Body & Mind : My Last Week in Sri Lanka

So I'm still at the same beach house in Ambalangoda but this last week is all about relaxation and introspection. Two other girls are participating in this week's activities as well; one from Austria and one from Germany. The only things officially on the agenda are a daily morning massage, a short yoga class in the afternoon and then maybe meditation on Friday with a monk at a local temple. I supplemented the mind part on my own by devouring several books during my abundant free time. (I also still helped out with the turtles, too.) 

Full/Blue Moon

Full/Blue Moon

BODY // MASSAGE

My morning ayervedic massages were performed by a small, smiley Sri Lankan lady name Udena. First there is the topless head, scalp and shoulder massage. (Beth, you would slip into a blissful coma and possibly die of complete, tactile nirvana.) I sit in a chair and she pours some herbal, ayervedic oil on my head then works it into my hair and scalp with a sequence of scratches and strokes. Then she braids my oily and slightly thicker hair. For some reason, I find head/scalp massage the most relaxing - it affects the entire rest of my body. After that, I lay down on the padded table for the foot massage. It's very thorough and relaxing with a bit of reflexology-ish pressure point stimulation. (Dad, you would fall asleep and instantly have dreams of walking weightlessly on cotton candy clouds.)

The first time, I thought she was only going to do my head and feet, but she transitioned on to rub down all the parts in between. Arms, hands, thighs, legs and then stomach and chest. It was a bit awkward for me because I've never had a boob-and-tummy massage before but its not bad. Then I flip over and she does the back of my arms & legs, my glutes and finally my back. My muscles are temporarily the consistency of banana pudding and it takes all of my willpower to convince my coarse motor skills to start functioning again. 

At this point I'm covered head to toe in ayervedic massage oil. I looked at the bottle but it's all in Singhale so I can't read a word of it. I asked Udena what was in it and she said simply "herbs." So my last resort was to try to identify it by smell, which is my third failed attempt at deciphering what the oil is made from or what's in it. I can say it smells rich, savory, herb-y and earthy, almost like a mossy forest floor after the rain mixed with wood, mushrooms and maybe some nuts. It honestly smells and feels like I'm being tenderized and marinated in preparation for a large Thanksgiving-style feast. It's not a bad smell but I don't love it either. 

If I could, I would fold her up and put her in my pocket so I can continue to experience her magical massage powers throughout my travels and share them with others. But, I just don't think the rest of the world is ready for the massage equivalent of self-actualization. 

MIND // BOOK CLUB

Walden | Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I finally finished Walden after starting it months ago. This is because 1) I read it very sporadically, and only during my travels, 2) its 373 pages of tiny type and 3) I frequently had to make note of and look up definitions to tons of antiquated and/or SAT-level vocabulary words. 

Basically, it's his adventure in self-reliance and self-reflection while living at a house he built on Walden Pond. There's a ton of satire, great poetic descriptions and narration, philosophy, advice, observations and even some rather prophetic predictions. I'll read it again or possible several more times and more quickly now that I have several words defined in the margins. 

Paper Towns | John Green, 2008

 A roommate of mine left this book so I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I finished it in under 48 hours, not because I found it particularly enthralling but because it's an easy read and I have a lot of free time. 

I was expecting it to be your typical vapid YA novel describing the same old tired high school stereotypes but I was surprised to find I could actually relate to it. Girl is fed up with conventional life (in Florida of all places) and decides to leave everything behind in search of something more substantial. 

A good part of the plot is built around poetry by Walt Whitman: Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass. I coincidentally just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Both men were writers and part of the Transcendentalist movement in America during the nineteenth century. So, a lot of the underlying philosophy overlaps between those two books, despite them being written over 150 years apart. 

I also like the message of trying to see people for who they really are, not what you expect them to be. The irony is, in high school when I would have been the ideal target for this book, I was definitely more of a Q but now several years later, I've definitely transitioned to being more of a Margo. 

TRAVEL TIP #3: BOARDING PASSES MAKE GREAT BOOKMARKS!

The Fault in our Stars | John Green, 2012

There was a small, makeshift library of left-behind books in the corner of the common area. Since I had just finished Paper Towns, a friend suggested I read another book by John Greene called The Fault in our Stars. It's about a couple of star-crossed teenagers with various forms and stages of cancer. Kind of a modern, more maladies version of Romeo and Juiet, sans suicide.

It's a great insight into what it feels like to have a terminal illness and makes you appreciate your own health for sure. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but I think it's referencing the inceptional, fictional book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction which just ends leaving several questions unanswered. I plan on watching the movie at some point next week in Malaysia when I have more reliable internet. 

I Wonder Why | Thubten Chodron, 1999

Curious to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in anticipation of visiting the temple later that week, I read I Wonder Why, a free publication that I picked up earlier at a temple in Singapore. It concisely and simply answers the questions asked most often about these aforementioned topics. It was written by a Californian turned Buddhist nun who started meditation and visited Nepal in 1975 and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan. Very interesting and makes it easier to comprehend some of the more complex topics, especially since she has the Western perspective and wasn't just born into the culture. 

BODY // YOGA

After the peak heat and humidity of the day had waned slightly, our Yoga teacher Sasantha would arrive around 5 PM via motorbike. He wore white Kundalini-style yoga clothes was trained in and teaches Hatha style.

Along with Om chanting, he would open and close our practice with Ayubowen (Wishing you a long life; Singhale) instead of Namaste. I tried to go in with an open mind, but I felt like this class was way too basic, maybe on par for toddlers or geriatric clients. There were a handful of poses that I recognized but there was also a lot of filler like glorified stretching of feet, hands and fingers and laying down in savasana for several minutes in the middle of the practice, which I have never done before, and really felt like it interrupted the whole flow. But he did mix in a noticeable amount of meditation, which I liked. 

The worst part was the insects. I put on citronella oil but the mosquitos and flies still buzzed around us. I can't think of a worse hell than trying to meditate amongst mosquitos. I'm still grateful for his time and effort and was a nice, relaxing, not-too-sweaty way to end the day. 

I still continued to do my own Vinyasa practice almost every morning alone in the common area of the beach house. Last week, a few German girls took notice and asked if I could teach them. I ended up teaching two short classes (with simple moves that I was confident I could describe and direct) on two different mornings with up to four girls attending each class. 

MIND // TRIP TO THE TEMPLE

On Friday afternoon, I and the two other girls participating in B&MW piled into a tuk tuk to make the journey to the nearby Shailathalaramaya Temple in Karandeniya, built on a hillside about two centuries ago. It's claim to fame is a 35 meter long reclining Buddha statue, the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

The temple was particularly packed with people due to it being a holiday related to the full moon called Uposatha Observance Day or Poya Day. (This would explain why both the Post Office and our favorite Ice Cream place were closed on Friday.) So, we were lucky to get an hour, or any time at all really, with a monk there named Somissara. He was an amiable, 24-year old monk that just radiated happiness. The only space left for our meditation was in their narrow little alms room, where lay persons brought all kinds of food offerings for the monks. 

He had great English and gave us his life story in a nutshell, including coming to live at the temple at age 7, how he started meditation and his more recent travels across Europe to teach meditation. He recommended starting with Metta (or Loving Kindness) meditation. The goal of this practice is to cultivate a strong wish for the happiness of all other people and animals. We were instructed to close our eyes for 10 minutes and repeat the mantra I wish for all to be well and happy. I edited this a bit to I wish for _______ to be healthy and happy and made it into a med-lib™ (meditation + mad-lib, get it?!), in which I would fill in the following blank with things like: my parents, my sister, my friends, all beings, etc. (Is it coincidence that when I grabbed my phone to take pictures of the temple directly after the meditation, I noticed a rather happy WhatsApp message from my mom?) 

The time went by pretty quickly and even though my eyes were closed, the darkness faintly seemed like I was moving backwards through a tunnel, passing under sporadic overhead lights. However, I couldn't hold the traditional cross-legged position for the entire time. One of my legs started to go numb so I shifted a few times. I raised this concern to Somissara afterwards, and he said it's normal and totally acceptable to shift your physical position when meditating.

Then he gave us a brief tour of the statue, the temple and the grounds. I really enjoyed and appreciated the time he spent with us and approached to shake his hand, but just as quickly recoiled because I suddenly remembered that we're not supposed to touch or take pictures of the monks out of respect for their holiness. 

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

The Moonstone Mine and My Shiny Souvenir

Unrelated to Body & Mind week, my last excursion was to a Moonstone Mine in Meetiyayoda. It was a typical tour-then-try-to-sell-something experience, but while white moonstones are found all over the world, blue moonstones are so rare that they (supposedly) are only found in this single village in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, the moonstone is known as the Traveler's Stone and is supposed to be especially protective when one travels by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. The blue, or cat's eye, variety is believed to promote clarity, focus, awareness and balances energy. 

Upon hearing this, I decided I needed one immediately so even though I'm not typically a "ring person," I purchased a sterling silver ring set with a small blue moonstone for 10,000 rupee ($75 USD). I'm sure I probably overpaid a bit but it came with a certificate of authenticity and I'm directly supporting the Sri Lankan economy. 

Sifting for stones

Sifting for stones

My blue moonstone

My blue moonstone

The Cat Savior & Spectacular Sunsets

My last and completely unanticipated experience that I need to mention happened Friday night when a group of us were walking towards town for ice cream after dinner at the beach house. We are regularly escorted by Milo and some other street dogs, as we were on this trip, but they suddenly and uncharacteristically broke into a full sprint. I saw why as a small cat scrambled up a tree limb. The cat fell and in what seemed like a nanosecond, it was then in Milo's mouth, being shaken violently. 

What happened next was kind of a blur. I didn't really think - I just reacted and kicked the dog, not hard enough to really hurt it, just enough to startle her. She dropped the cat and I reflexively tried to grab the cat and move it away from the dog but instead felt claws puncturing my flesh. I flinched and spun around to see the cat safely behind me. I stood between Milo and the cat, yelling at Milo to go away, until the cat disappeared to safety. Thankfully the other dogs were gone and Milo eventually retreated as well. (I'm choosing to believe that the cat is totally fine now and eternally grateful for me saving it's life.) 

