Thai Culture At Its Best

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Next stop was Patong Beach, which is also in Phuket, and is known for its appeal to Westerners, especially on the infamous Bangla Road. Picture the Red Light District meets Bourbon Street meets Miami Beach – heaps of American (and Aussie) men toting young Asian girls around with them, too many go-go clubs to count, and street performers with animals, magic tricks and way to many “Ping-Pong show” flyers (more on that).

Bangla Road

Bangla Road

Trying our best to ignore the enormous rats that scurried around everywhere, we grabbed a couple of beers, which was sure to cure the blossoming cold I was suffering since Phi Phi island (no wonder I haven’t recovered, despite Max’s hereditary need to force Alka Seltzers down my throat every day). After so many backpackers raved about the Ping-Pong shows – we won’t go into detail, but let’s just say it involves not only the balls but also several other inanimate and living objects being put in places the sun don’t shine – we had to see what the fuss was about. After the waitress asked for $40 for each person to have one beer, I grabbed Max and bee lined for the door. The waitress grabbed us and dropped the price by about 80% so we grabbed a quick beer and watched the disturbing show alongside our American counterparts that lined every corner of the bar.

Patong Beach

Patong Beach

 

Street vendors in Patong

Street vendors in Patong

Following that escapade we saw a very entertaining Thai band sing some classical hits and a talented young Thai girl belt out Adele songs effortlessly. We called it a night and prepared for our canoe trip early the next morning.

American Captain John Grey is said to have discovered what the Thai people call “hongs,” which are basically secret and secluded coves accessible only by traveling through very narrow caves at the bottom of the remote island mountains in the Andaman Sea. We headed to Phang Na, where we headed off on a large boat to start our hong tour.

We had a delicious lunch of Thai food and the extremely friendly staff introduced us to the history of the hongs and explained our day to us. Our first stop was the Bat Cave, where we broke into pairs and loaded onto canoes as one staff paddled us out to the caves. Navigating through the pitch-black cave full of fruit bats, our guide Tom explained everything we were going to see. A family of monkeys greeted us as we entered the hong, and after snapping a bunch of shots we headed back to the main boat. We had similar tours of about three more hongs, which were beautiful and lush, teeming with wildlife and several rare species of birds. We were given free time to canoe around on our own and then headed back to the boat for a fresh dinner of local Thai cuisine, Massaman curry and several different barbecued meats, spicy Thai soups and a variety of fresh teas.

Rose apples and fresh tea

Rose apples and fresh tea

 

Setting sail on our tour of the hongs

Setting sail on our tour of the hongs

 

Entrance to the hong through the cave

Entrance to the hong through the cave

 

On our canoe with Tom our tour guide

On our canoe with Tom our tour guide

 

Jellyfish!

Jellyfish!

 

Enjoying the views from our canoe - let the guys do the paddling!

Enjoying the views from our canoe – let the guys do the paddling!

 

Gorgeous views of the islands

Gorgeous views of the islands

After dinner we had a very intriguing encounter with a historical Thai practice. Traditionally done each November, the Thai people celebrate the Floating Crown festival by creating unique “krathongs” from natural materials, like banana leaves and flowers and bamboo. Each krathong is created with a person’s unique creativity, and we were able to make our own. As Tom explained with passion the activity he had done each year since he was a little boy, I was so excited to be able to witness the activity first-hand. He taught us how to fold the leaves and pin the flowers to the banana stalk and cut orchids into birds. Once the krathong was complete, we added three incense sticks, symbolic of three Buddhist beliefs, and several candles to light the kratong in the water. Tom canoed us out to the coves and we lit our krathong under the full moon and let it go, symbolic of letting go of all of the bad energy of the past year and welcoming into 2013 good luck and health. Though I’m sure Max was overwhelmed with the cheesy aspects, I was enamored and thrilled at the experience – Thai culture at its finest.

Our kissing krathong

Our kissing krathong

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Goodbye 2012 - hello luck in 2013!

Goodbye 2012 – hello luck in 2013!

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Bailey’s, backpackers and monkeys…oh my!

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Singapore was a blast! An amazing transportation system compliments the efficient nature of the local culture – it was refreshing to experience a city that is so clean and safe.

Singapore from Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Singapore from Marina Bay Sands Hotel

We visited Sentosa Island, which houses many resorts and water attractions and is just a short train ride from the city center. The Gardens by the Bay were absolutely stunning – a must-visit free attraction for all. A visit during the day was a bit unbearably hot, however we did make it back later that night in time to see the amazing water and light production in front of Marina Bay Sands as well as the gardens lit up in fluorescent colors.

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We stumbled upon many foodie havens – dove right in despite a complete language barrier and tasted some of the best Asian food to date. We snacked daily on wonton and dumpling soups, curry puffs, and fried noodle dishes with names I wouldn’t dream of attempting to pronounce. Thanks to Groupon, we also learned quite a bit about the ancient Chinese science of Feng shui at a lovely downtown office – now just to get a place with my own things so that I can put in into practice!

Feng shui seminar downtown

Feng shui seminar downtown

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The Promenade

The Promenade

Angry birds faces on our gondola ride to Sentosa Island

Angry birds faces on our gondola ride to Sentosa Island

Chinatown time!

Chinatown time!

