How I Stayed with Strangers and Lived to Tell About It

I am among the more than 4 million users who are a member of the hospitality exchange website couchsurfing.org.

I will admit that I was initially tempted by the allure of free accommodation but when I started to actually fill out my profile I realized that CouchSurfing was really about interactive cultural exchanges. CouchSurfing is not just something you do on a whim when you have run out of money, for many people it is a way of life and travel. If individuals are going to open their homes to strangers, it is only courtesy for those surfing to embrace the opportunity to learn first hand about another culture through the eyes of a local. Therefore, I wrote my profile carefully so that I would present a genuine view of myself as a traveler and guest.

My CouchSurfing Profile

How did this all come about, you say? I am a 20-year-old university student who somehow was fortunate enough to study abroad. I surfed in Europe while I was studying in Prague. I have surfed with chefs and social workers, free spirits and conservative types, university students and retirees, young and old, and men and women of all nationalities and ethnicities. I have slept on couches, mattresses, floors (some more comfortable than others), and even the host’s own bed (they gave it up when space was crowded).

I began my couchsurfing venture in Paris. I somehow convinced several of my other travel companions to CouchSurf with me as well. There were 5 girls in total and we stayed at a flat with 5 French chefs.   They were gracious and willing enough to host all of us even though none of us had ever surfed before. Later I learned that our hosts have hosted more than one thousand individuals since they started hosting a year and a half ago.  At our host’s home I met a Brazilian flight attendant and a German Uni student; we formed fast friendships.  We swapped travel stories, life anecdotes, and even at times got lost in translation. Our hosts made us feel completely at home. They even showed us their culinary skills by cooking us a lovely meal on our last night in their home. Needless to say after the overwhelming positive first experience, I was hooked.

CS in Paris

New CouchSurfing Friends in Paris.

I started spreading the notion of CouchSurfing to my friends and suddenly I had created a trend amongst my study abroad group.  All of a sudden students in my classes would ask me for advice in filling out their profiles, finding good hosts, and other miscellaneous information as if I was a CouchSurfing expert. While I humbly told them my reasoning for CouchSurfing, I politely encouraged others to do so as well as long as their intentions were pure and about getting to know individuals from other cultures.

When I tell people that I CouchSurf, I hear the usual, “You are brave to be staying with strangers,” or “Aren’t you worried about safety?”  Yes, CouchSurfing involves everything your parents told you to avoid during childhood. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t meet people you talk to online. And certainly, do not stay with those strangers.  However, I have found that the nature of successful travel in general requires one to step outside their comfort zone. Instead of simply stepping outside the box, why not simply banish it?  This is what CouchSurfing does. It expands traditional travel to create more unique and genuine cultural experiences. It redefines travel.

In response to safety concerns, I simply respond it is as much of a risk to those who open their homes to strangers as it is for those staying. Thus, in the manner of friendly international relations it is both parties best interest to be cordial and polite.  (On a personal note, I am not reckless and am aware that a traveler needs to be smart, but I do think that Americans can be more paranoid than the average person. I simply chose to be a practical traveler who believes that there are good people in the world who are not automatically out to get you).

To those not fully convinced yet, the website itself enables a few methods that allow more concrete standards for safety. First, there is the vouch feature, which allows someone who has been vouched for three times to vouch for other members who they know or met through couchsurfing and trust. Secondly, an individual can pay 25 USD to have their address identified by receiving a letter in the mail with a code that can be entered online to secure their identity and location. Lastly and more importantly, references are the best way to gage a possible host or surfer. It is customary after a CouchSurfing encounter to leave a reference either negative or positive to let others know about the individual as a guest or host. It is exactly like reviewing a hostel on hostelbooker.com or leaving any feedback on trip advisor. When scouting for a possible host I would examine the reviews and make a judgment call based on the reviews.  Every time I surfed, my hosts have completely lived up to their positive reviews and I have found this feature to be the most reliable and best tool in choosing a prospective host.

If you think of it, CouchSurfing is simply a modified version of the old practice of crashing with a friend of a friend.  Social networking has clearly enhanced this tested and true method of accommodation by allowing it to be all on online and with a greater network of friends.

When I finally get back to the States I plan on opening my apartment to CouchSurfers. Since I am not traveling it will be a great way to get a taste of the world in my own home while my wings are temporarily clipped.  People and culture is what travel is all about. These are the pillars of CouchSurfing and I cannot stress enough the positive effects of this unique way to travel.

I close this piece with a brief list of some of the lessons that I have learned while CouchSurfing and a few handy tips. They may seem simple and obvious to some, but you would be surprised that this unassuming advice is not always heeded.

1.)Politeness still matters.

In many situations, it seems that manners have become a lost art and informality has taken their place. I am not suggesting acting like you are dining with the Queen at teatime; however, it is better to be overly polite. Customs around the world differ and while it is impossible to know the ways in every host country, acting in a polite manner will often benefit you until you learn the local customs.  Also, I always like to give my host a small thank you gift as a token of my gratitude for letting me stay.

2.) Be OPEN Minded

You will meet all walks of life when you CouchSurf. You will hit it off with some of the people you meet and some will rub you the wrong way. However, it is necessary to remain open minded in order to get the full experience.  If you are open minded, you will never be disappointed.

3.) You don’t have to agree on everything but respect others and all opinions.

This goes hand in hand with the 2nd one, but again it is important enough to be stressed. In Porto, Portugal, my host took me to dinner with one of his buddies who also had CouchSurfers. These surfers happened to be an older French couple and two twenty something French drifters. My host was an older former businessman who had worked and lived all over the world. While he was very polite and respectful of others’ opinions, his friend’s surfers decided to embroil him in a heated political debate about the Middle East.  While I am the first to revel in a good political debate, this went out of hand and the debate began a battle of religious ideology. Needless to say, it damaged relationships and really was unnecessary. Remember, you don’t have to see eye on everything, but you should respect the differences.

4.) Food is an important way to break the ice.

Yes, the cliché that food brings people together remains true especially when you CouchSurf. A nice way to get to know your host on your first day is to make a dinner for them. While it is not a rule of Couchsurfing, it often clues your host that you really are grateful for them hosting and allows good discussion over something that all people do: eat.  If your host cooks for you, offer to help. (This may seem like simple manners but believe me I have seen people awkwardly stand there while the host does all the cooking when all he really wanted was a hand chopping up some vegetables).  If your host takes you out to a local restaurant, try the cuisine. It may not be your cup of team but by making the effort to try the local dish you are making a statement that you appreciate their culture. No one says you have to enjoy everything you try, but trying new things is important.

5.) Keep in touch.

You never know who you will meet when you Couchsurf.  Some individuals you meet may be your friends for life and some may be merely acquaintances.  By putting the extra effort to keep in touch, it can lead to an amazing global network that may surprise you in the future. For instance, one of my hosts has multiple residences and has offered me to stay with him in Brazil and Morocco simply because I maintained in contact with him.  I have been invited to my first French hosts’ birthday parties time and time again and hopefully one day I will be able tot take him up on their offer.

