May 28, 2015

Hello Timor-Leste!

We had made it to Timor-Leste, currently the 5th youngest sovereign state on our blue planet. May 20th was Independence Day (technically 'Reclamation of Independence Day') and patriotic fervor was full on.

Celebrating the reclamation of independence with a Timor-Leste screamcore concert

We hitched a ride in the back of this truck returning from a Sunday afternoon party

In the midst of the celebratory revving of motorbike engines and waving of flags of this recently post-revolutionary republic I feel that the true challenge and endeavor of our adventure has just begun. Henceforth our travels will be negotiated through a myriad of local means:

The mikrolet: transport method of choice in Timore-Leste (photo by Wikimedia)

As I cling to the side of a mikrolet rushing through the streets of Dili I am fondly reminded of the chicken buses of Guatemala, where I got my first taste of what it is like to travel across country without schedules, prebooked tickets, or claim to personal space. Occasionally without even any road remaining where the map said there would be one.

Sitting in the back of the bus, designated 'malae' (foreigner) space

Police checkpoints have been set up to catch a group of political rabble-rousers

Just as the world has birthed new nations and fewer colonies, so has the nature of international travel changed through the past century. Needless to say, the meteoric rise of air travel has shrunk the world across many dimensions. This and other forces have been working to alter the landscape of international transportation. Gone are the days when one could pop down to the harbour and bargain for passage on the next cargo ship leaving port as Robert Fulton Jr. did several times during his historic motorcycle circumnavigation. In Darwin we managed to find the office of ANL Container Lines, formerly Toll Group, formerly Perkins International Shipping, the only direct cargo service between Darwin Australia, and Dili, Timor-Leste. All of the overland travel forums and blogs I had research pointed to Perkins as the best (or only) means of crossing the Timor Sea and I had tracked the organization down through multiple mergers, acquisitions, and transfers orchestrated by multinational logistics conglomerates. I had been on the phone with the ANL corporate office and unable to get any usable information other than a flat denial that it would be possible to arrange passage. Obviously I was not about to give up that easily.

Perkins ANL Express: the only cargo service connecting Darwin to Dili

The good folks at Darwin’s ANL office, were nice enough to let us inside and explain that they literally had no say in the matter since the vessels that actually make the trip are all chartered from a 3rd party company based in the Mediterranean with all of its own unionized merchant marine crew. Thus the globalization of the shipping industry had cut off our best hope of an overland crossing. Even on other shipping routes the few berths to be found for travel on board cargo ships are booked through designated travel agents pandering to the now-moneyed baby boomer generation looking to relive the golden age of the hippie trail and the pilgrimages to India that were a staple of 1960's popular counterculture.

Just as capitalist forces have shifted the shipping industry, geopolitics have have shifted the ability of citizens from various countries to move across the face of the earth. The hippie trail itself winds though vast continental swathes that have been ravaged by war after war in the ensuing 50 years (Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria). The information revolution also means that people have been increasingly exposed to preconceived notions about others based on the political history of US foreign policy as filtered through their own national media lens and political outlook. A visit to Iran (through which the hippie trail once freely ran) has come highly recommended from those I've met along our journey, however the ability of US citizens to enter Iran is highly restricted due to the political relationship between our two countries. In fact, the majority of countries that will traverse during this challenge have passed through intense conflict in which US foreign policy played a pivotal role. Fortunately, peace has largely returned to these parts, as has goodwill to US-born travelers like myself.

 The beaches of Dili turn into a multitude of football pitches before dusk

All the way the lands I travel through have moved on contrast themselves against the many things that have not changed. As my bus winds through the mountains and speeds through the plains of Timor-Leste we flash past grass huts and rice patties where the basic components of human survival have changed little in the past 1,000 years.

Locals prospect for shellfish at low tide

 Chillin’ in the hut

Farmers spend their days planting and harvesting their crops and their nights slumbering under a construct of their own two hands, notwithstanding the ephemeral faint glow of a new text message finding its way inside.

