A Travellerspoint blog

Into the Bush

Bandvargarh National Park, India

semi-overcast 104 °F

One of my favorite things to do on trips is see wildlife in their native areas. Zoos contribute a lot to society by teaching people about animals in order to further conservation, but while zoos are undoubtedly important for these efforts, I think there's nothing quite like seeing animals in their natural habitat. In South America, I witnessed penguin chicks emerging in Tierra del Fuego. In Africa, I saw lions, rhinos, wild dogs, elephants, and a plethora of other animals in the vast Kruger National Park. My first trip to Asia allowed me to bathe and feed elephants who were rescued from the abuse of the carnival industry. Australia gave me the opportunity to get up close with sharks, potato cod, clown fish and a host of other wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. For our trip to India, I wanted nothing more than to see a tiger, but I knew it wouldn't be easy.

The first challenge in going to see tigers is the logistics of actually getting to the park. Since we were in Hyderabad, there were no direct flights. We had to do one of the following:
1. Take an 18 hour train to Jabalpur and then drive another three hours,
2. Take a 12 hour drive directly from Hyderabad to the park, or
3. Take a flight to Delhi then on to Jabalpur for a three hour drive.

The second challenge is permits. The Indian park system only gives out a limited number of permits each day. They give out 11 car permits for three zones, and the zone you get is entirely at random. This is advantageous since we wanted to see Tigers and not just other tourists. However, Indian VIPs (government ministers, mayors, etc.) are given priority, and you don't actually know if you are going to get a permit to go on safari until the evening before.

The third challenge is actually spotting a tiger. There are only 65 tigers in the park, and they can be incredibly elusive. One driver told me that an individual he worked for had gone to another tiger park for nine days and had not seen a single tiger. My colleague, Rasool, and many of Danielle's coworkers had flatly told us that we wouldn't see any tigers. My hubris in hand, I was determined to prove them wrong.

We elected to take the third option to get there, and after landing at Jabalpur's tiny air strip, we hopped into our hired car for the three hour drive to Tala. Tala is pretty much a wide spot in the road with only a few hundred inhabitants, but it lies at the foot of the famous Bandvargarh National Park. This is where I hoped we would see a tiger during our three day stay.

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Disembarking

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A truck on the road to Tala. Since Indians drive on the left side of the road, it's typical for cars to honk to signal a pass on the right (or flash their brights at night). All the honking can seem jarring at first, but you start to realize that it's just the way for drivers to communicate back and forth.

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A typical motorbike with the male in a collared shirt and female in a beautiful sari

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Welcome to Tiger Country

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Did I mention it was hot?

The first day started at 4:45 in the morning as we sleepily meandered towards our awaiting, open-air SUV. Our driver and guide began tracking Tigers almost immediately, but the cats remained elusive for the duration of the five hour safari. We got to see many interesting animals including peacocks, spotted dear, and monkeys, but the big cats were always one step ahead of us.

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Going on safari!

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Fresh tiger tracks spotted

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And fresh tiger marks on a tree (aka scratch post)

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And the subsequent gaggle of cars that resulted

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A commuting peacock

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A monkey, suspicious of his new observers

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Well, not for long at least

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A baby monkey looking on

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Spotted buck

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The canopy

The second day started much as the first had, 5 AM departure, rumors of tigers from park rangers, but drives to various areas turned up nothing. We actually sat for an hour with the other open air vehicles waiting for a tiger to materialize out of the bush. We waited and saw a jackal run by, a family of monkeys play with one another, and a few boars root through the weeds. After an hour of waiting at the rumored spot, still no tigers.

We cut our losses and had breakfast, we had been on safari for a cumulative time of 8.5 hours and we had seen a lot of other cool animals but no tigers were to be found. Danielle stayed positive stating that we would see one eventually, and I was like a child who didn't get the big toy. "I'm skeptical," I groused. The guide asked us to finish our breakfast because another sighting had occurred. I wolfed down my potato curry, and we were back on the hunt.

I knew this time was different because the guide told us sternly when we got in that it was very important to "hold on." He wasn't kidding. We reached about 40 mph on some of these roads, about double the speeds that we had traveled before this sighting. That may not sound fast, but when the car is completely off the ground because you are going over dirt roads at such a high speed, it definitely feels thrilling.

Still skeptical, yet adrenaline pumping, we came to a screeching halt in front of three other off-road vehicles that had made the pilgrimage. And then, the King emerged:

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The king emerges

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The cars that didn't have a driver as good as ours

He sauntered up to within 15 feet of us, and suddenly, that 8.5 hours of searching had all been worth it. Seemingly perplexed by all the vehicles, but nonchalant, he walked across the road into the bush again. Our driver quickly floored it. His knowledge of the road system became immediately apparent as we tore down the dirt road on the way to the next spot he might emerge. Within 5 minutes, the Tiger emerged again.

