27 March 2012

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore

Apparently, this temple, situated in Singapore's Chinatown, houses a tooth relic of Buddha's- which was said to be found in 1980 in Myanmar. That's the history I came across on this temple, and as I didn't visit the museum portion I can't say what was on display. But I did look inside the temple, which is fairly new. I'm not sure that I have ever been inside a Buddhist temple such as this. A different religion as it may be to me, I still found it very interesting to look around, see different rituals and reading about what these people believe. This temple was absolutely beautiful- you cant help but stand in awe at the architecture and sheer attention to detail in...pretty much everyting! Endless decoration, gold and ,in this temple's case, Buddhas...I definitely loved seeing some of the handiwork , art and color that goes into making these things. And somehow, it does help me appreciate my own beliefs more- seeing and being surrounded by other religions and beliefs. I'm glad for that... and I really am glad that I've had the opportunity to see what's outside my own California bubble (as well as the very westernized countries I've visited before.) As St Augustine said, " The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page."

 

26 March 2012

Singapore Esplanade

Touristy as it may be, one of my favorite places to go in Singapore was the Marina and its Esplanade. It's a short walk from the metro station and home to some of the iconic images of Singapore. Here, Christy and I saw the giant Merlion fountain- a symbol of Singapore, fish body representing the fishing village Singapore once was and a lion head representing "the lion city" or Singapura- the city's original name. It was so nice being by the water, especially in the midst of the city's humidity... even in the rain (or especially in the rain), it's so refreshing to walk around here. And to mine and Christy's surprise, a free music festival was going on the day we chose to walk around (the last day of the festival at that!) Early in the day, we saw some of the band's rehearsal before heading inside the adjoining mall (due to the rain)- a perfect time for some lunch and milk tea! (Salted Caramel Milk Tea! So delicious!) The Esplanade is a perfect place to see the sun set and watch the skyline light up... which is exactly what we did, simultaneously being treated to a light show and the music festival. We ended staying for the whole show, watching both the Malaysian punk band (with an amazing crowd!) and a Brazilian band. Definitely one of the best (free) ways to spend the day in Singapore!

23 March 2012

Sentosa Island - Singapore's Playground

I went out to Sentosa Island twice during my stay in Singapore. While it is possible to take a cable car out to the island, it's pretty pricey at $24 one way- so Christy and I opted for the cheaper alternative of taking the Sentosa Express. It's easily accessibly from the Harbourfront MRT station and only costs $3 for the round trip ticket. Approaching Sentosa, I definitely felt like this was Singapore's answer to Disneyland. It felt very touristy at first, which it is- what with Universal Studios Singapore, and other mini parks and aquariums you can visit. This was all a bit expensive for Christy and I, so instead we walked around the island, saw the Merlion statue in the center of Sentosa and headed for the (free!) beaches. We visited the Palawan Beach ( which had a lot less tourists and was further from the main shopping and eating areas) and Siloso Beach (which is more visited and closer to everything else.) It was really so nice to get away to a lazy island and spend the muggy day cooling off in the water, walking along the beach and enjoying refreshing drinks. So much so that Christy and I made a point of visiting the island (specifically for the beaches) a second time.

22 March 2012

The Easy Life in Singapore

Oh, Singapore! It was such a nice transition from India. India was amazing, but it was so nice to come to Singapore! The traffic was not so congested, the city was clean and organized and Christy and I could actually walk into shops and look at items without starting the haggling process. Our first couple of days were spent just getting used to the "reverse culture shock." (from India). We frequently went walking around Joo Chiat, the area we were staying in. We had quite a few good Asian meals before moving on to some meat! Our first beef in a month! We splurged on some Hard Rock Cafe hamburger and it was so worth it! I don't think beef has ever tasted as good. Christy and I discovered our love for milk tea in Singapore as well! Delicious tea drinks (of many colors and flavors!) enhanced by the creamy goodness of milk. My favorite was the Gong Cha Milk Black Tea- a yummy black tea with almost salty-like cream on top that should be mixed into the tea. We definitely treated ourselves to milk tea just about every day of the week that we were there. While in Singapore, the land of great and varied food, we decided to search down some Mexican food (as we've never experienced good decent Mexican food outside of North America. It took a little googling, but we found a place called Cafe Iguana in a touristy area that was actually pretty tasty. It was expensive as well, so Christy and I (being us) split the nachos- one of the cheaper items. Definitely not quite authentic, but still delicious and...good! Guacamole, cheese, tortillas, beans and sour cream hit the spot. So, that's the easy life in Singapore- we had heard it was all about the food and shopping here, and as we don't have any room in our backpacks for shopping, we decided to take part in the food aspect (in our own semi-frugal way!)

