Reflections on travel down under

Travel usually challenges our typical manner of thinking and brings a freshness to our standard life approach.  After six weeks on the road in the Bay Area, the LA area, New Zealand and Australia,  I am trying to cement into my psyche some travel life learning.   I learned more authentically about new places and tried to grasp some life lessons along the way.

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Going to Australia and New Zealand is like going to England–they drive on the other side of the road, eat pub food, fish and chips is the national dish, towns and architecture are English feeling–except that the natural setting is completely different, more California or Switzerland than anything else.  Culture is English influenced. Many towns have a croquet club, traffic circles are the norm, rugby, cricket and variations thereof are favored sports and the educational and family structure mimics England’s.

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New Zealand has just four million people, exactly the same size as Costa Rica with a similar economic base—agriculture and tourism. Both countries, wisely, are almost completely energy independent, using a lot of hydroelectric power among other sustainable sources.  New Zealand is very far away from its markets and suppliers and third world Costa Rica has a per capita income rate less than half of that of New Zealand’s.  So how do these tiny countries compete and survive on the huge market stage?

Australia has only 18 million people but on an enormous continent loaded with minerals, metals and enviable quantities of natural resources.  With its varied climates it can produce a lot of agriculture for internal consumption but has little infrastructure to manufacture much else.  Mining is its key economic engine and coal is king. But is that sustainable over the very long haul?  China  and India want its metals and underground goodies but can the Aussies make that work for them economically?  Both NZ and Australia have strong social networks but then the cost of living is very, very high.  Sydney is the most expensive city in the world after Paris!  It costs $8 for a basic beer and usually about $20 a six pack.

However, the public services are fabulous–maintained trails, clean public restrooms, solid roads, city services consistently abundant.  And we did not see one single homeless person on the streets of either country during a month long trip with stops in six major metropolitan areas and many smaller towns along the way.  Coming from Los Angeles and San Francisco living, I appreciate what a phenomenal accomplishment the lack of homelessness is. There are challenges down under, but also some things for us to look to and learn from.

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I never quite got the rugby thing but realize each culture has its own passions and idiosyncrasies.  I mean we have the NFL and who gets that unless you bleed red, white and blue!  I have noticed that in response to Thank You, the Kiwi’s and Australians say “No Worries.” I find this fascinating and started to compare national and language responses and wonder if they give some insight into culture. While the Kiwis and Aussies are kind, their customer service is not great. Our first day exploring Akaroa, a Kiwi family leaned over from the next restaurant table and apologized for the poor Kiwi service. You’re all so nice though I said. Yeah, she said, but we have bad customer service. So maybe No Worries is like, “yeah, I did a nice thing but whatever, don’t get too excited,” a kind of laissez faire type response, reflecting their attitude about customer service.

In contrast, in Costa Rica, a very friendly culture, the response to thank you is “con much gusto” which means “with great pleasure.” Not just “with pleasure” but with great pleasure and they seem to really mean it.  In Mexico, the response is “de nada” or “no hay de que” both of which mean, “it’s nothing.” Mexican culture strongly emphasizes politeness and so maybe it is a way of saying, “well, of course I did that for you, it is expected”.

In the US, we have several variations, which perhaps makes sense in such a large country, geographically, and population and cultural diversity wise. When some one says thank you to you, what do you say? Think about it.  “No problem”, you’re welcome”, “you’re very welcome”, it’s nothing”, “don’t mention it”, “sure”, “of course” are all possible American responses. And they are all a “happy to help out” type of response.  These type of cultural nuances are fascinating and yet another reason to explore beyond our regular shores.

So, in this situation of great privilege which allows us to travel extensively, for which we are thankful every single day, I have found it behooves me to ponder—why travel? What are the benefits of extended travel (since it does cost a lot of money and time and takes you out of your regular comfort zone)?  For me, travel provides a wide variety of benefits which I am trying to appreciate and learn from.