6.) Leave the place better than you found it.

It is someone’s home after all.  Unlike a hotel or even a hostel, there is not cleaning service or maid to clean up after you. Treat the space with care and even better perhaps clean up a bit for the next guests. In Paris, one of the other surfers had a bit too much to drink and was sick all over the bathroom one night. Our host was then forced to clean up the entire mess. It was not only awkward for the surfer, but also for the host. Please clean up after yourself, and take care of the space.

7.) Let your host show you around.

I know that often you have your own plans when you stop in a new city. I know that I always had a short must see list written down. However, if your host takes the time to show you around, take advantage of it.  In Brussels, on my first night after a long bus ride my host took me to a bar to meet other local surfers and hosts. I was reluctant to go at first because I simply wasn’t in the mood. However, out of politeness I went, thankfully I did. Not only did the bar have a groovy attitude and splendid cider, but I also met so many wonderful people from all over Europe, two who were were official translators for the European Union headquarters.  In Portugal, my host gave me a tour of the entire city, and he even took me to free Port wine tastings. Talk about a night out!! Trust your hosts and their advice of their hometowns. At the same time if there is something you are dying to see or do, simply tell your host and I am sure they will be more than happy to take you there.

8.) At the same time, your hosts are not travel guides.

As great as it is to have a host that can show you around, not all hosts have flexible schedules that allow them to do so. Hosts are after all everyday individuals who have to work just like the rest of us. They cannot simply drop their responsibilities to show you around. Don’t get bent out of shape if you were expecting the grand tour of the city. Ask your host for a few places to see and head out on your own.  I had a few friends who tried CouchSurfing and when I asked them how it went they shared their disappointment with how their host was unable to show them around like they initially thought.  Each CouchSurfing experience is unique.  Some hosts may be able to show you around and some may not, but both are sill valuable experiences–just in different ways.

9.) Communication is key.

The most important thing you can do to avoid any unpleasant encounters is really just to communicate. The worst thing that a surfer can do is to just tiptoe around an issue.  If there is something really bothering you, bring it up tactfully. More often than not, your host will be glad that you communicated the issue and move past it.  There is nothing worse than the elephant in the room. Communicate with your host as best you can language barrier and all.

10.) Make the best of your situation.

I can go on and on about the benefits of CouchSurfing until the cows come home, but whether you like it or not is completely up to you. I encourage all to try it, but I cannot guarantee that it is necessarily the way to travel for you.  Thus, if it is fantastic, if not that’s fine too. Either way make the best of any situations, because for everything that is going wrong on your trip there will be a millions things that will go right and completely erase any small mishap you may have encountered. And in the off chance that your CouchSurfing experience isn’t everything you thought it would be, you at least have an entertaining story to tell your friends. After all even when things go to hell, they end up being the best stories. 

To this day, some of my best memories are from the places where I CouchSurfed during my months living in Europe.  So if you have a wandering soul like me and love travel because it opens your world to new people and culture, I whole-heartedly suggest giving CouchSurfing a chance.  I cannot promise you that every experience will be perfect and that all your hosts will be courteous and welcoming. You may have that one awkward or uncomfortable encounter.  However, I also cannot promise you that every hostel will be clean and bed bug free or that every hotel will be worth the pretty penny that you pay for it Couchsurfing may not necessarily be your thing, but you won’t know until you give it a chance. Travel is all about taking risks, and with a little bit of luck and an open mind you can enhance your travel by being bolder than the rest.

Cairns: A Journey to the Great Barrier Reef

Another item on my Australian bucket list was to see the Great Barrier Reef. Initially, I was going to go earlier in my stay in Australia because I wanted to go during the best weather season. However ticket prices were quite high and a bit more than I had budgeted for. My friend Karissa also desperately wanted to go so we decided to wait for a later date when tickets were less expensive.  We had heard that that the weather is usually nice most of the year so we would not have to worry about that when we decided to book our tickets.

One of the easiest and most popular places to see the reef is Cairns. It is located way up north in Queensland and the town itself is nothing spectacular but it has many deals to get out the reef that are fairly affordable (at least for Australia). They also have Green Island, which is a small little island right on the edge of the inner reef where they have daytrips. This is what we had planned to do because we wanted to stay an entire day on basically a private island (only the tour groups and staff inhabit the island).   Eventually I want to be a licensed scuba diver and I intend to go back and dive in the outer reef where it is the most beautiful.

To say that the weather was not the most pleasant would be a serious understatement.  The receptionist at our hostel said that usually the weather is like paradise. Naturally we were there the 4 days that it was a monsoon. We did not let the foul weather stop us. We looked up the forecast and booked a tour to the Great Barrier Reef on the day that it wouldn’t rain but was supposed to be overcast. We decided that we would not let it bother us, and honestly even though the weather could have been more ideal the experience was still very worthwhile.

First day in the downpour.

Needless to say the other days that we did not have solid plans were not the most exciting. We spent a lot of time chilling at the hostel, chatting and reading which actually was quite enjoyable. It was a nice time to get away from the stress of schoolwork even if it was just for a weekend.  One of the special things that I did get to do was hold a koala, twice actually.  Another item on my Aussie bucket list was to hold a koala.  Ignorantly I assumed that you could do this anywhere in Australia, but you are only allows contact with koalas in certain states. It is illegal to hold koalas in Victoria and New South Wales both states I had already been too, the former being my home.  Therefore after we booked our ticket to Cairns in Queensland, we knew that we had to find somewhere to hold koalas.  There was a separate animal park that allowed you contact with koalas but due to the foul weather we wanted to find someplace closer and more convenient. The casino complex in Cairns, which also housed a swanky hotel on the top, had a dome zoo. They allowed animal lovers such as us to hold and take a photograph with a koala.  Thus, the first day we headed there and held Tim Tam, a young female koala. There was also Harvey a much older male koala that you could hold, but they rotated on and off duty every other day.  We decided that we also wanted to hold Harvey, so we went back the next day as well.

Here’s Harvey!!!

Other than hanging out in the hostel in true backpacker fashion, holding koalas, we also walked around the town a bit, went to one of the local restaurants called the Wool Shed  (popular with tourists as they offer several deals), an then sat down by the pier. You would think that being on the ocean, Cairns would be a hotspot for beach vacationers. However, Cairns itself does not have its own proper swimming beach, but there are many resorts such as Palm Cove nearby that have beautiful tropical beaches.  They do have an esplanade and public lagoon, which is quite pretty and nice weather permitting.

Town Center.

