There aren’t many cities in the world that could lure me away from my beloved Austin, TX.  Sydney, however, is one.  When our short time in Sydney was over, I just didn’t want to leave!

Everything about Sydney was compelling me to stay.  It’s the perfect size – big enough to have everything you’d want in a city, yet small enough so as not to be overwhelming. From downtown, you’re a 40 minute bus ride or a fast ferry away from two of the most amazing beaches I’ve ever seen, Bondi and Manly.  The beauty of the Sydney Harbor and skyline is stunning.  And everyone we met there was just so friendly!

Although we could only stay in Sydney for a few days, we did manage to pack in quite a bit of fun while we were there.

Most importantly,  Shelley and I learned how to surf!  Surfing is something I’ve always wanted to learn how to do.  So much so that in an ill-fated, self-taught attempt several years ago, I was thrown over the front of a short board and broke my collar bone on the bottom of the ocean.  But this time was different.  This time I had a renowned surfing beach (Bondi), a big, long board, and professional instruction.


Shelley was a little worried at first.  The board was a bit big for her and she had a hard time carrying it and getting it into the water.  But, she did awesome and the camera loved her!

The camera didn’t love me as much and didn’t catch me standing up on any waves.  But, I’m proud to say that I did get up on a few and I had the time of my life.  Surfing Bondi is definitely one of our most favorite memories from the trip.

But, don’t let our beautiful surfing day fool you.  It was Christmas time down under and Sydney’s Christmas Tree was shining bright!  It definitely felt a little strange to experience Christmas in the summertime on the other side of the world!  

We made a stop at the Sydney Opera House.  We got lucky and were able get in on the last tour of the day when we were there.  It really is a beautiful building, inside and out.



We also had fun climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge while we learned about its history and construction.  The experience gives you a real bird’s eye view of Sydney and the surrounding area.


Shelley and I were definitely sad to leave Sydney behind.  Although our pocketbooks were not!  Australia is by far the most expensive place we’ve visited on our trip.  Thank goodness for Starwood Points!

Goodbye, Sydney.  I hope we meet again!

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Ocean and Wildlife Adventures in Victoria and Queensland

Before we arrived in Australia, when we were planning how we’d spend our three weeks there, we thought a good way to see a little more of such a huge country would be to rent a car and drive from Melbourne to Sydney and then fly on from there to the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, instead of just flying the whole way.  In retrospect, after we spent most of our time in Melbourne getting over being sick, the drive to Sydney wasn’t the best idea, but, hey, it stuck.  And since during that first week we weren’t able to make a day trip from Melbourne to drive the Great Ocean Road, we decided to use one of the three days we’d allocated to our drive to Sydney and drive the wrong way–heading west–to see the Great Ocean Road before we turned back around and carried on towards Sydney.

On our drive out to the coast, we zigzagged through small towns and farmland that looked so much like the U.S. I think I could easily have forgotten where we were, except for when we made a wrong turn and John turned around in someone’s driveway and then following years of conditioning pulled back out on the road on the right side, and I shouted out, “Left side!  Left side!”

Our first stop along the coast was at Port Campbell, a tiny, quaint town where we had some lunch before officially joining up with the Great Ocean Road.  From there we headed on to Twelve Apostles National Park to see the beautiful crumbling limestone pillars and cliffs.  It was really pretty out, and we tried to capture it with pictures, but I don’t think they quite do it justice.


On our way back to the parking lot, we saw this sign.  Luckily we didn’t see any snakes!

We continued heading east back towards Melbourne and then turned off onto the road leading out to the lighthouse at Cape Otway.  I’d read that we had a good chance of seeing koalas there, and sure enough, as we rounded a bend, I saw some folks stopped, looking up into the trees, and then I spotted the koalas.  I’m not quite sure why I was so excited to see koalas over every other animal, but I screamed out, “Stop the car!  Stop the car!  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!”  John pulled over and parked and we hopped out to watch the koalas lying around on tree branches and chewing on eucalyptus leaves.  You can see in the picture below just how jazzed I was about seeing koalas.  As we carried on down the road we happened upon a kangaroo.  I couldn’t believe our luck.  It paused and posed for us and we took some pictures.


The rest of our drive back to Melbourne was pretty uneventful, although it got a little hairy for John after the sun went down and we continued speeding over miles and miles of the very twisty, turny, and hilly Great Ocean Road with just a low metal barrier separating us from barreling over a cliff into the ocean.  We finally made it back to Melbourne close to midnight and hit the sack for an early start for Sydney the next morning.