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This act continued one more time until the Tiger finally crossed the road once more to disappear into the bush. The ride was absolutely exhilarating, and the two flights, 3 hour drive, 8.5 hours of searching had led to a wonderful moment (or three) with the true King of the Jungle.

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Satisfied with the sighting, Danielle decided to skip the last two safaris of the trip in order to catch up on work-related tasks. The third safari allowed me to see a lot of neat birds up close, but it didn't compare to the grandeur of seeing the male tiger. Afternoon safaris are hotter, and it's less likely that you'll see animals come out of the caves or their other cool resting places.

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Spotted dear eating

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A stork on his perch

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An eagle getting some shade

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Roller scouting his next snack

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Me in the afternoon sun

On the last safari, the guide heard within 40 minutes of entering the park that tigers (plural) were spotted in the open fields. Our car sped over to the spot and saw as the tigress and her two cubs slept about 150 feet away. It was tough to capture on film since I use a rudimentary camera, but I was able to see a lot of their activity through binoculars.

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Who's interrupting my nap?

The amazing part came when the mother got up, followed by her two cubs in tow. I was able to get some great shots of the two cubs walking together, and it felt like the perfect moment to conclude our journey into the land of tigers.

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Mom waiting for her cubs

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The first cub emerges

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And both go off to join Mom

Posted by mbeymer 23:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

City of Pearls

Hyderabad, India

sunny 98 °F

The next destination on the journey was Hyderabad, a city in the center of India that is famous for its pearls, diamonds, and delicious Biryani. More recently, the city has become India's home to a plethora of Western companies from Deloitte to Google to Novartis. I only had a little bit more than 48 hours in the city, and after some much needed sleep, I ventured out on Thursday to see what it had to offer.

The first stop of the day was the Qutb Shahi Tombs, final resting place of seven kings and their wives. The tombs are situated across a sprawling complex in Hyderabad, and they were built at various times between 1518 CE and 1687 CE. They were in various states of repair due to ongoing refurbishment, and some looked very new while others looked like they had been left to the elements in the five centuries since they had been built.

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Tomb with a reflecting pool at the base

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Another tomb, not yet restored

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A tomb in the middle of being refurbished

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The inside of the refurbished tomb

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Another recently completed

The second stop was Golkanda fort, the capital of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. The fort is unique because of a collection of clever engineering marvels. The main gate is almost a perfect right angle, this design was used in order to prevent war elephants from having enough room to charge and topple the gate. The base of the fort has a large atrium where soldiers could simply clap if an invading army was approaching, and the sound of the clap could be heard at the top of the fort, one kilometer away. The halls were designed so that wind could be funneled to the interior of the fort during the oppressive summer heat, forming an early version of an air conditioning system. Lastly, the fort had an intricate network of pipes that allowed the fort to continue to get water from four surrounding lakes during weeks where invading armies would lay siege to the outside of the fort. Golkanda is also famous because it once housed the Hope Diamond in its vaults.

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The main courtyard

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The hallway leading up to the top

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The massive boulders surrounding the fort, a defining feature of Hyderabad

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A view from the other side

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The King's quarters can be seen at the top

As we traveled back to the hotel, my driver recounted an interesting legend about the Indian king, Jai Singh. In 1920, he went for a walk in London in his civilian clothes and came across a Rolls Royce dealership. He tried to ask the salesman questions about the cars on display, but the British salesman took one look at the Indian man in plain clothes and escorted him out the door.

He went back to his hotel room, changed into Royal garb, and instructed his servants to call the dealership and inform them that the Maharaja of Alwar in Rajasthan was interested in coming to the store to purchase a car (after researching the story in more detail, the legend may actually be about King Nizam of Hyderabad, but all the other details hold true). He returned to the store, dressed in full royal attire, and a red carpet awaited him with a full team of salesman. He paid for six cars in cash and instructed them to be shipped immediately to India.

This is where the story gets interesting. He converted all of the cars to garbage collection trucks because of the initial salesman's slight, and word quickly spread back to Britain that luxury cars were being used as garbage trucks in India. The revenue of Rolls Royce plummeted because previously interested buyers began looking down on the company because they knew that India used the cars to collect trash. When Rolls Royce realized its mistake, they sent a telegram to the king and apologized profusely. The company offered to give him six more cars for free in order to make up for the way he had been treated. Satisfied with the proposed reparation, the Indian king accepted the gift and stopped using the cars for trash collection.