On Saturday, the day I had been excitedly awaiting for months arrived. We got up early with our bags full of extra clothes, snacks and a beach towel. We boarded the boat and were in for a rather rough 45 minutes to Green Island.  While it was not raining, the water was quite choppy and it was rather windy. Once we got to the pier Karissa and I hung around because we had also booked a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. Even with the rough water, which made the water a green color instead of the usual crystal blue because it pulled up grass and sand from the bottom, we were able to see hundreds of massive fish and many different kinds of coral. I was beside myself that I was actually viewing such a fascinating living organism. After the glass bottom boat, we went to a shop to pick up our snorkeling gear and we rented wetsuits due to the cold weather.  It was a little difficult to see things because of the rough waters, but we did see some of the reef.  After we spent some time frolicking in the Coral Sea, and spotting some fish and coral, we headed in and explored the island. For the afternoon we spent it lounging on the beach, taking in the sights, and walking through the small rainforest in the center of the island.  Even though we had already changed out of our swimsuits, I realized that this would be my last beach in Australia so I just had to have one more swim. It was a bit chilly, but I jumped in the sea with some of my clothes on and Karissa joined me. People walking by on the beach kept asking us if the water was cold as I am sure they thought it was a bit strange that we had jumped in without wetsuits and in our clothes. Ah well- the life of the free spirit!!! We didn’t want to leave, but we needed to catch the boat back to Cairns so that we could pack for our fight the next day.

Karissa and I snorkeling!

A Turtle!!

Overall, despite the rainy weather I had a lovely time in Cairns. It was a great getaway and I cannot wait to back in the peak of summer hopefully with a diver’s certificate so I can travel up and down the coast exploring the Reef.

Cheers!!

P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney

I finally made it to Sydney. This was the one place besides the Great Barrier Reef that I had to go before leaving Australia. Ever since I watched the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, I knew that I had to visit.  This was also cemented with the release of the film, Finding Nemo, which gave every child the idea of visiting Sydney and the imaginary P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way hence the title of this post.

We arrived at night and trekked with our bags across Hyde Park and saw St Mary’s Cathedral. It really is more gorgeous at night, but then again I am just partial to cities at night. Even in the first few minutes of being in Sydney, I immediately felt a difference between Sydney and Melbourne.   There is a continued rivalry stemming back from when Melbourne was the Australia capital from 1901 to 1927 before Canberra was basically built for the sole purpose of solving the problem of where to house the capital between the two cities.  But, alas, I will write another post on that predicament.   This was the first time leaving Victoria and it really made me appreciate the “Garden State.”

We had a bit of a love hate relationship with our hostel. Now, I have stayed in a lot of hostels from some of the nicest in New Zealand to some that were atrocious in Madrid, but this one holds a particularly special place in my heart (note the sarcasm). It was neither the loudest or dirtiest hostel I have stayed in, but nonetheless our stay less than pleasant. The worst part was not the fault of the hostel itself but of the particular guests in our room. It was apparent that they had been staying in Sydney awhile because their stuff was all over the entire room. There was no room for our things because their clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries were strewn haphazardly everywhere.  I am always so careful to contain my backpacking mess to my general vicinity because I do not want to crowd anyone. It really can be obnoxious  when you do not have any space (Note to future backpackers, try to keep your things to yourself in hostels as much as possible). However, it was decently priced and in a decent location so I cannot complain too much; I had a bed.  But enough of this, on to the trip…

My friend who was traveling with me is afraid of heights, but she had decided that she would attempt to overcome this by parasailing. I booked parasailing for two over the Sydney Harbor at Manly beach.  Our appointment was not until 2 in the afternoon so we went on a free walking tour of the city to learn about some history of the city. It was a great way to figure out where everything was and get comfortable with the layout, plus our guide was quite animated and funny so it was entertaining.  We ducked out a bit early from the tour because we needed to catch a ferry to Manly. Before I went to Sydney I had no idea about their extensive ferry network despite the fact that I knew that Sydney was built around one of the most famous natural harbors in the world.  It was how I pictured Seattle to be with its ferries (No, I have never been there, it eludes me in my travels thus far, but I have watched enough Grey’s Anatomy to have a picture in my head of Seattle).  We took a ferry to Manly and found our boat that would take us into the harbor for parasailing. I personally love heights, but I was a bit nervous about my friend. We decided to go first so that way she would not have to sit and worry about it. They hitched us up and off we went into the sky. It was so relaxing to just float in the air and take in all the sights of the Harbor. It was truly a beautiful ride. They even dunked us a bit and we got a tad wet. My friend actually loved it and a made a little headway in conquering her fear. Afterwards, we hung around Manly which is an adorable town/suburb, went to the grocery store and bought our dinner of champions rice cakes (bread for Ann the gluten tolerant one), peanut butter, Nutella, apples, and yogurt and ate on the beach. We took the ferry back at sunset, which gave us striking views of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge. Later we hung around the pier, had some ice cream and bought impulse tickets for a performance in the Opera House for the following night.

St. Mary’s & Hyde Park during the day

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Sydney Opera House

Before parasailing

Sunset over Sydney Harbor

The next day we went to the Botanical Gardens, which to be honest were very pretty but not spectacular a label that I use to describe the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. We walked around the harbor a bit to get better views and then went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. I really enjoyed the museum and they were featuring this fascinating piece called The Clock by Christian Marclay which was a 24-hour video project featuring thousands of short film clips that showed a time of day usually in reference to a clock face or watch. I was riveted as I watched his unique sequencing of every minute through video. Even for those who are not great fans of modern art, I think you would find it very interesting and would advise you to check it out if it tours in one of your museums.   The museum is located in an area called The Rocks which actually used to to be one of the rougher areas in Sydney way back when but was gentrified and is a very hip, artsy and wealthy area now filled with shops, pubs and bars. They had an outdoor market while we were there and we enjoyed meandering along the streets and seeing all the local vendors. I fell in love with the area and the shops. I could not help myself and bought my one souvenir from Sydney which were handmade earrings from one of the artists at the market. We also walked across the Harbor Bridge to check out some more views of the city. We ate dinner in Chinatown and headed back to the harbor to go to Macbeth at the Opera House. Now, I love Shakespeare, it is partly due to my love of theater and also my love of British literature (though my real love is Russian Literature). I always refer to Macbeth as the Scottish play or the play that cannot be named (it is bad luck to say Macbeth in a theater during a show run, yes my background in theater comes out now) and I was ecstatic to see it. For my friend Ann, she is Danish and English is not her first language. While, she speaks nearly perfect English I knew that the fast and older style of speaking might be challenging for her so I gave her a brief summary of events so that it would be easier for her to follow.  This production of Macbeth was produced by Bell Shakespeare Theater Company, which is actually Australia’s only touring company, and it was a very modern interpretation of it. Instead of wearing Renaissance style clothing, the aesthetics were very simple and they wore dark jeans and boots.  Aussie actress Kate Mulvany  (she also has a small role in the upcoming film Great Gatsby; I’m so excited for this film) who played Lady Macbeth was the star of the show for me because she  gave a incredible performance.  The Opera House is so massive that it has many different theaters in one. We were in the Drama Theater which was one of the smaller spaces; nonetheless it was an amazing experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Exhibit in MCA Sydney