Market in Batam Island, Indonesia

Market in Batam Island, Indonesia

The next day it was on to Phuket Town, so we bid a sad farewell to the shiny and pristine Singapore airport and headed off to Thailand with a bottle of Christmas Bailey’s in hand (Max’s little tradition that I have gratefully become a part of). Culture shock hit in the form of dozens of little Thai people trying to sell us shuttles and taxis and rental cars from the airport. We opted for the cheapest shuttle we could find – 150 Thai Baht, which is roughly around $5.50 US dollars. Considering the trip nearly took an hour, I’d say we got a steal! It was a quick night in Phuket Old Town, where we had a Christmas dinner of pad thai and curry at a local spot; though I must say given the number of scantily clad young Thai beauties working there and the fact that we were the only ones not old and male…I’m not sure they are best known for their delicious food ; )

Christmas night was a blast; we relaxed in our five star Metropole Hotel room (a mere $66 US dollars a night) downed some Bailey’s to Max’s Christmas tunes and Skyped with our moms (they are our biggest heroes) before we knew we would be roughing it the rest of our time in Thailand without internet.

Bright and early the next morning it was off to Don Phi Phi island about an hour off the coast of Phuket. After spending less than 24 hours in Thailand I grasped that the Thai people are extremely friendly and very accommodating. They insist on carrying your bags (even Max’s) and literally expect you to let them do everything. We arrived to a very hectic pier, and ignoring the sweltering heat we marveled at our surroundings. Beautiful longtail boats bobbed around us, the fronts covered in colorful sashes which the Thai believe bring good luck. We made our way to our hotel through the cobblestone roads filled with swerving bicyclists, men with wheelbarrows (which is their only other form of transport) and – of course – drunk backpackers getting their holiday party on.

Phi Phi island is hands down the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Looking out from the coast you are blinded by the bright water splashing up onto the flawless white sand. After exploring a bit we stumbled upon a local bar called the Sunflower, where chilled tunes played as a small group of locals swung in hammocks and lounged on cushions. The bar had a shipwreck theme, $3 cocktails made with fresh fruit and the most gorgeous sunset view ever – we found our place on Phi Phi.

A local pushing a wheelbarrow of supplies around the narrow lane ways on the island

A local pushing a wheelbarrow of supplies around the narrow lane ways on the island

The locals don’t wear shoes, there are wild cows and chickens and monkeys running around, and the food is dirt cheap and freshly made. There are so many street vendors selling bags of carved fruit, fruit juices, frozen cocktails and beer, and pretty much any variety of meat you can imagine. Aside from the overwhelming number of underage Westerners that swarm the bars late at night, Phi Phi is pretty much paradise.

Phi Phi at night.

Phi Phi at night.

Look who we ran into on the street!

Look who we ran into on the street!

We hopped on board with Canadian Captain Bob’s sailboat tour. Although the small and poorly maintained boat was crammed over capacity, all of our worries faded away as we made our way toward Monkey Beach. We kayaked over to the beach from the boat and to our dismay realized our camera batter had run out! Not that we had time to stress over that, as we were more concerned with the flesh-eating monkeys that hissed at us and overtook our kayak in search of food. Next stop was cliff jumping, which we opted out of after seeing one of the guys nearly fall to his death after jumping and getting caught in the branches of a tree, cutting his chest pretty badly. On our way to Maya Bay, we stopped to hear the history of how Thai people value the regurgitated fluids produced by a certain type of mountain bird, and because of this many still venture up the deadly cliffs of the islands to get the bird snot, which is believed to grant youthfulness. After snorkeling and seeing Maya Beach (the beach in Leo DiCaprio’s “The Beach”), we skidded to see a sunset in a secluded cove, floating in lifejackets with a beer in one hand and camera in the other. Finally, we had a proper sail back to the island and drifted off into a deep sleep.

Captain Jack our local Thai deckhand

Captain Jack our local Thai deckhand

Woohoo! Snorkeling in Maya Bay

Woohoo! Snorkeling in Maya Bay

Setting sail with our cranky and hungover Canadian Captain Bob

Setting sail with our cranky and hungover Canadian Captain Bob

Fresh seafood buffet on the beach

Fresh seafood buffet on the beach

Gorgeous island scenery - Thai longtail boats

Gorgeous island scenery – Thai longtail boats

Relaxing beds on the beach

Relaxing beds on the beach

Saving the Best For Last: Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef

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Saying goodbye to Maggie Island at Radical Bay

Saying goodbye to Maggie Island at Radical Bay

A few days before leaving the island M and I were tying up all loose ends – I was scrambling to finish my work with both Hotel Arcadia and Rockaway PR and he was busy making arrangements for our apartment and our initial arrival in Singapore.

Time flew, and before I knew it we were rushing home to finish packing, and as I sat on top of my suitcase to zipper its bulging contents reality hit and I began reflecting on the past year I have spent in Australia. Just two days before, we woke up at dawn to take the most popular hike on the island to enjoy all of its secluded bays. The island is any beachgoer’s dream come true – picture secluded beaches with not a single person in sight, and many are well-kept secrets, sheltered by mangroves blocking much of the view from the open ocean.  I watched once more as a stunningly white cockatoo flew above, making sounds similar to an eagle – their beauty has never ceased to stop me dead in my tracks.

Oh Maggie, you will truly be missed. Thank you for teaching me to RELAX.

Oh Maggie, you will truly be missed. Thank you for teaching me to RELAX.

We hopped the ferry to town and as we waved a measly goodbye to our island, I realized it would always be a part of my heart and memories. An emotional attachment to its wildlife, easygoing culture and no-stress lifestyle has grown on me. I will take home traces of the island weaved into my personality, and will always remember fondly our time on Magnetic Island.

Our adventure has only begun – we are on our way to Singapore from Cairns, Australia, where we have spent the last two days exploring The Great Barrier Reef. A natural wonder so massive its fluorescent blue waters can be spotted from outer space!

Captain Kel!

Captain Kel!

This time making two day cruises with Ocean Premier Cruises, I had one goal in mind: to conquer my biggest fear. Like many, I have always been terrified of the ocean (as I should be, really).  My number one aspiration in coming to Australia was to go diving in the Reef, and by golly I was going to do it!

Ready to conquer my biggest fear...