Landing on Jaco Island, the destination of the weekend’s journey

 A vista from the island showed thunderclouds looming the a south (left) and clear skies to the north

 The jagged crushed coral beach crunched beneath my feet, composed of the skeltons of animals who lived hundreds of years ago

 A freshly fished barracuda to cap off the day!

May 19, 2015

Goodbye Australia...

We have officially left Australia and entered into the much more unknown areas of our journey.

Our last city in Australia, Darwin, was coincidentally my least favorite, so it made the separation a bit easier. What made it much harder was the fact that, yet again, we did not find a boat.

The lack of boat from Oz to Timor-Leste was much less of a roller coaster emotionally for me, but rather just a steady decline into a depressed acceptance. We started out with the name of a (the) shipping company that ran between Darwin and Dili, blogs of previous travelers doing the same no-flying thing named this shipping company as 1) the only shipping company that runs this route, and 2) pretty much our only hope in making it to Timor-Leste. After researching that we discovered that the shipping company has been bought and sold twice and no longer accepts passengers.

Next we tried contacting the main yacht club up there in Darwin and were informed that, although there is a race called the "Darwin to Dili Yacht Race," that will not take place until July and the season for yachters (is that a word?) pretty much begins with that race.

All this happened while we were still in our early Australian days, and over a month away from Darwin itself. Unlike New Zealand which is so small it was almost as though everyone in the whole country knew what was going on by the ports and had some idea about advice to give us, all the Australians we talked with along the way had no idea about the likelihood or knew anyone in Darwin. We decided to pin all our hopes on getting to Darwin, meeting people in person, and persuading them with our winning smiles. Needless to say, hope was dwindling quickly and irreversibly.

We did end up inside the office of the shipping company and the 2 yacht clubs there, trying out our winning smiles. The shipping company, at least, seemed legitimately sad that they couldn't help us, but legally they cannot take passengers and their crew is hired by a third party in some obscure country like Croatia or something. No offence to Croatia, you're not obscure in general, just in this specific case it was weird for a crew passing between Australia and Timor-Leste to be taken care of in a country half a world away.

It was with a sad heart, therefore, that I booked our plane tickets to Dili. But without a backward look we boarded the pre-dawn flight and stepped off in another world.

Walking from the airport to our hostel.

3 things that make it easier, emotionally:

1) Australia is really big, and we made it across that without flying, even though everyone's advice on how to get from point a to b was always, "oh, it's just a quick, really cheap flight." I mean, our last train ride was 3 days long. I have to keep reminding myself that just because there wasn't water involved doesn't mean that the land we've covered is insignificant.

2) We have timed our trip to hit the height of the dry season in Indonesia and beyond. With so many islands to hop between, delaying months in NZ or Oz was neither affordable nor prudent. Hitting the wrong seasons around Australia may feel like we came at a bad time, but I can remind myself that we'll be hitting the right seasons later.

3) We've heard of and talked to multiple people who have hit a snag at this part of an attempted no-flying journey. The owner of the hostel we're staying at now it Dili was on an overland journey to Australia. He applied here for his Australian working visa, but before he could make it out of Timor-Leste, the 1 year expiration date passed. He is now married to a local woman and living here in Dili. A couple had an ad up, very similar to ours, in the yacht club in Darwin asking for passage this way. Their ad had been put up in February and not a single tear-off "take our contact info" strip at the bottom was gone. We did hear about 1 couple who made it over here, apparently a guy with a yacht makes semi-regular trips between here and Darwin and charges $400/pp to bring you along. The couple's experience is documented on their blog with the title "Trauma" and advising people to fly rather than subject themselves to this crotchety old man's verbally abusive companionship for 5 days.

And now that I've gotten myself out of the rut of disappointment with those reminiscences, lets say goodbye to Australia with some pictures!!

A very long train for a very long train ride.

Sleeping on the train, a glamorous pastime.

To distract from a whole lot of nothing.

