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Holiday Season ‘Down Under’

I hadn’t planned on visiting Australia initially because I’d learned from fellow travelers that it was a very expensive country to visit.  However, it was while I was in Malaysia volunteering at the animal shelter that I just happened to receive an email from a good friend of mine whom I’d known back in New Mexico.  We had lost touch over the years despite attempts on both our ends to keep in touch, but alas he found me:)  And as chance would have it, he was living in Sydney!  So of course I had to go see him!!

The timing of it all to this day still fascinates me.  It’s just further proof in my book that everything happens the way it should.  After a couple of email exchanges I made plans to see him and spend Christmas and New Years with him and his partner:)

I arrived in the ‘land down under’ mid-December and was greeted at the airport with the loving embrace and friendly faces of my friend and his partner.  After a quick nibble out, we headed back to their place where I met their two kids, Willow and Bear, two absolutely adorable pups!!  We stayed up quite late that first night (and for the next several nights) with bottles of vino and beer, catching up on all things past and present.  What a truly amazing and still surreal time!

They showed me around all the hotspots of Sydney; Bondi beach (pronounced Bond-eye, not Bondy), the Opera House (of course!), the harbor area, Mansly, the Botanical Gardens and the Watson Bay area where sailboats dotted a quiet bay eclipsed by beautiful homes gently sloping from the water.  It was all so picturesque and beautiful!  We even ventured a bit further out on the weekends for little road trips to the Blue Mountains where we viewed the Three Sisters.

The thing that surprised me about the Opera house was that the roof was made of tiles!  From all the pictures I had seen prior to seeing it first-hand,  the roof simply looked white and I hadn’t noticed anything particularly remarkable about it.  However up close, it was impressive to see that the roof was in fact made of white and beige tiles and that they formed very specific patterns giving each shell a unique and artistic flare.  In addition, again from pictures, I had always imagined that the Opera house was a singular building and each layered ‘armadillo shell’ was part of the design to enhance acoustics for that one stage.  I had no idea that in fact there are multiple stages allowing several productions to occur within the same season.  Just goes to show you that you never really know about something until you get up close and personal with it;)

The Botanical Gardens were absolutely darling!  They seemed to go on forever and though they were basically next door to the heart of downtown Sydney, they had a quiet and calm about them that made you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city life.  2016 just so happens to also be the 200th birthday of the gardens, so that’s pretty cool:)

The Blue Mountains too were a surprise as I had no idea such lush green life and landscapes could be found in Oz.  Again, most of the pictures I had seen of Australia boasted the main highlights of the Barrier Reef, the Opera House or the Outback where the land is red and lacking plant life.  But in the Blue Mountains, I could have mistaken us for being in Virgina near the Blue Ridge!  Simply beautiful!

The only odd thing to me was knowing that it was only a week away from Christmas, yet not really seeing any sort of Christmas decorations anywhere!  There were a few scattered here and there, but nothing like I was accustomed to seeing in the States around Christmas time.  However, that didn’t stop us from doing some decorating ourselves:)  J’s mom had sent him a Christmas tree, so on or about the day before Christmas, we got our drinks on (which put us all in a jolly mood) and set up the Christmas tree and other decorations to get the place looking festive!  A few gifts were exchanged, delicious food was cooked, and we all reveled in the joys of being with good friends.

Christmas Day passed and New Years was quickly approaching, so the next big thing was to decide how to ring in the New Year.  We settled on trying for one of the free spots at a park on the harbor (Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair).  The only trouble was that once capacity for the park was reached, they closed it off therefore not allowing any new people in.  And because this venue was free to enter (and honestly was one of the best in my opinion as it had a fantastic view of the harbor, the bridge and the opera house) the lines would no doubt be long.  The chances of getting in at all were unpredictable!