Ready to conquer my biggest fear…

Climbing aboard day one on the Ocean Freedom boat, we joined about 65 people as we made our way to the Reef to embark on our first introductory dive. A bubbly and welcoming crewmember Kelly talked me through the experience and her excitement calmed my unsettled nerves. When we docked at the Reef and returned from a lovely glass-bottom boat tour on a separate smaller vessel, they called our group number and it was time to get ready.  We hooked our arms through the oh-so-heavy scuba vests and all too quickly were being launched off the edge of the boat into the glowing waters surrounding. With one hand on my mouthpiece and the other on my mask, the instructor guided us down and we practiced breathing techniques. I cannot describe my terror in ducking under for the first time. Not breathing through my nose was so difficult, and all of the tricks on how to clear your mask of water and clear your mouthpiece from water were too much for my racing mind to comprehend.  Under the water, a chilled out instructor with dreadlocks for some reason made me feel at ease. We practiced breathing and he grabbed me in one hand and Max in the other and we found ourselves descending slowly toward the ocean floor. At first it was murky, and all I was focused on was my panic in not being able to breath through my nose.

LET'S DO THIS AHHHHH!!!!!

LET’S DO THIS AHHHHH!!!!!

What if I coughed or sneezed??! What if my nose itches or my contacts get irritated? Squeezing on to his hand for dear life I was unaware of anything but my fear. As he signaled for me to let him know I was ok, I snapped back to reality and gave him the three finger “I’m ok” signal. All of a sudden the reef was upon us and my insecurities were swept away into the sandy current as I was dumbfounded by the views. Beautiful corals of every imaginable color, rainbow reef fish of all shaped and sizes, bulging sea cucumbers and wiggling starfish came into my line of sight. Neon blue fish congregated around a bright green coral, and an iridescent fish wandered happily just inches from my face. The experience went on, and I finally realized that Max and the instructor were still there – who knew? Before you knew it we emerged from the water and were back on the boat gearing up for a snorkel.

First thing we saw hopping in to snorkel was a reef shark and a stingray, which should have scared me but didn’t at all. I surprised myself when I heard one of the crew ushering us over to see the shark and I was the first one in line!

Great Barrier Reef baby!

Great Barrier Reef baby!

Even though M and I were like epileptic losers falling asleep on every single bench we sat on for more than five minutes (we went straight from our overnight greyhound to the cruise ship), the day was absolutely amazing!

I conquered you, ocean.

I conquered you, ocean.

On our way back to Globetrotters backpackers we made a pit stop in the stunning infinity pool, which sits on the coast and in the center of the CBD. I took a quick dip and then we dragged ourselves home and crashed like two boulders off a cliff.

Day two was arguably one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. We hopped aboard the Ocean Free sailboat and grabbed some brekky as we lathered up in sunblock.  Two hours later we docked at Green Island, in the middle of the Reef. With only 16 passengers, the crew knew we had dived the day before and scheduled us to dive first. The instructor had a chat to us beforehand, letting us know he would give us a little more freedom to let go of him if we would like. M nodded excitedly, and I said, “I think you should just hold my hand the whole time.” Haha – I wasn’t that confident yet!

Lovin the sunshine and fresh air!

Lovin the sunshine and fresh air!

My nerves eased as we set off gently down in the water, and as if the experience could top the day before, it did. The reef towered on our right, and enormous black and blue fish swam in and out of unseen hidden spaces, oblivious to our presence around them. We swam just inches from the coral, and seconds later the instructor gave us the “clownfish” signal, which is one thumb on your nose and wiggling your fingers – lucky I remembered our tutorial or I would have thought he was crazy! Straight out of Finding Nemo, a swaying anemone housed about eight clownfish which danced through its arms. The instructor gave me a light push down toward the fish so I could get a close up of them and I nearly squealed with delight (until I realized what that would do to my mask). We swam through a crevice and spotted a giant clam, which looked like it was covered in purple velvet and snapped gently shut as we swam over it. I signaled to the instructor that I wanted a picture, and Max swam over to me for the quick pic.

He instructed us and pulled us downward telling us in dive sign language to kneel on the floor. Here we were, kneeling on the bottom of the most infamous underwater ecosystem, taking a picture and living the dream. After taking the picture, I let go of his hand and held Max’s hand happily until it was time to get back to the boat.

We snorkeled again and then headed to Green Island where we explored for about an hour. Going back to our boat via dinghy, we snorkeled once more and then changed and relaxed for the ride home. We met the skipper, who told us stories of how he had been a private captain for several billionaires around the world. He stressed how at one point in his life he tried to chase money and have nice things, and how life drew him back to his job on the boats – everyday happiness, he said, was so much more important. Funniest thing was he worked for a billionaire in South Florida, what a small world!

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What an experience we had – one we will never forget as long as we live. From the Reef to the Singapore rail – it is all a dream come true.

A Life Without Chewing Gum or Graffiti: First Impressions of Singapore

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Since I cannot access my laptop where I wrote all about our fabulous adventures in The Great Barrier Reef, I will have to backtrack to that one when we get to the next country, where I will hopefully be able to purchase a universal adapter to plug it in!

The law in Singapore states that citizens may not chew gum or use spray paint in public. Imagine M’s dismay – gum is an integral part of his everday life. Why no chewing gum or spray paint? Well, from what I’ve come to understand, Singapore prides itself on being a clean and safe city – those in their eyes are the two things that contribute to other city’s lack of those qualities.

You have the remain silent – nothing new to us right? Well actually not only do Singaporeans have the right to remain silent but they almost always do remain silent! As we stepped foot into the airport, there was no music playing and the silence hit us like a tsunami (mainly because it is the opposite of our American and Australian cultural tendencies). It’s not that you feel out of place, necessarily, only that you are painfully aware of the lack of chatter, laughter and the usual sounds of the bustling public. The silence amazingly extends to the train system, which is nearly the best I’ve encountered in my life – everything is automated, the cars are absolutely spotless, and actually it’s quite relaxing to zip across the brightly lit city in a silent train.

