Wild Australia

Australia is synonymous with beautiful beaches, but there’s another natural wonder that is rarely talked about: their rainforests.

dsc04328

Australia is home to the most extensive area of subtropical rainforests in the world. Collectively, the 50 parks that make up the Godwana rainforest of Australia are a World Heritage site; that’s only in one state! The Godwana Rainforest is one of the most ancient on Earth, and still contains plants and animals from which life on earth evolved.

 

We drove through the winding, tree-lined roads deep into the rainforest. We parked and set off down a hiking trail and almost immediately came to a beautiful waterfall dropping high off of a cliff. From there we passed through many different types of huge trees, surrounded by twisting vines, with high roots and big leaves. Little geckos scamper across your path, while every once in a while you see a large, black, oily, dinosaur-like lizard slowly moving across the jungle floor.

Down we went, further into the canyon searching for an elusive natural swimming pool. Sounds of parrots, kookaburras, doves, and who-knows-what all echo through the canopy. The air is dense and fragrant with the smells of life and decay. The narrow path edges you down the canyon, your eyes always peeled for movement; pythons and boa constrictors also live here.

We arrived to the pools, and immediately dipped into the cool water to wash the sweat from our skin. The creek rippled slowly and flowed around boulders into the pools, creating a small waterfall. The water was cold, but a welcome refresher. Until we saw the pool’s guardian. Mark was doing a jump off the waterfall and Alayna walked to try and take a photo almost stepping on a snake. It started swaying its head and we took that as our cue to get out of the water and begin our long trek up the canyon.

 

We stopped at a few look-outs to see the beautiful escarpment and could see all the way to the ocean. The next day we went back into the park, from another point and went to a “rad rock slide” that was recommended to us by our surf instructor while he showed us a video of him careening down a waterfall. As we entered the park, there were many signs in bold letters, DO NOT JUMP OR SLIDE INTO WATER FROM ROCKS. DANGER.  We took this to heart, initially. We swam in the rock pool and just as we were about to leave, we saw an Aussie girl sliding down the rocks. SPLASH. She got out, laughed, and then her friend went. ‘Hmm, they survived. It can’t be that dangerous…’ We headed back down to the water. By now a few people had gone and all were living to tell the tale. We decided to do it. Mark went first, holding himself partway up the waterfall, he quickly let go and the water took him down smoothly, and flung him off the 5 ft drop at the end into the pool. He scrambled out. It was Alayna’s turn now and with some minor hesitation, she careened down the rocks as well. We both survived, and did it again.

The Australian hinterland is wild for many reasons. Its nature; its wildlife; its people (and their hobbies – all have a small element of danger that makes it more exciting). It contrasts well to the relaxed vibe that emanates from coastal towns and makes it a wonderful place to explore.

 

 

We’ve come to the Land Down Under

Australia. You know the stereotypes. Tall, beautiful people with tans and long hair, on beaches, surfing, and saying G’day. It’s all true. All we need is a kangaroo and a koala and I think that’s about as Australian as you can get (and we’ve been promised that we will see some at some point on our trip).

Ah, what a refreshing change from Asia. It almost feels like we’re at home, just in another province. We have a car. There are traffic lights. Things work. You can communicate easily. We have a soft bed. It’s CLEAN.  We love it. Maybe it is because we’re coming from Asia, and we wouldn’t be so mesmerized if we were coming from a Western country, but who cares? It is a work of beauty. Clean beaches that stretch for miles, dotted with happy families and surfer dudes catching waves. Friendly people with Aussie slang (“Macca’s” for McDonald’s, “Sammy” for sandwich, “Heaps” for many, etc.) that although can be confusing, is still way easier than talking to a Vietnamese person.

