The pulse of pedestrian and motorbike traffic hummed behind us on the busy streets of Bangkok, Thailand, splitting and reconverging on the other side of our trio, as we negotiated the terms for Laura’s highly coveted shiny green guitar.
“Okay, maybe you’ll take 800 baht and a really fun monkey mask?” my friend Laura replied to the Thai street vendor, with a hint of fun and laughter glinting in her eyes.
The chuckling vendor looked at me and our faces were twin mirrors of amused confusion.
Sometimes joy and fun in an experience is directly proportionate to how difficult it is…
…the short hike to the lookout point for the Blasket Islands in southern Ireland is one of those circumstances. It was cold and windy for my driving/hiking adventure and with the ever-present misting Irish rain a constant companion every time I stepped out of the car.
Slea Head Drive rings the Dingle Peninsula and takes half a day to drive if you’re like me and stop for pictures, hike a little, see a few old rocks and stare down the odd sheep here and there. The Blasket Islands in particular are an intriguing stop on the route because they once contained a very isolated and pure form of Irish culture and language until the mid-1950s. The residents were mostly cut off from the mainland until evacuations in in 1953 and their traditions, resiliency, and culture have noticeably tinged the Dingle Peninsula.
So, there we were hiking through the sheep pastures and taking epic jumping shots over the look-out point and reading through our handy local history book when my bladder sent me an urgent SOS message.
What to do when the only thing nearby for miles in either direction is wind and rocks and a steep hike back down to the car? You prop yourself behind a rock, check that you’re not in sight of any humans or sheep, and drop trou, of course!
And before you think me strange, it is actually acceptable when you’re hiking. In fact, I give you complete permission to commune with nature next time you visit sheep pastures in Ireland…but as a hard-learned tip, make sure you’re not peeing against the wind. :-)
My friend Jenn is a long-time friend from Florida who also made the move to Los Angeles after college. Our M.O. was long hikes through the mountains surrounding LA to rid ourselves of the city-angst. When I started talking about my RTW trip we road-tripped it up the California coast to San Francisco to test our travel style compatibility.
With Muir Woods so close to San Francisco we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the park and see the redwood forest first hand. And like all stories of me hiking anywhere … we got lost for a couple of hours. I say that lightly because we were still mostly on a trail, and we had lots of water, so we knew it was safe enough for us to indulge in the desire to just pick a path and go.
In the end, as with most times I follow instinct and just wander—or in this case hike—it was worth it. Not long after we hiked straight up out of the dark base of the redwood forest we surfaced to the piercingly sunny skies and epic views of the huge trees and hills rolling toward the Pacific Ocean.
Two weeks ago I was playing around on Facebook as a way to procrastinate the real work I should have been doing when a chat window popped up – from a sweet young woman I met at the orphanage in Cambodia where I volunteered more than a year and a half ago.
Many of the older girls at the orphanage asked for my email and Facebook details at the time and we have very sporadically kept in touch, talking every month or so, mostly just quick hellos and messages from them imploring me to come back for a visit.
But the tone of this chat was different right off the bat. She seemed sad. And that’s saying a whole lot because the girls from the FLOW orphanage are eternally sunshiney and happy during our conversations, upbeat and enthusiastic about their studies and their life goals.
She had left the orphanage about a year ago to start her second year of college and take on a full time job. That meant this was her first year out of the control and protection of the orphanage environment and she was confused and overwhelmed, having a hard time balancing the need to make money and feed herself and her fierce desire for an education.
I listened to her, offered advice and encouragement – gave all of the support I could from the other side of the world to a woman who has experienced a life so far removed and different from my own.
Then days later an email arrived from Varanasi, India. Lucky was one of the most promising students I taught at the monastery in Nepal and I helped him prep for his University entrance exam while I was there. He got into the University and writes me regularly of his life, studies, and thoughts.