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M got sick the first night we were in town, so we headed to the Bugis Junction Food Court across from Tree in Lodge Hostel where we are staying to grab some grub. Food Courts in Singapore are not what you would think back home – they are in malls and shopping centers, but they include nearly 100 food vendors all selling authentic local and international cuisine. Insanely cheap prices make picking your poison quite a daunting task. Good thing we were so tired or we could have been there all night looking at the different foods, NONE OF WHICH we recognized. We settled on Omu Yakisoba, singpore noodles topped with egg, mayo and a sweet sauce.

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Day two and I am jetlagged beyond recognition – we decide to head on a day trip to Batam Island, Indonesia, about a 45 minute boat ride from Singapore.

I will just lead into the story by saying that as we waited to go back home to Singapore, this was our exchange:

“You have to write down the highlights of this day so I don’t forget” – k

“Ok…geez, where do I start?!” – m

As I suspected, Batam Island was not much of a sight to see. When we stepped off the boat, I felt as if I had been transported to the SuperMall on Pulaski in Chicago, and for those who don’t catch my drift, think rows of black market goods and sketchy vendors galore.

We headed across the street to the “Matahari” (or Mega Mall), alert to the consistent stares and whispering from the locals around. I have never been more proud to have a tall and handsome American boy on my arm haha.

For the next two hours, we got lost in the overcrowded shelves of the severely discounted stores. We bought a personalized keychain for 50,000 rupiahs, or $2.00. Beers were a measly $1, no matter which one you wanted.

We went to HypeMart, which I assumed to be similar to WalMart or Big W. Walking through the doors we had salesmen pitching us to buy a motorcycle – random, pass. We checked our bags at the counter and got a number as we continued on this culture shock trek through the mall. Rows and rows of every kind of Ramen noodle you could imagine, chefs cooking cheap local eats in the store, children dancing to Christmas songs on a stage.

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After nabbing a few local treats made of pressed fruits and some fresh fruits we had never tried, we decided to get some lunch.

We were browsing the menu of an Indonesian restaurant (which was completely in Bahasa, or Indonesian), I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to find a man with a Canadian accent saying “The food here is pretty good if you are wondering.”

Excited to hear a familiar accent in such a deeply foreign atmosphere, we turned to start conversation with him. Before we knew it he was ushering us into the restaurant and insisting on buying us on beer and having his wife order our food in their language for us. Why not??

The lunch was beyond interesting. My senses were stimulated by a strange dessert – his wife had me try it, it was a bowl which looked like the strangest soup concoction you have ever seen. She explained in broken English that it was icy cold coconut and strawberry milk with chunks of avocado, lychee, papaya and jello in it. Wowsers!! I tried the avocado and lychee and was blown away, it was amazing – tasted a bit like melted ice cream with sweet fruit in it. Her 5 year-old daughter was an even stranger dessert – sweet corn with chocolate chips, which I decided not to try.

We settled on two adventurous but safe options – authentic chicken sate and corn/chili cakes that were deep fried and a local favorite. The food was delicious, and the local Bintan beer was…well we’ll just leave it at that. Even though it took nearly an hour to get a waiter’s attention, and nearly another 35 minutes to receive our dishes, we are happy we ran into this place.

As the lunch went on, M and I exchanged glances to say “time to go.” The couple were strikingly accomodating, which raised questions in our minds (all translated through brain waves and facial expressions, of course). They insisted that we go home with them and the man ushered Max into a plan of riding his motorcycle around the island. Every minute a new plan was in order – they would take us to their favorite beach a couple hours away – no, they would take us to the jungle where the monkeys lived – or to see their luxuriously big house which the whole island envied (according to him they paid only $1200 USD each year!).

Spying a dodgy plan when we saw it, we gently insisted on going our separate ways as we had plans back in Singapore to tend to. They countered with force, saying that we could reschedule and that once we left Indonesia we wouldn’t be able to get back in. She enticed me by telling me I could call all of my American friends from her home phone, and he promised Max his motorcycle and a cell phone for the day.

Prying ourselves away, we bid them farewell and looked at each other in disbelief. Well, even though the experience wasn’t quite what we had anticipated it was quite a rush. We headed back to the ferry, where we sat down to have a beer and Max bought a pack of Djarum’s, the Indonesian clove-like cigarettes he smoked in his younger years.

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I fell fast asleep on the ferry ride home, losing all control of my overtired and worn-out body. When we got back to Singapore we went to Brewerkz Brewery in Clarke Quay, which was amazing! Reminding a little of City Walk in Orlando, everything was brilliantly illuminated and clubs lined the pedestrian-only paths as crowds of people gathered round to see street performers and live music. Singapore at a glance is truly amazing, cultural and English-speaking as well! We are now heading to lunch in Tanjong Pagar and then a three-hour Feng Shui conference in the city – stay tuned!

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Better Late Than Never: Salad and Sun Chips – Back to Where It All Began…

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I wrote this two month ago when M and I were on a journey back to where the last incredible three months first began – Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands in northern Queensland, Australia.

The weekend promised to be an exciting adventure, full of in-your-face and face-your-fears types of thrills. We boarded a bus at the Townsville Magnetic Island Greyhound station after a lovely ferry ride replete with snacks of salad and SunChips (and of course a couple glasses of delicious Riesling to wash it down).  The bus headed due south, back to our formerly decided and spontaneously departed hometown of Airlie Beach.

The Whitsundays Islands off the northern coast of Australia

The Whitsundays Islands off the northern coast of Australia

The best part of the weekend? Aside from a measly bus fare and hostel fee, it’s was all free!!

