Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Check out the photobook I made to showcase the images we collected while traveling around the world!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thinking about traveling? Maybe we can help...

Our recommendations for planning a trip around the world:

- Everywhere you go, there will be many more things to do and places to see than you have time or budget for.
- Staying in one place for at least several days both helps the budget and your sense of getting to know a place.
- Booking individual one-way flights well ahead of time may be cheaper than a round the world (RTW) ticket. Give travel agents a wide window for checking flight prices (i.e. any time within a week) because prices fluctuate wildly!
- Basic things like soap, shampoo, bottled water, sunscreen, and batteries (and even stuff like Oreos and Coke!) are available everywhere - even in tiny towns in the middle of Africa.
- All inclusive packages (i.e. safaris, liveaboard dive trips, island resorts) usually don't include water or snacks, which can add up.
- Endeavour off the beaten path to visit places that are non-touristy to give yourself a more authentic experience in a place: attend cultural events, eat at night markets, ride the local bus, strike up a conversation with shop keepers, etc.
- Check baggage weight limits ahead of time when flying to avoid tearing your bag apart in the airport or paying big extra fees.
- Don't necessarily go by other travellers' opinions of a place - we heard that Bangkok was awful and loved it, and vice versa for Phnom Penh.

Things you can't leave home without:

- headlamp
- universal sink plug
- power plug adapters
- bed liner (silk sleeping bag)
- Lonely Planet guidebooks
- duffel bag to put big packs in for planes and buses
- money belt
- hand sanitizer
- Visa card
- passport (duh)
- clothesline & pegs
- tons of memory cards for camera
- sunglasses & sunscreen
- toilet paper for developing countries

Things we should have left at home:

- mosquito nets (some places had them, other places just didn't have mosquitos!)
- extra toiletries (you can buy them absolutely everywhere)
- most of the first aid kit stuff we brought (though if we needed it we might think otherwise)
- cell phone
- half the cards in our wallets
- heavy cable lock (but used our small/light cable locks often to lock bags closed)
- reusable water bottles (most places you had to buy 1 or 2L bottles rather than refilling from bigger ones)
- jewellry (who was I kidding - you don't need pretty earrings to go with trekking pants and grubby shirts!)
- travel sized chopsticks and cutlery
- any notion that we could stick to our budget!

Observations we've made while traveling around the world:

- Beer is cheaper than water in Cambodia.
- Wild elephants are really scary when encountered on foot.
- Nothing ever dries in the jungle.
- Chickens and stray dogs are friggin' everywhere!
- Most countries leave dirty sheets on hotel beds for multiple guests (so nasty!).
- Canada seems to have a good reputation everywhere we went.
- Vietnamese women are obsessed with lightening their skin.
- "Moderately spicy" means very different things to different countries.
- Nobody recycles anything.
- Plastic bags are given away for every item you purchase, even when it's completely unnecessary. Some places had never seen reusable bags before.
- Men everywhere smoke - almost all men in Indonesia do, yet almost no women smoke anywhere we went!
- People in small towns, from Zambia to Thailand, were friendly, welcoming, and happy to see visitors.
- Fresh mangoes and pineapples make ours at home taste like cardboard.
- Religion is the focus of so many cultures that it dictates not only how people live their lives, but why.
- Sand dunes are a bitch to climb.
- Southeast Asian people love their babies and their motorbikes equally, but the babies get washed once a week and the bikes get washed every day.
- Things cost about 5 to 10 times less in southeast Asia than in Europe and North America.
- Thai ladyboys aren't as convincing as we thought they would be.
- There are dozens of types of bananas.
- Australia's roads have more animal warning signs than anywhere else - kangaroos, koalas, bats, emus, cassowaries (huge birds), crocodiles, womats, and even hedgehogs!
- National Geographic moments really do happen on safari in Africa.
- There's no point in trying to order western food in eastern countries, as the dish is almost always a lousy attempt at a western replica, never satisfying the original craving.
- Australia's roads have stupidly high speed limits - often 100km/hr on narrow bumpy country roads where 60km/hr barely feels safe!
- Some of nature's most memorable sounds include kookaburras laughing, waves crashing, elephants trumpeting, hippos chuckling, and the chorus of thousands of frogs at night.
- Unthinkable amounts of rainforest have been destroyed for the crops of palm oil, rice, and sugar cane all over the world's tropical regions.
- Gecko-like lizards live on walls in warm countries all over the world!
- Coral reefs are being harmed on a daily, routine basis by divemasters around the world who have bad habits (not to mention careless visiting divers). We were led by supposed professionals in every country we dove in (Tanzania, Malawi, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and Fiji) who repeatedly touched coral, kicked or stood on coral, and intentionally handled marine life (like agitating a puffer fish to make it puff up for the tourists, petting eels and turtles, poking frogfish, etc.). Collectively, their careless behaviour will not only slowly destroy the reefs, but it will encourage the hundreds of divers they are in contact with each year to do the same. Rant over.
- Thais, Fijians, and Indonesians consider it masculine for men to wear sarongs (wrap skirts) and a flower behind their ears.
- People are always happy when a visitor tries to use a few words of their local language.
- Politics and government were corrupt and ineffective in many of the countries we visited.
- Most countries in the world have a reckless regard for garbage, and few have the infrastructure to deal with it.
- Celine Dion and Shania Twain songs followed us everywhere we went - from Malaysian jungles and Vietnamese cities to Fijian cafes!

