Rishikesh

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This weekend I took a 7 hour bus to Rishikesh, the “yoga capital of the world”, where everyone comes to get their yoga teaching certification. Rishikesh has been a yoga hotspot ever since The Beatles stayed here for a couple of months in the late sixties to learn transcendental meditation in an Ashram, where they famously wrote most of their songs of the White album. That specific ashram was closed in the 90s, but since Rishikesh has exploded into a bit of a commercialized ‘haven’ for people seeking meditation, rejuvenation and spirituality. Many people come here specifically to get their Yoga Teaching Training certification which is a 200-300 hour course, and an internationally recognized certificate that allows you to teach yoga. The certificate is called the Yoga Alliance, and is a American Non-Profit membership professional and trade association, aka another clever commercial plot made by some company so that people have to pay to say they are an expert (hello, PADI?)

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Rishikesh

To be honest, like most of the backpackers I met, I was a bit disappointed with Rishikesh. Although it is described by lonely planet and other travel guides as a spiritual center, “conductive to meditation and mind expansion,” it has somewhat turned into a factory pumping out Yoga Teaching certifications; a commercial town where at every corner people are selling you a change in spirituality, which by nature cannot be taught. Yoga in India is a lifestyle, it is not only a source of exercise but also a practice of spirituality with teachings that extend to all practices of life including diet, attitude, and morals to conduct life. People practice Yoga their whole lives so it is a bit of a contradiction that here in Rishikesh you can show up for a month of training and leave a “certified expert” in Yoga. You get the feeling that the locals are selling their life practice a bit short (just to make money off of westerners). That said it’s still pretty awesome that here everyone is seeking some sort of spiritual centering or peace and that the main advertisements are for you to find “the inner energy of yoga”… Unlike the western world where we see everyday advertisements for… I don’t know, cars? Makeup? Beauty? Through all the commercialism, there are still many people who remain true to the practices, and a huge presence of spirituality here.

 

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13558776_10209379076144688_8819462592413218187_oRishikesh is stunning. It’s in the Himalaya Mountains and built up along the side of the holy Ganga river (referred to as Mother Ganga, also known as the Ganges River), which flows south east throughout India from the Himalayas in Uttarakhand all the way to Bangladesh, to the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga river is the 3rd largest river in the world and is famous for flowing through the holy city of Varanasi where Hindis disperse the ashes of the dead or send off the corpses of family members so that they reach heaven. It is thought that dying along the Ganga river, specifically in Varanasi, will release one from the cycle of reincarnation, so one might see dead bodies floating in the river (not, however, in Rishikesh). The Ganga river is worshipped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism, and Hindus practice many rituals of offering to the Ganga, often taking a water bottle of it back with them to perform rituals or blessings. It is said that one who bathes in the Ganga River is relieved of all their sins, so often Hindus will travel across India before death in order to cleanse their souls.
Although, I did not bathe in the Ganga river while in Rishikesh (trying to continue my streak of health/not carrying a parasite in India (sorry) (I’ll come back)), I did step in the water and wash my face with it during the Ganga Aarti ceremony which I’ll explain in a bit. The ganga river was recently reported as the 7th most polluted city in the world.
Rishikesh is built up along the banks of the Ganga, with a long pedestrian bridge connecting the two sides of the city. This provides a really gorgeous view from many points of the city, like cafes that sit along the banks, Ashrams with views of the river, and temples built along the water’s edge. That said, it is still quite noisy here. Recently water sports on the ganga river has become quite popular for Indian tourists, so from time to time there will be a raft of screaming tourists (it flows pretty fast through Rishikesh, and is really refreshingly cold) jumping into the water. The pedestrian bridge is always packed, and is a bit of an experience moving slowly in a crowd of Indians, from time to time interrupted by a motorcyclist who has decided it is a good idea to push through the bridge that has a width of approximately two people. Similarly, there will be cows wandering across…

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a monkey stole someone’s mangoes on the bridge

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How they make popcorn in India (its good! I tried it)

The things to do in Rishikesh is to wander around the winding streets, which are full of yoga or Indian clothes, yoga centers, health and wellness shops, little market book stalls that are packed to the ceiling with books about meditation, yoga, Hinduism, spirituality, and cool cafes; do yoga or another ancient health course—there are tons of courses, and Ashrams will offer cheap or free yoga sessions; and explore the mountains by motorbike. The Ashrams are packed into these streets, which is why many of the people I met were disappointed with Rishikesh, it seems hard to meditate when you can still hear the noise of the town and the horns of motorbikes. Still, they are pretty cool, filled often with westerners getting their yoga teacher training or Hindu Monks—Sannyasis.
Sannyasi, which is Sanskrit for “abandoning” or “throwing down”, is a religious ascetic (monk) who has renounced the world by performing his own funeral and abandoning all claims to social or family standing. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Sannyasis, like other sadhus (holy men) are not cremated but are generally buried in a seat posture of meditation. Sannyasis are said to have achieved Sannyasa, the fourth ashrama or stage of life of renunciation within the Hindu philosophy of four age-based life stages. Achieving Sannyasa, or becoming a sannyasi (“the homeless renouncer”) involves renouncing oneself of all their posessions, and moving from place to place begging for food, concerning oneself only with union with brahman (the Absolute… sort of like the Hindu’s version of god but more encompassing). The sannyasis are usually dressed in light orange/pale nude robes. Sometimes they have big wild white hair (usually they are older), other times they have awesome long dreads. One morning in Rishikesh I did 2 hour 7am yoga at an Ashram, when we came out there was this one Sannyasi sitting cross-legged, perched on the wall that ran around the steps, his hair long brown dreads wrapped up into a cake of dreads held together by a piece of string. None of the Sannyasi wear their dreads down, it must be too hot.
I headed to Rishikesh to meet up with these two Australian girls I met a couple of weekends ago when I went to Jaipur, Jacquie and Elise, and to chill out. Although many might describe Rishikesh as crowded or noisy, coming from Delhi which is the second most crowded city in the world (aka “the least chill place in the world”), it was really a relief to be somewhere like Rishikesh. Most importantly, it was about 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler in Rishikesh – only 90 degrees instead of 100! I spent most of my time hanging in this awesome café called Ganga Beach Café, overlooking the ganga river, a restaurant where you sit cross legged on mats to eat your meals, and you can get Israeli food (apparently, in the north of India, there are tons of Israeli food restaurants which have been inspired by all the Israelis who come backpack here after their army service). I stayed in a hostel called Zostel, which was about a 10-15 minute walk down to the bridge, the main center of town, with super strong a/c and a really nice staff that coordinated a lot of hostel activities including “high tea”- which was free chai on the roof every evening at 6:30 p.m. It was definitely the place to stay in Rishikesh, with a cool group of backpackers who’d all been hanging out for about a week.

 

 

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First salad of India #livingontheedge

 

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Shakshuka!

 

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Israeli food

My first day I went with three English boys to a waterfall in the mountains… leaving Rishikesh provides a spectacular view of the city laid down within the mountains, and if one finds themselves here I would recommend showing up with knowledge of how to drive a motorbike. It reminded me a lot of traveling in the mountains of Indonesia with the bumpy, pot hole ridden roads. We went to a natural waterfall called Neer Garh Waterfall, which is about 2 km away from Rishikesh edge and up about another kilometer. The water which is fast flowing, and brown like the Ganga river, is so refreshingly cold, coming from the Himalayas. We had a ton of fun jumping into the water with the local Indians. This is the first time I’ve gone swimming in a natural body of water in India, and the second time that I’ve gone swimming at all this summer (sad because if you know me well you know swimming is my favorite activity) and I think the happiest I’ve been in a very, very long time.

