Friday, April 13, 2007

Heather's Most Memorable Experiences

One friend asked us to write about whether we still felt taking six months off was a good decision, knowing it could negatively impact our careers, finances, etc. My answer: It was one of the best decisions we have ever made. It was a dream come true to spend six months together exploring other countries, learning about other cultures and gaining new perspectives about our lives and what is meaningful to each of us. It also affected us in ways we did not expect. We both feel more aware of environmental problems facing our planet and we decided to change our eating habits to become mostly vegetarians (eat fish or chicken once a week). We also made the big decision to try and have a baby!

My advice, to quote Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”

My most memorable experiences (in no particular order):

1. Spending time with Bob’s Kids in Bodhgaya, India and visiting the Kiran Center. Their smiles and warmth moved me to tears and laughter.
2. Trekking in Nepal surrounded by the magnificent snow covered Himalayan Mountains on the Annapurna Circuit.
3. Staying at a Zen Buddhist Monastery in the alpine mountains of Mt. Koya, Japan.
4. Hiking in Jiuzhaigou National Park while visiting the Tibetan villages and temples in China.
5. Falling in love with all the elephants in Chitwan National Park, Nepal – the breeding center, bathing elephants, watching wild elephants, and even seeing elephants walking by me when sitting at an internet café.
6. Sleeping overnight in a tower in a wild animal refuge, seeing rhinos and wild peacocks and listening in silence to all the jungle wild things come to life in the darkness. (Chitwan National Park, Nepal)
7. The amazing beauty of the Taj Mahal.
8. The exotic desert oasis of Pushkar, India – wild langur monkeys roaming everywhere, florescent colored turbans, camels, and a holy lake surrounded by white temples and ghats.
9. Two candlelit romantic nights in Bangkok – dinner at the Oriental Hotel overlooking the river and drinks on the top of the State Tower.
10. Three day cruise on the Mekong River, Laos – visiting ancient ruins, villages, school children, waterfalls and watching billowy clouds drift overhead as we sailed.
11. The self indulgence of having a custom made suit in Hoi-an, Vietnam.
12. Our five day Milford Trek in New Zealand with soaring glaciers; fiords and pristine rivers.
13. Scuba diving with sharks, turtles, colorful fish and vibrant coral gardens in Moorea.
14. Palm reading by Ketut Liyer in Ubud, Bali.
15. Meditating with chanting monks in a temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Alex's Top 10.

Nearing the end of our trip, I began thinking about putting together a personal “best of” list about our experience. Inevitably, people will ask variations of the same question: “what was your favorite ___________ (city, country, ‘part,’ day, etc…),” so it made sense to stand back and take a little stock. I first thought of listing my favorites, or “best” experiences, in the sense of what was the most interesting culture, breathtaking view or finest meal. But, on reflection, I realized that approach would only scratch at the surface. Because our travel reached into such disparate environments as rural India, ultramodern Tokyo and the Vietnamese hill tribes, I would fail myself if I did not try to give some attention to even the most “foreign” experiences—those that were unpleasant or uncomfortable, because it is from these that I probably learned most about myself.

Here, then, in no order whatsoever, are my top ten “most memorable” experiences from our six month sabbatical:

1. Getting to know Bob’s Kids, Bodhgaya, India.

These kids were beautiful, amazing, heartbreaking and inspiring and were the highlight of the entire trip. Big thank yous to Derek Whitefield, Michael Bourne, Anil Chaurasia and, of course, Bob Chartoff, for letting us participate in this most worthy cause.

2. Diving with a giant sea turtle, the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Imagine diving in stormy, low-visibility water and looking up to see a giant turtle floating gently overhead, sleepy eyes at half-mast, munching contentedly on a bright orange jelly fish.

3. The 6 hour train ride from Beijing to Datong, China.

This was one of those miserable experiences from which you emerge, hopefully, a bigger person. Basically this was a 6 hour journey stuffed into a crowded steel box, alternately cold and hot, filled with human pollution of every kind.

4. Sharing the beach with slumbering cows, Goa, India.

5. Wrestling with juvenile monkeys in the Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

6. Eating sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan.

7. Utter and complete disorientation in the Akasaka train station, Tokyo, Japan.

The main thing I seek in travel is to be confronted by cultures and surroundings as different as possible from my day-to-day existence. Our second day in Tokyo we submerged into the depths of this train station. I am not exaggerating when I say that nothing was familiar. Nothing. Nothing written in an alphabet I could understand; even the signs made no sense. We couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. I felt like I’d dropped acid or something—really strange.

8. Stalking Rhino in the Royal Chitwan Nat’l. Park, Nepal.

Does it seem like a pattern is emerging here? Animals, animals, animals.

9. Encountering the Taj Mahal, Agra, India.

Simply the most beautiful man-made structure I’ve ever seen. The surrounding town of Agra could use a little sprucing up, though.

10. Being excited to come back home.

When we embarked on our trip I was so excited I couldn’t fathom ever wanting to come back. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover in mid-February that I was actually excited to return, to our family, home, cats and—believe it or not—my job!

We're Baaack!