‘A’ (J’s partner) had to work New Year’s Day, so that left ‘J ‘and I to try for a park place where ‘A’ would meet us later.  We made it there around 10am to find a line that wove back and forth and forth and back with what looked like thousands waiting to get in!  We got in at the back of the makeshift line and thus began the slow and arduous task of walking a few feet every couple of minutes, slowly inching our way to the entrance gates.  Luckily we came prepared however with water, snacks and sunscreen.

I should mention at this point that the Norwegian couple I had met back in Kuala Lumpur were also in Sydney for New Year’s.  We had reconnected via email and arranged to meet at the park.  After about an hour or so, they arrived with another friend in tow and they joined ‘J’ and I in line (which still had only moved a couple hundred feet or so, lol!!).  The mood around us was festive and it was funny to see how many people had already started hitting the beers hard!  Personally it was just too hot in the direct sun for that in my opinion, plus having to find a bathroom would have been its own kind of torture!!

The hours ticked away as we crept closer and closer toward the finish line… Finally, about 4 hours later we were in!  While there were already thousands of people in the park, it didn’t feel as crowded as I would have thought which I was very grateful for!  We scouted a place to sit under a nice shady tree, then sent one of the fellas to the nearby food and drink kiosks for some cold beers!  We sat around enjoying the cold beers and continued chit-chatting and all was absolutely perfect, save for one thing…

‘A’ was still at work… The plan we had hoped for was that he would be able to get off work a bit early, then head to the park where he could hopefully hop in line with us and make it in before the park reached capacity.  However, at this point it was already past 2pm.  The line that had formed behind us seemed longer than the line we had initially started in, and according to the online information, the park had already almost reached capacity and would soon be closed off.  Not happy news!!  As the time ticked on it seemed less and less likely that he would be able to make it to the park.

Seriously a huge conundrum!!  I didn’t want ‘A’ to have to spend New Year’s alone, especially without his partner!!  But I also didn’t want to leave our park spot.  We debated back and forth what to do and eventually settled on me staying in the park, and ‘J’ leaving the park to be with ‘A’.  In addition ‘J’ had started not to feel so hot, as even though he kept reapplying sunscreen the entire time we stood in line, he still managed to get a pretty bad sunburn!!  So as he wasn’t feeling the best he said he was fine with leaving to be with ‘A’.  Though I know I shouldn’t, I do still feel guilty for having stayed behind because I wanted the three of us to be together for New Years.  But as ‘A’ and ‘J’ said, they had “been there, done that” with Sydney’s firework show.  It wasn’t so important for them to see them again, but since it was a first for me, they said I should definitely see them.

So I hung back with my friends from Norway and rang in the New Year watching fireworks shower off the Sydney harbor bridge and light up the harbor waters.  It was such a beautiful sight!  I love everything about fireworks; the sounds, smells and sight of them.  Being so up close and personal to such a spectacular show was unbelievable.  I’m so thankful for the chance to have been able to be there!

After the show, I parted ways with my Norwegian friends and met up with ‘J’ and ‘A’ and we headed home to comfort the pups.  Though we were not able to spend New Year’s night together, we did have our own New Year celebration a bit later.  Popping a bottle of champagne we wrote down things we no longer wanted to be burdened with in our lives and set them on fire Zozobra style!

On to Summer Camp in January

Back to Australia

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Ephesus

We had a full day at sea between Dubrovnik and Ephesus and it was spent full of a variety of activities (working out, pool time, Bingo!, etc.).  It was quite relaxing and the day seemed to zoom by.  When the night came around, my sister and I stayed up at the bar chatting and drinking the night away.  She woke the next day just fine… Me on the other hand, I was a wee bit hung over.  We had a scheduled tour to get to however so as we approached the port town of Kusadasi, it was time to buck up and sober up!

Our tour was to the Virgin Mary’s house (where after the crucifixion of Jesus she escaped and lived in hiding from persecution by the Romans) and to the ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus.  We met for our tour abroad the ship then were all escorted out onto the tour bus and off we went.  We were each given a little welcome package including a pin of the eye of Turkey for good luck, a bottle of water (I really needed that!!), a postcard and a little ceramic container with an impression of the Virgin Mary on the front and a cork top.

