How Nepal Changed Me

Note: This post first appeared in the Elephant Journal.  It is a cummulation of my story of how I became the thirdeyemom, why I started this blog, what inspired me to make a difference in my life and others and why I began fundraising for Nepal. The link to the original post is here:  Nepal was utterly amazing.  How it changed me forever.

I am also going to include a copy of the post here.  My trip to Nepal and my recent efforts at fundraising have made a huge impact on my life.  It is a way to change the dynamic of being a simple traveler to being a compassionate human being who gives back to the community visited.  I strongly believe that travel is a gift.  It is important to give in return.  Without further delay, here is my story.

How Nepal Changed Me

By thirdeyemom

Nepal was utterly amazing. The trek was arduous, humbling and long.  We hiked over 100 miles doing on average 4-8 hours of strenuous hiking a day at altitudes up to almost 18,000 feet.  But what amazed me most was the magical culture and people that I found in Nepal.

Thorong-La Pass Nepal

Photo of my dad and me at 6:30 am summit of the highest point of our Annapurna trek, Thorong-La Pass at 17,769 feet.

Coffee. Tea” the flight attendant asked wearily. “I’ll take a coffee with sugar, please” I responded half-awake yet with a smile.  We were two hours short of our 15-hour non-stop flight from Chicago to Delhi and I could hardly believe we were almost there.  I had seen the sun set and rise and set again all within that time and needless to say, my body was confused.   I had no idea how I’d manage to go to bed that night.  It was 8 PM in India but my body was still on Minneapolis time, a bright and early 8 AM.  It was going to be interesting. 

As we made our final descent through the thick, dark blanket of pollution that covered Delhi I couldn’t help but think about why I was here and where I was headed:  To Nepal to hike the mighty Himalayas with my beloved dad.   How on earth did I come so far with such a grandiose plan for a vacation?  Even I, a stay-at-home mom of two young children, couldn’t believe it was real.

My father and I have been traveling partners all my life.  What started out as numerous family vacations throughout my childhood lead to annual vacations with just my dad to destinations around the world.  Over the past ten years, we hiked Machu Picchu in Peru, dived in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, hiked in Patagonia twice, played golf in Ireland, went skiing in Italy and France, and went on a safari in South Africa.   My friends thought I was crazy.  But I felt invigorated and alive.

Nepal was one of those elusive, mystical places in the back of our minds that we had dreamed of visiting one day.  It had everything we wanted in a travel destination:  Majestic scenery, world-class hiking, unbelievable mountains, and a diverse and fascinating culture.  Yet it was impossibly far away and would require a fair amount of time to see.  We also had no idea how safe or doable it was to hike.  When thinking about Nepal, my mind easily crept to those crazy, over the top athletes who climb Mount Everest.  I thought there was probably more tame hiking adventures but didn’t truly know.  Thus as an actual travel destination, Nepal remained a very distant possibility.  Perhaps someday we would go there.

Pokhara Nepal

Little did I know it would be sooner than I ever imagined.  My dad and I had just returned from a spectacular hiking trip in Patagonia, Argentina where we had first caught wind of the real possibility of trekking the Himalayas in Nepal.  During our trip to Patagonia, we had met an exciting couple from England who were in their sixties and had just completed the world-famous Annapurna trek the year before.   My father and I listened in awe and fascination as they explained their trip and we were instantly hooked.  It sounded like the trip of a lifetime that we could easily accomplish physically.  Yet we just had to figure out how we could manage such a long trip.  My children were only three and five years old and we would need at least two to three weeks.  I wasn’t sure my mother or husband would be willing to babysit the children for that long.  Thus once again, the thought of going to Nepal was placed on the back burner.

Almost like a sign of fate, my dad happened to see an article in the New York Times on March 10, 2010 called “Hiking the Annapurna Trek Before the Road Takes Over”.  Basically what the article said was that this world-renowned hike was going to be ruined within a matter of years by the building of a dirty, dusty road that would tear through idyllic villages and pristine nature and open this once hidden, mystical land to jeep, car, and bus traffic.  That was all we needed to hear and it was soon decided that the time to go was now.  We gingerly presented our idea to both my husband and mom who surprisingly were in full support of our plan and gave us the green light to start planning.  We were thrilled.

Annapurna Trail Nepal

Me and my dad at the start of the trail.

A village along the Annapurna Trek in Nepal

The start of the Annapurna trail is gravel now. Yet not for much longer as a road is in the process of being built from the start of the trail all the way to Manang which currently takes eight days to reach by foot.

The New York Times article recommended two trekking companies.  We sent query letters and received a reply almost immediately from Earthbound Expeditions, a locally owned and run outfitter in Nepal.  We received a custom itinerary that perfectly met our needs and time constraints, and had amazingly prompt replies to all my crazy questions such as the safety records of internal flights in the mountains to the availability of calling home while on the trail.  I was amazed and impressed by the high level of personal attention and service given by Earthbound’s owner, Rajan.  This kind of service has long disappeared from most American travel companies. We booked the trip for the end of October 2010 for a 17-day journey that inspired and excited me beyond my expectations.

The desire to give something back

Before leaving for Nepal, I made a decision that I no longer wanted to be simply a tourist that visited a country, enriched myself in all its culture and beauty, and left nothing in return, no gift behind. My new way of thinking all began on a recent trip I made which was different from anything else I’d ever done: A volunteer trip to work in Costa Rica.  Although I was only there for one week, the impact volunteering made on my life and the people I helped during that short time led me to believe strongly that we must give back.  Travel is a gift and it is important to give in return.

I wracked my brain for different ways I could raise money. I knew that I wanted to donate money to a non-profit organization that focuses on education in Nepal. After reading several inspirational books on education in poverty-stricken lands, I knew that this was the area to attack.  I searched Lonely Planet who has an excellent listing of non-profit organizations as well as volunteer opportunities, and found just the organization I was looking for:  READ Nepal.

READ Nepal is part of READ Global:
READ Global pioneered the concept of sustainability as an international development organization dedicated to combining education and private enterprise to make rural communities viable places to learn, build, and prosper. READ partners with rural communities to create, sustain and grow projects in a manner that is politically and culturally appropriate. READ has helped establish forty nine Community Library and Resource Centers paired with for-profit enterprises throughout Nepal and India that serve over a half million people annually and has also recently opened up a center in Bhutan”.
Nepalese children headed to school

Nepalese children dressed proudly in their school uniforms waved as we passed them by.

Finding the right organization was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out how a stay-at-home mom could raise the money.  I didn’t want to ask for donations from friends and families.  Instead, I wanted to earn the money and somehow involve my children in the process so they could learn the importance of giving back.

That was where creative thinking came into play.  It was summer in Minnesota, a time to be outdoors, out of our long winter’s hibernation, and back into the world again enjoying our 10,000+ lakes, beautiful parks and nature.  Initially, I set a small goal of raising a couple hundred dollars for my cause.   But as time went by, I realized it was possible to do more.  I just had to be creative!  I set my first goal at $500 and used traditional American-style activities to raise the money.  In June, I ran a co-op “babysitting fundraiser” at my house on Friday mornings.  Each Friday I babysat up to ten kids in exchange for a small donation.  Although it was incredibly exhausting, it was a terrific success.   In July, my children and I ran a car wash and lemonade stand to raise money for Read Nepal.  Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity of my friends and neighbors who contributed donations.   Finally, in early September my family and I held our first annual yard sale in the name of charity.    Through these efforts, my initial goal of $500 suddenly amassed to $2,000 and I was ecstatic!   The $2,000 raised was matched by my husband’s employer, bringing the total donation to READ Nepal up to $4,000.  Just like that a small idea ended up being a big help. The funds were donated a week before I boarded the plane to Kathmandu.

READ Nepal was delighted with the donation and informed me that the money would be more than enough to open up an entire library and reading center in rural Nepal.  They were beyond thrilled and continually showered me with compliments and called me “their little Angel”.  I was so shocked to receive such immense gratitude for what I thought was a small amount in the grand scheme of things.  Yet it made me realize how much ANYTHING can do to help, especially in this economic climate. It just goes to show how far your money can go in a third world country. The gift was given and I realized that it is the things you do for others in life that makes you feel the best.

Nepali girls

Photo of three Nepali girls dressed in their finest clothing in honor of the Festival of Lights, one of the biggest holidays in Nepal. The girls went from table to table, singing and dancing and then asking for a small donation to help pay for school.

Why the third-eye?
As a world-traveler I was completely unprepared for what I would see in India.  Complete and utter chaos, poverty and pollution beyond anything I’d ever seen before in any of my travels.  My heart sank.  The cultural shock of India hit me like a punch.  I was blown away and honestly, a bit afraid.
Delhi Street Photography

View of one of many slums in Delhi.

Delhi Street Photography

Many unpaved streets

Delhi Street Photography

Women living on the streets outside the US Embassy

We arrived at our hotel, thankfully without hitting someone or something in the chaotic lines that made up the roads and I took a deep breath and sigh of relief.  I had heard that India was a little chaotic yet what I had just seen stirred up some serious culture shock in my normally open mind.  That was when I met the owner of the hotel and he told me the most important thing I’d ever learned about traveling and culture shock:  The importance of having and maintaining the third eye. 