15 March 2012

Varanasi - India's Holy City

The last city Christy and I would be exploring in India- Varanasi- was completely unique unto itself. Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is supposed to be India's holiest. Hindus believe that if they come here and bathe in the Ganges river, all of their sins will be washed away. Our first morning here, we took a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges River, and it was such a surreal experience to be seeing all the ghats, the buildings along the river, the bathers, the temples in person. As a Christian, it did feel kind of odd in Varanasi with the huge emphasis on Buddhism, Jainism, etc. But, it was really neat to be part of the whole Varanasi experience - seeing the golden glow against the buildings as the sun rose, placing a lit candle in the Ganges (a ritual which didn't go so well for me- my candle getting hit by someone else's oar!), seeing some of the cremation process that takes place along the Ganges... it's a completely Varanasi experience. It was nice when Christy and I had the opportunity to just walk along the ghats the next day, seeing what there was to see, dealing with people trying to sell stuff (for the last time in India), sitting along the river...India truly is a crazy experience- all senses are heightened here- in both good and bad ways ( but mostly good!). I'll miss seeing the bright colors against the backdrop of India, the crazy tuk tuk rides (we never did hit anyone or get in an accident, although we had some close calls!)... But I think I shall be back- if nothing more than for an authentic Indian wedding! For now... On to Singapore! Let the adventure continue!

14 March 2012

Holi 2012. New Delhi Syle

Holi, the Festival of Colors took place on March 8, 2012. The basic legend of Holi goes that Prahlad, the son of Hiranyakashyap, was attempted to be killed by his aunt Holika because he would not worship his father. Holika entered a blazing fire with Prahlad on her lap (which she was supposed to be protected from), and due to her sinister desire, was destroyed in the flame. Prahlad was unscathed. Holi gets its name from Holika and celebrates the victory of good over evil. On this day, people celebrate by throwing colored powder at each other, mainly during the morning and early afternoon. It was so neat to see the streets just covered in every color imaginable, not mention all over the people! Christy and ventured out although we were a bit nervous- but hey, you are most likely in India for Holi only once! We had a blast getting just covered in greens, pinks, dark purples - made all the grosser from water! I especially loved some of the looks we received from employees upon returning to our hotel! Such an exciting and fun-filled day!

12 March 2012

Taj Mahal - At Long Last!

Oh my goodness- how to adequately describe what it felt like to actually visit the Taj Mahal? Somehow I imagined it might not be as incredible as it's made out to be since it is such an internationally famous landmark and since I, like pretty much everyone, have grown up seeing photos of the Taj Mahal. But upon first glimpse from the day before, squeals echoed throughout our bus. It feels like such a defining moment to finally lay eyes on a landmark, and masterpiece, such as this. Even the next day, on our official Taj Mahal day (with the whole sunrise experience and everything), I felt just as awestruck. It seems completely unbelievable - the different shades of white marble, the different depths and translucency of the marble create  a unique look and perfectly reflect the morning light rays. Even the colored inlays add to the the overall beauty and mystique of the Taj Mahal. 

It was incredibly interesting and fascinating to walk around the Taj and learn of the history and facts, such as how the Taj is built perfectly symmetrical and how the pillars are angled slightly out so that in case of earthquake, they would fall away from the Taj. Another interesting fact was how Emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal around 1632) also planned on building a second Taj Mahal in black onyx as a tomb for himself, across the river that lies behind the Taj. Obviously, this never happened, but the idea is both romantic and aesthetically beautiful. I really wanted to soak in my experience at the Taj Mahal and pretty much walked around for an hour in pure astonishment. (throwing in ridiculous Jade and Christy fun all the while, of course!). I still can't believe I've actually seen the Taj Mahal (and may never again) - unbelievable...

Agra's Red Fort

This huge city of a monument is located near to the Taj Mahal. It was founded by Emperor Akbar in 1565 and is largely built out of red sandstone. I mean, this place is massive. It's made up of many different palaces and seems to be a maze of architectural masterpieces, each with their own photographic beauty and stories. Perhaps the story I found most interesting was how Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, was apparently imprisoned here by his son. While imprisoned, he did have a view of his beloved Taj Mahal and is said to have died in the Musamman Burj tower, which also had a view of the Taj. While the Agra Fort didn't have the same over-the-top colors and ceiling as say, the Udaipur Palace or the Amber Palace, it still sends you into sensory overload what with amount of rooms and the sheer size and architectural details of the structures. Perhaps one of my favorite architectural details was the carvings on ceilings or pillars that very much resembled lace. Quite beautiful and delicate!

Baby Taj

The Baby Taj or Itmad-ud-Daula's Tomb is often thought of as the rough draft of the famous Taj Mahal. The Baby Taj was built around 1622 and marked the transition between different architectural styles- red sandstone being the once-preferred method to the style of using mainly white marble with colored inlay (as in the Taj Mahal). The Baby Taj is a perfect precursor to the big Taj, if experienced the other way around, the Baby Taj would pale in comparison. I absolutely loved going inside the Baby Taj though- I especially loved some of the ceilings with its different patterns and colors. I definitely started feeling some anticipation to see the "big Taj" though (as we had seen glimpses of it on the way). 