That evening, I rendezvoused with the Deloitte staff to watch a friendly game of cricket. Cricket is the national sport of India (they are about as passionate about it as Americans are about the NFL), and this was my opportunity to learn a bit more about the game. It's amazingly similar to baseball except there are only two innings, the bat is flat instead of round, each team pitches a set number of times (instead of having outs), and two batters take turns hitting. The star players on each team were the ladies, and the two stars each accounted for the lion share of their respective team's runs. In the end, Danielle's team made a good showing but lost the match 98-94.

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Danielle getting warmed up for her Deloitte cricket game

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The star player of the Red team

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And her star counterpart for the Grey team

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Graceful even in defeat

Day 2 in Hyderabad started out with a trip to the Sudha Cars museum in the south of the city. I had heard about a man named K. Sudhakar who built his first bike when he was 14 and, soon after, decided to try to make abstract things into motorized vehicles. I will let the pictures speak for themselves, but ALL of these cars actually work and can get you from point A to B. The comfort and street legality of said cars is still up for debate.

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Arriving at the museum

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The world's largest tricycle

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It was definitely wacky

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The lipstick car can go up to 18 mph on a 60 cc engine, and it took five months to build and was completed in 2012. The bag car can go up to 31 mph on a 100 cc engine, and the construction took 14 months

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Stiletto car

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Sofa car

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My favorite, the toilet car!

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Camera car

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I want Windows XP back

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Nice car, but probably tough to park

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A fellow warrior in public health

My last site was a Hindu temple called Birla Mandir. The temple was constructed and 1976 and is made completely out of marble, 2,000 tons of it! The murals, statues, and shrines are all carved into the facade. They strictly prohibited cameras, so I was only really able to get one good shot of it before entering (see below). The craftsmanship is stunning, and I spent a lot of time looking at the detail of each of the murals. I really wish I was able to show pictures of this amazing site, but alas, those of you interested in this architecture will have to make the journey yourselves. Together with the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, I feel incredibly lucky to have seen two remarkable places of worship on this trip so far.

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Birla Mandir

My trip to Hyderabad was short, but it is definitely worth visiting should you find yourself in India. Off to Bandhavgarh, more to come soon!

Posted by mbeymer 08:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

Do Buy

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

sunny 97 °F

This vacation wasn't exactly planned. Early in March, Danielle got an email from someone way high up at her company that they needed a rotator in India. Her company, Deloitte, has a program where US staff and India staff rotate to each other's countries in an effort to build bridges and cultural understanding. Danielle loves working with the Indian staff of Deloitte, and I told her unequivocally she should do it. Within four weeks, she was on a plane to Hyderabad, the tech capitol of India. I told her that I would meet her after her eight week stint was concluded, and we would travel around and see the sites in India. Our friends John and Brianne had done something similar after John's rotation in India, and we decided to follow in their footsteps.

Danielle flew business class on Emirates, and I had always wanted to fly with the airline because they have a program where you can stay in their hub of Dubai for up to a week for the same cost as a direct flight. After daily Kayak searches for about two weeks, I got a round trip flight to Hyderabad WITH a 5 day stopover in Dubai for the low cost of $983. And so we start the first chapter of this journey in the Middle East.

This is my first trip to the region, and the more I travel, the more I realize it is the best education someone can get. As someone who refused to leave school for a quarter of a century, I know of what I speak. The differences are often enlightening, but as I travel to more places, I have started to see similarities in ways you would not readily expect when traveling to a different part of the world. In the spirit of keeping it interesting, I'll start with the similarities first and then we'll dive into the differences.

The United Arab Emirates is a country located between Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf. While it sounds exotic, aspects are shockingly similar to Southern California. I'll be more specific. It's Irvine. The place is spotless, the crime rate is ridiculously low, the per capita income is high, religiosity is high, and what is there to do? Malls. Lots and lots of malls. Just think of Irvine and replace "traditional clothes" with burkas. Allow me to present my case.

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Look who I found!

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Like I said, same mall, different clothes

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It looks like the abomination of frozen yogurt has also reached this corner of the world

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The same food court as every mall ever

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And they even have the same damn Ferris wheel in Irvine!

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Just a glimpse at how massive the malls really are

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The Dubai Mall is so big that they actually have little red taxis that take people around to different spots

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Urban decor

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Standard mall chandelier

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Quick! What's the first thing you think of when I say "desert"? If you're answer was ice rink, I agree.

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A ski slope IN THE MALL

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The waterfall in the Dubai Mall

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I've been looking for this store my entire life!

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Atrium

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Good life advice

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Ferrari hand bags

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Okay, this was admittedly different

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And making good on my promise, I went to see X-Men Apocalypse a week before it came out in the US, but in 4D!

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Watching a 4DX movie is kind of like riding the Indiana Jones ride, but for 2.5 hours

I go to malls for the same reason I get pedicures: there is a clear need or I was dragged by someone else. In the case of this trip, I went out of sheer curiosity since it honestly seems to be the national pastime of the UAE. I went to three malls in three days, enough to keep me out of them for the next 10 years, but it was fascinating to see how wealth seems to have the same inevitable result, regardless of country.

