Visiting the Shire

July 7, 2018
by Dan

Confession time: We knew nothing about New Zealand before coming here. I knew that the accent was adorable from Flight of the Conchords, and we knew that Lord of the Rings was filmed here, so supposedly it’s a rather pretty place. But exactly what that meant we had no clue. As a result, the only thing that we knew we wanted to do was visit “the Lord of the Rings place in New Zealand”.

The LOTR place in NZ is the set used for filming the Shire. Other parts of the country were also used in the filming, and for good reason. I never imagined that the landscapes of Middle Earth described in the books could be real, but New Zealand fits the bill. Hobbiton is the LOTR movie set that you can tour. For the filming of the Lord of the Rings, Hobbiton was a temporary set, but people were still visiting the ruins. So when it was time to film The Hobbit, they decided to build the set using permanent materials and make it into a proper tourist destination.

To get there we hopped on a bus from Rotorua to the small town of Matamata. The sheep farm that houses Hobbiton is just outside of Matamata, and it’s a pleasant sleepy little town which is famous mostly because of the movies, but secondarily for its race horses.

We stayed at Matamata Backpackers. It’s a lively hostel with lots of folks that seem to be working at Hobbiton or passing through for 1 or 2 nights to visit like us. The housing is just a bunch of trailers. It’s very basic by most standards and about three times more expensive than what we would expect for a hostel dorm (but it had a nice kitchen and the staff was very friendly). Your money doesn’t get you much in NZ. Case in point: our tickets to see Hobbiton cost about as much as the most expensive entry ticket to Machu Picchu or the three day pass at Angkor Wat. But it did come with a complimentary beer, so I guess that makes it much cheaper 🙂

The day we visited was very cold and rainy, but we had bought in advance so we were stuck. We’ve been so lucky so far with the weather at major tourist sites that we basically had this coming and it didn’t bother us too much. We were picked up by the Hobbiton tours bus at the Matamata i-site, which is set up in the style of a hobbit hole. Except it wasn’t a hobbit hole, it was a free standing building. So it is essentially like Buckland, just outside of the Shire.

The tour was quite adorable. The bus driver told us all about the farms and horse raising in the area and how eight locals got cast as extras in the LOTR movies. It had a very small town feeling and felt like the sort of thing you would find in Iowa. After about thirty minutes we arrived in the Shire and were introduced to our tour guide Theresa, or just Tee.

 

Luckily we were provided huge umbrellas to protect us from the rain, and it allowed us to take photos without getting the camera wet. But it was annoying to be herded around in a group full of these huge umbrellas. Luckily it didn’t rain the whole time.

I personally prefer exploring things at my own pace, so I wasn’t a fan of being required to join a tour group, but that’s the only way to see the set. However, Tee was delightful; she seemed to derive a great deal of glee from telling corny jokes and had fun facts to share, so I can’t complain too loudly.

We wound our way through the set, past a variety of hobbit holes, and up the hill to Bag End, with lots of photo ops along the way.

However, we didn’t find anyone home at Bag End. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised since Mr. Frodo headed across the sea to the Undying Lands with the elves.

My biggest take away was how detailed and expansive everything was. I was honestly expecting a row of hobbit hole facades that were used with some movie magic to make the place look like a village in the film. But really they did build a whole hobbit town in the side of the hill. They’ve got the party tree, the Green Dragon Inn, two neighborhoods of hobbit holes, and real gardens where they still grow actual crops as ‘props.’ It’s really impressive.

Then end of the tour terminated at the Green Dragon Inn. This was the one building on the lot that has a proper interior. It’s freaking amazing. It feels right out of the Hobbit (minus all the tall folk wearing strange garb). And you got to select a complementary drink!

There was a stout, a golden ale, a cider, a low/non alcoholic beer, and maybe something else. Visiting as a pair we got to try the ale and stout. The ale was a clear winner. I vowed that I wasn’t going to skimp on this experience, because I know I will never do it again so I ordered the cider as well. Through some wizardry I got the drink for free, which was awesome. Perhaps because most visitors don’t order two drinks within a thirty minute time span at 11:30 in the morning. Christina really liked the cider too, but I’m sticking with the golden ale as the best draught at the Green Dragon.

Back at the hostel we met a young backpacker couple that had attended a wedding at the Green Dragon the night before! I was super jealous. But that’s a thing that can happen! So consider having a destination wedding in Hobbiton, and inviting us, okay?

We finished up our time in Matamata cozied up to the fire chatting with other travelers and working on computers. It was an overall very nice experience. After that we were off to do something very New Zealand: rent a camper van!

 

 

Advertisements

The Best Portable Coffee Maker for Travelers: the Coladera

July 10, 2018
by Christina

Earlier on in our travels we were lamenting not having a portable coffee making device with us. We had coffee and most of the time we were staying at a hostel with a kitchen and we would just use the tools available. But occasionally we would stay some place where there was a kettle boiler, but nothing else, and suddenly the fact that we had beans didn’t put us any closer to our caffeine fix.

I started looking online for ideas. My backpack was already heavy and Dan didn’t have much space, so whatever it was needed to be compact and light. The articles I found suggested things like the AeroPress, mochas, mug-sized French presses, pour over devices that required filters, and on and on. To my eye, a lot of these are bulky, heavy, fragile, have lots of parts, or some combination thereof. Not that these things aren’t great solutions for certain travelers, but not in my bag, baby.

We were in Colombia, a coffee Mecca, so I went to a giant Walmart-like store that had everything: groceries, appliances, clothes, etc. And there, in the kitchen supply area, I found my coffee maker: the coladera.

The coladera is as simple as it gets. It’s a wire handle with a loop and a cotton sock. Doesn’t get much lighter or more compact than that (it does for cold brew, see note below).

And it’s easy to use. You can do pour over, or pour over and a soak if you like. It’s high capacity if you want to make a lot, but it’s good for a single cup too. If you want to get fancy you can play with your water temperature (by letting the water cool after boiling) to see how it affects the taste. When you’re done brewing, just turn it inside out over the trash can to dump the grounds, and rinse it with water (no soap, as that could flavor the sock in undesirable ways).