Fatehpur Sikri

Built around 1571 by Emperor Akbar, this palace complex was only inhabited by this Emperor until about 1585 when Akbar left to fight the Afghan tribes and find a new capital- Lahore. It was only ever inhabited by one other -Jahangir, who stayed here hoping to stay away from the plague that devastated Agra. Fatehpur Sikri is an incredible collection of buildings - residences for his wives, mosques, etc. I found the architecture to be quite unlike what we had seen throughout India thus far, yet I later noticed a few landmark locations in Agra had a similar style, including the beautiful brick red color.

11 March 2012

Abhaneri Stepwell and Harshat Mata Temple

On our drive from Jaipur to Agra, we stopped by this tiny little village called Abhaneri. From the streets, it's hard to imagine the wonder that is held inside. I couldn't quite remember what the Abhaneri stepwell was, but as soon as I laid eyes on the structure within, I instantly recognized it! Apparently, it is one of the largest and deepest stepwells in India, was built in the 9th century and has 3500 steps. As this location is very aesthetically pleasing, I had seen this stepwell before- including in films ( most notably The Fall, which includes a lot of locations throughout India- a truly stunningly beautiful movie!). I find it fascinating and wonder how those who have never heard, for instance, of the Abhaneri stepwell, would ever find this place from the unassuming exterior in this tiny little village.

Jaipur's Amber Fort

The Amber (or Amer) Fort is the highlight of a visit to Jaipur and it's not hard to see why. It was built in 1592 by king Raja Jai Singh and is situated perfectly to pick up a cool breeze throughout. It was quite astounding to stand in the Amber Fort's courtyard, watching the hoards of tourists being escorted in the Sun Gate by means of elephant, each beautifully decorated. Like many palaces Christy and I had visited throughout Rajasthan (most notably Udaipur's City Palace), the Amber Fort was full of intricate and colorful marble work. I absolutely loved some of the golden (amber?) arches- especially the ones that seemed to be outlined in black. Everything is so picturesque and somehow unlike anything you've seen before. While Jaipur's city center left a little something to be desired, the Amber Fort feels completely removed from the city and was truly an enjoyable and remarkable experience.

Jaipur: Bollywood Movies and Dress-Up

Jaipur is one of the largest cities in Rajasthan, so after a week or so of visiting smaller cities such as Ranakpur, Jojawar etc, it was quite a shock to hit a bit city again. Jaipur is called the "Pink City" because all of the buildings in the city center are made up of a very pink terracotta. While the buildings are beautiful to look at, I have to be honest and say that Jaipur was not my favorite destination in India. Christy and I had a chance to walk around the city, by the shops and such...and it was just madness! It's pretty much impossible to even look at a shop (for inexperienced hagglers such as ourselves). If you even glance at a shop's items, they harass you endlessly to come inside- even if you don't look at their items, shopkeepers will stand in your way, almost forcing you to go inside. And forget about window shopping or browsing, once inside a shop, it's almost impossible to leave without buying something as they won't take 'no' for an answer. I barely scraped by without purchasing something once, but it wasn't an altogether pleasant experience as I'm sure the guy felt insulted- but what can you do? Even the rickshaw drivers pester you to get into their rickshaw, pretty much following you, not taking 'no' for an answer.

But Jaipur does have some great architecture, and good times were had. One of my more pleasurable experiences in Jaipur was going to Jaipur's famous cinema hall, Raj Mandir. The movie of the night was a romantic comedy (Bollywood!), Tere Naal Love Go Haya. It was particularly hilarious because there were no subtitles, so many dialogue sequences were left to the imagination (luckily for us, our guide Aparna was handy for answering anything we might have been confused about after the movie.) Seeing a Bollywood movie in India is just as awesome of an experience as I was hoping it would be! The audience is completely different than Western audiences. People hoot and holler at witty dialogue, actors they like, or pretty much any emotion-worthy moment. They also use their "outside" voices when answering their phones (inside the theater)...quite a rowdy crowd, but it all adds to the experience! So much fun!
^ Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace- a masterpiece on the main street of Jaipur.

Pushkar Sunset

What better way to experience a sunset in Pushkar than to take a camel safari into the desert? It's like the whole "riding into the sunset" thing (I always think of the third Indiana Jones!), only slower and on a larger animal... This was my very first time on a camel, so it was a very exciting experience! Christy and I picked the tamest-looking of the two camels left when we arrived (we rode the same camel)- Satosi Ganesh. That was his name...Ganesh was his Hindi-given name, and Satoshi- the name Christy and I gave him before learning his real name. He was a quite nice camel while we were riding him, but once we got off, to admire the sunset for a bit, he didn't like us coming near him (he must have known we're trouble makers!). I have to say, it was SO scary being on the camel for the first 5 minutes or so, but once you settle into the camel's movements, it was not bad at all- in fact, I loved it! Satoshi treated us well (I can't say so much for some of our fellow travelers- some camels wandered off or started trotting..). Riding a camel isn't so bad- its the fear of getting off! (they jerk forward and backward as they sit/get up!). But, seriously, is there a better time to take a camel safari than when in the Indian Desert!