Thanks to Max’s great work with YHA hostel Bungalow Bay Koala Village, we are going on a “famil,” where Max gained useful information about the day sailing trips he sells at work. Since I am his partner, his contact at the cruise company offered to comp my tickets as well. A huge thanks to Haylee and her team at Cruise Whitsundays for setting the weekend up for us!

Day One: Great Barrier Reef Adventure Boat

Off to a bit of a late start, Max and I ran frantically down Shute Harbour Road from our room at Magnums Hostel. We arrived at Abel Point harbor just in time to check in and collect our tickets from the Cruise Whitsundays kiosk. About twenty minutes later and we are gathering our two bags and walking down the ramp onto the three-decked cruiser. Immediately I took a pill to prevent seasickness and settled down with a few biscuits and coffee for breakfast.

Ready for action!

Ready for action!

The crewmembers were very friendly in welcoming us on the boat and as we drifted off toward Hamilton Island we received a handful of helpful safety tips and information about the rundown for the day. We stopped very briefly to pick up more passengers from their resorts on Hamilton Island and started to make our way out to The Great Barrier Reef.

This specific tour takes you to a remote area of the reef where they house Reef World, a floating facility of fun! Docking our huge boat next to the Reef World, we disembarked onto the buoyant jetty where we gathered the necessary supplies for the day: fins, snorkels, masks and stinger suits! For those who don’t know, Australia is home to two of the world’s deadliest jelly fish, the Box Jellyfish which is huge and quite hard to miss, and the scarier of the two is the Irukandji Jellyfish, no bigger than your pinky nail.

Before diving into the activities we decided to have a look at the underwater observatory, where we saw lovely striped and brilliantly colored species of reef fish. After spending some time admiring the underwater haven, we opted to have an early lunch and get the freshest of the food.

In the underwater observatory on ReefWorld

In the underwater observatory on ReefWorld

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia...enough said.

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia…enough said.

Me and The Reef, we're on a first name basis by now

Me and The Reef, we’re on a first name basis by now

Back at the original boat (it stays connected the whole day so you can hop back and forth as you wish) we filled our plates with the lunch buffet: Chickpea salad, potato salad, cous cous, fresh mixed greens, roast chicken, fruits, and best of all – fresh shrimp! Although the food was not made for a five star restaurant, it did the trick – a full tummy of food and one Pure Blonde lager later I was ready to dive head first into the crystal clear waters of the snorkeling trail below.

As many of you know I am terrified of the ocean, but I was a brave soul and jumped right in and followed Max until we found ourselves over the reef surrounded by many species of fish. We explored until we began to get pulled by the current and were advised to head back to the boat. When we got back to the boat we had to try one of the novelty activities of this trip – sliding down a waterslide into the Great Barrier Reef. Had you told me I would be doing this two years ago I wouldn’t have believed it!

We fell fast asleep in the warm rays of sun on the trip back to Airlie Beach, and awoke to afternoon tea and headed happily back to our hostel. After grabbing a few beers and a yummy steak dinner at Beaches Bar on Shute Harbour Road we fell fast asleep.

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Heya mate!

Day Two: The Camira Sailing Adventure

The next day was also arguably the best. We were headed out on a trip with the lovely staff of The Camira, a bright purple, sleek and spacious sailing catamaran that boasts some of the fastest speeds of all the world’s commercial sailing vessels. She can reach up to 30 knots, and we were lucky enough to feel some of that power, but more on that soon.

The Camira is very different and gives a much more exclusive and intimate experience to passengers. As we took our shoes off upon boarding we got to know the handful of staff by name straightaway. Morning tea was served immediately and we sailed off to Daydream, one of many islands in the collection of the Whitsundays. Picking up only a handful of passengers using our portable dinghy, the sails were set and we sat back and relaxed as we headed for one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

There she is, setting sail aboard the Camira Catamaran

There she is, setting sail aboard the Camira Catamaran

Whitehaven Beach, infamously known as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The beauty of this beach lies within its pearly white banks of sand made of nearly 100% silica, making it so fine it feels like baby powder between your toes! Building a sandcastle proved a challenge with sand so soft, so I decided to bury Max instead (even that was difficult because the sand kept slipping off of him)! When the hour long stop was over we headed back to our boat and were greeted with two welcomed treats: food and booze!

Only with the finest sands in the world would I bury my boy

Only with the finest sands in the world would I bury my boy

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Making a sand turtle with the purest sand in the world

M & I at Whitehaven Beach, said to be "the most beautiful beach in the world"

M & I at Whitehaven Beach, said to be “the most beautiful beach in the world”

We piled our plates with the sizzling meats fresh off the barbie (cooked on-board by one of our fabulous crew members): steak, local mackerel reef fish, sausages and chicken! Pair that with a glass of white and Max and I were full on ready to take a nap – but not before the best part of the day! We once again put our stinger suits on and hopped into the tiny dinghy, which took us (terrifyingly) into the middle of the ocean along an uninhabited island to snorkel. Having to hop out in the deep water, I took a deep breath and held Max’s hand as I dipped my head down to see what was beneath.

Am I ever glad I did! There were beautiful big reef fish, pinks and purples and bright blues that were happily scurrying along around us looking for food without a care in the world. Luckily I got some great pics so I don’t have to explain the rest to you:

Snorkelling near the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkelling near the Great Barrier Reef

On the ride home we had the thrill of a lifetime – we caught the outskirts of an incoming storm and as the wind filled our sails we really built up a lot of speed. Our crewmembers urged us to go outside to enjoy this unique sailing experience. Ignoring the icicles running through our bodies from the strong gusts, Max and I stumbled clumsily along the top of the boat onto the trampolines on the front and plopped down violently as we reached a high speed of 21 knots. The trampolines, unfortunately, are made of criss-crossed material, which definitely lets water through. We were squealing with delight as we continued to hit waves and went flying around the trampoline. Ten minutes later a sopping wet Max and Kelly crawled happily back to the cabin, full of adrenaline.