The one negative we have found so far is of course, the cost. We are in Australia during summer “high season” so costs which are already high, go even higher. We’re trying to offset this by using some airmile points, doing some workaways, and staying on couches of friends (and friends of friends). We buy all our food at the grocery store and make our own meals. This too is a refreshing change, though I am sure the novelty will wear off quickly.  Most of our meals have been eaten outside, as picnics or barbeques. Australia has free for use (or coin operated) hot plate BBQs in public areas and parks.  It’s refreshing and really nice to cook and eat outside, surrounded by families enjoying themselves by the water.

We spent our second day in Australia learning how to surf on the Gold Coast. Our very authentic Aussie surf instructors got us up on our boards, riding the waves. We have both surfed before, so it was slightly easier this time and we had success getting up about 50% of the time. It’s very difficult, but we are hoping to rent boards and improve our skills in different areas along the coast. It’s fun just to “body surf” the waves, by jumping and swimming to catch the wave.

The beach is so beautiful and clean, the sand squeaks. It’s a rare phenomenon when the sand is fine, not polluted, and has the right humidity. As you walk a squeaking noise is created.

The east coast of Australia also has a “hinterland” (an area away from the coast) which is comprised of dense rainforests, waterfalls, many national parks, rolling hills and even mountains protruding out of the earth. The people in the hinterland are not quite as fit and beautiful as the beach bums, but they are still pretty friendly. dsc04308

While in the hinterland rainforest, we spotted a Pademelon. What is this, you ask? Why it is a miniature kangaroo! We didn’t know they existed either. This 10 lb marsupial is the smallest of the macropods, and they bounce around the forest scavenging for food. We had given up finding one on our walk and Mark said “I guess if you were really lucky, one would just bounce across the path in front of you” low and behold as soon as he said that, a little ‘roo was 50m in front of us on the path.

As you can tell, we are really enjoying Australia so far. Stay tuned for posts on the ancient Godwana rainforests (and our rock slide adventure) and our workaway experience with an Aussie couple in the Hinterlands!

Farewell to Asia

We are 3 months into our trip, officially more than half way! We leave Asia tonight and make our way to Australia and thought that an overview of our experience in Asia would be a good idea.

 

Biggest challenges: Our biggest challenge was the Monastery volunteering. Both getting used to the very basic conditions that were there, and coming up with a plan to improve the lives of the kids, teachers, and volunteers.DSC03583.JPG

 

Scariest Moments: Driving on the roads and being passengers in buses/cars/tuk tuks on the very poorly constructed roads with the crazy drivers. There have been multiple times on the roads where I thought there was a very good chance that we would die. They drive in the middle of the roads around tight corners on winding dirt roads on the edge of cliffs with no guard rails. We just had to keep reminding ourselves “they drive these everyday, it’s okay” close our eyes, and hope that we made it there safely. (In case you think we’re exaggerating how dangerous the traffic system is in Southeast Asia, do some more reading here to convince yourself: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0386111218300748 – it’s a serious issue and Thailand ranks second in moralities which makes sense to us as their roads have all been recently paved so speeds have dramatically increased. The other countries have such poor roads that getting above 60km/h is seldom possible.

 

Happiest Moments: We’ve had a lot of happy moments this trip. Some were simple like a plane taking off after being delayed, or getting to bed after a long day of travel. Others were more unique, like talking with some local kids with Google translate, or being high-fived after teaching a fun English class, or getting a girl the medical treatment she needed. Unexpected things like seeing hot air balloons after we thought they weren’t coming, or seeing someone we knew in a completely random place. Crossing things off the bucket list, finding some new delicious food, or finding something that tasted like home.

 

Most Annoying things:

– No toilet paper in bathrooms and just generally disgusting toilets. Some squat toilets, some western, no toilet paper, no soap. If there was both toilet paper and soap you would go tell other people to use the “really good” toilet. Showers that don’t have shower stalls and get the bathroom floor drenched and turn it into a mini bathtub that stays wet for hours and hours.

-Pollution: Smog is in every city, and you can see the dense grey as you fly into it. You can never escape the smell of motorbike fumes. Our throats are consistently sore or irritated, and we have chronic coughs.