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On my last night in Rishikesh the hostel (I stayed in Zostel… 100% recommend) took a group of us to the more downtown area of Rishikesh to participate in Ganga Aarti at Triveni Ghat (a place along the bank of Rishikesh). Ganga aarti is a ceremony that takes place every night at sunset along the ganga river in the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi in India. An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering, usually given in the form of a lamp or a small plate with a candle and flowers that is sent off down the river. We bought these aarti plates, a cup made of leaves holdinh flowers, a stick of incense, and a wick to light a fires. The offering is made to the Goddess of Ganga, known as Maa Ganga. The ceremony took place facing the river. A couple hundred people from the town (mostly locals, very few tourists) gather at the banks of this river; music is performed live by a band seated in the middle of the crowd, they were equipped with microphones and there was an amazing live male singer who sang devotional songs in praise of Mother Ganga (called bhajans). In front of the crowd, who were seated, there were maybe 10 or 11 Hindu Priests (Pandits) who stood on stools in front of small wooden tables holding lamps. As the ceremony was performed the lamps were lit and circled around by the pandits in a clockwise manner. During the ceremony everyone rushed forward to take smaller lamps and mirror the priests raising the lamps above their heads and singing along to the main singer. At the end of the ceremony, everyone rushes forwards to cup the water of the ganga river, pour it on their faces and set the plates down the river.

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Ganga Aarti

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Ganga Aarti
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Offerings for the gods

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I actually got back from Rishikesh this morning, at 1:30a.m. It is apparently holidays for Indian school children, and therefore the traffic was out of control leaving Rishikesh and getting to Delhi. These two Australian girls and I set out at about 11am to get to Delhi, which is supposed to be about a 7 hour journey. Unable to reserve a bus in advance we decided to catch one from the station. A lot of bargaining later we end up squished inside a bus-rickshaw with six other Indians. At the Rishikesh bus station we learn there are no A/C buses. Since one of the girls was sick, we made a/c our deal breaker for the potentially 8 hour journey. Not to worry, Rishikesh was a smaller bus station, all buses after all must stop at the main Hardiwar bus station on their way to Delhi, just 25 km away (Haridwar, not Delhi). We get another tuk-tuk. For some reason, everyone seems to be going to Hardiwar, and there are several traffic bottle necks with a  couple one-lane bridges over the ganga river. It ends up taking 2 hours to cross these 25 km. But then finally, we arrive in Hardiwar, its midday, around 1 pm. In Hardiwar we are confident we can get a bus to Delhi, with a/c.

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Views from the Hardiwar bus stations. We were begging to get on these buses.

 

We end up hanging around the Hardiwar bus station for a couple of hours. It turns out there are no a/c buses to Delhi. When we ask the station manager, he laughs in our face, “you didn’t book in advance?” Miserable in 100 degree weather we are sitting on the ground of the bus station like some homeless backpackers (oh wait…). We start approaching incoming buses and asking for Delhi; no one is going to Delhi. After calling my New Delhi hostel (aka my travel agents) who inform us the next available booking is from Rishikesh and leaves at 11 pm (I have work the next day), and that there are no trains, we decide to sell our souls and hire a taxi to Delhi. Unfortunately us, no one is willing to drive us, despite our willingness to spend an Indian fortune (5,000 Rupees, which is an insane amount considering a bus would’ve been 500-600 rupees each for the journey). There is a glimmer of hope when an Indian couple invites us to join their taxi ride to Delhi, but then the taxi company stamps on our dreams, since we would be overloading on official highways. We resign in a Dabha (street food stall). Due to the traffic, all of the private travel agencies have refused our services. We drink our overpriced Limca (soda lemonade) in defeat, over 200km from Delhi. Hardiwar doesn’t even have any hostels, so if we stay the night we’d stay in a strange expensive hotel. I have work the next day. The two Australians have food poisoning. Moping, we tell the Dabha owner our troubles. This enterprising man calls up his friend to get him to drive us; it looks like we will escape Hardiwar! …but only at 9pm. Again, we are defeated, however, its already 4 pm, so maybe 9pm isn’t so far away? Despite the glimmer of luck, the dabha owner says his friend is unsure. We might have a ride. Might not. In a last effort I go for  a stroll by all the ‘travel agencies’. Returning to the taxi stand that originally denied us, I ask, “Taxi to Delhi?” and get a yes! We end up getting a private taxi, with a/c to Delhi. The 8 hour trip costs us about $30 USD each. That’s less than I’d pay for an Uber from Georgetown to my house back in D.C.  We get a lovely driver who doesn’t speak a word of English, we have a nice relaxing drive, stopping a few times for our driver to get chai, and for us to get dinner in a highway dabha. We left at 11am and arrived in Delhi 1:30 am. I guess you have to experience something like that at least once in India.

 

 

Week 1: Gwalior

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Currently writing this on a train from Gwalior to Delhi, which goes 100% against my backpacker intuition because I’m (1) a solo female traveler and am now attracting more unnecessary attention (I’m actually traveling with 2 other women who work on my project team but they are two carriages over), (2) I have now increased the odds of being mugged/robbed, however to be fair I have seen two other laptops on this train and also I feel that I’m on a richer carriage because everyone here is moderately dressed nice, and we get food and a/c on our carriage (3) I have now made the decision not to go to the bathroom for the entire duration (rest of it at least) of this three hour train journey; it’s a squat toilet on an Indian train so that’s kind of intentional (throw back to Indonesia, I did not miss you), (4) furthermore I just ate the said food and I now feel kind of sick but I’m thinking what is the probability of me getting robbed and food poisoning in one go? I’d have to be pretty unlucky so I think the odds are in my favor. There was yogurt. Although I did just increase my chances on both…

I left yesterday morning from Delhi to Gwalior on this same train to meet Jessica, who is my supervisor/the reason I am currently in India, and the rest of the TB Referral project team who were finishing up traveling between the three project sites to check out what’s been going on and interview current patients to get a feel for how the project was going. For the past couple of days before I was in Delhi getting settled and working at the JPAL South Asia office. I had a 6 am train to Gwalior which meant leaving my hostel at 5am. Funny enough, we get to the center of Delhi at 5:30 am and my taxi completely stops moving because there is an insane traffic jam, complete with cars, horse carriages, motorbikes, push-bikes, and just people walking for the kilometer radius around the train station. 5:40 am: When I’m about 500 meters away I follow the other travelers who have ditched their rides far back and decided to walk through the traffic jam with their luggage. 5:45 am As I’m trying to go through the train station security, a guard/monitor stops me and tries to convince me that my trains been postponed to 9 am and that I need to go get a new ticket from the ticket office next door. After about 10 minutes of discussion and repetition of the word “Gwalior”  he directs me to platform 1 in the opposite direction and I sprint to my train 5:50. I get on at 5:55 am. Since not many (none) tourists go to Gwalior I genuinely think he thought I was trying to go to Agra. Otherwise I avoided getting scammed for the first time in India.

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5:30 am in Delhi
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on the train to Gwalior

 

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free juice boxes with your train ticket

 

Gwalior is different from anything I’ve seen so far in New Delhi, although I’ve been told I need to head to the old city in Delhi. Gwalior reminds me of a city in the middle-east, like old Jerusalem. Houses are built into other houses, with side by side neighborhood villages that have been built over years into these intertwining, weaving architectural structures. All the houses are painted these different bright colors. Pastel purple, bright yellow, sky blue. Every home is intricately detailed, with engravings on the walls, or with ornaments hanging above the door, There are little corners with stairs to other apartments and tiny alleys that lead into hidden streets. I get picked up from the hotel (1st stop after the train station) in a big SUV that can barely fit through these streets.

On the road there’s all kinds of chaos. Tons of motorbikes—India is comparable to Indonesia with this too—you will see more motorbikes on the road than cars, sometimes with entire 4/5 person families fit on, or a man-and-woman couple with the woman sitting with her two legs to the side and her sari flapping in the wind, as if they are on a leisurely horseback ride date through the fields—, people riding bicycles in the middle of the road, horses pulling carriages of people, street vendors pushing entire trays of fruit on a bicycle, I saw one tractor, cars obviously, and then cows, which roam the streets without conflict, as everyone will rather take a life-risking swerve than hit a cow. Gwalior is a small town by Indian standards but in reality home to 2 million people (the population of the entire country of Namibia), despite this, there are no traffic lights in the entire city (at least, none that I saw/none that anyone living there could recollect). Indian driving has one motto: be aggressive. Everyone just drives like they want, and swerve without hesitation. Instead of stopping at an intersection, as you would in the U.S. because (a) there would be a stop sign, and (b) Americans fear for their lives, Indians obviously do not [note, this is a joke], people will honk, to let the incoming person know to stay out of the way, and accelerate. The second motto of the road is: don’t hit the cows. Cows often have been seen to cause numerous traffic jams. Drivers definitely weight the risk of hitting a cow more than the risk of hitting another person.  *Jessica got this awesome picture: classic Indian traffic jam- a cow, a motorcyclist, and a car.

