Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Swimming with the Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura

The Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura
The horn sounds, you slip into the water, lower your head and are stunned by the effort it takes to breathe. Two layers of 7mm-thick neoprene, plus the flap of the wetsuit hood, combined with a water temperature of about 50°F and the unnatural feel of breathing through a tube is something of a shock to the system. You force yourself to calm down, slow your breathing and start kicking away from the boat.

Within about a minute, your body has adjusted and you're breathing more or less normally again, so you start making noise, as instructed; since Michael Bublé's "Haven't Met You Yet" is the first thing that comes to mind, you sing it into your snorkel (or rather, you sing the notes and leave the words at "doo doo doo de da doo doo doo," since trying to sing the actual lyrics would be completely incomprehensible with a hollow piece of rubber and plastic in your mouth).

Less than sixty seconds later, a sleek arc in shades of grey bullets past and it's all you can do to keep your singing from turning into a squeal of excitement. You sing a bit louder and the grey bullet comes back. You follow it and suddenly you're swimming in a tight circle in the chilly South Pacific, trying to keep pace with a curious Dusky Dolphin who's come to investigate this unfamiliar squawking.

This is what a Dolphin Encounter with Encounter Kaikoura is all about and it is, in a word, amazing.

Part of Kaikoura's coastline and a pair of dolphins.
Before you ever set foot on a boat, Encounter Kaikoura is very clear about what its Dolphin Encounter is meant to be: an opportunity to interact with wild animals in their own environment, on their terms. Tracy, the tour leader and Pete, the bus driver and boat captain, know the habits of Kaikoura's Dusky Dolphins and know both where to look and what to look for, but it's made very clear that this isn't a Sea World exhibit and nothing is guaranteed, although every effort to get you into the water and interacting with dolphins will be made.

Since I was heading over toward Abel Tasman National Park the same day, I opted for the 5:30am tour, a summer-only option. It's a great time of day, Tracy told us, because the dolphins are heading back toward land after a night of hunting and like to get together and socialize, which means they're usually grouped into fairly large pods. We started seeing dolphins swimming and leaping within about 10 minutes of leaving Kaikoura's South Bay, all heading in the same direction. Roughly 10 minutes later, we were all lined up along the back of the boat, hoods, masks and snorkels in place, ready to slip into the water at Pete’s signal.

Several of the dolphins swimming in front of the boat on the
way back to shore.

Keeping track of time underwater is never easy, but I’d estimate I spent about 45 minutes in the water, and I was rarely out of the company of at least one dolphin for more than a minute at a time. The visibility was terrible (the dolphins were virtually invisible until they were less than five meters away, startling a laugh out of me more than once when they suddenly appeared in front of, next to or beneath me), the water was freezing, the thick wetsuits and hoods were horribly awkward…and I couldn’t stop smiling.

After the first several minutes, I started to notice the dolphins’ individual markings and recognized one in particular that kept coming back – he or she had a starburst-shaped marking or scar just in front of his or her blowhole and seemed to like Sara Bareilles’ “King of Anything.” I repeated the same four or five songs throughout my time in the water and within a few lines of starting that one, I’d usually find myself swimming in human-paced circles with the dolphin with the starburst marking.

One of the mother and calf pairs that came to see the humans.
Some of the dolphins were both more interested in and more sensitive to humans than others and would swim slowly enough that I could keep up for a bit, while others would bullet past, whirl in a circle so quick that I couldn’t finish half of one in the same time, then zoom back out to sea. Tracy told us later that there had been something like 200 in the whole pod, but they mostly swam in pairs or groups of half a dozen or so.

Several times, I found myself in the midst of half a dozen dolphins at once, swimming in a circle of flashing grey and silver as I did my best to keep singing, rather than break into delighted laughter. I even circled briefly with a mother and a calf no more than three months old, feeling vaguely like a zoo exhibit but ecstatic at the sight of the baby, not quite yet as graceful as its mother.

The dolphins are incredibly playful and liked to leap alongside the boat.
Every moment was a dream come true. The dolphins were enchanting – wild, but willing to share their habitat and fearlessly curious of the strange, awkward creatures who’d descended into their world. They kept slightly less than an arm’s length away, watching us with wise eyes. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’ll relive the beauty of the memories for the rest of my life, always with just a little disbelief that I really did once swim with dolphins.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Sunrise in the Outback

Sunrise at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park, 15 June 2011
Sunrise has been vying for position as my favorite time of day since I was 17. On a spring trip to France in our junior year of high school, two friends and I decided that getting up to watch the sun rise over the Baie des Anges in Nice was the perfect way to celebrate our first full day in the country. Neglecting to consider how much further north than Southern California France is, we arrived on the beach shortly after 5am, nearly two hours before sunrise. We walked the length of the Promenade des Anglais and continued partway around the headland at the eastern end of the bay. I snapped pictures of every infinitesimal lightening of the eastern sky. Jet-lagged and sleepy-eyed, we yawned, more than once. In the end, it was worth every chilly moment. Not because the sunrise itself was a particularly spectacular one, but because it just felt like the perfect way to have started the day and our time in France.

In the nine and a half years since that April morning, I've watched sunrises from planes to various destinations, on my way to class during Washington, DC winters and while sitting on the steps of a stone library at Angkor Wat. I spent nearly three of those years seeing four or five sunrises a week as I put in the necessary miles to keep up my marathon training. Watching the sun sneak above the horizon as I paced along, puffing out fog into the frozen winter landscape or inhaling what felt like half a river from air weighted with summer humidity, came to be a comfortable part of my routine. I can't remember a day that's started with the sun that turned out to be a bad one.

With grad school keeping me up later and homework eating up a lot of the time I used to use for running, I've fallen out of the habit of watching the sunrise this year but didn't think much of it until my trip to the Northern Territory this June.

My tour left Alice Springs shortly after 6am on June 14th - which meant it was still dark, since June is winter here in Australia. It doesn't take long to leave the town of Alice Springs behind and move into empty Outback, which was where we were when the sun began to peek over the horizon. The ghostly shapes of scrub brush and the occasional desert oak became clearer and color seeped into the landscape by degrees. By the time we stopped at our first roadhouse of the day, my breath had caught in my throat a dozen times at the beauty of the Outback at dawn. The early morning air seemed gilded around the edges, rays of sunlight dancing over the red earth and teasing out depths of color that seemed impossible in the full light of day. I soaked in as much of the scenery as I could, feeling more peaceful than I had in weeks.

At Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park the next day, we watched the sun rise over both Uluru and the "many heads" of the Kata Tjuta. Sunset at Uluru the night before had been a great experience, but it was watching streams of light flow across the horizon, pouring color back into the landscape and glinting off the frost that had formed during the night that took my breath away. Watching the silhouettes of the Kata Tjuta lighten as the sun crept higher into the sky, I couldn't help but smile.

I had one more Outback sunrise that week, watching the early morning light break over the top of Kings Canyon as we made our way up the Rim Walk's "Heart Attack Hill," then chase the shadows from the trail. As the canyon walls absorbed the first of the sun's rays and reflected them back in rich shades of red and brown, I paused to catch my breath in the slowly warming air, drawing in the feeling that's what I love best about sunrise: the twin sensations of peace and possibility that accompany the start of each new day.

Color seeping back into the landscape as the sun creeps up to illuminate the "many heads" of the Kata Tjuta.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wandering Angkor Wat

I dragged myself out of bed well before dawn, blearily noting the silence outside my window. It seemed even the neighboring rooster, who'd spent more than an hour crowing the previous afternoon, was still asleep. I, however, had better things to do: this was my day to visit Angkor Wat.
In addition to being a reliable driver, Mr. Thorn
was a good sport and agreed to pose for me.
After a hurried breakfast, I greeted Mr. Thorn, who'd picked me up at the Siem Reap airport the day before, hopped in the back of his tuk-tuk and off we went. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply as we tore down dirt roads in the dark. The pre-dawn air was lovely, the omnipresent Cambodian dust tamped down by an overnight rain and the sweltering heat of the Southeast Asian sun still an hour or two beyond the horizon.

The noisy confusion and fluorescent lights at the entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park jolted me halfway back to reality as I purchased my ticket, and I climbed back into the tuk-tuk a little more alert. I watched the fog that hovered above the surface of the moat running parallel to the road, guiding us toward the entrance to Angkor Wat itself as the nighttime shadows began to lift, nudged back by the first fingers of dawn creeping over the landscape.

The sun peeking through a momentary
break in the clouds over Angkor Wat.
Wading through the masses of tourists and salespeople, I eventually settled down on the steps of one of the libraries that flank the main causeway, watching light slowly seep into the sky around Angkor's unmistakable triple silhouette. A bank of clouds from the night's rain lingered, hovering above and behind the temple, and it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to clear before the sun was well into the sky. The photographers around me grumbled about missing a typically stunning Angkor Wat sunrise but I was oddly unperturbed, content to absorb the feeling of being nearly 9,000 miles from home, standing in the midst of a complex ordered built by a 12th-century king.

As the sun crept higher in the sky and deeper into the cloud bank, I made my way into the enclosure around the temple itself, marveling at the beauty of the bas-relief devatas guarding it and their apsara cousins, seemingly poised to begin a dance. After a climb up dauntingly steep steps with a railing so rickety I felt safer not holding onto it, I wandered one of the towers as the sun burned through the remaining clouds, sending hazy light spreading over the city surrounding the temple as sunbeams found their way through gaps in the sandstone to dance over the carvings lining the tower corridors.

A trio of apsaras at the base of one of the towers, with another tower at left.
The view from the stairs up to one of the towers (complete with rickety railing!)
Sunlight slowly seeping into the tower corridors.
The view over one of the tower balconies, with the Angkor balloon just visible among the treetops.
The South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom and
the Bayon. The statues lining the road are
fascinating - gods on the left, asuras (demons)
on the right.
I could happily have spent all morning in that one small corner of the 150-some-odd square mile complex that is the archaeological park, but I eventually pulled myself away to find Mr. Thorn and make our way to Angkor Thom and the Bayon.

The Bayon was perhaps my favorite of the sites I visited at Angkor, although it was also the most crowded. The serene smiles of the huge faces carved into the stone make for a peaceful setting, and I curled up in as quiet a spot as I could find to write some postcards before moving onto Angkor Thom city itself.

The Terrace of the Elephants, the South Gate entrance and parts of the Preah Pithu Group aside, Angkor Thom city itself was my least favorite part of the day and didn't have as much of an impact on me as the other sites I visited, but I'm still glad I took some time to wander through one of the major sites in the archaeological park.

One of the side corridors leading off from the main entryway
into the Bayon.
One of the Bayon's many face towers.
My favorite of the face towers - I wrote my postcards sitting near this guy.
When I arrived at Ta Prohm, the last site I visited, I felt as if I had stepped into some sort of Eden. The shade from the surrounding jungle and the cool morning air retained by the stone protected most of the complex from the sweltering midday heat. Despite being another of Angkor's most popular sites and full of camera-wielding tourists, Ta Prohm seemed to instill a sense of awe in most of its visitors and the hush that filled the temple was a welcome change from the chaos of Angkor Thom. With its crumbling corridors and overgrown doorways, it was easy to wander Ta Prohm wrapped in a sense of solitude, absorbing the feeling of peace that seemed to float through the air. As I climbed back into Mr. Thorn's tuk-tuk, I faced backward to watch first the temple and then the jungle treetops for as long as I could before turning around to watch the dusty road as we headed back to the vibrant, noisy reality of Siem Reap.

The last photo I got before my camera battery died, taken by a kind French couple who waited for or asked numerous other tourists to step out of one side or the other of the frame to get the perfect shot.
N.B.: My camera battery gave up its battle with the Cambodian heat not long after I arrived at the Bayon, which is why there are no photos of Angkor Thom city or Ta Prohm. (Advice: take a spare or two! This was the only place on my Thailand-Cambodia trip that I could have used one.) I was a little disappointed not to be able to photograph Ta Prohm for myself, but there's no lack of stunning photos of nearly every part of Angkor Archaeological Park available in books, prints and online. One thing that surprised me a little was the lack of English-speaking tourists, at least that I heard. The few fellow tourists I spoke with, either to take their photo or ask them to take mine, were French-speaking, although most tourists I encountered in nearby Siem Reap were native English speakers.