The Camira was amazing – I highly recommend this to anyone looking for an adventurous and unique experience in the Whitsundays.

Again, a tremendous thanks to Haylee and crew for all of their help and we look forward very much to taking future trips with Cruise Whitsundays.

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The sun sets on another goofy day with M & K – Airlie Wannabe “Beach” at sundown

Somebody Pinch Me, My Life Is Not Real

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Today was our last day on the island. I mean seriously, had you told me a year ago that I would be sitting at a bar on an island with barefoot locals while I sipped Aussie beer and thoroughly enjoyed watching my boss in her uniform stumbling on the dance floor to Stairway to Heaven, well, I would never have believed you. I have had a love hate relationship with the island, because at times it sheltered me from everything I knew – no car or way of getting around, no bars or nightlife and generally nothing to do. It also taught me vital lessons, which I have to document so I will never forget:

1. It is okay to be bored sometimes, it prompts reflection and relaxes you

2. Anything can be done alone – going for a hike, to the beach, to a bar or restaurant (funny lesson but it sometimes I have been self-conscious to do things on my own)

3. TV is something I could live without completely

4. Showing a genuine interest in every person opens doors you never knew existed

5. Living without a proper stove AND oven in the kitchen is completely impractical

Anyhow those are just a few. Back to my informal farewell party, which could be more accurately pegged as a normal night at the local pub where absolutely everybody within a five mile radius goes to have a drink or ten. I looked around, and though I have at times felt a bit out of place because of the drastic cultural differences, I realized that I had become a part of the crowd. The island is one big family, disfunctional as any, and I will miss them very much!

As we boarded the ferry about 30 minutes ago, I felt a lump in my throat as I goofily waved goodbye in an effort to make Max laugh and lighten my mood. Another chapter closes, and my portable life is packed once again in these worn-out suitcases. We are currently waiting for our Greyhound to Cairns, where we will go diving in The Great Barrier Reef and then fly to Singapore to begin our Asian invasion for the holidays…stay tuned!

Americana Island Indulgences

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Almost eight months before today, I embarked on a journey on my own to the other side of the world. I arrived in Australia disoriented and even confused, fighting my natural urge to “freak out” at my unemployed and nearly homeless state.

I have learned on my trip to appreciate what I classify as “reality checks.” Moments where you stop, take in your surroundings whether they be people or nature, and think ‘Wow, I’m not sure how I got here but it ROCKS.’

As I lie in an adorable wooden bungalow surrounded by a koala forest which is situated on an island miles off the coast of Australia, I am experiencing another “reality check” moment.  I can hear the whistle of very loud exotic birds, and there are no windows but only screens on our bungalow so I can listen to the possums searching for food and the koalas munching their gum leaves happily in the trees. As you might imagine it is a bit unnerving for this city girl but I am getting accustomed to the ways of the wild quite rapidly these days.

How the hell did I end up here? Well that is an interesting story. It all started when Max and I decided we would like to relocate out of windy Melbourne to a place where the sun was strong and the beach was rockin’. After much research –  pause as a wallaby hops by loudly haha – we decided to pack up shop and move to Airlie Beach. AB is said to be a haven for beachgoers, and it is situated at the base of The Whitsundays, a collection of nearly 74 remote islands which are home to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the state of Queensland in Australia. The countdown was on as soon as we arrived home from New Zealand.

Bethany and her boyfriend Dave were nice enough to let us crash on their couches for a couple of days while we finished up packing and working and prepared to set off. I had decided to go down from the three bags I brought to two, making it easier to travel. Four Salvation Army trips later I was ready for action, and felt so relieved to have given all of my things away for a fresh start.

Late on my last night in Melbourne I walked slowly down Bourke Street in the CBD reflecting on my stay in this amazing city. As I watched two friends walk by chatting about their night I felt a pang of sadness come over me. Melbourne has grown on me and etched its own place in my heart. This city has taught me much about who I am, and more so who I am not – it has brought me closer to the search for the real me.  A city full of people who are happily themselves, regardless of their dress or demeanor. This is the first city which I have felt truly a part of and I know it will be missed.

My melancholy faded away slowly as I boarded a plane to Brisbane in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, and I fell fast asleep against Max’s shoulder. I awoke to bright rays of sunshine in my eyes, which in my book is always a welcomed occurrence, and I stretched my arms excitedly. Brisbane was exactly halfway to our beautiful new hometown of Airlie Beach! Our second flight was short, yet I still managed to get some shut eye and woke up yet again to a bright sunshine in my eyes. Max was wide awake with a grin from ear to ear.

“That was seriously the most beautiful flight of my life,” he said, “you totally missed it.”

Me thinking he was being dramatic took a quick glance outside to see a string of deserted islands dotted across a fluorescent blue sea. Boats sailed slowly between them, and as we landed on the most narrow strip I’ve ever seen, we welcomed ourselves to a place called Hamilton Island. We were quite in a daze as we grabbed our bags and boarded a ferry to take us to our new pad.

Landing in Hamilton Island on the way to Airlie Beach

Arriving in Airlie just an hour later we dropped our bags off at our hip hostel called Magnums (and not as in Todd Kurland) and ventured out to explore our new home. Two hours later, we found ourselves having a beer in our hostel, which transforms into a nightclub each night. After a day full of forced optimism, I turned to Max reluctantly and blurted out, “There’s no way in hell I can live here I’m so sorry.”