And since no one mentioned the coladera in their coffee maker articles, I thought I should share it here. Coladera is Spanish, and I don’t get a lot of hits for it when searching the interwebs (in English), but looking on Amazon for “fabric coffee maker” produced a few good results like the Lautechco Coffee Filter Baskets and NUOMI Flannel Cloth Coffee Filter Strainers.

The one draw back to the coladera is that because it is made of cotton fabric, it can take a while to dry. So if you’re moving constantly and don’t have time to set it out to dry, it may not be a perfect fit for you. Otherwise though, I think it’s the best solution there is in terms of compact and portable coffee making devices.

Incidentally, we saw a lot of coffee and tea being made with giant versions of the coladera in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as Colombia. Wherever your travels take you, I hope you get your coffee, however you choose to make (or buy) it.

Note: In researching this article, I discovered the CoffeeSock, which is just a fabric filter that can be used for pour over or cold brew. However, they show using it with a structural pour-over device, so for hot coffee it ends up being bulkier, but the cold brew aspect is really cool and the final word in compact (assuming you’re already carrying a bottle you can brew in).

Auckland & Rotorua, New Zealand: Gardens, rolling down hills in balls, and geothermal adventures

July 1, 2018
by Dan

We arrived in downtown Auckland from the airport at around 8 pm and found the city to be totally quiet. It was a bit of a shock how sleepy it was as we made our way to visit our couch surfing hosts. There was an awkward moment when the front desk called down the wrong Max, who was suspicious, but that was all sorted when the real Max came down to greet us.

Our hosts were a delightful young backpacker couple, Max and Ronja. They were each traveling solo when they met in Thailand, and have been traveling together since. Max is from New Zealand, so they came back to work and save up money before heading off to Fiji and Europe. I’m really glad we got to catch them before they headed off the next week.

We were starving and Max tipped us off about the 5 NZD pizzas you can get at Domino’s when you order online. They weren’t great, but they are good enough and in USD that’s only $3.50, which is a better deal than Lil C’s!!! and better pizza and topping options to boot. We got BBQ Italian sausage… which was just hot dogs and BBQ sauce, but I was still super pumped about this find.

img_20180612_214017315.jpg

We spent two nights in Auckland and the big touristic thing we did was visit the Domain winter gardens. They are located in a large park in the center of the city called Auckland Domain. It has two hot houses flanking a large fountain area, and there is a terraced outdoor garden space with benches throughout the grounds. A great place to bring a book to read on a nice day.

After touring the park and the gardens we went to Father Ted’s Original Irish Pub, because someone told us that Irish pubs in New Zealand have cheaper food. We got super lucky with the timing by arriving just before 3 pm so we could order off the lunch menu ($12 NZD instead of $25 NZD for fish and chips, woot!), but then happy hour started at 3 pm and we were able to get the some discount pints.

After Auckland we made our way down to a town called Rotorua. We’ve been traveling for just over a year now and we were starting to feel a little burned out. I’ve realized that we’ve been in a constant state of travel planning the entire time, mostly just a few days in advance, but it still takes a toll. So with that and the writing projects Christina has taken on, we decided to find a small pretty town where we could hit pause and rest up a bit, and that ended up being Rotorua.

We found a wonderful little studio on AirBnB that was located on the west side of Rotorua. We had a small kitchen and we were just a few minutes away from the grocery store. It had a park nearby for Christina’s ring work outs and our hosts, Chris and Jacqi, were lovely. So for the better part of two weeks we did close to nothing except play on our computers and cook for ourselves.

At the grocery store we discovered that yogurt in New Zealand is a killer deal. You can get 750 ml for $3 NZD. That’s $2 USD for a ton of good local yogurt! Pair that up with the generic alternative to Weet-Bix and you have a great cheap breakfast, which we ate a lot. Weet-Bix is a classic Aussie/Kiwi breakfast cereal. It’s like corn flakes in bar form. There is no emulsion or adhesive. I have no clue how they do it but it’s pretty amazing. I love the stuff, though eating it as a dry bar doesn’t really work, as many times as I try to make that a thing.

There are a lot of great Aussie and Kiwi baked goods, and it was one of my goals to eat one called a Pavlova. It’s a meringue-like cake that was named after a Russian ballerina. I had to find it, but the issue was that the top image results on Google show very ornate fruit topped cakes, but that’s nothing like how they look in the store. It just looks like a sponge cake.

When I got it home I was expecting it to just be angel food cake. Nope. It’s sugar and egg white whipped up and baked so that the end result is basically like a perfectly toasted marshmallow. The crusty bit is good and obviously I ate it all because it’s sugar, but it wasn’t really my type of thing. The bummer thing about it is that, although it’s always pictured topped with fruit, the fruit topping doesn’t really blend well with the cake. There is no absorption of the fruit juice into the cake so the combination doesn’t really add much to either ingredient. Still I’m really happy that I finally found one and tried it.

In other food related news, I’ve slowly come around to the whole vegemite/marmite concept. I never understood it on toast, but I did find it to be a nice addition to salad dressings and stir fry sauces. But I’ve found a compromise use. Topping a cracker with a bit of vegemite or marmite, then adding a slice of butter that you think is way too thick, like the thickness of a piece of cheese for your cracker. It’s a really nice combination and allowed me to level up to proper marmite on toast, which I now really love. Basically crackers and dairy products are an excellent gateway to enjoying strong tasting items. It’s how I came to love olives.

We also did a taste testing of all the crazy unfamiliar apples that we saw here. None were really that impressive. Jazz was probably the best. The general takeaway was: in New Zealand stick to kiwis. They are super cheap and delicious and kiwi juice is a delicious thing that exists in this corner of the world.

IMG_20180617_201921497

We did go on a few outings, thanks mostly thanks to our hosts.

Rotorua is famous for its sulfurous hot springs and geothermal activity. The hot springs in town have been turned into fancy spas, but there are free springs about a thirty minute drive out of town. Since we didn’t have a car, C&J offered to take us with them for a visit to one called Kerosene Creek. Kerosene creek was a decent sized swimming hole, fed by a waterfall. Due to some recent rains the water was a bit more chilly than usual.