In the Hindu and Buddhist religions, the third eye is a symbol of enlightenment and wisdom and is commonly seen in Indian and East Asian countries represented by a dot, eye or mark on the forehead of deities or “enlightened beings”.

I received my third eye in a timely manner.  Right after we entered the hotel, we were welcomed with a traditional marigold necklace and the third eye dotted on our foreheads to remind us that we needed to see India with an open mind.  This idea stuck with me throughout the trip and was probably the best advice I could have ever received.  It was so powerful that I decided that it would become the name for my new blog as it incorporated all my ideas about how I wanted to see the world and how I wanted to communicate my travel experiences with others.  For travel is definitely an enormous learning adventure and when visiting other cultures, especially ones that are so incredibly different than your own, you must keep a third eye.  Otherwise you would miss out on seeing what travel is really about: seeing and learning how other people around the world live, thinking about what you’ve learned, formatting opinions on it, and most importantly, sharing this knowledge with others.  If you don’t have a third eye, what could you possibly learn?

Me after I received my marigold necklace and the third eye.

Me after I received my marigold necklace and the third eye.

The trip of a Lifetime

Nepal was utterly amazing. The trek was arduous, humbling and long.  We hiked over 100 miles doing on average 4-8 hours of strenuous hiking a day at altitudes up to almost 18,000 feet.  But what amazed me most was the magical culture and people that I found in Nepal.  It is one of the world’s poorest countries in which over 80% of the population is rural and the majority of people survive on less than $2 a day, not even a cup of coffee in the US.  Yet, the rich culture and traditions of the people rose above the impoverished conditions that most villagers live in.

Leaving Kathmandu

Leaving Kathmandu and heading to the mountains.

Kathmandu Valley

The beautiful rice terraces and lush green Kathmandu Valley.

Manang Nepal

My first sight of a fresh coat of snow over the Annapurnas in Manang took my breath away.

Villages along the Annapurna Trek

Along the Annapurna trail, you walk through many villages and are greeted by the rural Nepalese, goat herders, chicken sellers, mule trains, and yaks.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

The Buddhist influence greets you at each village as you pass by Buddhist prayer flags, temples, prayer wheels and the smell of burning juniper.

Temples in Nepal Annapurna

The Buddhist influence.


Monk in Manang Nepal

Being blessed by a 94-year-old monk who lives in a cave monastery at 13,000 feet near Manang.

After completing the trek, I realized why it is called one of the best treks in the world because no other trail has such magnificent scenery and fascinating culture.  No other trek I’ve done has ever gone directly through villages and has allowed me to walk side by side villages doing their daily business.  We passed goat herders, mule trains, men carrying 20 chickens on their backs in a wire cage doing his sales rounds, happy children dressed in their worn school uniforms, Buddhist temples, shrines and prayer wheels and prayer flags.  It felt like being on another planet.  And that is what brings me back to why Nepal changed my life.

It is possible to make a difference:  Little things can have big results

As our jet plane took off for home and climbed five thousand, ten thousand and then eighteen thousand feet, I realized in awe that only a few days ago I had been at almost the same altitude as the plane.  It was a wild thought; almost a little frightening.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

Our porter Chhring, me, our guide Hari and my dad in Manang, where the road will end. We shared many wonderful days together talking, laughing and sharing our cultures.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

Where it all began….

As I looked down, I was finally was able to conceptualize how high 18,000 feet truly is. The buildings became smaller and smaller, the cars like ants lining the roads. The vastness of the green, voluptuous rice fields stacked one on top of the other, bursting in color and life. Then, for the last time, I saw the godlike, mighty Himalayas, strikingly beautiful, like a mirage of flying towers soaring upwards into the heavens of the sky. I found it hard to believe that I was really here and had really been there.  It was all like a dream.

Nepal was one of those eye-opening moments in my life in which I realized not only how blessed we are to live in a free, prosperous country (where we have the pleasure of the “western toilet, clean streets without piles of garbage, education, opportunity and space), but how important it is for us as privileged people to give back.   Visiting Nepal struck a chord in my heart and made me realize how impoverished these wonderfully, peaceful and loving villagers are.  Over 80% of Nepalese live in rural areas that have little or no access to education.  I believe strongly that education is the key to a better future and a better life.  From that trip on, I was determined to change my life and figure out a way to keep giving back.

Young Nepali girl

This young Nepali girl made me smile.

Almost as if an act of fate, I somehow or another found a way to follow my dreams and continue my work fundraising for education in Nepal.  As we were leaving Kathmandu, Rajan, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions, our trekking company, gave me his card and mentioned some of the social work he is involved with in Nepal.  On the back of the card was the small, grass-roots NGO called Hands in Nepal.  As soon as I got home, I contacted them.  It was the perfect fit and my charity work continued.

Over the last six months, I have raised money to help Hands in Nepal a small grass-roots organization created by a young American Danny Chaffin.  Hands in Nepal’s mission is to create educational opportunities and community development programs in rural Nepal by building schools, donating educational supplies, teacher’s salaries, and student scholarships.  I have done most of my fundraising work through the sale of beautiful, homemade Nepali goods such as pashmina scarves, yak-hair blankets, and purses and bags.   Since May, I’ve sold over $4,000 of my Nepali wares and over half of that profit goes back to Hands in Nepal (after taking in account the cost of the products, shipping and customs).  It has been a win-win opportunity as the sale of the products not only benefit Hands in Nepal but also the rural, poor Nepalese people who are making and supplies these little treasures for me to sell.

I have also used my second annual yard sale as a way to raise money for Hands in Nepal.  After scraping together all my old clothing and miscellaneous items that we no longer need, I was able to raise $540 for Hands in Nepal.

Perhaps $540 sounds like nothing. Yet, it does make a difference. What does $540 do in Nepal?  This money can buy:

A composition notebook and pencil for 540 children.


Two school workbooks and a composition notebook for 108 children.


A school uniform and backpack for 54 children.


Chalkboard and teacher supplies for 10 classrooms.


A book set for 27 classrooms.


Bench seating and work tables for 27 classrooms (approximately 40 children per room)


Almost enough for one teacher’s salary for an entire year.


A combination of some of the above items.

In a country where 82% live in rural communities and have little or no access to education, and the average daily salary is less than $2 a day, this small amount of money goes a long way in fighting poverty and helping educate Nepal’s future generation. With a literacy rate of barely over 50%, there is a long way to go. However, it is my belief that every effort, no matter how small, can help make the world a better place.

There is something so special and magical about giving back that just makes me feel complete and my hope is that I can eventually reach the $8,000 mark to build a new school in rural Nepal and have a lasting impact on an entire village and generation of people. It will take time of course to raise the money but with the help of my friends, family and children as well I plan to achieve it!

Photo above of Jan and her son Danny along with the children of the new school made possible by Hands in Nepal. 
Adventure Travel Nepal Trekking/Hiking Volunteering Abroad

On the road again to Villa La Angostura

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of Lago Nahuel Huapi, Villa La Angostura or Narrow Village is named after its location on a narrow isthmus.  It is a sleepy, quiet town which receives much less traffic and tourism than Bariloche.  What a pity!  For it is a secret treasure of beauty and serenity and there are few others there to share it.

Located about 50 miles/81 km north of Bariloche, this hidden jewel is an amazing place to spend the day or night or couple of nights (if you have the time).  Like Bariloche, it is crammed with dramatic, spectacular scenery of the aquamarine Lago Nahuel Huapi juxtaposed against the craggy, snow-covered mountains in the background.  Combine the heavenly landscape with fragrant hikes along the beech trees and alluring views, trout fishing galore and all the boating you could desire, Villa La Angostura rated on the top of my list for perfect undiscovered travel destinations.

Of course we couldn’t go there just to look around (you can do that but not my dad and I who are highly energetic and very active people).  We had to find a hike!  Fortunately Villa La Angostura is full of hikes with sensational views to make it worth your effort.

The main nature lover’s paradise in town is the fabulous Parque Nacional Bosque Arrayanes which is home to one of the only arrayanes forests in the worldArrayanes are actually bushes not trees and can grow up to 66-feet high!  The trail is flat but long.  It takes 2-3 hours to walk and you can also do it by bike.  Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to do the entire thing, however, what we did do of the trek was highly worthwhile.  The views along the way were absolutely stunning and perhaps some of the finest we had seen during our entire trip to Argentina.

Here they are….

Entering the small, quaint town.  What a lovely place!

The main marina at the lake….I love the bird soaring high above and the mountains in the back…WOW!

The entrance to the hike.  Note that my dad is wearing shorts.  He always wears shorts, no matter what.  Thus those earlier photos of him hiking in the snow in shorts, well that is a diehard Minnesotan for you!

Start of the hike….simply beautiful and inviting

My favorite picture from the trip…Springtime in Argentina!

Entering a wooded wonderland….

The gorgeous green-blue water as seen through the trees…..

Ahhhh….the Patagonian Lakes District in its finest!  Incredibly beautiful!

thirdeyemom taking it all in and enjoying the view…..

Sadly all good trips must come to an end.  This was our last day in Argentina.  A beautiful, perfect day.  We couldn’t ask for more.  Just that we could come back again…which we did in 2008.  Hope to see my beloved Argentina again soon!

Stay tuned….thirdeyemom is headed to her beloved Chicago this weekend to get together with an old friend and remember the years living there in the nineties as well as her big fat Chicago wedding in 2000!  Thought it would be excellent blogging material!  I love the windy city!