Jojawar - Tucked Away in Rajasthan

Perhaps one of the more special moments spent in Rajasthan was our visit to Jojawar. Similar to Ranakpur in that it is set apart from the major tourist attractions, Jojawar is a tiny little village that we were able to walk around in 15 minutes or so. It's impossible to walk down the street without being bombarded by about 10 children, all asking your name and your country. (Many will try to ask for money, chocolate or pens- but as a fellow tour member found out... It is unwise to give to one, as all will want the same. Plus, as we've noted throughout India, it's more meaningful to give to a child who is actually doing something -we saw a magician,etc- than to give to a child who is just begging.) I loved seeing all the colors of the buildings, the different shops, the women in saris- it was great to wander around a small, less crowded village like Jojawar. And our hotel (more like heritage hotel and once-fort for the royals), Rawla Jojawar was a beautiful property and luxurious stay, complete with refreshing drinks and showering with flower petals upon arrival. My stay here was short, but a great one!

10 March 2012

Gem of India - Udaipur City Palace

Oh, the Udaipur City (or winter) Palace! This complex of palaces was so spectacular and amazing! I thought Florence had some insanely intricate, colorful and over-the-top ceilings (and it does!), But Florence ceilings and architecture pale in comparison to Udaipur. Every color of the rainbow, colored glass, mirror, gold, etc etc etc are present in the Udaipur palace. As I'm sure you know, India is not shy in paring the oddest colors together- reds, greens, golds, blues, oranges, yellows...all in the same palate. Gotta love it! This palace complex was built by Maharana Udai Singh in 1559 and is considered the largest of its type in Rajasthan, fusing the Rajasthani and Mughal styles (quite well, at that). The Udaipur Palace is a shock to the senses- its a lot of stunning architectural and stylized details to take in. After an hour and a half or so, it seems almost impossible to absorb any more. I absolutely loved Udaipur and its palaces, and if given the choice of staying longer in India, I think I would choose to spend that time in Udaipur.

A Day in Udaipur

Oh, what to write about Udaipur... Possibly one of my favorite spots in India. I found Udaipur very refreshing with the huge lake and its surrounding palaces; the shopping and sightseeing was very accessible- many things within walking distance.  I just really liked the atmosphere of Udaipur and had some great experiences here! Not to mention our palace of a hotel! On our first night here, we got to go to a beautiful cultural dance performance. There were all kinds of dancing, beautiful outfits and even a lady piling about 12 pots onto her head! Talk about skill!

09 March 2012

Kumbhalgarh Fort

Just outside of Udaipur, is the amazingly expansive and massive Kumbhalgarh Fort. It's situated 110 meters above sea level and is an insanely steep walk to the top of the fort. It was incredible just how much of surrounding Rajasthan you could see! This fort was built during the 15th century and was occupied until the 19th century- it was also the birthplace of the great king of Mewar, Maharana Pratap. Perhaps just as amazing as this beautiful fort and view was witnessing two of our traveling buddies being interviewed for Indian TV, pretty much just saying what the newscasters wanted them to say. Future Bollywood stars in our midst...

08 March 2012

Ranakpur Village Hike

While staying in Ranakpur, aka the middle of nowhere, we had the opportunity to take a hike in the surrounding hills to visit some of the villages. These villages were a lot more far removed than I had originally thought, which made it all the better! We got to visit one family's home and try out some of their daily chores like grinding grain and churning milk. These people were incredibly kind and generous and the kids were some of the cutest, sweetest kids I've ever seen! It was so incredibly to see these people's houses and imagine living in a place such as this- it's such a departure from everything that we know as Westerners. Getting away from touristy India and seeing the way of life for many Indians was definitely a highlight for me- seeing the waving, smiling faces of the children, the brightly colored saris of the women (out in the middle of nowhere) and their lives was completely fascinating and something that was incredibly beautiful to experience and be a part of.

06 March 2012

Ranakpur Jain Temples

On our way to Ranakpur, we stopped by the Ranakpur Jain Temples. Jainism is an Indian religion that pretty much teaches non-violence and strives for the soul to achieve divine consciousness and liberation, free from inner enemies. The main temple is a huge structure comprised of 1444 intricately carved pillars, built around a large tree at the center of the temple. The architecture of the outside of this temple very much reminded me of some of the temples Christy and I will hopefully soon be seeing in Cambodia. The temple experiencinks quite interesting in India...you still can't get away from people, even "priests" following you - trying to explain the history of the temple, "pray" for you or give you a blessing in exchange for a large tip. Some of our fellow travelers had been pressured into giving tips to these "priests" who are already well paid, and I have to say- it was hilarious to see our fearless tour leader storm into the temple to give the "priest" a piece of her mind. A brawl was about to break out in the middle of this temple, but after it all, we realized just how much our guide Aparna was looking after us, making sure our experience of India was a spectacular one!