– Chinese tourists. They really are bad. Pushy, rude, loud, and disrespectful in their giant tour buses with huge hats and cameras. Everyone in this region (including non-Chinese tourists) shares a disdain for main landers. You hear it constantly and start recognizing mainlanders and trying to avoid them. Massive groups of them will swarm luggage dispensers, push through lines, scream right into your ear, squat, hork, spit, stare at you, and generally treat you as “less than”. In Cambodia we witnessed a mainlander climbing on top of a sacred temple stones to take a picture while a guide yelled at him to get down. Totally unfazed he continued doing what he wanted and the guide turned to the group and said: “100 percent a Chinese”. A Vietnamese lady explained it to us as: “The Chinese have been making the world’s products for the last two decades and now they feel like they’re entitled to it. Like they own the world or something.”. At all the hipster hostels you see a Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”, scribbled on the walls. Sorry hipster dude, this isn’t always the case.

Most surprising things:

-Thailand has AMAZING movie theatres. You can rent couches and it’s cheap. The sound and picture is great and the caramel popcorn tastes homemade. They also make you stand before the movie starts to play a few minute video homage to the King.
-We really still can’t get over how polite and quiet Japan is.
-How easily you adapt to your surroundings and crazy things just become normal

Best food: Our favourite dishes of the trip were:

Japan: fresh sushi from fish market and Ramen
Vietnam: Bun Cha and Egg Coffee
Thailand: Massaman Curry and coconut ice cream

dsc04232

Worst Food: Myanmar’s food was pretty basic, especially at the monastery. We survived on rice and bland curries for 2 weeks ( though we went into town a few times for some real food).

 

Nicest People: Myanmar’s people seemed to be the most genuine and happy to see and speak with you. They never tried to scam you, and were genuinely interested in speaking to you and having you around. Northern Vietnam was similar. Japan’s people were the most polite by far, but not the warmest.

win_20181206_16_35_31_pro

What’s it really like travelling for so long?: It has it’s good and it’s bad. Photos always depict the easy and beautiful parts of traveling, but behind the scenes there is endless planning, plans that go awry, scams, tears, meltdowns, and homesickness. It’s difficult being away from people we love for so long, and hard to keep in touch because of the time difference. We can get annoyed at each other (spending almost every hour together for 3 months can do that) and we get tired or traveling. Somethings that should be exciting to see are not, some we don’t even bother going to because we know we won’t care that much about them. The novelty of seeing new things wears off, and you just want to watch a movie and eat some normal food. Don’t get me wrong, we still are excited about some things and are wanting to see more, but it’s very different than a 2 week trip.

What we miss most about Canada/home (besides people):

Alayna: Normal bathrooms and desserts that aren’t made of rice or tapioca.
Mark: Systems that work. People not doing crappy work (often not their fault as they haven’t been trained properly) like not putting toilet wax rings on properly, electrical messiness, poorly built things, laziness about how things are done. They need to watch Mike Holmes: do it right the first time, people! Ok, I’m done now.

What we’ve learned so far:

We have learned a great deal over the past few months. About places, cultures, history and deeper things like what people need to be happy and how to try and implement that into our lives back home. One major difference that we’ve noticed is social circles and togetherness. It is a common theme in Asia to have whole extended families living together, going out and doing activities and supporting each other. This is both out of economical need and culture. In Canada this is very limited, it’s more of a “every man for themselves” attitude and privacy is paramount. Probably the best is somewhere in the middle. We’ve also realized how much work/careers take over our lives and can become everything. We understand work is needed for income, stability, and personal growth and education, but there definitely needs to be a balance between working on a career and working on yourself.

What are our next plans?:

We head to the East Coast of Australia tonight! We will drive the coast from Brisbane to Sydney, head to Tasmania for a week, and then spend some time in Melbourne with Mark’s sister.  From there we fly to the South Island in New Zealand and we roadtrip around New Zealand for approximately a month. We plan to be home in early to mid March.