Adventure Travel TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A visit to the heart of the Argentine Lakes District

The Argentine lakes district is a tourism haven, stretching from Junin de los Andes in the north to the town of Esquel down south bordering Patagonia.  It is beautiful territory awash with snow-capped jagged peaks, lush green forests, trout-filled rivers, and lots and lots of brilliantly blue lakes.  One could spend a full week or two just in this area checking out the beautiful towns and villages surrounding the Chilean and Argentine Lakes District.  It offers something for everyone year-round:  From hiking, golfing, fishing, and sailing to skiing and of course, world-class dining.  If you have the time, you can take a boat through the lakes region hitting towns in both Argentina and Chile.

We of course only had five full days to explore.  We were traveling once again, “American-style” meaning trying to pack as much in as possible within a short time frame.  Now this is not the recommended way to travel or the desired method either:  It is the kind of travel you do when you either don’t have much vacation time (in my opinion, most Americans fit into this category) or have a wonderful mother who has offered to fly into town and watch my one-year-old and three-year-old children for me while my husband is slaving away all day at the office to pay the bills.

Bottom line:  Beggars can’t be choosers.  I felt rather fortunate to be going to Argentina while my other mom friends were busy changing diapers.  It was a much-needed break from my day-to-day life of spending 24/7 taking care of two small children.  I was going to enjoy every moment of it!  Eating meals without scarfing it down in five minutes flat.  Sleeping in past 5 am.  Wait….sleeping all night long without being woken up by a crying child.  Bonus!  Taking a shower in peace.  Reading a book.  Talking to adults.  Hmmm…there is a lot I hadn’t been doing recently that I realized I truly was missing in my life.  Five days in San Carlos de Bariloche (or simply called Bariloche) was bound to save my withering, sleep-deprived, over-worked diaper-changing soul.

We arrived in Bariloche mid-afternoon after two hour flight from Buenos Aires.  San Carlos de Bariloche is the second most visited place in Argentina mostly due to its gorgeous location surrounding the Nahuel Huapi National Park which provides a nature lover and outdoor adventurer’s paradise.  It is not a large town yet has all the dining and adventures possible to keep the tourists and Argentine’s alike happy.

We took a cab the short ten-minute ride to town which is non-eventful except for its beautiful location next to stunning Nahuel Huapi lake, a gem in itself.  We had booked a hotel at the Design Suites thanks to the recommendation of one of our friends.  The hotel was a short distance from town yet the views of the lake and glistening snow-capped mountains was breathtaking and worth the walk.

Here is a picture looking out from our room at the dining and reception area of the Design Suites.  Our suite had a balcony which was perfect for drinking a glass of wine.  I could have stared at this sensational view all day long:

After checking into our hotel, we decided to check out the town and scope our dining selection for the night.  For such a small city, Bariloche has surprisingly excellent restaurants.  We ate to our hearts content each and every night of our stay.

The first night, we ate at a Swiss Fondue restaurant called Familia Weiss, a family owned restaurant that is known throughout the area for its delightful array of cheeses and smoked meats.  The German Swiss decor reminded me of being right back in Switzerland and the food was unbelievably authentic.  We ate the entire pot of cheese fondue stuffing ourselves silly while ignoring the tremendous amount of fat we had just put into our body.  We were on vacation right?  We’d work it off!

The next morning, feeling incredibly full from our highly saturated fatty meal, we rented a car to go do some hiking.  The car was delivered right to our hotel but to our dismay it didn’t work!  Luckily one of the friendly Design Suites staff was able to give us a jump-start and set us on our way.  I’d noticed that Argentina has its far share of broken down cars that littered the streets everywhere.  I didn’t want to become one of the numbers!

We headed north the short distance to the oldest and most popular national park in Argentina, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi to do some day hiking.  Per Frommers (2004):

“The park is known for the glacial-formed Lake Nahuel Huapi and its lovely forested peninsulas and waterways that often provoke comparison to the channels of southern Patagonia or the fjords of Norway”.

After visiting Chile’s world-famous Torres del Paine National Park in 2003, I couldn’t wait to see Nahuel Huapi for myself.  Would it be as spectacular as Torres del Paine, a place that made me fall in love with Patagonia and dream of coming back?   

It was indeed stunning and spectacularly beautiful yet nothing in comparison to the rugged, wild Patagonian Torres del Paine.  I was disappointed for I was expecting Patagonia.  Yet Bariloche still had its beauty and charm.  Just a different kind of beauty that was more tranquil, serene and fresh.  For those people who don’t want or have the energy to travel all the way south to Patagonia, Bariloche and the other towns of the Lakes District make a reasonable choice.  The beauty will not disappoint, nor the amenities of having a town.

Here are some photos of our day hike in the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi:

After our visit to the park, we drove to the finest five-star resort in Bariloche, the infamous Llao Llao (pronounced “jow jow”) hotel.  It was stuffy yet spectacular in its own right with its wooden lodge styled resort and green golf courses.  Worth a visit but not somewhere I’d want to stay.

We headed back to our lovely, hip hotel and had some Argentine Malbec before heading out to our next dining adventure at a trendy, small restaurant called Kandahar We were the first to arrive at 8:30 pm to blaring Pink Floyd and a server who offered to pay for our $50 bottle of wine if we didn’t like it.  He was that confident and that right.  The food was outstanding, shocking me that such a small city could have such an amazing dining scene.  I couldn’t wait for tomorrow and even more so, tomorrow night’s meal!

Stay tuned…next post will document our attempt to really get some serious exercise and follow the Argentine’s at doing the major hike in town.

Adventure Travel Argentina TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Two lovely days in Buenos Aires

I took my first trip to Argentina back in November of 2007.  I had recently gone to Chile a few years before and fell in love with its South American charm.  I was mesmerized by the rugged, untouched, end of the earth beauty of Patagonia and had to see more.  But this time it would be in neighboring Argentina, the second largest country in South America which borders Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil.  It is a land of tango, multiculturalism, wine, mountains, fashion, leather and sea.  Furthermore, it shares part of Patagonia with Chile.  A place that has remained sacred in my heart and always will.  I had to go and check it out.

The trip was as planned as follows.  We would spend a few lovely days in Buenos Aires and then head south to the Patagonian Lakes District.  We would only have nine days which wasn’t a lot considering the ground we’d have to cover.  But I was set to make the most of each and every day and experience Argentina to the fullest.

We spent the first couple of days of our trip in lovely Buenos Aires known as the “Paris of South America” and loaded in history, excitement and fun.  Upon landing in Buenos Aires (or “BA” as some call it) I instantly fell in love.  It was gorgeous and yes, it did remind me of Paris, my favorite city in the world where I lived and studied french at the ripe age of 21 and will never forget.  Except it wasn’t the least bit French.

We landed safely after a ten-hour flight from Atlanta, feeling tired but not jet leg thanks to only a couple of hour time change (the luxurious benefit of flying south!).  We drove the long distance through intense tight-knuckle driving in the back of a taxi cab, thankful to arrive in one piece at our hotel an hour later.  The Argentines drive like mad, zipping in and out of traffic, and using their horns like it is an extension of their body.  It was quite nerve-wracking especially for one’s first encounter in a new country.  Would all of Argentina be as nuts as the driving?  I certainly hoped not!   After the stressful, awakening cab ride, I easily made a promise that I would never drive in Buenos Aires and was thankful for the endless supply of adequate, albeit aggressive drivers.

Like most big cities, Buenos Aires is divided into many different, unique neighborhoods each with their own character and charm.  There is upscale, high-class Recoleta with its Chanel shops and Parisian charm, the famous city center Plaza De Mayo, the port hood of Puerto Maderno, the downtown Microcentro, the cafe filled, authentic and old San Telmo, the touristy Little Italy La Boca, and the up and coming district of the different “Palermos” which include Palermo Hollywood, Soho, Chico and Viejo.  We decided to spend our two days in BA checking out the different hoods and getting a feel for the Paris of South America.

After much research, it went without saying that we had to stay in Palermo, the previous warehouse district that was recently gentrified into the latest and greatest neighborhood in BA.  The Internet provided a wealth of information and resources on all the cool, trendy boutique hotels that have sprouted up throughout Palermo over the recent years.  It was hard to choose from all the fabulous choices but when push came to shove, we ended up staying at the Malabia House (as shown below):

Scanned postcard of our boutique hotel, the lovely “1555 Malabia House” in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires.

The entryway to 1555 Malabia House, an incredibly lovely and charming boutique hotel/Bed and Breakfast located in the trendy, chic Palermo Viejo part of Buenos Aires. Located in the northern part of BA, this up and coming neighborhood encompasses both Palermo Soho (or quite simply “Soho”), Palermo Chico, Palermo Viejo and Palermo Hollywood, and contains some of the most hip and trendy restaurants, bars, clubs and pret-a-porter designer shops in town.  It is almost unthinkable that this part of BA was once an ugly outcrop full of warehouses and unattractive buildings.  Since it has been gentrified , it has become one of the best places in BA to live, especially for the up and coming generation.   Quite frankly, it is simply lovely and I could not get enough of the gorgeous tree-lined streets, cobblestone roads and parks filled with creamy magnolias, dropping willow trees, fresh smelling pines and tropical palms.  It was the hood I felt most at ease and the place I wanted to be.  It is fabulous!