05 March 2012

Chandur Palace

On our way to Ranakpur from Jodhpur, we stopped at Chandur Palace in the middle of a tiny village- a place where they rarely see foreigners. It was a little amusing to see the looks our group ( a bunch of white Brits/Americans/Canadians) got. Locals would stare curiously, while most children would smile and wave. The children were the cutest- running outside of their houses or running to get their friends to get a glimpse of the group of foreigners. We walked through part of this tiny village to reach the palace where we would be able to explore and have a bit a lunch. We had quite the welcome too- being showered with flower petals from above as we entered inside the palace, receiving a bindi (red dot blessing on the forehead) and flower necklace. The people here were incredibly friendly and welcoming, inviting us into their home! Yes, we met some of the people that now reside here and it was especially interesting to talk to one of the women who married into this lifestyle. This was a unique and fun experience- outside of the typical tourist activities.

03 March 2012

Overnight train to Jodhpur

Taking the overnight train to Jodhpur wasn't as scary as I first imagined. While the journey was long (12 hour) and the beds were hard and only private due to a curtain, the ride was very quiet (that is, after we crazy Brits/Americans finally went to bed!) and it was quiet a smooth ride. In fact, I'd take 12 hour train ride over a 12 hour plane ride any day. And the toilets! I had feared them so, but they were completely fine - not exactly the cleanest, but not the dirtiest I've seen either! Anyway, I slept most of the way to Jodhpur, though still not completely ready to tackle the day once I got there.

02 March 2012

Jama Masjid and Humayun's Tomb

My first full day of exploration in New Delhi was quite productive. Christy and I met up with our G Adventures group and set out into the city, ready to take on the New Delhi metro. While the metro is quite crowded, with every local staring at you, the metro was quite as difficult to overcome as I first had thought. There is a separate compartment for the ladies and the subway comes frequently. During rush hour though, it was very hard to find space to even get on the subway, let alone trying to squeeze through the crowds to try to get out! But, our group was successful and we walked many small alleyways and residential areas with our guide, getting a small taste of what India is all about. Our first major attraction was Jama Masjid, a mosque with amazingly beautiful architecture! It's required for the ladies to wear these floral overcoat type dresses, which made exploring even more fun. I was awestruck, finding myself actually in India- it still doesn't feel quite real!

24 February 2012

New Delhi, India...Wait, How Did I Get Here?

So, I really can't believe I'm in India right now. It's everything I imagined, but somehow different at the same time. My first impression of India was that it had all the good things I had heard and imagined about India and less of the bad. While the streets are insane, they're not quite as bad as I had thought. That's not to say they aren't bad at all (I'll have to make a post specifically about India's insane traffic!), but crossing the street is...manageable and you really don't see cows hanging out in the middle of the street (in New Delhi anyway). While this is an insanely chaotic, crowded and kind of...dirty littered country (there is a serious lack of rubbish bins here), this is an incredibly beautiful, colorful and moving country as well. ( Perhaps you'll see more evidence of this in upcoming posts!) India is not a place that is easily described or summed up, I still don't know how to accurately portray this country, or even New Delhi. This is definitely a country that needs to be experienced to appreciate.

15 February 2012

Travel Update: February

The time has come (the walrus said...) - pretty much all the planning is done. Shots have been taken, clothes have been bought, insurance has been obtained.....this trip is finally upon Christy and I. I'm not sure if I'm quite ready...I wish that I had taken better advantage of the time I had before leaving (although I did accomplish a lot..), but fear of the unknown is so prevalent right now. But this will be an awesome experience, once Christy and I just get going (oh, there will be tears at the airport!),  we'll get into the swing of things again. I've just gotten so comfortable again, and I don't want things to change - but this is an extraordinary opportunity that I am excited for. This is something we can conquer and make something amazing out of. The next time I write will be from India! (Still doesn't seem real...). See you from the other side of the world!

Auckland: Farewell, Down Under

So, Auckland was a bit different than Christy and I had anticipated. We didn't dislike it, but maybe the fact that we went from the refreshingly green Rotorua, to the big-city of Auckland contributed to our less-than-enthused mood. Tie that with the emotion of having to leave an amazing country and our moods just weren't up to par. However, we did push ourselves to walk around the city a bit (in search of food, if nothing else...).

Rotorua to Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Sadly, Christy and I had to eventually leave Rotorua and make our way towards Auckland in preparation for flying back to California. But we still had a day of adventur-ing left. On our last day in New Zealand, we took a beautiful (albeit rainy) drive through New Zealand's North Island - full of rolling, bright green hills. Once again, I felt like I was in Ireland (always a nice mindset to be in...). On our way to Auckland, we got to stop by the Waitomo Glow Worm caves, something I had been very much looking forward to! We took a tour down into the depths of these caves full of stalagmites and stalactites (yes, I do know the difference!), often in complete darkness. It almost feels claustrophobic to be underground like that, but peaceful at the same time. Towards the end of our tour, we got in a boat that the guide steered by pulling on a rope - leading us, gradually, out of the cave. As we were instructed to keep quiet, this was an awesome experience, dripping of water the only sound we could hear. We saw many glow worms scattered along the ceiling of the cave, like blue, starry night sky. It was quite breath-taking and an excursion I'm glad we took part in!