So, after a brief stop, we opted to hit up a nearby shallow swimming hole called Hot and Cold that wasn’t so affected by the run off. The ‘Hot’ part was a small hot spring fed steam that flowed into a larger ‘Cold’ river. The main warm area near the bridge was shallow so we made our way a few meters up the creek to where it had been dammed up and we were able to soak until we felt sleepy.

On the way back from the swimming holes we stopped to look at one of the mud pits at the Waiotapu Thermal Track. Apparently you can pay good money to see the same thing in town. This was one of the highlights of Rotorua for me. The pictures don’t really do it justice; the sound, frequency, and violence of the bubbling mud was extreme. It was like the tar pit in Land before time. Unreal.

We also made it out to the local weekend farmers’ market, which was a mix of food vendors, baked goods and veggies. I bought a steak sandwich that looked like the popular local snack. I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. The fresh produce vendors had nicer prices than the grocery stores so we stocked up on a few items. Christina also took part in the public hot pool foot baths in the park nearby.

We made it to downtown Rotorua on a few nights. On one occasion we went to drink craft beer at Brew on Eat Street. And the other night we went to the Thursday night market and saw Chris killing it on the guitar.

Our biggest activity in Rotorua was taking several rides down a hill in a giant inflatable hamster ball. This is a thing, really. It is an activity that was invented in Rotorua, and there are two companies doing it. The first/main one is the Zorb and the competition is OGO. Apparently there is some complicated relationship between the two with the owner of Zorb leaving to start up OGO a few years ago. The two companies seemed roughly the same to us with just slightly different package deals.

We opted to go with OGO because they were running a Winter Solstice nighttime event on the Kiwi deal site GrabOne, which is essentially like Groupon. I highly recommend looking at GrabOne before trying to do anything touristic in NZ. In the end we spent a total of $100 NZD for both of us to be able to go down all three courses, straight, sidewinder, and mega, which would have cost us that much per person at full price. The course and balls were lit up brightly, but I think they could have done a lot more with with some EL wire and Christmas lights.

We got three stamps on our hand for the three rides but they weren’t used for much. The event was quite full, but still small enough that the staff seemed to keep pretty good track of which rides you still had left. I think the oddest thing was that there were no lockers for your valuables at the bottom. We left our phone and wallet with the people at the check in desk, but this was apparently an unusual request.

The night was quite cold and we were mostly ok waiting in line for our first run using some beach towels that our hosts were kind enough to lend us. The wait wasn’t too long and they took a group of us up the hill in a truck with two of the giant human-hamster balls on a trailer. At the top was a lukewarm hot tub and small room with a heat lamp to wait in.

We were shortly called on to go down the straight track, and we got to race each other side-by-side down the hill. Warm water was put inside the ball to make it very slippy for the rider inside. I had a blast bouncing up and down and throwing myself at the front of the ball. I think Christina still won the race, but I had so much fun in there. This resulted in some rug burns on my feet, but it was totally worth it.

On our second run we went together in the same ball down the sidewinder. This was probably the most entertaining course with all the changes of direction, but it’s kind of a mess with two people in one ball. You run into each other and it’s hard to get wild and bouncy without elbowing each other. Still super fun though.

Our final run was on the new mega track. I found this the least interesting actually. It’s just a straight track that’s very steep. It was too fast to get wild and bounce around, so this one would probably be more fun with two people in the ball. Actually at the bottom of the hill I thought I was hitting a turn and threw myself at the side of the ball, only to probably run the ball into the attendant that was supposed to help me out. Sorry buddy.

We were feeling much more rested by the end of our stay in Rotorua. On our way out of town we stopped by Gold Star Bakery. It’s right next to the Rotorua I-site where the intra-city bus stop is. This brought us full circle since it was actually the first meal that we had in Rotorua after we got off the bus. We stopped in on a whim and it did not disappoint. The pies were all under 5 NZD and were far superior than any of the pies that we had up to that point.

Next up: a journey to Middle Earth…

 

The least you need to know: Top Ten Spanish Phrases for Travel

July 4, 2018
Guest Post by Hannah Pinkerton
Intro by Christina

Today marks another special anniversary in our travels: the day Dan and I left the United States. Yes, yes, our first day in Mexico was July 4, but that was just a coincidence, promise!

We spent the first six months of our trip in Mexico, Central, and South America where we could use our Spanish, but after that we had to rely on English and what little we could pick up of the local language. Visiting a country for a week or two, with more countries and different languages to come, makes it hard to learn much. Ultimately I determined that a good bare minimum to know is “Hello” and “Thank you,” wherever you are. Hello goes a long way when paired with gesticulations: a greeting, an excuse me, an attention getter, and so on. And of course, saying thank you and being polite is always good!

In honor of the one year anniversary of our entrance into Mexico and the start of our Spanish speaking adventures my friend Hannah, a traveler, blogger, and Spanish teacher, has written a post for us about learning Spanish and the ten most important phrases to know. Spoiler: ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ are in there!

¡Hola, amigos! I’m Hannah and I teach Spanish to adults online over at Speak Better Spanish. If you are planning to travel to a Spanish speaking country (which I highly recommend), today I’m going to help you out with the top ten phrases you need to know. A big thank you to Christina for having me a guest blogger today to commemorate the anniversary of her entry into Latin America!

Hannah at Cola del Caballo Waterfall in Mexico

Of course, the more you know of the language before you go, the better, but you will surely improve your language skills during your stay. I recently moved from the US to Mexico and just in the last few weeks my Spanish has improved significantly. Language is definitely one of those skills that gets better with practice, and there’s always room for improvement.

Gruta del Murciélago (Bat Cave) in Mexico

Some of the perks of visiting Spanish speaking countries (particularly in Latin America) are that they are very budget friendly, the people are generally very nice and helpful, the food is amazing, and things have a much more relaxed timetable.