While planning this trip, I debated for a long time over whether or not to include this small piece of Cambodia and Angkor Wat on my itinerary, since it meant a harried beginning to my trip, but I'm very glad I decided to go. Thai temples are lovely, but I got a lot more out of my day among the stones at Angkor than I did my afternoon amidst the opulence of Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Southeast Asia Broke My Internal Thermostat

It didn't actually rain the afternoon this was taken, so I'm
assuming that's mostly smog in the sky behind Wat Phra Kaew's
impressive ornamentation, not clouds - either way, it did a great job
of keeping Bangkok predictably hot and sticky.
I am not a hot weather person. Growing up in the temperate climate of Southern California, I was spoiled by summers that maxed out at about 27ºC and winters where temperatures of less than 10ºC were shocking. After an uncomfortable season or two on the U.S.' East Coast in college, I adapted to winters involving below-freezing temperatures without much trouble. I even, to some degree, learned to enjoy the cold that made spring seem all the sweeter once it finally arrived. Extreme heat, however, I stayed as far away from as possible. If I had a choice between bundling into a coat and baking in a tank top, I'd almost always choose the former - or the latter with a heavy dose of air-conditioning.

So while planning my April jaunt to Southeast Asia earlier this year, I expected to be pretty darn uncomfortable throughout the majority of my trip. April is the region's hottest month, meaning there are few places where the high is likely to be below 30ºC (or, really, more like 33°) and nighttime lows don't bring much relief.

On the evening of my arrival, I stepped out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport shortly after 11pm and, rather than the cool ocean breeze I'd left behind in Sydney, felt the sticky Thai heat creep under my skin. After spending five summers in swampy Washington, DC, I'm no stranger to the unpleasant combination of intense heat and sky-high humidity, but there's a pervasiveness to the Thai atmosphere that's unlike anything I'd experienced before: the air has weight, substance and pushes back against your every movement. Slow down, it says, you're not going anywhere in a hurry, so just relax and go with the flow. Mai pen rai - no worries! (The only thing in the entire country that seems to be immune to this is Bangkok traffic.)

By the time I got into the taxi that would take me to my hostel near Siam Square, every inch of my skin was coated with a fine sheen of sweat that felt like it had been there since the day I was born. I walked into my hostel room and whimpered when I saw the request not to set the thermostat any lower than 23ºC - as hot as I was, 20º sounded like it might, possibly, after several hours, be cool enough. But I'd come to Southeast Asia wanting to experience it as it is (as much as possible for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed farang), so I set the thermostat for the prescribed 23º and eventually cooled off enough to fall asleep.

In sticky Bangkok, it's the little things - like
a 20-baht fan and a cold Diet Coke - that keep
you comfortable.
I split the next day between the overwhelming sprawl of Chatuchak Weekend Market and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha, and realized a couple of hours in that, oddly enough, the heat wasn't that bad. It was still sweltering and the lack of a breeze made it more so, but at some point it had stopped bothering me. Maybe it was that I'd slowed my pace to a leisurely stroll or that I'd purchased a hand-held fan from a vendor at Chatuchak for 20 baht (quite possibly the best roughly 65 cents I've ever spent) that helped stir the air around my face. Whatever it was, by the end of the day I was pleased to conclude that, while 36°C with 95% humidity would never make my list of favorite weather conditions, neither was it going to bother me too much for the next two weeks. (In the interest of full disclosure: I still spent the day covered in sweat and gulping copious amounts of water, but I wasn't unhappy about it. Although knowing I had an air-conditioned hostel to go back to at the end of the day might have helped with that.)

It wasn't yet 8am, but the heat was enough to
have already drained half my battery. (At least,
I assume it was the heat and not the repeated
attempts at getting a photo with both me and
Angkor Wat in it...)
Several days later I had crossed the border into Cambodia, where the intensity of the sun made Bangkok look like a nice, shady park in comparison. To me, Siem Reap didn't feel as sticky as Bangkok had, but it was several degrees hotter and lacked Bangkok's thick smog to cut the beating of the sun's rays. The clearest indication of the difference came during my one and only day at Angkor Wat. Throughout my time in Thailand, as long as I charged my camera battery each night, I didn't have a problem; in Cambodia, the heat was so intense that my battery started sputtering three hours after I arrived at Angkor and died less than an hour after that. (Angkor Wat tip: Take extra camera batteries!) I spent the little time I had in Siem Reap sweaty and flushed, but - just like in Bangkok - didn't really care.

After Siem Reap, I headed back into Thailand, this time North to Chiang Mai, where the first day of Songkran was winding down as I arrived. For those of you who are unfamiliar with your Theravada Buddhist holidays, Songkran is the Thai festival that celebrates the Lunar New Year in mid-April. The rituals surrounding the New Year have to do with the bathing of living spaces, Buddha images and monks and making merit or paying tribute to elders...but for all intents and purposes, what it's really become is a nation-wide water fight lasting from one to three days (or more!), depending on where you are. And, as most of the travel blogosphere will tell you, Chiang Mai is the place to be for Songkran.

Songkran-enforced cool. I think I've left
water parks drier than this. (If you're not
seeing any wet spots, it's because there
aren't any dry ones!)
What does all of this Songkran business have to do with the heat, you ask? Well, when I say water fight, I mean an all-out assault with water guns, hoses, buckets and bowls, being sprayed, thrown at or dumped on you by everyone on the street, from children barely big enough to walk to their grandparents. Let's just say that, whatever the weather, it's not hard to stay cool during Songkran, especially if you happen to be in Chiang Mai. (It's also a ridiculous amount of fun, but that's for another post.)

One thing I did notice about my reaction to the heat while I was in Chiang Mai was that I was no longer wishing I could set the air-conditioning down to 20°, as I had that first night in Bangkok. In fact, I often found myself setting it at 25°, or even shutting it off altogether. The same was true when I reached Koh Lanta, one of the Southern islands on the Andaman Sea side. The humidity there was especially brutal, so I kept the air-conditioning on at night to cut through it and set the fan on low to keep the air moving around the bed and blow the few mosquitoes that found their way into my bungalow away, but I found myself setting the thermostat to 25° or higher and still needing to bundle into my sweater to sleep. What was happening to me?!

