Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More amazing sites in New Zealand

Not a lot of time for a real post, so just a few more pictures from New Zealand:

Up North, in the Bay of Islands, home of 144 islands!

Met up with Buster, whom I had met while hiking in Nepal, and went hiking/camping through Tongariro National Park, where a lot of the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed.

Crossing the Cook Straight from Wellington to Picton, moving to the South Island.

Views of the Southern Alps, while hiking at Arthur's Pass.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sailing the good ship Bahati

Turns out Nate really wasn’t lying – the Bahati exists! It is in fact a sailboat, currently sitting just outside of Auckland, New Zealand, that has sailed all the way from Freeport, Maine to the South Pacific (well, I suppose I don’t really know this for sure, but I don’t have any reason to doubt it). Today, they were kind enough to take me a long for a ride on this, the first day of sailing after letting the boat sit at the Auckland harbor since December to wait out the storm season in the area (they’re off towards New Caledonia in early April, weather permitting).

What did I learn on my one day sailing adventure? Well, first of all sailing, which I’ve never done before, does appear rather relaxing and calming. We spent a fair amount of time going against the wind and thus using the engine today, which was serene enough, but then you change the course to be going with the wind, drop the sails, and just peacefully float along! On the other hand is the next thing I learned – operating the sail boat is a fair amount of work! I’d like to think that I was able to help a little, when given specific instructions, preferably simple ones, and certainly not including any ‘sailing terms,’ of which there’s a lot, and I don’t understand any of. The final lesson is: sailing is slow! I’d wanted to sail either from Fiji to New Zealand, or from NZ to Australia/New Caledonia, or from the West Coast of Australia up towards Indonesia/Singapore, but with my current time frame, there’s simply no way… it would take several weeks easily. Which is too bad really, sailing would have been fun! I’ll just have to wait till I get to the Caribbean, I suppose. To illustrate the point, the trip from Auckland to Waiheke island took us about 6 hours (against the wind and the tide, granted) and about 30 minutes on the way back, by ferry!

The crew: Betsy, Josh, Nat, and Nate

The Bahati, looking good off of Waiheke island.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Adventure day – New Zealand style

After spending three full days in Auckland, it was starting to feel like we weren’t really experiencing th ‘real’ New Zealand – the outdoors, the crazy adventures, the sheep-covered hillsides… So, Saturday night, I got a rental car and Nate and I set off for the countryside!
After the spending the night in a little touristy town of Rotorua (renowned for its geysers and mineral baths, which incidentally makes the whole town smell of sulfur), it was off to go to white water rafting on the Kaituna river in the morning. The Kaituna rafting is famous for taking you over a 7m waterfall:

Nate and I in the front as we’re plunging over 7m of falling water!

We later found out that rafts hardly ever flip going over it these days (ours didn’t either) – I was kind of disappointed that we weren’t facing more imminent danger!
From rafting, it was off to a quick stop of ‘zorbing’ – a fairly new addition to the New Zealand outdoor recreation scene, which puts you into a big plastic ball and lets you roll down the hill.

Building up speed towards the bottom!

After that, and after a brief detour through NZ countryside (getting lost in New Zealand is kinda fun btw – there’s enough roads that you’re not lost for long, but the scenery is beautiful when you get a little deeper into the countryside) off to the Waitomo caves, home of hundreds of glowworms:

Those aren't lights or stars - those are glow worms on the roof of the cave!

And finally, dinner at the side of the road, and back off to the city!

Nate in New Zealand, and our rental car in the background.

Friday, March 14, 2008

New Zealand is Evil!

There's so much to do here - rafting, diving, hiking, bungy jumping, etc, etc, etc. But, everything is expensive and getting around the islands is both expensive and time-consuming, so having a hard time deciding just what to do. Once again, need more time!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A little bit of Seattle in Fiji:

Adrelanaline Watersports? In Fiji?

Ohana's here too...

Adrenalin water sports can’t quite spell ‘Adrenaline’ right, but they almost got the tagline (“The Rush Starts Here!”) right. Ohana in Fiji specializes in seafood, much like it’s very distant cousin in Belltown, but they don’t have sushi, sadly… More sadly, the prices aren’t that much better than Belltown either.

Pictures added

A few pictures from Suva now added, see the post below. In other news, Fiji’s still gorgeous – I’ve spent the last few days on the more outlying islands, and the views out there are absolutely amazing! So is the diving – saw a lot of reef sharks diving off of Ovulau, and did a spectacular night dive in the Yasawas.

In spite of all this beauty, it’s time to depart, so bright and early tomorrow morning, taking off for New Zealand, which judging by what the guidebook and everyone I’ve run into here (most of the backpackers here are passing through Fiji either on the way to or from New Zealand) say is going to be even more amazing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Exotic airlines!

And now, your long awaited, much anticipated review of the crazy airlines I’ve been on in the last two and a half months in Asia and the South Pacific!