In Gwalior we met with current patients undergoing TB treatment who are apart of the current program. We met with patients either in their homes or in the NGO [operation ASHA] that this project is working with’s private health clinics. Yesterday we met with patients who live in the urban center of Gwalior, and today we went out to the more rural parts, which are a couple of hours away from Gwalior. Surprisingly, the patients all seem pretty candid about their condition, and have seemed very open to talking to the project team counselors. The patients in the program are all ages, from young children, young teenagers, and older people.

I arrived in Gwalior at 9am. After checking into a hotel (such a luxury since I am now living in a 6 person dorm full time), I go straight to the field aka the town center to meet up with Jessica and the other project team members of the Gwalior project; Shaheen, Putul and the Gwalior manager. Right away I go with Putul to an Op ASHA (private) health clinic. It’s a small hole in the wall, the size of a couple ATM machine boxes; there’s a bed,  a stool for a doctor, and a couple of chairs. On the wall there’s a small shelf of medicine. We sit on a short bench that sticks halfway out of the door, I sit half way outside of the clinic. Inside sitting on a chair is a young girl, about 18 years old. She’s wearing bright colors, and a scarf covering her head with purple triangles. Two other men are in the room, the provider (Op ASHA, the NGO this project is run through, treats TB through the DOTs Method [created by the WHO] which requires patients to receive treatment from a treatment provider, in their presence) from Op Asha. Putul interviews her in Hindi and I sit and watch. Throughout the interview a couple of people come into the room to get care from the doctor who shuffles in and out wearing a white outfit, the girl doesn’t seem to know any of the people nor does she react to their presence. After the interview finishes Putul explains what happened; This patient recently started treatment.

She’s 18 years old and isn’t sure how she got TB. When she first felt sick she had gone to a private doctor who had thought she had typhus; later they thought she had a throat infection. Eventually as she never got better, and after spending quite a bit of money, she was tested for TB and found positive. She isn’t especially motivated, despite financial incentives, to reach out to those around her to tell them about getting treatment for TB. In her words, TB is a disease more common in older people, so if people hear that she has TB, they will think, she’s so young and already has this? However, she maintains that if she were to know someone who had symptoms she would try to help them get treatment, since its helped her so much. Throughout the rest of the morning we went in pairs to different Op Asha health clinics or patients homes to interview current patients about why or why not they’ve given referrals. The purpose of the visits are to do a sort of check up of the program, to understand vaguely how the information of the program is being understood by patients, and understand what seems to be the trends among patients who are willing to give referrals and those who are not.

After meeting the young girl we travel to a older patients home. This patient is an old woman and has made a lot of referrals, for the interview she brings in a family member whom she made referrals to and had since started treatment. This woman lives in a smaller house, that’s pretty bare and in a poorer part of town. Its built into a hill so we walk down into her make-shift home. This woman is a very different patient. Unlike the young girl, she is very open about her treatment status without reservation. However, she has less to lose than the young girl who still has to get married etc. This woman already has a large family, and can only see positive effects to herself and surrounding community with her outreach efforts.

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walking around Gwalior

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Me and Shaheen, around Gwalior

 

 

I don’t end up meeting any more patients that day, but the next morning we go out a couple of hours outside of Gwalior to rural villages.

Travel to the outskirts of Gwalior involves a very long hot car ride over unpaved road. We travel to three different villages where we meet three separate groups of TB patients. The villages are pretty basic, they don’t seem to have access to running water and are in the center of land and dirt, however surprisingly, the houses seem to be pretty nice and sturdy structures – different from the Shanti-town structures I’d been expecting. The patients are quite happy to have us, and the novelty of two foreigners showing up seems to attract a pretty large crowd, which don’t seem to bother the patients even when we ask if they would like us to ask for privacy. The first two we meet with are older men, however at the third two villages we meet two women, an old woman and her daughter who is mother with two kids swinging from her sides. The women are very sweet and like the other two men are very happy to answer our questions. For the rural patients, getting access to health care is much more of a challenging process. The closest Primary Health Center (govt. run), where they would go for basic medical issues is about a 2 hour walk away for some of them. The Community Health Centers (CMCs), where they would go for TB testing are even further away, in city centers like Gwalior. For these patients, getting treatment requires a very high level of motivation to sacrifice time, money, and sometimes suffering to get care. One man we talked to had undergone treatment about a year before his current experience. He’d gotten treated by a private doctor, like many other Indians, he preferred to pay for more convenient care (usually closer proximity, more accessible) from a private physician than make the journey to a government center. With the private doctor he paid for his medicine on a monthly basis, however, at the end of his treatment he was unable to meet the payments, therefore he stopped treatment and later relapsed. With the women it’s a different story, they aren’t allowed to leave their homes, so getting tested and treatment requires a lot of luck. Once they enter the program with Project ASHA things are simplified, since the providers then travel to the patients, however getting to that point is a huge issue. This unveils lots of future potential challenges for the project, for example, the two women explain how they don’t see how they would distribute referral cards since they aren’t allowed to cross the threshold of their home.

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Meeting with TB patients in rural villages near Gwalior

Overall the patients all seem to understand the project and for the most part seem really interested in helping others get access to TB treatment. All the patients understand the social benefits of the project, however there is evidence of stigma around sharing their own status of TB. Especially with young women, they or their families are somewhat hesitant about telling their acquaintances about their treatment status.

 

Meeting the TB patients was really an exciting experience. This was a part of the project that I was definitely most nervous about, since I had never had a similar previous experience. Similarly, it was really a unique experience to hear about the effects of this research project to the patients. In Delhi and then in the future of this project in Gwalior I’m going to have the opportunity to interact with more TB patients.

In Gwalior we do some tourism; after working all day we head to the Gwalior Fort at night to see the light and sound show. The Gwalior Fort is an 8th-century hill fort near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, central India. The fort consists of a defensive structure and two main palaces, Gurjari Mahal and Man Mandir, built by Man Singh Tomar. Its a beautiful massive fort, with a spectacular view over the rest of the city.

Getting to the Gwalior Fort proves to be quite an adventure:

We order an Uber which brings us a nano car from our hotel (this is a tiny smart car) for four full grown women. The fort is at the top of the city, and it takes us about half an hour to reach the top. Our car has a tough time getting up there because its an extremely steep road, and requires all the car’s horsepower. In addition, nearly the entire way up the mountain we are behind this slow, giant truck, about 20 ft tall, which is filled with provisions and people! There’s a small community that appears to be living inside, maybe 20-30 people, with some sitting on the ground “secured” netting made from ropes across the open back, and others who have climbed on top. According to Shaheen they are Sikhs, making a pilgrim to a Gwalior Sikhism temple. We try to stop by later but its already closed, so it’s something I’ll have to do next time in Gwalior.
Once we finally get to the top of the fort we are already late for the show. We showed up at the later time, for the English version, and as we walk through the gates of the fort, into this open area of ruins, it is desolate. There a flicker of light ahead, presumably from the show, which we are late for, and loud old music, and ahead, about 500 feet from the entrance we can see the outline of the thousands of year old palace.. All of sudden as we, four women, are walking, all the sounds and light end. Its pitch black and silent. It turns out the staff running the light show, realized that no one was there for the English version, and had shut it off. We get them to restart it. It’s a personal show at an Indian tourist site. That’s never going to happen again.

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The Gwalior Fort

 

Ok… Now I’m regretting taking out my laptop because I really want to nap.

 

Hi from New Delhi!

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Dubai views!