Average travel costs in the places we went (Canadian $):

- Average cost per person per day (staying in cheap double rooms and eating basic food, including buses and some activities but excluding things like flights and scuba diving):

London $80, Africa in general $70 (on organized safari), Singapore $45, Malaysia $25, Cambodia $30, Vietnam $35, Thailand $30, Indonesia $30, Australia $50 (camping in campervan), Fiji $70

- Average cost of 1.5L bottle of water:

London $3, Africa in general $0.50, Singapore $2, Malaysia $1, Cambodia $1, Vietnam $1, Thailand $0.50, Indonesia $0.50, Australia $3, Fiji $3

- Average cost of a beer:

London $5, Africa in general $2.50, Singapore $5, Malaysia $3, Cambodia $1, Vietnam $1.50, Thailand $2 (huge bottles!), Indonesia $2, Australia $4.50, Fiji $2.50

- Average cost of a cheap double hotel room:

London $100, Singapore $65, Malaysia $25, Cambodia $10, Vietnam $19, Thailand $10, Indonesia $15, Australia $55, Fiji $30

- Average cost of a guy's haircut:

Africa $6, Malaysia $5, Vietnam $4, Thailand $8, Australia $13

- Average cost of 1 hour of internet time:

Africa (in general) $0.50, Singapore $2, Malaysia $1, Cambodia $0.50, Vietnam $0.50, Thailand $2, Indonesia $2, Australia $4.50, Fiji $5

- Average cost of cheap dinner (per person):

London $15, Singapore $5 (street markets), Malaysia $4, Cambodia $6, Vietnam $9, Thailand $7, Indonesia $8, Australia $12, Fiji $10

Resources we used:

- Flight Centre (http://www.flightcentre.com/) Cheap flights and great agents
- GAP Adventures (http://www.gapadventures.com/) Awesome package trips all over the globe
- Air Asia (http://www.airasia.com/) The cheapest way to hop around Asia
- Hippie Camper (http://www.hippiecamper.com/) The best budget way to get around Australia
- Taka Dive (http://www.takadive.com/) Awesome liveaboard dive trips on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
- Similan Dive Safaris (http://www.similan-diving-safaris.com/) Good, cheap liveaboard dive trips to the Similan Islands, western Thailand
- Lonely Planet (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/) You'd be crazy to leave home without a LP guidebook. Good online forum too.
- Wayalailai Eco Haven Resort (http://www.wayalailairesort.com/) Perfect budget spot in Fiji's Yasawa Islands

191 Saturdays (May 17/09 - Vancouver, BC, Canada)

May 17th. It's the day we've been giving for the last six months when a fellow traveler asks when you have to go home. And when you give that day, the response is almost always "awww, so soon." Yup, the day is here already. Today we woke up in New Zealand and will be sleeping in our own bed at home tonight. It will be wonderful to see family waiting at the Vancouver airport and to walk in the door of our cozy little apartment, but we can't help but wonder how long it will be before we start to miss the freedom of traveling, the excitement of seeing new places and meeting new people, and the adventure that comes along with wandering around exotic places with everything you need on your back.