1. Thai Airways – no contest! Maybe if I can ever afford to fly Singapore Air, I’ll have a new number one, but so far, Thai has been the unquestionable best. The Airbus planes have been new, clean, and altogether nice. The stewardesses are generally attractive and happy to help, and the airline seems obsessive about trying to feed you – I got meals on both of my 1 hour flights between Bangkok and Phuket. And they’re even generally on time – of the three flights I’ve had so far, two departed on time, and the 3rd was delayed a mere 30 minutes.
2. China Airways – it’s actually a pretty big step down to number 2 here… The best thing here is that I think they hold a beauty pageant as part of the tryouts for the flight attendants (and the trans-Pacific flights only get the winners). On the downside, the food is a little bland, albeit plentiful, and the flight attendants are helpful, but not overly so. In general, the airline’s good at most everything, but not great at most things. The economy seats are also rather cramped for people over 5 feet tall…
3. Pacific Air – Fiji’s flag carrier gets you from LA to Fiji in relative comfort (and on time). On the downside, the food was patently bland, and the flight attendants seem much more interested in getting to the Fiji beaches themselves than in helping me (I’m still waiting on my water… maybe I’ll get it on the flight to New Zealand that I’m also taking on Air Pacific!)

My brightly colored Air Pacific Boeing 747 lands in Fiji at 5 in the morning

4. Sri Lankan Airways – yes, the mighty state of Sri Lanka has its own flag carrier, and I’ve even flown on it! Unfortunately, it seems catered rather exclusively to the Indian market, and I, not being Indian, didn’t particularly appreciate the bland Indian food in-flight meals, or the rather full-bodied flight attendants wearing traditional saris… There’s also a frequent flyer program, which is very distantly related to Delta, but I haven’t tried claiming my miles yet, and, I suspect, that if/when I do try I will be unable to – this alone brings the rating down in my book!
5. One-Two-Go – Thailand’s discount domestic airline almost committed the cardinal sin of making me late to my frisbee game in Chiang Mai, but some quick tuk-tuk driving remedied the problem. All in all, it’s a discount airline, and you get about what you’d expect – a full airplane, without a whole lot of leg room, a bag of peanuts for your in-flight meal, and a 60 minute delay… But, at least, I hear making changes is free and easy if you ever need to. On the downside, I later found out that one of their planes crashed (pilot error) about a year ago… but there were some survivors!
6. Jet Airways – India’s discount carrier was actually pretty good, but will forever get dragged down in my mind for being associated with the general lack of timeliness in India and by being near Air Deccan in my brain (more on them in a bit). But, the Jet flight did actually depart on time (landed late though as we had to wait for the fog to clear over Kathmandu) and was rather comfortable, especially since I had an entire row of seats to myself!

Special category #1: regional propeller planes…
- Gorkha airlines in Nepal got me from Kathmandu to Janakpur in a rather beat-up looking airplane, but we got there!

Gorkha Air - fly at your own risk!

- Yeti airways, also in Nepal, got me to Lukla from Kathmandu and back. I'm pretty sure the seats were actually lawn chairs in a former life, but the airplane itself seemed more air-worthy than the Gorkha version. The absolutely unbeatable scenery out the window makes up for the fact that they can only fly in clear skies, so the flight back from Lukla ended up delayed a day.

A Yeti airways plane taking off on the amazing 'off-the-cliff' runway in Lukla, Nepal

- Fiji Air – how can you not love a flight that lasts exactly 10 minutes and hops you between two islands in Fiji! Plus, the cockpit door was open (as has been the case with all of these prop planes), and instrument cluster they had seemed a lot more state of the art than anything the Nepalese were using!

The airstrip in Ovulau is quite literally in the middle of the jungle

Special category #2: don’t even bother!
- India’s other regional discount carrier, Air Deccan, was supposed to take me from Putna to Dehli… Instead, the flight was cancelled (an hour after the scheduled departure time, without any announcements at all prior), they refused to refund my money (I can only get the money back from the travel agent, whom I’m never going to see again…), and wouldn’t even help me get to the train station for the 13 hour train to Dehli. Admittedly, they weren’t significantly worse than any North American airline when they cancel a flight due to weather these days, but they just managed to piss me off! Instead of getting my money back, I now have an open ticket on Air Deccan, not sure how I’m going to use it…

An airport in Janakpur, Nepal: on the left is the main terminal, while the shack on the right is the "arrival/departure lounge"

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Things to do in Suva when you're definitely not dead

If you're dead, just go to Denver... But I've been in Suva for the past 24 hours or so - this is as close as you come to a metropolitan center in Fiji, or anywhere in the Pacific islands, I understand. Suva's Fiji's capital with a population of around 200,000. Ironically, the big international airport is in Nadi, on the other side of the island, 2.5 hour drive away. Equally ironically, tourists don't come to Suva a whole lot, because it's actually a city, not a beach resort destination, like the rest of the country!

So, while I've been in Suva so far, I've managed to:
- catch a bit of a rugby match - and I suddenly like rugby a lot! It's a lot like American football, but with the parts that really annoy me taken out - the constant stoppages of play and the extreme specialization. Here, you've got the same seven guys on the field the whole time, and if the one with the ball gets tackled, you just fight to get the ball loose, not stop the play! They also don't wear any pads, which makes all the hitting an interesting proposition. But the players all have to do everything, so no 300 pound lineman who are not even allowed to touch the ball in this game! The match I saw was the final for Marist Sevens, the local tournament here in Fiji used to select the team they will send to Hong Kong Sevens - the big international rugby tournament, in Hong Kong, next month.