We arrived at LAX safe and sound. We were greeted by Heather's Mom (Shirley Sourial) accompanied by her beloved dog, Bebe, and our friends, Ann Weinman and Robyn Bensinger. Shirley brought an elaborate gourmet picnic "bag" filled with goodies, Robyn brought flowers and Ann generously drove us to Union Station to catch our metrolink train to San Bernardino, where we met Heather's Dad (Alfy Sourial) accompanied by his handsome dog, Kitsune, and my Mom (Mary Craigie). Thanks, all. We're glad to be back.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Island of Moorea, French Polynesia.

Speaking of Moorea, this is undoubtedly one of the great destinations in the world for scuba diving and snorkeling. We’ve done two dive sessions and snorkled everyday. The visibility is the best I’ve experienced, allowing us to see a huge variety of reef life, including: White Tip Sharks, Lemon Sharks, Sting Rays, Trigger Fish, Lion Fish, Stick Fish, various Puffer Fish, Spotted Box Fish and others. Though it has rained about 40% of our time here, the abundance of immediately accessible marine life more than compensates for the wet weather.
We’re winding down our trip (only 2 more days), and both excited and apprehensive about re-entering the real world. We’re looking forward to seeing you all!

Friday, March 23rd

Here is a picture of us wine tasting on Waiheke Island, off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand on March 23rd at 3:30 p.m.

Strangely, at March 23rd at exactly 3:30 p.m., we were also snorkeling in a lagoon off the coast of Moorea, in French Polynesia.
How could this be? Well, after our wine tasting excursion in New Zealand we caught a "red eye" flight to Tahiti followed by a ferry ride to Moorea. The NZ-Tahiti flight crossed the international date line, allowing us to enjoy the same day twice, a la Groundhog Day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Hiking The Milford Track

Fiordland, with its staggering glacier mountain peaks looming over deep silent waters, is one part of New Zealand that can’t be missed. At the suggestion of savvy travelers, Meg and Bagel, we booked a five day hike of the famous Milford Sound Track with “Ultimate Hikes.” The “track,” as it is called, is a 33.5 mile hiking path through wetlands and lush rainforest, then climbing over snow covered Mackinnon mountain pass, back down the mountain across river streams and ending at the magnificent Milford Sound. The “Kea” bird (pictured) and many other rainforest and alpine birds kept us company as we trudged along.

Incredibly, all of the gushing rivers contain pure drinking water. Thanks to the strict regulations of New Zealand’s conservation authority, fiordland has maintained its pristine conditions. They regulate the number of hikers allowed on the track who must register months ahead to reserve a bed in the huts since no camping is allowed.

Milford Sound receives more than 7,200 mm of rain per year (a lot!) which creates spontaneous waterfalls – and home to tons of little biting sand flies. We were a little nervous about the weather which indicated snow and rain during our trek, and of course, the pesky sand flies. We survived the sand flies without much trouble, but the rain was a different story. Snow and fog greeted us at the mountain pass obscuring our views and heavy rain one night, meant walking the next day in our hiking boots through knee deep water! We found out later that this is quite common.

Despite these conditions (and perhaps, because of these conditions), it was exhilarating to be surrounded by nature’s force in the midst of glaciers millions of years old. It was a challenging hike over the mountain pass, but it felt good to finally get some exercise. Alex was the first person to finish the track on our last day (he really wanted to take off his wet boots!), but by the end, he had a big grin on his face. One of the best parts of the trek was that we made friends with people from all parts of the world who traveled near and far to hike the Milford Sound track since it is ranked as the number one “walk” in the world. On our last day, the sun came out and rewarded us with glorious views of snow capped mountain peaks towering over fiords.
~ Heather

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tramp A Glacier!

"Tramping" is hiking, climbing, walking, tracking and trekking. We did it on Fox Glacier, New Zealand.

Aboard the TranzAlpine Train.

We boarded the TranzAlpine train at Christchurch to cross to the West Coast of New Zealand (South Island). Lonely Planet calls this "one of the world's great rail journeys." I'm not sure if it qualifies for that distinction, but it certainly was scenic, if only because of the sheer variety of terrain. The journey crosses the alluvial Canterbury Plains to the foothills of the Southern Alps, ultimately crossing the alpine village of Arthur's Pass.

Friday, March 09, 2007

New Zealand!

We flew from Tasmania to Melbourne, then on to Christchurch, New Zealand. This is a beautiful country and the people are exceptionally friendly. We briefly explored Christchurch, then took a bus to Kaikoura to snorkel with the fur seals. This was marvelous. The seals are playful, like underwater puppy dogs. They were once all but extinct, but happily they've made a big time comeback.

Tomorrow we're taking a scenic train over the Arthur's Pass en route to the Fox Glacier for a little climb.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Our Tasmanian Road Trip.

We arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, and rented an ultra-economical (i.e., really CHEAP) well-used Mitsubishi Magna Executive. Driving on the left side of the road definitely takes practice. We drove to Lake St. Clair and spent a night, then traveled to Cradle Mountain National Park, where we met this fairly large Wallaby. We're spending tonight in Launceton and driving tomorrow to the Freycinet National Park on Tasmania's east coast.

Getting Personal With the Animals at the Featherdale Wild Animal Park.

On our way back to Sydney from the Blue Mountains, we stopped off at the Featherdale Wild Animal Park and made some new friends.