Only then did I stop to evaluate the damage done to my finger. I had a long, jagged scratch almost the entire length of the inside of my right ring finger - the one with my new moonstone ring on it - that was trickling blood and I was super thankful for another girl in my group that had a first aid kit with her and handed me an alcohol wipe and a band aid. I used them immediately then cleaned the wound more thoroughly and applied Neosporin when I got back to the house. 

Last but not least, I need to share pictures of some spectacular sunsets we got to admire this week! 

Bentota and/or Aluthgama, Sri Lanka

Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road. 

We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose. 

Jungle Temple Entrance

Jungle Temple Entrance

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only. 

Simple boats

Simple boats

We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered. 

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries. 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory. 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night. 

Eco Update: Sri Lanka

The most common, and most fun, method of transportation around here is the auto rickshaw, also called a tuk tuk or a three wheeler. It’s kind of a hybrid between a golf cart and a motorcycle and transports a driver and up to three passengers. I’ve had several tuk tuk rides since arriving in Sri Lanka so I was curious to find out how efficient and eco-friendly they are (or aren’t.) 

Since they are so much smaller than standard vehicles, they get much better gas mileage; typically 35 km/liter (or 82 mpg) of petrol and their CO2 emissions are about a third less. Older models have two stroke engines, which cause a lot of particulate (soot) pollution. Newer models with four stroke engines more thoroughly burn the fuel and are more efficient. The Sri Lankan government actually banned two-stroke engines in 2007 to reduce air pollution so most of the tuk tuks here should be four stroke, but I’m sure the old ones still slip through the cracks. (Source)

So overall, I can confirm are much more efficient and also cost much less than traditional taxis. And did I mention, they’re just so much fun to zip around in? They effortlessly swerve right around busses, bikes, pedestrians, cows and whatever else happens to be on the road. 

Living in the beach house sans air con, hot water and basic appliances also saves a lot of energy. They also cook in bulk for the house and the food seems to be pretty local. Lots of rice and noodles and pineapple. Sri Lanka has the best pineapple I’ve ever tasted by the way; the perfect mix of tangy and sweet. I also avoid buying a bunch of plastic bottles and just keep refilling the same one with the filtered water that is provided for us. 

However, there is no recycling anywhere in the country. I seriously cringe and possibly even twitch every time I have to scrape food scraps onto plastic bottles in the bin because I am such a serial recycler at home. 

Skeptical turtle is skeptical 

Skeptical turtle is skeptical 

The turtle compounds are 100% natural and sustainable as far as I can tell because all we use is sea water, sand and coconut husks to clean the turtles and the same plus a few tools to clean the tanks. I confirmed with our coordinator, Isuru, that the fish we feed the turtles is caught by local Sri Lankan fisherman. (I even get to feed some leftover fish to a smart, little kitty that I named Latte since she has milk and coffee colored fur.) The only environmental concern I can discern is the paint we use to add to the hodgepodge murals on the walls. 

Latte is ready for some leftovers!

Latte is ready for some leftovers!

The garbage that accumulates on the surrounding beaches does the most immediate damage, so I bought some garbage bags in town and initiated a clean up effort. In around an hour, we filled five bags, mostly with plastic bottles, orphaned flip flops and pieces of styrofoam. Most people are just apathetic or ignorant or both here and there is trash everywhere. Each time I try to think about a solution for one problem here, it invariably leads to thinking about more problems and more possible solutions and can become an overwhelming and vicious cycle. 

The only thing I was caught off guard by was a boat tour on the Madu River that we did last week. The boats are old with really crappy engines that smell and spew fumes into the air and water. And I know they’re just perpetually running all day taking groups of tourists through the mangroves and to have their feet nibbled by fish. They also exploited a baby monkey and a baby crocodile for pictures (in hopes of tips), which I didn’t like. 

Bad boats. You are not eco-friendly! 

Bad boats. You are not eco-friendly! 

There is definitely lots of progress still to be made in Sri Lanka but I think I am staying pretty true to my sustainable traveling philosophy here.  

Kandy, Sri Lanka (Cultural Orientation)

I’ve had lots of great experiences but limited internet so this is going to be a long one! (But there are also lots of pictures!) 

ARRIVAL

I arrived at Colombo airport in Sri Lanka mid-morning on Sunday. I knew I would need cash for pretty much everything so I tried to use about three different ATMs, all of which denied me money and displayed messages saying that my card was ineligible or reported lost.stolen. After connecting with my Green Lion volunteer group, I used the free airport wifi to skype my bank, but was cut off mid-call due to the shoddy internet signal. (I actually ended up having to borrow money from a new friend until I could sort things out with my bank four days later. But I was thankful this was the worst I had to deal with because another girl was without her entire suitcase for several days due to the fault of the airline, so a lot of us pitched in toiletries and clothes for her to borrow until it arrived after several days. Travelers are the best!) 

Five of us and our luggage were piled into a van for the three hour journey to Kandy in the mountains. This ride started out a bit terrifying because although there are only two lanes painted on the road, there can be up to 5 or 6 lanes of busses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Our driver was swerving all over the road and honking erratically, not unlike everyone else. After the first dozen or so near-misses, we relaxed and listened to Abba’s greatest hits. Which was blaring out of the speakers for nearly the entire trip. 

We surprisingly arrived all in one piece and after removing our shoes at the door of course, were sent to our respective rooms. I was the last of six to arrive in my room, which was tucked away in the corner of the third floor. 

ACCOMMODATION

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy, Sri Lanka

I ended up really disliking my room, mostly because it was too small for the six bunks (three sets of two) that occupied it. Three German girls had been there for several weeks and their stuff was everywhere. Then what little space was left was taken by and English girl and Dutch girl who arrived just a bit earlier than me. I had to lean my rucksack against someone else’s bed frame and there was literally no more room on the floor so I had to keep my backpack my top bunk with me, which occupied a significant portion of my already tiny sleeping space. The mattresses were ultra thin and I could always feel the metal bars of the bunk frame beneath it. The pillow felt like I was sleeping on a soggy sack of flour and we were each given two thin, tattered bed sheets which never stayed tucked in. I always slept on top of them both because it was still too warm at night for any kind of coverings. 

My bed was against the wall and under the single oscillating fan which blew directly over my bed so I didn’t really benefit from it’s cooling effect. Of course there was no air conditioning so we often kept the window open at night, which consequently let in mosquitos and the stench of cigarette smoke. The bathroom was tiny and I was grateful for a flushing toilet, but the space was wide open so whenever anyone took a shower, everything inside got wet. We did have hot water sometimes, but I actually crave cold showers after accumulating a layer of dust and sweat everyday. I saw several other rooms with ceiling fans and a bit more space so I know every room wasn’t exactly like mind. There were only two outlets so it was a battle to get your phone charged. I was pretty proud of how I was able to Macgyer my converter to be able to power the fan, my phone and at least one other device. We were also allotted two hours of slowish internet per night, which I really appreciate considered there is no internet provided at my new house in Ambalangoda. But, it was tolerable for a week, and the food and the new friends I’ve met helped to make up for it. 

OBSERVATIONS

Honestly, before I arrived, the only two things I knew about Sri Lanka were that it’s an island located off the southeast corner of India and it’s where M.I.A. was born. Now I know the majority of the people are Buddhist (there are statues and temples everywhere) and there was a civil war in the north between the Singhalese and the Tamil Tigers that really only ended recently in 2009. In general, the men tend to be skinny and the women tend to be thicker and curvier. They wear a mix of traditional dress and western-style attire, with traditional being shirts and long sarongs for the men, midriff-baring saris for the women and sandals or flip flops for both. Everyone’s been pretty friendly so far and the kids get especially excited and always shout “Hello! Hello!” when they see foreigners. There are also stray dogs and garbage all over the streets. 

ORIENTATION

Our cultural orientation started on Monday with some history and language lessons where we were taught a few phrases in Singhalese. Ayu Bowan is a common greeting and means I wish you a long life. You can also use this as a farewell phrase (kinda like Aloha means hello and goodbye.) We also learned some basic conversation starters: Mage Nama Miranda. Mage Rate United States, and pleasantries: Karunakarala means please and Isthuthi means thank you. The written Singhalese language is very lovely-looking but I can’t even begin to read a word of it. 

We rode a public bus around Kandy and ended up thoroughly enjoying a showcase of traditional Sri Lankan dance, costumes and performances. It opened with the blowing of the conch shell and drumming, which is a traditional welcome. This was followed by the Pooja dance, the Panteru Natum, the Cobra dance, the Mask dance and few others. The most impressive for me personally was the duo of plate spinners who balanced like 7 ceramic discs each and then the two guys at the end who ate fire and walked across hot coals that were then set on fire and walked across again. 

Tuesday was very touristy but informative. We visited a local Ayervedic (natural healing) spice garden where they grew and processed medicinal plants like aloe vera, cinnamon and ginger followed by a visit to the Kadugannawa Tea Factory Centre Garden where we had a tour and enjoyed a cup of Ceylon tea. Fun Fact: Sri Lanka is the second largest exporter of tea after India. Our last stop was Premadasa Gems & Jewelry where we watched a short video about traditional mining in Sri Lanka and then they attempted to sell us all kinds of shiny, sparkly things. This was pretty much the pattern all day: give the tourists a quick tour then encourage them to buy a bunch of stuff. Fun Fact: There are 28 different gems and precious stones found in Sri Lanka; almost everything except diamonds, rubies and emeralds. 

Wednesday we split into groups and had traditional cooking lessons in the homes of some very talented local ladies. Cooking is huge here, and women can typically spend half of each day just cooking. I got to assist in the kitchen and use a coconut grinder to help make our pumpkin curry, banana flower “slaw”, fried papadils (which ended up kind of like puffy potato chips) and rice. We even ate the traditional way with our right hands, sans utensils. Everything was so fresh and flavorful. This was my favorite meal in Kandy by far.