Back in Sydney, I arrived toward the end of April to find that it had been raining for a week and would continue for most of the next. It wasn't particularly cold, but I was freezing. I wore layers of sweats and two pairs of socks. I huddled in bed at night, shivering until I warmed up enough to fall asleep. I drank copious amounts of tea and coffee, clutching at the mug until every remnant of warmth had faded. When the temperature dropped to 15° at night - a temperature I had greeted with a sigh of relief in Tasmania when my visit coincided with Sydney's 40°+ February heat wave - I whimpered and briefly considered adding a third pair of socks. After a month of this, I decided it was official: Thailand and Cambodia had smashed my internal thermostat to pieces. In two weeks of steamy weather, Southeast Asia had not only overridden my lifelong aversion to temperatures above 24° degrees, it had me longing for them.

While I've gotten a bit better in the three months since my return (read: I don't start staring wistfully at the heater until it drops to 22°, rather than 25°), I still find myself craving heat at temperatures I used to think were ideal and sighing in relief when I step into the bright Sydney sun, rather than looking for a patch of shade. I imagine that I'll continue to shift back toward "normal" until I'm once again grumbling at 30° temperatures, but it may be a while. Or maybe I should just head back to Thailand or Siem Reap...at this point, I'm getting kind of sick of wearing two pairs of socks.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My 7 Links

Thanks to Marsha's kind nomination on Single Occupancy Blog, Diary of a Wandering Student is back in action after a much-too-long hiatus (due to a combination of end-of-semester insanity and extreme post-finals laziness) with my post for Tripbase.com's My 7 Links Project. The project asks nominated bloggers to take a look back at old posts and highlight seven in various categories.

I was expecting this to be difficult since, with a blog less than a year old, I thought I wouldn't have much to choose from for some of the categories, but it turned out that choosing between some of my favorite posts that I'd forgotten about was harder! At any rate, here goes...

My most beautiful post | Profiles in Transit: Antonio

I was torn between three posts in this category, the other two because they feature what I consider to be some of my best photography, but my heart was wrapped up in this post long before I wrote it and I'm proud of how I was able to capture the beauty of a few moments with a stranger in words, not images. This is one post I was completely satisfied with when I re-read it after posting, which was a relief, since I was incredibly nervous about finding the right words to express a beautiful experience.

My most popular post | A Bug Called Bilingualism

In terms of actual hits, my post about Antonio is my most popular, since it was re-tweeted by Lonely Planet (that was a great feeling!), among others, but this one was a big success for a three-weeks-live blog and got me really excited about how many people out there are as interested as I am in the crazy experience that is immersing yourself in a foreign language and the culture that goes with it.

I haven't written any posts that have turned out to be what I'd call controversial - not surprising, since I'm a pretty can't-we-all-get-along type - but I was worried that this one might be. I was concerned that some might read it as bashing my fellow Americans travelers, when it was intended instead to highlight how radically different travelers from the same country can be and how it can impact their experiences abroad. Fortunately, no one I heard from took it the wrong way and the general opinion seemed to be that we all have compatriots who fit certain unflattering travel stereotypes that make us cringe.

My most helpful post | A Table for One?

Apparently I need to write more posts aimed at being helpful, because this was a tough one to figure out! I hope my post about my first solo travel experience encouraged a few people to take the leap and give solo travel a try, or at least start thinking about it, because the fact that not having any friends or relatives who want to take a particular trip with me doesn't mean I can't travel has been one of the best discoveries of my life.

A post whose success surprised me | Getting Hustled in NYC

This post was intended to highlight an (I'd like to think) rare moment of out-of-town stupidity and the importance of paying attention to your instincts, but the comments really took off and I was pleasantly surprised by how many new faces chimed in supportively. It just goes to show that unpleasant people like the hustler featured in the post are the exception and kind, friendly ones are the norm!

A post I feel didn't get the attention it deserved | Why travel?

This post had a higher than usual ratio of comments to page hits, but I felt like it never really got the exposure it should have, maybe because it was posted shortly before Christmas and New Year's. It's a post I love, because I feel like I was really able to capture what travel means to me: the okay-this-is-a-little-scary moments, the thrill of stepping into the unknown and, above all else, the sheer joy of exploring somewhere new.

The post I'm most proud of | A Whirlwind Romance in Cambodia

This isn't my best-written post, my funniest, my most touching or my most popular, but it is one that I'm very proud of. Why? Because, if I'd visited Cambodia even just five years ago, I would never have written it. Five years ago, I was barely beginning to scratch the surface of solo travel and, while I might have taken a solo trip to Southeast Asia if the opportunity had presented itself, I would have been much too busy worrying about everything that could go wrong to let myself see or fully appreciate the beauty the region has to offer. Before I left in April, I knew I would be comfortable traveling through Thailand and Cambodia by myself, but I didn't expect to view my time in Cambodia as much more than an interesting learning experience. The fact that I've become comfortable enough as a traveler, solo or not, to relax and let myself fall in love with a country so radically different from my own is something that makes me incredibly happy. Which is why the fact that I was able to write this post makes me proud.

Sharing the My 7 Links love. Wow, travel blog community, you've been busy. My 7 Links has spread like wildfire around the blogosphere! Only two bloggers I know haven't been nominated yet, so their links - a wonderful soon-to-be-expat blog by my friend Alyssa and a mouth-watering foodie blog by my friend Leran - are below, so take a look! If you haven't yet been nominated and want to be, shoot me a tweet - I have three nominations left!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Profiles in Transit: Pau Thom

Siem Reap, Cambodia
"Hey lady, where you from?" echoed off the buildings on either side of the narrow alleyway as I turned down it and two boys no more than ten years old fell into step with me. Used to the rhythm of this exchange after two days in Siem Reap, I said "The U.S. - California" and kept walking, knowing they'd keep pace.

Sure enough, the boy who'd greeted me rattled off President Obama's name, the U.S. and California capital cities, (former) Governor Schwarzeneggar's name and even a couple of quotes from the Terminator movies. I laughed and kept walking.

