Monday, December 15, 2014


For the last few years, Erik has talked about wanting to try kitesurfing. Kitesurfing/kiteboarding (not sure if there is actually a difference?!) is huge in Melbourne, and people can be seen kitesurfing in Port Phillip Bay on a daily basis, particularly in areas like St. Kilda in the east and Altona in the west. When a Scoopon (like Groupon) deal popped up for kitesurfing around Erik's birthday, I thought I would take advantage of a good deal and bought a voucher for him.
Lots of kites out on this windy day! Melbourne's CDB is in the background.
The voucher was for a 2 hour lesson at KSS Altona. Erik tried to book in a few weekends ago, but on the day he was meant to go out for his lesson there was no wind. Last weekend, however, there was plenty of wind, so we headed down to Altona for his lesson. Our first impression was not great, as we were told the instructor would be 30 minutes late. 30 minutes turned into an hour, so we ended up waiting quite a while for the instructor to arrive. I actually overheard the instructor saying it was the first time he had taught a lesson, and based on how he was organized, I could tell!
Some instruction going on in this picture. You can see how windy it was based on the waves in the bay!
Eventually Erik and the two other people taking the lesson headed down to the beach. It seemed to take a while for the instructor to decide where to operate on the beach. It was VERY windy and there were a lot of kites out, which made it fun for me to watch.
Erik is holding onto the kite in this picture.
The group went through a lot of set-up and safety stuff which seemed to take forever. After an hour or so, Erik got to steer the kite through the water. His first go was funny to watch as he nearly lost control of the kite. After a few minutes though, he got the hang of steering the kite. However, at that point he had to hand the kite over to someone else in the group. All up he probably held the kite for 4 minutes!
Erik steering the kite!
After the group each took turns steering the kite, the lesson was essentially over, as they went over how to pack up the kite but did not get another chance to steer the kite and they did not do body drags through the water, which was supposed to be part of the lesson. The instructor also ended the class about 20 minutes early. In the end, I think Erik enjoyed controlling the kite, but overall the lesson was poorly run and unorganized. Regardless, Erik was happy to have had a go at kitesurfing and perhaps for his next lesson I would try a different shop, given the slightly negative experience we had with KSS Altona.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Erik and I have spent a bit of time on airplanes during our travels over the last few years. I have developed a keen interest in airplanes with all of that travel, and not just when flying. Interestingly, all of the homes we have lived in have been located within a 15-20 minute drive of an airport. In Chapel Hill we could often see planes landing at RDU. When we lived in Elkridge, we were very close to BWI and therefore could see and hear planes landing. Here in Australia, we live near Melbourne International Airport (MEL), and over the past 3+ years we have spent many evening and weekend walks or bike commutes to and from work watching planes land and take off from MEL.
The Qantas A380 above Melbourne
The exciting thing about watching planes enter or exit MEL is the wide variety of airlines that visit the airport. In America, most airports are busy with LOTS of domestic flights and a handful of international flights. Here, it is always fun to try to see the plane's colors and/or logos to determine where it is coming from or where it is headed. With us both being first born children, we sometimes turn this into a competition! MEL has numerous domestic flights too, but remember there are only a handful of major airports located in Australia, so there are not as many flights coming in from other parts of the country as we used to see in the States.
Heading up the east coast of Australia on a domestic flight. While we are often taking pictures from the windows of planes while traveling, we occasionally take pictures of planes coming into MEL, especially if one of us is at home and the other one is on the plane!
I have an app on my phone that lists all departures and arrivals from MEL, and I can use it to look up which planes are arriving or departing at certain times and also to see if those flights are delayed. In the matter of a few hours, international flights will arrive from Air New Zealand, Emirates, Singapore, Etihad, Thai, Malaysia, Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Air Asia, Garuda Indonesia, and Air India! Also, there are three different airlines that fly from MEL to China that we frequently see; Air China, China Eastern, China Southern. There are only 4 major domestic airlines in Australia: Qantas, Virgin, JetStar, and Tiger. All of those airlines except Tiger also fly internationally to/from MEL, and usually we can tell if it's an international flight by the size of the plane. 
One hour's worth of international departures at MEL
We sometimes try to guess the type of planes that we see in the air. The easiest to identify is the Airbus A380, which is identifiable by the 4 very large engines. It is my plane of choice when visiting the States, as I find it quieter and more comfortable than other long range planes. United has started flying the "Dreamliner" 787 flight from MEL to LAX, and I'm tempted to give that one a go just to see what the plane is like. Nerd or airplane enthusiast? You be the judge!
The Qantas A380 at MEL