Market at The Rocks

View from the Harbor Bridge

Opera House…another one of the many shots from the Harbor Bridge

Theater where Macbeth was performed in

Sydney Harbor at Night

On our final day together, we wanted to see a bit of nature so we headed to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Blue Mountains. Blue Mountains composed of mostly sandstone plateaus start 60 kilometers west of Sydney and are quite expansive.  It was named Blue because it is densely covered with Eucalyptus trees which when the air temperature rises emit an oil that causes the land to have a blue hue to the human eye. Usually, tourists take a day tour from Sydney that includes round trip bus transport. However, in the spirit of saving money and getting a more local experience I decided to take a local train there. It turned out to be a great choice as we got to see outer Sydney suburbs and the ride to the mountains was quite pretty.  We disembarked our train at the largest town in the mountains, Katoomba. We then walked/hiked to the famous Three Sisters, which are three sandstone towers and admired the majestic views at Echo Point lookout.  There is actually a legend about the sisters. According to the tale three young women from the Katoomba tribe fell in love with with three men from the Nepean tribe from the foothills. Tribal lore prohibited the union, and a battle ensued. A Katoomba witchdoctor turned the women to stone to prevent them coming to harm, but he was killed in the battle and no one else could undo his spell. Hence the three sisters remain in stone overlooking the region. Lastly we headed to the Scenic World, which consists of a cable car, train ride, and skyway all with fantastic views of the mountains. The train ride is actually one of the steepest tracks in the world (if not the steepest) and takes you down a side of the mountain through a rainforest.  The skyway is similar to the cable car but instead of going up the mountain, travels parallel to a deep ravine and boasts a see through floor. All three rides provide great views of the rainforest and mountains and are a perfect way to end or begin a trip in the Blue Mountains.

Three Sisters

Bottom of the Railway

Blue Mountain rainforest

We headed back to Sydney and Ann headed to the airport for a flight that night; she needed to get back to Melbourne for her nursing clinical to start. I said goodbye to her and headed to my new hostel for the night because the one that I was staying in before was booked full.  After I cleaned up, I headed to the harbor for my last night in Sydney. I just simply walked around the Opera House taking in my last views of the beautiful city and harbor.   As much as I loved visiting Sydney, I was happy that I was living in Melbourne because it fits me better. However, Sydney really is a beautiful city and I highly recommend visiting.

Cheers!!

Panning for Gold

I am currently huddled under covers in my brisk jail cell. Yes, I said it jail cell. NO, I did not commit any unlawful offenses I am simply staying at former prison operating from 1830 to 1999, which was turned into a hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand.  It is by far the wackiest place I have ever stayed at. Coincidentally enough, it is also the nicest hostel I have stayed thus far. The rooms are pristinely clean, the common areas are warm and inviting they have a lot of amenities perfect for backpackers’ needs that other hostels do not have. Plus, the staff has a lot of fun with the whole jail theme as they wear orange shirts with prison numbers. With the exception of the lack of free Wi-Fi (a problem that has plagued me everywhere in Australia and NZ) Jailhouse is the perfect introduction to New Zealand.  I paid for Internet but apparently I have already used the memory already- go figure (I paid for a whole day and it lasted me 3 hours. One of the things I am most looking forward to going back to the States is cheap unlimited internet, none of this 8-10 dollars a day crap). Tales from NZ will come soon.

I finished my last week of classes at Deakin this week and have exams coming up next week. With all this last minute schoolwork, I have yet again neglected catching up from some of my recent exploits.  I am embarrassed to say, but I still have not shared a road trip that I took over a month ago. Fear not, since my Internet has expired, fate is literally forcing me to write some updates.

Where to start? Ah, yes….

After my autumn break, two of my roommates and I went on yet again another road trip. This time it was in the opposite direction towards western Victoria.  Our destination was Ballarat and the Grampians National Park. We wanted to camp again because I just cannot get enough of this fresh Australian air and views of the night sky.

I was chief navigator and luckily for me I inherited my mother’s inner compass and knack for directions.  I did my job quit well, but I cannot say the same for the rest of the group’s skills of remembering essential items. We finally managed to maneuver the diagonal, zigzag, and just plain complicated streets from Burwood to Melbourne’s CBD when I asked if anyone had grabbed the tent. My question was met with blank stares and “I thought you brought it.”  Needless to say, the trip was off to a comical start as usual, but no worries, it’s Australia; nothing bothers the Australians or those of us who currently call Australia home.

We first headed towards Ballarat because we wanted to go to Sovereign Hill, which is a mix of interactive museum and live demonstration village. For any Wisconsin readers, it is like Old World Wisconsin- where every child by the age of 12 has gone to at least twice for field trips to learn all about the history of the state. Ballarat is a city that was founded after gold was discovered in the area. Sovereign Hill is a model of how Ballarat looked like during the Australian Gold Rush. It has models of buildings, streams to pan for gold, tour guides donned in traditional early 19th century garb, farm animals, mine simulation, and much more.  As I always say, I am a bit nerdy, and the history nut really came out, as I was more excited than the dozens of school children there and they get a day off of school.  We learned how to pan for gold, and my friend, Lana actually managed to find a few flecks, which she kept.  If you are doubting the plausibility of there still being gold in the stream, the staff dump gold flecks into the stream everyday for tourists to find when they practice panning.  I was unsuccessful, but then again I always figured that I would do a better job at wearing gold than panning for it.  We spent a few hours in Sovereign Hill, got a history lesson, and also went to a gold museum.

Next, we continued west towards the Grampians.  We knew we were getting close when we saw a gorgeous expanse of forested mountains and hills in the distance.  The sun was setting and we stopped to take in the beauty of the setting sun over the mountains. As always, I am not much of a planner so of course I did not have any real plans once we got there and with the tent mishap we now had to find a place to stay. As I am incredibly money conscious because Australia had drained me of all of my funds, we decided to sleep in the car, which was comical in its own right after hours of shuffling around blankets, bodies, and seats. We did end up getting a pretty relaxing sleep if you can believe it or not.  At one time, there were kangaroos surrounding our car and we just watched them as they lounged and eventually hopped away.

Field of Kangaroos

Almost to the Grampians.