Really... a lot.

With one pretty stop along the way.

Arrived in Darwin, where our new screen was shipped. Success, Nick fixed it!

Got to see some crocodiles :)

Not quite as up close and personal with the big ones as some people got...

But we got to hold a little baby! Soo cute (and surprisingly soft.)

And even feed a couple!

Had some fun imitating our tea cups.

Our hostel had hermit crab racing...

...people got pretty into it.

Every sunset we were serenaded by masses of parrots. Yes, those are all parrots!

Well, goodbye, Australia.

May 8, 2015

Brisbane -> Adelaide, Part the Last


Keeping with our pattern of having hosts very often in Australia, (upon leaving Adelaide we’d only stayed in backpackers/hotels 8 days out of 41), we had a place to stay here as well. Nick's ex coworker's ex tennis coach moved to Australia 2 years ago and he very kindly allowed us to stay with him, sight unseen! He and his wife live in a lovely area just outside the city, and they have an adorable 3 year old who I mentioned briefly a few posts ago (the boy who loves to draw "big busses"). They were unceasingly accommodating and staying with them was wonderful. We are so blown away, they hadn't even met us before!

Upon arriving in Adelaide our mindset was pretty much: "yeah, there's a city, sure. No idea what's in it, but it's surrounded by wine country! We arrived on a Sunday evening after being on a train since sunrise. It's always shocking to me how exhausting it is to sit all day, especially while traveling. All day on a train, bus, plane, or in a car and I always just want to go to bed. After a phenomenal meal prepared by our hosts, we did just that.

The next day when we woke up we realized that with 2 days until our car rental started we had no idea what we wanted to do. Robin and Manoj said they were headed to a famous nearby German village, a very popular tourist spot they hadn't seen yet, if we wanted to join them. With hopes of strawberry picking and handmade German bric-a-brac we piled into the car.

We were not disappointed.

He was very proud of picking good strawberries.

The best bric-a-brac places had a no photos policy. So you'll have to just trust me, they were awesome.

The strawberries became a delicious (if I do say so myself) strawberry shortcake that Nick and I prepared in thanks.

The next day (only 1 day to rental car wine tasting bliss) we went into the city to something called "The Wine Center". It had a nice wine museum there where you could listen to recordings of wine makers talking about processes, make your own virtual wine, and read about all the myriad types of wine grapes.

Looking at very old vines.

A giant phylloxora. (The pest which wiped out nearly all the French vines in the 1800s)

They also had an info center with brochures and maps of all the surrounding wine regions which we needed to choose from. Lastly there was a tasting room where we could buy small tastes of many different wines, helping us narrow down the 3 regions we wanted to experience with our car. The winners: McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, and Barossa.

The rest of the day we spent in the Botanic Gardens, relaxing and having a cup of tea on a rooftop, giving us a great view of a guy climbing the parking garage across the street.

Yes, climbing up the outside onto the roof.

In our car the next day it was my turn to drive, so I had to spit out the wine tastes. It's surprising how much this actually doesn't detract from the experience for me. I still get to try heaps of great wines, hear about how they're made and what makes this one unique, etc.

Wine country!

McLaren Vale region.

3 days of tasting. It was great, but by the third day I was pretty done with it. I think 3 days was a perfect amount, and turning in our car and spending the next couple days back in the city was not sad.

I don't actually have much to say about Adelaide city. It was fine, it was another city, but it didn't strike me as having much unique character to set it apart from the other cities in Australia. I had a great time there, but it didn't stand out for me so much as a tourist.
The Botanic Gardens are beautiful and relaxing.

The 3 day train journey after Adelaide does stand out.

Lots of nothing...

That was a looong time on a train, but it was great, and now we're in Darwin.

May 6, 2015

Adelaide -> Brisbane: Part 4

Sorry for the delay, we had some technical difficulties getting the laptop onto wifi. Mostly these difficulties were that we were on a train for 3 days straight and there was no wifi available. Foreshadowing for certain Southeast Asian countries, I'm sure.