The drive to Sydney was interesting, taking us through a number of seaside towns that we expected would remind us of California but instead looked a lot more like New England.  John powered through long hours of driving–13 hours over 2 days–with occasional stops in little towns for seafood and short walks to explore.  We crashed in Sydney for a night and then flew up to the warm weather and sunshine in the Whitsunday Islands for this view:


Until we saw New Zealand, I think we’d definitely say the Whitsundays were the most beautiful place we’d been, and we loved having the chance to spend some time on the water.  We spent one day on a catamaran cruise that took us to uninhabited Whitehaven Beach for some swimming, walking, and lounging, and another day we headed out to the Great Barrier Reef on a snorkeling trip.  The water wasn’t too cold, but to protect ourselves from the risk of stings by box jellyfish, we wore full “stinger suits” that for me included even a hood and gloves.  The snorkeling was really beautiful, even just seeing the coral itself.  I didn’t know that the color, size, and shape of coral could vary so much.


We spent our nights back on Hamilton Island enjoying watching the full moon and then making sure our balcony door was securely closed before bed.  Apparently people have been feeding the cockatoos, which has made them fearless about searching out food.  They’ll land on the balcony railing and peer inside to see if anyone is around.  If not, they’ll fly on in, help themselves to anything they can find to eat, and generally make a mess of the place.  I guess they’re a little like rodents, but a lot more beautiful, and they enjoy the sunset, too!



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On the Mend in Melbourne

We got to Melbourne in a pretty miserable state.  About a week into our two-week tour of India, I came down with a nasty cold that lingered for over two weeks.  After five or six days of managing to ward it off, John finally succumbed to it as well.  So we were already pretty down in the dumps when we boarded the first of three flights that would take us, over a span of about 26 hours, from Aurangabad, India to Melbourne, Australia.  The red-eye from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur, our second of the three flights, was the one that really did us in.  The loud and rambunctious children sitting in front of us kept us up all night, and by the time we arrived in Melbourne, we were really beat.  So we were incredibly happy and grateful to be welcomed at the Melbourne airport by my long-time best friend, Jenny, and her fiancé, Craig (we learned that’s pronounced Aussie-style, with two syllables, “Cray—egg”).

Jenny and Craig loaded us and our bags into their car and drove us back to their fantastically clean, cozy, hipster-ville apartment, where Craig made us the best egg, cheese, and bacon sandwiches I’ve ever eaten (sorry, John—I just really liked the sandwich Craig made!).  They put us to bed and then the next morning they waited and waited and waited for us to eventually wake up.  We finally headed out into town around 2pm for a beautiful afternoon of bike-riding, market-eating, and walking through the parks.  Maybe it was the smog-filled gray skies in India that affected our perspective, but the sky in Melbourne seemed so beautiful.  Its blue color somehow seemed different than what we see at home.  I couldn’t help gazing up at it and remarking on it repeatedly.

  Unfortunately for Jenny and Craig’s sakes, John and I were pretty boring in Melbourne.  We were feeling so under the weather that we spent most of our week there sleeping and resting, recovering from our colds and also treating John’s stomach bugs, thanks to an Aussie doctor’s visit and trustworthy medication from a Melbourne pharmacy.  Jenny and Craig did manage to get us out of the apartment a bit, though.  We explored St. Kilda one evening, topped off with lots of fresh bakery treats, we had oysters and fish and chips, plus lots of pizza and even homemade burritos, we spent a sunny afternoon at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground watching a local cricket match, we went disco bowling, and we even got to celebrate Thanksgiving together with a freshly roasted turkey.


Best of all, Jenny and I engaged in our favorite pastime—afternoon tea with girl talk at a swanky hotel.  Sparkling wine, Assam tea, lots of sandwiches, and freshly baked scones with clotted cream.  Yum.

Jenny and I have been best friends for over twenty years, but for the majority of that time, we’ve lived in different states and sometimes in different countries, so it was really special to have the chance to visit her in Australia and get to know Craig (now her husband—congratulations, guys!).  We’re so excited for you guys, we miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again soon for wedding take two!

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The Money Trail – India

The local currency in India is the rupee.  The visage of Mahatma Gandhi is prominently displayed on each bill.

Rupees were also difficult to spend, due to the need for small denominations.  ATMs would provide 500 and 100 rupee notes.  However, people mostly transacted in bills much smaller and it was often very difficult to get change when using larger bills.  Shop keepers didn’t like giving away their smaller bills.  Sometimes you just had to force the issue, saying you didn’t have anything smaller in order to change a larger bill that later you knew would have to get you through the rest of the day.


1 USD ~= 50 rupee

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The Cave Temples at Ajanta and Ellora

Following a recommendation from our good friend Steve from Austin, we persuaded my dad and Anne that it was worth making the trek from northern India down to Aurangabad in the Mumbai region for a visit to the Ajanta and Ellora cave temples, and I’m happy to say that we were right!