The nonstop party going on outside our hostel in Auckland all night had barely quit at 8am, when we packed up for the last time and hailed a bus to the airport. The flight back to Fiji was short, and we scanned the waves far below for any chance of spotting a speck of a sailboat. The warm, humid air greeted us on the tarmac in Nadi, but without enough time to leave the airport, it would be our last taste of the tropics for a long time. The Air Pacific flight heading for Los Angeles was the biggest plane we had ever seen - a 747 with 70 rows, 10 people per row, and an upper level. It still amazes me that they can even get off the ground! Ten hours later, we were landing at LAX, oddly enough at almost exactly the same time that we left Auckland (1pm on May 17th - thanks to the time change and crossing the International Date Line). Suddenly surrounded by english speaking people, we boarded the last flight of our trip, bound for Vancouver. We expected to have mixed feelings upon seeing the familiar city lights coming into view, but the waterworks that started when we touched the runway were unexpected - our trip was officially over. My whole family was waiting for us at the arrivals area, and it was of course wonderful to finally see them again. As true Canadians, they welcomed us home not with a bunch of flowers, but with a box of Timbits! And just like that, we were home. Familiar streets, familiar buildings, and the not-so-familiar rule of driving on the right hand side of the road! Let's hope that doesn't take much getting used to!

It was strange but comforting to get home, and it took a while to marvel at all the great things about such an easy life here. Clean, drinkable water right out of the tap that you don't have to pay or waste plastic bottles for, clean showers, a comfy bed, and the convenience of a whole kitchen to cook up whatever you want to eat, any time, with no menus or translating or sketchy results. These are certainly a few of the things we've taken for granted on a day to day basis, and that (among other things) is one of our greatest lessons from experiencing life in so many other parts of the world. We are truly lucky to live in such a privileged society where we have more than enough to nourish us, adequate shelter, employment to provide income for our families, and the freedom to go for a hike, vote for your government, drive a car, or even to dye your hair blue if you want to. We saw so many people in so many countries who have nothing more than the clothes they're wearing, a tiny dump of a house, barely enough food, polluted water, and very little hope for a brighter future despite having little mouths to feed. And yet somehow these people seemed content. Little kids played with a stick in the dirt all day long, and they always seemed to enjoy it. People work so hard to bring in enough food for their families, even if it means slaving in the hot fields every single day. Although the only way we could relate to many of these people was with a smile and a wave, sometimes that seemed to be enough for each to gain a little bit of understanding and respect for the other.

We have now traveled all the way around the world, and the incredible diversity of cultures, landscapes, people, and wildlife we've experienced is almost hard to comprehend. If we thought doing a trip like this would "scratch our travel itch" (and we did), well, we were definitely wrong. The travel bug has wiggled its way under our skin, and I don't think there's any chance of getting rid of it. Now that we have experienced the freedom of backpacking to amazing places with everything you need on your back, we are hooked. If you haven't ventured far from home before, GO! Make it happen, There is an incredible world out there to explore, where every day is Saturday.

A bittersweet farewell (May 16/09 - Auckland, New Zealand)

There were a lot of mixed feelings on the boat this morning, as it was departure day and almost time to say goodbye, yet excited to get Slapdash out on the water again. As expected, last minute jobs kept everyone running around all morning, filling water tanks, securing the dinghy, checking the engine, double checking weather forecasts, and trying to make an appointment with customs to check out of the country. Finally, shortly after noon, they were ready to go. After some emotional goodbyes on the dock, they untied and pushed off, setting Slapdash free for the first time since December. We ran as far as the end of the dock, waving and shouting goodbyes. A moment later, they were out of sight, bound for Fiji as the first destination in what will be an incredible season that should take them through Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Their adventures are chronicled at http://www.theslapdash.com/ if you'd like to follow along. We wish them a safe, fantastic journey and can't wait until we see them again.

It was tough to see them go, especially since our trip is rapidly coming to an end. Jaime and Seth's four year plan to sail around the world is what inspired us to do this trip of ours, and for that we're grateful. As much as we love home and are looking forward to returning, we have certainly discovered the freedom and excitement of traveling that will be hard to leave behind. With the rest of the day to ourselves before going back to the airport tomorrow morning, we walked downtown and found a hostel on the main street, then spent the afternoon walking around the Auckland Museum. The museum was packed with exhibits on Maori history, wildlife, volcanoes, and tons of other displays that a person could spend days reading. It reinforced the need for us to return one day with enough time to explore what seems to be a unique and beautiful country. When we emerged at sunset, there was a beautiful view down over the bay, which was a patchwork of sails with all the boats cruising around. Slapdash was likely among them, raising their sails and venturing out into the Pacific.

