Saturday, January 26, 2013

On the Edge of Nothing

Looking out at the South Pacific from the beaches in New Zealand, it's jarring to me how isolated I feel. It is a far way from anything, and you're reminded in the airport where the whole extended family gathers when someone takes a flight!

We realized after a few days in Auckland that without a car we weren't going to get far, so we rented one for a few days from Omega, which seems to have the lowest prices. First we went to Piha, a beach on the west coast, where they claim to have black sand. While the beach was lovely and volcanic activity was obvious, the sand was definitely gray. It was a hike to get to, and since we were alone there on a beautiful day, we passed the afternoon playing giant sudoku in the sand :)

Did you notice what's wrong with the picture of Diego driving? We're on the wrong side!!

For reference, San Francisco is only 10,489 km to the northeast of Auckland, so we're still rather close to home. Unfortunately we've utterly failed at the pub quizzes in New Zealand, finishing last both nights we went. But, we did find a bar called Thirsty Dog in Auckland managed by a yogi which serves lots of interesting things, including vegan/organic/local cider and food!

Next we went north to Paihia, in the Bay of Islands. And the place is just that, a bay with islands, a bunch of them-- they claim 144, although most of those are tiny rocks sticking out of the water. Paihia is a typical beach town, a few restaurants and everything related to the beach. We made the tough decision to do a tourist activity, a sailing trip. It was fun to see all the islands up close from the water, and we also got a chance to help with sailing. We stopped at a beach in one of the islands where we did a little barefoot hiking, kayaking and snorkeling. When we were sailing back we saw a group of dolphins (which Diego is pointing at in the picture); they started following the boat for a little while which was pretty cool. In our hostel in Paihia we did some beach-y activities, cooking curry inside when it rained and taking advantage of the extensive VHS tape selection available.

On the way back to Auckland, we visitied the 'world famous' Haruru falls, which were a total scam, just a small drop of water. And we also stopped at another beach on the way where there were a lot of people kitesurfing-- really beautiful.

CURRENTLY: New Zealand
UP NEXT: Melbourne, Australia

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

No Sheep Yet - Auckland

We arrived in Auckland and quickly saw the influence of immigrants from the Pacific and Asia in the many ethnic food offerings on K Road, which is luckily right next to our hostel. The only unfortunate thing is it seems several businesses are closed for Christmas -- looks like holidays are commonly a whole month off!

That didn't stop us from running into some unexpected findings.. from great surprises to the downright weird, like this soap called "Placenta". Um.

On the positive side, we have found a ton of food options and general understanding/support for vegetarians and vegans here, along with halal, kosher, and gluten-free. It seems like Aucklanders are both a healthy and accepting bunch! Love it! We even ran into an all-vegan shop that carries both vegan and awesome natural organic products.

Going to the Auckland War Memorial Museum was a highlight so far, it's really about the history of New Zealand in general and we also learned about how the different cultures of the Pacific developed. Definitely would recommend it for a first trip to New Zealand; although it didn't necessarily give us insights into daily life here now, it was an interesting and beautiful place and now we understand a lot more about the Maori and other peoples of the Pacific island nations.

In the museum's volcano area (volcanoes are very important in New Zealand) I saw an article from the good old The Daily News, the newspaper of Longview, Washington, where I grew up, about Mt. St. Helens' eruption. I guess it is such a small world!

Although we haven't seen real live versions of either of the two animals New Zealand is famous for, kiwis and sheep, yet in the Auckland area, we did get pictures with these stone replicas. Tomorrow we will venture outside of the city and hopefully get to meet some more authentic versions!

While walking, we saw a street art display where people had filled in "before I die I want to __" with "travel the world". It reminded us again of how happy we are to be fulfilling such a wonderful life experience. I think as we understand a little about each place we visit, in discovering our own reactions we learn a little something about ourselves. I sure hope that helps us figure out where we want to live for the great apartment chase that awaits us when we return to SF!

Although it's clear they are closely related and influenced by each other, already from our short time in Sydney and Auckland I have noticed some real differences between the two. In Australia I felt like all my clothes were much too conservative and not fashion-forward, whereas in New Zealand the vibe is more sporty, classic and casual. I think style is a clue to society; in Sydney things seem faster-paced, while Auckland is laid-back. In both places people seem to generally have a positive outlook, at least from the outside displaying hardly any complaints in situations I would normally expect people to get whiny about.

Tonight we went to our first of hopefully many pub quiz/ trivia nights of the trip, and despite finishing dead last it was a lot of fun. We learned a bit about New Zealand, and bit about cricket, and a bit about classic American movies! We'll keep looking for events like these wherever we go, and can't wait to rejoin the crew with some new knowledge back in San Francisco.

CURRENTLY: Auckland, New Zealand
UP NEXT: Pahia and Bay of Islands, New Zealand, followed by Melbourne, Australia

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Manly, Sydney, and Bondi

Lots of beaches in our last 2 days in Sydney! We leave tomorrow, having kept this location short because it is pretty expensive.

From the ferry terminal, filled with sound from a man playing an instrument I haven't seen in person before (anyone know what it's called? I liked the music), we went to Manly, a beach we were told was so named because explorers saw indigenous people they thought looked macho in the area -- apparently "manly" was a word in use when Australia was founded. Although most major cities are on rivers, Sydney really does seem to have water everywhere you look and it's fun to explore the area on ferries included in the unlimited public transportation passes we bought when we arrived. Overall, we've been really impressed with the public transit here.