Sorry Airlie Beach, but this clubber paradise is not my scene….: (

I was certainly relieved to find that Max felt exactly the same way. So what the hell were we to do? Did we make a terrible mistake, and where did we go next? We both had all of our belongings with us in our suitcases bursting at the seams. Two young people trying to find a niche in Australia with no clue which direction to go.

Well Max had actually received a job offer about a week prior, which were were leaning towards not taking since it was on a remote island and I would likely not be able to find work. After much talking and researching the next day, we decided to toss our inhibitions aside and dive in head first. Literally 30 minutes later we had booked tickets on a Greyhound bus up to the city of Townsville which is about three hours north of Airlie Beach. We woke up the next morning and after arriving in Townsville bought one way tickets to this mysterious island we knew absolutely nothing about.

Magnetic Island:  discovered by James Cook it received its name when Cook’s compass seemed to go awry when approaching the mass of floating land. We arrived in this land we knew nothing about, which is about 8 kilometres off the coast of Townsville. On our way over we both tapped our sweaty fingers against the table on the ferry as we wondered where this was all going to end up. Just for kicks, Max called a realtor we found on a travel brochure at the ferry station to see what rental prices would be. He hung up and told me how much he loved this place already. The realtor had offered to pick us up from the ferry and show us the places he had for rent for us. Why not??!! We hop in the stranger’s van upon arrival and he drives us up the island’s hilly roads giving us all of the history of the land. As we come to the apartments which are located on what used to be a resort property, Max and I look at each other bewildered. The cost of renting is about half here what it is in Melbs…too good to be true?

The realtor proceeds to give us a tour of the entire island, which only takes about 15 minutes driving to get all the way across. After our tour, he offers to drop us off at our hostel, which is coincidentally where Max got his job offer. First, he picks up his daughter from school and we head off. We discover along the way as we are driving that the island has a very tight-knit community, and each person we pass waves at Guy, our realtor, as he nods his head in acknowledgement. He even knows Max’s boss and all of the staff at the hostel where he would be working.

When we arrive at the hostel we are greeted by Max’s potential coworkers, who toss us a set of keys and send us to the most luxurious bungalow cabin they have. Shortly after venturing around the island area we decide we will do everything in our power to get me a job so that we can stay here and experience this drastically different lifestyle. We have a complimentary stay in the cosy and modern cabin, and wake up in the morning both terrified and ecstatic. Inspired by the warm breeze and beautiful forest around us, we go for a jog down the street to Horseshoe Bay, an amazing beach where many participate in water sports like kayaking, boating, surfing and tubing year-round.

As we come to the end of the beach, we find a sign for a hiking trail and decide to take a trip to one of the islands secluded bays that is listed on the map. Ignoring the information we had found on the several venomous species of snakes and spiders on the island, we went tromping through the forest looking for koalas along the way. We spotted a wallaby just as we were arriving, and were astounded by the views from the bay. Imagine a beach with more animal prints than human footprints. The sand was untouched by human hands and had likely gone unvisited for at least a week. Max and I fell silent in awe and amazement at the possibility of being able to hike here every day.

Horseshoe Bay at sunset – just down the street from where Max works

On our way home, we ran into a group of kookaburras resting on a rail quietly. Max headed off to have a chat with the owner of the hostel and find out whether he was interested in the job, as I hit the ground running on my job hunt on the island just in case. Cold calling each hostel and restaurant on the island (there aren’t that many trust me) I became discouraged to find that nobody seemed to be hiring. Disappointed, I decided I would go back to the mainland in Townsville the next day to see what they had to offer me there. You can actually work there and commute – it takes about 20 minutes – but it is really expensive ($30 return trip and $110 for 10 one-way trips).

We walked around the island a bit more and dropped off my resume at a few key places around town. After visiting the local IGA supermarket (one of only two supermarkets on the island), I picked up a community newspaper. In short, there was a tiny ad posted “Waitress needed at hotel – call 07 4778 5517.” 24 hours later, I had a job at a local bistro halfway between our new apartment (we signed on for a week to week contract with realtor Guy and his wife Cindy) and Bungalow Bay where Max accepted his job.

Pool at the hotel I am working at

What is life on an island like? Many of you, like myself, have asked yourself this question. Well we have landed ourselves two hospitality gigs and set up shop temporarily on a remote island off the coast of Australia. The transition from city life to island life has been, well, surprisingly smooth!

It may have been hard to accept a few of the facts:

–       There is only one bus and it only runs once an hour each day

–       There are two small food stores which are about twice the price of regular food; additionally forget about getting fresh veg and fruit…

–       The latest bar open is midnight – in order to get there I must wear a helmet and ride on Max’s handle bars of his bicycle sixth-grade style

–       There are three “neighborhoods” which are all about 10 minutes apart

–       Two weeks after arriving, the bus driver greeted me “Get on kid, I know where you live already”

–       Most people boarding the bus greet the driver and several other people by name

–       Once on a bus home from work we off-roaded across a valley just to tell people at another bus that the only other running bus on the island was 10 minutes late, then we reversed all the way back to the road

–        In my interview for a job at a local hotel, my interviewer asked where else I had applied. I mentioned that I had applied at a venue on the mainland, and he said he had recently had lunch and was good friends with the owner of that venue…

So I am now working at Hotel Arcadia managing the front of house portion of their bistro. The bistro, once a buzzing and trendy, now suffers of outdated decor and is in desperate need of some TLC! I have been hard at work, being the only waitress, cashier, Barista (coffee maker), dishwasher and busboy in the team. In the one or two spare moments that I have I study the menu, which I have secretly begun to redesign in my spare time at home.