Last day ashore (May 15/09 - Auckland, New Zealand)

When Jaime checked the weather forecast this morning, it looked as though the winds would cooperate for a northbound departure tomorrow. With that to aim for, there were still a few last minute jobs to do before pushing off tomorrow, as today would realistically be their last day in a civilized country for the rest of the year. It was nearly noon before everyone was functional (thanks to a late night last night), but once everyone was with it, we walked over to a nearby pub on the water for a huge spread of fish, prawns, mussels, and oysters done up just greasy enough to cure any remaining hangovers. Afterward, the boys tended to boat tasks outside while Jaime started cooking meals for the passage so it will be easy to grab and reheat food when the boat is pitching back and forth and everybody feels like crap. I took on the fun task of painting a Fijian flag, which boaters raise while in a foreign country's waters as a courtesy. They're very pricey to purchase, so Jaime has been very resourceful and clever to use fabric paints on chunks of old bed sheets so that a permissible replica can be made for almost free. Unfortunately for me, Fiji's flag has both a British Union Jack and a detailed coat of arms on it, making for quite the artistic challenge. When it was finally done, Jaime and I spent a couple more hours chopping, cooking, mixing, and bagging piles of food to keep the crew fed for the trip. It was actually a fun way to spend the afternoon, catching up and having a hand in helping Slapdash on its way to its next port.

When we eventually decided to order pizza for dinner since some people were bagged and not keen to walk anywhere, we heard screeching tires and a big crash, then looked out to see a car that had crashed into the slope leading up to the highway overpass. It just seemed to be the one car, but it appeared to be smoking and we could hear a lady screaming, so we called an ambulance and then ran over to try and help. It turned out that two girls had missed the corner and jumped the curb, both confessing that they were drunk, and one girl might have had a broken ankle. Help came pretty soon and so we left them alone, looking out later to see four ambulances and a couple police cars and tow trucks to clean up the mess. We polished off a few pizzas and chatted until the yawning started. It was a bittersweet evening, as the boat is nearly ready to go, yet we all know that we have to go our separate ways tomorrow. Ironically, we're actually going the same way by different means, but it could be well over a year before we see them again.

Almost-going-away party (May 14/09 - Auckland, New Zealand)

The morning seemed to be almost half over by the time everybody was up today, but with sunshine streaming in, it was a good opportunity for the boys to finish off their boat chores outside. Jaime and I did another round of boat hardware supply and grocery shopping - enough to keep the crew going for the ten days it will probably take to get to Fiji. Since departure is just a couple days away, Jaime had organized a going away party at a local bar that was tended by a buddy of theirs. We did our best to scrounge decent clothes out of our backpacks, and hung out with a bunch of their friends that all seemed to have boating in common one way or another. It's bittersweet for them, leaving friends they've made over the six months they've been in New Zealand, but the frigid temperatures are motivation enough to beckon them to Fiji, 2000km north. We sure wish we were going with them!

Boat chores (May 13/09 - Auckland, New Zealand)

Living on a boat brings with it an endless list of maintenance projects that keep the mechanical systems, plumbing, sails and rigging, interior, etc etc etc in working order. The to do list seems to be permanently ongoing, so there is rarely a day when there isn't a project of some kind on the go. With a 2000km crossing ahead of them, the Slapdash crew still had a few more projects to polish off before setting off on the next leg of their voyage around the world. Luckily, every boating supply store imaginable seems to be located near the marina, so picking up supplies and getting work done is logistically easy. Micah took off with his caulking gun for some quality time in the sail locker, Seth and Ken got down and dirty with fuel filters and engine parts, and Jaime and I took off in a borrowed car with a long list of errands to run. Sail parts, primer, light bulbs, and wire rope were purchased, visits to the bank and post office were made, jerry cans were filled with diesel, and a couple months worth of canned and dried food were purchased at the grocery store. The balance of the day involved organizing cupboards, downing tuna melts, and playing dominoes once it got dark. The weather still looks like it will be Friday at the earliest that they could pull out of here, so we have another day or so at least to visit before they make a run for Fiji.