Traveling to distant and different lands:

Allows me to explore and experience new things

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Gives me a different perspective on daily life

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Helps me understand that while others may do things very differently, there are lots of ways to live a life and most of them work out just fine

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Combats ethnocentricism and the feeling of self-importance that too many people maintain

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Facilitates awe and wonder

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Reminds me to never stop learning (Michael Lewis in downtown LA speaking on his outstanding new book Flashboys)

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Emphasizes the importance of nature in our daily lives and in the long term life of our planet home

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Points out how small we are

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Notes how important our family and friends are in such a complex, unpredictable world   (D and M with our friend Noreen on a tour of SurveyMonkey’s new headquarters as construction finishes.  Payne and Salvia family dinner at Mike and Sam’s new home.  Sarah and me at Salt Creek Beach for an Easter picnic. D and San Diego friends John and Leeza goof around looking at surf photos.)

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Reminds me of the importance of art to inspire and reaffirm these values

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Encourages me to look for small treasures everywhere  (last pic is of three kittens we found abandoned at our Costa Rica home when we arrived)

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And, in the end, it is all pretty impermanent. Travel does indeed reaffirm and repeatedly demonstrate the impermanence of our lives.

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Therefore, let’s appreciate what we have, treat each other with respect and caring and work to better the lives of those less fortunate. Because let’s face it…there are a heck of a lot of people who don’t have it nearly as good.

Stay strong, play fair, be kind to each other and thanks for watching.

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Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef

Australia is so big that it is 3,000 miles (about the same distance across the US from San Francisco to New York) the shorter distance from top to bottom. Our journey from Melbourne to Cairns was over 2,800 miles.  And the trip across the larger section of the continent from Brisbane to the opposite western coast is about 5,500 miles!  It is massive.  So we left chilly Melbourne for tropical Cairns (pronounced like cans) in the northern tip of Australia, a journey that usually would be to another place completely.  Image 

But no, you are still in the same country after flying for four hours over dry, deserted bush and outback.  I felt like I had arrived in the Waikiki of yesteryear before all the beach hotels went up to super high rises.  

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Tropical climate and lush green mountains descending to the coastline make it look and feel like Hawaii.  

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The bay becomes a mud flat every low tide with only a tiny beach, so the city has created a giant public esplanade at the waterfront with a huge pool, volleyball courts, playgrounds, biking and running paths, grass and picnic areas for several miles—all free, all well-maintained in a very lovely setting. Boats constantly chug in and out of the marina for the invisible Great Barrier Reef and the many adventures there, and you have a hopping beach town.  Cairns is Australia’s own personal Hawaii. 

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Backpackers from all over the world fill the hostels and try to get cheap deals on the many adventures available. Beach front cafes, bars and restaurants serve loads of beer and pump out music. There’s a party going on every night—you can tell even if you haven’t been invited to it! It’s sort of like a tamer Cabo and Waikiki rolled in to one. 

 We lucked out in the best room with a view and enjoyed being back in the tropics, despite stormy weather.  Too rainy and wet to mountain bike or play tennis, we wandered through the funky town, ate our last expensive Australian meals and beers, and ran in the rain when not checking out the reef.  The Great Barrier Reef is a collection of 900 islands and cays and almost 3,000 individual reefs spread over 130,000 square miles to create the world’s largest reef system.  At a minimum, It is a good hour or 90 minutes on a boat to get from the shore out to the closest parts of the reef.  Cairns is the biggest jumping off point but there are also islands where you can stay (the Whitsundays are popular ones) or other coastal ports.  

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Dave scuba dived for the first time in five years and got in three dives. I took the bumpy boat ride out to an island on the reef and snorkeled.  So we each got a taste of the Great Barrier Reef experience.

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Signs along the road

Driving back along the Great Ocean Road toward Melbourne, we had a final look at the beautiful views, 

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tried to obey the signs,

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took heed of the philosophical statements,

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appreciated the unique architecture,

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were entertained by the cockatoos,

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dined with our friend Alec at a Melbourne Irish Pub,

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and bade good-bye to surfing Australia,

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in order to move on toward The North and reef culture–The Great Barrier Reef. 

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Great Ocean Road offers up great views.

Great Ocean Road offers up great views.