Photo of peaceful water fountain inside the hotel.

I only wished I’d taken more photos of the inside as the hotel was fantastically decorated yet not over the top.  It had a gorgeous entry-way and classy lounge with huge white cushioned sofas, brightly colored, fluffy pillows and loads of books and magazines on Argentina.  At 5 pm, there was a free happy hour with only the best Argentinian wines available and dishes of olives, plates of salami and cheese and quiet, relaxing music. I could have sat there all night.  Except the town was waiting.

Photo below taken in Palermo Soho…the new up and coming hood full of trendy designer shops, restaurants, clubs, cafes and boutique hotels.  I had to take this picture below for my daughter whose name is Sophia. 

There is never a dull moment in Soho.  Great people watching, crowds and as many types of excellent restaurants and shops as you can find.  It was the perfect area of town to have our base.  Plus the shopping was out of sight and the price at the time was just so right. 

The tree-lined streets like the one below reminded me of Paris.  We ate at the restaurant on the corner, a parrilla, or Argentine grill, twice.  It was outstanding.  We also ate at the chic french restaurant Cluny’s for out of sight food and ambiance. Generally, we preferred the liquid lunches outside with a gorgeous bottle of Malbec and the indoor quaintness in the evening, when the sun went down.  You could eat your heart out in Buenos Aires, just like in Paris. It was a food lover’s paradise!

The next morning we headed downtown to get the full city view and tour.  We saw dog walkers with their assortment of 10-15 dogs per walker, nicely dressed men and women on their way to work, school children dressed in crisply pressed uniforms and hardly any tourists.  My dad and I got lost at one point and were delighted at how helpful the locals were, even in a huge city, at stopping to help us find our way.  The Argentine’s are warm, friendly people who truly enjoy life.

Photo below of central BA.  The old French-styled buildings reminded me instantly of Paris. 

Of course we had to visit delicious San Telmo, the old, historical part of town loaded with very old, traditional cafes such as this one.  San Telmo is the oldest neighborhood in BA and home to the Tango, romance and cafes galore!

San Telmo is quite charming as well.  I could have spent an entire day walking its lovely, storied streets but we only had so much time.

After we took the modern metro system which was clean and inexpensive (a rare treat with subways) to Microcenter where we entered the crazy, touristy Calle Florida, the main drag in BA.  It is where most people do their shopping and in my opinion, was way too crowded and annoying for me to like.  This photo below is taken at the entrance to Calle Florida.  I loved all the blooming, purple Jacaranda trees.  They were heavenly!

We walked for hours that day, going through all the different neighborhoods and snapping pictures.  I fell in love with the beautiful, french-inspired architecture as well as the liveliness of BA.  What an incredible, vibrant city!

We ended our day in Recoleta, where all the five star hotels and expensive shops and restaurants remain.  This area is also most known for the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried.  The cemetery is lined with gorgeous, parisian-styled cafes where you can drink cafe au laits until you are blue in the face.

After an exhausting two days walking, eating, drinking and exploring lovely Buenos Aires I was ready to board the plane heading south.  For the Patagonian Lakes District was next and I could hardly wait…..Stay tuned for mountains, blue waters and gorgeous scenery! 


Remembering September 11th

September 11, 2001. A day we will always remember. A day that we will never forget. A day that changed our world as we know it. A day that made our lives never the same.

“First Pass, Defenders Over Washington” by Rick Herter.  The painting depicts Capt. Dean Eckmann in his F-16, as he was the first to arrive at the Pentagon.

A copy of this print is hanging in my sister’s Virginia home in honor of her husband who was one of the three pilots. 

Every American remembers where they were and what they were doing on that tragically fateful day.  It was a brilliant blue September day in Minnesota without a cloud in the sky.   Postcard perfect with a light breeze and a high in the love 70s.

A beautiful blue sky, September day that changed our lives forever.

It was past eight here in Minneapolis and I driving to work.  I had the radio on and was singing along to my favorite songs when a strange interruption broke me out of my reverie.  The DJ broke off the song, and life as I knew it changed forever.

Like everyone, I had no idea what on earth he was talking about.  There was so much confusion and chaos as the terrifying events of September 11th began to unfold.  All I heard was that some kind of “small plane” hit the World Trade Center.  There was no more news at the time.  I dialed my husband who was already at work to ask him if he heard. He didn’t know much more than me.  It wasn’t until I arrived at my office in Eagan, located directly across the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport, that I would see for myself live on TV, the horror that was unfolding this nightmarish day.

I walked across the parking lot with a pit in my stomach and shortness of breath, took the elevator up to the cafeteria and there right before my eyes live on CNN I saw the plane smash like a giant fireball into the World Trade Center.  Without further thought, I turned on my heals, in absolute shock, and returned to my car where I called my husband and proceeded directly home in fear, completely unable to cry.

For the next two days, work was canceled (my husband’s downtown office was evacuated) while my husband and I sat terrified, motionless, and utterly glued to CNN as the events of 9/11 unraveled and the further confusion, chaos and attempted analysis went on.   The normally busy sky above the lake and our house was eerily quiet:  There were no planes for days as the entire nation’s airports system came to a startling halt.

Everyone was home and glued to TV.  It was the most horrifying, frightening time of my life and to this day, I can never rid myself of the infamous image of the plane slamming into the World Trade Center.  As much as I try to want to forget.  I’ll always remember.  The fruitless, tragic loss of innocent lives can not be forgotten or forsaken. The two wars that our country entered as a result of 9/11 and the war against terror can not be erased.  Our world as we know it will never be the same.  We will never feel safe.

Everyone has a story to tell that day.

My Mother was waiting in the Tucson, Arizona airport heading out to Virginia to visit my sister when she saw the first plane replayed across the TV.  The entire airport went into shock as the events unfolded right before their eyes.   Of course, knowing my mom was flying that day, I went into panic wondering if she was in the air.  With all the chaos, confusion and uncertainty, no one knew how many planes were going to go down.  By the time I finally reached her, she was hysterical but safe, waiting amidst the confusion at the airport.  Finally her flight was canceled and she went home, like me, in horror and confusion, trying to make sense of what was happening.  Life many others, she ended up packing her car and making the four-day journey across the country to reach my sister in Virginia, who was also in the heart of the situation.

My sister’s husband, Captain Craig Borgstrom,  was one of the few men that actually saw 9/11 from the air.  However, not in a commercial airline but in a fighter jet.  As a Captain with the Happy Hooligans, the Fargo North Dakota National Guard Unit that was based at Langley Air Force base in Virginia, he was one of three pilots that was called into a scramble into the air in a race to save the doomed jet headed to the Pentagon.  He arrived just after the jet crashed into the Pentagon looking down to see the terrifying, hellish fire burning at one of our nation’s most important buildings.  Had he been a few moments earlier, he would have been faced with the orders to possibly have to shot down a passenger jet, an act that surely would have remained within his soul for the rest of his life.

Needless to say, my sister was panicking not knowing where her husband was and whether or not he was safe.  Little did she know he would be one of the many 9/11 heroes (see article below from AIRMAN).

My husband and my father were preparing to depart on a week-long trip to Scotland.  Their flight was scheduled to depart a couple of days later and unfortunately the trip never happened.  Yet if it had, they probably would have been stuck there for days waiting out the reopening of the world’s airports.

I was scheduled to fly to Chicago on 9/13 where my office was based and I had a series of client meetings set up for the week.  Unable to fly, I packed up my car and made the seven hour drive from Minneapolis to Chicago, listening to NPR the entire way and watching the incredible display of patriotism across the roads as cars and buses drove by with flags and sayings printed across their windows.  Since no one could fly, the roads were packed and instead of the normal honking, rude driving and insanity, for once it seemed as if everyone had pulled together.  An accepted, unspoken calm and cooperation was felt wherever you went.

After those fateful days of confusion, chaos, horror and anger, we were finally faced with the long road to acceptance, recovery and redemption.  Slowly the planes began to fly and life kind of moved towards normalcy.  Yet every time I entered the airport to board a plane, it was obvious how much had changed.  How much we lost.  How the world would never ever be the same again.

Ten years later the memories remain as painful as ever.  Everyone seems to know someone who was lost in 9/11 or its aftermath.  Will the world ever forget?  Or do we even want to?  No.

My thoughts and prayers are with the many people who lost the ones they love in and as a result of 9/11.  May we always remember!  And let freedom ring.


Article below from AIRMAN

Pilots saw unique view of Pentagon burning – from 1,000 feet above
Story by Randy Roughton

Photo above of Captain Dean Eckmann

Fifty to 60 miles from Washington, the sky was so clear that 9/11 morning the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots could see almost everything.

“It was almost like a North Dakota day,” Col. Brad Derrig said.

That morning, Derrig, then a major, and Capt. Craig Borgstrom were flying behind Capt. Dean Eckmann and were scrambled over Washington in response to the 9/11 attacks. All three fly with the “Happy Hooligans” in the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Squadron, which stationed pilots at an alert detachment at Langley Air Force Base, Va. At that time, the detachment was one of North American Aerospace Defense Command’s seven alert sites designed to protect the nation against an attack.