Hello friends, I’m back! with the blog. And I’m in India!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m over here for 2.5 months. I’m interning for the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, working on a research project that looks at health clinic outreach methods for TB patients; recruitment, testing, and treatment. I got here yesterday (May 29th), I left the day before (May 28th), and today (May 30th) was my first day. I haven’t seen much but heres so far:

India first impressions

1)      I arrived in India at 2:45 pm after 18 hours of travel which included a connection in Dubai, the most glorious airport I’ve ever stepped foot in (just been in a few). First of all, in Dubai you get the impression from just walking from your gate to the next gate that everyone around you is much, much wealthier than you. Everyone is carrying coach or Louis Vuitton handbags and one woman was wearing a leather dress. The airport clocks that liter every few hundred feet are rolex, and the entire airport seems to be made of glass. Also there’s a Pinkberry so it’s already better than any of the DC airports*. It was beautiful. Nicer than my house.

*I didn’t fact check if any of the DC airports have Pinkberry; sorry too jetlagged.  

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Dubai Geotag.
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starbucks in Dubai aiport.

 

 

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Rolex clocks in the Dubai Airport, nbd.

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Landing in Dubai!

 

2)      Back to India: it takes my bag about an hour and a half to be unloaded onto baggage claim which was a pretty stressful 30 minutes of waiting, fortunately there was nearly 200 people on my flight waiting as well.  The fact that it didn’t get lost in my brief 50 minute layover was a miracle. Also questioning, after many, tedious deliberations about my flights to India how we ended up picking a flight that left no time for delays. Luckily, everything is fine. But, the second I leave customs I’m thrown. I know I have a ride JPAL sent someone to pick me up, but where? The Indian airport is pretty big. I begin my journey as a clueless tourist taking a few laps and then decide to *~venture outside~* ****dramatic  music***** *~INTO INDIA*~~!!  After yet  another lap, I realize I am hopeless. There are tons of people outside and none of them are holding a giant blow up picture of my face, UMD basketball fan style. I find a payphone and able to call the contact I was given in case things didn’t work out. She informs me that my ride is in front of  gate 4. I am at gate four. I realize that I’m standing right in front of my ride, who I have walked pass already 4 times. He’s holding a sign. In about size 16, Arial font, it says NELLIE GOLD-PASTOR, JPAL.

3)      I’m staying at a hostel called Madpackers in Delhi, it’s awesome. Its on the 3rd floor of an apartment building. There’s a rooftop, free breakfast (and REAL free breakfast) with chai coffee, and a puppy. There’s no sign in front that says it’s a hostel. Probably the scariest part of the trip for all those newly arriving to India is realizing that you have no idea where you are, and questioning if you’re being scammed, as your airport taxi driver (there are many horror stories of being scammed by Indian taxi drivers, who drive you to different states or tell you all hotels are booked) pulls over to an unmarked building and says “this is it!” My ride carries my backpack up the four flights of stairs, I’m wearing jeans and hiking boots in 100 degree weather, I let him.  

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Pre-trip feelings about the weather in India during monsoon season
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Monkeys on New Delhi Rooftops!
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roof top views! day
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The roof at night

4)      Today I had my first day of work. It’s raining in Delhi. I get picked up in an Auto – a motorcycle turned taxi aka the least protected vehicle on the planet. There are no seatbelts, or doors, so as your driver weaves around New Delhi traffic you have to clutch onto the metal bar that divides you and the driver so you don’t spin out of side of the auto. It’s kind of like a really, really basic Jeep. Probably the Jeep’s inspiration. Autos are the original adventure vehicle, life on the edge —by which I mean on the edge of death. I take an auto back home after work.

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Is there a hostel here??
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Inside my auto ride home

5)      New Delhi traffic reminds me of Indonesia. There are no rules. It also can take an hour to drive 3 kilometers. Cars weave around motorcycles, which weave around autos, which weave around people. 2 lane roads become 4 lane roads. My auto this afternoon literally turned into opposing traffic on a 4 lane highway (a four lane highway that has 2 lanes per direction) to change directions on a main road instead of driving the extra 100 ft to do a U-turn into the proper direction of traffic. Motorcycles drive on the sidewalk.  In a way, I feel safer, cars are less likely to hit me, they will just come extremely close to you and brush past you, like a person walking by. My auto was making a sharp turn, and it literally skimmed a guy, who was just standing on the side of the road’s backpack. Everyone seems to be weaving around the rain puddles.  Its monsoon season soon.

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bamboo holding Delhi construction

Stuck in Nadi airport

arrived safely in Fiji, but I have been trapped in the airport for already two hours (going strong) as a tropical storm has stopped the transfer of our luggage from the airplane. Hopefully it’ll let up soon cause I need to change my money before all the counters close (my program starts tomorrow, and I’m transferred from the mainland to somewhere there are no atms). There’s got to be at least 150 people waiting in here so even when the storm ends we’ll be trapped for at least an extra hour and a half. They just made an announcement that families with kids can leave the baggage claim and will be allowed to renter when the storm passes. Meanwhile I will stay here stuck to the ground (it’s really hot). I think this means the storms going to be a while. 

The island of Cagalai, where I’m going tomorrow is teeny. In the Lonely Planet Fiji Guide Book it has only half a page, one column description. Apparently you can walk around the island in 15 minutes so I think running as a form of exercise may not work out. You can barely see it on the map. Actually you can’t. 

This first image is a map of the Fiji Islands.  That’s Cagalai with the red dot. In the middle. But really unless it had been marked you wouldn’t see it.

Edit



This is a screenshot of Google maps. The big island on the right is Ovalau, which if you look on the main map is quite small compared to the main island of Viti Levu. Below it is the island Moturiki. That’s very small compared to Viti Levu. However, compared to Cagalai its massive. Actually this is quite zoomed out of Cagalai. Notice how in this map you can’t actually see the island of Cagalai. It’s cause I wanted to zoom out so you could see its orientation. 

Now here is a big zoom in. That land in the right hand corner is Moturiki. Still you can’t see Calagai. Either it’s tiny or Google maps just doesn’t have a image of it. I tried to zoom more so I could actually see the land mass but there’s nothing. Hmmm. 





It’s been 3 hours of waiting now. Funny enough the only water they sell in the duty free in this airport is Fiji Water. I wish they had A/C. At least if I was stuck in Brisbane I could have exchanged my money, and I wouldn’t be a pile of sweat.

I got s tablet so hopefully (for moms sake) this means I’ll be doing a lot more blogging. 

