“What are all those people doing out in the street?” asked Julia. “Uuh, I don’t know, but that has to be one of the most impressive groups of rubberneckers I have ever seen in my life” I commented as we wandered down the well-worn streets of Georgetown on Penang Island, Malaysia. Dozens ambled up and down the sidewalk, even more in the street, all staring down the road like a flaming car had just crashed into a fireworks store Naked Gun style. Before I decided to wade into the crowd and tell them “there’s nothing to see here” like Lt. Frank Drebin, I decided to ask an shirtless older gentleman gawker just what the heck was going on. During our brief but confusing English-Malay conversation, the only thing I could make out in his response was the word “shaking” and an accompanying hand motion. There were obviously only two possibilities. Either he was a proud member of the Eddie Money fan club like my friend Tim from college or something was literally shaking. Either way, we didn’t think much of it and continued home to our air-conditioned igloo. Yeah, so it turns out there had actually been an earthquake.

Back in the room and oblivious to the impending doom surrounding us, I opened my computer and got down to some serious business. And by serious business, I mean a check and re-check of Facebook, Twitter, and St. Louis Blues news. I always circle back to CNN though, just to check if anything major in the world has happened because I hate to be out of the loop on breaking news.  Well, this time I was in the middle of the loop, as news of an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia and the threat of a potential tsunami in the surrounding region which included Penang Island was splashed in red and yellow at the top of the site.

obliviously admiring my iced coffee

Early information seemed to indicate that the risk was minimal, but as it is with these situations conflicting information was flying back and forth on the internet fast and furiously. Alleged breaking news saying everything from "a twin tsunami of the catastrophic 2004 wave was certain to hit Penang at 10 PM sharp" to "all is safe, go fly a kite on the beach" came across my laptop screen. Through the news maelstrom, I stayed calm with one thought above all others bobbing in a thought bubble above my head:  please God don’t let my Mom hear about this earthquake! All this craziness was occurring in the middle of the night in America, so there was a fighting chance she wouldn't find out. But then the emails came in from my Dad and my sister, and I had to respond . I managed to massage the facts and downplay the doomsday news that they were hearing as much as I could to ensure by time the news got eventually back to my Mom, the potential tsunami heading my way was no more than a two inch wave in a kiddie pool.

proceed as planned Penang

Luckily a few hours and one jarring aftershock later, the virtual all clear was called. I chalked it up to one more travel right of passage passed and practice at putting on a calm face in the event something "crazy" ever really happens out here. Now I know very well that the odds of slipping on a roller skate at the top of the stairs or choking on a chicken wing at home is still a much more likely cause of my demise than a natural disaster abroad, but it can't hurt to be prepared, just in case, right? Oh, and if you are reading this Mom, please disregard that whole thing about the aftershock being jarring, it was no big deal,  and the more I think about it was more of a gentle rocking back-and-forth.

"Shakin'" by Eddie Money
Album: No Control

My First Bite Of Asia

Yeah, so I’m in Asia now. Southeast Asia in Malaysia to be precise. There’s been a running joke on this trip, and it goes a little something like this: “so, we go to ______ tomorrow, that’s really the start of the trip”.  In other words, this is where the travel training wheels come off and to borrow a line from the opening sequence of the MTV reality show The Real World,  “this is where people stop being polite and start getting real”.  We said it when we left St. Louis for Vegas, ‘cause you know, I was leaving home. We said it again when we left Vegas for Fiji, because I was leaving the U.S.  Well, this time I think it finally applies, and I am happy to report that we have traded in our bicycle with travel training wheels for a motorbike and are happily buzzing down the crowded streets of Southeast Asia.

Digging right in to Malaysia

I’ll admit right off the top that Asia is not somewhere I stared up at on the map as a kid dreaming about visiting one day. In fact, if you would have known me as a kid and known how picky I was about food, you wouldn’t believe that I am actually here at all, and eating at street food stalls everyday no less. No, Asia is a place that slowly stewed in my pot of travel plans over the last couple years when I really started to think seriously about  literally traveling “around the world“.

Asia. What do you think of when you see the that word? Where do you think of when you see or hear that word? Personally, my brain turns into a slot machine spinning countries, cities, customs, and food a mile-a-minute. It goes a little something like this for me: Japan - Singapore - Spicy Food - Vietnam - Islands - Tuk Tuks - China- Crazy Loud Traffic - The Great Wall - Thailand - Hong Kong - Temples - Rice Paddies - Dragons. I mean, where do you even start? Well, for some reason I always had a gut feeling it would start for me in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and sure enough it has. KL, as its usually referred to, has been the perfect place to take my shoes off before entering and get my feet wet. Not as chaotic and as intimidating as I tend to imagine a place like Bangkok to be, but still a fascinating and friendly mix of modernity & development, cultures, religion, and food. Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures and food being the most prominent and Islam being the predominant religion.