The biggest adaptation for me on this island has been the amount of free time I have, most involuntarily induced. Mainly, my work schedule forces me to have a very large chunk of time off each day, so that I have a break from 2:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. on some days! Since we don’t have a car, I have had to improvise and find ways to keep myself occupied during that time period (there is virtually nothing around the hotel where I work, except the hotel itself). Conveniently the hotel is situated just steps from a beautiful and very popular beach called Alma Bay. Alma Bay is the central tourist attraction, and is known for its surfing, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and its unique shore lined with enormous boulders which welcome climbers of all ages.

Alma Bay, across the street from my job

My initial reaction to my schedule was a bit of panic – three to four hours to myself each day? What was I supposed to do during that time…I was so used to squeezing in a quick bite to eat and then booking back to my desk and engrossing myself in my work. One week into my new life began the most foreign process…things were…well, slowing down. My mind didn’t race, I didn’t have anxiety about all of the unread emails and unanswered phone messages, all of the deadlines to meet that day and how I would ever finish my to-do list. Work ends at 3:00, and picks up again later – that’s all there is to it.

I soon discovered my favourite place on the bay – sandwiched between four huge boulders there is a sunny, sandy and quiet cove. I began visiting the secluded spot and started a daily ritual. Wearing my swimsuit under my work uniform, I run out of work and straight to my spot to cuddle up and read a book.

The boulders at Alma Bay, which form sandy little getaways where I love to read during my lunch breaks

My latest craze is a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (and also yes, admittedly also Fifty Shades of Grey – I had to see what all the fuss was about). This is one book that, although I can never put it down, takes me ages to get through. Each page is full of so many bits of useful information, the kind of stuff you take in and then digest throughout the entire day. Rubin begins a year long project after she jumps on a quest to find out what happiness is and how she can control her own happiness as well as that of those around her.

The book has been hugely insightful, and has really opened my eyes to the pros of being a proactively happy person. Instead of dreading my three to four hours break each day, I have been starting to ask myself how I can be productive and squeeze in things I may not have time for in a couple months’ time.

When the sun sets around 4:45, the rays cast the most beautiful glare on the mountains covered in trees and palms. It is so serene, and coincidentally at this time the beaches clear out as the breeze picks up and scares everyone to their hotels where it is warmer. This is my favorite part of the day.

Another amazing advantage of working where I do is the boat ramp directly across the street and just next to Alma Bay. After walking along Geoffrey Bay for about ten minutes, you come to a boat ramp where dozens of rock wallabies gather to laze around and get some grub from visitors. For about $2.50 you can get a huge bag of food and head down to feed the little critters and take advantage of a great photo opp!

Feeding the rock wallabies during my lunch break

At the end of the night I typically take a bus ride home at 9:20 p.m., which is the last run. While I wait I sit at the dark bus stop and see wallabies, possums, curlews (exotic and very loud birds), kookaburras, and of course lots of big tropical bugs! In the case that I miss the bus (due to either a late clean up in the bistro or late night chatting with my work friends) I have two options: walk or run.

The view on my way to or from work

I’ve run and walked home several times, and the journey back to our humble abode is absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable. As you leave the hotel you walk down the main dirt road which takes a curve up the mountainside, and simultaneously the area becomes pitch black as there are no longer street lights. It is a bit alarming at first, since all you can hear are the thuds and hops of wallabies and the crash of the sea waves against the rocks below, but you quickly get used to it – especially on nights where the moon is so bright that it illuminates the whole area. Once you reach the other side of the mountain there is a long road that turns left and takes you to our home. We live in a previously successful resort which has gone downwards very quickly and is now being renovated. Because times are tough, rent is dirt cheap and include all bills (less than $800 a month total – which unfortunately is dirt cheap in Australia).

Our little home in The International Resort in Nelly Bay, Magnetic Island (this is the living room don’t ask why there is a bed in it)

Possibly the best part of my trip to the island is that I am working 25 to 30 hours a week here, making more than I did at my last job working well over 45! Plus, as if this country doesn’t offer enough glimmer and sparkle to attract your interest, they give each and every worker a mandatory 9% “superannuation” – that’s right, when I leave the country I will get 9% of whatever I have made in the year I’ve been here, delivered directly into my checking account back home (minus a bit of tax deduction from the Australian Government, but as far as I’m concerned I’m getting a good deal).

Max is working at Bungalow Bay, an eco-friendly youth hostel in Horseshoe Bay, which is on the other side of the island, as a Bar and Reception manager. The best part of his job (aside from the free pizza and beer he gets each day) is that there is a wildlife sanctuary on site. We went on the wildlife tour for free and got to hold a baby crocodile, black cockatoo, lizards, turtles, pythons and drumroll……KOALAS! It was amazing and an experience I will never forget.

Noah and baby Joey

Kissing “Shadow,” the very rare black cockatoo

Max and “Barbie,” the baby crocodile at Bungalow Bay where he works

Our buddy Noah the koala

YIKES! Sam the python – a NATIVE species to Magnetic Island where we live (and surprisingly one of the snakes we don’t have to worry about)

After a while of feeding the local birdies they were starting to become a little agressive (afterwards it looks like I had played with a string of barbed wire, those suckers can scratch!)

On our way up from Hamilton Island

Taking a hike on my lunch break…he’s a goof

Posing in front of Radical Bay (in my work uniform haha)

I’ve learned so much about life here on this island – it has forced me to realize that I need to slow down – and that slow is good sometimes. I have made the plunge from city life to small town island life, and a place where everybody knows your name is strangely intriguing to me.

I promise to write another blog very soon and update more of my island experiences, I must admit I have opened my computer no more than eight times since I arrived (I thrive on my phone). It has been a bit nice to shut out reality for a while and ignore the internet with all of the noise and anxiety it can bring to my life. For now, I will continue developing my island persona, and take advantage of all of the learning I have to do here during this unique period of my life. REALITY CHECK!!

Our beautiful island, a welcomed change of pace for these two Americans