As I’m reading his email a different FLOW student chat messages me – she doesn’t understand the meaning of non-verbal communication, can I please explain. Twenty minutes later we’re still brainstorming fun situations that use non-verbal behavior.
Then another email. A different student needing advice.
The calls for mentoring rained down on me this past week.
Sometimes I feel so inept and useless. They are struggling with situations and rising up from situations I can’t even fathom. If I could afford to sponsor each and every one of them through college I would. But maybe that wouldn’t even be helpful.
So instead I give these kids the only thing I can, support and love. They’ve overcome so much; they dream of being doctors and lawyers, international translators, businessmen and politicians.
And I listen to their dreams and encourage. I am so thankful I chose to share a few weeks of my life and time with these students when I volunteered last year. They inspire me on a daily basis to look at life with a little bit more gratitude and thankfulness. Their passion and perseverance to achieve their goals is a monthly reminder to take stock of those things I take for granted and work a little harder to make a difference in my life and the world.
“Safe travels! You’ve got my Facebook details so we can keep in touch – you have a couch if you ever make it to Florida!”
And just like that a new friend has come and gone. At the parting, my new friend scurries off with her backpack strapped to her back, ready for the next hostel, the next hike, sightseeing tour, the next group of backpackers waiting at the next hostel.
I’ll probably never lay eyes on her again and within a couple of months we probably won’t even talk on Facebook either. It sounds so pessimistic but it’s the truth.
Facebook has transformed communication; I have friends all over the world – people with whom I have just clicked. We meet, travel together sometimes for weeks at a time, and then our paths diverge and we often head to opposite sides of the planet.
And some of these friends stick. It clicked on both sides and I count them among my actual and true friends…more than just a potential couch when I pass through, we care.
I’ve met those handful of chagrined backpackers; they’ve been on the road for years and they’re not handing out their Facebook profiles to just anyone. The first month of my round the world trip I was in Australia, there I am a fresh faced and newbie solo traveler meeting up with a fun trio of friends who had been on the road for 18 months. After a couple days of sightseeing and drinks on the town I was ready to commit to BFFs for life – let’s trade details and see where this goes.
And the trio said no.
I mean, they actually said ‘no!’
“No, it’s nothing personal but we just don’t really ‘friend’ people very often, you know what we mean, right.”
I was horrified! Absolutely horrified. Is there something wrong with me?! Why don’t they want to be my friend? Am I that person, the pity person you hang with but don’t actually like…the thoughts raced through my head but I shrugged it off with a tight-lipped smile and a flippant, “Oh yeah, I get ya, hah, yeah, good plan.”
And it wasn’t until later, months down the line when I got it.
These backpacking friendships are unique. I haven’t gone through six years of school with these friends, they don’t know my life story – they’re my backpacking friends – great for a day of hiking to that nearby mountain but it doesn’t have to be more than that. I don’t have to friend every single person I eat lunch with on the road.
But Facebook allows a traveler the unique opportunity to hang on, linger in a friendship that maybe could have happily remained ephemeral and instead the friendship will go through mournful bleeps that fade slowly, like the beeping of a dying heart monitor affixed to our Facebook friendship.
First we comment on each other’s status madly, hoping that our paths again will cross while we’re both in the region.
Then it peters down to the occasional “like.”
Pretty soon the friendship has come and gone; we hide each other’s updates from our news feed and start the process with the next batch of friends.
To Friend or Not to Friend?
I love meeting people. And unlike that Australian backpacking trio, I would never say no because I truly love the connections. Although I may not actively communicate with all of these new friends in three months time, who knows, perhaps our paths will cross again.
Just last week, out of the blue a backpacking friend I met on a day tour in Slovenia Facebook-messaged me about my volunteering experience in Nepal. We don’t actively Facebook each other anymore, but she’s there. And she’s sweet and I know that if I ever do make it to Bath she’s the first I’ll message. And how could either of us have known that more than a year later she would be heading to Nepal to volunteer?!