We were also issued little headsets so we could hear our tour guide throughout the tour as we wandered around.  I had seen other tours use these before and always thought them a great idea.  However, after actually having used them, I’m not so much a fan.  The reason being that the guide was many times speaking about things way ahead of where I physically was (I was lagging a bit with my crazy picture taking) so I would hear her explain something, but it wasn’t until 5-10 minutes later that I’d catch up to the area where the information was relevant.  Just goes to show that even with those little headsets you still have to keep up with the guide!

Leaving Kusadasi, we drove up the winding mountains of Turkey, past the large golden statue of Mary, watching the terrain turn from almost rugged, drier land to lush green forest land.  It somewhat reminded me of being in New Mexico, driving from Albuquerque to the mountains of Santa Fe in the summer time.  We arrived at Mt. Koressos, the site of Mary’s house.  The house was originally discovered because of visions that Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (a book was later published about her visions) had of the Virgin Mary and her home in hiding.  Searches ensued to find the home seen in the vision and was indeed found as described by Blessed Ann Catherine Emmerich.  Today the home is a shrine for both Catholics and Muslims who flock to see the very simple but functional home.

Outside the home a church has been set up and today people come to pray and even hold regular masses.  The home itself has been visited by several popes and has been blessed by them during their visit.  Outside her home, three taps of spring water exist, Holy Water, for visitors to drink, bathe, or fill up their little ceramic containers:)  I filled mine up, and though we weren’t supposed to drink from the ceramic container, I took a sip figuring it could only help with the hangover:)  Further along the wall from the Holy water were hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of cloth, each with someone’s prayer or hope or dream written in scores of different languages and tied onto the wall.  It was quite powerful to visit this site.  It is also a beautiful setting and a feeling of calm and peace is very present there.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside her house, but my favorite bit on the inside was a very faint and almost unnoticeable chalk drawing on the wall, just before the exit that seemed to be the face of, what looked to me like Jesus.  I can’t be 100% sure that it was Him (that’s how faint it was) but it made me wonder the history behind that.  I loved the simplicity of it.

From Mary’s house we were escorted back on the bus and down the hill to the shopping area (Genuine Fake Watches!!) just outside the ruins of Ephesus.  Ephesus was an ancient Greek city that long ago was actually a port town!  It is the same Ephesus where Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians (thanks mom).  It was founded in the 10th century BC but was devastated by an earthquake in 614 AD.  The earthquake strike along with the harbor slowly silting up by the Cayster River declined the cities importance as a commercial center and was eventually abandoned (Thanks Wikipedia!).

Today only about 25% of the city has been excavated and it is only in the past 100 years or so that excavations have been taking place!  It was amazing to hear about how modern the people of that time really were!  They had indoor plumbing, a library, a theater, a brothel (the foot and heart imprint could be found throughout the city leading the way there) a gymnasium, there was even evidence of surgeries having been conducted!  Pretty much anything you could want in a city was there and everything was so stylishly done in marble or brick!  At least in my mind, it’s hard to envision civilizations from thousands of years ago being so modern.  We like to think with our technology that we are so much more advanced than people were back then… After visiting these ruins, I’m really not so sure!

From the ruins we were taken to a very touristy spot where there was nothing but shops and food and a little play depicting the days of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony enjoying some gladiator action between soldiers (no lions involved;)).

Cleopatra & Marc Anthony
Cleopatra & Marc Anthony

We had some kebabs, drank some beer then it was back to Kusadasi for a demonstration on how the famous Turkish rugs are made.  The presentation was fascinating and the store owners very kindly provided us all with some refreshments during the showcase of the rugs.  According to the store owner, making Turkish rugs is a dying art.  Not many people know how to make them or are trained to make them any more.  In an attempt to get people trained again in the art, the government got involved and developed a program that allowed stay-at-home moms to learn the art.  They were then allowed to work from home on the rugs:)  Love it!!  I had no idea how intricate each rug could be!  One silk rug we were shown had a million knots per square meter!!  Absolutely incredible!!  My sister ended up buying a very lovely rug after some hard bargaining, then we were off on the streets again, wandering around checking out the Kusadasi for more gifts and things to buy, then back off to the ship.