Auckland city tour (May 12/09 - Auckland, New Zealand)

This morning we lazed around the boat in the sunshine over breakfast, tending to a few boat jobs like some soldering and donating a bunch of our travel stuff to the Slapdash inventory. Eventually we got organized and headed downtown on foot, bound first for a legendary lunch spot called Food Alley, where cheap meals from a variety of Asian joints are all clustered in one spot (but classier than your average food court). Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Japanese... the options were crazy! It was fun to see some semi-authentic versions of our favourite dishes from some of those places we went, and the ones we did try were damn fine. Stuffed, we left Seth to run around doing boat chores while Jaime took Ken and I on a walking tour of Auckland. It's an odd city with mostly modern buildings and some older brick structures, not-so-scenic harbour front, random parks all over the place, and occasional little alleyways packed with pricey boutiques. We took a bus up to the top of Queens Road, where a greenbelt dotted with palm trees and statues parallels the noisy main drag just a block away. We passed a couple museums and busy shopping streets, cutting through a couple landscaped parks and a small university campus before winding down the twisty boutique streets to the waterfront, where the marina is. Jaime and I took a little detour into a mall for girly manicures, and then we headed for the grocery store to restock the fridge and pick up a few more bottles of local wine that work out to only about $6 a bottle! Back on the boat, we were introduced to Jaime and Seth's friend Micah, who quit his job and is joining their crew for a few months. Seth whipped up a fabulous quiche for dinner, and after some more chatting, we unanimously voted to call it a day.

Reunited (May 11/09 - Auckland, New Zealand)

By the time noon rolled around, we were touching down at Auckland International and being frisked by a beagle too cute for words. A familiar smiley face was jumping up and down at the arrivals area, as Jaime met us there just as we were coming out. It was so great to see her - way too much time had passed since our last visit. It was basically non-stop catching up back and forth as we drove toward downtown Auckland, taking a couple wrong turns that were disguised as a 'city tour'. Jaime and Seth have their boat, a 34 foot catamaran called 'Slapdash', moored at a marina in downtown Auckland that was so massive that it resembled a two city block square area jam packed with almost 2000 boats and a tangle of masts. Slapdash was moored right on the end of one of the 26 docks, looking just as pretty as the day we last saw her in Florida. Other than some renovations and adjustments inside, there was little physical evidence that she has sailed over 18,000km half way across the globe since we last saw her.

With some errands to run, we dumped our bags and spent the afternoon picking up things the crew needed for their upcoming passage north to Fiji (the one they intended to do early in May!). When we returned to the marina, Jaime introduced us to some friends of theirs moored in the same marina that they have been island hopping with since Bora Bora. We quickly realized how much sailors and backpackers have in common, as travel stories with common themes abounded. With eight new jerry cans under our arms, we hopped back onto Slapdash to find Seth home from a day of running other errands, another familiar face that was wonderful to see again. We spent the whole evening telling travel stories, sharing photos, and polishing off a few bottles of New Zealand red before crashing. All of us have been so many places and had so many adventures that there was no shortage of stories to share! We're so thankful that we were able to swing this side trip to New Zealand, even at the expense of Fiji, as even the few hours we've already spent together have been worth the price. We could do without the 15°C temperatures and cold drizzle, but visiting family is priceless!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The waiting game (May 9/09 - Nadi, Viti Levu, Fiji)

Ah, how plans change at the last minute. Our bags were all packed and we were waiting for a bus this morning to take us to Beqa Lagoon further east, when a nagging voice in my head said that I should at least check the cost of a flight to New Zealand to satisfy my brain that it would be way too expensive to even consider (which is what we had assumed, and why we hadn't bothered to check before). But a return flight was a lot more affordable than expected, so we did some quick scheming and decided that if we can confirm that they haven't left New Zealand yet, we would get on the first plane headed that way to join them. Talk about a potential change of plans! But the only way to contact them is by email even though we did some sleuthing and figured out which marina they're at - but its office is closed for the weekend, so we can't pass a message on that way. So we decided to stay put for as much as two days awaiting a reply, and either we will be southbound again immediately after receiving it, or we'll give up and continue to Pacific Harbour as planned. It's handy to wait here because we're literally a kilometer from the airport! So today we would play the waiting game, catching up on the blog and walking on the beach.

We finally caught a beautiful sunset from a hammock while the sun dyed the sky red and purple - just too bad I didn't have my long lens with me to get a better photo. Then before heading for bed, we decided to take a chance and try phoning the marina in Auckland by the off chance that someone would be there to answer it. Sure enough, someone picked up, and he said he had just walked past their boat ten minutes ago! So he went to get them and we were able to confirm everything, booking a flight a minute later. And there you have it, a last minute detour to polish off our trip. New Zealand, here we come!