That being said, there are definitely unique features of the UAE. The Dubai Mall has its own aquarium which is curated quite well. The exhibits are fun and informative, and there are some animals I've never yet seen before.

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At the Dubai Aquarium

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Tick tock

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Jellies

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Do you see him?

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Carnivores

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A yet unidentified animal

Dubai is also home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, at 2,717 feet. Construction took less than 10 years and was funded by the country's massive oil wealth. Although it was completed recently, reports show that Azerbaijan is in process of building a skyscraper that is a full 700 feet taller.

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The burj in the waning hours

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The Burj Khalifa through the bridge lattice

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Chandelier at the top of the Burj Khalifa

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A view of downtown from 124 stories up

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And the Arabian Sea in the distance

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The actual top

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Hold on to those sun glasses

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The evening fountain show at the foot of the Burj

This is not the only massive structure that the city boasts. The city is seemingly filled with cranes, tractors, and endless caravans of construction workers. The hotel I stayed out was located on an artificial island that was made to look like a palm tree. I had seen it on "Modern Marvels" years ago and knew I had to stay there at least once. The resort was impressive, but it was hard to actually see the palm image that can seen from the satellites (see map below). The rationale behind the building boom is that the country is trying to diversify its investments beyond oil wealth. The sheer volume of sky scrappers was impressive, and it will be interesting to see if this boom ends up going bust.


Satellite view of the Palm Island, you may need to zoom out a bit

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The living room of our Palm apartment

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What's the thread count on that?

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Classy

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I thought it would be criminal to NOT take a bath in that thing

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The Burj Khalifa from the hotel

After a relaxing weekend, Danielle flew back to India to finish the last week of her rotation. I woke up early for a full day tour of Abu Dhabi, the largest Emirate (think of it like a State in the US). Abu Dhabi is the richest Emirate, and it accounts for over 80% of the land area of the country.

Before the UAE was the wealthy state it is today, it was a collection of fishing villages along the Arabian cost. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were inhabited by Bedouin camel herders, and the main income was through the fish trade. It obtained it's independence from Britain in 1971, and within 10 years, black gold was discovered under the sands of the sleepy nation. The King at the time, Sheikh Zayed, used the wealth to modernize the country, investing heavily in infrastructure projects.

One of the latest projects is a mosque that began construction in 1999 and finished in 2009. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was built to house over 40,000 worshipers at one time: 30,000 in the outdoor courtyard and 10,000 within the mosque itself. I've only seen a few structures in my life that have made me so awestruck (the White Temple in Thailand and Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico City are just two that come to mind), and this was definitely added to the very short list.

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The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

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The main domes

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Reflecting pool in the front

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One of the four minarets, the top is 24 karat gold

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The courtyard used for Friday prayer

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The sconces that resemble palm trees

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Capturing the shadows

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Foyer chandelier

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One of three massive Faustig chandeliers, this one weighs 12 tons

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You can also see the largest hand woven rug in the world below

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Beautiful copies of the Quran

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A lotus rendering

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Another of the seven chandeliers, the total cost of these chandeliers was about 8.2 million US dollars

The mosque was really the highlight of the day trip, but we went to some other assorted sites that were fun to check out. I didn't learn anything spectacular, so I'll keep my rambling short here and just present some other pictures which may be of interest.

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Abu Dhabi skyline

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The King's Palace

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The nation's flag over the waterfront

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A mural of the king made entirely out of postage stamps

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Hmmm, I know this guy

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Fountain art

The last adventure on this stop was a trip to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to ride a camel and then....eat said camel. A van picked me up from my hotel and shuttled me off to the foot of the preserve where I met up with my fellow travelers to venture into the Bedouin-style camps. We saddled up and then we slowly meandered through the desert on the way to the camp. The camel ride was very serene, and I couldn't get the theme from the Playstation game, "Uncharted," out of my head. I met a cool pair of couples from England and Switzerland, and we mused about soccer, terrible airlines (we collectively decided their was a tie between Ryan Air and Spirit Airlines), and our respective terrible politicians. If there's a common theme to bond with fellow travelers, it's sport and loathing of politicians.

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"Sallah, I said NO camels!"

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I already realize how ridiculous I look, and I don't care

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The camels with the park brake on

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Camel-ho!

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Surveying the land

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Silhouettes on the dunes

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It had cooled down to a balmy 95 degrees

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Camel, the other, other, other white meat

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Sunset over the camp

The most intriguing parts of the UAE are probably what's not readily seen. As someone who likes to travel internationally, it behooves me to be educated about world affairs. For this reason, I didn't go into the UAE blind, I knew they had a lot of human rights violations, freedom of speech/press are non-existent, and numerous foreigners have been disappeared for comments that may cause "instability." My goal was to talk to the people of the UAE and get their side of things. The only problem was that I didn't actually meet anyone from the UAE, and it wasn't for lack of trying.