After arriving at four in the morning at the modern and sleek Kuala Lumpur International Airport, we proceeded downtown via express train and got our first views of Malaysia.  It was early, and it was muggy out there, but what I could see through the steamed windows was exciting. The roads looked different, the highway signs were in a language I had never seen before in person, and even the cars looked different. We found our guesthouse and went straight to bed, only being awaken by the call to prayer being broadcast over the loud speaker at the local mosque. We spent our first few days in KL just getting acclimated to the heat, the streets, and the culture. My biggest fear on this trip was that the heat in Southeast Asia would be so overbearing and oppressive that it would partly ruin the experience. I am happy to report that it honestly hasn’t been half as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, it is hot and humid, but night time is almost always pleasant and when the frequent showers pour down, it’s usually followed by cool breezes. Truth be told, I cannot remember being as miserable here as I usually am at points during the summer in St. Louis. Has there been any culture shock? Again, not really an issue to this point. Sure, some of the smells from the hot puddles of God knows what on some streets took some getting used to, but it’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before on Bourbon St. in New Orleans.  Kuala Lumpur is a huge city, and that’s just going to happen.

Asia ... creepin'!

Probably my favorite moment of the first few days were honestly those times when that call to prayer was being broadcast over the speakers of the mosque somewhere near our guesthouse. It always seemed to come during  a break in the otherwise boisterous city noise. I have never heard it before in person, and just hearing it was the true sign to me that yes, the training wheels are off, and that I am really on the other side of the world in a whole different culture, and that my friends is why you travel!

Zero To Sydney In Sixty Seconds

Australia was never really a blip on our trip radar. Not to say we didn’t want to get there eventually. Of course we did, it just didn’t seem like the right time right now. That all changed when our route to Malaysia landed us in Sydney for a solitary night. Now while our visit to Sydney lasted a mere thirty hours, we managed to make the most of it. How did we do that? I am glad you asked.

Saving in Sydney

Sydney has a reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world, so saving Australian dollars where you can is paramount. We did this right off the plane by saving on airport transportation with a little help from the Sydney Wikipedia page. Train transport into the city is usually around $16 a person due to an airport gate fee levied on trains leaving SYD. But by taking a twenty minute walk outside of the airport along a scenic river, we were able to get into the city center via the Wolli Creek station for only $4.20 per person. Not only did this adventure save us money, it actually felt like we were on some sort of travel treasure hunt, and when we arrived downtown we had already gained a bit of familiarity with the city.

Sunset from the terrace at the Sydney Harbour YHA

Location, Location, Location

So, where are you going to stay on a layover? Sure, you could stay out by the airport, but those places are never really fun and you usually aren't going to see the really good stuff. We knew if we were going to have a fighting chance at feeling like we experienced Sydney we had to stay down in the thick of things. We ended up staying in The Rocks area at the Sydney Harbour YHA. We had seen the views of the Harbour Bridge & Sydney Opera House from the rooftop terrace on their website, but couldn’t actually believe the sights were as sweet as they turned out to be. The open air hostel is literally suspended above an archeological dig site, which is the home of Sydney’s earliest European settlement. The rooms felt more like a boutique hotel and ours had a view of the landmark Opera House, granting us our first “oh my god, I have seen this a million times on TV and I can’t believe I am looking at it in person!” moment on the trip. To that point, there are certain landmarks in a class all their own in that respect. It doesn't make them better, but when you have seen things like the Eiffel Tower, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, or Big Ben so often, when you see them you can't help but shake your head.

Goodnight, Opera House
snoozing over Sydney's history

Seeing Sydney From The Sea

Let’s just face it, you are not going to see it all in one day, but you can get a nice taste of things in twenty-four hours. So, what to do? Explore Sydney’s neighborhoods? Climb the Harbour Bridge and put your Australian holiday insurance to the test? Bondi Beach? We settled on picking one neighborhood and then seeing Sydney from the sea. We spent our first night in Newtown, walking up and down the street admiring the eclectic mix of people and gourmet burger joints, trendy fro-yo spots, and art house movie theaters. The next day, we booked a ferry to Watson’s Bay from the ferry terminal and got to appreciate the Sydney skyline from the water.

Our time in Syndey was certainly short, but it was without a doubt sweet. I have to admit, the city got under my skin a bit, and I can tell  it won't be my last time there. It was an amazing feeling to be in on the world's most famous cities, even if it was just for twenty-four hours.

I received a complimentary stay at the Sydney YHA Harbour, but that in no way affects the opinions or words published above. They are the truth, and nothing but.