Pit stop. Gotta love Redhead Firelighters

In the morning we hit the Grampians visitor center and picked out a few spots that we wanted to hike to and see. We started with Mackenzie Falls.  We adventurously decided to hike to the bottom of the falls and climb over the safety barriers.  Nothing will happen right? I should have known that I would jinx myself because as I was jumping from one rock to the next, I tripped and fell flat on my face. I instinctually put my hand down to break my fall so that I would not smash my face on the rocks. My sunglasses slid into the water and I lay flat for about a minute. I was shocked more than anything because I am not a klutz (that role belongs to my sister).  I quickly got up, not thinking anything was wrong but then I felt shooting pain right around my thumb to my wrist in the hand that I braced myself with. I could feel a bruise already forming on my knees and my left right shoulder was also sore.  Luckily, my friend Ann is studying nursing and her dad is a doctor so she quickly assessed the damage.  My hand and wrist swelled up quickly and was all purple.  I could not move my wrist or my thumb.  Ann came to the conclusion that it wasn’t broken but I had a deep bruise and strained the muscle that connected the hand to the wrist. Uh OH!!

I didn’t let the mishap stop me, that’s for sure, as I continued jumping on rocks, climbing back up the falls, and then hiking some more in the mountains overlooking various canyons.  I needed a bit of assistance because it was my right hand and I was a bit clumsy with it. However, we spent the rest of the day hiking and seeing all the beautiful views of the Grampians.

The Fall

Mackenzie Falls

This trip was short because we all had work we needed to do before Monday. It was yet again another successful road trip, which provided more fantastic views of Victoria.

Again, I cannot stress enough how beautiful the country is and the best way to see it is by taking a road trip. Regardless of what state or terror you are visiting in Australia, once you get outside the cities, the nature is truly phenomenal.

Cheers!

Off the Grid: Camping in Victoria

I am going to finally update my blog on some of my most recent trips that I have taken. Hallelujah!!  This is going to be a long one filled with lots of pictures so get prepared to be wowed by Australia’s fantastic beauty.

For my spring break, I mean my autumn break (damn the southern hemisphere messing with my seasons) I went on a road trip with a few other international students. We were a rag tag bunch that is for sure. At one point on our adventure, a woman asked us how we all knew each other because she felt that it was odd that a Danish, Malaysian, and 2 Americans one of whom is Vietnamese all knew each other and were friends. Don’t under estimate the positive effects of globalization.

The road trip was my idea of course; my ingenuity saved the day (Wow, conceited much). Unlike in Europe, where I was able to travel freely with little consideration of cost, I have been on a strict budget in Melbourne.  As everyone around me was packing for their week longs trips up the east coast or to Ayers Rock, I grew restless.   The Thursday before break, as usual instead of doing homework I was looking up places in Victoria that I wanted to go. I asked my roommate if she wanted to go, and then we contacted two of my other friends and my restless yearning turned into a reality.

Ever since I received my acceptance letter from Deakin Uni, I knew that I wanted to explore Victoria and go camping to really experience Australia’s natural beauty. I wanted to get outside of the hostels, big cities, and sleep under the stars preferably on a beach.  Luckily, my companions shared my sense of adventure and wanted to rough it in a tent, with no bathrooms (ok, we used McDonalds’ bathrooms along the way, but it sounds more adventurous without them) and live off of PB & J or in my case peanut butter, rice cakes and apples.

The places we decided to visit were Lakes Entrance, Wilson’s Promontory, and Phillip Island camping along the way and driving on the picturesque Princes Highway. We wanted to go old school and figure out the directions only with a map, no GPS or written directions. Luckily, even though we were driving on the wrong side of the road, we managed quite successfully.

Crammed in a two-door car with way too much stuff, you could barely see my friend Ann and I in the backseat wrapped like mummies in blankets. Sleeping bags are apparently a hot commodity because their prices are steeply inflated and there was no way I was spending fifty precious AUD on a sleeping bag I would use once. Needless to say we settled for dragging our pillows, comforters and extra blankets with us. We bought a child foam alphabet to lie on the inside of the tent (another one of my brilliant plans, yoga mats were 4 times as much) for extra padding and to prevent us from getting wet from the morning dew.

First, we headed 320 kilometers east of Melbourne to Lakes Entrance. It is a fishing port where the Gippsland Lakes and the Bass Strait meet. It is a popular place for campers and has some gorgeous views from the various lookout points as you approach the “entrance” where the lakes, ocean and river meet.  We wanted to camp near the ocean so we drove further north and headed through a forest until we reached an isolated camp spot right on the beach.  Two of the four us had never slept in a tent nor assembled one before so it became the two Americans’ jobs to be the team leaders. We assembled it fairly quickly before dark and walked along the beach feeling pretty content.  There was also an older couple there and they had a roaring fire going as well as a fancy caravan. They jovially invited us to sit around the fire and we chatted for hours and drank coffee with our new friends. I was awestruck at the sky. It was the most beautiful sky I have seen in my life (I really should use a thesaurus to look up other words for beautiful because by the end of this post I will have taken word overuse to a new level).  You could actually see the Milky Way and all the constellations.  It was a cloudless sky and the moon reflected on the water. I literally felt like I was at the edge of the world (despite the fact that the globe has no real edges since it’s a sphere). I spent most of the night looking up because I could not comprehend that I was gazing on something so beautiful. It was a lovely moment and I have come to the conclusion that Australia has some of the most gorgeous views of the sky in the world.

One of the biggest surprises about that night was how cold that it got. I knew that when you are by the ocean the temperatures are naturally much colder because of the wind. However, I was not expecting it to be this cold. Luckily, I brought a hat, infinity scarf, gloves, and my warm winter fleece. Note to the wise: Do not be fooled that Australia is always warm. Melbourne is literally the coldest place in Australia and even though by no means does it get close to the Midwest’s cold temperatures, it does get quite chilly.

Living in Melbourne, you forget how most of Australia is rural. There are only small towns with one gas station, a grocery store and if you are lucky they will have a McDonalds where you can access free Wi-Fi.  Soon, we started taking bets on whether or not the towns would have Mackers or not.  It is a very quaint drive and the wildlife is fantastic. We stopped all the time to snap photographs of kangaroos hopping in the grasslands and wombats on the side of the road.

They have gas stations like this circa 1970.

Next, we headed southwest towards Wilsons Promontory, which is a national park on the most southern tip of mainland Australia. It was once an important place for the aborigines and it dates back nearly 6,500 years. To this day it is highly significant to the Gunai/Kurnai and the  Boonerwrung clans who call it Yiruk and Warnoon respectively. It is the largest coastal area in Victoria and features sheltered coves, sandy beaches, granite cliffs, coastal dunes and swamps, and granite islands scattered off the shores. Its natural beauty remains unmatched, as it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  We found the most perfect beach that was nestled in a cove. The clouds looked like unreal, like little marshmallows suspended in the sky. We lounged on the sand, searched for shells, threw a footy around, took classic jumping pictures and breathed in the salty air.  We didn’t get to camp on the beach this time (such an Australian problem), but our tent was nestled in between a grove of eucalyptus trees. We went for a hike and found a field full of kangaroos; we then decided to go past this barrier marked ‘park staff’ to follow the kangaroos, there we found emus, wombats, wallabies, and of course more kangaroos.

Just chilling with a wombat.