I was in the country for four days, and I met people from the Philippines, Brazil, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Angola, Yemen, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. I did not meet ONE person who was actually from the UAE (other than the scowling woman at immigration control, let's not count her). I'm usually able to get some kind of testimonials when I'm in a new country, but no one would comment on the labor practices or the rationale for continuing to build so many towers when large portions of already existing skyscrapers seemed vacant. Seemingly in the dark, I had to put the pieces together myself using known data and my own personal observations, Thomas Bayes would be proud.

Foreign workers outnumber individuals in the UAE by a factor of 9 to 1. The natives, or Emirati, actually refuse to hold service sector jobs because they view the service sector as below them. Approximately 80% of Emirati work for the government and the majority of the remaining 20% work for state-owned operations (finance, oil, etc.). The only time I saw them was in the mall drinking coffee with one another or shopping in very high-end stores, probably a symptom of having the world's 7th largest per capita income (that's three spots above the United States). Given that the tallest building in the world was built in six years, and the observation that construction was seemingly proceeding 24/7 while I was there, it was easy to see firsthand the abuse of foreign workers in building this new haven for the super-rich.

As Aldous Huxley once said, "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." After experiencing the spotless malls, impeccable hospitality, engineering marvels, and seemingly endless towers, I left the country with the guilt that I had propagated the system. Instead of advancing a nation through innovation and social progress, the nation had become prosperous on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised. I doubt I will return to the small oasis in the desert, but I may one day in order to see what becomes of this new Tower of Babel.

Posted by mbeymer 02:05 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

Fhloston Paradise

Nacula Island, Yasawa Island Chain, Fiji

sunny 85 °F

"The Fifth Element" is one of my all-time favorite movies. Director Luc Besson weaves a wonderful tale of the ultimate battle between good and evil, and how ex-soldier Korben Dallas, and woman-of-unknown origin Leeloo, can save the planet in the 23rd century. In one scene, Korben and Leeloo need to travel to a vacation resort to meet a contact who will ultimately help them in their quest. In order to keep a low profile, they pose as a just-married couple and travel to the chic destination of Fhloston Paradise. Every time I think of a just-married couple traveling to a resort, Fhloston Paradise is what comes to mind. Fiji wasn't too different. Well... minus Chris Tucker and the whole good and evil thing.

That being said, resorts are not my first choice for a destination. I have trouble relaxing and instead spend most of my time jumping off of cliffs, trekking through strange terrain, or doing some other crazy activity. Danielle had the foresight to see that we need to actually relax on our honeymoon and recommended we make our final stop in Fiji. Since the purpose was relaxation, we picked a resort that was reasonable in price and offered lots of activities.

It took a full day of travel to get to Fiji from Queenstown. When we arrived in Nadi, we took a taxi to a seaport about 15 minutes away from the airport to take our very first seaplane. The pilot greeted us and brought our bags out to the dock. The flight had a total of five people, including the pilot, and we had to warm up the engines before taking off.

For those of you who are flying enthusiasts, the plane was called a Beaver and was built in the 1950s. The engine was actually from a World War II plane, and you could tell that the plane had definitely gotten its share of use. The pilot told me that he had been flying planes since he lived in Canada, and he had come out to Fiji for a year to experience a different part of the world. Although he only had two months of flying experience over the islands, he piloted the craft like he had flown over these islands his whole life. The take-offs and landings were equal parts bumpy and exhilarating. The "exhilarating" was mostly because you didn't know if a plane from the middle of last century was going to hold up on each ascent/descent. In total, we made three stops, one to drop off the first couple, a second to drop off cargo, and a third to drop us off at our resort. The experience was so fun that I added "learn to fly a seaplane" to my bucket list.

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The plane on its runway

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Our pilot, Evan

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The rudimentary controls

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The much newer GPS

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Looks like this lettering was added later on

Once we arrived, he informed us that he would be staying at the hotel too since we no longer had any daylight left. In the United States, we typically fly large planes at all hours and red-eye flights are quite common. I had not thought about it, but with such small planes and low light pollution from the islands, the loss of daylight effectively meant that flights were over for the day. After disembarking the plane (tray tables up!), we boarded a small boat and shot across the Turtle Island channel to the Blue Lagoon Resort as the sun faded on the horizon.