Later that day, we visited a Buddhist temple and chatted with a nun with a shaved head and everything who was originally from England but had come to this temple after converting in Burma. She had an open dialogue with us about Buddhism, answered several questions and misconceptions and then led us in a short meditation. That was really interesting because she had a unique perspective of being able to compare it to the traditional Western lifestyle instead of being born into it, as they are here. Some monks get recruited really young at like 7 or 8 years old. I’ve seen some this young in town and at other temples in the area. 

Thursday we visited the incredibly crowded Temple of the Tooth Relic, which was packed with tourists and devotees alike. Our guides encouraged us to buy flowers for offerings at one of the several carts outside the temple and it only cost 100 rupees (about 75¢ USD) so we obliged. It was more like a palace than a temple with ornate murals and sculptures everywhere. There was a horn player and two drummers at the front and a huge line that wrapped around the inside of the temple to actually see the tooth (of Buddha) so instead we just walked past the outside of the relic room. There were people everywhere offering prayers and fruit and flowers and tourists taking pictures and even groups of children on field trips in their adorable white uniforms and red ribbons. 

After that, we took tuk-tuks, which is kind of like a cross between and motorcycle and a golf cart, up the hill to a wood shop and a batik shop. Again, they gave a quick lecture and then escorted us to their ginormous gift shops in hopes of us buying souvenirs. I finally gave in at the Batik shop and bought a small print of several birds roosting on branches called The Tree of Life. 

Artisan at the woodworking shop

Artisan at the woodworking shop

Tree of Life Batik

Tree of Life Batik

It was a pretty short day so a couple other girls and I stayed in town to shop at the local markets. It can be overwhelming if you’re not used to crowded places with everyone promising you the best deal. “Special price for you. Student price. Volunteer price.” I ended up with an awesome pair of printed elephant pants and a matching purple t-shirt that were comfortable enough for traveling and conservative enough for temple visits. 

The Central Market

The Central Market

Friday was our last official orientation day and we started it with a public bus trip and a steep hike to the Bahirawakanda Temple which housed a giant Buddha statue that overlooked all of Kandy. We took tons of pictures of the statue and the great view of the city below before having tea and being blessed by a young monk who tied white string around each of our right wrists. Apparently you are supposed to make a wish when you receive the string and then when the makeshift bracelet falls off, your wish is supposed to come true.

We then went back down to the city and visited a large Hindu temple where people were praying and offering fruit platters. Once the offering has been blessed, you get a little dot on your forehead and you’re supposed to eat the fruit. I’ve visited several Hindu temples now and they’re always so bright and colorful with intricate carvings. This one even had a bunch of flashing neon images of gods and goddesses that reminded me a bit of a casino. At lunchtime, we headed to Balaji Dosai pure vegetarian restaurant where we all enjoyed a roti-like dish with a couple different curries on the side. Either the spice was toned down for us or I’m finally starting to increase my tolerance! 

That night, a group of about 20 of us packed up and loaded into three vans around 11 PM for a three hour drive to Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada). The plan was to arrive around 2 AM and then hike to the top in time for sunrise. We figured we’d be able to get some rest on the way there - but boy were we wrong. The driver of my van at least was swerving around the hairpin turns of the mountain road like a maniac and blaring whiny-sounding Sri Lankan music. There were no seat belts and no handles or anything to hold onto inside so we all just kind of tumbled over the top of one another each time we took a hard turn. One girl in the back threw up a few times and another had her head out of the window on the verge of puking, herself. When we finally arrived, it was dark so we all got out our flashlights and started up the dirt and stone-staired trail. It started raining so I put my raincoat on over my backpack and opened my umbrella. A few stray dogs followed us, which was ok and even a bit reassuring until a couple of them started growling and snapping at each other. 

Sri Pada or Adam's Peak (More image here) 

Sri Pada or Adam's Peak (More image here

The rain only got worse and our one large group scattered into several smaller groups. I was struggling with the altitude since I’m used to living at sea level. I also started feeling a slight pain in my knee but I was determined to reach the top. The rain only got worse and flooded the trail. It got colder the higher we climbed. And the nonstop precipitation caused the steeper stone steps towards the top to turn into a gushing waterfall. I could feel my pants stuck to my legs and my feet sloshing around in the water inside my hiking boots. It literally felt like torture in the cold, wet darkness. I pressed on as much as I could until the pain in my knee was unbearable. This happened less than half a kilometer from the top, according to a couple who had already reached the peak and was on their way back down. A friend and I stopped at a police station on the way back down to see if they had any first aid supplies and happened to run into a different group of trekkers. One of them was a girl in her mid-twenties who happened to be training as a humanitarian aid worker and immediately wrapped up my knee and gave me some ibuprofen. The Sri Lankan police were very kind and offered us all hot tea, which was the motivation I needed to start hobbling back down the mountain. The sun came up at some point during the descent but the rain still never fully stopped. I was lucky I only found one leech as most other people were attacked several times. 

Back at the base, the vans and about half of the group were already waiting. Once there were enough people to fill up the first van, it took off and I was the only one left waiting for the rest of the group, who I assumed had reached the top. They returned pretty disappointed because although they went as far as they could, the actual peak was gated and locked since it was off season and they couldn’t even see the sunrise due to all the rain and mist. The ride back was even more miserable because we were all soaking wet and we had to sit idly for over an hour due to a downed powerline in the road. I really wish someone had given us a weather forecast and informed us it was off season before we left, but now I have a story to tell about that hike from hell I did that one time in Sri Lanka.  

Mirambling Muses: Singapore

Well that week pretty much flew by. It was so nice to catch up with my sister and just let my guard down and relax for a bit. We didn't have anything really specific planned beforehand, so I just kind of made things up as I went along. 

The typical Singapore tourist comes here for perpetual shopping trips, fancy hotels and/or cosmetic surgery. Therefore, I didn't notice a ton of backpackers and probably wouldn't have stopped here had my amazing sister not been here with a free place to stay. However, there is a ton of budget-friendly culture, fun and excitement to be had if you know where to look.

Here are my highlights:

Red Dot Design Center

If you're a design geek like me, you have to visit the Red Dot Design Museum. It's a bright red building on the outskirts of Chinatown and it's full of all kinds of innovative and modern design including industrial, product, packaging and concept. There are lots of interactive iPad displays and you can touch and play with everything! There's some neat stuff in the shop as well. I picked up a couple letterpress postcards and seriously considered a recycled vinyl laptop sleeve. Learn more about Red Dot and their international Design Awards here

Chinatown

Of the designated traditional ethnic areas, Chinatown was the most fun. The streets are lined with lanterns small shops selling everything from silk robes to custom cut paper portraits and any & all kinds of Singapore and traditional Chinese souvenirs. And there is also no shortage of meal options. You'll find fresh produce (including the spiky, stinky-foot-smelling fruit, Durian) street food vendors and more traditional restaurants. I'm quite sure I need to start employing a food chaperone that is more familiar with these exotic foods, because I've made some regrettable decisions. The most memorable being a delicious-looking mountain of rainbow snow cone bliss, which turned out to be more like miscellaneous, dessert nachos. The base was beans, mystery jelly and pieces of mangosteen supporting an odd-tasting assortment of flavored ice and then topped with creamed corn. Taste, texture, everything, was just weird. 

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is a must-see with its colorful, ornate decor and literally hundreds of statues and I was quite surprised to see people square dancing (to modern, English pop music, no less) near the Chinatown Complex. 

Gardens by the Bay 

These giant greenhouse gardens are located in the shadow of the huge and hideous (IMO) Marina Bay Sands Hotel. There are actually two Gardens by the Bay, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. Jamie and I opted to only do one as we were short on time and didn't want to pay double the cost. The cloud forest was a nice respite from the city summer heat and we walked past the waterfalls, up the ramps, around the top and back down to the educational area. The flora was immaculately maintained and they even used misters to simulate foggy clouds. At the end, there is a dark room full of colorful, projected info graphics that educate you about the environment and it's biggest threats and you end by watching a short doomsday video about climate change where they describe a dying earth over the next hundred years. Then they rewind and give you hope again saying all that can be avoided if we take action today. They're preaching to the choir with regards to me and my sister but I hope it had an impact on everyone else passing through. This time, I didn't mind exiting through the gift shop because they had a bunch of awesome & eco-friendly stuff. I found some beautiful post cards designed by Peranakan Inspirations as well as this awesome little travel backpack that folds up into a small pouch. 

And I can't forget the super trees! They are these hybrid plant/solar structures that stand about 16 stories tall and collect solar energy so they can light up at night so they're self-sustaining. And the look pretty cool too. 

Street Art

I found the biggest concentration of street art in the Malay/Muslim district on Haji Lane. While admiring the incredible colors & designs, I turned the corner and found a group of  girls with American accents doing inversions in front of one of the murals. Turns out, one of them is kind of a big deal and teaches all over Asia but is based in Sinapore. Marysia invited me to one of her classes at Pure Yoga and I enthusiastically accepted her offer. I actually ended up doing two classes in a row the following morning; first a moderate Hatha class followed by a class called Upside Down, which is the hardest class I’ve ever attempted. The main focus was handstands and arm balances. I got a ton of tips from both Marysia and a pretty petite yet bad ass yogi next to me named Sen. The poses seemed almost effortless for her and she had short black hair with blonde streaks and an asian/egyptian pair of eyes tattooed at the base of her neck that stared at me everytime we posed facing the left wall. I was so satisfied with and grateful for the classes and really feel like I made significant progress in my practice. 

 

Public transportation is plentiful and my sister and I took trains, busses, Uber and cabs. My biggest gripe is that stamps and letter boxes are nearly impossible to find here. 