As he approached the city, Eckmann saw black smoke rising above the Potomac River. But because the smoke was blowing his direction, he couldn’t see exactly where the fire was. He didn’t know it was at the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed at 9:40 a.m., killing about 180 people, not including the hijackers. Before long, Eckmann would be looking back at his F-16’s missiles and wondering if he would be firing them sometime that day.

“Normally, in cities when you see smoke, it’s going to be gray or white – industrial-type smoke,” said Eckmann, who is now a lieutenant colonel with the Fargo-based squadron.

“From my years of experience in the military, black smoke is bad because it usually means fuel or explosives are burning.”

The detachment squadron was scheduled to fly a sortie against a couple of other Langley F-15 Eagles on 9/11. It was a typical alert, with the pilots mainly trying to be airborne with a less than five-minute notice. Derrig wasn’t scheduled to fly at all, although he was trying to work his way into the training sortie.

A klaxon horn sounded to let the pilots know they were on battle stations, so Eckmann and Derrig headed to their planes. The lights in the hangar changed from yellow to green to let them know of the scramble order at 9:24 a.m.

Borgstrom, the squadron’s director of operations at the time, ran to Eckmann’s plane as he was awaiting the scramble order and said he was supposed to fly as the third pilot. This surprised the other two pilots because in a scramble order for the detachment’s two F-16s, Borgstrom would serve as the supervisor of flying and would be responsible for keeping the pilots informed on the mission. With him in the air, there would be no operations officer left at the detachment. Eckmann directed Borgstrom to the detachment’s third F-16, which was unarmed because it wasn’t on alert status with the other two planes.

“Normally, the East Coast is filled with airplanes, big and small, on a daily basis. Flying that afternoon, the only airplanes that were up were basically military fighters and tankers. It was almost eerie, how quiet it was.”

The tower controller gave the order from the Northeast Air Defense Sector for the pilots to fly east for 60 miles, and the three F-16s took off 15 seconds apart by 9:30. As they flew, one of Eckmann’s wingmen learned their new coordinates, which meant they were headed to Baltimore.

“What it meant was we pretty much have priority over everyone, and civilian air controllers need to move people out of our way,” Eckmann said. “That was my first indication something serious was happening.”

Soon they were given new coordinates – to set up a combat air patrol over Reagan National. They set up the patrol over Washington by 9:45, and air traffic controllers notified Eckmann about a “couple of unknowns heading north on the Potomac River toward the White House.” From 25,000 feet, Eckmann headed straight to the aircraft, but quickly learned they were just a military and police helicopter headed to the Pentagon to assist.

Before long, Borgstrom relayed a NEADS message to Eckmann that the formation was directed to provide a battle damage assessment of the Pentagon. Earlier, Eckmann was suspecting a cruise missile attack from Russia, which had a long-range aviation exercise scheduled that week. Now he began thinking it was a truck bomb, similar to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people in 1995. Because of all of the smoke, it wasn’t until he was 1,000 feet directly above the Pentagon that Eckmann could see the building sustained a direct hit.

“We saw something that day that very few saw from the air,” Eckmann said. “That’s because once that happened, [the Federal Aviation Administration] shut down the airspace, and we were the only ones airborne.”

After flying over the Pentagon, Eckmann reported to NEADS that the building’s two outer rings were damaged in the attack. When asked his opinion of what happened, his best guess at the time was a large tanker truck because of the amount of flames and smoke. The pilots wouldn’t learn it was an airliner until after they landed back at Langley that afternoon.

They spent the next five hours intercepting unidentified aircraft above Washington. To intercept, the F-16 pilot approaches the suspect plane on the left wing since the captain on an airliner normally sits on that side. He makes visual contact with the pilot and gives him signals, then flies by and rocks the wing to signify for him to follow.

At one point, when Eckmann was on the radio with civilian air controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Washington Center, Secret Service agents asked to speak to him. He received a short message: “We need you to protect the House.”

“I’m assuming that means the White House,” Eckmann said.

About 45 minutes after they set up the combat air patrol, Derrig saw a second view of the Pentagon on fire when he escorted a Lear jet carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft into Reagan National after the FAA had shut down all civilian air traffic nationwide.

“I had to fly over the Pentagon at a relatively low altitude, and I could see people on the ground working,” Derrig said. “Once I got back into the [combat air patrol], it was a sense of ‘All right. Now, we’ve got to protect these people.’ Our focus was on future attacks if future attacks were planned.”

Eventually, the pilots worked with F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., which set up a low combat air patrol over the city while the Langley formation maintained the high patrol. The normally crowded East Coast skies were uncharacteristically quiet, Derrig remembers.

“Normally, the East Coast is filled with airplanes, big and small, on a daily basis,” he said. “Flying that afternoon, the only airplanes that were up were basically military fighters and tankers. It was almost eerie, how quiet it was.

“When Andrews [Air Traffic Control] put out the statement that any aircraft into Andrews Class B air space will be shot down, I was thinking we’ve got the missiles. It wasn’t like we were out on a combat air patrol over Iraq or somewhere in Europe – it was within the United States. So that was kind of a gut-puller for me.”

The combat air patrol operation Eckmann and his wingmen started on 9/11 continued until the following April, when they went to more of a scramble and peak type of patrol, he said. When the morning began, seven sites were on alert with 14 airplanes, as there had been since NORAD reduced the number of alert sites in 1994. By nightfall, there were 40 to 50 sites with 200 planes, Eckmann said.

In a day filled with sights and sounds they thought they would never experience in their own country, one more remained when the pilots returned to their squadron.

“I remember I landed at Langley and taxied by the three squadrons of Eagles, and they were arming every flying F-15 on that base,” Eckmann said. “I’ve never seen so many missiles in one spot being put on airplanes. They were putting eight missiles on each F-15 at Langley. That’s another sight you just don’t forget.”

As Eckmann reflects on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the memories of the images he saw from his F-16 in a day that began with such a clear sky remain fresh and painful.

“Has it been 10 years already? For me, it will always seem like it wasn’t that long ago. I’ll have those pictures burned in my mind until the day I die – seeing the Pentagon burning from the air when I flew over it, and you knew people were dead inside, and people were suffering,” he said.

“Ten years later, we are still fighting the global war on terrorism. For me, it’s very personal that not only 3,000 people died in New York, but also approximately 180 people died right beneath me. I think about that often.”

Global Issues Humanitarian SOCIAL GOOD

Day trip to the Yarra Valley: A wine lover’s paradise

Wine and me are like long lost friends.  We have a love/hate relationship.  I adore wine so much that I must have at least a glass or two each and every night.  Yet sometimes I adore it too much and find myself creeping up to three or four or five glasses and then ouch….the next day sucks!

I’ve often heard it is part of the so-called Mediterranean diet.  That the French, Italians and Greeks consume wine with passion and vigor as part of their healthy lifestyles and diets.  Whether or not this is fully medically proven I do not know or quite frankly, even care (I am sure there is much debate as there seems to be an awful lot of debate about anything these days related to health and diet!) . Basically, I love wine.  Period.

Of course I didn’t grow up on wine like the French or Italians do.  It was an acquired taste that took time, maturity and well, taste!  I first began drinking wine for occasional family meals during my college years, normally for special occasions like birthdays, holidays or dining out.  However, I really learned and grew to love wine during my eight months living abroad in France back in my twenties.

Being a student living off my parents and having relatively no extra money, my good amie and I went for the down and dirty stuff.  The infamous Côtes du Rhône….the cheapest wine you could buy for 5 francs a bottle (about US$1 at the time).  It was nasty, thick, acidic stuff that literally slide down your throat but did the job.  An instantaneous buzz would arise after sucking down two or three glasses.

Mon amie and I even got so hooked on it (we were silly, immature and cheap) that we would fill an empty Evian water bottle with cheap, red Côtes du Rhône and bring it as a “roadie”.  Our Evian bottle filled with cheap wine followed us all over Paris at night where we drank it sitting beneath the Tour Eiffel, Le Sacre Coeur and la Seine We were cheap, pathetic and young.  But it was so much fun and still remains to be one of my fondest memories of life as a student in Paris.  Drinking cheap Côtes du Rhône in an Evian bottle under the Parisian stars!  What could be better than that?

Fast forward the years to my trip to Australia in 2003, and I was still as much as ever in love with wine.  My passion for wine has always been attended to while traveling, especially in countries that produce brilliant wines such as Australia.  Thus, it made perfect sense that we spent our last day in Australia touring the lovely Yarra Valley, located 40 miles/61 km east of Melbourne.  In my opinion, there was no better way to leave a fabulous vacation in a truly wonderful country than by visiting its nearby vineyards.  Of course, I was not disappointed!

We took a tour (there was no way we were going to drive!) leaving Melbourne in the morning and spent the day tasting at four idyllic vineyards in the Yarra Valley.  There were only a few of us on the small van which was perfect.  There is nothing I detest more than being stuck on a huge obnoxious tour bus loaded with drunk wine tasters!

The Yarra Valley is a beautiful, peaceful setting that hosts over 70 award-winning vineyards as well as picturesque villages, gardens and shops along the way.  The Yarra Valley is famous for their Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, and Cabernet Sauvignons,  which flourish in the valley’s cool climate.  We were fortunate to try many delicious, savory wines thus breezed lightly through the day, enjoying ourselves immensely.

Here are some photos along the way….

It was the perfect way to end a wonderful trip.  Thankfully we had some time to “sleep it off” before catching our insanely long flight back to the United States the following morning.