I have met incredible people on the road and am so happy for the ease that Facebook gives to maintaining communication with them. But the past two years on the road has also taught me that although I’ll friend just about anyone I’ve met (and don’t plan to stop) realistically some of these people have a place in my memory and I will likely never again cross their paths. We have that tour, that monument, that hilarious market experience in our joint memories and that’s where some are likely to stay.
Then there are the other friends that just stick. You meet again in different spots in the world and thank god you swapped details. Either way, I’ll still friend just about anyone I meet and enjoy their company because you just never know where life is heading. :-)
Oscar Wilde described the Connemara region as a “savage beauty” – he was surely referring to the rough landscape that is largely covered with peat bogs, rocky hills, and interlocking chains of lakes. I’ve got to say, if ever there was a lonely landscape, it would have to be this region of Ireland.
To really and truly appreciate Connemara you have to get some height – as in go climb a mountain or a hill. Although the Twelve Bens mountain range is right in the area too, I couldn’t resist the Diamond Hill hike; it started right outside my hostel door in Letterfrack and was a fairly easy 7km hike. They want you to hike and enjoy the scenery so there is a carved out and maintained path until three quarters of the way up the hill.
The last part of the hike gets incredibly steep though, so instead of looking at the scenery to my back I huffed and concentrated on making it to the peak – and I think it was almost better this way.
Once I got to the top of Diamond Hill, Connemara’s mottled coastline competed in beauty with the cool blue lakes and slices of sunlight peeping through the clouds. It’s stunning, beautiful, gorgeous…all of those clichéd travel brochure descriptions? – yeah, it was those.
But it was also incredibly still and quiet. Even in Scotland there wasn’t this much peace and tranquility at the top of the mountains and hills. The air was still, and even at a mere 400 meters up it seemed as if another human didn’t exist for hundreds of miles.
But naturally, all of that peace and tranquility inspired a frenzy of energy in myself and my hiking partners and we couldn’t help but take these fun jumping pictures from the top.
Diamond Hill is a loop hike so the whole time the scenery diverse and different scenery. I loved having my French friends for the day to do the hike with – but that’s one of those double edged swords of traveling, you meet really cool people, and you truly get along and appreciate the unique experiences you had with them, but, well, you move on. They were heading onward to Galway the next morning so we had some fun hiking, shared a couple of beers and swapped stories.
I’ll always remember hiking up this gorgeous mountain with them, even though I may never meet them again. This is just one of those travelers dilemmas – do extend your network to every cool person you meet, keep them as Facebook friends and try to stay connected, or do you suffice with the pleasant memory and bid them farewell as they hop on their bus?
If Australia’s primary cities were siblings, then Melbourne is the country’s “red-headed stepchild.” The town is unapologetically alternative and has a unique vibe unlike anything else I’ve yet encountered. While Sydney relies on beauty and cleanliness to stay a favorite, my first impressions indicate that Melbourne is an “anything-goes” type of city.
I am still traveling with new friends, so I arrived in Melbourne with Pauline and Linda. The enormous diversity in Melbourne struck us first. A wash of cultures and subcultures filled the streets — Asians, hipsters, punks, businessmen — everyone commingles on the city’s streets.
Shops dot the corners of the CBD (Central Business District), but I found my favorite cafes were all tucked away on the narrow, vaguely European side-streets running between the tall buildings. Linda and I explored together on our first morning in town. We got a bit lost (normal for me) and sat on a tram for 35 minutes going in the wrong direction. Heh. We finally realized that we were in some random Melbourne suburb rather than the CBD.
Once we righted ourselves on the tram, we landed in the center of the CBD. I was starving, so we headed straight to a crowded side-street filled with fragrant coffee shops and petite cafes with tables and chairs spilling onto the sidewalk. We scored cheap but delicious pastries to munch on as we explored.