Monday, November 24, 2014


After our awesome adventures in the Himalayas and in Chitwan National Park, we had about a day and a half to explore Kathmandu. When we arrived at the bus station in Kathmandu, Gore was there to greet us with a smile. He guided us on a short walk back to the Himalayan Traveler's Inn, where we would spend our last night in Nepal.
The Nepalese get creative with bamboo scaffolding
Tractors serve as cars
Trucks are decorated with all kinds of colorful messages
We spent that evening exploring the streets of Thamel, the area of Kathmandu that is probably most-visited by tourists. The streets are filled with stores and restaurants and small alleyways where it would be very easy to get lost. It would also be very easy to get hit by a car, as the small roads are not really large enough to accommodate cars, motorbikes, and people! Thamel could probably best be described using the Australia word "chockas", which means "filled to the brim" or "packed".
Surely this cannot be safe?!
We went on a mission to find a good pizza place for dinner and fortunately we succeeded! After reading a few reviews in "The Rough Guide to Nepal," we settled on Roadhouse Cafe, where we split a four cheese pizza that was topped off with one of our favorite finds in Nepal, yak cheese. For dessert we stumbled upon a bakery that was selling half price pastries after 8pm, meaning that the baked goods were basically free!
Yak cheese was the best part of this pizza!
The next morning we enjoyed a lazy sleep in and then headed to New Orleans Cafe for breakfast. It actually felt as if we were in the French Quarter all while being in the middle of Kathmandu. Apparently it is a favorite hang out spot for ex-pats, and we could see why.

After breakfast we set out on a bit of an adventure. We decided to walk to the Swayambhunath Temple, or as Western people call it, the monkey temple, with only a basic idea of the direction we were headed. Fortunately we came across a few English-speaking people along the way who helped guide us in the right direction. We were expecting a similar experience to our monkey temple visit in Ubud, however, we only came across a handful of monkeys. There is a very steep set of stairs leading to the temple, and an entrance fee is charged at the top. Unfortunately the temple has become very commercialized and there were many people trying to sell souvenirs at the top. We ignored that stuff and enjoyed the beauty of the temple and the views of Kathmandu.
Kathmandu locals enjoying the Dashain swing
Our target was the big gold temple but we struggled to find the right roads to get there!
We weaved in and out of this neighborhood along the way
Temple entrance

Part of the Kathmandu Valley

From the temple we headed to Durbar Square, where we did not actually go inside any of the buildings but we enjoyed the architecture from the outside. Interestingly there are little stands around the square where they are trying to lure tourists in to pay for a "ticket", but we found we were able to walk through/around the area without paying.
Durbar Square
At that point we headed back towards Thamel, stopping at yet another bakery along the way, ha! We also visited another temple that was just off the main street.
Walmart in Kathmandu?!

Our next stop was the Himalayan Traveler's Inn, where we packed our things and showered (we paid to have the room until 9pm because we had a late night flight). Arjun was there, so we had one last cup of tea with him and talked about the highlights of our Nepal trip. That night's dinner was a repeat of the night before, as we loved the pizza so much that we went back for more, followed by a trip to the bakery where we stocked up on baked goods for our trip home. That decision, unfortunately, was probably a poor one, as we suspect Erik got food poisoning from one of those leftover baked goods. He was sick for over a week after we returned back to Melbourne. :(

Arjun had arranged for a taxi to take us to the airport and he, along with the owner of the Himalayan Traveler's Inn, presented us with a khata, a silk scarf that is used in ceremonies, arrivals, and departures as a Buddist tradition. Our flights were uneventful this time, and we actually arrived back to Melbourne a bit early. Nepal ticked all the boxes for us and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Like many other destinations, Nepal is now on a list of places that we can't wait to go back to visit.
Back over "home" soil. An aerial view of Western Australia!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chitwan National Park

Compared to the other major hikes we completed this year, Kilimanjaro and Rinjani, I woke up feeling amazingly refreshed with very little muscle soreness after our Himalayan trek. Our ascents and descents were gentler on the body and generally we walked fewer hours per day than we had on previous treks. I also think sleeping in a real bed helped with recovery. Can you tell that I loved trekking in the Himalayas?!
Last view of the Himalayas as we left Pokhara
Gore arranged for the three of us to take a taxi to the bus station where we would start our journey to Chitwan National Park, near the border of India. We walked past many busses, arriving at what looked like the crappiest bus of the entire lot. To top it off, our seats were in the very back of the bus, where there are 5 seats but really only room for 4 people. Gore was not happy with the arrangement, as he claimed to have booked the bus tickets a week in advance. After some negotiation with a guy in charge, Gore managed to get better seats for us, another perk of having a guide to help us during our trip! This bus had no A/C and had fans instead, and Erik hit his head on ours every time we went over a bump, which was quite often! The bus was stopping constantly to let people on, which confused us because we thought we were on a bus that was going direct to Chitwan National Park. We were being passed by nicer, bigger coach busses that were also going to Chitwan, wondering why we weren't on one of those busses.
Note people sitting in the aisle. Some people road that way for 4+ hours.
The drive to Chitwan was scary at times, as our bus was winding along the edge of cliffs that looked like we would drive off at any point in time! Along the way we passed various villages and towns where people were celebrating Dashain, which we learned is one of the most celebrated festivals on Nepal's calendar. During Dashain, families sacrifice an animal (usually a chicken or goat, as it is illegal to kill a cow in Nepal), and they were doing this in their front yards as we went by on the bus. They also set up giant swings for kids made of bamboo stalks. 
A swing set up just for Dashain
We arrived at the bus stop in Chitwan around 2pm where Dipe (pronounced Deep-Pay and short for Dependra), was there to pick us up to take us to Unique Wild Resort. Our accommodation for the next two nights looked nice, with beautiful landscaping and tons of butterflies. The food was just okay -- meals were set so there were no choices. That evening we went on a "nature walk", where we saw our first rhinoceros (one of the main reasons we decided to visit Chitwan), though the rhino sort of looked dead! We also saw some of the male elephants used for breeding, who were chained up quite tightly, which made us quite sad. Along the river we saw two crocodiles hanging out on the riverbank along with a few colorful birds. We watched the sunset from a restaurant on the river where I indulged in a sunset cocktail. Back at the "resort" we ate dinner and watched some HBO (our first TV of the trip!).
Our room in Chitwan