Unfortunately, the flight home ended up being perhaps the craziest flight of my life as we made an emergency landing at two in the morning at the Honolulu airport in Hawaii.  There was no warning, no information or comments to the passengers about what was going on.  All we knew was that the lights suddenly went on, the pilot said “Flight attendants, prepare for landing” and our Qantas 747 plunged down faster than my stomach could handle.

Still left in the dark, we landed at a previously unopened airport to police lights and ambulances.  Only after the police apparently boarded the plane (we were sitting at the total end of the bus so couldn’t see or hear what was going on) and left, did the captain come on to announce to the passengers what had happened.

Apparently a mad man/presumed terrorist (I have doubts) was on board making irrational comments about 9/11 and bringing the plane down.  (Remember this trip was made in 2003….after 9/11 and the crazy heightened security that has made traveling never the same).  Some fellow passengers tackled the guy down, and he was hand-cuffed and sedated while we were in the middle of no where out in the ocean.  Honolulu was the closest place we could land.

Ok, I was pretty freaked out at that point wondering what in the hell just happened.  It took two hours to unload every single piece of luggage from our 747 jumbo jet and them more time for the police to find this crazy guy’s baggage.  We were not allowed to get off the plane and were all extremely tired and stressed out by that point.

Two hours later, we took off again making our landing in LA late.  I raced through security, sweating bullets and caught my connecting four-hour flight within five minutes before departure.  It was a crazy way to end a trip, that’s for sure!  But it is certainly one I’ll never forget.

Stay tuned…next post I’m headed back to Argentina where I visited San Carlos de Bariloche and Buenos Aires a few years back. 

Adventure Travel Australasia Australia TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

Rockin’ in Melbourne

Scan above of my ticket stub to the sensational “We Will Rock You” musical set to the music of Queen performed in the heart of Melbourne.

After an amazing four days spent exploring Cairns, Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef, we hopped flight number three of our trip and headed the four-hour flight south to lovely, culturally alive Melbourne (pronounced “Mel-bun” by the Aussies).  We didn’t land in Melbourne until well past nine at night thus besides collecting our luggage and taking a cab to our hotel, there wasn’t much time for much else except a few well-deserved and highly cherished glasses of Australian wine in the hotel bar.

We rose early for our English style breakfast in the hotel dining room and indulged in tea, coffee, fresh pastries, scones and jellies.  We had yet another busy day ahead of us checking out Melbourne.   Since my father had been there a few times before, we didn’t need a tour guide.  I had him to show me around and bring me to all the latest and greatest spots.

Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia with a population close to four million.  Melbourne is an interesting and exciting city because it is a huge cultural melting pot with one of the largest populations of Greeks outside of Athens and a sizable population of Chinese, Lebanese, Italian and Vietnamese immigrants.  One in three Melburnians were born overseas or have parents who were born overseas, creating a largely diverse population awash with culture.  I was excited to check it out as Melbourne sounded like my kind of place.

We spent the morning doing a lengthy jog through the lush Botanical Gardens.  I always find seeing a place on foot via trekking or running to be extremely exciting because you can cover more ground than walking.  It was a clear, perfect day– t-shirt and jeans weather of 60 degree F (felt like heaven after steamy, humid Cairns!).  I enjoyed the cooler air and took advantage of the weather by spending the entire day outside, exploring Melbourne.

I found Melbourne to be quite different from Sydney.  The entire mindset and feeling of the place felt like comparing apples to oranges.   While Sydney is sexy, cosmopolitan and fast-moving, Melbourne felt more laid back, hippy and diverse.  Melbourne reminded me more of Chicago (where I lived for five wonderful years) while Sydney seemed more like an Australian Paris or New York with all its chic and glamour.  I adored both cities but felt more at ease in Melbourne.  It was my kind of town.

Picture below of lovely Melbourne (called in Aussie accent “Melbun”). 

Downtown Melbourne:  Melbourne’s city center is built around the Yarra River which flows into Port Philip, a large natural bay that leads out to the sea.

The Yarra River

Restaurant district:  Melbourne’s cultural diversity leads to an incredible variety of ethnic treats.  You can find any kind of food you want in Melbourne.  Plus the food like most I found in Australia, was wonderful. 

The city center:  The main part of town where businesses are located plus great shopping, restaurants, cafes and clubs.

Funky, fun and hip Fitzroy:  About as bohemian as you can get with lots of great shopping for those retro vintage finds.

The fantastic Queen Victoria Market where you can buy anything and everything as fresh and wonderfully delicious as can be.

Unfortunately I was not in my thirdeyemom mindset when I went on this trip (remember it was in 2003!  I’ve grown and matured since then…at least I hope so!) and probably missed tons of great photo opps that would illustrate the quirky, vitality and excitement of the various neighborhoods in Melbourne.  There was St. Kilda which was bohemian and filled with outrageous cake shops, Carlton which had its own Aussie-style “Little Italy“, and Melbourne’s very own Chinatown.  The far-stretching neighborhoods went on for miles and each one had its own unique and special charm.  I would love to have the opportunity to revisit Melbourne someday and rediscover all the fabulous things it has to offer.  It is a great city, in my humble opinion, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The last highlight of our stay in Melbourne was our big night out on the town.  It all began with a gourmet Italian meal nearby the theater where we started out with a $50 bottle of wine (the cheapest on the menu…thank God my dad was paying!).  The tiny restaurant only had twenty tables and was fully booked.  But per my dad who had eaten there a year before, the food was so good we chose to eat our four-course meal at the bar!  It was amazing and I was so full afterwards that I thought I’d pass out during the musical.  Yet, the loud, vibrant sounds of QUEEN singing “We will, we will ROCK YOU!” got me jumping off my chair and feeling like I was ready to pack my bags and move to Melbourne.  The musical blasted my eardrums, raised my heart beat and excited my soul for I love QUEEN and there was nothing better than hearing it in lovely, lively “Mel-bun”!  We love ya Mel-bun” they cried and sang with all their might.  What a fantastic send-off!

Stay tuned…my last post on Australia will be a day trip to the Yarra Valley wine regions for lots and lots of tasting and sipping yummy Australian wines. 

Adventure Travel TRAVEL BY REGION

One last dive in the Great Barrier Reef

The next morning, we woke up bright and returned to the lovely town of Port Douglas to do our last of three dives (this time we would be leaving from Port Douglas as opposed to Cairns).  I was really getting hooked on diving.  I loved the thrill, the adventure and the insanely surreal scenery below the water.  I could hardly contain my excitement!

Here is a view of the gorgeous coastline.

The pretty marina in Port Douglas where we would be meeting our dive boat.

A younger me (8 years ago!) in front of our ride, the Quicksilver.

En route, elated to be doing my third dive of the trip to 30 feet, in the Great Barrier Reef.

This time we went to the Agrinaut reef.  The boat was a bit smaller than the Osprey that we took out of Cairns for our first two dives.  It only held about 55 people which was great.  It was also a nicer boat and offered a more relaxed atmosphere compared with the fun-loving, crowded party boat in Cairns.

It took an hour and a half to get out to the reef where we would do our dive.  I stood outside, watching the beautiful coastline and enjoying the breath-taking surroundings.  About a half an hour before reaching the reef, we had a very informative instructional meeting on our dive.  I learned that the reason why my ears were hurting so bad and still plugged was due to not properly clearning my ears. I would have to be a bit more careful since we were going even deeper than before.

We arrived at the sight and my dad, me and a father and son pair were the first group to go.  Our instructor was a guy from England who was extremely funny as well as very knowledgable about the reef.  I felt safe in his hands despite the fact that I was a little nervous about the upcoming dive.

The reef was much deeper and darker than the last two I had been to.  It was also not as clear which caused some concern (i.e.  sharks!).  For some reason, I was way more anxious this time.  Perhaps it was fear or else my poor painful ears.  We descended holding onto a rope through the deep, dark water.  I had a hard time relaxing and breathing.  I was scared.  We went about 15 feet down and my ears began to feel an enormous, painful pressure.  They were driving me mad but I tried to ignore it and concentrate on breathing.

We had three safety activities to do:  Mask clear, take the regulator out of your mouth and clear, and do a regulator switch.  I successfully did the first two but for some reason I freaked out on the last one.  When I switched the regulator back, my mask filled up with water and I swallowed some ocean. I panicked and before I know it, I was up at the top gasping for air!   My instructor was of course right there by my side, telling me not to worry and trying to calm me down.  I know that what I did was a big mistake.  You are not supposed to just take off like that.  But I was afraid and I panicked.

I had to try to relax and pass the third test or I would not be able to dive.  So I held back all my fear and went back down once again to give the “regulator switch” another try.  I couldn’t believe how frightening it was to take be without oxygen 15 feet below the surface.  But it was.  I knew my dad was right there by my side so I held back my fear and knew what I had to do.  Before I knew it, it was done.  I didn’t drown.  I made it through and it felt good to overcome my fears.

We descended slowly so my ears would adjust and met up with the others who were waiting.  I was unexpectedly calmer perhaps because I was trying so hard to relax.  After five minutes of going down, we were finally on the bottom of the reef and kneeled down to have another nature lesson on giant clams and sea cucumbers.   I tried not to look up….it seemed so impossibly far and felt like being trapped inside a glass coffin.  It was frightening to me despite my enthusiasm and euphoria from seeing all the fish and corals below.