We also hit up the Queen Victoria Markets. Your random fact for the day: Queen Victoria Markets is the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere! The market expanded in all directions and contained a tad bit of everything possibly interesting. We loved the farmer’s market section and we scored affordable fruits and veggies by choosing the pick of the bunch from the hundreds of stalls. The market also sells clothes, souvenirs, and the such. It was an exhausting thought to see it all, so instead we wandered the stalls for a couple of hours and browsed through all the intriguing offerings.
Exploring St. Kilda, Melbourne
Rounding out the first few days, the three of us repacked our backpacks and headed out of the city center for a bit of downtime. Melbourne has a dead-simple tram system that reaches into every corner of the city. It was a cinch to find a backpackers hostel in St. Kilda, and we landed in Coffee Palace, which my guidebook said was decent. Truth be told, I wish we had taken longer to compare options. The hostel wasn’t clean. In fact, it was straight-up gross. But unfortunately I had prepaid, so I made the best of it. I slept in my sleep sack to protect myself from the rumored bed-bugs, and tried not to touch anything unless it was absolutely necessary! Other backpackers have said good things about Nomads, so I would likely stay there in the future.
Fortunately, what the hostel lacked, St. Kilda made up for in style and spunk. The town’s Sunday market on the Esplanade had cute local crafts and funky works of art. By the time I visited the Sunday market, I realized that my stateside friend had backed out on meeting me in Oz. As a sort of token to this yearlong round the world trip, and a commitment to go it solo if necessary, I bought myself a sterling silver pinky ring. It’s cute and has little etches and the woman who made it was so happy to help me pick out one that I liked.
During my handful of days in St. Kilda, I came to love Veg Out Time. It’s an affordable vegetarian restaurant just half a block from the hostel. They serve a delicious sweet-potato curry over brown rice. After so long cooking basic foods in hostel kitchens, it’s nice to have something so hearty and nutritious and tasty to boot!
After a few days in St. Kilda, I said adieu to Pauline and Linda. They are here on their Aussie work visa for a year, so they need to earn a bit more money before they can continue traveling. They found a farm in a small town a couple of hours outside of Melbourne and they plan to earn money by picking seasonal fruits on the farm! As a fun way to end our time together, the hostel had dress-up karaoke on our last night hanging out. It was so hilarious and such good fun.
I mean, I just don’t think I can truly express the levels of bonding that take place over listening to five drunk guys serenade the crowd with rollicking versions of every hit the Backstreet Boys made. It was priceless! I will miss these ladies and the fun times we had. But I am continuing my own travels around Australia after Melbourne, so parting ways was necessary.
We pick up the round the world adventures in Bateman’s Bay. I sated my curiosity about Australia’s kangaroos with an easy hike around Murramarang National Park, which ended with me petting some kangaroos on Pebbly Beach (and trying to save my lunch from the huge male kangaroos!). Other than the kangaroos, there wasn’t a whole lot of options. With that in mind, I scheduled myself on the next bus down the coast and headed toward Merimbula. All during these kangaroo and bus ride adventures, I had no idea that a major storm was brewing in northern Victoria, which is precisely the trajectory of my travel route as I head toward Melbourne.
Basing out of Merimbula, I enjoyed a long morning walk on a Broulee Island. This is a wonderful way to spend the morning. Broulee Island has a 4 kilometer beach walk that is serene and quiet. The word “lovely” sums up my wander through this non touristy beach area. If you’re in Merimbula as well, I recommend you take a bus or a car for a long morning wander that way. At my hostel, I met two Israeli brothers with a rental car. They invited me along and the morning my bus left, I used the beach as a place for a thoughtful, pretty walk filled with gently lapping waves and squeaking bird life.