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Our flight window closes

Our accommodation was a hut nestled in the back of the Blue Lagoon resort. We were also lucky enough to be at a hotel with its own dive shop (this wasn't planned) with plenty of dives to take throughout the area. The beach even had its own reef teeming with sea life. This phenomenon is not typical at resorts as some tourists often damage the reefs by walking on them or unnecessarily touching the coral. With the beautiful resort, the dive options, and the nice reef, we knew we had picked the right spot. Okay, Danielle picked the right spot, no credit for me on this one.

We just relaxed the first day, deciding to snorkel in the morning, take a cooking class in the afternoon and read at night. We met a great pair of friends, Steve and Bailey, who had met in Galveston, and despite living apart, had managed to travel together a lot. Wildly enough, they have been on a cruise with a woman named Linda Beymer (not my mom, but someone with the same name), and Bailey had recognized my name through some work he had done with UC San Diego.

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Our hut

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The resident feline who looked a lot like our cat, Lexi

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Dive sites!

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The beach view

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The other beach view

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Yeah, this should have enough to keep us busy

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The reef off the beach of the resort

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Going to school

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The chef demonstrating Kokoda

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The finished product

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Drinking kava for the first time (tasted minty)

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Danielle, Bailey, and Steve

After a day of relaxation, we decided to do a couple of dives on the island chain. The first dive took us to to site called Chapel which is known for its shark encounters, and we were able to see a couple of reef sharks and bull sharks. We also got to see a moray eel that I almost touched by accident, thankfully I got to keep all ten fingers.

The next dive of the day took us to a pinnacle dive called Tom's Thumb. We got to see a spider crab and a neat type of coral the locals called "magic coral." It was magic because the coral normally appeared purple. However, when it was touched with a dive pencil or some other object, it would magically change from purple to white (see the video below). Danielle and I agreed that it was one of the coolest things that we had seen on the trip. I was also continuing to improve my buoyancy and oxygen conservation, effectively ditching the mermaid arms and getting 47 minutes out of my oxygen tank. Danielle had a well-deserved massage afterwards and decided to continue the trend for each day on the trip with the exception of the Friday slot which she generously bestowed to me. :)

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Yep, the dive boat was named "Tanked"

Sharks!

Magic Coral! - you may have to view this in full screen to get a good view of the color change.

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Thank you, Kaylie and Dave, Ashu and Runa, and Tyler for the spa time!

The Blue Lagoon Resort is famous for its proximity to the filming locations for the Brooke Shields Movie, "The Blue Lagoon." One of the most iconic scenes in the movie takes place in a cave at the end of the island chain. The resort offered snorkel trips to the area, and Danielle and I signed up for the snorkel excursion. The 20 minute boat ride drops you at the foot of the cave, and the guide allowed us to swim around the main chamber. Then he took a few of the more intrepid travelers into another cave that you actually had to swim underwater to reach (see the video below)! Danielle and I decided to go, and since it was the day before Halloween, the guide decided to make a few spooky noises with the lights out to terrify everyone. Halloween, island-style.

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A GoPro picture of the cave in the Brook Shields movie, "The Blue Lagoon" - thank you to Al and Keri for the awesome GoPro Hero4!

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Another shot

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One more perspective

Going into the second chamber of the cave complex

At the end of our day, we took a sunset cruise out to view some of the other islands in the island chain. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves on this one.

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The clouds and the mountains

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The island at the end of "The Blue Lagoon"

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The sun beginning its descent

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Off the bow

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The last remnants

Although the island wasn't very big, the resort offered a nice guided hike up to the highest mountain on the island on Saturday morning. Danielle and I took the two-hour hike and got some great views from the top. It was neat to be on a mountaintop where one side of the mountain was raining, but the other side was clear.

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The gathering storm

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The resort from the mountaintop

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Danielle on the trail

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The other side of the island from the mountaintop

We also got to try our hand at hand line fishing - think regular fishing but without the rod. The experience was eerily familiar for me, sitting there on a boat and no fishes taking the bait. The guide took pity on my dour expression and hooked a fish on a line for me, called me over, and I got to experience the thrill of pulling out my first fish. I tried to set it free, but after failing numerous times, we classified it as a keeper.

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Look, Al, Matt caught a fish! (well, let's be honest, the guide put it on the line and let me reel it in)

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And Danielle caught....Coral!

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Fiji's take on Halloween

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Another tough day at the office

On our last full day on the island, we decided to take two more dives, bringing our dive count to 16 for Matt and 15 for Danielle in the South Pacific. We dove the Tuvewa Pass and Cabbage Patch. The first dive treated us to views of a sleeping reef shark and a really neat black and white sea snake. The second dive was incredible because of the large formations of coral that resembled a cabbage patch. The video doesn't do it justice, but it was truly incredible!