Singapore & Supertasting

So here's my first impression of Singapore so far. It's pretty much one big urban sprawl of glass and concrete as far and wide as the eye can see. There is no shortage of shopping as you have multiple, giant mazes of air-conditioned malls to choose from, spanning the spectrum of retail; everything from Forever XXI to Armani Exchange. The streets are full of speeding cars and taxis and while there is public transportation, it seems to be underutilized. It's also an interesting feeling to be the ethnic minority as Singapore is mostly made up of Chinese, Indian & Southeast Asian inhabitants. It's not really intimidating though, because almost everyone speaks English and there are enough Europeans and Ex-pats around that my sister and I aren't much of a novelty. 

There are some green spaces that serve as a respite from the industrial landscape, which I have yet to visit but am looking forward to. The city is pretty modern with a few strict rules like imprisonment for chewing gum and the death penalty for trafficking drugs.

Death to drug traffickers

Death to drug traffickers

(However, I find it ironic that they don't want drugs and gum littering their streets yet a ton of people smoke and there doesn't seem to be much consequence for stray cigarette butts.) I love the architectural and cultural diversity as you can see Sikh temples and Buddhist temples and Catholic Churches all within a few blocks of each other and according to my Uber driver at least, everyone is pretty tolerant of each other. For such a modern city, I haven't noticed a ton of recycling, but I do like that all of the restaurants (except the American fast food joints which we avoid, of course) use metal utensils and real, washable dishes. 

I flew from Cairns to Darwin to Singapore and Jamie met me at the airport. I'm incredibly thankful that I get to stay at her flat for a few days and I even get my own bed since her roommates went back to Switzerland. My fist meal was at a Hawker Center, which is basically a Pan-Asian food court on steroids. Think of the foodcourt in your local mall, then dim the lights, double the amount of people and triple the overall size. 

There was little English and even fewer vegetarian options, but I found a cool little spot where you use tongs to fill a metal bowl with fresh, raw veggies and protein of your choice before they weigh and cook it. The cashier asked me two questions: soup or dry and spicy or not spicy. I very clearly said dry and not spicy but they took the liberty of adding peanuts, a not-at-all-mild sauce, chunks of red chili pepper and cilantro to my bowl during the cooking process. Gag. 

Hawker Center = Singapore food court

Hawker Center = Singapore food court

Notice that nothing is labeled

Notice that nothing is labeled

OK I'll admit to being a bit of a picky eater - but now I can prove it's genetic and there's nothing I can do about it! I hate cilantro because I have this recessive gene that makes cilantro taste like soap. Seriously, it's science. And my sister has suspicions that I might be a supertaster after she stumbled across some research about it so I investigated further and now I'm 99% sure I am.

About 25% of Americans are supertasters, which means we have an abnormal amount of tastebuds and are far more sensitive to taste. Particularly the bitter stuff like coffee, beer, grapefruit, dark chocolate etc, which are all things I find repulsive. We also tend to avoid really fatty foods which would also explain why I don't like meat or things smothered in cheese. More intense taste also means that I have a lower threshold for spices so a dish that may tingle someone else's tongue will set my mouth on fire. And as much as I hate bitter food, I alternatively love the sweet stuff. Even as a baby, my mom said the only baby food I liked was carrots and sweet potatoes; so much so that I actually turned orange. It all makes sense now! See, mom, green beans really do taste like anger and misery if you're a supertaster! 
(Sources: WSJ, Supertaster Labs, Wikipedia

So back to my first meal at the hawker which turned out to be burn-your-face-off spicy. I could barely eat it so my sister took on some of the torturous food as well. After that, we planned the rest of our meals a little more carefully. We went grocery shopping and have cooked a few meals at home, paired with white wine, which is hella expensive. It's hard to find anything under $25 per bottle - even the Australian Yellowtail costs over double what it does in the US - which is about as close to local as you can get here.

When dining out, we had an amazing soup and salad lunch in Chinatown and a delicious dinner in Little India. We're still not sure exactly what we ate at a place called Komala Vilas but I wasn't particularly worried because the menu was all vegetarian. Our food was served on Cafetaria style metal trays and Jamie's involved some kind of Briyani rice with lots of side dishes, I had a Masala Dosai which was kind of like an Indian burrito and that radioactive-Pepto-Bismol colored beverage was rose milk. Mmmm, flower flavor! (We asked for tap water because its totally safe to drink here but he brought us a bottle instead.) We were definitely both full for just $16.90 SGD ($12.50 USD). Then we spent the rest of the night wandering around Little India, taking in all the exotic sights, sounds and smells before cabbing it back to the flat. 

Legit Indian Food

Legit Indian Food

Statues for sale in Little India

Statues for sale in Little India

Another highlight so far was a free concert by the Victoria Alumni Chinese Orchestra that was part of Singapore's Festival of Biodiversity which we discovered accidentally, but enjoyed for sure because the Chinese instruments gave it that twangy, distinctly Eastern sound. My sister and I also have a tradition of getting a manicure and/or pedicure together so we continued that legacy as well with an Express (no spa stuff and cheaper price) to freshen up our feet. 

 

Mirambling Muses: Cairns, Australia

I had so much fun in Cairns that I wanted to share my favorite cheap, free, local, sustainable, inspirational and/or must-not-miss things to do there. It's incredibly tourist and backpacker friendly, boasting tons of hostels, rentals & hotels and there is free community wifi in several spots throughout the city. The main part of town is relatively compact and easy to walk to all of the locations listed below. Oh and one last tip: the locals drop the i and the r pronounce it like cans

7. Snoogie's Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant 

This gem is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the Main Street Arcade (82 Lake Street) a bit north of Gilligan's. I found out about it myself after chatting up a local shop owner after lusting after her lunch. It's pretty much the most affordable and delicious healthy food and juice bar you'll find in Cairns. I really wish I'd discovered it sooner because this was my favorite food place. And I'm not alone; it's ranked #1 out of 381 restaurants in Cairns based on its 42 glowing reviews on Trip Advisor

6. Cairns Regional Gallery

An eclectic Art Gallery with a variety of exhibitions where you can escape the sun or the rain and see lots of work from Aussie artists. Admission is only $5 per adult and they're open 7 days a week. Or just visit the shop which offers a unique collection of design, crafts and jewelry by local and national artisans. You'll find much better souvenirs and gifts than the generic, tacky tourist shops you'll find everywhere else. 

Image Source: Trip Advisor

Image Source: Trip Advisor

5. The Night Market

Located 71-75 on the Esplanade, the quirky Night Market is not to be missed! There is a self-serve food court serving up a variety of Asian favorites, hair and nail services, lots of souvenir shops and the famous $15 massages. You can find everything from locally crafted clothing & jewelry to custom airbrushed hats to postcards to kangaroo scrotum keychains. Shops are open 5-11 PM, Food Court from 10 AM - 11 PM and Massages from 12 noon - 11 PM. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

4. The Esplanade

A super fun and free place to hang out, situated along 2.5 km of the Cairns coast. The lagoon is a free, public swimming pool, there's a boardwalk for exercise and/or people watching, plenty of open grassy areas and playgrounds and free community wifi. I often saw street performers and lots of people relaxing with a book or enjoying a picnic. If there are any events or festivals going on, they'll most likely be here. There are some free Active LIving classes you can take advantage of as well. I participated in yoga on Fridays at 6:30 AM. 

The Lagoon

The Lagoon

3. Graff Alley

The largest concentration of Street Art I could find in Cairns. Located off of Grafton Street almost across from Gilligan's (the biggest and most infamous hostel in the city). Amongst all the murals, there's also a rather popular coffee shop called Caffeind and the Alleyway Paint & Skate shop. 

2. Rusty's Markets

Great place to buy local groceries or grab a bit to eat. I found all kinds of foreign fruits I can't get back home and I found the stall owners are really friendly. There's also a fresh juice bar and reflexology & thai massage as well as jewelry and clothing for sale. However, it's only open on the weekends; Friday & Saturday 5 AM - 6 PM and Sunday 5 AM - 3 PM. (Also located just past Gilligan's on Grafton Street.) 

1. The Great Barrier Reef

The harbor is packed with boats that will take you to see and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I can recommend Passions of Paradise ($159/adult + $10 reef tax) since that's the eco-certified boat that took me out to discover their natural treasures. But there are other sustainable options like the Reef Daytripper ($124/adult + $15 reef tax) and Ocean Free Green Island & Reef Pinnacle Tour ($190/adult includes reef tax). There's a full list of options on the Cairns Visitor Centre website


The Great Barrier Reef

This was my last big adventure in Australia, because honestly, you can't visit Cairns and not go see the Great Barrier Reef. 

GBR7.jpg

Friday, I got up early again and took the 7:15 reef shuttle from my hostel to the Reef Fleet Terminal on the south side of Cairns past the Esplanade. I was ready for a day trip of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef that I booked with Passions of Paradise. I was really impressed with this company/crew and would totally recommend them. Our group got to exclusively dive and snorkel around Paradise reef as well as Michaelmas Cay. 

They take sustainability seriously and even did a little educational presentation on the return trip about their commitment to it and the reef. For just one dollar, you could offset your carbon emissions for the day (I donated $2) and a percentage of sales from the bar is donated to anti-shark finning campaigns and shark research. Lunch was pretty good as there was plenty for veggos and all the plates and flatware got washed and reused. The catamaran itself, is Eco-certified, and they put up the sail on the way back, which they said saved over 400 liters of fuel. The crew was super fun and friendly. 

I met a pair of Aussie sisters from the south who I sat with while aboard the boat. We sat up front during the outbound trip, and got sprayed with seawater on several occasions. The whole day I had goosebumps and I had to wear two wetsuits when snorkeling because I was so cold. (It is technically Winter here.) 