Parque Tolteca in Monterrey, Mexico

Without further ado, here are the top ten Spanish phrases you need to know for travel:

  • Hello = hola (oh-la)
  • Thank you = Gracias (grah-see-uhs)
  • Delicious = Delicioso (dee-lih-see-oh-so)
  • Excuse me = Permiso (per-mee-so)
  • Where is the bathroom? = ¿Dónde está el baño? (don-day eh-stah el bah-nyo)
  • How much is it? = ¿Cuánto cuesta? (kwahn-to kway-stuh)
  • I like…. = Me gusta…. (may goose-tuh)
  • I don’t like….= No me gusta… (no may goose-tuh)
  • Yes = Sí (see)
  • No = No (no)

It would also be a great idea to brush up on numbers for the purposes of purchasing things with the correct change, navigating addresses, and knowing what times and dates things occur.

Hannah’s neighborhood in the Monterrey area of northern Mexico with a view of Cerro de la Silla mountain [Christina: which Dan and I climbed last July!]

Want some personalized one on one help brushing up on Spanish for your upcoming trip? Schedule a free consultation with Hannah here, or check out her various free resources for Spanish learners! Have a fantastic trip!

Brisbane to Auckland: getting to and from the airports & currency exchange

June 30, 2018
by Dan

After three weeks in Australia it was time for us to catch our flight to New Zealand, and we had some adventures in airport transit, both getting to the Brisbane airport, and away from the Auckland airport. The following is mostly about travel logistics for other travelers.

In Brisbane we caught a bus into town and took the official airport train. The train fare for a single person was 18 AUD, but we qualified for the two person discount making it 15 AUD per person. It was quick and comfortable, but rather expensive for the short ride. There is a cheaper workaround that involves a local train, then a bus, then a free shopping center airport shuttle which you can read about here (the official pages for this route are here plus the carefully worded council bus section of this page). But since it would have taken almost three hours from our part of town and “morning people” does not describe us, we decided to pay the extra $$$ for some extra ZZZs.

Delightfully, Brisbane transit gives a full refund on the $10 Translink cards you have to buy to access buses and trains, as well as any remaining balance on the card. I read that this money would be handed back in cash if you didn’t have an Australian credit card, but they let us put the money directly back onto our Visa card. This whole process can also be done at the airport and the Brisbane Translink site has a handy tool with filters to find places to purchase, top up, and refund cards. You still have to go through the turnstiles to get to the airport train, and an station attendant let us through without any trouble. He didn’t even check our email confirmation but presumably that’s the proper key to gain access to the airport train terminal.

When we got to the airport we tried to change our Australian dollars to New Zealand Dollars. Normally I’m obsessed with zeroing our cash before changing countries (even in the situations where we ended up needing some extra cash to get by). In SE Asia we ended up changing a small amount of money in the airport and I was amazed that the exchange rate wasn’t a total rip off. It was actually very reasonable. That plus I figured AUS and NZ are so buddy buddy that it would be easy to change currencies and I let my guard down.

The currency exchange rate in the airport was obscene so we decided to wait to see if it got better in New Zealand. Surprise: nope. The rates were just about as bad. I had hopes that banks would be a better option, but ANZ bank would charge a $5 fee for any conversion and nowhere would change foreign coins. So I was only able to change $10 and I still have $5 coins left over. I’m hoping that I’ll have better luck in China.

Our two and a half hour China Airlines flight from Brisbane to Auckland included a meal, which was surprising considering the flight duration, but totally unsurprising in terms of its quality, and the flight was otherwise uneventful. Auckland airport is located quite far from downtown, and after reviewing our options we decided to take public transit, which turned out to be very easy.

The advice I found online was a bit dense, but the signage at the airport made everything quite clear. There is a bus that arrives approx every 20 minutes that will take you to Papatoetoe train station. From there you have two options for trains that will take you to the Britomart station downtown. The map at the bus shelter made it clear there were actually two routes you can take using the 380 bus, but the route to Papatoetoe is the recommended route.

You can ride the bus and the train without purchasing the Auckland transit card ($10), but the cash fare is higher, and it’s worth it to get the card if you use it round trip from the airport (but if you just go one-way skip the card). I initially inquired about the card at the airport’s i-site, which looks like a scammy tour booking agency, but is actually the official tourism information center (these i-sites are peppered all over NZ).

With the card you actually save $5.70 each way on this particular route, making it at least break even if you take it to and from the airport. Plus it actually saves you at least 25% on fares on the train and bus fares in town, but sometimes higher. The caveat is that the minimum top up is $5 at the i-site (but $4 at the train stations) and the top up has to be in increments of $1. But there is no refund available for the card deposit or any remaining balance. So it’s best to plan out your expected card usage ahead of time using the AT hop fare planner (note that’s a beta site as of July 2018 so the url may change). For your last few expected rides you can use the fare information on that site to strategically top up the card and try to get as close to zero balance as possible for your last ride. As long as you have a >$0.00 balance on the card when you swipe on, you can run a negative balance for the trip. So that will minimize the hit that you take from the $10 cost of the card. And that’s why they charge such a high amount for the card, so you can go negative on a single trip without hurting their bottom line. So you don’t need to feel bad about leaving with a negative balance, though being able to return cards in good standing would be better overall.

Also a note on cashless purchases. We had to buy them with cash, which seemed crazy to me after just a few weeks in Australia. Everyone there has prox credit cards (paywave) so that they can just tap it on the credit card reader to pay for things. It is so incredibly nice. Christina was able to use NFC on her phone to pay with Google-pay. She got to partake in the fun and convenience. And tap to pay is pretty common in NZ as well.

Once we had our cards purchased and loaded, it was pretty easy getting into town. It was one bus and one train, and it took a little over an hour. Tap-on, tap-off!

Next up: Adventures in Auckland and chill time in Rotorua

 

Pyonyang North Korean Restaurant

May 6, 2018
by Dan

Pyonyang North Korean Restaurant is an international chain of restaurants run by the North Korean state. I read about it online and decided to keep an eye out for opportunities to visit one. It’s understandable that the chain isn’t in every country as its profits go directly to funding North Korea.