On to Santorini

Back to Europe

Back in the States

I flew back into the States from Bogota, Colombia after almost a full year of traveling between Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.  I had spent most of my time in Costa Rica in the sleepy small Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo on the Southern Caribbean coast.  Coming back to the States was a bit of a shell shocker from a few perspectives.  First the amount of technology blaring in your face in the form of TVs was one thing I definitely noticed that took some getting used to again.  The second thing was the blinders were put back on.  You know, those blinders we tend to put on walking down the street, not saying hi to a soul unless you know them.  Not being present to the outside world while moving through it yet just keeping to your own world.  Those blinders… When first going to Costa Rica it literally shocked me that people would say good morning to me and acknowledge me as I walked down the streets.  Then I got used to doing the same to others as I went from place to place.  Then back in the States at first I kept my newly adopted persona of acknowledging people but was met with strange looks and no responses or people literally making a wider gap around me as they walked past.  So eventually the blinders went back on… Oh well…

Coming back to the States was a choice I made primarily because the bank account was starting to get a little low and because where I had been traveling in Colombia was getting too cold for my taste and the travel enthusiasm was just dwindling.  I went back to Houston to help house-sit my sisters place (and her two adorable dogs) as she was away quite often.  I got a job there as a bartender and server (a trade I picked up for the first time ever in Costa Rica) and stayed about 6 months or so.  Once my sister was back from her work obligations and I was no longer needed as a dog/house sitter, I moved to Key West, Florida.

I lived and worked in Key West for 10 months, saving all my pennies as much as possible (though of course I did have a little bit of a life too!) and then packed it all up and headed out traveling again.  This time the destination was Europe.  My time in Key West I’ll never forget.  And who knows, one day I may still return.  Though it isn’t the kind of place I could see myself living at permanently (there are no beaches on the island itself and it’s a little too much of a party town for my taste… If you don’t like to drink to oblivion on an almost daily basis there’s not much of a life to be had there really) I had so many amazing opportunities and met many people I consider life-long friends. It took a while to find some of these people, but I’m blessed that I did.

Key West really is a drinking town with a fishing problem.  It’s no wonder people get way too carried away there.  Tourists come for the party and as a person in the service industry we were there to provide it.  Mind you, we only dealt in the LEGAL party!  Though many tourists did come to Key West literally thinking they could do anything (it’s amazing, I seriously think people thought Key West was no longer part of the States and they could do whatever they wanted!!) and we were sometimes asked for drugs at my work from tourists, but they were always turned away.  Yes, Key West also has lots of drugs.  Go figure.  Until having lived in Costa Rica I never really realized how prevalent drugs really are.  Then from there on they literally seemed to be everywhere.  Sometimes I miss my rose colored glasses, but just like everything else in life, you can choose to be involved or you can choose not to be involved.  Everyone has a choice.

You know, as I type this up I can’t help but think that even though I really couldn’t wait to get out of Key West at the time (since there were a number of things I didn’t really like about it) it somehow grew on me and now I can say I have a little strange spot in my heart for the place.  Perhaps its also because I really enjoyed my job.  I know that’s an odd thing to say, but I really enjoyed bartending and serving; creating a positive vacation experience for tourists and such.  Anyway… that’s enough nostalgia for now!

So after leaving Key West, surprising my mom in Houston for her birthday, taking a trip out West to see family and friends in Arizona and New Mexico, then a trip to Mexico (Puerto Penasco aka Rocky Point) with my mom and finally seeing my Tennessee family back in Houston, it was time to hit the road again.  July 30th, 2014 I landed in Heathrow airport in London…

 

On to London

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