The hostel in Merimbula, Wandarrah Lodge, was cute and it’s a solid option in the city. At the time, they didn’t have wi-fi, but they do now. But without wi-fi back in 2008, I was limited in my ability to stay for more than a night. But what a cute spot. One of my favorite hostel environments. Wild birds frequently visit the hostel porch and they will munch bird seed right out of your hand during breakfast! The birds loved apples and fruit the best, and it was delightful and to start the day with a Rainbow Lorikeet eating from the palm of my hand.
As much as I enjoyed Broulee Island and the hostel, visiting Merimbula was a bit of a bust. The bad weather swept through with gusty winds and cold rains, so I caught the Greyhound bus down to Lakes Entrance to wait out the storm with my two German friends, Pauline and Linda. In retrospect, I should have waited out the storm in Merimbula. My quick three-hour bus ride to Lakes Entrance instead took a very long six-hours. The massive storm came in fast and had knocked numerous trees into the road. We were often just stuck in the bus as rain pelted the windows and we waited for emergency crews to clear the road.
The Lakes Entrance became my hideout from the bad weather, and I was so glad to have made friends by this point. Pauline, Linda, and I decided that the only acceptable way to wait out a storm of this magnitude was with plenty of food and a stack of DVDs. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any of the above. We packed on the layers — virtually every article of clothing I packed was on my body. (And a hearty thanks for the warm scarf Lisandra! It came in handy.) Once we were kited out in the our rain gear, we walked 15 minutes into the Lakes Entrance town center. It was drizzling frigid mist into our faces, but the trip was worth it. When we returned, the trip was successful. We had all the fixings for a delicious quiche (which we only slightly burned), mini pies, and a stack of DVDs.
The perfect backpacker activity for passing time? DVDs! Pauline and Linda weren’t traveling with a laptop, so we were thankful for my laptop, which allowed us to huddle on a couch and watch the DVDs we had rented. We opted for a few standbys that we had all seen and loved, as well as some local movies about Australia.
We rented Rabbit Proof Fence, an Aussie movie about what is called the “Stolen Generation” — when the European settlers confiscated Aboriginal children who were mixed with European genes and mainstreamed the children into Western culture. It was a massive debacle that did not bear out well in history. The Europeans aimed to breed out the Aboriginal genes in these kids by mainstreaming them and then marrying them back into Western (white) society. I have been reading the book, so it was interesting to watch it on-screen. I loved them both and recommend that you read it and watch it too. The story is a remarkable true story that explained a lot about the process, the impact, and how one set of siblings survived despite the circumstances. There are deep tensions here in Australia. I feel them at odd moments and as an undertone to conversations with locals. Many Aussies I have met don’t have kind things to say about the aboriginals, so it’s important to read widely on the history between the two groups.
The movies worked well to pass the time. We watched Big Fish, Chocolate, and a few others. After about 24 hours, the storm began to clear and we explored the town. There is a pretty 3.5 kilometer coastal walk of Lakes Entrance, and since we were feeling stir-crazy we donned our raincoats and braved the light drizzle.
Exploring Lakes Entrance, Australia
The Lakes Entrance is truly beautiful. The town is situated on the lakeside and then, just a couple hundred meters over the sand dunes, the ocean waves beat at the shoreline. The gap in the picture is man-made and allows boats to dock in the quiet waters of the lakes rather than the rough ocean.
We were awfully glad to see a bit of sunshine, even if it was still overcast most of the day. The storm had passed and we enjoyed the town. I just have to add, we did, once again, get a little lost.
Our planned walking route hugged the coast for two kilometers and then cut back into town. After about five kilometers of chatting and getting lost in conversation, we realized we had walked too far! We cut inland to a golf course and the extra detour turned out all for the best — I got to see a jumping pillow!
This pillow was just sitting there asking for us to jump. The German girls have these pillows in Germany too, but I’ve never seen anything like it. We have trampolines with huge nets around them, but never at a public park. Best I can figure is that it’s because the U.S. is so lawsuit happy. I got my jumping on, however, and it was such fun. It was even fun enough to make worthwhile the extra six kilometer walk!