So there’s a moral dilemma in patronizing it, sure, but I decided I really wanted to see it. I think it’s the closest I can get to actual North Korea as we currently know it. And I don’t mean geographically, or general Korean cultural. I mean like North Korea. I’m fascinated by the place because it is so closed off and mysterious. What is life really like there? It’s probably not as bad a US propaganda says, but also not as good as NK propaganda says. We are fed this idea that NK is some terrible dystopia but the photos that are allowed to make it out of the country just look fantastic. I would love to be able to see it for myself. Even an official guided visit (like this guy got) would be just fascinating.

Not that it would ever happen though. It’s just a day dream, but that’s why I really needed to visit this restaurant. And maybe my financial contribution is going to support our countries’ temperamental leaders working something out in the near future. Wouldn’t that be neat.

IMG_20180506_183950384

Ok, so I was resolved to go, and Phnom Penh happens to have a Pyongyang restaurant. On one of our last nights in PP we made plans to go with a friend, an expat in PP teaching English. I read up about the restaurant in advance by looking at reviews and learned two things. First it is expensive, at least by Cambodian standards, so I was able to mentally prepare for that. Second, it’s really more of a “dinner and a show” sort of deal.

I called to make a reservation for slightly before the show started, to ensure that we got the full experience. I called the number listed on Google maps, and got bounced around until I got the English-speaking phone number. I told them I wanted to make a reservation at 6:45 that evening (the show was supposed to start at 7 pm). She said ok and was about to hang up. “… So the reservation should be for Dan Ott that’s o-t.’ ‘Sure’ *click*’

It was ok though. When we showed up we were the only white people there so who made the reservation turned out to be pretty obvious. As far as I could tell most of the other guests were Chinese. There was definitely a Chinese tour group next to us that came in late, were all served the same dish, and then left early.

The restaurant itself kinda looks like an Elks club that got set up for a wedding for a second marriage. The staff was all female and they were wearing floofy traditional dresses that feature in some of the photo albums linked above also. Christina got one picture before being told no photographs allowed (see the concerned lady in the blue floofy dress below).

IMG_20180506_185807344

Next up was the task of ordering. We were given one absolutely enormous menu that took us forever to leaf through. This appeared to be unexpected behavior to our waitress. She hovered over us the whole time and appeared to be writing things down. It was a bit strange; I think she may have been writing down everything that we pointed at or discussed. Eventually we got a order ironed out consisting of kimchi, kimchi pancakes, a seafood porridge, cold glass noodles, and a beef stew. I was quite interested in ordering dog meat, but our companion on this journey was quite appalled at the concept when she saw it on the menu so I didn’t bring it up.

Before our dishes arrived we were served appetizers of a yeasty dough cube and some saucy cold potatoes. Then food that we ordered started to roll out. The kimchi was very strong and the kimchi pancakes were absolutely the best thing. I found the porridge a bit weird. I don’t really like seafood soups, but this was alright. In general it was more of Christina’s thing.

The cold noodles seemed to be the most popular or typical food to order. Probably a very distinctly North Korean dish. They were served on a very unique raised platter. The waitress mixed up some very horseradish-y mustard in the dish before allowing us to dig in. She also left the mustard on the table, which I found delicious and put on everything I could until she came back to take it away.

This mustard incident turns out to be quite interesting in view of this video of N Koreans trying American BBQ and saying that mustard is not a thing in NK. The noodles themselves were super rubbery and slippery so they were basically impossible to serve from the platter into individual bowls. Once you started on a noodle there was no option to bite it off, you had to find the end of the trail. The best main dish, imo, was the beef stew. It was very tender and spicy.

But the food was actually only a part of what was overall and beautifully weird experience. Basically after the first dish was served, the show began. It started with an extremely enthusiastic drummer. She wasn’t super tight, but she was so smiley and energetic and it was great entertainment. Then the show moved onto a few other acts. All the while, the meal is continuing with new dishes being brought out between acts. Quickly it became obvious that the show was being performed by the serving staff, who if they weren’t playing instruments or spinning plates on stage, were busy juggling serving their tables.

The other acts included some traditional singing and dance, a women spinning with extreme angular velocity while carrying bowls on her head, a Korean stringed instrument, a violin… all sorts of stuff. The best was when the accordion player came out. Then she was joined by another accordion player. Then a third. Oh shit, it was the drummer girl! Is there anything she couldn’t do? Though at this point I became a bit skeptical of whether or not they were actually playing their instruments. Our friend shared my skepticism. But I didn’t care either way. It was great entertainment.

The finale was quite a spectacle. It was a North Korean waitress rock band with sax, bass guitar, guitar, accordion, and drums performing a rock version of the 1812 overture …in Cambodia. It was one of the more bizarre, amazing, multicultural things we have ever witnessed. I highly recommend it.

The meal and the show was over and so it was time to pay up and clear out. Our server was the drummer and we tried to convey our delight with her musical talents, but it appeared that she only spoke a few words of English, which is perhaps not too surprising. We tried to give her a tip, it seemed appropriate given the hard work of the waitstaff, but when she saw the money in the bill holder she shook her head, left it on the table, and scurried off.

In the end, the bill for the three of us was $33; very affordable in US terms, astronomical in Cambodian terms. It was nice having a third person because we got to share more dishes. We were all very well fed and the experience, show, and general novelty was excellent.

With the bill settled it was time to leave, but I had one final mission. We were seated in a kind of corner of the restaurant, a bit behind a pillar. It wasn’t a great seat, but fine enough. Directly behind us was a display rack featuring a bunch of insam (ginseng) products and liquors on the shelf. Oh if I had the money I would have definitely bought so much stuff. But there were also stacks of books. Little pamphlets of different colors. I poked through them at one point and came to the understanding that they were propaganda written in different languages.