Kangaroos have really become my favorite animal and luckily for me once you get outside city limits they are everywhere.  I am not afraid of animals mostly due to the fact that my family owns a farm and I spent nearly every weekend at my grandmother’s with potbelly pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, parrots, cats, and the occasional cow. My own home is quite the menagerie with 5 dogs, an Amazon parrot, turtle, and rabbit. I am the type of girl who gets in trouble for sneaking her pet rabbit in her dorm room and who rescues a wild duck that turns out to be a goose and raises him until the Human Society can find a flock for him to join. For some reason, my friends happen to be afraid of animals, an idea that is hard me to comprehend. Needless to say, as I was inching closer and closer to the kangaroos, my friends were nervously biting their fingernails and warning me not to get any closer. While I am not foolish enough to get too close because after all they still are wild animals and can act sporadically especially if they have a joey in their pouch, I did manage to get some great photos close up.

It started to drizzle so we started heading back but not before we saw a rainbow. At this point I was in disbelief at how perfect this day was. There are just some moments when I feel like I am in a movie and not real life. This was definitely one of those. We watched the rainbow fade away as the kangaroos hopped across the field.  Despite the rain that night, we stayed miraculously dry in our cheap K-mart tent. I personally think it was due to the foam alphabet, but then again that’s just me.

I feel like I should sing along with Judy Garland.

Lastly, we headed to Phillip Island just southeast of Melbourne. Even though the island is tiny, there are a plethora of activities to do. Most famously, the island is known for the Penguin Parade where Little Penguins (this is their official name not just me being facetious) come ashore at dusk and head to their burrows after days at sea gorging on fish.  They don’t allow you to take photographs because the penguins are very skittish and they do not want to scare them away, otherwise I would have created a post dedicated to them. They were precious. While we did this at dusk and evening, the day was filled with going to a chocolate factory and drinking/eating the famous chocolate shot (it was so thick that I needed to use a spoon), visiting Churchill Island Heritage Farm and making friends with a horse, chilling with koalas at the Koala Conservation Center, and walking around the Nobbies’ boardwalks on the rugged coastline.

Welcome to Phillip Island!

Chocolate Shot

Cheers

The Nobbies

Nobbies

There was also still one more thing that I wanted to do on Phillip Island and that was go to the Phillip Island Wildlife Park. Because kangaroos are my new favorite animals, I wanted to do more than just see them, I wanted to pet them and feed them. I found a place on Phillips Island that lets you do just that.  Not only that but wallabies and kangaroos roam around the zoo in a free-range environment. Your admission price includes a bag of food (we also purchased an extra bag each) so that you can feed the animals to your heart’s content. I spent over 2 and half hours roaming around the grounds feeding kangaroos, emus and wallabies and seeing wombats, exotic birds, Tasmanian devils, koalas, and dingos.  It was amazing and honestly one of the highlights of my trip. The kangaroos were so gentle and use their hands/front feet to hold your hand steady as they nibble the food off or your palm. If they are feeling particularly greedy they will even lick the crumbs off your hand too which tickles and makes you giggle. They are such sweet and funny animals unlike the emus that are aggressive suckers when motivated by food. The kangaroos and emus were kept in the same open enclosure. The emus were smart and I swear understood that when a bag crinkled or rustled it meant food. They then proceeded to run across field towards you. While we all knew that they wouldn’t hurt us, having a pack of 6-foot birds come at you is a little intimidating even for my animal loving self. Sometimes if they felt you were not quick enough in feeding them they would peck you, not hard enough to hurt but it was still frightening.  Nonetheless the wildlife park was fantastic. My friend joked that she would have to drag me out of there and she was right. If we didn’t need to go home to return the rental car, I could have easily spent the whole days with the kangaroos.

Best travel trip: If you are on a tight budget, but still want to experience Australian nature, buy a tent, rent a car and go on a camping road trip. Plus, you can cross camping on a beach in Australia off your bucket list.  If it wasn’t on there, you should add it because it is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

Overall, the road trip was fantastic.  It was a low budget way to see a lot of gorgeous Australian land. We didn’t even leave the state of Victoria but there was so much to see.  I will update soon (after I get this damn politics paper finished) on another road trip in Victoria in the opposite direction this time and about my trip to Sydney.

Cheers!

Go Do

So in avoidance of writing my final paper for one of my classes, I decided it was high time that I made a quick video (slideshow really) of my time in Europe. This is the product of my procrastination skills and a little bit of nostalgia. It’s nothing special, but it is a nice way to reflect on all memories without wading through nearly nine thousand photographs. Cheers!

Gluten Free Traveler

I am gluten intolerant. Usually, I get the response “oh, that is unfortunate, it seems so hard.” It can be extremely difficult when all I want is to to order a pizza from the joint down the street or a eat a cookie that my friends just baked.

Initially, gluten intolerance and travel do not seem like a good pairing. They can actually seem like a nightmare if you think of all the things you cannot eat. Often times, they require more planning, reading labels, printing out cards in various languages explaining your condition, and attempting to ask the waiter in their native language if there is anything without gluten in their restaurant. However, the more places you travel the better you become at finding options that are  satisfying and allow you to experience some of the local flavor.

Some cuisines are better than other. I have to say that in my four months in Prague I was unable to eat about 90 percent of  Czech food because they love their wheat flour. I was able to eat most of the meat they prepared and their potatoes. However, most of their sauces were thickened with wheat so I would often have to ask for them to hold the sauce. Their most famous dishes knedliky (bread dumplings),  smazeny syr (fried cheese), bramboraky (fried potato pancakes), kolache (sweet fruit pastry) and of course beer are needless to say not gluten intolerant friendly. I struggled in Prague when I went to restaurants.  I was able to cook my food fairly easily. The local Billa had gluten free pasta, bread, deserts, chips, etc. I eventually found a gluten free beer and an entirely gluten free restaurant. Plus, my favorite food of all time is Mexican. Mexican is very easy for gluten intolerant people because of good old corn tortillas. I managed to find the one restaurant and it became my favorite place in the city.

Paris was particularly difficult as well because all I wanted to do was grab a baguette at a bakery and smear brie cheese all over it.  Every morning I met my friends in Montmartre and they would pick out their pastries, crepes, and croissants. I’ll be honest, it nearly killed me.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, I ate my fair share of frites. They were naturally gluten free as long as they did not use the same oil to fry them and other bread products. I ate a modified version of Wiener Schnitzel in Austria. I had the best spicy goulash in Hungary. In Germany, due to their diversity I had Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese food.

Surprisingly, Italy was the best country for gluten intolerances. Because their diet consists almost exclusively of wheat products, young children are tested for gluten intolerances and celiacs disease. There are tons of restaurants that offer wonderful gluten free options. Rome was my best food location and I felt like I gained 10 pounds in 4 days being there. I visited with my friend studying in Rome who is also gluten intolerant. I had an amazing time eating pasta, pizza, gelato in gluten free cones, cakes, and biscotti. It was gluten free heaven.