Melbourne :)

I think Melbourne has been my favorite city so far. Sydney struck me as the most NYC-like city we've been to so far (and probably the most NYC-like city we'll see for a while yet,) but I think Melbourne was the most enjoyable.

It's the city where we found the perfect wedding gift for a bride Nick hadn't seen in over 13 years and a groom neither of us had met. It's the city where we found a hidden cocktail bar where they had liquid nitrogen on tap. It's the city where we stayed with a lovely family and the sweetest little 6 year old girl. And it's the city where the alleyways are fun filled and quaint instead of creepy.

Arriving in Melbourne before we had to leave on the train for the wedding, our top priority was buying the wedding gift. Nick and Jacqui had been pen pals for many years after meeting as exchange students in Japan, so I suggested a nice set of cute stationary. I figured even if she didn't like it at least they'd get to use it soon with all the post-wedding notes they'll probably be sending. Nick found an area on the map that had a few stationary shops and we headed over that way. As we were approaching the area we passed by a cafe and inside I saw a young gentleman with a handlebar mustache and a fedora. I knew we were in a great area for a quaint stationary shop. Indeed, the shop was a treasure. They had a lot of fun mix and match stationary, but Nick stumbled on a table with wax stamp/seals. We ended up getting them these, a fancy T and a fancy J with a wax stick each. Jacqui and Troy said that it was a wonderful present and that they can't wait to use it on all the notes they'll be sending out after the wedding. Success :)

We had some great cocktails and food around the city. It's full of "laneways," which are basically alleyways but cars can drive through most of them, so they call them lanes. (You have to press yourself up to the side if a car is actually coming through, though, they're quite narrow.) All of the best stuff in the city is in some laneway or other, and it's so fun walking up to what looks like the entrance to a dark and creepy alleyway only to see 4 quaint looking restaurants and maybe some cool graffiti.

Graffiti covering one of the laneways.

Also these, they call them "arcades." Basically just elaborate shopping center entrances. 

Graffiti in progress!

One of these cool laneway treats was a hidden bar down a particularly deserted laneway. I could have sworn that we were in the wrong place, but google is all knowing and claimed this was the address. We wandered back and forth about 3 times looking for anything promising. About to give up and ask inside the nearby hotel (and maybe on the off chance that the bar was actually inside the hotel?) I saw a dark wooden door. It blended into the shadows and we hadn't seen it before. I gave it a tentative push and we knew we were in the right place.
400 whiskeys, their whiskey menu alone was a think bound book.

I saw the couple next to us order a concoction where the waitress came by and poured liquid nitrogen over the top and gave them spoons to crack through the creamy, now frozen top. They pointed on the menu which cocktail it was (the cocktail book was about 10 pages long,) and I asked them if it was good. Before they had answered me in the affirmative, I had already decided that I would order it.

They have this stuff on tap!

The city was a great time from start to finish. Nick and I basked in the Botanic Gardens while I read to him. We are most of the way through Sense and Sensibility now. Looking for new recommendations soon! (He won't let me read him Game of Thrones, I think he's afraid of undertaking something that will last longer than this trip :)

Nick having a great time.

Historical house in the gardens. People inside were dressed in period clothing (not exactly sure what period, 1800s?) but I thought it would be rude to photograph them if we weren't going to pay the admission fee.

We've been blessed in Australia. In Brisbane we met Sage, who let us stay with her in Sydney. In Sydney we met Shane, program director at Good Return, the Australian World Education office, and he let us stay with him in Melbourne. He even picked us up at the subway station by his house. He has a beautiful and sweet 6 year old daughter who gave us the tour of the house when we arrived. Lots of emphasis on games and craft supplies, but I had to remind her to show us where the bathroom was :) She was the embodiment of generosity, telling us that we didn't have to be quiet when everyone else was sleeping if we really wanted to play their piano, or that we really didn't have to wash our own dishes because her parents would do that for us. I gave Shane a smile to know that I was taking her declarations with a grain of salt.