Leaving Rotorua

Mitai Cultural Show

After the Te Puia Thermal Reserve, the Agrodome and Rainbow Springs, visiting the Mitai Cultural Centre was a perfect end to one of my favorite days of our Australian/New Zealand (Koala/Kiwi) adventure. Christy and I had to opportunity to meet people from all over the world, learn about Maori/Mitai traditions and see some of the dances and songs that were used centuries ago. As I've mentioned before, I found the Mitai people so friendly and welcoming, it really felt like we were a part of the fun and celebration. We met a lot of Maori's who were Christians, but who still held on to their culture and the beautiful aspects of where they've come from. I found this touching, and I just wish we could have spent longer here, learning more about them.

Rainbow Springs Nature Park

Just outside the city centre of Rotorua, you can find Rainbow Springs Nature Park which has an excellent display of flora and fauna found throughout the North Island of New Zealand. Here, Christy and I saw some of the most interesting kinds of birds, rainbow trout (who come and go into the nature park from the nearby river), and silver ferns. Being an animal lover, this was a fun excursion - especially with the opportunity to see some kiwi birds inside the nocturnal house. Kiwi birds are so odd-looking, but fascinating!  As you are unlikely to see a kiwi bird in the wild, seeing them in a place such as Rainbow Springs is a great alternative!

Rotorua's Agrodome

Christy and I joked long before we arrived in New Zealand, about the Agrodome and how touristy it seemed. We also suspected, knowing us, that we would love such a nutty experience - full of sheep, tourists and a few Kiwi farmers.  And...yes! The Agrodome was definitely a fun experience that I'm glad we didn't miss! For sheep lovers such as Christy and I, this was like a dream come true! We got to pet the sheepie, learn about them from our hilarious New Zealand host and got to see other such squishable creatures - lambies, ducks, cows and dogs. Sure, it was still a bit touristy, but good fun nonetheless!

Up close with a sheepie at the Agrodome

14 February 2012

Te Puia Termal Reserve

The Te Puia Thermal Reserve was a perfect start to an amazing day. It was a rainy day, but a great one to explore the bubbling mud pools and geysers situated on this land owned by the Maoris. We had an awesome Maori guide who taught us about various Maori stories and carvings depicting these stories. As opposed to the Aborginals in Australia, I felt that the Maoris were very accessible, welcoming and willing to share their traditions and culture.

Te Puia Maori cultural centre

Rotorua: Feel the Spirit

Before arriving in Rotorua, New Zealand, I had heard that it has a very distinct smell. I was told that because of all the sulfur, an overwhelming smell of rotten eggs would hit me as soon as I got off the airplane. I'm pleased to say that this was not the case. I don't recall having a cold at the time, but for whatever reason, I could not smell the sulfur in the air (that is, until I visited the Te Puia Thermal Reserve the next day...). I really enjoyed the city of Rotorua as it was small, cute and rich in Maori culture and tradition. I guess I never realized how relevant Maori culture still is; Christy and I frequently saw news channels with sections broadcasted in the Maori language. This was quite fascinating and just an introduction to this beautiful culture we would soon learn more about. Our first day in Rotorua was spent  walk along the water, eating ice cream and swimming in the hotel's thermal pools (which, also smelled a bit like rotten eggs..).

13 February 2012

Milford Sound

Milford Sound - what a gorgeous place to visit in New Zealand! Christy and I visited on a cloudy, rain-threatening day, which wasn't so great for visibility. However, it was still amazing and almost mysterious with all the fog as I couldn't quite see the cliffs that were ahead, instead they would appear as we approached them closer. We saw many waterfalls (even getting close enough to one to feel the mist!), seals and dolphins as well. Milford Sound was a beautiful end to our amazing time in New Zealand, a country I have no added to the places I would love to live, if given the chance - along with Israel and Ireland.

Milford Sound

Journey to Milford Sound

Just like the drive to Mt Cook, the journey to Milford Sound full of differing landscapes (most of which you can imagine being in Lord of the Rings.) For anyone that is moved or amazed by nature, you (like me) could probably stay in New Zealand forever, happily. The landscape is so refreshing and breath-taking and it feels like you could spend years just exploring a section of this country. On mine and Christy's last day in Queenstown, we journeyed out to Milford Sound, stopping by some beautiful area along the way. The first of which were the Mirror Lakes. You can see why it is called that in the photo below - certainly a gorgeous view!