The grounds at Unique Wild Resort

One of the male elephants used for breeding

Chitwan National Park
Enjoying sunset on the river
The next day we were up early for our elephant safari in Chitwan National Park. Rather than using a vehicle for the safari, the elephants serve this purpose. During our ride we encountered a few deer and had a really close encounter with a rhino. The rhino was in a watering hole and we seemed to startle it, as it perked up once our elephant got close. It was actually a bit scary, as there we were on an elephant having just alerted a rhino who had been peacefully enjoying himself! After he stared us down for a minute or two he seemed to realize that we were not a threat and he went back to enjoying himself. Apparently rhinos are scared of elephants so they will not charge the animals, but there have been several accidents in Chitwan where tourists have been killed by charging rhinos. 
Our view from the top of the elephant
This guy stood up when he heard us coming!
You can get an idea of how close we were to the rhino in this picture.
LOTS of people on the elephant safari. Thank goodness we got there early to avoid the crowds!
When we returned to the starting point for our elephant safari, there were literally hundreds of people there. We were thankful that we had gone early before the madness! We headed back to the resort for breakfast, where we were told that our elephant bathing had been cancelled due to Dashain. Dissappointed, we were hanging out around the resort when Dipe came to alert us that the elephant bathing was on! This turned out to be the most awesome part of our trip to Chitwan. When we arrived there was no one else there except for the elephants and their guides. Before the bath we got to ride an elephant, and she gave us a bath! Erik and I fell off the elephant twice during this process, which would have been pretty amusing to watch. After playing with the elephants, we bathed them using a smooth rock to clean between the skin creases. 
We got a bath before we gave her a bath!
No one around except the guides, their elephants, and us!
She is handing her guide a tip that we placed in her trunk!
The highlight of our Chitwan trip!
She also handed the guide his clothes after the bath was over, ha!
Lunch was followed by another activity, a canoe ride down the river. Along the way we saw numerous crocodiles and a few different types of birds. After the ride we went on a short walk in the forest to look for rhinos, though all we found was rhino tracks. We also visited the mama and baby elephants and learned about how elephants are trained in Nepal, which made us slightly depressed for the elephants. That night we went to a cultural dance show, which would have been good except for the fact that there were a large amount of Chinese tourists there who were talking through the entire program and were holding up their phones to video the show, blocking our view of the dances.
A little too close for comfort? People in our boat had their hands in the water...crazy!!

The boats are made of hollowed out trees from the forest.
Mama and baby elephant
On our last morning in Chitwan, we went bird watching in the National Park and also happened to walk right past a Dashain ceremony where we watched goats and a rooster lose their lives. It was not the most pleasant thing to watch, but I suppose if you are going to eat animals you should know how the sacrifice of animals occurs.
Two other couples who joined in the activities with us, Germans and Chinese
Erik and Dipe with the vehicle we road around in during our stay
Our bus ride to Kathmandu was SO much better than our ride from Pokhara to Chitwan. We were on one of those nice coach busses with working A/C and our bus was only half full. Ironically we stopped for lunch at the same place where Erik and I ate on our way to Pokhara after our car had broken down about 10 days earlier. The bus stopped one other time for a toilet break, and before we knew it we were back in Kathmandu, ready to spend a few days exploring the city.
Our nice coach bus during the lunch stop
The decision to visit Chitwan National Park was a last minute thing, so I had Arjun from Vista Trek arrange everything for us. That made life easy, but it also meant that everything we did was quite "touristy". We later found out from Dipe that our elephant safari was with privately owned elephants and we were only in the "buffer zone" of the park, not actually in the National Park. If we had taken the time to arrange the elephant safari on our own, we could have used the government elephants for the safari, which would have been much less crowded and we may have seen more rhinos. It is important to note that we visited Chitwan at the end of rainy season, which is the hardest time to spot rhinos due to the grasses being very tall, but based on what I had read, I expected that we would see more than just a few rhinos during our trip. If we were to go again, we would hire a guide who is not attached to a resort or to a private company and use him for help in customizing our trip. We would also opt to spend another day there, which would allow us to do a Jeep safari (though again we would be skeptical of choosing a private company for this), allowing us to get deeper into the park and giving us more chances to see rhinos and perhaps even a tiger. On the whole we still had a great experience in Chitwan (especially during the elephant bathing!) and we were happy with our decision to visit the park during our trip to Nepal.