GBR1.jpg

I’ve been trying to think of words to describe the GBR, but its so incredibly awesome and colorful and beautiful that I can’t find words worthy enough of its natural beauty. Even my pictures and video don’t do it justice, because the spectrum gets a little distorted underwater, and while you can still see the red wavelengths, cameras have a hard time picking it up. I felt like I was the little mermaid swimming amongst all her sea friends. I saw heaps of coral in all shapes, colors and sizes and a rainbow of fishes. I even got to see a couple sea turtles and a sting ray. Everyone should put the GBR on their bucket lists and try to see it before its destroyed by starfish or farming or dredging. (I have tons more photos and videos that I will edit later but I wanted to get a few photos up right away.) 

The only downside was that I had my hair braided and to the side to keep it out of my way. I was expecting to have lovely, mermaid waves in my hair when I removed the elastics, but it was more of a tangled rats nest which took me ages to brush it out properly. RIP and a moment of silence for all the good strands I lost that day. 


Random Road Trip (Bush Week)

Monday was going to be a laid-back, relaxing day. Until I found out about Bush Week. What is this Bush Week Festival, you ask? Well according to the website, it’s a week long celebration of art, music and lifestyle that happens only once every other year at a camp site in the rainforest in far north Queensland. In reality, it was more of a mud-covered hippie fest. But more about that later. 

I had nothing else planned for my last week in Cairns except a day snorkeling on the GBR (Great Barrier Reef), which was completely flexible. Once I found out about the festival, I decided I had to go. I was kind of annoyed because the site was just above Cape Tribulation, where I had just spent the previous weekend and returned from there on a tour bus just the previous night. 

TRAVEL TIP #2: ALWAYS GOOGLE FESTIVALS AND EVENTS FOR PLACES YOU ARE VISITING BEFORE YOU GET THERE. 

Common sense, really. And I usually take my own advice. That’s how I found out about the Auckland Arts Festival and Pasifika Festival that I experienced in New Zealand a few months ago. Not sure why I didn’t do it this time because I could have planned way better. But I digress. 

I first checked out the bus schedule and there was no easy way to get there. So I ended up renting a car from a place around the corner from my hostel. I talked to a few other friends at Calypso whose eyes lit up and said they were super were interested in going, but when it came time to actually buy the tickets, they flaked out on me. (It was probably for the best though because I ended up sleeping in the backseat of my car for two nights. I have no idea where they would have slept.) I conquered my irrational fear of driving on the left and went to Cairns Central to buy some groceries for the trip. I packed up most of my stuff and set my alarm for 5 AM because I wanted to get an early start the next morning. 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Tuesday was the only time I’ve slept through my alarm so I got a bit of a later start and finally got on the road close to 7 AM. I had printed out directions, but I pretty much only took two and a half roads to get where I was going: Route 1 up to Mareeba and then Route 81 up to Rossville and the rainforest. It took about 300 km (186 miles) and nearly 5 hours to get there. It was raining at first, which made the winding road out of Cairns and through the Tablelands a bit treacherous but once I got on the wide open highways, all I had to worry about was avoiding cows and kangaroos. I could drive for miles without seeing another car on the road. There were caution signs everywhere and I saw about a dozen dead roos and whatever the Aussie equivalent of a possum is on the side of the road, but also saw a couple live kangaroos as well. One was perked up on the side of the road, seemingly waiting to cross once the cars were clear, and another, riskier roo hopped across the road between my car and a truck coming from the opposite direction and made it across just in time.

The roads were smooth and paved the entire way, until the last terrifying 3 km where I was basically off-roading on a wet, muddy and bumpy dirt road. I had to drive over rocks and creeks and avoid fallen limbs and stray rocks in the road and was scared my little Hyundai wouldn’t make it but it did because I was driving as slow as possible. I parked on a grassy spot not to far from the “road” or the entrance which decreased my chances of getting stuck in mud and increased my chances of an easy exit three days later. 

I ate a quick lunch in my car then went out in the rain to make friends. I met a friendly group a few meters away. One of them was painted white and purple and was mumbling about mushrooms. I chatted with the group for a while then followed the signs to a tent where I could get a hair wrap. The girl I met there, Ashley, was a festival regular and a super sweet hippie type with dreads and pixie point bangs. She wrapped a section of my hair in blue yarn and string and I picked a silver Om charm and two small feathers to fasten to the end. She also happily did a French braid which rippled along my crown and cascaded down the right side of my face. 

Ready for a purple party. 

Ready for a purple party. 

It was raining intermittently all day but you could still hear the reggae over the precipitous wind. When it finally let up for a while, I was able to make it back to my car, eat some dinner and go to bed after listening to some music, which had transitioned to dubstep (I think). 

The next day I decided to walk to the waterfall rumored to be in the area. I met another lone traveler along the way and we Hobbit-hiked it (barefoot) to the waterfall, which was a way farther and more arduous journey than I ever expected. It took over an hour to get there, traversing thick mud, slopes, tree branches and slippery rocks so there was no way I wasn’t jumping in for a swim after all that. The water was cold and I was more than a little paranoid about crocs, even though there were no warning signs. I put my clothes and jacket back on which I had stashed under my umbrella to keep dry then we started the same unruly trail back to the camp. It would not stop raining but there was one bright spot when my new friend found a $20 note on the ground, which we used to buy a well-deserved lunch from one of the food tents. 

I hung out with another group for a while which included one of the DJs who would perform that weekend, his petite French wife, a hitchhiker from Canada who did our tarot card readings and a few other characters. They had one of the most spacious and driest spots, with three tarps strewn across some trees and vans. We entertained ourselves there until the rain stopped and we finally saw the sun for the first time in two days, just before it started to set, of course. There was a live Reggae singer on a small stage and people were dancing in the mud. Pretty much everyone, including myself, was barefoot because it was just easier than getting your shoes stuck in the mud. I was a bit surprised to see so many kids there. The older ones were clothed and the younger ones looked feral as they were all running around naked except for the mud splatter that covered them. 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

I got my feet as clean as I could and curled up in my car for a second night. I left early the next morning and of course the day I leave, everything was bright and sunny. Of course, driving a car by myself was not the most sustainable way to get there and back, but the tree to car ratio along the road was about a bazillion to one so I’m pretty sure most of my CO2 was absorbed. Still, I’ll probably pay to plant an extra tree at the end of my trip.

The main part of the festival took place over the weekend, so I was a bit bummed to have to miss it, but glad to get back to Cairns for a proper, hot shower. I did yoga, enjoyed my long-awaited shower and then visited the night market one last time for some lo mein and a $15 full body massage. 

A Walk in the Woods

I've really been enjoying reading Walden lately, so here's my attempt at letting nature inspire my thoughts and writing, Thoreau-style. (Intentionally posting no pictures since there are none in my novel and I'm practicing being descriptive. But you can see some in my previous post about a weekend in Cape Tribulation.) 

At first I was striding along annoyed that humans are so helpless that we can't even walk through the woods unaided by a wooden Boardwalk. And then there's the irony of walking on a bunch of dead trees to admire the living ones. But then I slowed down and realized that without the crunching of leaves underfoot, I could walk as silently as a ninja. Of course everything hides when heaps of tourists are traipsing through, but once I became silent and still, the forest came alive around me. I saw birds both in the trees and on the ground. I admired small spiders in their elaborate webs and listened to an omnipresent symphony of insects. 

I heard leaves crunching and witnessed a pair of scrub fowls scratching at the leaf litter. I tried to get a closer look, but they must have sensed my presence and disappeared deeper into the undergrowth. I really liked the thick vines that contorted themselves into corkscrews and were intertwined amongst the mostly straight tree trunks. Tall trees, short trees, thick trunks, skinny trunks, young ferns frolicking around the legs of their parents. It's like I'm a tiny spectator and the trees are the legs of Giants, standing tall and socializing at some eternal and etherial social event, to which I am an uninvited guest. 

For the most part, I was alone. But whenever I did encounter other people, they would scurry past me as if trying to get the walk over with like it was their morning commute to the office and they were whizzing by in the carpool lane. "I have to get there before the coffee is all gone so I don't have to make the next pot." Hardly pausing to stop and admire the deep green magic around them that they have likely traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to see. This is nature's job- to create and manage everything on earth. What's yours? To create a spreadsheet? Manage a budget? Sorry but you should feel a little insignificant from time to time. Nature never takes a holiday or even a day off.  

Gravity is the force against which everything in the forest must fight, but will succumb to sooner or later. This is evident from the felled trees and myriad fallen leaves and limbs that lie in so many layers along the forest floor. They'll eventually decompose into dirt and then help others defy gravity once again. Does a rotting tree trunk represent life or death? You might be inclined to say death since the life of the wood has come to an end. But in reality the decomposing log sustains more life than ever: moss, fungi, bacteria and a whole host of insects and maybe even small mammals and amphibians may use it for shelter. It's all a simple yet perfect cycle. 

I noticed small, red lily-trumpet shaped flowers strewn along one part of the path but could not find their origin. It was green as far as the eye could see in any direction. They must exist high up in the canopy as vibrant treats for birds and butterflies, beyond my humble visual range. 

The ancient forests faded onto an empty beach. The sand is fine and soft and the ocean was a gradient of green to turquoise to slate blue on the horizon with small yet constant white-capped waves rolling in to shore. The landscape was deserted as far as the eye could see in either direction due to the presence of saltwater crocodiles, which tourists should be well aware of due to the abundance of red and yellow warning signs. A small, mossy-looking mountain rose to the north while the forest continued to border the beach to the south. The sky was muffled with gray clouds which were fluffy mounds towards the horizon, but dissipated and blended into a smooth, gray blanket towards and over the trees. 

It felt strange and foreign to be walking along this beach in boots whereas at home I would be barefoot, feeling the sand beneath and between my toes. Walking towards the water, then turning around, you could see a sliver of mountains rising above the tree line into the gray, misty clouds. It's probably quite breathtaking on days when the sun and sky are friendlier. 