Mirror Lakes

Mt. Cook

Mt Cook is a few hours' drive outside of Queenstown and well worth the journey. New Zealand has such varying landscapes and throughout this drive, you can see rocky mountains, mountains with brown shrubbery, forest-like area and then there's Mt Cook - covered in beautiful, white snow. Christy and I had the opportunity to walk one of the trails leading up to the base of Mt. Cook, which was really neat as it was so peaceful - it was like we had the whole area to ourselves! There is also a lodge here where you can eat lunch or learn about Sir Edmund Hilary, one of New Zealand's most famous mountaineers.

Mt Cook

Queenstown, NZ!

After a bump in the road (in the form of a no-show airport transfer at 5am), Christy and I finally arrived in Queenstown, New Zealand! Oh, my goodness! I completely fell in love with this country before our plane even landed! Outside the plane window, all I could see were mountains for miles. I thought there was no way an airport could be nearby - let alone civilization...but sure enough, the one-terminal airport was nestled between the mountains. Not to make New Zealand sound stereo-typical, but it really felt like we were plopped in the middle of a Lord of the Rings movie. Honestly, I've never seen more gorgeous scenery in my life! The air/atmosphere feels fresh and healthy...it's crisp, captivating and enchanting!

Fiery sunrise over Queenstown

Melbourne's Remembrance Shrine

Our last day in Melbourne was spent south of the Yarra River, exploring the Botanic Gardens. Here, you can find the Remembrance Shrine. Christy and I stumbled upon this unknowingly, and it ended up being a beautiful tribute to the Australian men and women who have served their country. The strikingly red flowers contrasted against the grey building is what first caught my interest and persuaded me to explore further and what with the rows and rows of medals, artifacts from the wars and beautiful memorials - this was a highlight from my stay in Melbourne.

Overlooking central Melbourne from the Remembrance Shrine

12 February 2012

Great Ocean Road

Before Christy and I left for Australia, one of our great dilemmas was: do we spend our free day in Melbourne venturing out to Phillip Island to see the ferry penguins, or taking a day-long drive alond Melbourne's coastline - The Great Ocean Road. As the title might have suggested, we ultimately decided on the Great Ocean Road, and it was an unbelievably beautiful experience - blessed with gorgeous weather. You could definitely spend longer than a day exploring this famous stretch of coastline, perhaps camping along the way. We, however, experienced it in a day and had a blast. We visited such locations as Bell's Beach, Patton's Lookout, Loch Ard Gorge etc. There is an abundance of absolutely breath-taking views to behold, and if given the chance - I would definitely recommend this adventure!

Port Campbell Lookout

11 February 2012

I Heart Melbourne

At this point in our Australian adventure, Christy and I really started to get into the swing of things. There seems to be a certain point in every trip where you become more confident and relaxed about the uncertainties that come with travel. Melbourne was an awesome city that both Christy and I fell in love with. It's a hip, artsy city - and one that I felt like I could really spend a good chunk of time in. Melbourne felt like someplace where you could find your own place and fit in to the lifestyle. It was that big city feel, without being too big, but it also has a beautiful area (south of the main city) with the Yarra River and refreshing greenery. Our first day in Melbourne was spent walking along the Yarra River, strolling past various shops and restaurants. We eventually made our way to Flinders Street Station and Federation Square in the early evening (a perfect time to be there, what with all the lights!). It was fun just people watching out on the square, with the huge tv playing Mythbusters in the background. I couldn't have asked for a better first night in Melbourne.

Flinders Street Station at night

09 February 2012

Kangaroo Island: The Scenery

Australians have a funny way of naming their landmarks: Great Barrier Reef, Great Dividing Range, Great Ocean Road, Remarkable Rocks...Not very creative, but very true. The Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island were indeed very remarkable and the setting couldn't have been more perfect on a tiny peninsula of the island, overlooking the storm-threatening blue-grey sea. One thing I loved about the Remarkable Rocks was the fact that the rocks were such abstract shapes. Having a love for photography, this is a great opportunity to set up all kinds of interesting shots, finding different shapes in the rocks depending on where you stand. It's a lot like cloud watching, and discovering shapes in the clouds (a favorite childhood activity of mine.) I loved the peaceful atmosphere here as well, and how it felt like my own little world. Just sitting on a remarkable rock, pondering life and looking out to sea. Does it get any better?

Edge of the Remarkable Rocks. I loved the layer of red dust that covered this area

08 February 2012

Kangaroo Island: The Animals

Kangaroo Island is a few hours and a ferry ride away from Adelaide, and the trek is definitely worth it! I absolutely loved Kangaroo Island - a tiny little island off the coast, with a small population and quaint atmosphere. The whole island practically feels like a National Park, and our first stop of the day was at the beach - to get up close and (not too) personal with the seals! Oh my goodness, I so wanted to squish the baby seals - so cute! Obviously, we had to keep a certain distance because the seals can get quite aggressive towards intruders. But Christy and I had a grande time observing the seals in their natural habitat.