After arriving in Aurangabad, we headed out first to visit the Ajanta caves.  Most of the sites we’d been visiting up to that point in India were old, but they weren’t really old.  The Ajanta caves, on the other hand, are really old.  The five cave temples and twenty-four cave monasteries at Ajanta were carved out of solid rock in the period from about 200 BC to 650 AD, and then they were abandoned, essentially forgotten, until their rediscovery in 1819 by a British tiger-hunting party.  Lucky for us, that means that considering their age, they’re pretty well-preserved.

Although the Ajanta caves are known for their Buddhist paintings and sculptures, I couldn’t get over how the caves themselves were carved out of solid rock.  They’re not small, and the thought of people working over 2,000 years ago to chisel away at the rock by hand to create monuments filled with artistic masterpieces kind of blew my mind.  Some of the paintings were also really fascinating, especially those in which you could see that Indian artists had mastered the technique of perspective over 1,000 years before European painters figured out how to do so.


We headed next to the Ellora caves, and where the Ajanta caves are known for their artistic detail and subtlety, the Ellora caves are known for their immense size.  Although the thirty-four Ellora cave temples and monasteries are considerably younger than the Ajanta caves, having been carved between 600-1000 AD, they were similarly carved out of solid rock.  The Ellora caves are also interesting because out of the thirty-four temples and monasteries there, twelve are Buddhist, seventeen are Hindu, and five are Jain—three different religions all represented harmoniously in one spot.  Since we had seen the Buddhist caves at Ajanta earlier that day, we used our limited time to visit a couple of the Jain and Hindu temples at Ellora.  The Jain temples were big, but the Hindu Kailash Temple was immense.  It covers a total area of almost 10,000 square feet, which makes it twice the size of the Parthenon and one and a half times as tall.  We read that it’s been estimated that about 200,000 tons of rock were carved out and removed to create that one temple.  How they managed to carve a temple that size out of solid rock without power tools is completely astounding to me.  It was all really interesting, and it gave us a little insight on what ancient India might have been like.



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Sunrise at the Taj Mahal

We rolled out of bed at 5am, threw on our clothes, and headed to the hotel lobby to meet up with my dad, my sister Anne, and our guide for a sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal.  We waited in line as it first began to get light and then all of a sudden the gates opened and we hustled through security, eager for our first glimpse.  The guide stopped us for a minute to explain some of the history of the building and to make sure we’d fully appreciate the accuracy and precision with which it was built, especially how it perfectly aligns with the walls and arched gateways that enclose it, which you never hear much about.  Then we passed through the southern gate and joined the throngs snapping pictures.

We always hear that the Taj Mahal is the world’s most famous memorial to love, so we were a little amused to learn that it was actually built to honor Shah Jahan’s third wife, who he married while he was still married to the first two.  We’d all romanticized the building a little more than that and had assumed he’d just been consumed by his love for his one wife, but we learned that it’s hard to know whether the building was truly built for love or to demonstrate the magnificence of Mughal architecture.  In any case, it was breathtaking–not just the perfect symmetry of it and the beauty of the marble that seems to change color as the sun comes up, but also the details that you don’t really see until you get right up close to the building–in particular the carved marble panels and the inlaid stones set in various patterns.


Our guide told us that we were lucky–that the day we visited was the clearest day he’d seen in about a month.  The pollution still seems to have softened the lines of the building, but he said we were getting the full experience, unlike other recent visitors.  The extreme pollution in Agra is really taking a toll on the building, though, causing acid rain that is eating away at the marble.  I took a picture of John when we stopped for a moment at the back of the building overlooking the Yamuna River.  You might think it looks foggy outside, but it wasn’t–it was just smoggy.

My absolute favorite moment of our visit to the Taj Mahal happened just before we were about to leave. To give some background, all over India people had been taking pictures of us.  Sometimes they would ask to pose with us (while we held their babies!), but more often than not we’d notice their smartphones slyly pointed at us as they passed by.  I was surprised that we were such a novelty there.  I guess I figured that as a former British colony, they’d be more used to seeing westerners.  After a while I felt like I was starting to get a taste for how celebrities must feel when targeted by paparazzi, and at my dad’s suggestion I decided to take pictures right back of the people taking pictures of us, which they seemed to get a huge kick out of, and it made it a lot more fun for me, too.  The boldest picture-takers would also engage us in conversation, which my dad loved.  I think he especially enjoyed having the opportunity to portray American tourists in a friendly light.  One day during our trip, at an old fort in Delhi, a group of high school students on a field trip with their teacher stopped my dad for pictures and an interview.  They asked him where he was from and if we had anything in our country like the fort we were visiting (answer: no, our country isn’t that old!).  I remember him talking about George Washington as the father of our country, somewhat like how they think of Gandhi.  I had fun snapping pictures of my dad being interviewed by the kids at the same time that they were taking pictures of him and the rest of us.