We swam over to the corals to explore their incredibly brilliant colors.  It was surrounded with life and vibrant colored fish.  I forgot about my fear and embraced in the sensational beauty of the reef.  The corals and fish at this site were by far the most brilliant and magical I’d seen.  If I close my eyes even today, I still can picture the swirling tentacles swaying back and forth of the soft corals.  They were so alive.  It was phenomenal.  I wish I had an underwater camera to capture it all but even so, there really is no way in my opinion to see it except for yourself.

After thirty minutes we surface and I couldn’t believe how pumped with energy and excitement I was.  What an incredible high!  Unfortunately my ears were very plugged and at this point, I could not really hear a thing.  I had to pass on the next dive at site two because I couldn’t risk further damaging my ears.  We were off to Melbourne the next day and the thought of flying made my ears hurt even more.

We arrived at the second site and were surprised to be greeted by a school of baby reef tip sharks swimming near the boat.  Although they were only three feet long, the thought of jumping in the water and swimming side by side the sharks made my skin crawl.  I have a deep-seated paranoia of sharks!   Eventually I did get in the water to go snorkeling and see the “Barracuda Pass”, a pinnacle of coral that was surrounded by sharp-toothed scary looking barracuda.  There were tons of different kinds of fish in all shapes and colors.   Some were so huge it was mind-boggling.

We boarded back on the boat and went to site number three where I did a “snorkeling safari” with a group of thirty others and a guide.  It was fun if you didn’t mind getting accidentally kicked by a fellow swimmer.

By the time we boarded the boat and headed back to Port Douglas, I was completely exhausted and famished.  It was my last dive of the trip for we were leaving tomorrow to Melbourne.  Yet I hope it is not my last dive ever!  I dream of someday going back and showing my children this unbelievably magical, alive underwater playground.  Let’s hope it is still around to show them. 

Stay tuned…next post is on lively, playful Melbourne. 

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Golf, Rainforests and Didgeridoos in Port Douglas, Australia

For our last two days in Cairns, we decided to rent a car and head north to check out the lovely coastal town of Port Douglas for some golf, hiking and my third dive.  The tiny fishing village of Port Douglas is the only place in the world where two completely different World Heritage Sites lie side by side:  The Great Barrier Reef and The Daintree National Park.

We woke up after finally sleeping in (something I rarely do on an active vacation) and hit the road for the scenic one drive north to Port Douglas.  The first thing on the agenda was a round of golf at the beautiful, tropical links course in town.  Being an avid golfer, my dad desperately wanted to play some golf in Australia.  I am not that good of a golfer yet agreed to partake in a few rounds of golf for fun and frustration.  Golf has always been a family affair as I come from a family of golfers and even had the pleasure of playing several times with my father and ninety-year-old grandfather.

Although I hadn’t played for a long time and was extremely bad, I still enjoyed the gorgeous views of the sensational golf course in Port Douglas.  The course was full of exotic flowers and birds singing joyfully.  We were surprised to find no one else out on the course.  After a few holes in the hot, unbearably humid weather, we understood why:  Only the crazy people like us would play in this kind of weather!

Here is the entrance to the club:

Beware!  There are live crocodiles lurking in the pond!  I wouldn’t want my ball to veer that way.  But the flowering lily pads were sure pretty. 

Since we were located right near a tropical rainforest, it was sweltering hot and humid.  I found it quite uncomfortable and definitely preferred the water activities in the area as opposed to sweaty golf.

After golf, we got on the road again and headed further north to the Daintree National Forest.

The World Heritage Daintree rain forest is one of those unique parks that has remained relatively unchanged for the past 110 million years.  Per Frommers (2004), “it is now home to rare plants that provide key links in the evolution story.  In the 56,000-hectare park you will find cycads, dinosaur trees, fan palms, giant strangler figs, and epiphytes like the basket fern, staghorn, and elkhorn”.   You can even take night-time croc-spotting tours and see the sensational park via 4WD.  Unfortunately our time was short.  We only had an hour to explore it. But it was definitely worth the trip!

Here are some pictures from the park:

Hiking through the hot, humid and wet tropical rainforest ending up being short-lived.  It was too insanely hot to walk much but I’m still smiling!

I loved all the gorgeous ferns and foliage.

It was eerily quiet inside.  All we could hear were the sounds of the forest.  Yes, it is indeed daytime in this picture!  We were surrounded by a huge canopy of tropical forest!

Unfortunately it was way too miserably hot and uncomfortable to venture far.  After thirty minutes we turned around and headed back.  Oh well at least we tried!

The next stop was the mountain town of Kuranda, a rainforest village located 21 miles (34 km) west of Cairns near the Barron Gorge National Park.  It is a touristy, trendy village town located up in the mist covered rainforest that is awash with local shops where you can buy leather goods, Australian wool, pals, crafts, aboriginal art and if you desire, the infamous didgeridoo.  We were excited for the cool, fresh mountain air that greeted us and enjoyed the afternoon in this quaint mountain village town.

Lovely Kuranda a nice break from the tropical heat.

Besides shops, the town also had an area for animal preservation where you could get up close and personal with some of Australia’s famous critters.  Here are the bats.

Beautiful tropical flowers surround you….

A cute, cuddly (wait not so close….aren’t they mean?) koala bear.

Finally, after all this time I see my first wallaby (looks like a mini Kangeroo).  But unfortunately it isn’t in the wild.  Oh well…it still was cute!

We shopped around, visiting the local leather shop and then finding this treasure:  An aboriginal art store which sold gorgeous aboriginal art and even the much loved didgeridoo, a musical instrument and a work of art.  Here is the shop owner giving us a demonstration.  It is not easy to play!  Believe me, I tried and was unsuccessful at producing the faintest sound besides a load of gurgling saliva!

This is one of the longest didgs ever made.  It’s sound was haunting. 

Of course, being an art lover, my dad could not resist.  He had to have one.  So he purchased a beautiful didgeridoo for their home in Tucson, Arizona.  It is stil there, laying against the wall and is a gorgeous work out art….yet not a single soul in our family can play it!

Here it is….our own family didgeridoo!  Too bad no one can play it…

Stay tuned….next post will describe my third and last dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Then it is off to Melbourne!

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Searching for Sharks in the Great Barrier Reef

We woke up the next day excited about our adventure once again on the Great Barrier Reef.  Throughout the night I had strange, colorful dreams of the exotic fish and spectrum of magnificent colors I saw in this underwater playground.  It was so unbelievable that I could hardly wait to get back out there.

We took the same company Quicksilver out to the reef, and arrived an hour and a half later.  The main highlight at the reef was a fish called “Wally”;  a giant, four-foot long Napoleon Maori Wrasse who you could pet like a dog.

Wally first swam up to the dive boat as if coming over to meet good friends. He was not the least bit shy. In fact, he was playful, fun-loving and seemed to truly love people!

As soon as our boat appeared, so did Wally, a giant dog-like fish who loved to be pet and fed. 

We pet him from the dive boat, then loaded on our gear and jumped in the refreshingly warm tropical waters. There, Wally awaited our arrival and followed us along our dive. He was the biggest fish I’d ever seen and it was an unbelievable experience. It was like having a dog along on a walk except this was a giant, over-sized tropical fish lovingly named Wally by the crew.

Apparently Wally is famous. I did a search on goggle and found this cute link of a local Aussie girl who frequently visits Wally the fish. Here is the link that I could on the Cairns, Australia online journal (article written in 2008).

After we jumped into the water, next on the agenda after ogling over Wally was to do a few safety tests such as the awful mask clear and even worse, the regulator clear (this one freaked me out because you had to take your mouth away from the oxygen supply).  Then we descended slowly, going down down down and having my ears pop and clog like crazy.  I couldn’t believe the terrible pressure on my ears.  It drove me mad yet the sight of our gigantic, loveable Wally the fish made me forget about my discomforts and embrace in the moment.

I had never swam with a large fish before.  I must say that it was the wildest experience I’ve ever had.  I felt like Wally the fish was my pet dog, following us around, playing, hanging out and having fun.  It was so strange.  He was so unbelievable.  I wonder if he is still alive today, greeting the multitude of divers and snorkelers like he did eight years before.  I hope so.

Taken once inside the water. Up close and personal with Wally the fish!  Just look at those enormous lips!  Doesn’t he look like he’s hiding a smile?

He is gigantic and so adorable.  It is too bad I only had a cheap Kodak underwater disposable camera.  Imagine what the colors would be like if I had a real underwater camera!  Wally was beautiful with shades of pastel blue and pinks. 

Wally looking for some love and attention.

We swam for a while, going deeper into the waters, marveling at the insane display of colors which unfortunately there was no way to capture given my cheap camera.  Close your eyes and image corals as far as the eye can see in brilliant hues of reds, pinks, purples, yellows, oranges, golds, blues, reds and greens.  The vibrant colors blew me away.  So sad I could not have captured them on film!

I tried to adjust to life underwater.  I found it difficult and somewhat scary to breathe out of a regulator.  I had to really take deep, full breathes to get enough air.  If you panic, it is very bad and can be extremely dangerous.   So I tried my best to just relax and not freak out the further we went below the surface.  Fortunately you are not allowed to go much deeper than 20 feet without being certified.  But 20 feet felt frightening to me.  Like being trapped below a glass box.  I constantly looked upwards to make sure it was still there.  I had a hard time relaxing but once I was able to relax and let go of my fears, I found the experience to be sensational.