Snakes, it had to be snakes

The beautiful Cabbage Patch

Since it was our last night, we decided to splurge and get the beach side lobster dinner for the evening. We were given a delicious shrimp cocktail for the starter a platter of lobster, shrimp, mahi mahi, oysters, and crab for our main course. The meal was absolutely massive and probably the best seafood that I've had outside of Mozambique. We even got to see a great sunrise while we ate our meal. I thought it was the perfect way to end such a special trip.

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A view from our table on the beach

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The feast!

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Enjoying our final dinner on the island

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Thank you Frank and Shannon for the boat back! (well, our jobs thank you, we would be okay staying here :))

In total, we traveled through 3 countries in 22 days, by 11 different flights, with 16 dives, 3 snorkeling trips, 3 multi-hour day hikes, and a 10 kilometer kayak trip. This was definitely a honeymoon to remember, and this will probably be our biggest trip for a long time. Thank you to everyone for following us along on our journey, and I'll let you know the next time we head back out on the road for another adventure.

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Bringing the blog to the people from Fiji - so long for now!

Posted by mbeymer 23:05 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Detour

Queenstown, Wanaka, Hawea, Te Anau, Milford Sound, and the South Island

sunny 40 °F

Anyone who travels a good amount will tell you that being a smart traveler takes planning, research, and adaptability. As those of you who have followed me on previous adventures know, my trips usually involve countries where English is not the primary language, the land is treacherous to get over, and as shown recently in the last post, the activities are not for the faint of heart. The original plan on coming to the South Island of New Zealand was to spend a day in Queenstown and then head out early the next day for the three-day, 25 mile Routeburn hike. This particular hike does not require any technical equipment, but you do need to a baseline level of fitness to pack your belongings and camping gear through the mountains from one site to the next.

Sometimes the weather cooperates on these journeys, and sometimes it doesn't. I was monitoring the weather very closely for the three weeks prior to this stop, and there were forecasts of sleet, snow, and high winds. I kept checking hoping it would let up, but a few days before we arrived on the South Island, there were five "considerable" avalanche paths that were on the track with an advisory that "avalanche skills are essential." While I like to hike, I have zero avalanche skills, and it's not worth the danger of facing a force of nature that usually always bests the humans on the other side. We checked the weather each day all the way until the day we flew in, and there had been no change. We decided to be smart travelers, let the data inform our decision, and modify our plans on the South Island.

Our back-up plan included renting a car and doing various day hikes throughout the South Island. After taking a truly picturesque flight from Auckland to Queenstown, and a quick trip to the sweet shop in the airport, we walked over to the car rental place to book our transport.

This would normally be something rather pedestrian in the United States, but Kiwis drive on the left side of the road and use roundabouts. On top of that, most of the cars are manual transmissions. Since Danielle is not yet equipped to drive a manual transmission, that left me with the driving duties. I had driven on the left side of the road with my friend Susanna Baker in Southern Africa, but it had been about six years and I was a tad rusty. Thankfully, the biggest mistake I made was turning on the windshield wipers when I actually intended to signal for a turn and initially going below the speed limit to the ire of the locals.

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Amazing views from 30,000 feet. Thank you to Adam and Tanya for the flight!

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Wait, wait, is that called "farts"?

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Danielle standing next to our steel chariot

We slowly got to our hotel, windshield much cleaner, and were absolutely astounded by the views. After we gawked at the views for a good amount of time, we took the ski lift up to the top of the mountain and took in even more panoramic sites. The top of the mountain had the usual trappings of any ski resort, shop, restaurant, and patio for eating. This one was unique in that it also had a luge slide for adventure seekers. Mind you, this isn't the luge in the Olympics where people slide like madmen/women down a slide at ridiculous speeds. This luge set-up was concrete and had little soapbox cars (ironic given the last post) that you used to pilot yourself down the track. Think of it like Mario Kart, except using the power of gravity. Danielle and I decided to give it a try, and we smiled like kids the whole way down it was so fun. We collected the obligatory photo, she made fun of how slow I went (MUCH slower), and then we progressed back down the mountain.

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The view from our hotel room - Thank you, Alyssa and Emad!

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The room itself

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View from the top of the mountain behind Queenstown

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Us at the top

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The luge track

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Have you ever seen more childlike happiness?

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The ski resort also randomly had a Jelly Belly store, and this portrait was just outside the store

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A view from the restaurant at dinner

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Sunset from our room

The next day, we drove an hour north to the town of Wanaka based on recommendations from Raphy Landovitz and Judy Currier. Each had recommended this city in separate conversations, and if we couldn't complete the original hike, I thought we would be sure to find some great hikes in this area. We went to a place called Rippon Winery when we got into town and Danielle got to try a number of pinot noirs from the region. She bought a bottle, and we sat out by the vineyards with a cheese plate and enjoyed the views.

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Good morning, Queenstown!

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Matt trying marmite (New Zealand's version of veggemite), it was equally terrible

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On the road to Wanaka

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The summit

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Sampling the local flavor. Thank you, Brett Daly and Wendy Ventuleth!