Eventually I found an English one, the only yellow one. It was a collection of anecdotes from Kim Il Sung’s Life. As we were leaving I tried to ask a waitress about them. There was some confusion, but they eventually understood that I wanted one. They said I could have it for free. The last English language copy. Yes! I was so pumped. I’m surprised they didn’t hand them out to all the guests. Seems like a good way to spread your message. Anyway I’m really glad I got it. It’s fascinating, full of stories about the stout resolve and wisdom of the leader, and hard working citizens getting choked up with emotion for the glorious generosity displayed by him. The front end is full of pictures of smiling workers meeting with the man himself. An incredibly interesting look at how NK wants to be perceived by the rest of the world.

img_20180601_233006935-1.jpg

 

Sydney & Brisbane: the Vivid light festival, a long train ride, koalas & kangaroos!

June 23, 2018
by Christina

Our Greyhound ride to Sydney was about four hours, and as we entered the city the driver mentioned a light/art festival going on called “Vivid,” for which the clock tower of Central Station where he dropped us off was lit with a moving projection.

 

 

We got a bite to eat, ogled the clock tower,  and then caught a commuter train to meet Annette, who I met on a Nerd Fitness forum and kindly agreed to host us sight unseen!

The next day Annette took us to see the Australiana Pioneer Village, which is a collection of historic houses that have been relocated to this small village, complete with sheep shearing and a working blacksmith! We toured the cabins, bought some (exotic to us) Aussie lollies, and watched a Father-daughter biscuit dunking contest that made almost no sense whatsoever, then went for lunch at the pub nearby.

 

After that we spent a day in Sydney, seeing the sights. We took the train back to Central Station and walked north, visiting first the Anzac Memorial, the Archibald fountain, then St. Mary’s Cathedral.

 

Our walk culminated in a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens and a visit to the famous Sydney Opera House. We walked around and took a good look at it (and plenty of pictures), before going inside and having a coffee in the lounge and making use of the free WiFi.

 

We wandered around a bit after that, getting lunch at a pub and running some errands, while we waited for the sun to set and for Vivid to begin.

 

Much like the census in Peru, and Khmer New Year in Siem Reap, it turns out we lucked into this beautiful annual event in Sydney that is called Vivid. This is a festival of lights and music, with freestanding light installations, and buildings used as projection screens for colorful shifting imagery. The opera house itself is a spectacular highlight. Vivid was gorgeous and we got incredibly lucky that it was happening when we were in town.

 

After our long day of touristing, we spent the next day relaxing at the house, and went shopping for supplies to cook dinner. It was a nice walk, including a park, to get to the nearest shops, which had an amazing bakery and butchers. Grant had to stay late at work, so Dan, Annette, and I cooked and ate dinner.

 

Then went to meet Grant at the movie theater to see Infinity War, finally. I have to say, I’m really impressed that the film has been out for so long, and no one managed to spoil the ending for me. Impressive. I enjoyed it, even with my usual desire to nitpick it to death, but in the end, I’ve got a serious beef with Dr. Strange. Brah, srsly?

The next morning we bid farewell to Annette and Grant (thank you guys so much! It was great!) and headed back into Sydney for our train to Brisbane. We had some time after we dropped off our bags, so we went to a pub for fish and chips, which paired with a dark beer really hit the spot.

dsc_0370.jpg

We also paid a visit to the Anime Architecture show at the Japan Foundation, which regularly has art free art exhibits. This was a collection of architectural drawings used as backgrounds in Anime films, including Ghost in the Shell. It was a lovely show.

 

Then we climbed aboard train to Brisbane for a 14 hour ride. Yeah, Sydney to Brisbane is further than DC to Boston. And let me tell you there were some colorful folks on that train, and not just the passengers. The lady behind us kept coughing spasmodically and getting off the train to smoke, and when she delayed the train’s departure a cranky staff member came by to chastise her in such a disagreeable fashion that I couldn’t decide which of them was more of a pain.

We arrived at the hideous hour of 5 am, and decided the only remedy was breakfast. To our amusement, we found a 24 hour pancake place that is housed in an old Cathedral called Pancake Manor. The food was on the expensive side, but the atmosphere was really cool.

 

After than the sun was finally up, and we made our way to meet Jo and David who helped us get settled into our friend Halina’s house. Halina is a professor and was out of town for a workshop when we arrived, so Jo and David helped us out and showed us around. They took us to visit Mt. Coot-tha for some lovely views, and then we went to dinner at Kenmore Tavern. It was lovely to meet them, thank you guys for being so welcoming!

 

We spent a few days hanging out at and around the house. Brisbane was much warmer than Sydney with both a lot of sun and rain, and one of its defining characteristics is the Brisbane River which makes many sinuous turns around the city.

 

When Halina came back she took us for a trip to see Brisbane city center. We went to the GOMA, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, which was really cool, and we took a walk to see the clock tower at the Museum of Brisbane, but we couldn’t manage to get tickets to go up it. It’s free, but the time slots were all full.

 

Getting a close look of Australia’s unique wildlife was a high priority for us, so we went down to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. And there were tons of koalas, I even got to pet one! Tip: if you book online in advance you get a small discount on the entry fee.

 

There were kinds of other creatures, including cockatoos, platypus, emu, and even a cassowary, which is easily the most frightening bird Dan and I had ever seen. The Wikipedia article even says they are capable of killing dogs and humans. Definitely looked more like a dinosaur than anything else.

 

And as promised, there were kangaroos. Oh, the kangaroos. I got to feed them, you can put coins into a machine that dispenses kangaroo-friendly feed, it’s pellets like what you’d feed goats at a petting zoo.

Feeding them was frightening, because crouched down I was on eye level with them, and they have these really strong looking arms with claws. After India and how scary and thieving the monkeys were, I was afraid they would just knock me over and steal the food (one of them did decide to eat the paper bag!), but in temperament they seemed a lot more like goats or horses than monkeys. In other words, way less evil than monkeys.

 

Most evenings we hung out with Halina and had some lovely meals. We took turns cooking, and she is an excellent cook and a marvelous conversationalist. We had a great time visiting with her and catching up, thank you so much for having us to stay!

 

And just like that, our time in Australia was up! We bid Halina farewell and headed for to the airport and our next stop: New Zealand!