Xo nellie

Goodbye Australia

Flight into Fiji

Today I left Australia after five months of traveling and working here. I’m currently on a flight to Fiji, where I will be staying for two and a half months doing volunteer work and also traveling! For most of the time (2 months) I’ll be spending in Fiji I’ll be doing volunteer work on the island of Cagalai, which is apart of the Lomaiviti group of islands, east of the main island, Viti Levu. On Cagalai I’m participating in a volunteer program focused on marine conservation and cleaning the reef. In addition, the program involves community service work with the island community. Afterwards, I plan to travel around a few of the islands of Fiji for about two and a half weeks before heading to New Zealand for probably 4 weeks or so. If you have any Fiji or New Zealand travel tips please send a message! Also, to my friends at university feel free to join me as a travel buddy, since I plan to head to New Zealand at the end of May and stay through early June! 😉 😉 😉
This past week my father came to visit me while in transit from Mauritius (where he has been working for the past 6 months) to Tanzania where he will be now working for the next two weeks. This was a lovely surprise, as a month ago the idea was that I wouldn’t be seeing any of my family for the entire 11 months I am spending abroad. We spent a week together in Byron Bay, one of Australia’s most famous and quintessential chill, surf towns. Dad can be described as a surf fanatic so I thought this would be the perfect place to meet up. In addition, we both got to experience the culture that Australia is known world wide for– relaxed, hip, and young surf/beach bums. Unfortunately for me we didn’t do much “chilling”, instead the week was more of a surf-boot-camp. Hahaha. I’d say I’m still below average in my skills, but I can catch waves and stand up! Thanks Dad. Perfect timing, as now I can practice my skills in the famous surf of the Fiji islands. Above all, it was wonderful to see my father and get to spend some quality time during my gap year. Thanks for visiting dad, I’m going to miss you!
Leaving Australia is bittersweet. After spending 5 months here, I feel very comfortable and familiar with the country. I must admit, if I had more travel time and hadn’t already made plans, I would have loved to stay longer. Australia is beautiful, it’s huge, and everywhere you go, there is an awesome atmosphere. It’s a very young country, full of travelers and many free spirited people. It’s full of happy people, endless ocean views, funny animals, and good vibes. Hahaha. It’s true. Majority of the population lives on the coast. Actually almost none of the population is inland. Think about it, if everyone has maybe at most a two hour drive to the beach, can anyone really remain sour? Not when you have such gorgeous landscapes. However, it’s not only the ocean views hat are gorgeous. Australia has all kinds of beautiful terrain; desert, rainforest, farmland, mountains, beaches… Literally almost every kind, except for tundra… But I think Tasmania (it’s most southern, island state), comes somewhat close.
Before coming to Australia I pictured mostly beaches, tanned surfers, and a handful of people with strange accents wearing the Steve Irwin uniform of hiking boots and Safari style clothing with extra short shorts. While these stereotypes are indeed true, I’ve been surprised how diverse the country and its people are. Traveling Australia is an adventure. There’s so much beauty, and strange uniqueness to the country that from the outside you’ll never have heard of.
Did you know Tree Kangaroos exist? Did you know that in the Northern Territory people are allowed to have pet baby crocodiles (only when they are babies though)? Do you know what a Jolly Swagman is? Did you know that Australian outback drivers have “roo bars” on the front of their car because there are so many kangaroos getting accidentally run over on the road? Did you know that across the Australian outback there is the longest fence in the world to stop Dingos (wild dogs) from entering South Australia? Did you know it’s so tropical up in northern Queensland people sometimes risk getting Dengue Fever? Did you know that in Western Australia people have a high risk of getting eaten by a great white shark every time they go to the beach? (Ok that last one was partially false but there’s been an incredible amount of great white shark attacks in WA in recent years… Although Australians will always tell you a that the probability of dying in car is much, much higher… That is also true.) Did you know that in this past month in Byron Bay, where my dad and I spent the last week surfing, there have been 3 deaths by great white shark and bull shark attacks? (No risk no fun!) Did you know that you can get served a beer on a flight at 9:30 a.m. in Australia but you can’t (this is a law in Australia, but is not widely followed) stay at s club past 2:30 a.m.? (Ok so I’m not sure if this is common in flights in general, but I found this very surprising when the dude next to me got a beer with his in flight meal.) (But you can have open alcoholic beverages in the car, as long as the driver isn’t drinking… Now that’s weird.) Did you know that The Great Barrier Reef, one the world’s largest and most diverse marine systems in the world stretches for about 2,000 kilometers? Did you know Australia is this country most filled with animal, plant, or insect species that can potentially kill you? Did you know that on the beaches in northern New South Wales and Queensland the sand squeaks as you walk because there’s such a (natural) high content of Silicon? Did you know that the Whitsunday Islands has been rated as one of the most beautiful, you-must-go-before-you-die, places in the world? Did you know that off the coast of Queensland there is Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island? Did you know that on the southern coast of Victoria, near Melbourne, you can see penguins? Did you know that in Australia more deaths are caused every year by emus than crocodiles ? DOUBLE CHECK
It’s a crazy place. I totally recommend visiting. Australia is an awesome place for young travelers, but really people of all kind. The hostel culture is huge, and you can find backpacker accommodation as well as backpacker friendly services all across the country. The best way I’d say to travel is by land. You can take greyhound or premier buses basically all the way around the country, and if your changing regions, there are relatively cheep flights. Go visit national parks, all the small towns, countryside and beach side. The coolest things in Australia are natural– Ayer Rock, Kings Canyon, Great Ocean Road, the Blue Mountains, the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, the Atherton Tablelands, the Whitsunday Islands, Fraser Island, and the many small, insignificant, but beautiful little rivers, creeks, and lakes that you can find all over. This also includes the wildlife. Australia has an amazingly unique wildlife population, with so many animals that you will never find anywhere in the world. And really, if you try, you can see them. I’ve seen wild kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and emus in my time here. I could have probably see a wild crocodile, as I was living in tropical Queensland where they basically run the place, but I wasn’t too keen, as I was already keeping a nervous eye out whenever doing almost anything (during the wet swank it seems that almost anything –bushes, that muddy area that follows my running path, the park, the road to town– can become inhabited by a curious salt water croc). As for the developed side, cities and buildings… Things like that… I don’t think it worth so much attention. Yea, Sydney’s a cool city and has landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, The Harbour Bridge, and Bondi Beach… And Melbourne’s also quite cool wi artsy/hipster districts such as St.Kilda and things like that… But they aren’t the things that put Australia on the map. Although Australia does have a rising arts culture, I’d say overall it won’t compete with those of famous european cities, or even of the U.S. What is unique and breathtaking about the country is the landscapes and animals. See both if you can, but definitely don’t fly across the world just to stay in Sydney for two weeks.
A cool thing to consider doing is going to the outback. I found the outback to be the most essentially Australian thing you can see. Really. I’ve never see something like that in my life. And I lived in Namibia which is literally a desert. But it’s really a funny way to experience hard core Australia. Everything else is “fluffy Australia”, the real Aussies are in the middle. However, maybe it’s not necessary to see the entire thing. A lot of people fly into Alice springs and spent a few days seeing Ayers Rock/Uluru, Kings Canyon and the surround areas. This is fine, but that’s already ‘out back light’, if you want a real challenging adventure, drive through it. Or if you’re up to it, bike it (Google Tour d’Afrique, it’ll be the craziest thing you ever do).
An important thing to remember as well if you plan to come here, is that Australia is HUGE. like really huge. Doing the east coast (as in not the whole east coast, only the north east coast –Sydney to Cairns– in 3 weeks is very tight. In 4 weeks it’s still quite tight. In 2.5 weeks it’s near damn impossible. In 2 weeks it’s actually not possible if oure going to stop in all those places you said you wanted to go. Going from Sydney to Melbourne is a 12 hour bus ride, or a flight. So no, you aren’t just going to pop in and out for 4 days. You should have at least a couple of months, because otherwise you’ll just feel as if you’re running against the clock you’re entire holiday. Most people I meet in Australia are here for a year, on the Work and Travel Visa. This is a visa that you can only get once in you life between the ages of 18 & 35. I’ve decided that I think this is the smartest way to travel Australia. First of all, Australia is wicked expensive. It’s more expensive than Europe and loads more than America. Only the Norwegians say that there’s not that much of a price difference between their country, but it’s still more expensive, and they are notorious for having a ridiculously high living cost. While you can usually find backpacker accommodation for around $25, food remains to be super expensive. I found it hard to spend less than $50 a week in food (this is grocery shopping, making all of your own meals), if you wanted to have a diet besides pasta and sauce (this unfortunately became my diet for the past 5 weeks… Never ordering pasta at a restaurant again). Despite the plentiful farm land and production of their own crops, Australia seems to find it okay to charge at least $4 p. Kilo for tomatoes, $5 for pesto sauce, $4 for a litre of Orange juice, $4 for a small block of cheddar cheese… And $4 for a 750 mL water bottle. You get the picture. The most common foods you’ll see backpackers eating if they haven’t yet reverted to a diet of bread and Nutella (many have… I didn’t do that thankfully) (actually Nutella is also quite expensive $5 a jar and considered highly valuable. By this I mean, it’s a good you do not trust to leave in the kitchen even if it’s in your private, marked food bag, cause chances are it’ll be stolen.), is pasta ($1), tomato concentrate ($1), carrots ($2 a kilo), and eggs ($3 for a dozen). Yumyumyumyumyum. If you want to eat out it’s generally about $20 a meal. Consistently. McDonald’s is also expensive… A BigMac, medium fries and a drink can be like $10. McFlurries are $5!!!! And they don’t even crush/mix the candy in. #ripoff. Also if you want extra sauces (like extra packets of ketchup) they charge extra. This is consistent with other types of fast food; at sushi stands they’ll charge you extra for ginger, wasabi, or soy sauce packets. Even if you bought like 4 things of sushi. One soy sauce packet per sushi or you pay extra. Yea, so basically everything’s a rip off.
If you’re planning on drinking alcohol things get a bit outrageous. In Australia there are very high taxes on alcohol, so you’ll find alcohol to be priced usually at double the cost of what you are usually accustomed of seeing. A $20 750mL bottle of hard liquor is $40 here, a six pack of any type of beer, local or imported, is $20. A bottle of wine is also $20. If you drink at a bar, you’re looking at at least $7 a beer, with escalating prices throughout the night. Cocktails can be $15. Most backpackers survive off of “goon” which is this “wine like” drink –its not formally wine, more of an alcoholic juice… I was told it’s made from the leftovers of wine? — that comes at $12 for 4 liters. According to Australians this is a drink that only 14 year olds and homeless people drink, not “real people”-his words. Really gross, jungle juice.
Besides food, transport is also expensive. If you use public subway system in Sydney you’ll probably spend about $15 a day, and if you’re looking to use bus as a form of long distance travel, while the greyhound and other bus services offer good package deals, like for example the north east coast hop-on-hop- off bus pass, it’s still, if you take the greyhound about $525 from Cairns to Sydney. The alternative East coast hop-on-hop-off bus is with the Premier Bus company, at only $200 a ticket. The difference is that the greyhound runs 3 times a day, and stops at 1770 (a town), while Premier only runs once a day, so if even if the bus leaves or drops off at 2 a.m. you’ve gotta take it. Also it doesn’t stop at 1770. But hey… For $300 saved I think it’s still worth it. (Remember, lots of time is key when traveling Australia).
So, with all of these costs, you’re still looking at the prices for doing all the cool tours, trips, and activities that you came to Australia to do. The average cost of some sort of day tour, whether it’s to go white water rafting, go to the Atherton Tablelands, or to go see the Great Ocean Road is about $100. Sometimes you can save money buy renting a car and driving to the Great Ocean Road yourself, but sometimes you’ll just have to do the tour. Of course there are also the essential experiences: the Great Barrier Reef- starting prices I believe are at about $160, but probably about $50-$100 more if you want to scuba dive, and depending on what boat you do; the Whitsunday Islands, usually a 3 day, 2 night tour starting around $350 but more commonly $400, however this includes all you’re food and activities on the boat during those days; Fraser Island, this is also 3d/2n and around $400 as well; skydiving (I didn’t do this) but that’s usually a starting price of $200, and can go up to $500 depending on how high you want to jump from. It adds up. Keep in mind these are all in Australian dollars, but all the same you need at least a handful of thousands when you pop over, excluding the cost flights. So, based on the size of Australia, all the time you need to travel, and the prices, as well at the likely urge to stop and chill when you get to some of these gorgeous places, I suggest a work and travel visa. Wages are very high, minimum wage is about $20, but often you find people working in basic jobs, even people working at petrol stations, earning $25 to $30 an hour. There are loads of jobs available here, usually the only obstacle travelers face in getting hired is that they may not want to commit to stay in a place for more than a month. But there’s always farm work :). Another idea is, at many hostels you can work for free accommodation (with commitment as little as 3 week stay) and you can also do WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) and stay for as little time as a week or two weeks doing maybe 4 hours of work a day for free food and accommodation. Also at lots of pubs they have contests where you can win free things (one of my friends won a $500 skydive with a limbo contest). The possibilities are endless. A common contest is beer pong tournaments so I think many of my Americans friends have an advantage.
So my advice is: come to Australia! It’s amazing. Bring money, have time, bring cute clothes (unfortunately backspaces here dress nicely and only look ‘chic homeless’, bring your drivers license (have a drivers license… Bad move on my part), don’t even for a minute consider shopping or eating out, don’t even think about buying avocados ($4 PER AVOCADO) (eat as many as possible before leaving home). You can come with a friend, or you can do it alone; there are so many solo travelers, and everyone is insanely friendly– both backpackers and Aussies. I’ve had so much fun here and have taken away loads of great memories.
Now off to Fiji.