"Hey lady, I remember you, I talked to you yesterday!" the boy said, unexpectedly. I stopped and looked at him, then smiled. "You're right, I remember you too!"

"So today you buy my postcards, eh? Yesterday no, but today yes?" I looked at the cards but realized I had bought the same set the day before outside Angkor Wat's Ta Prohm, from a girl no more than five years old who broke my heart when she said she hoped I would buy her postcards because she wanted to go to school.

"I'm sorry, I already have these ones," I said, feeling regretful and wondering if I should buy a second set - I genuinely liked this kid.

After a brief pause, he said, "I'm still hungry today, maybe you could buy me some food instead?" My heart cracked again and, after my own brief pause to consider the idea, I said, "Sure, what do you want to eat?"

"This way, I'll show you," he said, leading me down another alley and making me momentarily consider the potential folly of following a stranger - even a friendly, juvenile one - through the streets of a Southeast Asian city I didn't know particularly well.

"My name is Pau Thom," he said, practically skipping as his friend and I walked alongside, "what's yours?"

"Jessalyn," I answered, pronouncing it slowly.

The Siem Reap alleyway Pau led me down
(which, consequently, I'd taken a photo of an
hour earlier) in search of his favorite chicken amok.
"Jessalyn," he repeated (more accurately than most Americans, to be honest) "Okay, now I remember your name and we can play! I remember you when you go back to California."

I laughed and restrained the urge to rumple his hair as I would have done to my niece. "And I'll remember you whenever I think about Siem Reap."

We grinned at each other as we crossed a street and approached a small restaurant with tarps pieced together serving as a roof and a plastic-coated menu sitting on a rickety pedestal outside. Pau flipped through it, then pointed to a chicken amok dish. "That's what I want to eat."

"Okay," I said and asked the waitress to bring him an order of the dish, along with a Coke when he said that was what he wanted to drink. Pau's friend slipped away before I could ask what he wanted, but Pau got settled at a table and I paid the waitress for his meal (which cost all of $3.00, U.S.). He looked small and more than a little lost at the four-person table by himself, completely out of his element - happy about it in some ways, since he was clearly hungry, but not quite sure what to do with himself while he waited for his meal. I wanted to sit and keep him company but was already past the time I should have been heading back to my guesthouse to finish packing and head to the airport, so instead I told him I had to leave. He gave me his crooked, sunny smile and waved, "Bye, Jessalyn-California!"

I smiled and waved back, murmuring "Bye Pau," knowing I was leaving a little piece of my heart behind as I walked away, but glad to carry the memory of that crooked smile and sunny disposition with me as I moved on.

There are hundreds of children in the same position as Pau on the streets of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, not to mention thousands throughout the rest of Cambodia. Some of them are bitter after years of watching foreigners come and go who are never hungry and don't lack for anything; most of them are resigned; and some of them, like Pau, are cheerful despite the hardships they face and, whether they know it or not, bring smiles to the faces of the people they interact with every day. Some people may question my decision to buy Pau a meal and that's fine - for me, it was a way to help that didn't involve simply handing over money (which, once I'd declined to buy his postcards, he didn't ask for anyway), since that's something I try not to do. Pau made my day significantly brighter and I hope that I was able to do the same for him in some measure.

My one regret is that I didn't get a picture of that cheerful, charmingly crooked smile of his. I'm still painfully shy when it comes to asking people I meet while traveling if I can take their picture and, while it doesn't affect my memories, it does have an impact on the degree to which I can share those memories with you. Hopefully by the next time I meet someone like Pau, I'll have overcome my shyness enough to ask if I can take a quick snapshot to remember them by.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Whirlwind Romance in Cambodia

I didn't expect to fall in love during my not quite three days in Cambodia. I planned to see what I could of Angkor Wat in such a short time, browse some local markets and head on to Chiang Mai with no regrets. But then my flight from Bangkok started its descent, I caught my first glimpse of the Cambodian countryside and my grasp on my no-nonsense, let's-see-the-sights-and-move-on mentality slipped. Why didn't anyone tell me Cambodia's beautiful? I wondered. Variations on that same thought played through my mind on repeat every moment I was there and long after my feet had left Cambodian soil.

My first glimpses of Siem Reap were full of
dust and intense heat from the back of a
tuk-tuk - and were absolutely enchanting.
The tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap International Airport to my guesthouse was windy, dusty and brutally hot - and I loved every moment of it. I couldn't stop the smile that kept stealing over my face as I looked around, watching the motorbikes that zipped past, the farmers working in fields and rice paddies near the road and the multi-colored houses and shops that lined the streets. Most of the big hotels looked ridiculously out of place - I've never been more pleased that my budget doesn't run to luxury accommodation.

Mr. Thorn, my tuk-tuk driver, pulled up in front of a pretty, peach-colored building and I walked into the charm of Hotel 89's lobby.

After arranging for my visit to Angkor Wat the next day with the front desk, then making myself at home in a room that was comfortable and welcoming (and air-conditioned!) at only USD $15 per night, I wandered toward Pub Street and the center of Siem Reap.

The quality of light in Cambodia is unlike anything I've seen
anywhere else in the world, and it adds to the lush beauty of
the countryside in a way that's completely captivating.
With every step, I was more enchanted. I'd never before been in a place where all of the action on the street seemed to take place so completely at the same level. Sure, I was (sometimes) on a sidewalk, but motorbike drivers grinned at me as they went flying past my elbow, local occupants of tuk-tuks looked at me with curiosity and the cars quickly made it clear that the idea of pedestrian right-of-way definitely does not exist in Siem Reap and that if I wanted to cross, I had better saunter partway (and not at an intersection - who uses those?), wait in the middle of the street for them to drive past and then continue on my way, like everyone else.

After a souvenir stop at fair trade merchant Rajana and a dinner of delicious tofu amok and Angkor Beer at Pub Street's Le Tigre du Papier, I wound my way back through town, sharing a stricken look and then a laugh with a moto driver who happened to speed past just as I was catching my balance after tripping over a crack in the sidewalk.

Angkor is a vast subject unto itself (and will have its own post somewhere down the road!), but I can tell you that I loved it and that it only deepened my appreciation for the region and the Cambodian people.