 

 

 

 

Canberra: cooking, cockatoos, and the War Memorial

June 17, 2018
by Christina

To get to Canberra from Melbourne, we had to take a train and a bus. We found the online purchase options a little confusing, so we picked up our tickets in person at the Southern Cross station downtown. I love train travel; you can walk around and there’s a buffet car!

When we arrived in Canberra, Ashley was there to meet us! Ashley is a friend of mine from Camp Nerd Fitness 2016, and it was so great to see her again. She’s been living in Canberra for several years now, and we went to stay with her and her housemate Adam for the week.

In South East Asia Dan and I didn’t do a lot of cooking, and since Ashley had to work most days, we got to have fun playing house spouse and cooking dinner. There was also a park right near by where I got to do some ring work outs. But I slacked a lot on the blog, which is why you’re getting this post almost three weeks after the fact!

Canberra is the capital city of Australia, located between Melbourne and Sydney and inland from the coast a bit giving it cooler weather. It was selected to be the capital in 1908 and is a designed city, making it like Washington DC in many ways, but it gets a lot of crap from non-Canberran Aussies as being boring and in the middle of nowhere. “Why?” was the most common question we got when we told people we were heading to Canberra. It’s true that it is a smaller, quieter city than Melbourne and Sydney, but it’s very beautiful, and we were very happy with our visit.

After a few days staying close to the house, we took the bus into town and went for a tour of a few important sites in the city.

The first of these was the old parliament house, which has been converted into a museum. There were historical exhibits as well as a children’s area, and the chambers where the legislators met. I even got to dress up like the whip.

My favorite part of this was the exhibit of the Prime Minster’s suite, including the main office and all the support staff offices. The entire space was made to look as it was in the 1980s (?) and everyone had just stepped out for lunch. There were files, ancient monitors, and filled ash trays on the desks, books on the shelves and sweaters on the backs of chairs. You couldn’t sit at the prime minster’s desk, but there was a small lounge area in the main office where you could sit. Easily one of my favorite museum exhibits.

Next we went to see “Within Without” (referred to also as “Skyspace“), which is an installation next to the National Gallery by artist James Turrell who does a lot of great light-based art. It is an open-roofed green-pyramid surrounded by water with a bright white interior space and a large round stone sculpture rimmed by a fountain. Words don’t do it justice. It was very cool. (Dan: If you’re like me and ever wondered what it would be like to step into a giant integrating sphere, I think this is pretty close.)

Then it was off to the National Portrait Gallery. Some of this was perhaps a little lost on us, since we weren’t familiar with that many of the portrait subjects, but the art was lovely and it was an interesting glimpse at Australian history based on who was placed in the gallery.

That night we went to a Lindy Hop dance class. Ashley is a great dancer, and attended the advanced class. I can dance some Lindy, so I hopped into the beginner class with Dan as a lead, and we had a lot of fun.

Ashley got Friday off, and we all went together to see the Australian War Memorial.

It is a beautiful building, and the Tomb of Unknown Soldier was stunning; every surface was covered in mosaic tile work, a style of art that we came to recognize as distinctly Australian. Seriously, the entire thing, every surface, was tiled.

The exhibits were fascinating, especially in terms of the contrasting perspective they have with the American perspective of WWI and WWII. For example, as a non-History buff and probably pretty-average-in-my-history-knowledge American, I didn’t know that much about the Pacific Theater during WWII, but of course, that was a major focus for Australia, including fearing possible invasion from Japan.

The memorial was huge, and even with five hours there, we didn’t manage to see everything before we got kicked out at the end of the day. We had finally made it to the Vietnam (American) War when we were told to get going by the staff.

Interestingly, cockatoos are kind of the Australian version of pigeons? At least in Canberra they were just everywhere.

We also saw a bunch of kangroos, which are evidently Australian for deer. No pictures of the ‘roos because it was too dark, but don’t worry, they’re coming back in an upcoming post…

For dinner, we went out to Grease Monkey to get burgers with an Australian twist: they put beet root (slices of beet) and pineapple on their burgers. Now, the pineapple I may have seen once or twice in the US, but the beet was brand new to me, it’s an Aussie standard. I didn’t end up having very strong feelings about the beet either way, but it was my first burger in ages (possibly over a year?) and it was really good.

Our last morning in Canberra we made a big brunch. I am a fan of bellinis (champagne and peach juice) as a breakfast cocktail, but in the absence of peach juice, apricot juice was found, and we named our champagne/apricot cocktail the Keelini, a play on Ashley’s last name.

After brunch Ashley took us back to the bus station from whence we came to catch our Greyhound and we made our goodbyes. Thanks so much darling! We had a great time :0)

Then… it was off to Sydney!

Melbourne, Australia: meat pies, beers, footie, and friends

June 8, 2018
by Christina

The flights from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam to Melbourne, Australia were pretty uneventful. Due to an awards points opportunity we booked our tickets on Scoot, a discount Singapore airline, but concluded we didn’t care much for it. The seats were very tightly packed, more so than others we’ve been on, there was no complimentary in-flight anything and no in-flight entertainment system. We had a short hop to Singapore with a 5 hour layover there, followed by a ~8 hour flight to Melbourne. If it hadn’t been an overnight flight, I would have cared a lot more about the in-flight entertainment, but as it was I just settled in to sleep as best I could which, with the reduced space, was even less than on a normal flight.

We arrived in Melbourne on time, and waiting there to greet us was my friend Kris, who one day long, long ago was my summer adviser in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He moved to Australia with his family almost a decade ago, and it had been an age since we’d been able to catch up. He took us out to lunch, where we enjoyed a bay view and ate meat pie (savory pies are a big Australian thing, btw) before going to Kris’s house where we got to meet the rest of the family, his wife Liz, and their two sons, David and Kevin. We got to have family dinner with all of them several nights, which was delightful, and both Kris and Liz are excellent cooks.

 

That afternoon I went with Liz when she took the dogs for a walk, and I got to see a bit of the neighborhood they live in, a suburb called Beaumaris, which is right on the bay.