Hello from Queensland! Stage 3: Wildlife Volunteer

Hello! Hi! Its a new chapter!

Its been a little while since my last blog… maybe about a month? The truth is, things have been crazy. Ok. Sorry. Since my last Ive done many things.

First of all, the bike tour ended. Yea, I did it! We all did it! Biked Sumatra to Sydney. Whaddup. Crazy. It seems all like a dream now. In my last post we visted Melbourne and where off with a less than a week of cycling until hitting Canberra and then just a couple of days into Sydney. It happened pretty fast. Moving from Melbourne to Canberra took no time at all, and then once we got to that rest day, suddenly I realized I couldn’t wait any longer to arrange my Sydney accomidations since I’d be there in THREE DAYS. It was a great, gorgeous ending to a long trip, and although I must admit I was extremely relieved to arrive to the finish line, I was sad to see the end of this crazy journey. The last ride of the trip involved two ferries, in classic Trans-Oceania-tour fashion, and I arrived with Henry and a couple other riders at the foot of the Sydney Opera House just in time to make the final group photos. Ending the trip as I started it, at the back! 😉 That night we had a farwell dinner where we watched a slideshow of the entire tour, received ‘roast’ prizes, and for the first time in two months I slept in MY OWN bed (I almost slept in a tent the entire Australia section, except for one night in Melbourne when I stayed in a hostel dorm, but you know what, that was a bunk bed… so…).

Looking back on the last few days of the tour, it feels like a different lifetime. After the trip ended I headed back down to Melbourne to soak up a bit more of the city and chill out during the Christmas holiday time, and then headed back up to Sydney for New Years and few days after before I flew up to Port Douglas to start my next program. The goal of the break was to take a vacation from my vacation so to be honest, although I spent quite a while in Australia’s most famous cities (9 days in Sydney), I didn’t do too much touring and in Sydney I definetely spent more time at the beach than at museums. In order to recover from biking for four consecutive months, I wanted to loaf around, and spent my time pretending to be a local– hanging out, sleeping late, and avoiding exercise (yea, not local behavior in Oz, this was more of a personal choice) . Melbourne and Sydney are awesome cities, but I think what I enjoyed the most about spending my time there was meeting other people. Hanging out with people a bit closer to my age, sharing about our travels, and enjoying about my newfound freedom, cause, hey I did just get out of a very structured schedule that involved hitting the sack everyday at nine pm (or else). The highlight of my stay was definetly watching the Sydney Harbour Bridge fireworks on New Years Eve from the botanical gardens—one of the best viewing points in the city. A large group of us from my hostel went together, lining up at 9:30 a.m. (people had actually started lining up the night before) to get into the gardens to snag patch of grass with 17,000 other people keen to see the fireworks and wait 16 hours to see ‘em. We only actually got into the gardens at 12:30 pm ( 1 hour of waiting in line for the gates to open, and then another 2 just moving with the line in). For the next 11.5 hours we simply awited around, chilling and picnicing until the ‘bridge show’ started at 6pm, with the epic 12 minute fireworks (all this waiting is for 12 minutes by the way) finale at midnight to ring in the new year. Although this was the earliest I’d ever woken up on a New Years Eve Day, and definetely the most stressed I’d ever been about a New Years Eve, it was a really awesome experience! Absolutely one of the most amazing fireworks displays I’ve ever seen! Even if there may have been some trees in the way (it is the botanic gardens)… Hmmm… To sum it up both Melbourne and Sydney where a lot of fun, I met some great people, and just hanging around these gorgeous cities I found myself thinking that I’d really like to find myself living back there one day.