Life in Cambodia may not be easy, but it's
as vibrant as its street traffic.
I don't want to give the impression that Siem Reap is all rainbows and butterflies - it's very far from it. Landmine victims hobble down the street on what's left of their legs, begging for money or food; children who should be in school fall into step with you, asking where you're from and repeating a litany of facts they've had drilled into them about your country or state, trying to convince you to buy a set of postcards; both poor standards of living and abject poverty are evident everywhere you look.

But the strength of spirit of the Cambodian people is equally evident. They may have nothing more to offer than a smile and a joke, but they're unfailingly generous with those. Their sunny cheer, as they call out "Hey lay-dee, need a tuk-tuk?" from across the street or offer directions when you're looking particularly lost, is incomparable and blends with their country's mesmerizing quality of light and colorful culture to form a national charm that's impossible to hold out against.

I flew into Cambodia expecting a couple days' worth of history lessons. I flew out with an entirely unanticipated love of the country and deep respect for its people that will keep me ready to jump at any chance to go back.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Whirlwind Tour: Ready, Set, Go!

I arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport
last night.
Photo Credit: JoeDuck, Creative Commons
Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Ridiculous, but as of noon yesterday, this was what had been going through my head pretty much non-stop for the previous 48 hours, since my last class before April break (fall break, down here in Australia) ended on Thursday afternoon. I felt like a little kid on Christmas Eve, or on the day before a trip to Disneyland: I couldn't think about anything else and felt like I was revving in neutral, burning off excited energy by bouncing around in my seat. Why all the hyperactivity?

I landed in Thailand last night.

Just typing that sentence sets off another round of internal squeals of excitement. We have a little more than two weeks off, which I'll be spending in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Lanta, with a couple of days across the Cambodian border in Siem Reap and at Angkor Wat. It's going to be a bit of a whirlwind, especially at first, since I'll be going somewhere new about every two days, but I didn't want to regret not fitting in the trip to Angkor. I'll have a little longer in Chiang Mai and nearly a week in Koh Lanta, where - if the weather cooperates - I'm hoping to get my dive certification.

When I was growing up, I was so enamoured of France and then of Europe in general that I had very little interest in Asia. Not to mention, as a young teenager the idea of going somewhere that seemed so utterly foreign was more terrifying than exciting. But, on a whim my sophomore year of college, I picked up a compilation of travelers' stories about Thailand and my interest began to grow. By the time I returned to the States from my year in France, Southeast Asia was firmly on my travel wishlist - for some time in the hazy future.

Choosing an Australian postgraduate program turned my world upside in more ways than one. Oceania and Asia, which had been filed under "someday" in my travel plans, jumped to the top of the list overnight and I discovered an enthusiasm and anticipation for Southeast Asia in particular that were far stronger than I had realized.

With a larger-than-usual tax return due to having paid most of the costs of my first year of grad school in early 2010 and a two-week break scheduled for April, visions of Thai street food and markets began to dance in my head and I started to look at fares from Sydney to Bangkok. When I started to plan out possible itineraries, I surprised myself again when I realized that I already knew exactly what I wanted this first trip to Asia to include: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, dive certification at one of the southern beaches and a jaunt into Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat - if I could work out the timing to fit it all in.

After some agonizing about whether to include Angkor and destination-hop every few days for the first part of my trip or to leave it out and spend more time exploring Chiang Mai and southern Thailand, I decided to include a few days in Cambodia. I know myself well enough to be sure that coming so close to such a major site without going to see it would drive me crazy.

I arrived in Bangkok late last night and, after a few hours' sleep, am ready to dive in. First up: Chatuchak Weekend Market, followed by some temple time.

So it's Bangkok, Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta and me for the next two weeks: ready, set...go!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Upside Down and 17 Hours Ahead

Three of Sydney's cultural icons in one shot!
Photo credit: S Baker, Creative Commons
I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of culture shock in Australia. I didn't expect it to be particularly shocking, both because Australia is a developed, English-speaking country, like the U.S., and because for me it's generally reverse culture shock that really trips me up. So, while I didn't expect moving to Australia to throw me too much off my stride, I was curious to see just what differences would stand out.

