan....we can now see that the American government loves to attack those drug zones! The Golden Triangle is where we first saw the mighty Mekong river, the 10th longest in the world and a waterway that would be our new home for the next few days.
After a day or two on the border, we crossed into Laos and after some visa control left on a 2 day boat trip to Luang Prabang. It was amazing to see the boat communities on the river and visit some mountain villages that were unaccessible by road. We really enjoyed enjoyed our time on the water and settled into Luang Prabang for Christmas. While Laos isn't as touristy as its Thai neighbor, we hit it right smack in the middle of the holiday season and it was filled with Gringos. We couldn't even get a flight to Vientiene (Lao capital) so we opted for the 10 hour over night bus ride through the mountains. After missing the VIP bus (it left 45 minutes early), we got stuck on the "local bus". To put things into the imagination, they handed out barf bags when we started our journey...you can never quite get used to the smell. Not to worry, Jenny and I hung tough, but the same couldn't be said by the Lao soldier sitting behind us (he's there for our protection from gorilla tribes stirring trouble in the past), since he had a few "episodes" out the window! Of course, everywhere we go has its nuances, and after some fancy visa footwork (again) dealing with consulates and embassies, we were off to Hanoi, Vietnam. New Years is just around the corner!
PS - I miss the Thai massages...please, someone find out where Jenny can get lessons!
Thursday, December 08, 2005
Now, I've been around the world and seen all kinds of bad drivers and terrible traffic....but, I would never even begin to try to drive in India. First, you lean on the horn whenever the car is in gear and second, lanes (and traffic lights for the matter) are suggestions only. Hell, driving on either side of the street is permissable as long as you live to tell about it. For hte record, they "supposedly" drive on the left side of the road, but I only know this since the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. I can't begin to explain this phenomenon, but getting behind the wheel again may be difficult.
However, it was the cows, dogs, garbage and smells that took me a bit by surprise. Many people warned me of what India was going to be like, but there is really a major shock factor that you go through for a few days. Regardless, you have to walk gingerly down any street (if you'd like to call it that) as you dodge cow shit and avoid getting run over by maniac drivers. There's no rules...not of the road and none that says rats belong out of restaraunts. Basically, India made the poor rural parts of South Africa look like Westchester County, New York. After a few days of settling in and getting used to the pollution and garbage laying around everywhere, we finally felt like we could put down our guards. We attended a wedding in the state of Punjab for one of Jenny's friends from college. It was interesting, but it was a standard wedding filled with dancing, drinking, eating and pictures...there even were drunk friends of the groom there to offer slobbering toasts. So, it really wasn't so different...keepah vs turbon...hebrew vs hindi...same thing, different continent. Either way, I couldn't understand what was said.
After the wedding, we heading back to Delhi and hired a driver for a few days to take us around the state of Rajasthan (Agra, Jaipur, Pushkar and Udaipur). Each area has rich history filled with forts, monuments, temples (don't forget the cows, pollution and everything on the road moving with wheels). Some were amazing...the Taj Mahal is truly something that can not be described. As much hype as there is, it was worth the trip. Oddly most of the tourists that we've seen are from other parts of India. Jenny was asked on many occasion to pose for a picture with strangers. I guess they want to go home and show their friends that saw a white person...or maybe its because she's beautiful and they want to praise Ganesh.
Next, we spent a few days in some small religious town (read: no alcohol or meat) called Pushakar that is on a small lake. Ghandi's ashes were spread there. Essentially, it is now a hippie hangout for Israeli kids that are released from the army. Basically, Israeli kids need an outlet from several years in the army, so they go to India for a few months, years, etc and do lots of drugs...and eat lots of falafal. It was a nice change of pace from all the Indian food we've been eating. Also, Jenny was able to use some of the new Hebrew words she learnt in Israel.
After Pushkar, we went to Udaipur for a few days...another lake town rich in history. Everyone wants to sell us everything in each of these towns. "Only look, no buy" is what you hear as you walk through the winding bazaars. It is kind of like the cartoon Alladin...you have to bargain for everything in India. I even found myself bargaining for the price for a piss. Oddly, most other people just use the street (also known as the Indian Toilet). Me, I bargain for the use of a toilet which is really nothing more than a hole in the ground. Thanks for the pottie training Mom, but you never prepared me for this. The best bargains in town were on perscription medications where EVERYTHING is sold over the counter at rock bottom prices...Propecia anyone? I certainly got mine (Jenny thinks I'm thinning).
So, now we are in Bombay (aka Mumbai) and have enjoyed walking around the city on something called a sidewalk. This is the first occurance of such a thing in India...no longer are we walking amongst the garbage, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, cows and not to mention the ever popular cow shit pies that litter the streets. It is so much different than Delhi or northern India since people are less religious. There are actually women walking around in tight jeans, but Jenny gets many stares from people as she walks around in short denim skirt (cut above the knees is still too risque). We decided to stay in a nice hotel for once...toilet paper in the bathroom is an added bonus. I won't tell you how people here use the crapper here, but let's just say that they don't use toilet paper and there's a faucet located right next to the hole called a toilet.
On that note, it's time for me to go, Jenny wants me to watch a DVD with her. Ahh, the beauties of a normal hotel...
PS - I'm up 2 games in backgammon...