When we reached the lowest point we would go, twenty feet below the surface, our guide instructed us to kneel down on the sand for our “nature” presentation. He showed us a giant clam and we all got to hold a sea cucumber. It was fantastic!

I surfaced up and snapped this shot of our dive boat off in the distance.  We would swim to the boat and then move to another site for dive number 2. 

We did another dive, this time I was less fearful except for the thought of seeing a random shark in the reef.  I knew it was highly unlikely but the thought of seeing an enormous, hungry JAWS was lurking around my brain.

We swam with hundreds and hundreds of brilliantly colored fish, found an electric colored eel hiding in the corals and tried our best to take in all the wonders of this colorful underground world.  It is certainly a fascinating place.  I sure hope that Global Warming does not take it all away from future generations to see.  It would be a tragedy.

After a quick lunch, another amazing opportunity was presented to the guests.  The opportunity to see the reef from above.  Of course it was expensive but as my favorite motto goes When in Rome, we decided that we had to do it.  We had to take a ride in a helicopter above the reef.

We took a small boat over to the heli pad awaiting us not far from the dive boat. 

Me feeling out of my mind excited to board the helicopter for a ride of a lifetime.

We climbed on board and were off on our ten minute adventure flying over Australia’s world-famous Great Barrier Reef.  The views from the flight were out of sight.  I could not believe how enormous the reef is.  It stretches for over 1000 miles long and is the only living organism that can be seen from space.  It was ungodly beautiful from the air.  Almost (and I saw almost since under the waters it is so incredibly spectacular that nothing can top it) as beautiful above as it is below its waters.

From above, we could see sea turtles and all kinds of gorgeous corals lumped together in various shades of blues.  It was absolutely spectacular!  It also was quite thrilling to fly at such speed and angles.  At one point our pilot informed us that we were in search of the elusive sharks who swim across the borders of the reefs.  We flew in search of sharks hoping to catch one that we could trail.  Unfortunately none were to be found.

Below are some of the magnificent views of the Great Barrier Reef from the air.  Breath-taking, isn’t it? 

After a fabulous adventurous day, we were elated and celebrated with a bottle of ice-cold Australian Sav Blanc on the boat ride back. I sadly said goodbye to the amazing Great Barrier Reef, wondering what its future would be and hoping that it would not all disappear with the unstoppable global climate change our Earth is enduring. For wouldn’t it be an unbelievable tragedy if the reef was no longer there to inspire, amaze and mesmerize the world.  I hope it will still be alive and thriving for future generations.

To read more about the documented disappearing of the Great Barrier Reef:

“Ocean acidification, global warming, and the Great Barrier Reef”

“Great Barrier Reef to be decimated by 2050”

“Global Warming Threat to Great Barrier Reef ”

“Global Warming. What you need to know: The Great Barrier Reef”

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Taking a Dive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

I had always dreamed of going to the world-famous Great Barrier Reef.  It is one of those talked about, revered places that a true traveler must visit and explore.  Thanks to our vacation package with Qantas, a three-day stop over in Cairns was on the agenda.  We could have gone to see another natural wonder, Ayer’s Rock in the Outback, but in my opinion a rock could not hold a candle to the Great Barrier Reef, a hidden underwater fantasy land that is like no place on Earth.

Per Frommers Australia Guidebook (ed. 2004), Exploring the Great Barrier Reef:

It’s the only living structure on Earth visible from the moon; at 348,700 sq. km (135,993 sq. miles), it’s bigger than the United Kingdom; it’s over 2,000 km (1,240 miles) long and is home to 1,500 kinds of fish, 400 species of corals, 4,000 kinds of clams and snails, and much more.  The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a World Heritage Site and is the biggest marine park in the world.

The more I read and learned about this incredible place, the more I had to go and see it for myself.  I’ve been snorkeling many times before in the tropical waters of the Caribbean, yet I knew it was nothing in comparison with the mighty, amazing Great Barrier Reef.  Plus, I was also quite interested in checking out the tropical rainforests near Port Douglas.

We took a final send off morning run near the harbor in beautiful Sydney and then went to the airport to catch our two and a half hour flight north to hot, humid, tropical Cairns.  We lucked out by scoring another emergency row exit seat where I took this picture of the landscape out the window.

As we made the approach for our landing, I caught site of the Great Barrier Reef out my window and could not believe my eyes.  The azure blue colors of the waters were mesmerizing and I couldn’t wait to actually see it for myself.

We landed in Cairns near the end of the day, just in time to reserve our trip to the Great Barrier Reef the following day and have a nice dinner on the boardwalk.  It was sizzling hot and the sun was shining brightly, something that we had been lacking in Sydney.   I didn’t find Cairns (pronounced Cannes) to be anything exciting since it is mostly a touristy beach town.  Yet Cairns did have a certain kind of laid-back Aussie charm which was nice after all the hustle and bustle in Sydney.   The locals were extremely nice, friendly people who really made us feel welcome and at home.

Lovely, tropical Cairns (photo taken in the direction of the harbor).  The launching off point for ventures into the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking down the other direction.

After checking into our hotel and instantly changing into shorts and t-shirts, we headed on a short 15-minute walk to town.  The hot, sticky air felt like paradise after being in chilly, rainy Sydney.  It was wonderful to be so wet and sweaty!

We walked straight over to the marina to the nearest reef tour booking office to reserve our trip to the reef the next day.  It was overwhelming to choose what tour, company and boat to use since there were over 600 boats offering tours on the reef.  It made me dizzy just thinking about it.  But luckily we had excellent advice and ended up selecting a great company.

After a fabulous outdoor dinner at an Italian restaurant right on the water, we returned back to the hotel to get some sleep before the big day ahead.

The next morning we met our tour company at the marina at 8:30 am sharp for our departure out to the Great Barrier Reef.  Our boat was called the “Osprey” and it was a 100-foot catamaran that held up to 100 people with crew.  The Osprey was written up in Frommers  as a great first experience on the reef with a lively, fun crew, and it certainly was.

Setting off from the marina towards the Great Barrier Reef…..

The night before, when we signed up for our tour of the Great Barrier Reef, I made my decision that I was going to try diving.  I just had to do it.  You only live once, right? (unless you are a cat and are lucky enough to have nine lives).

Yet as we cruised away from the marina towards the Great Barrier Reef, I began to have doubts and concerns.  Would there be sharks?  Would it be scary?  What if I had an accident?  I am traditionally a huge worry wart!  But when I looked at the beauty of my surroundings, I decided that I couldn’t possibly chicken out.  I was seduced by the promised beauty shown in the fancy, glossy brochures at the booking office.  How could I possibly not check it out, after I’ve traveled so far to finally see it.

On board of course my dad and I being huge extroverts, met lots of friends.  Here is an Irish couple on a year long around the world tour.  I couldn’t have been more jealous. 

My father is actually a certified diver.  He got his certification years ago and afterwards never did it again.  Yet he wasn’t going to let his daughter go on her first introductory dive all by herself.  So he decided to join me.

After an hour and a half, we arrived at our destination:  The Norman and the Hastings Reefs.  The scenery was spectacular and I could not believe how pure and surreal the water looked.  It was magical and I felt like a mermaid waiting to rejoin her kingdom.

We began by jumping in and doing a half and hour snorkel around the reef to get a taste of the hidden treasures that buried inside.  I was a little timid and afraid to jump in.  I have this crazy fear of sharks and big, toothy fish.  So I let the other guinea pigs jump in first.  When I hear their elated cries of excitement and joy, I dove on in and…..WOW!!!!!

The reef was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life.  There were fish in all colors (electric blues, pinks, oranges, yellows, reds and pinks), shapes and sizes, brilliant, surreal and amazing, swimming in huge masses along my side.  The corals were the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.  An array of rainbow colors so brilliant and fluorescent that it hurt my eyes.  I had never expected to see so much magical, surreal beauty.  It literally took my breath away.  So I had to surface for some air and a photo opp:

There was only one other large diving boat nearby.  Otherwise we had the entire place to ourselves to explore.

The new divers were then briefed on an introductory course on the basis of diving.  We would be going in groups of four with one instructor.  I was with two guys from Austria, my dad and one guide/instructor from Australia (who by the way had the sexiest accent ever).  It was going to be me and the guys!  I was excited and nervous all the same. 

The group before us getting ready to launch off into the waters.

I got into my wetsuit (the water was very warm, around 85 degrees but colder deeper) and got fitted with my weight belt and dive gear.  I couldn’t believe how heavy the oxygen tank was.  I could not move with it on and needed help so I wouldn’t tip over.  Once the four of us were ready, we were gently pushed off into the water and WOW!  Completely, utterly f-ing unbelievable!  I felt like I was on another planet!

I only wished I had invested in an expensive underwater camera to take pictures of this magical world beneath the blue waters.  The colors, the fish and the corals that I saw were so spectacular and mind-boggling that it blew me away.  I was only under water for twenty minutes or so until it was time to come up.  But I decided right there and then, that I was addicted and had to come back the next day for another dive.  I could hardly wait!

Stay tuned….next post will be seeing the Great Barrier Reef both above and below its magical waters!

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