Adelaide

It was quite a weird experience to head back to "civilization" after spending time in the Daintree Rainforest and the Outback, but Adelaide was a nice change of pace. While our time was short in Adelaide, it was a lot of fun! We were staying outside the city centre, but the local transportation was free and easy to use (yay!). Unfortunately, pretty much all the shops were closed (this was, like a Friday evening as well!), but we had fun anyway, searching for any open restaurant we could find (we did find one, by the way), playing random street pianos and acting like a bunch of goofballs (that's what we do best after all!)

Journey to Adelaide

07 February 2012

Alice Springs.....

Now, I'm sure Alice Springs is a great place...but the timing of Alice Springs perhaps came at a bad time.  We, perhaps had a mini-meltdown that left us a bit frustrated - especially since this trip was pretty much on our own and things have a way of not working out the way you imagine. But, our next day in Alice Springs proved to be a lot better. Instead of our original plans, and after many phone calls, we had an opportunity to visit the Desert Park (right when it opened, so we were the only ones there.) This was actually an awesome, rejuvenating and beautiful experience.

06 February 2012

5 Hours Through the Outback

To get from the center of the Outback (where you will find Kata Tjuta and Uluru ) to Alice Springs, the best mode of transportation is by bus (or car). You really can't imagine just how void of civilization this 5 hour (or so) ride is. As far as you can see, there is only red dirt and green grass. It's a beautiful journey, but not one I would make by myself or without reliable transportation. It's incredible to just walk around in this vast desert, sinking your fingers into the red sand. 

Mt. Connor, on the way to Alice Springs

Uluru: Around the Base

For Christy and I, our last day in the Outback was spent wandering Uluru's base. We had an awesome guide we took us around to various locations around Uluru, explaining some of the Aboriginal stories and beliefs (the little she knew, as they most of their beliefs private.) It was incredibly peaceful and you could somehow feel that this area held a religious significance, even if it differed from your own. It was interesting to learn of certain areas that held specific importance and which even Aboriginal women weren't supposed to even look at. I wish I could've had a more personal experience with the Aborigines, learning about them and their cultures, but our guide did an awesome job filling us in on what she could.

05 February 2012

Uluru: Sunrise, Sunset

One of the more beautiful and inspiring moments spent in Australia was experiencing the sunset in the Outback. It was so peaceful out here, in the middle of nowhere - and the display of oranges, reds and purples as the sun set over Uluru was artistically inspiring and deeply moving. One of the simplest things in life - a sunset; I feel like we don't take enough time out to just sit and be still, appreciating God's handiwork and how beautiful simple things like this really are. I'll never forget walking around after dark and being blown away by just how many stars you can see in the sky when there's hardly a man-made light around. It's gorgeous - something I can't get enough of!

Sunset over Uluru

04 February 2012

Kata Tjuta

The day after our exploration of the Daintree Rainforest, we headed to the dead center of Australia - the "red center" - the Outback! It was really neat arriving here by plane because all you can see is the red dirt...and then, out of nowhere, you can see the enormous Kata Tjuta and Uluru rock formations. Whereas the rainforest was completely green - everywhere you looked, the outback on the other hand was completely red! Surprisingly, there was a lot more green in the outback than I originally anticipated as well. It was incredibly refreshing to be out in the middle of the desert, surrounded only by nature. While there was a tiny community of hotels and restaurants, that was about all there was for as far as the eye could see.

Kata Tjuta's Walpa Gorge

Daintree Rainforest

Another of my favorite days spent in Australia - the Daintree Rainforest! If ever you make it out to Cairns, you have to take a day exploring the Daintree Rainforest, Port Douglas, etc - we went with Down Under Tours and had the most amazing time! We had the most hilarious guide, Shane, who picked us up from our hotel is the most amazing track truck/transformers/80's style vehicle! (pictures below when you keep reading.) We spent the first part of our day driving into the Daintree Rainforest to the "Discovery Centre" (sounds like a kids' play area, right?), where we had a cuppa scalding hot Daintree Tea (delicious!) and got to walk around - high above - the rainforest floor. It was so vast, green and beautiful - and here, you will see all kinds of bug life, plants and, maybe, animals.

The Great Barrier Reef

Oh my goodness, the Great Barrier Reef! One of my very favorite days spent in Australia! Mid-March was a perfect time to visit the Reef as it was very clear and the weather wasn't too hot. Christy and I ventured outside of Cairns with Reef Magic Tours - they were a bunch of fun, nice people who really cared about us having a fun experience. Once out on the Reef, we were able to take a semi-submersible boat around the coral,which was really amazing as we were surrounding by all different kinds of coral and sea life. Soon afterwards, we spent the better part of an afternoon snorkeling around. I'm not sure how it's possible to spend 4-5 hours just snorkeling, but this is the Great Barrier Reef!  I knew I was experiencing something that people spend their whole lives wanting to do and I wanted to soak in every last moment.

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