A Night to Remember

Kuala Lumpur is a city similar to Singapore but with a more Middle Eastern influence. The climate is uncomfortably hot which results in a culture centered around shopping malls and indoor activities. You go from your air conditioned house to car to mall all while limiting your exposure to “outside”. In all, Kuala Lumpur would rank among our least favourite travel destinations. This isn’t to denigrate Malaysians in anyway; they’re warm and polite people.

It was the last evening in Kuala Lumpur. We were tired and sweaty from the humid, hot air. The sky looked as though we were on the precipice of a thunderstorm. Wondering aimlessly, we walked right past a live musician playing a Chinese harp in an interesting looking restaurant. The music was peaceful, exotic and beckoning. We were drawn to the entrance of the restaurant and were promptly seated next to the musician. Immediately our orneriness dissipated. The music was just the perfect sound level and a wonderful hum of ambient conversation aided in its delivery. The interior lighting was a warm, red hue. Suddenly, to compliment everything already present, cool rain began falling, cutting through the high humidity like a sharp knife. What started as a sprinkle quickly became a downpour with pedestrians racing for cover. A brisk, pleasant breeze could be felt on our skin. The calming sound of falling rain on the pitched roof made us feel like this was the place we were supposed to be; nicely and safely tucked away in a big, busy city. The wet street reflected warm light from the surrounding buildings. Cars driving by whipped up water which made for soothing background noise. The decor of the restaurant was ornate and Chinese inspired with pink flowers wrapping around the railing of the restaurant. Looking across the table, Alayna was particularly beautiful; her classy appearance fitting in perfectly with the setting.

dsc04231

Both being taken aback by how quickly our attitudes and the atmosphere had changed, we decided to make an event of it. We splurged and ordered their expensive four course taster meal. We used gift money from our family to settle the tab. Our waiter had adsc04236 genuine smile and seemed to love his job. As if bringing us our meals brought him immense pleasure. He took his time to explain each of the exotic dishes: Scallop with soya glaze, prawn yam roll, mango salad, fern leaf salad, curry spaghetti, beef rendang, cream butter prawns, Norwegian salmon, lotus leaf bun, poppy seed rice, and pineapple crumble for desert. As we enjoyed our meals and shared that experience, we felt a wonderful harmony and ambiance. In this giant world and all the footsteps that made up our trip so far, we were in the exact spot we needed to be. It was a refreshing change from the previous four days. It was totally unexpected and that was part of its charm. Maybe those are the “moments” that all the cheesy ‘Live in the moment’ signs are referring to.

A Day with Elephants

Asian elephants have been in northern Thailand for hundreds of years. Originally they were used for transportation, logging, farming, while also being major players in combat battles. Riding elephants used to be done in the army by someone who would play the drum throughout the battle. If the drum ceased playing, they were dead and it was signal to retreat or surrender. They were also killed for their ivory tusks. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and are brown rather than grey. Their ears are smaller and their trunks have two holes instead of one.

Riding elephants became popularized for pleasure by the cinema, with many tourists coming to Thailand in the hopes of crossing “ride an elephant” off their bucket list. The mentality has changed recently with animal welfare groups bringing more attention to the poor conditions of the elephants in Thailand. Alayna was in southern Thailand four years ago and rode an elephant at that time (and then felt bad doing it because the elephant had chained ankles and was whipped in the head), and has noticed a huge shift in marketing. No longer are there places advertising “ride an elephant” but rather in big letters state “NO ELEPHANT RIDING”, with the words “elephant sanctuary” being put on every page. Many of those elephant riding places simply have changed their names and marketed themselves as sanctuaries, while few of them actually are. The true sanctuaries house elephants that have been mistreated by owners and are now living the life of mud baths and sugar cane. You have to do your research to determine which advertisements are legitimate, but in the end at least you are supporting happy elephants (hopefully).