The team Fiji is sending to Hong Kong

- go out drinking with the locals... Well, I had to do something in the evening, and the hotel where I was staying seemed pretty devoid of other tourists to hang out with. The bars here are pretty much the same as most bars back home though, including the crowds - a lot more guys than girls, and the girls all flocking together in little groups... So I made friends with a few locals and learned that the they had either started drinking a long time ago, or the Fijians can't hold their liquor - we were taking turns taking shots of beer, and they were getting quite thoroughly drunk! All in all, a fun 'cultural' experience

- there's a botanical garden in Suva... It's wholly underwhelming!

There is a nice clock tower in the garden

- see a movie! Well, the movie theater is air conditioned, it's hot outside, and I couldn't come up with much else to do, so I watched 10,000 BC in a Fijian movie thater. At $5 Fijian (less than $4 USD), it's a good deal too! 10,000 BC is an OK movie at best - somebody really went wild with the CGI in it, but I don't think they did a particularly good job! A loooong set of funny ads predecing the movie, but you do get the standard previews too, so now I've seen the preview for the new Indiana Jones movie - Harrison Ford is looking old!

- have some Indian food. It's kind of like being back in India (the British brought a lot of labor over from India to work on the sugar cane fields here in Fiji, apparently) - there's a lot of Inidian restaurants, and they're generally quite good. Just weird to see samosas on the menu, as opposed to on a street corner!

- Play World of Warcraft, apparently. Currently sitting at an internet cafe (typing this) and everyone around me is playing...

In a little while, I'm off to catch my 15 minute flight to a neighboring island, where I'm going diving tomorrow - looking forward to more shark sitings! Coming soon, hopefully a few picture to accompany all this prose!

Friday, March 7, 2008

It's Fiji Time!

So, I've been in Fiji for the last five days... And Fiji apparently has a fairly familiar problem - I'm not sure that I want to leave! Between the beautiful beaches, the friendly people, the amazing dive sites, and a ton of other backpackers, it's a lot of fun here. And I haven't even made it off the main island so far (going tomorrow), even though I hear the outlying islands are even better!

Well, so far, my stay here has been fairly productive - I managed to get my Chinese visa (and if you ever need one, I highly recommend the embassy in Fiji - it looks like a simple residence, right by the ocean front! And, not so surprisingly, it's never busy...), then spent three days hanging out at a backpacker resort, Robinson Crusoe Island, getting my scuba diving certification (this one should be even more obvious - you want to learn to scuba dive, I don't know if you can find a better place than Fiji...) and hanging out with the crazy Brit, Irish, and Aussi backpackers that are here (there's a few others from Europe too, but predominantly everyone is from the Commonwealth, and I've met exactly one American so far... even though the US is much, much closer to Fiji than the UK is - we just don't travel like the British!). Now that I'm certified, planning to do a couple more dives, then spend a day hiking around the mountains in the inner part of the island, before flying down to New Zealand. Unfortunately, nobody sails from Fiji to New Zealand (or anywhere actually) this time of year, as it's cyclone season, so a sailing adventure will need to be saved for a later time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thailand Catch-up, in pictures...

Spending a week back in the US didn’t actually end up providing me with all that free time I was expecting, but it did give an opportunity to see a lot of friends, who all seem to think that I’ve been slacking on my blog-updating duties of late… So, trying to catch up – the remainder of the time in Thailand: I’ll mostly let the pictures do the talking, but I spent three days down South in Phuket, having a very active vacation as I managed to rent a scooter, go bungy jumping, go wakeboarding (behind a static line – booo!), see a 45m Buddha statue at the top of a hill, paddle around a small island in a rented sea kayak, and, finally, on the last day, take a snorkeling cruise out on scenic Phi Phi islands (with a group of 15 divers divers/snorkelers, 10 of whom were Russian, not including me!).

After Phuket, it was up North, to Chiang Mai, where after rushing from the delayed flight at the airport to play a bit of ultimate, it was on to a little more cultural temple-viewing , then to the surrounding jungle/bamboo forest hills for three days of fairly mild trekking, involving elephant rides, native villages, bamboo rafts, and waterfall showers. This trip only shared the trekking name with the trip in Nepal, as this was much, much more of a walk in a park (a park that’s not at a high elevation) than the climb to Everest Base Camp could have ever been…

Beautiful, sunny Phuket island

Just not a sign that you need in most places

Scattered rocks and blue waters near the islands where we went diving

Amazing clear blue water

Chilling on the boat

Emerald Buddha at the Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai

View onto the Chiang Mai valley

Me and my light-blue colored scooter in Chiang Mai!

It’s a bit corny and touristy, but hey, we got to ride an elephant for an hour and a half!

Only one shower during the three days … and a cold one at that!

In Thailand, paddling down a river on a rickety bamboo raft – Safety Third!