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With our cheese plate and the bottle of wine for Danielle

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The view from the vineyards

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An old truck parked at the vineyard

We made our way over to a place called Diamond Lake for a nice hike that locals reported had a good view of Lake Wanaka. Danielle getting over her cold, and me on my first full day of having a cold, slowly lumbered up the pass. We took a good number of breaks to take in the views and clear our nasal passages and made it to the summit an hour and a half later. The hike had great views on a relatively clear day, and a beautiful wind spectacle across one of the lakes (see video).

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We had to climb up more steps than Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Vol. 2

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Danielle looks like she hates me in this picture

The wind making it's way across the lake's surface

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The lookout point

We next went about 15 minutes northeast of Wanaka to a town called Lake Hawea. The wind was blowing fiercely through the mountain pass making waves across the lake. We thought Hawea was even prettier than Wanaka and took a thirty minute stroll along the shores. We collectively decided that this adventure was turning out great and prematurely made retirement plans for the area.

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The multiple shades of blue of Lake Hawea

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The mountains behind Lake Hawea

Dinner that night came courtesy of a restaurant called Federal, located in the middle of tiny Wanaka. The chef made us fish tacos that were better than anything I have ever had in San Diego (sacrilege for some of you reading this, but true), a very smooth shrimp curry, and a nice pan-seared sol with asparagus. I also had this amazing drink called Black Currant which resembled a blackberry soda.

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Fish tacos

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Shrimp curry

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Pan-seared sol

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Black Currant, I'm definitely going to try to find this when I get to the United States

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Lake Wanaka

The next day, we traveled from Wanaka to the town of Te Anau in the Southwestern part of the island. The drive took about three hours, and we pulled over more than a few times so that I could play tourist. Once we got there, the illness that Danielle initially picked up had hit me full force. I had to take a nap I was so tired, and awoke three hours later for dinner. Since I was not a fan of moving much at that point, we decided to walk over to the local cinema and see "The Martian." The movie theater had roomy seats and was packed with mostly locals, but I did notice a man wearing a shirt that said "UC San Diego Dad." I asked about his son, and he had graduated from Revelle College as a biology major in 2008, same as I had. It never ceases to amaze me how small of a world we live in.

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The road to Te Anau

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Date night!

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Danielle with her popcorn, ice cream, and pinot noir = happy lady

Determined to see more of the South Island, despite my sickness, I signed us up for a six mile kayak trip on the Milford Sound the next day. The drive is about two hours north of Te Anau, and it takes you past wonderful scenery. We went through a tunnel that was terrifying since you actually could not see the light on the other side, and it was poorly lit. It reminded me of Indiana Jones going through the abandoned mine shaft in "The Temple of Doom." Once we got to the other side, breath-taking panoramas surrounded us, similar to the feeling of coming around the bend to get one's first glimpse of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Although the scenery was amazing, the trip wasn't a smart idea in my condition. We were barely keeping up with the group, but the tour guide was very kind and patient with us. I would definitely recommend Roscoe's Kayak Adventures, but you do need to be in shape (and not sick) to maximize your fun on this experience.

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The road to Milford Sound

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The sun cresting over the horizon

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This tunnel was terrifying

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And the award for the most stylish outfit goes to....

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A view of Milford Sound from the Kayak

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Bowen Falls

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The clouds lifting

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Waterfalls trickling down the mountain

We decided to spend our last day in the area hiking the first leg of the Routeburn Track. This is the one spot that did not have avalanche warnings, and we did the three hour hike up to Key Summit. The sky was definitely not as clear as the day of our kayak adventure, but we enjoyed the walk as the wind whipped around the mountainside.

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There's that avalanche warning again

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The hike

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Thank you, Mike Parsons, Jim Booth, and Mark McGrath for the hikes!

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The road to the top

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Danielle at the top of Key Summit

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Lake Marion in the distance

Our visit to the South Island consisted of two days of hiking and one day of kayaking had thoroughly tested our bodies. Although our original plans hadn't worked out the way we planned, we got to see Wanaka and Hawea, kayak the Milford Sound, and see a lot more of the South Island than we had originally planned. In total, we traveled 990 kilometers, or about 615 miles, on our road trip. This is roughly the equivalent of going one way from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. We both agreed that our back-up plan ended up being better than the original plan, and we promised each other we would be back.

I began this post talking about what it entails to be a smart traveler. While back-up plans are essential, a good attitude is equally important. The original plan didn't work out, we adapted, and we had a great time all the same since we were determined to have fun no matter what. Sometimes the detour in life ends up being the course your were meant to take all along.

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The end of our unexpected journey - off to Fiji!

Posted by mbeymer 21:08 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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