It took me 2 hours to meander down a 1.2 kilometer Boardwalk through a 100 million year old rainforest. I wondered how long it took people to build this long and winding bridge. However long it took, I'm certain it is a microscopic amount of time when compared to how long it has taken nature to build the forest around it. People are forever building barriers between themselves and nature. We build buildings and roads and buses and boats to aid in our own survival, often to the detriment of so many other species that rely on just water, sunlight and whatever makes up their meager diets. It's really pretty incredible when you stop to think about how helpless humanity has become and how that helplessness has compounded with each new technological marvel of the modern day. 


A Weekend in Cape Tribulation

Friday June 19

So here I am in a cabin surrounded on all sides by rainforest aka Daintree Rainforest & National Park which is a World Heritage Site and part of Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook because of his troubles navigating the reef there). No TV, no internet, no modern distractions except the ones I brought with me. 

Home sweet home - for the weekend, anyways. 

Home sweet home - for the weekend, anyways. 

I arrived by bus around noon after a scenic drive up the Queensland coast from Cairns. The landscape alternated between rocky beaches, rugged mountains and tall, ripe fields of sugarcane. The journey also included a short ferry across croc-infested waters (actually almost all the water up here is full of "snapping handbags" as our driver/guide calls them) and a short walk through a small patch of roadside rainforest complete with tea, coffee and restrooms. I'm at a self-proclaimed "resort" called Ferntree in a 5 person dorm room but there are a few other lodging options in the area. These are the last traces of civilization before you head off into the great green yonder, preferably with 4WD. 

I saw this sign on several occasions. 

I saw this sign on several occasions. 

This place lived up to its name at least at first because I had a few tribulations myself when I checked in. The girls at the desk immediately tried to upsell me on a bunch of overpriced excursions from horseback riding to snorkeling to zip lining but I declined as I think just having the opportunity to stay in a 100 million old rainforest is enough. Next they gave me a key and a map - one of those old-fashioned, rare, genuine paper maps no less - and directed me to room 55. When I walked in, I discovered that all five beds looked occupied so I dropped my rucksack and trekked back to the office to inform them that I was not planning to sleep on the floor. So they moved me next door to cabin 54, which pleased me to see that it was empty upon my arrival so I had my choice of bunk. I chose one right next to the window and made up my new sleeping spot with the linens provided. I did find it necessary to switch blankets with another bunk because the color scheme of mine was just tacky and visually awkward and I don't want to accidentally absorb some bad design vibes via osmosis while I sleep. 

After settling in it was time to find food, which should have been the nearby Cassowary Cafe which was open noon - 2:30 according to my archaic paper map. However when I got there, the lights were off, doors were locked and chairs stacked upside down on top of the tables inside. I can't be 100% certain but I'm pretty sure they were closed. 

Luckily a friendly middle-aged Aussie approached me saying that I looked lost. I said I was starving and my map lied to me and he confirmed that the cafe was only open for breakfast and dinner and had also changed its name to Off the Grid Cafe a few weeks ago. He asked "which of the great 50 states" I was from and I asked him to guess. He supposed California. I corrected him then we chatted for a bit. He was impressed that I was staying for 3 days because apparently most people just spend a single day and night here to cross it off their list. He directed me to walk through the forest to find food at a few other cafes and lodges nearby. 

After enjoying a roasted veggie wrap at the nearby Turtle Rock Cafe, I ended up at the community swimming hole (the safer alternative to the croc-inhabited oceans) with some new friends from Sweden & the Netherlands. I wasn't prepared at all for swimming but I was feeling spontaneous so I went anyways. We walked down the road at least a few kilometers then past a petrol station, across a field, through a small patch of tangled trees before we finally laid eyes upon the crystal clear creek. A handful of kids in their 20s were already congregated in the area, taking turns splashing into the deeper part via the raggedy old rope swing that hung from an even older tree limb. I took off my Birkenstocks and walked barefoot over the smooth yet perilously placed stones scattered across the creek bed. My mind wandered and I thought maybe some cultures might consider this some kind of natural, deep-tissue foot massage. 

The swimming hole

The swimming hole

A few hours later we headed back to our respective lodges and when I re-entered my cabin around 4:30, I found two women asleep on two of the other bunks. One was snoring and one had stinky feet. Or maybe the sounds and smells were emanating from the same one - I don't know and I'm not investigating any further to find out. 

The cafe with an identity crisis that had thwarted me earlier was open for dinner around 6 so I went and was the only one out of a handful of customers that chose to sit outside. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay seeing as my top three wines (Rose, White Zin, Moscato) were unavailable and a Rege's Veges pizza with a circumference bigger than my head. It was very tasty and piled high with a veritable garden of veggies like pumpkin, spinach, tomato, onion and mushroom. The cheesy glue that held everything together was a blend of feta and mozzarella. I could only make it through 3/8 slices so I took the rest back to the fridge in my lodge for safekeeping. I got two more meals out of it the following day for lunch and dinner, which helps justify the $20 price tag. 

I fully intended on meeting up with my new friends again at their place PK's down the road and walked a few hundred meters before my imagination and fear took over. Once the lights from Ferntree had completely faded behind a paved hill, and now it was just me and stars and woods for what seemed like infinity, I panicked. Just my tiny flashlight and I were surely no match for whatever I was sure was lurking in these foreign woods. I was probably close to halfway to my destination but instead of walking, or more likely running, the rest of the way, I turned and walked briskly back to my cabin. Face palm. As I begrudgingly changed into my pajamas, I noticed my right leg now bears the marks of a battle zone with a record 10 bruises and three leech bites. The left leg by comparison has only two bruises and a small scrape on the knee. 

And then, just as the Brazilians (I discovered they were mother/daughter) and I were all in our beds about to go to sleep around 9 PM, we heard the clicking sound of key-in-lock as someone was attempting to open our door. In walked two guys in their twenties and I knew immediately by their accents that they were American. They said hello and immediately invited me and the Brazilian girl to join them for a beach party down the road. And they had a car. Now I had no excuse. I agonized over the decision for a moment then drug myself out of bed and to the bathroom to redo everything I had just undone. I was ready in about 5 minutes and John, Brian and I headed out to the parking lot to their car. Turns out they are finishing up a semester abroad in Sydney and took a side trip to Cape Trib during finals week. We drove a few kilometers north then parked on the side of the dirt road amongst several other cars. We walked down a steep grade in the dark and followed the sounds of music towards the party. There was a live band and a small bar where I ordered a bottle of cider. We followed the younger crowd out to the beach where we found a bonfire and sat around it chatting for a while. Long after I finished my drink, I was starting to get really tired and around 11 PM suggested we go back to Ferntree. They agreed since they needed to drive back to Cairns early and catch a flight back down South. 

Saturday June 20

I fell asleep pretty quickly but found it difficult to wake up the next morning. The Brazilians slept in too, which reinforced my decision to do so. By the time I was pretty much ready to go and the rain had let up enough, it was close to noon. 

I enjoyed some amazing walks through both the Dibuji and the Kulki rainforests of the Daintree National Park. They were both walking distance from Ferntree with Dijubi just down the hill and Kulki about 2 km north. There was tons of forest to explore and the greenery gradually transitions onto the beach and the beach becomes the Great Barrier Reef. I saw more kinds of plants than I can count and some pretty weird sand formations on the beach that are apparently made by crabs. 

The sun was going down by the time I finished Kulki but thankfully I ran into a cute, young Aussie couple that offered to give me a ride back to Ferntree. I had some serious Thoreau moments in the woods and wrote down almost everything I was thinking. I was walking pretty much nonstop from noon til sundown which was close to 6 PM since it is winter here at the moment. I did a few sketches in my moleskine and took tons of footage. 

The canopy at Dubuji

The canopy at Dubuji

Kulki National Park - Lookout

Kulki National Park - Lookout

Crab Sand Art at Kulki

Crab Sand Art at Kulki

Once back at the lodge, I noticed I had the place all to myself as no one else had checked in while I was gone. I rested physically and mentally just for a bit before rolling out my mat on the front porch and doing about an hour and a half of yoga. Thanks to the humidity, I got good & sweaty & was ready for a nice hot shower but there was none to be found. It wasn't an ice cold shower but it was definitely below room temperature so I cleaned myself very quickly. I played with my gadgets and listened to the few songs I had on iTunes for a bit before I burrowed into bed. 

Sunday June 21

It was absolutely pouring rain this morning so I took my time getting up and packing. I had to check out of the room at 10 and my bus wouldn't arrive until 12 so I had a couple hours to kill. I walked down to a nearby cafe and had a muffin the was most likely devoid of any nutrition and an overly processed peach tea. One thing I do like about this place is the abundance of recycling receptacles - everywhere recycles here! By the time I finished my "meal" the sky levy had broken again. I waited as long as I could but it didn't let up so I had to walk back to Ferntree in the downpour. I wrapped my rain jacket around my backpack to keep it and all the gadgets inside dry and my umbrella was enough to keep me from getting soaked. So glad I did my exploring yesterday when it was relatively dry! 

I was the last to load the bus and had to take the only remaining seat up front to the left of the driver, which was fine. I never caught his name, but I'm going to name him Mr. Morbid because every story he told us during our return trip to Cairns involved death, dismemberment or despair. Seriously, there was the one about the American couple that was left out on a reef by their tour, never to be seen nor heard from again (presumed to be eaten by sharks), the one about a boy being attacked by a bull shark a few weeks ago, people that died during a heatwave a few years back, a plane crash that happened in the mountains decades ago and was not discovered until the 90's and then my personal favorite, the one about sugarcane farmers putting dynamite in trees full of cockatoos to blow them to keep their crops from becoming bird food. He looked at least part aboriginal and told us several of the old legends that had been passed down to him, most of which involved kidnapping young women, untimely deaths and lost souls forsaken to forever wander the Earth. So, yeah. It was a very interesting trip back.

Our bus stopped a few places along the way back, in between grisly stories, of course. At the Daintree Ice Cream Company which makes exotically flavored ice cream from the fruit that they farm. Today's flavors were Mango, Passionfruit, Jackfruit & Wattleseed, all of which were yummy because my sweet tooth doesn't discriminate. 