Anyways, right now I’m sweating inside an internet café in Port Douglas, Queensland! I say sweating because its wicked hot and humid up here. It’s the wet season in one of the wettest part of Australia and it’s the summer time! 80-90 degrees everyday but feels hotter. And no, I’m not writing this to make you all in the USA feel jealous, I’m saying this so you aren’t! 😉 Today is my day off from working as a volunteer at the Wildlife Habitat. I’ll be here for 4 weeks, leaving on the 31st of Jan. The Wildlife Habitat is a wildlife immersion exhibit, focusing on conservation via its Wildlife rescue program — a zoo made up of rescued wildlife or hand raised animals that cannot be released into the wild. As a volunteer here we help out the keepers, learning and taking on some of their responsibilities involving caring for the animals, doing things like feeding or cleaning their habitats. I get to work close up with koalas, kangaroos, and all kinds of strange wildlife that’s native to Australia (hopefully will not be put in the crocs exhibit). At the moment there are 8 other volunteers here, one guy and 7 girls all between 18-20 years old & from Europe. So far its been hardwork for all of us, but also a lot of fun! I’m also just excited to be living here in Port Douglas for a while. Port Douglas is a gorgeous, tropical town, with stunning beaches and jungle. Its also your door to the Great Barrier Reef, so hopefully something I’ll be visiting on my next rest days provided theres good weather (its cyclone season). The only downside about the town is that its the wet season so this means random torriential downpours, you can’t swim in the rivers cause they have fresh water crocs, and you can’t swim in the ocean because its currently boxed jellyfish season (they can kill you) and they also have salt water crocs. But otherwise its awesome! Just gotta be careful when you’re going for long walks on the beach.. :/

 

I really want to post this blog since its been so long, so photos will follow

Southern Australia in Photos

“In honour of a bloody good dog” the Yogi Burger
seen on the streets of Melbourne
seen on the streets of Melbourne
Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, AND a former TDA client invited us to his home in Melbourne for a dinner party during our rest day there. This is him and my uncle Henry giving a small speech... it was a pretty exciting evening!
Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, AND a former TDA client invited us to his home in Melbourne for a dinner party during our rest day there. This is him and my uncle Henry giving a small speech… it was a pretty exciting evening!
Also seen on the streets of Melbourne
Also seen on the streets of Melbourne
Macca's --- the offical Australian name of the down under McDonalds!
Macca’s — the offical Australian name of the down under McDonalds!
TDA cyclists favourite activity… stopping at coffee shops on the way to lunch or camp for “second breakfast”, “first lunch”, “second lunch”, or “a snack”.
This poster should be the TDA cyclists motto.... we alone are supporting the small coffee shops in South Australia and Victoria's middle of no where lands
This poster should be the TDA cyclists motto…. we alone are supporting the small coffee shops in South Australia and Victoria’s middle of no where lands
Cool street art in downtown Melbourne
Cool street art in downtown Melbourne
Clever fast food shop name in the heart of downtown Melbourne
Clever fast food shop name in the heart of downtown Melbourne
more stunning views of the Great Ocean Road
more stunning views of the Great Ocean Road
the Great Ocean Road ft. my bike
the Great Ocean Road ft. my bike
On our way to Melbourne we passed through Torquay -- Australia's #1 surf town and the birth place of Rip Curl and Quick Silver surf brands... unfortunately their factory outlets were subpar but the town is still a pretty awesome place to visit
On our way to Melbourne we passed through Torquay — Australia’s #1 surf town and the birth place of Rip Curl and Quick Silver surf brands… unfortunately their factory outlets were subpar but the town is still a pretty awesome place to visit
The surf beach at Torquay
The surf beach at Torquay
Hosier Lane in downtown Melbourne
Hosier Lane in downtown Melbourne
two overly friendly kangaroos at our campsite! #thingsthatonlyhappeninaustralia
two overly friendly kangaroos at our campsite! #thingsthatonlyhappeninaustralia
seen on a hand drier
seen on a hand drier
this is basically what everyone else at our camp grounds look like.... hahaha or this is what WE look like... this not sure
this is basically what everyone else at our camp grounds look like…. hahaha or this is what WE look like… this not sure
The truth is even though Australians “speak english” I still can’t understand them.
Seen in a Australian newspaper
Seen in a Australian newspaper
Wine tasting in the hills of Adelaide
Wine tasting in the hills of Adelaide
Wine tasting on the route to Adelaide
Wine tasting on the route to Adelaide
Some South Australia personality... this is the wall at a pub/service station we stopped at one rainy morning
Some South Australia personality… this is the wall at a pub/service station we stopped at one rainy morning

 

 

Seen in Adelaide... as Australian as it gets
Seen in Adelaide… as Australian as it gets
biking the coast!!! The Great Ocean Road
biking the coast!!! The Great Ocean Road
The “london bridge” one of the awesome rock formations along the Great Ocean Road
“The Gorge” one of the rock formations along the Great Ocean Road
posing next to the famous “Twelve Apostles” on The Great Ocean Road
The twelve apostles!!!!!
The twelve apostles!!!!!

Coastal cycling

Cycling along the southern coast of Australia…. Compared to any previous experiences on this tour, it’s unfair. A sick joke.

12 Apostles posing... They wouldn't let us bring our bikes to the platform, so instead I only have my helmet.
12 Apostles posing… They wouldn’t let us bring our bikes to the platform, so instead I only have my helmet.

Where is the suffering? The hardship? It’s almost too easy. Almost. We still have to do climbing. And its not that I’m asking for some more suffering….
How can I describe the past two weeks? Picture a group of about forty cyclists, super fit, hardened from three previous months of dealing with insane climbs, deadly heat, long-winding-never-ending-roads, and uninhabitable living conditions, and they’ve finally hit civilization. Every 30-40 km, a coke stop. Not even an average coke stop, but small, cute towns with coffee shops and bakeries. It’s not even that hilly (most of the time). The worst things we face are the head winds coming off of the nearby shore, because we are cycling to beach. Life could be worse. Now Australia’s most gorgeous coast and countryside roads are being ridden by about forty cheery and definitely over-caffeinated cyclists.
You know Tour d’Afrique has hit town when there are bikes in front of every coffee shop or bakery in town, and inside you find stressed out baristas pulling out their hair, since their normally quiet shops are suddenly hit with a tidal wave of 15 coffee and cake orders at 3 pm on Tuesday.

Making our way from Port Augusta to Adelaide we cycled through the famous Adelaide wine valleys and even did some wine tastings on route. Riding through the lush countryside of South Australia and now Victoria, we are spoiled with visual stimulation to entertain our rides– trees on the horizon, grass, farm fields, look there are even other people on the road! Seeing kangaroos on the route has become a regular occurrence. Funny enough, I never saw a wild kangaroo in the barren outback. It was only once we entered the countryside of South Australia that I finally spotted the strange creature…
The other day, passing the town of Robe, (on my way to a coffee-shop coke stop) I actually have to stop my bike to avoid hitting a young kangaroo that decided to cross the road. In Adelaide we had our first koala bear sightings, when a mother holding her baby climbed up a tree in the middle of our campsite.

The past two days we cycled The Great Ocean Road, giving us some of the most spectacular view

The twelve apostles
The twelve apostles

s of the entire trip. The Great Ocean Road is an amazing ride along the Bass Strait Beaches and one of Australia’s most famous tourist routes. It hovers above some of Australia’s best surfing beaches and flows along the coast with the crazy views of limestone rock formations, including the famous Twelve Apostles.

So far, this section from Adelaide to Melbourne has been nothing short of amazing. Riding along the southern coast of Australia we have the opportunity to explore some of the country’s most adorable beach towns, and every cute country town between. Not only have we got to watch the gorgeous cut of the Southern Ocean and the Bass Strait, but we get to see the lovely and tranquil country hills, as well as pockets of rainforest that still seem to pop up from time to time.
Since the city of Adelaide, which seemed to be a blend of city and beach town, we’ve had rest days in Port Fairy and Apollo Bay, two lovely beach towns famous for surf and stunning views. Now in two days we’ll be resting again in the renown city of Melbourne.
As I said, things could be worse.

Out of the Outback

Finally we have biked the Australian Outback! As of yesterday morning, following an breezy and victorious 60 km from our last bush campsite in the outback, we reached the Southern Ocean, establishing that after a tough month of cycling we have crossed the entire continent of Australia! On the Stuart Highway, the exact distance from Darwin (where we started) to Port Augusta is 2,722 kilometres. Its been a long journey. Residing by and simply seeing a body of water (a real one, not a mirage or a salt lake!) for the first time in 30 days is unreal.