The next day Dan and I explored the neighborhood a little further, mostly staying close to the house. It was our third day in Australia that we finally made it into Melbourne proper to have a look around. It was overcast and drizzly, and it reminded me somewhat of Seattle with its tall buildings and public transit. And there is a Batman Park? With a helipad?!

Dan had discovered a landmark called Shot Tower, and we went for visit. This is a slender brick tower that was used to make shot, as in shot guns, via the gravitational method, wherein molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top of the tower, and as it fell it cool and solidified into small spheres which fell into a bucket of water at the bottom. This historical building is now located in the Melbourne Central mall, and enclosed by a cone of metal and glass, protecting it from the elements. There is a small museum that you can visit for free by entering a posh shop selling clothes and leather goods.

Before heading back to Beaumaris for dinner, we had a pint at Young & Jackson, near Flinders station, which was recommended to us by a local as very Australian or “Aussie as”. Which it turns out is not short for “Aussie AF,” but “Aussie as” is it’s own complete phrase signifying its quintessential Australian nature. Y&J was a pub with a big wrap around bar, high and low top tables, and plenty of sports on the TVs.

 

The next day we took a run along the beach in Beaumaris. It was a very nice view of the bay and the crisp weather was a pleasant change from running in the heat in Vietnam.

We made plans for cooking dinner that evening, something we hadn’t gotten (or needed) to do recently. I discovered that making vegan banana bread is both very easy and delicious, though I ended up slathering mine with butter. And having an eggless batter makes eating it before you’ve baked it worry free and extra-tempting.

Friday we did some thrift shopping and went out to lunch with Kris. Only they aren’t called thrift shops in Australia, they’re “Opportunity Shops” or “Op Shops”. Dan picked up a few replacements for clothes items that were wearing a little thin, and just generally had fun browsing. We got sausage rolls for lunch, another very Australian food.

That evening we went out to Chapel Street with Kris and Liz for dinner at a Polish restaurant called Borsch, Vodka and Tears, which was delicious. I got a horseradish vodka that I quite enjoyed, and Dan got a flight of different vodkas made from potato, wheat, and rye, as well as some charcuterie. After dinner we took a walk down Artists Lane aka Aerosol Alley to get a look at the art.

And by lucky coincidence we had a friend from graduate school, Matt, who just happened to be in Australia at the same time as us. He and his girlfriend Soja were taking a vacation from where they live in Germany, and they joined us for drinks at Buddha’s Belly just down the street from BV&T. We got to trade travel stories over some beers and it great to get to catch up. We all stayed out a little too late, but it was a lovely evening with friends.

IMG_20180525_221316834_LL

The next day we bid farewell to Kris & Liz, and went to visit another pair of friends who live in the Melbourne area: Olivia & Nick! Olivia was one of my classmates from my yoga teacher training in India, and her fiance Nick accompanied her to India, and stayed with her part time and did some trekking in the mountains. We got to introduce Olivia to Kris and Liz when she came to pick us up, and we had a chat over a cup for tea before making our goodbyes.

That evening we went out to the suburb of Richmond, which had just won a footie game (Australian Rules Football or AFL), and so there were lots of people out and about sporting the local team colors of yellow and black. We went to a pub to catch up with another pair of friends, Keitha and Jodie, who had also been in our yoga teacher training. They live a few hours outside of Melbourne, so we got lucky to get to catch up with them. We had a few drinks, catching up and enjoying the weather which was unseasonably warm. Yogis Down Under Mini Reunion!

We also saw a footie player loose in the wild, Nick identified him and explained he was a US basketball player who had been recruited to play AFL and was doing quite well, which isn’t always the case when players are introduced to AFL and all its (many, many) rules after they are established in another sport.

The next morning I went shopping at the local farmer’s market with Nick and Olivia, and when we got home, Nick cooked breakfast for us!

After that, Dan and I returned to Melbourne to catch up with my friend Erin, who I met many moons ago at Camp Nerd Fitness 2016. Sadly Camp got canceled for 2017 and 2018, but we are holding out hope for CNF2019! Dumplings are all the rage in Melbourne these days, so we met Erin for lunch at Dumplings Plus, and then headed over to the Holey Moley Golf Club for 18 holes of mini golf, on a very creative and colorfully lit course. So much fun, and great to see Erin again! ❤

That evening we got back together with Olivia and Nick in time to attend their family basketball game. They have a team registered in the local league and meet up every Sunday for a game, a tradition that they started several seasons ago. It was fun to watch the game and meet their family.

DSC_0125

 

Nick cooked us a lovely dinner that night, and we had one last hang out before our heinously early departure for Canberra the next morning. Nick and Olivia are truly saints for getting up and driving us to the train station at 5 am! Thank you lovelies!!!

 

One Year Travel Anniversary!

June 3, 2018
by Christina

It was June 2, 2017 that Dan and I climbed into our car to begin our travels: a one-month US road trip visiting friends, followed by 6 months in Mexico, Central and South America, then 5 months in India and Southeast Asia, and suddenly, here we are in Australia, and it’s been a year!

To commemorate this occasion, I thought I would make a photo-recap of our travels so far. At 12 months in, we’ve got another 7 months to go, but we’re well over half-way done with our marvelous journey.

USA! Including stops in CT, MA, NY, PA, NC, FL, LA, and TX

Mexico! Including Monterrey, Mexico City, and Palenque

Guatemala! Including Flores, Semuc Chempay, and Guatemala City

Costa Rica! Including Santa Teresa and Tamarindo

Panama City and the canal

Colombia! Medellín and Guatapé

Ecuador! Quito and Papallacta

Peru! Lima, Cusco, Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) and Puno

Chile! La Serena, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Valparaiso, and Santiago

India! Including New Delhi, Rishikesh, Jaipur, Bundi, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Amritsar, Agra and Varanasi

Vietnam! Including Hanoi, Cat Ba, Ho Chi Minh, and Vung Tau

Luang Prabang, Laos

Thailand! Phuket, Koh Phangan, and Bangkok

Cambodia! Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Kep

And now, we’re just getting started in Australia… post from Melbourne coming soon!