I wasn't terribly impressed with our next two stops, which entailed a short boat ride down the Daintree River and a pit stop at the Mossman Gorge. We saw exactly one snake, one and a half crocs (one was a just a foot long juvenile) and one frog on the "cruise". After seeing so many gators and other wildlife every time I've ventured out to the Everglades, the cruise was pretty lackluster. And the mangroves our guide kept gushing about just aren't exotic to me after living in Florida for so long. Later, we had less than an hour at the gorge, which had a bunch of natural elements I already saw on other tours: rainforest, river and a bunch of rocks - although the suspension bridge was pretty cool and reminded me of Costa Rica.  

I arrived back at Calypso later that evening and was beyond grateful to have a hot shower that night. 

Australian Adventures: Rainforests and Rapids and Leeches, Oh My!

Monday, June 15 /// Ballooning

I woke up around 3 AM to get ready for my first ever hot air balloon ride. I took my backpack containing essentials like my gopro, rain jacket and neck pillow.

The rigmarole of getting there and back took longer than the actual ride itself. When I got picked up in a large can around 4:15 AM, there was already a handful of people on board and we went to another hotel after that to pick up a big group of Chinese tourists. The 45 minute ride was pitch black and we stopped for one last potty break before arriving at the launch site. It was still very dark but you could just barely decipher the outline of the deflated balloon on the ground and the trucks and people surrounding it. 

Admittedly it was a "do it once" kind of activity but now I can say I've experienced it. The captain was super friendly and informative and it was neat to see the sun rise from the same sky it would be rising into. The only drawback was the group of Chinese tourists that were a little too fond of their selfie sticks. 

So how sustainable was this trip? Well sharing one large van definitely uses less fuel than everyone driving there individually so that’s a plus. The balloon runs on liquid propane/butane (or LPG here in Australia). This is a byproduct of processing natural gas and refining oil, which would otherwise be discarded. According to exceptionalenergy.com, LPG is one of the cleanest conventional fuels available. It is non-toxic and has no impact on soil, water and underground aquifers. It also helps to improve the quality of indoor and outdoor air, as it produces substantially less particulate matter and NOX than diesel, oil, wood or coal.

It also releases much fewer carbon emissions than gasoline/petrol. I asked the pilot and he estimated that we used about 120 liters of the stuff during our 30 minute flight. According to ecoscore.com, 1 liter = 16.6 g of CO2/km so that’s 1,992 g/1.9 kg/km total CO2 emissions. A minuscule amount, really. For comparison, a liter of petrol/gasoline is about 24 g/CO2/km so 120 liters burned of that is 2,880g or 2.8 kgCO2/km, about 45% more.  

Obviously, the way to have the least impact is to just travel by foot or bike within a small radius of wherever you are staying, but you have to be realistic. People travel to experience new places and activities they can’t experience at home so it’s good to at least try and make them a bit more aware of the impact they’re having and inform them of better choices that are still stimulating and fun. 

I got back to Calypso around 8:30 AM, took an hour nap, then finished packing up. And the honeymoon was officially over. I checked out of my single room and into a four bed share which was half the cost and more efficient. It was 10 AM and there were two girls occupying the two bottom bunks and their shit looked like it had exploded everywhere else and there was a stale, unpleasant, unwashed-everything smell. I barely had any floor space to walk let alone set my bags down and they had makeup and hair products all over both of the top bunks. I wanted to just grab everything that was in my way and throw it on the floor to physically vent my initial frustration but instead I gathered it up and piled it on top of some other pile of their crap. Never before have I stayed in a shared hostel room that was so disheveled. 

So after making up my top bunk and considering my options, I went back to the front desk and asked if there were any other rooms available. I’m so glad I did because they ended up moving me to the largest four person shared room available. And the people were more welcoming and well-kempt. I moved my sheets and my bag so everyone wins; I get a new room and they get to keep living in their own filth. The only catch was, the desk didn’t have enough keys for it, so they had to have a few more made so I should be able to access my room by the afternoon. (And I did.) 

Tuesday June 17 /// Tully River Rafting

It was another early morning as I got picked up from Calypso at 6:30 AM to start my rafting adventure. The van picked up a few more people then dropped us at the Raging Thunder tour headquarters to check in and fill up the coach bus waiting outside. During these travels, I met and Irish guy named Neil and an Aussie named Aaron who were both in the area to compete in the Half Ironman on Sunday and were getting another adrenaline fix on the Extreme Rafting Tour after a well-earned day of rest. Our tall, lanky host named Tim was great and kept us all well-informed and entertained for the duration of the drive to the Tully River, which is actually a World Heritage site. During the rest stop, I asked Tim if it was too late to switch from the regular rafting trip to the Extreme trip and he said all those boats were full. Oh well, I tried. 

When we got there, I was able to cover my bikinied body in a long sleeved thermal top and attached my gopro to my helmet. I was in boat 2 of 6 in the front, right position along with a skinny Japanese guy front right, a German couple behind us, a Japanese girl and Irish girl in the back and our guide Daz bringing up the rear. 

Daz told us that the rainforest through which we were rafting was the oldest in the world at 110 million years old. No wonder it reminded me of Jurassic Park and more recently, Jurassic World. The fast moving water was also some of the purest and cleanest in the world as there was no industry or farming nearby to taint it. The German guy and I used our hands to take a few gulps and it was incredibly refreshing. 

The first bit of the river was pretty easy to navigate, until we slammed head on into a giant rock and the reverb knocked me off the side of the raft. The current dragged me under the raft and then I dropped slightly under water before coming up for air again. I opened my eyes to see the guide on the nearby safety boat throwing a rope to me,which I grabbed, flipped over onto my back and pulled it over my shoulder like they instructed in the safety video we watched on the bus earlier. The group of American retirees occupying that boat grabbed me and pulled me aboard to safety. I’m sure all this happened in a matter of 5 seconds but it seemed much longer. 

I insisted I was fine, except for a large bump on my right shin that I’m sure would turn into a purple and green bruise later. Daz climbed back along the rocky shore to retrieve me and I climbed back over the rocks to my raft. At some point during the pandemonium, my paddle got loose and floated downstream much farther than I did, so Daz handed me the little Japanese girl’s paddle since I was in front and said we would replace her paddle really soon, which we did after a handful more rapids and catching up with another boat. The group of boats kind of leap frogs for the first few rapids and each one takes turns being first, last and/or on safety duty. 

After several more kilometers, all six boats stopped for lunch, which consisted of buns, burgers (including meatless patties for us veggos) and lots of fixin’s. I piled caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato and coleslaw on top of mine along with ketchup (called tomato sauce here). Then Daz handed me a slice of beetroot saying it wasn’t an official Aussie burger without this critical ingredient. It tasted surprisingly good and I relished every bite because I knew I’d need more energy to get through the next 10 kilometers. There was so much lush, virid landscape on either side and every so often, an electric blue butterfly would flutter by. Everyone made it safely to the end of the trip where our bus was waiting for us.

I was so prepared for this trip that I packed everything... except a change of clothes, so I had to sit in my wet shorts and vibrams for the duration of the nearly 2 hour return trip. Along the way, we stopped at a small pub in Feluga, where I met up with my Extreme Rafting friends and another Aussie named Kendall, who was  also a Half Iron finisher. Once back in Cairns, the four of us decided to meet up later for dinner and drinks. We went to the Bavarian Beer House located near the Esplanade. About the only thing on the menu I could eat was a cheesy pasta called Käzespätzle (I have to say I was very pleased with my correct pronunciation of this) and a drink that I dubbed Beerjuice, which was a blend of a Hefeweizen and Mango and Banana juice, because I hate the taste of real beer. Of course I got some flack from the guys both for being vegetarian and for my wimpy beer, but ask me if I care. (I don’t.) 

Skydiving and bungee jumping and really popular here but you definitely get the most adrenaline for your money with this trip. Not to mention, it's incredibly sustainable as long as we take back everything that we brought with us. Along with the glow worm caves in Waitomo, New Zealand, this is one of my favorite travel experiences. 

Wednesday, June 18 /// Tablelands

Today was the last of my three day excursion binge. I took a $99 day trip with a company called On The Wallaby where a tour guide drove a busfull of backpackers around the tropical Tablelands located on the small mountains that rise up and cast a shadow over the coastal areas of Cairns. We made several stops to marvel at natural wonders like the Cathedral Fig Tree (inspiration for the mother tree in Avatar), Lake Barrine, Lake Eacham, the Millaa Millaa Waterfalls, the Dinner Falls and Yungaburra. I met my Canadian counterpart, Devon, on the bus and we hiked together for most of the day. We seriously could have been separated at birth; we both just quit our corporate jobs, love cats, yoga, healthy eating, wine, etc.  

Cathedral Fig Tree

Cathedral Fig Tree

Anyways, we had the opportunity to swim in the lagoons created by the falls, but after being cold and wet on the bus the day before, I decided I didn’t want to get soaked. Instead I hiked along the rocks piled up behind the falls and got soaked anyways. Lesson learned: you will get wet if you walk under a waterfall. 

I was pleasantly surprised again by lunch, which was a Subway-style assemble your own sandwich station. I geeked out over the reusable plates, cups and containers and our guide Lawrence told us all the vegetables came from local farms. Even the water was in a big cooler, to which we had the option of adding a concentrated, fruity cordial flavor. The only waste was really the plastic bags that the buns came in as all the dishes would get washed later by employees at the On the Wallaby lodge in Yungaburra. 

The only thing that sucked (literally) was the affinity that leeches seemed to for me. I didn’t even know leeches were a thing around here and I can’t remember ever being bitten by one before, ever. I found the first one when I was on the bus and felt something wet inside my shirt near the top of my ribs on the right side. When I lifted it up to investigate, a slimy, black little leech fell off and started squirming on the seat. I, and everyone in my general vicinity, were horrified. I had the leech latch onto a pen then flicked it out an open window. Then there was the bleeding to deal with. It just wouldn’t stop and no one on the bus had bandaids so I help a napkin over the open wound until we reached our next destination. Once arrived, I went into a changing room to strip down and check and didn’t find anymore little bloodsuckers. 