After two months, I'm feeling pretty at home in Sydney (despite my dad's ongoing assertions that I'm upside down - thanks, Dad), but there's a random assortment of little things that are just different enough to remind me that I'm on the other side of the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Everything is on the left. Having spent a few days in London, I wasn't a total stranger to the idea of cars with right-side drive and traffic on the left-hand side of the road but somehow the fact that the same rule might apply to things like sidewalks completely escaped me. After screeching to a halt at the foot of an escalator in Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport and blearily wondering why the right-hand escalator was the down escalator from the floor above, common sense pierced the veil of jet lag and I figured it out. It took a few days in Tasmania to really get walking on the left into my head, but I eventually got it. (It's not as noticeable in Sydney, where the number of residents and tourists from other countries sometimes makes it a walk-where-there's-space free-for-all.) For the past couple of weeks, I've started to look to the right first when crossing the street, rather than looking left and quickly whipping my head right, sincerely hoping I'm not about to get flattened by an oncoming car. (This is one habit I expect to have issues with back in the States!)
  • The local lingo isn't that far from American English, but it's enough to throw me completely off sometimes if I'm not paying close attention. Things like "Any cash out?" (instead of "cash back"), "ta" for "thanks" (although that's another one that doesn't seem as common in international Sydney) and "How're you going?" ("How am I what...? Ohh...I'm doing well, how are you?") are just different enough from what we say in the U.S. to occasionally give me pause. (Then there's Australian vs. American terminology and spelling when it comes to writing papers, but that's another story.)
  • Australia is expensive. Crazy expensive. $2.80 per banana expensive (granted, they're not always quite that bad). I ignored the first couple of high grocery bills, figuring it was just the necessity of stocking up on basic household goods like laundry soap and pantry staples that was making them so high, but as I've gotten more used to seeing prices in kilos, grams and liters I've realized that, no, it's just really expensive. My grocery bills are about double (if not closer to triple, depending on what I buy in the way of produce) what they were in Washington, DC. And it isn't just food that's expensive - books are the first place I noticed the price difference, and it was a huge shock. A popular new release can easily cost $50, with more "normal" paperback prices ranging from $20-$25. I asked for a Kindle for Christmas to help keep books from eating up most of my luggage allowance but once I arrived, I was even happier to have one!
  • One of my ongoing fascinations with Australia is its outlook on energy usage. It was in the high 80s and very humid when I arrived and I groaned when I walked into my apartment and realized there was no air-conditioning. From what I've seen, it's par for the course here and even larger buildings have coolings systems that are regulated much differently from the U.S. Rather than have the air-conditioning running at all times throughout an entire academic building, as we do in the States, each classroom has its own controls, the most common of which involve turning the a/c system on and having it automatically shut off after three hours. Hallways, as far as I've seen, are never air-conditioned. There were only a few days in February that were really uncomfortable and I've gotten used to making the most of cross-breezes and fans, rather than relying on central air. Considering that Sydney is just about as hot and humid as Washington, DC (although it does usually cool off more at night), where a lack of air-conditioning is viewed as an unacceptable, completely unlivable state of affairs, it's an interesting contrast.
Not the prettiest picture, but still pretty cool:
since that little switch to the left of the outlet
isn't turned on, no power is being used, despite
the number of things plugged in.
  • Then there are Australia's electrical outlets. (I know, this technically belongs under the last bullet point, but they're just so cool that they deserve their own.) I was baffled by the switches on the outlet plate covers when I first arrived, but ignored them. After plugging in a fan and wanting to cry when it wouldn't turn on and get the air moving in my room, I flicked the switch next to the outlet just to see what happened and - ta-da! - the fan started whirring. You can shut off power to every single electrical outlet in Australia when it's not in use. How cool is that?! Not only does it help keep the electricity bill down, but it stops the slow leak of electricity through appliances that aren't in use, without the hassle of unplugging them. Green and practical!
  • The Australian government is serious about cracking down on skin cancer. Unfortunately, given its location and climate, it's probably not surprising that Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer of any country in the world. (I can't sit in the sun for more than about twenty minutes without sunscreen on without risking a burn - so I'm going through a lot of sunscreen!) The government is tackling the problem by inundating the media with PSAs and publicity campaigns, promoting slogans like "Slip, Slop, Slap" (slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat) and "There's nothing cool about a tan." This actually reminds me a lot of the anti-smoking campaign the California government launched when I was a kid that was, over time, pretty amazingly effective. Fingers crossed the same will be true in Australia.
This Tasmanian kangaroo's favorite thing about Australia?
Tourists who feed him (her?)!
  • The wildlife! I have yet to see a kangaroo outside of a conservation park, but even the everyday wildlife is pretty impressive! The spiders are enormous (yikes) and all over the place at this time of year, but the birds more than make up for them. (Well, most of the time. No number of encounters with cool birds could make up for the morning last month when I woke up just in time to see a large, leggy black spider start crawling toward my bed across the ceiling. Great for my reflexes, not so good for my nerves.) The day I arrived, I saw what looked like a cockatoo fly past my window but thought it must be the jet lag. The next morning, I realized that, no, there actually were cockatoos flying around - lots of them. It turns out they're about as omnipresent in suburban Sydney as pigeons are in Central Park. Ibis and green parrots are pretty common too, not to mention some of the most mournful sounding ravens I've ever heard. There are also some birds with beautiful calls that I haven't been able to identify yet, but I love listening to them.
Despite being 15 to 17 hours ahead of most of my friends and family, between Skype, Facebook, Twitter, ready access to my email inbox (which I didn't have the last time I lived abroad) and the many parallels between Australian and American lifestyles, I usually don't feel all that far from home. But it wouldn't be an adventure abroad without some cultural quirks, and I enjoy taking note of them. What are some of your favorite quirks from your travels?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Australian Adventures: One Month In

Predictably, I petted my first one of these guys
before I'd been here a week.
Somehow, a month has gone by since I arrived in Sydney. A month ago Sunday, to be exact, since I started hearing "no worries" six times an hour and blinking in confusion at everyday expressions like "How're you going?" and "D'you want cash out?" It feels like I've been here both much longer and much less than a month. Longer because I've already done so much and I feel settled in; less because how could I possibly have been gone a whole month already?!

I didn't quite know what to expect from Australia. I'm a foreigner, but one who shares the same native language, albeit with a different national bent. I'm a student, but an international one whose studies take place at least half the time in a language native neither to this country nor to my own. And I'm a traveler, looking forward to learning the ins and outs of this country that is my temporary home. Where would I fit in, in Australia, on campus, in class, I wondered? Australia, with its laid-back sense of welcome, seems to say "fit in wherever you like, mate!"

That's one of the things I'm slowly realizing is a big part of what makes Australia so appealing: its unquestioning acceptance of whoever happens to show up. Sure, you have to certify that you're not a criminal and aren't trying to wipe out any of the native species to get through immigration but, once you're in, the welcome is universal. It isn't overpowering or over-eager, like a scene in a musical where every member of the cast is dancing with manic joy in the middle of the street; it's a casual "Hey, how're you going? Glad you could make it," that's extended to everyone from the man who's lived around the corner all his life to the tourist who arrived yesterday and is still fumbling with the currency.

Do I look relaxed yet?
Every single person I've met in the past month has emanated this casual acceptance and welcome. The cashier at the local Woolies (Woolworths, an Australian grocery store), who took in my bleary, jet-lagged confusion when she asked if I wanted cash out (that's cash back, for my fellow Americans) on my first evening here, put it together with my non-Aussie accent and welcomed me to the area with a smile. The waitress at Hobart's Retro Cafe who saw my Arizona driver's license as I pulled out my wallet, thought it was the coolest thing she'd seen all week and wanted my opinion on what Aussie English sounds like to American ears (charming, is the answer!). Not to mention the multiple bus drivers who have kindly advised me that the bus to my desired destination is the one that arrives on the opposite side of the street and haven't seemed at all put out at having stopped for a passenger who turned out not to be one.