The Great Ocean Road winds along the cliffs of Southern Australia for miles and miles.

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Back to Explore More of Australia–The Great Ocean Road south of Melbourne

We returned to Australia by way of Melbourne to get to know the country a bit more and headed out to the Great Ocean Road, the long, scenic, coastal highway on the southern tip of the continent.  A spot famous with surfers, beachgoers and backpack explorers, we were a bit late for the season. It was cold, windy and rainy.  Image

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But true surfers are rarely deterred and we saw some top level guys out on huge waves along the coast road.  We checked out the Surf World Museum in Torquay, original home of Rip Curl and Quicksilver companies and long time host of the Rip Curl Pro Tour competition held for many years at nearby Bells Beach. The museum is one of the best surf museums anywhere and it was awesome.

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 This surfer artist paints a fictional letter from a kid who ran away to surf on one side and the response from his surfer Dad on the other side of the board. Hilarious.  The museum also holds the Surf Hall of Fame, historic moments in surfing, original trophies and old boards and an actual board shaping studio. 

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They had a great display on the legendary Greg Knoll, one of the original big wave surfers. Dwight did a paper on him many years ago so I had to capture some of the display for him to see.  Original signed boards, large action photos–very cool.

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 Then we visited the legendary Bells Beach where the tournament is held every Easter weekend.  We had missed it by about two weeks but the viewing stands were still up on the cliff overlooking the surf break.  

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We wound along the twisty coast road and found intrepid surfers in the cold, stormy water at Cathedral Rock. Impressive with huge triple overhead waves—very cool to see but Dave wasn’t getting in the water there. A little too big, too cold and too stormy for his liking.

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We stayed in an old hotel in Lorne on the cliff overlooking the ocean.  When the surfed dropped to nothing the next day, we took a hike up the mountain to the pretty Erskine Falls and creek through a gully of ferns.

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Very quiet woods but we did see the Rosealla parrot in it’s natural habitat. Later, we saw one up close on someone’s shoulder.Image

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The next day, surf still flat, we checked out Australia’s wildlife, seeing parrots, koala bears and kangaroos up close at various spots on our way back to Melbourne.  (Thanks to Dave for helping me get some kangaroo action shots–he is taller and could reach over the fence!)

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Farewell to the gorgeous New Zealand

Farewell to the gorgeous New Zealand

The lovely Raglan Bay exemplifies the type of scenery on the North Island.

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Raglan Bay and Beach on The North Island

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While the South Island is all about mountains and dramatic alpine vistas, the North Island’s theme is water, bays and beaches. We said goodbye to the lovely Wanaka and delightful innkeepers and drove north along the Southern Alps back to Christchurch. We were rewarded with more great views and the dramatic Mt. Cook which stands over 12,000 feet high.

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As quickly as possible, we headed out of Auckland to Raglan, a surf and beach community on the west side of the North Island. We found a great base at The Cottage of the Water’s Edge mini-hotel, two rooms “for hire” bayside in Raglan Bay which stretches inland for miles.

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Gus and Sue, more fantastic Kiwi innkeepers, recently bought the place so they could rent out the extra little suites while commuting to jobs in Auckland and Hamilton many miles away. I was in heaven with a little writer’s cottage type atmosphere, where I could go down to the dock and kayak or hike the mud flats during low tide. I kayaked three days in a row!

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Dave went off to Manu Bay and finally got to surf. It is one of the most famous lefts in the world, for you surfer types, and was actually one of the stops in the original 1966 Endless Summer movie.  We also checked out Whale Bay and the surfers there.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos of Dave surfing but he did catch the New Zealand wave in a 4.3 wet suit and booties!

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A locals “club day” hogged the surf on Saturday but he got two other days in and we enjoyed exploring the area and seeing the local activities.

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Raglan is a pretty small town so there isn’t much going on but surfing and beach activities, and a little golfing, apparently.  (Do you think the sheep pay the 18 hole or 9 hole membership price?!)

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But it is only 1 ½ hours outside of Auckland so it is a popular spot for a locals weekend getaway at their bay or beach house. Our hosts were great sailors and ran a rescue boat for the annual Polynesian outrigger race and participated in a little sailing competition the next day.