Jacqui and Troy offered to let us stay with them, closer to the central train station, on our last night there. Understandably, they weren't feeling up to having house guests for a week just after getting married. Their honeymoon isn't going to be for a few months, though, so we were able to see them and spend one evening with them, which was fantastic. We had a fantastic night, and learned an indispensable card game from them. On our train the next day we played enough to fill a double page of my notebook with numbers and winners. I know love isn't supposed to keep score, but...

Nick's winning.

Leaving Melbourne was difficult, not only because we enjoyed our stay so much, but also because we had to wake up before 6 AM to catch our train.
I actually completely forgot we took this video.

Stay tuned for next time: our train trip to Adelaide and lots of South Australia wine tasting!

May 1, 2015

Brisbane -> Adelaide: Part 3

I have decided that the wedding we attended deserves it's own post, so we'll be stretching Brisbane -> Adelaide into 5 parts :)


From Sydney to Melbourne we elected to take the train. The ride was about 11 hours, and we chose to do the evening train to double up on the cost by saving another night's lodging. It was not a comfortable ride, but no less comfortable than sleeping in a reclined seat in a car, which we'd just done twice.

We had a few hours in Melbourne before we took the train (just a couple hours this time) to Bendigo in preparation for the WEDDING! We wandered a bit, and saw some cool things that we made note of to check out when we got back to Melbourne in a few days.

Walking from the train station to our backpackers in Bendigo was the coldest we'd been since leaving Utah, but we know that we'll only have to deal with cold for about 2 weeks, because soon we'll be in Darwin, Australia and then Southeast Asia. I told Nick that we should relish the feeling of being able to be cold because it's not going to be an option for months as soon as we leave Adelaide.

We woke up the next morning and put on our nice wedding clothes, and feeling slightly incongruous with our backpacks on. The yard behind the wedding venue (the groom's parents' home) was set aside for campers. Jacqui and Troy had (in addition to everything they needed to do for their wedding!) offered us a tent and sleeping bags, even set it up for us before we arrived. Their generosity was so above and beyond, and we were so grateful to be able to camp there after all the fun.

I met Troy when we arrived, but when Jacqui came walking down the aisle in all her bridal beauty, it was the first time I had ever even seen her outside of video chatting.

The flower girl (dried leaf throwing) and three little gentlemen delighted us, throwing dried leaves. 

The ring bearer was the couple's adorable dog who performed his duty admirably. 

It was such a beautiful wedding and I feel so blessed to have been able to be there and celebrate with them. I met Jacqui briefly at the reception after, and she even mentioned our charity drive in her bride speech. I was blown away by everything about this couple and hoped even more fervently that the gift we had gotten them would please them.

A ukulele performance by a groomsman.

Husband and wife.

The reception had games, food, wine, and many good people (as well as a good dog). Nick and I entered a game of croquet, simultaneously learning the rules of croquet. It turns out, though, that if you set up the court (is it called a court?) on a hilly area that it can be almost impossible, so we ended up calling a winner after a while of struggling to complete the game.

The rest of the night was spent dancing and meeting new people, and only having to go 100 meters away to our tent to sleep was fantastic. I think camping weddings should catch on, it's fantastic. The next day when we awoke, I was able to actually meet Jacqui and Troy properly, and we chatted over some breakfast sausages and coffee. They offered to drive us back to the backpackers in the town, and advised us strongly against hitchhiking back to Melbourne the next day.

Just before we left, I mentioned that we'd been in Australia for almost a month and had yet to see any kangaroos (that weren't on our plate).

They said the field next to the house got them quite often, so we went around the porch for a look. There weren't any at the moment, and we were about to turn around and head out, when a group of probably about 30 of them came into view. Hopping across the field, we saw our first kangaroos!!

 Stay tuned for tomorrow's episode: Melbourne, the land of hidden bars!