Due to my initial struggle in Prague whenever I met an Australian backpacker, I immediately hounded them if they know about gluten intolerances and the accessibility of gluten free food in Australia. I met one girl in Krakow, that was actually gluten free too. Although she was from Perth and not Melbourne, she insisted that it was fairly easy to be gluten free in Australia. Hallelujah!!

When I arrived in Melbourne, I went to the local grocery store, Cole’s, and found half an aisle of gluten free products from brownies to crackers. At least I knew I could cook gluten free foods, but how about the restaurants. Nearly every restaurant has at least one gluten free option. It is fantastic. Even fast food pizza chains Dominos and Pizza Hut have gluten free crust. WIth the exception of one cafe, I have been able to eat anywhere my friends wanted to go.

I reently got back from a road trip in the countryside. I stopped a a tiny local grocery store, not expecting to find anything. Much to my surprise, they had a tiny but mighty gluten free section. Australia is wonderful for individuals with gluten intolerances.

With that being said, being gluten free is not cheap. While there are many options here, restaurants usually charge anywhere from 3 to 6 dollars extra for the meal to be gluten free. Thus, on a student budget I opt to cook the majority of my food at home.  Even in stores the products can be a bit of steep. I was craving brownies last week so I purchased a mix for a whopping 6 dollars. It really killed me to buy it, but I had such a chocolate craving, I caved. I made them and while at home I have made many GF mixes, the final product was awful. Not only was my chocolate craving not satisfied but I was irritated that I had spend a bloody fortune on them. I complained for about a minute before I googled the company online and sent them a email politely notifying them of their less than stellar product. Now, I am not usually a complainer, but what can I say? Do not mess with me and chocolate. I received a prompt email asking for my home address and within 2 days I had a package of gluten free products to make up for my dissatisfaction. Lesson learned: do not be afraid to give the company feedback on their product. They will send you more free things to keep you satisfied and happy.

I made a quick list of the countries that were good/bad/ok for people with gluten intolerances. These are just based on my opinions and experiences so some people may have different ideas and disagree.

Fantastic: Australia, Italy

Good: Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany (Schar is a German Gluten Free company that sells their products all across Europe), Spain

Just All right (had some difficulty with traditional dishes): France, Austria, Croatia, Montenegro,Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary

Poor: Czech Republic, Poland (hard when eating out, ok in stores), Slovakia

To all of my fellow GF travelers: I wish you the best of luck. Happy eating!!

Beauty in the Mundane

I apologize in advance. I do not have any beautiful photographs of escapades in the city or any batty anecdotes to tell you right now. I do have some amazing road trip and camping stories coming up shortly along. Rather, this long-winded post is more of my way to unwind and release some of the tension that I have built up over the last few weeks. The weekdays have not been the most invigorating to say the least. In fact, they were practically lifeless if we compare them to preceding weekends. Honestly, the days merged together as they were a mash of assignments, clashing personalities, presentations, frustration and a nuisance of a head cold.

I have experienced problems with housing and my landlord (s) that were hopefully settled today after a month of back and forth negotiations (*crosses fingers). I was kicked out of my house due to faulty building permits. It was only due to my friends that I had a place to live.  So in dear Melbourne, I have been homeless twice. Balancing my finances has also been particularly challenging this time around; Australia is very expensive in comparison to Central Europe. I have done side jobs in both places just for extra cash, which has supplemented me quite well. However, I will be going back to the States with practically nothing to my name and I am entering my final year of undergraduate studies, which means that I need to think about the future (a terrifying thought). Tell me why I cannot be a professional student, please?

Most of the time I can barely contain my joy for the opportunities I have been given and sought out for myself.  Of course, I am incredibly grateful and wouldn’t change a single thing but it’s not all fun and games that everyone seems to think. Life still goes on back home despite your distance and just because you are on a different continent, it does not mean that you are not affected by occurrences back home. Similarly, just because you live somewhere else does not mean that everyday problems won’t affect you. In, fact, sometimes the smaller things seem worse because you don’t have the comfort of the familiar and the support system that you have back home.  Nor do I have the means to fix things from afar.

Living in Australia has challenged me in different ways than Europe did, and I will be coming back with yet again a changed worldview (There’s no language barrier, but don’t let that fool you).  I feel stronger than ever and I feel confident imparting a little wisdom to other young, eager, and hopeful travelers.

You need to be resilient, robust, and a little bit more optimistic than most.  More importantly, you also need to stick up for yourself. Be a force of nature.  Demand the most out of your experiences.  Appreciate the people who you meet but don’t get bent out of shape if some bother you (its not a popularity contest). This is also applicable to long-term life lessons, but is particularly true when traveling. It is those who greet challenges head on, who move on when things don’t go the way they were planned, and who pick themselves up to greet each new day with abundant energy, spunkiness, and passion that truly know how to travel right.

If you focus on the little problems, they will eat away at you. Every time I swipe my credit card, I wince. I think about how much interest I will incur at the end of the month and how long it will take me to pay that off. However, when your eyes see the sunset over the ocean, or hike to the bottom of the waterfall, all is forgotten and you cannot help but be in awe of the earth’s beauty.

I am a born traveler. I am convinced that even if I did not start now, I would have found my calling later on. I love travel for many different reasons and clearly the endless possibility for adventure has stolen my heart. It is in the still moments, the mundane, the tram rides, the nighttime walks home, the laughs shared with my housemates, and even times when I am so frustrated that all I can do is turn on music and dance that I really appreciate travel and change.

I often underestimate that ability. There are in fact some people who do not exhilarated by getting on an airplane and being alone in a new place. I thrive in it, while others detest it. For others, there are limits as to what they will take. I have seen my housemates hit their breaking points and they are slowly making their way back.

One of my good friends withdrew from the university and left due to plethora of personal reasons.  I understand her reasons and she is much happier now that she is at home and I am glad that it all worked out for the best.  She hit her limit. I, on the other hand, continue to be tested and say keep them coming. It will take a lot more than being homeless twice, being broke, and being injured to dampen my wanderlust.

One more thing, I suppose I lied; I do have one photograph for you. It’s from my little porch during an exquisite sunset. Even the sky can brighten my spirits when I am down.

So cheers to the mundane. It makes us appreciate how special movement and travel truly is. I do not take anything for granted, even the low points because they make the rest just that much better.

Bring out the earplugs; it’s race weekend.

This past weekend, the Formula 1 racing season commenced in Melbourne’s Albert Park.  Seen as the pinnacle of racing sports in Australia, the Grad Prix is the oldest surviving motor race in the country and the start of the F1 championship. Guess which redheaded race loving, sports enthusiast was there? Yes. ME.