1546508264503

We found an elephant sanctuary that lies in a National Park about two hours southwest of Chiang Mai. After a very long and bumpy ride in the back of a truck we arrived to find five elephants (ranging in age from 18 – ~50 years old) happily awaiting us to be hand fed a nice snack. We changed into the uniform (so that the elephants think the feeders are the same people every day) and started feeding them sugar cane. They grab it with their trunks, or if you are brave enough you can plop it right in their massive mouth.

After the snack we headed into the forest with the elephants for a little walk, and of course, for the elephants to find more to eat. They eat 18 hours a day, consuming between 100-200 kg of food. They are surprisingly agile for such large creatures and traverse the muddy slopes with ease. The larger human “elephants” of our tour group had much more difficulty with the hike.

20190103_120825

Being a four ton animal, they have a lot of thermal mass, especially under the Thai sun. To protect their skin and keep them cool, they cover themselves in dirt or mud. We headed down to the mudpit-elephant spa and proceeded to rub mud onto their giant bodies. Behind the ears is a key spot and I think if they could purr, they would be doing so. Laying in the water, belly sticking up like a small island and the end of the trunk sticking up like a snorkel, we lathered on the muck.

 

Then it was time for a bath (for both the elephants and us). We headed to the waterfall and dipped into the freezing cold water to await the chain of elephants. They came slowly and when they arrived we all sprayed them with buckets of water to get the mud off. Some like it and will stay and roll around, others promptly go up to the main area to dry off and get more food. One got into the water and promptly let out 5 coconut sized balls of dung right where we were standing to peacefully float down the river (they create 50-60kg of dung per day).

I am sure it costs a lot to keep an elephant, but we paid a sizeable amount of money for a one day experience. There were roughly 20 tourists there. We think that most of these places (true sanctuary or not) are still making good money off of the tourist industry. It was a neat experience and the elephants seem to have pretty good lives all-in-all.

We are soon departing Asia, with a couple days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before arriving in Australia. We’ve had three months in Asia and are ready to get back to the commonwealth. It’s been an amazing experience with so many adventures that it’s hard to even remember them all. What am I most excited for moving on? Toilet paper in the bathrooms. (Alayna)

Happy New Year!

Chiang Mai is famous for being the lantern center in Asia. A festival called Yi Peng, which occurs on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (mid November usually), is celebrated by releasing lanterns into the sky, or floating them away on the water. A lantern festival has been on Alayna’s bucket list for quite some time. For those of you with children, it’s like what happens in the movie Frozen. We obviously missed the lantern festival in November, but luckily enough a similar thing happens at New Year’s eve.

 

It’s extremely hard to fully capture the magical sight of thousands of lanterns floating through the night sky. We arrived to the main square area around 10 PM and already there were hundreds of lanterns drifting through the sky, guiding our way to the main site. Once there, many locals were selling lanterns; a small size for $1, a large size for double. They come folded up with a large circular wick in the middle. You are supposed to write your New Year’s resolution or a your wishes for the future and think of them as you release the lantern into the night sky. Releasing the lantern symbolizes letting go of the misfortunes and illness of the previous year.

 

Some people’s lanterns and dreams immediately caught fire and burnt to the ground. Others got caught in trees, and some had holes in them and never took off at all. A little depressing start to those New Year’s resolutions so carefully thought out, but realistic nonetheless. Thankfully, all of the three lanterns that we set off floated blissfully into the night sky.

 

It’s interesting to see how the lanterns change direction with the invisible wind currents that are in the sky. They start floating one way with the breeze you can feel on the ground, and then loop up and around and go back the opposite direction so high above you that they look like stars. What goes up must come down; indeed they do, burnt out lanterns fall in the northern part of the city, littering the streets and homes. Airplanes adjust their routes and certain flights are cancelled during these times.00048(2)

 

There was no loud music, no big countdown, and the stroke of midnight passed us by without us really knowing it. It’s a little confusing to start with, because Thailand uses the Buddhist calendar, which is 543 years ahead of us. Happy 2562 everyone!