In the evening, at a local's suggestion, we went to the 47th floor O Bar to get a birds-eye revolving view of the city. The experience was worth it, but I must admit it's tough to dress up when you're living out of a backpack!

Sydney's botanical garden is on the water between the famous Opera House and city center and a lovely place to hang out, and they also offer a free guided tour every day. Today it was cloudy with light rain, in my opinion much nicer to spend time outside than yesterday's hottest EVER day in Sydney at 115 F / 46 C (!).

We went to Chinatown for lunch, where per a tip we went to a rather strange food court off a street filled with restaurants. We ate 10 spring rolls ($4) and 10 steamed buns ($8) and called it a day with a bubble tea. I'm not sure if it's usually this way, but we saw several different groups of musicians and Chinese dragon dancers who seemed to be blessing the restaurants in the area.

Next up was another famous beach, Bondi, which is quite accessible from Sydney center and a pretty, classic beach-town area. We walked for a bit on a trail cut into the cliffs right above the water towards Coogee beach and caught some great views along with quite a bit of wind.

Finally, we went to South Head, the southern peninsula separating the harbor from the Tasman Sea. The water here was surprisingly tropical, clear and really beautiful. I recommend it!

CURRENTLY: Sydney, Australia
UP NEXT: Auckland, New Zealand, and around NZ for about a week

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sydney, canguros y koalas

Después de un vuelo de 12,5 horas en un avión de dos pisos (747-400), 5 películas vistas (127 hours, Black Swan, Borat, The Expendables 2, Almost Famous) y unos pocos minutos de sueño, llegamos al aeropuerto internacional de Sydney. El viaje fue insoportable, pero no hay mejor forma de llegar, así que hay que disfrutarlo con una sonrisa. Lo curioso es que el viaje fue todo de día porque estabamos "siguiendo" el sol al ir hacia el oeste, igualmente los asistentes de vuelo hacían bajar las ventanillas del avión para generar un efecto noche.

Llegamos por la tarde, así que lo único que hicimos es ir al hostel (Backpackers HQ), buscar algo para comer y dormir hasta el otro día. El hostel está muy bien puesto, es bastante grande y según parece por los sitios de hostels es uno de los mejorcitos de la ciudad. La desventaja es que estamos hacinados con otros 6 viajeros en la misma habitación, pero tiene desayuno (pobre) del que aprovechamos al máximo para llegar hasta la cena sin hambre.

Al otro día arrancamos con un walking tour, que como en muchas ciudades son a base de propinas, conocimos muchos lugares de la ciudad como el Opera House, Harbour bridge, Botanical Gardens, etc. En el tour había un grupito de argentinos que hicieron escala en Sydney antes de ir a Nueva Zelanda a juntar kiwis.

Ya entrada la tarde pasamos por algunos otros lugares que comentó el guia, el museo de la moneda australiana (tienen una historia muy complicada, pero hoy exportan sus billetes de polímeros a muchos países) y el parlamento, dónde pudimos entrar y sentarnos en la silla del presidente (del parlamento).

Para la cena tuvimos una experiencia divina, literalmente. Ya en Chile nos dijeron lo mismo, y acá en Sydney también, cada vez que preguntamos por un restaurante vegano nos mandan a algún lugar Hare Krishna. Esta vez si fuimos, y lo bueno de este era que si primero ibas a los cantos después la cena te salía la mitad, y era tenedor libre, así que no hubo dudas. Durante hora y media estuvimos cantando junto a unas 40 personas "Hare Kirshna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare", todo sea por comer más barato! Tal vez valió la pena, tal vez no, la comida no era muy buena, pero fue interesante ver un poco lo que hace la gente de ese movimiento. Lamentablemente no hay foto de los cantos.

Ya es jueves y decidimos ir a una reserva animal que hay en las afueras de Sydney, tren y bus para llegar. El transporte público funciona como un relojito acá y es muy fácil para guiarse porque está todo muy bien señalizado.
En la reserva tenían muchos de los animales autóctonos, incluyendo canguros, koalas, wombats y dingos. Tuvimos la suerte de estar cerca de muchos canguros, alimentarlos y acariciarlos, son muy tranquilos y debían estar muy acostumbrados a los humanos. Después vimos muchos koalas, la mayoría durmiendo en posiciones extrañas (duermen 20 horas por día), pero pudimos sacar algunas fotos con uno que estaba despierto y con hambre, son muy suaves.

Por la noche fuimos a un restaurant vegano cerca del Chinatown local, muy similar a los que hay en San Francisco, así que estuvimos como en casa, pero con precio australiano (salado, salado).

No puedo dejar de comentar el izquierdismo de Australia (como toda colonia o ex-colonia británica). No sólo es el conducir del lado izquierdo, sino todo lugar dónde haya algun flujo en ambas direcciones, los "carriles" están invertidos, por ejemplo las escaleras mecánicas del subte, la que tenés que tomar vos está a la izquierda. También al caminar por la vereda, la gente mantiene la izquierda, en lugar del famoso "mantenga su derecha". No es nada fantástico, pero es curioso y si bien es chocante al principio, te vas acostumbrando.

Otro comentario al margen, el cable de la laptop de Ashley se estaba desintegrando por algún motivo desconocido, así que fuimos al Apple store local y sin mucho problema le dieron otro nuevo, sin costo; los beneficios de la globalización capitalista.