If you know me, this isn’t really that much of a surprise considering that I follow stock car racing back home. For those of you that don’t, yes, I am a speed junkie. Admitting you watch Nascar automatically gives people incentive to tease you incessantly. I have heard many times, “but you do not seem like the stereotypical fan” ( which really means, that I do not adhere to the stereotypes of a beer chuggin’ redneck that many associate with the sport). Not only do I follow the sport, but I have also attended  multiple races in Indianapolis and loved them every time. Kasey Kahne baby! Granted, Nascar and Formula One are alike as apples and oranges. However, the adrenaline rush, enthusiasm and camaraderie among race fans are nearly identical despite the differences in car models, mileage, speed, and track.

Luckily for me, my two closest friends here are also race fans and wanted to go to just as desperately as I did.  We purchased concession general admission tickets which were fairly reasonable (can I please be a student forever?) and were prepared to make a day of it at the race circuit.

I scoured the city for earplugs which apparently are a rare item because I went to every supermarket  and convenience store in my neighborhood, Kmart, Target, and multiple pharmacies before I found a pair.  I consulted a few people back home who actively follow F1 racing and learned about some of the drivers and made my decision of which team and driver to cheer for.  I decided on team Red Bull and drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber (an Aussie).   They made me quite proud in the end, way to go boys!!

On race day we headed into the city, luckily, due to high race traffic the city set aside trams just to bring passengers to and from the circuit.  We were prepared with folding chairs, snacks, water,  ear plugs and of course cameras. I am a bit of a photography freak so I brought two of my three cameras with me, you never know when you might need more than one.  We toured the grounds, scouting for the perfect spot where we could see the cars zoom by and shopped around for some gear. I settled for a F1 Grand Prix baseball hat because my team’s gear was a bit pricey. When I say a bit, I mean I could buy  10 shirts for the price of the one they were selling. As much as I wanted one, prudence outweighed desire and I decided to make the fiscally responsible choice. Not to mention, I do have a sort of fascination with baseball hats; my collection has since doubled while being here and I wear them all the time.

The grounds were swarmed with people and held a plethora of events and activities celebrating racing and cars in general.  Old race cars as well as other beautiful models lined the paths and it was neat to see cars from all around the world including some classic American muscle cars. I felt like I had stepped foot in a new Fast & Furious movie. We finally found our spot on a slight hill in between turns 10 and 11 which had a perfect view of a straightway.  As the clock ticked down, we admired the fighter jets performing their aerial show and took bets( being poor exchange students, they were more hypothetical bets than anything) on who was going to win. My friend, Ann is F1 obsessed and she was proudly adorned in her Jenson Button t-shirt while she taunted me that Vettel and Webber were going down.

Good thing there was no money on the race, otherwise I would have had to swallow my pride and pay up. Button won, Vettel finished 2nd and Webber just missed the podium by finishing 4th.  The hum of the engines were so loud as the cars zoomed by us. It took me most of the race to take decent pictures because half of them I either clicked too early or late and got an empty track.  I cheered, snapped photos, listened to the announcers, witnessed a partial crash, and finally settled on taking a video of the cars racing by as I was having trouble taking pictures ( I guess my reflexes could use a little work). The energy of the fans were contagious as they rooted on their favorite team and drivers.

When the race was over, unlike in Nascar where they usher you out, they let the patrons walk all the way around the circuit. After celebrating on the track where we were photo-bombed by various crazy Australian guys, we took one last look at the circuit and headed home after a day full of sun, laughs, and excitement.

It was a once in a lifetime experience and I am so glad that I went to my first but certainly not last F1 race. I already checked, they have the US Grand Prix in Texas in November this year. Hmmm…. roadtrip?

Happy Reading!

Circus Here I Come

This past weekend weekend was Labor Day weekend. Its very strange because at home Labor day usually falls around my birthday in September. Of course here though with the reversed seasons, March begins autumn.  Melbourne hosts the annual Moomba festival downtown around this time. It is not only free (words I jump at) but it is also the largest city festival in all of Australia. Baby, I’m there.

We spent the entirety of Saturday down at the festival, enjoyin the food, games, watching water skiing competitions, basking in the gorgeous weather (we had a break from the rain) and watching a beautiful firework display over the Yarra River with the city skyline in the background. I also won a pint sized stuffed dolphin from one of the arcade games who I fondly named Australia Flipper.

By the way, must I say that on the days that the sun does come out, my freckles almost explode off my face. 🙂 Good thing I grew up thinking that a face without freckles is like the nights sky without stars. Thanks Mom for that little self esteem boost as a child!!

We also stumbled upon a trapeze show. Not only that, but they advertised that they still had a few open spots in their trapeze lessons for Sunday and Monday. Being both spontaneous and not afraid of heights I jumped at the chance to fly through the air on a trapeze so my friend and I both booked spots for Sunday.

Our appointment for Sunday was at 5pm so I had a lazy  morning and afternoon where I attempted to do some homework (yes, I still do go to university). We got to the festival a bit early to have a little pre-trapeze fun. I psyched myself out by watching the lesson before and although I was not nervous before, I began to let fear set in. Now, I am not afraid of heights. In fact, I love them and have always taken advantage of them. I even lived in a high rise in the middle of Chicago last year in which my apartment was pretty much all windows.  It wasn’t the height that was freaking me out, it was remembering to do all the steps that they said. Jump on this signal, bend your knees when I say this, let your hands go when you hear this; all of these tasks seemed overwhelmingly daunting to me. Nonetheless, I knew I wanted to do it and no matter if I felt like I was going to hurl, I was going to do my best on that trapeze.

They gave us safety belts, taught us the steps, let us practice on a bar low to the ground and then it was showtime. Note to parents with small children, if your child is obnoxious do not think it is a good idea to put them in a trapeze lesson by themselves where they can run around, disrespect the instructor and frankly wreak havoc on the other adults who are attempting this.  When it was my turn I climbed up the ladder, an instructor hooked my harness to the safety wires, and I prepared to perform a death defying trick. Yes, I know that there was no way for me to fall, nor was I going to be doing anything that challenging, but at the time, it felt pretty special. I was supposed to grab the trapeze, swing on it, then tuck my legs over the bar, do a free hand knee hand and then do a summersault off. Piece of cake, right?  Surprisingly the toughest part about all that was grabbing the bar with your second hand because you are leaning so far over the edge, you feel as you might fall even though there is an instructor holding onto your harness from the back.  I managed to complete the tasks and land safely back down on the net without that many hiccups. It was exhilarating.

My second go at it was not as successful as the first. We were supposed to attempt a catch. While I didn’t complete the catch I still managed to summersault off the trapeze. Overall, considering that an hour before I did not even want to try it, I felt content and was so happy that I did it. Check that off the bucket-list ( which would mean my non-existent always meant to write one).

While I am not exactly circus material, I did have a fantastic time. I am so glad that even though I was scared out of my mind, I did not back out.

Try out new things!!  I never imagined that I would be doing trapeze lessons, but I did. Keep an open mind and be ready for anything and everything. You will surprise yourself every time.

Happy Reading!