So back at the Taj Mahal, John and I had stopped to sit down where we could just soak in the view.  We noticed a couple of young Indian guys tentatively approaching, and they asked if they could each take a picture with John.  I hopped up and out of the way and one at a time each of them snuggled right up to John, practically sitting in his lap, to take pictures of the other.  It was hilarious.  Clearly our concepts of personal space and not being too intimate with strangers do not translate in India.  After they took their pictures I asked them both to pose with John.  I think they almost managed to kidnap him from me, but luckily I kept him in the end!


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New Delhi

To begin our tour of India’s capital city, Shelley, Anne, John (the 1st) and I took a bicycle rickshaw ride through the streets of “Old Delhi,” an area within the city that was once the capital of the Mughal Dynasty, which existed prior to the British Raj.  This area of New Delhi remains a vibrant cultural center for the city and maintains a very dense population.

Touring Old Delhi is an experience not easily described in words.  I’ll let these pictures and videos speak for themselves.


After our morning in Old Delhi, we visited the Mahatma Gandhi memorial.  The memorial consists of a large, black marble platform that marks the location of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation.  While we were there, there was a continuous line of visitors waiting to look upon the memorial and we saw many school groups, like the one seen in this picture.  When entering the memorial, we all removed our shoes as a sign of respect.

Before travelling on to Agra, we visited Humayun’s Tomb, a site that gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993.  This tomb, commissioned in 1562 for Humayun, the second emperor of the Mughal Dynasty, is historically important because it is the first tomb of its kind on the Indian subcontinent.  Shah Jahan, Humayun’s descendant and fifth emperor of the Mughal Dynasty, would go on to build the Taj Mahal and many other grand buildings, each of which owe many aspects of their design to this very first Indian garden-tomb.




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Shelley and Anne’s father, John, arrived in Kolkata a couple days after we did and joined us on the rest of our India adventures.  Next stop, Sikkim.

Sikkim is a small Indian state in the Himalayas, bordering on Nepal and Tibet.  Getting there is a bit rough, but the remoteness and serenity of the place made for a pleasant visit.  Many people choose Sikkim as a trekking destination, the attraction being the beautiful Himalaya Mountains.  We kept the trekking to a minimum – you’d really need to be prepared to do some back country trekking here.  But, we did do a fair amount of hiking along the roads and had one interesting off the beaten path hike.


Kangchenjunga, the world’s third tallest peak, is situated on Sikkim’s border with Nepal, and when the clouds aren’t rolling in it’s prominently displayed.  A small painting in our hotel gave us the lay of the land.


As we updated our passports with the border patrol upon leaving Sikkim, I noticed that the the border patrol was keeping monthly, hand-written statistics on who visits the area and snapped a quick picture.  It was interesting to see which countries were represented.  It certainly put into perspective where we were.  A quick average says only about 4,000 tourists visit this place every year – that’s probably being generous.



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On to India

As we waited in baggage claim for our backpacks in the Kolkata airport, we quickly learned that the most popular piece of checked luggage in India is the 42 inch flatscreen TV.

Seemingly every person on our plane from Bangkok to Kolkata brought a flatscreen TV back home with them!  Can you imagine checking the flatscreen TV you just bought onto a plane in the US?!?!  But, no worries here.  At least thirty TVs were pulled off the plane before the first actual piece of luggage arrived.  Thankfully, our bags did eventually show up on the carousel, and we were off to meet Shelley’s sister, Anne, for a tour of Kolkata and our first taste of India.

If I could use only one word to describe India, that word would be overwhelming.  Our travels in Asia had in many ways prepared us for what we would experience in India.  Yet, from the moment we stepped outside of the Kolkata airport, Shelley and I felt lost in sensory overload.  Thankfully, Anne was there to guide us through the throngs of people, touts, and horn blowing taxis in order to get us on our way.

Having lived in Kolkata for almost a year, Anne put together a great tour for us, taking us to see several of the city’s highlights.  We toured the Missionaries of Charity Mother House, where Mother Teresa founded a new religious order and worked tirelessly to help the poor.


We walked around BBD Bagh, where Victorian buildings dating back to the British Raj, such as the Writers Building of the British East India Company, have been converted into Kolkata’s government center.  We also spent time at the Victoria Memorial Hall, built from 1906 to 1921 to honor Queen Victoria.  Today it acts as a museum, illustrating the history of Kolkata in words, pictures and artifacts.  Definitely a highlight of our time in Kolkata.


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The Money Trail – Laos

The local currency in Laos is the kip.  Kip were harder to spend than other currencies because, unlike other places we’ve been, English numbers weren’t consistently placed on the money.

1 USD ~= 8,000 kip

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