Millaa Millaa Falls

Millaa Millaa Falls

But then, once on the trails at Dinner Falls, I felt something wet on the inside of my thigh  and I rolled up my right pants leg and flicked off another leech. This one appeared to have made three attempts before deciding to latch on. It left a more sizable wound on my leg that would not stop gushing. I found a secluded area and pulled my pants down completely to be certain there were no more and ended up MacGyvering a makeshift tourniquet out of a make-up remover wipe and an elastic headband that I’d been wearing wrapped around my wrist as a bracelet (I knew those bands would come in handy!) I’m more annoyed than anything that I was such a leech magnet because I was the only one dressed in proper hiking attire: pants, long sleeved shirt and boots (whereas most people were in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops) and I have no idea how they wiggled their way inside my clothes. 

Volcanic crater

Volcanic crater

It was a lot for one day, so I recommend this trip for backpackers and travelers who are short on time or budget in Cairns. And bonus points for the super sustainable lunch! 

Once back in the city, Devon and I went to our respective hostels and cleaned up before meeting up again. I got a veggo burger and chips and we bought a couple bottles of wine and hung out at her hostel for the night. 

Thursday, June 19

Today I recharged everything, including myself. I charged my computer and all my gopro batteries. After three days of Aussie Adventuring, it was nice to sleep in, spend some time on the interwebs and do laundry. For some reason, it’s incredibly expensive to clean your clothes here as it cost me $10 AUD per load; $4 per wash, $4 per dry and $2 for powdered detergent. 

Later that afternoon I met Devon down at the Esplanade for some sunset yoga. We got a lot of various looks from passersby ranging from admiration to confusion to envy but it’s all good. We had a lot of fun posing for pictures with the sun as it sank down below the horizon before heading to the (mostly Asian) Night Market. If you’re ever in Cairns, the Night Market is not to be missed!

We each got 40 minute Chinese massages for $15 each and they sell a huge variety of jewelry, souvenirs and packaged foods. I bought a really cool tank top designed by a local artist and Devon bought some loose lemon ginger tea. Then we some relatively cheap but yummy Chinese food in the food court before heading back to her hostel to crack open the last bottle of wine. Then I walked back to my home base and finished packing before bed. I seriously cannot think of a more perfect evening. 

Ultimate Beach Party with Sea-Doo

I'm so stoked! In previous posts, I talked about how Devin Super Tramp is a super inspirational person for me and then about what it was like to participate in one of his videos and now here's the final product:  

And here's the Behind the Scenes video:

The 3:45 official video looks like nonstop action, but we were actually there all day for about 12 hours getting the right light and the right shots. I didn't actually get to ride a Sea-Doo myself but I did get to go tubing, play volleyball, play cornhole and now I'm considering being a career extra. 

I'm actually featured more in the BTS and I'm only a little bummed that the slow-motion dive on the volleyball court (for which I did several falls and received several bruises) didn't make the final cut. But the video is sponsored by Sea-Doo, not the AVP so I get it! I was just glad to be a part of it at all and get to meet Mr. Super Tramp himself and make some new friends and memories. 

Team Super Tramp

Team Super Tramp

Athletes & Artists

So I seem to have developed a habit of automatically waking up at 5 AM. It happened again this morning so I headed down to the common area to use the free wifi. The night guy on duty asked if I had just woken up or just gotten back from partying, lol. I confirmed the former.

I ate a simple banana and granola bar breakfast in my room and left a little bit later to head to the Esplanade to watch the Ironman Cairns competition. The most ridiculous endurance athletes in the world compete in these races. I got to watch Sam Appleton cross the finish line in just under 4 hours to win the 70.3 race which consists of a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) swim, a 56 mile (90 km) ride, and a 13.1 mile (21.1 km) run. And that's just the half course!

A full Ironman is a whopping 2.4 mile (3.9 km) swim, 112 mile (180.25 km) cycle and a marathon distance 26.2 mile (42.4 km) run. I got a small taste of this when I took up sprint distance (.47 mile/750 m swim + 12 mile/20 km ride + 3.1 mile/5 km run) triathlons a few years ago in Miami. Of course my races would just be leisurely warm ups for most of the men and women I witnessed swimming, cycling and running today. 

The finish line was started to get crowded so I meandered off on a mission for lunch. The rain suddenly surged from sprinkling to soaking so I took shelter in the Cairns Regional Gallery of art which was only $5 ($3.40 USD) entry. The first floor held an eclectic collection of watercolor paintings. I looked at all of them but didn't love any of them. The second floor was more my style, titled Resolved: Journeys in Australian Design and displaying a collection of modern and minimalist design pieces. I particularly liked the colorful collection designed by Marc Harrison called Husque which incorporated crushed macadamia shells (which would otherwise just be discarded at harvest) into resin and shaped into beautiful bowls and dishes.

image source: husque.com

image source: husque.com

The third and final floor featured works by an emerging Artist named Nickeema Williams. She did beautiful charcoal portraits of several family members in addition to a few color photographs that honestly reminded me of instagram. When I exited the museum (through the gift shop of course) the rain was back to sporadic sprinkles. 

I found a food court on the way back to Calypso and got to break in my reusable bamboo chopsticks on some Thai food that was just a tad too oily. Back at home base, I caught up on some writing and uploaded some pictures. I also looked up the definitions of 101 words that I didn't know and had underlined while reading the last three chapters of Walden. I wish I had been more acquainted with my homeboy HD Thoreau in high school because he uses a ton of vocabulary that you're likely to see on the SAT. 

Anyways, that night the hostel hosted a BBQ where for $5 AUD you could eat barbecued crocodile and kangaroo. I had less than zero interest in this so I splurged and binged on Indian food at a nearby restaurant instead. I had naan, a mango lassi, basmati rice and Subzi Malai Balar; translation: mixed veggies in a creamy cashew sauce. I waddled back to my room and had to unbutton my pants to make room for the food baby I had just conceived. 

Earlier in the day I told myself that I was going to do some yoga before bed tonight but if I attempt anything that involves inversion right now, I'm quite certain I'll see my dinner again. I need to at least find the energy to pack as tonight is my last night in my single room of solitude and I'll need to check out tomorrow as soon as I return from my early morning excursion. 

Sidenote: I found this particularly amusing. In case you forget how to use a toilet, these helpful illustrations are posted throughout many of the public restrooms:


A few more pictures from around Cairns:


Cairns: Day 1

After sorting out my room for the next week and a half, I talked with Front Desk Dave about recommendations for my to be determined Australian Adventure. He spent at least 30 minutes answering all my questions and giving me great advice. 

After that I paid my $2 for unlimited toast and made two toasted PB&J sandwiches. I started talking with a kid from Germany who has been living and working in Australia for four months. He worked in Sydney as a furniture mover for two months to fund two more months of travel. Everywhere I travel I meet at least one German. Germans here, Germans there, Germans are freaking everywhere.

Anyways, the German (never got his name) convinced me to give the infamous vegemite a try. Apparently Hugh Jackman was on Jimmy Fallon's show and taught him how to properly eat Vegemite which is a thin layer spread on top of already buttered toast. Which is how I tried it. Still can't say I'm a fan though. And I don't know how they get away with the Vege prefix: it's basically just concentrated yeast extract and salt - there are no vegetables to be found in the ingredients. 

I extended my single room for two more nights through Sunday and then switched over to a four share room for the rest of next week. Then I went back to my room with full intentions to start sorting through all the marketing materials I had discussed with Front Desk Dave, and promptly fell asleep. I slept for the better part of 3 hours until noon when I was abruptly awoken by a knock on my door. I shot up out of bed and the door opened and closed in a flash - I’m guessing it was a custodian coming around to empty the trash because my bin is right next to the door. 

It was dark and rainy for most of the day - the perfect time to spend planning what to do for the next few weeks and make the most of the 24 hours of internet that I bought for $6 AUD. At first, I get really excited and want to do everything and go everywhere and completely blow my budget. Front Desk Dave got me all excited about a trip to the Whitsunday Islands but that would entail a long overnight bus ride each way and at least one night in a hostel in addition to the 3 day/2 night Eco Sailing Safari that I was lusting over because OMG I’d get to live on a boat in the Great Barrier Reef for a few days! Not to mention it would put me $600 over budget and it’s not very eco-friendly to travel so far from my home base. Nope. If I wanted to do the Whitsunday Islands, I should have stayed in the Airie Beach area. 

So I crunched some numbers and picked a variety of activities including a local pub crawl, white water rafting, a hot air balloon tour, a day trip to the waterfalls and rainforest in the Tablelands/Yungbarra and a weekend trip to Cape Tribulation. Then I’ll come back to Cairns and stay at another hostel because there are about a bazillion in the area and then book a reef sailing/snorkeling day trip next week. 

It’s so great starting out with my own room and being able to spread out and not worry about anything being stolen. But honestly I’d imagine most backpackers are like myself and are lugging a bunch of their own crap and don’t have the room or desire to take on any more. 

Hearing the rain beating down on the roof makes it really hard to motivate myself to get dressed and go out to find food for dinner but I’m really hungry as I’ve locked myself in my single room all day and only had a granola bar since breakfast. I assembled a quick-dry outfit including my vibrams and my raincoat. The sun was down before 6 PM so it was already dark by the time I made it outside. I ended up with a falafel kebab wrap and a Ginger Beer at a nearby walk-up joint, but they did have a few plastic tables and chairs outside. By the time I finished eating, the rain had stopped so I headed back to the hostel. I used the last bit of my energy to do a quick yoga practice then showered in the communal bathroom before bed. (Feels like being in college again.)