Arriving in Port Augusta.
Arriving in Port Augusta.

This past stretch of riding I found to be the hardest stretch of riding days through the outback. Leaving Cooper Peddy, all aware of there only being 5 riding days until we hit civilization, there was a strange anxious feeling throughout the group that stayed, dragging on each day. Almost there, almost there seemed to be the motto echoing in the back of everyones heads. No longer were we enthralled by campsites with cold swimming pools, or funky pubs with cold beers, the feeling was clear- we are fed up with the outback. A couple of riders even went ahead for the full week, and then on the last night only half of the riders remained for the final bush camp, as the other half decided to combine the last two stages of riding, since the last day would only be a short 60 km (this made the last two easy days into one challenging 180 km day. However, as far as I know, they all made it alive).

The Stuart Highway
The Stuart Highway
cycling on a salt lake! Wheres the water in the outback?
cycling on a salt lake! Wheres the water in the outback?

However, although I paint a picture of sour faces and unhappy riders, planning almost biblical revolts against the TDA staff– I found the feelings of this week pretty similar to the story of the jews wandering the desert for 40 years, and getting crazy frustrated with waiting just as they reach the holy land of Caanan– at the same time, these anxious and frustrated feelings were matched with equal surreal emotions of excitement and accomplishment.

Outback Roads.. Outback Landscape
Outback Roads.. Outback Landscape
taking a break on the Stuart Highway... May have been a bit disheartened that day..
taking a break on the Stuart Highway… May have been a bit disheartened that day..

Shockingly, we did survive the Australian Outback. I remember in Darwin, I got my pre-outback-hair-cut in a small barber shop by an old woman who lived about 200 km outside the city in a place where “you can’t even get cell service” (this was quite daunting news at the time…although apparently its the norm throughout the Australian outback). She was quite worried I told her what I was planned to do, and in the end seemed to believe that this would likely be my last haircut. Worse, as a “fake staff member” I got to witness the nervous chatter of the staff questioning “will we be carrying enough water?” “what’s our back up plan?”. Yet, despite worries of endless landscapes without civilization (true), scary and dangerous road trains (true too), and venomous snakes (no snake attacks yet!) we survived, and after a while, it even became easy!

Arriving in Port Augusta! Bye Outback!
Arriving in Port Augusta! Bye Outback!
Bush camp sunsets
Bush camp sunsets

Thinking back on the countless hours we spent cruising down the Stuart Highway, sweltering in the unreal outback heat or fighting in the vicious outback winds, its unbelievable that so quickly a month has passed, and that we have traveled such a huge distance. I don’t think ever in my life I’ll need to step foot again in the Australian outback… or at least not on a bike. However, I am quite happy that I did get the chance to do this with TDA. For one thing, I feel like we’ve intimately gotten to know each town, rest stop, and kilometer of the highway along this infamous route. Secondly, there are many special quirks to the Australian Outback that you can only witness when you are moving as slow as 20 km/hr down the Stuart Highway. In the northern part the highway was lined with huge and numerous termite mounds, which, people had taken to decorating– tons of termite mounds wearing t-shirts, some with sunglasses and some with hats! Similarly, there are all these road signs graffitied with random jokes, literally 300 km away from any type of life (my favourite was a “french onion” DIP sign in the middle of no where). Sometimes you’d be riding, a bit bored, and then all of sudden, there’d be something like a tree decorated with car wheels. Outback art! Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures of these things… they’ll just have to be committed to my memory (I was too lazy to stop the bike… I know, I know). And of course, traversing the entire Australian Outback, in the middle of late spring, early summer, is absolutely crazy, and never been done before by a group of cyclists (though there have been a handful of solos). So, now I’m officially a badass. In the words of Doug, the bike mechanic, “YOLO.” and now its time for the beaches.

Outback pubs!
Outback pubs!
Road trains can be pretty big
Road trains can be pretty big
truer words may have never been spoken
truer words may have never been spoken
Outback Humor
Outback Humor
outback jokes
outback jokes
Outback pubs!
Outback pubs!
funny signs on the highway... yea there is cow roadkill
funny signs on the highway… yea there is cow roadkill
this was a sign at our bush camp...
this was a sign at our bush camp…

Who said Australia was cool?

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Australia the initial images that come to mind are tanned surfer dudes, long sandy beaches, and epic ocean. These are things that I find pretty cool (I’m a beach lover so you may or may not relate to this definition of cool).These impressions I blame on my childhood education of the world by surf movies and magazines (Endless Summer, anyone?) by my surf-obessed father. At the same time, these are also the experiences expressed by majority of Australians to the rest of the world, since, most of the aussie population does live along one of those cool beaches. Yet, majority of Australia is actually quite different from these ideas, as most of it is desolate land, like the outback. Not necessarily my definition of “cool”

Quite literally, the Australian outback is far from being cool as it is incredibly, jaw-droppingly, hot. Yesterday, as we rolled into the town of Cooper Peddy for our rest day, it was 51 degrees Celsius in the sun (about 124 degrees to Americans), and 41 degrees in the shade (108). I know I may sound like a broken record, but that’s damn hot. Its damn hot. This may be one of the only places in the world where you would describe an overcast day as “gorgeous weather”.

Entering South Australia!
Entering South Australia!

Cooper Peddy is our last rest day in the outback, and in typical outback fashion it is a tiny town that appears to have nothing much to do. In a way, this is a bit unfair of a statement as it is a mining town, and therefore, everything to do (mining tours) is underground! Cooper Peddy is the opal mining capital of the world, accounting for about 60% of the world’s opal yield. (Interestingly, the name Cooper Peddy comes from the aboriginal term “Kupa-piti” which means “white mans hole”) Despite this, it is a pretty desolate place with a population of under 2,000 people, and I think it would be fair to say, besides tour a mine or shop for some opals, theres pretty much nothing here. However, it does remain a notable place since it is the last (or first) town across the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory, and because it’s a place where majority of the residents live underground (because, let me note, it is so freaking hot).

Cooper Peddy, an underground town!
Cooper Peddy, an underground town!

This entire week we have been in the middle of no where— referred to by australians as “never, never land”. For 706 km since Alice Springs we biked the most desolate roads I’ve experienced in my life. Its been some pretty bleak and unchanging landscapes where the roads seems to remain the same, and the only notion of movement forward comes from the road signs that remind you every 10km that you’ve only cycled 10km since your conscious was last revived… In those 706km we only came across 3 roadhouses, which meant that for two out of the four nights on the road we bush-camped along the highway.

road trains at our bush camp!
road trains at our bush camp!
bush camping along the highway
bush camping along the highway

Despite the negative connotations we all link to bush camping, and the dread that preluded our arrival, it wasn’t all that bad (or as least compared to bush camping in Africa… luckily we have riders who’ve gone on Tour d’Afrique so they can remind us all to toughen our skin whenever someone decides to complain about Australia… not a sarcastic statement). We had Mark our 5-star chef with us, and one of the riders, Gerald, even bought a projector so we could watch movies. We couldn’t shower, and there was no pool, but otherwise it was a pretty cool way to experience the desolation of the outback. Not that doesn’t happen often during the day when you cycle 80 km without seeing a single living organism (me on slow days)… (lots of dead road-killed kangaroos to keep me company though).
As you may be able to imagine, after five days of barely seeing civilization, arriving in a town like Cooper Peddy is quite stimulating. And, anyways, after five days of especially tough riding (this past week winds at the speeds of 125 km/hr came through Cooper Peddy… we didn’t experience them, but we did have quite a tough time with head winds), it is quite nice to arrive somewhere where the only activities you are expected to pursue are eat-sleep-pool. In a way its been quite nice to chill out in these small towns, where there is clearly nothing too “cool” to do. However, at the same time, its only five days until we finally, finally, finally hit the coast. Woo. At least it’ll be cooler.

The last (or first) pub in the Northern Territory
The last (or first) pub in the Northern Territory