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As we left the area to fly back to Australia, we had a refreshing “tramp” in the rainforest in the hills between Raglan and Auckland. It rained the whole time and I was mortified to take an umbrella on a hike, but actually found it quite useful! The climb consisted of 1500 steps over 200 meters so it was a good workout. Another impressively well-maintained trail—the country is covered with them.

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As we got to know the North Island, my quest to understand Rugby continued. Once I saw several guys holding up a teammate high over their heads (sort of acrobatic gymnastics and competitive cheerleading style all in one) to catch the ball, I was obsessed. What the heck? Why would they do that in between all that running, sliding in over the line to score and those huge shoving matches called scrums? Oh yeah, and the occasional kick which just seemed sort of thrown in to confuse us Yanks and make it seem more like football.

So I did some research. I’ll figure this thing out I told myself. Well….it turns out there are TWO types of Rugby—Union and League. And which country and which part of which country and which class plays which one is…well…even more confusing. And they are going to finally put it back into the Olympics in Rio 2016 (well, if Rio can get it together and remember they are putting on an Olympics in time!) but that is going to be some other version of the game called Rugby Sevens!! Whoa! Now I am really confused.

However, after watching it with an investigative eye on every pub TV encountered and listening and researching a bit more, I found the true class and style in New Zealand is in Rugby. The All Blacks have been around well over 130 years and basically dominate the sport, even though the country is tiny compared to South Africa, Argentina, Australia and other key competitors. But the best part–the All Blacks do a Maori warrior dance before every, you read that right, EVERY, match. I mean these big hunking buffed guys in their short black shorts are flipping arms, gyrating hips and stomping on the field, in unison, before each game. I think that is pretty damn impressive. (Apparently some Polish team once was so upset they just stood there and refused to play after the war dance!! Ha Ha! The referee had to intervene to get the match started! Cool!)

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The other charmingly stylish part of New Zealand is the place names. I mean you have a country with Canterbury, Christchurch, Cambridge and Wellington right next door to places like Whatawhata, Matamata, Ngaruawahia and Twizel. And somehow it works. What are called if you are from Twizel? (“Hi. Where you from?” “Oh, I’m a Kiwi Twizeller”!!) They haven’t figured out interior decorating but they have delightfully friendly people, bad ass Rugby players and cool locales with lovely names… maybe that is all that matters, really!

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Farewell to the stunning South Island

Farewell to the stunning South Island

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Mountain Biking along Lake Wanaka

The next day we mountain biked for our first time ever alongside Lake Wanaka.  Could not beat the view and the weather was again cooperative.  It was a gorgeous day to try out a new sport. 

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Gorgeous, fun, kinda crazy! Road bikers for over 30 years, we are both now smitten with mountain biking.   We have a new sport to try at stops along the way on this trip and in future adventures.  

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I don’t think either of us ever got our mountain biker friends who would sport a bandaged elbow or stitched knee or want to talk components on the latest mountain bike innovations. But I finally realized there are options besides struggling straight up and then barreling straight down. And the skill….you gotta be good at changing gears and how to ride the bumpy rocks and ridges. I have new appreciation for the skills of mountain bikers and am challenged to master this new sport as we travel. 

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It is like hiking. No cars or traffic to distract from the beautiful scenery. A great way to explore and enjoy nature. Just on a bike.

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The Majestic Rob Roy Glacier Track

Rewarded the next morning after weather obstacles, the Southern Alps were dusted with an early first snow and the sun was blazing. “We don’t usually have fall colors and snow on the mountains at the same time, as snow comes in late May,” said our Lake Wanaka innkeeper Dave. 

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 We hiked the Rob Roy Glacier trail, famous as the “world’s most beautiful day hike” my brother David had told me.  The scenery was amazing. 

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And it was indeed a fabulous day hike up the creek to just below the Rob Roy glacier.  

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A couple showed up at our inn who had just gotten married on the trail, busing in all the relatives and guests for the ceremony!  You can see why they picked this place. 

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