The first country other than my own that I lived in long-term was France, for which I fell head-over-heels instantly, swept off my feet by the rich colors, textures, scents and sounds of everyday life, so different from what I grew up with in the U.S. Australia is more subtle - less intense, more easy-go-lucky and much less passionately opinionated - but no less convincing. Already, I find myself relaxing in a way I rarely did in the U.S., not just on the surface but right down to my bones. Despite the fact that classes are now in full swing, stress is becoming a distant memory. "No worries," which you can't help but hear every day in Australia, isn't just a phrase, it's a way of life, one that seeps into every pore and which, I have a feeling, may be impossible to get rid of once it's made its way into your system. Then again, why would you want to?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Cradle Mountain

My first look at Cradle Mountain, from near the beginning of the Dove Lake Circuit.
I'm a sucker for national parks. Maybe it's having all but grown up in them, but plunk me down in a national park with plenty of trails to walk, night sky to stargaze at and wildlife to marvel over and I couldn't be happier. So when I heard from a couple of Aussies (Queenslanders) my parents and I met in Utah's Zion National Park in the U.S. this past September that Australia's island state of Tasmania is 40% national parks, I decided I had to get there.

Cradle Mountain and the pristine waters of Dove Lake.
Freycinet National Park with its charming bays and coastline was lovely and I'd have liked to spend more time in Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, but it was Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park that made me feel like camping out forever might just be a viable life plan. Known for its six-day Overland Track that stretches from near Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair itself, Cradle Mountain NP is a backpacker's dream, with trails ranging from easy but visually stunning walks to challenging climbs over rocks and crags to reach a view that could take your breath away.

Cradle Mountain hangs dramatically above the northern end of Dove Lake and the Dove Lake Circuit.
Tasmanians say that you can expect to see Cradle Mountain itself one day out of every three but, after my humbling drenching in Freycinet a few days before, the powers that be must have decided I deserved a treat, because I was lucky enough to get two days of crystal clear views.

Cradle Mountain from the opposite (northern) side, a shadowy backdrop behind the lovely greenery of Cradle Valley.
There are places in the park where you can't see the mountain at all and wonder where it's gone off to, then you come around a bend in a path or crest a small hill and it appears, striking against the sky and a rugged contrast to the Tasmanian rainforest below.

A morning at Cradle Mountain, with Dove Lake and its boat shed in the foreground.
If you ever get the chance to visit Tasmania, be sure to include Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park in your itinerary. There's a peace and quiet in the air, not to mention heart-stopping views, that absolutely should not be missed.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Hiker With the Black Umbrella

The crazy Tasmanian weather means you can go from this
beautiful sunshine over Freycinet National Park's lovely
Wineglass Bay to cranky thunderstorms in an hour or less.
You have got to be kidding me, I thought, looking up as the first raindrops hit the rocks around me. What had happened to the bright, sunny afternoon I'd been enjoying? I was in the second half of an 11km (not quite seven-mile) hike in Tasmania's Freycinet National Park with a friend and, with scrubby trees and wiry bushes leaving just enough trail to walk on, there was absolutely nowhere to go. I heaved a sigh and reached for my pack.

Before you start wondering just how much of a wuss I'd have to be in order to be that put out by a few drops of rain, let me tell you a little about family vacations when I was a kid: they usually involved a couple of weeks in national parks in the U.S. or western Canada and the one question my dad could always be counted on to ask before we left home and as we set out from our campsite each day was, "Do you have your parka?" (In Pinneo family lingo, "parka" means "waterproof jacket," not "big, heavy, snow-proof coat.") With much eye-rolling and face-making, I would say yes, grumpy that I had to lug such an unwieldy thing around all day, with little likelihood of actually needing to wear it. Parkas are ugly, I would complain. It's too big, I look stupid. Whenever I could possibly get away with leaving the thing behind, I did.

Clouds starting to gather near Wineglass Bay.
So it was a bit ironic that, prior to leaving for Australia, a waterproof jacket was on my to-buy list, since one of my first stops would be Tasmania, capital of unpredictable weather conditions. I found a few I liked online, but wanted to make my purchase in-store, since I wasn't sure of the sizing. No worries, I thought; since I would be spending a few days in Los Angeles before heading across the Pacific, I could just pop into an REI store and find what I wanted. Unfortunately, it turns out that REI stores in Southern California don't really carry Outdoor Research (OR) products, which was what I'd been looking at. There was a similar jacket by The North Face that could have worked, but it was a little heavier than I wanted for the Australian summer weather, and REI's own similar line was more expensive than OR's. So I decided I'd wait to buy a jacket until I got to Australia, either in Tasmania or once I was settled in Sydney. In the meantime, I'd just have to tough it out with an umbrella and hope for clear skies.

I had not, however, planned on ending up on a narrow Tasmanian hiking trail, in pouring rain, with nothing waterproof at hand except a black, travel-sized umbrella. If it had been just me and the usual hiking paraphernalia in my daypack, I would have kept on going and ignored the rain, no problem. I had a hat to keep water out of my eyes and it wasn't cold, by any means. But I had my Kindle and my iPod in my pack and no other way to protect them from the downpour, so, rolling my eyes at my own idiocy, I popped open the umbrella, hitched it over my shoulder so that it covered as much of my pack as possible and set off at as fast a clip as I could manage, eyes focused enviously on the water rolling off the hood of my friend's jacket.
The sky over an isthmus on the Freycinet Peninsula,
looking a little more foreboding just before the rain started.

The image of myself in my mind's eye as I hiked made me want to both laugh and bang my head against a wall. Hiking with an umbrella, I thought. Could I be any more ridiculous? The umbrella, wider than my shoulders and much less easy to maneuver, snagged on bushes and branches every few steps and I gritted my teeth as I continually yanked it free, trying to climb without bending over and exposing the bottom of my pack to the rain. The few hikers who passed us gave me puzzled looks and I smiled sheepishly, wishing I could disappear into the ground and take my absurdly out-of-place umbrella with me.

An hour or so later, my friend and I made it back to the carpark and scrambled into our tour's minibus to laughing applause. Soaked to the skin - this hadn't been any gentle shower but a steady downpour, complete with rolling thunder - we collapsed in our seats and I gratefully put away my umbrella, sure of three things: 1) I never wanted to hike with an umbrella again; 2) I was buying a waterproof jacket the minute I found a sporting goods store back in Sydney; 3) My dad was never going to let me live this down.

And there you have it: the day I became "the hiker with the black umbrella."