Oddz & NZ

Well, New Zealand has now taken its proud place in my passport as a “place I went once”.  It wasn’t long after the last traces of the islands disappeared in the plane’s rear view mirror (just humor me on that one for a second), that I started thinking about all the little things that made our time there great and started handing out a couple awards. Without further adieu here they are:

Favorite City - Dunedin

When you spend nearly seven weeks in a country and visit eighteen towns, you know you are going to get this question, so might as well get it out of the way first. Before I visited Dunedin, all I knew about it was that they had a Cadbury Chocolate factory and the world’s steepest street.  Fast forward eight days, and I left feeling like I was leaving my home away from home. For me, it was just the perfect combination of big & small, hip & casual, urban & natural at the perfect time. And yes, of course we went to the chocolate factory. Runners Up: Auckland, Nelson, & Queenstown.

this view felt like home for 8 nights in Dunedin

Highlights That Didn't Make The Blog? Sailing the Marlborough Sounds, seeing Fox Glacier, working on a winery for a week in Marlborough (my favorite wine region), our bus ride down the west coast of the South Island (jaw- dropping scenery at every turn), rope-swinging on Mt. Victoria overlooking Wellington, Watching a Highlanders rugby match at local bars in Dunedin, seeing spectacular sunsets two nights in a row on the beach in Greymouth, watching an amateur Rugby game on St. Patrick's Day in Queenstown, just to name a few.

Fox Glacier

Biggest Regret? Not getting to a professional rugby match.

Amount of times I saw the term “Sweet As” on a t-shirt: About a thousand.

Amount of times I heard the term “Sweet As” used in actual conversation: Two. Before visiting NZ, you will hear about this phrase  in blogs, guidebooks, etc. Based on our experience, people don’t use it that all that much.

New Zealand Theme Song: “We are Young”  by Fun.

We heard this song on our North Island road trip and were immediately hooked and downloaded it on Spotify. At the time, we naively thought it was just a random song on the radio in NZ.  Soon enough though it became apparent that it is a worldwide smash after seeing it all over the charts in the UK & the U.S. and me hearing it played at a Blues game while listening online. Runners Up: “Drive By” by Train, “Lasso” by Phoenix, & “Caught Up In You” by .38 Special (hey, I got into a 80‘s rock kick).

Favorite Burger -  Burger Fuel & Fergburger.

New Zealand takes its burgers seriously, guys. Just mention Queenstown’s Fergburger to veterans and you will likely see them slip into a ravenous stare as they mumble back to you: “mmm, Fergburger”. Burger Fuel is a chain only on the North Island and has a loyal following of its own. I know picking two as favorite is a miserable cop-out, but I just can‘t decide and I want to be welcome in both in the future. Bottom line is they both offer up creative combos of toppings like beetroot, egg, savory sauces, and cheese and “uhh-mazing” fries served with aoli dipping sauce. Bottom line is if you go to NZ and you like burgers, you need to try both. Runner Up: The White Lady in Auckland.

Favorite Place We Crashed: Global Village Hostel, Greymouth

What every hostel should shoot for in my opinion. Welcoming atmosphere for travelers, awesome bathrooms and interior design, and we even had our own patio! Runners Up: Tasman Bay Backpackers, Neslon, Oaks Shores Hotel, Queenstown, and Milford Sound Lodge.

Favorite Breakfast - Morrison Street Café Gallery in Nelson.

We are big breakfast fans, and tried to make as many late Sunday brunches as we could, and this place made our entire week. It’s a coffee shop meets art gallery meets kick-butt brunch spot. I’ll let the picture do the talking on this one.
Runner Up - Lombardi’s on Ponsonby Road in Auckland.

Will I be back? Ab-so-lutely.

'Mazing Milford

We had a ton of things to do and places to go penciled in for New Zealand.

Like always when traveling though, some stuff got sacrificed to the travel gods, others got moved into the “we’ll get it next time” column, but some got re-traced with bold, black ink and we got them done by golly. Taking a cruise on Milford Sound (bold black ink, get it?) was one of the few, the proud, the survivors.

After a raucous St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Queenstown featuring two runs to the world famous Fergburger, plenty of Guinness under the sun, and even a spotting of a dude running down the street in a Borat-inspired neon green Mankini, it was off to Milford Sound.  Milford Sound is one of the most iconic natural sights in New Zealand, no doubt about it. While a debate is constantly raging over whether it's Milford or Doubtful Sound that takes your breath away swifter or deeper, a quick Googling will show you can’t go wrong with either. Most people make Milford Sound a day trip from Queenstown, sandwiching the cruise in the middle of ten hours of bus travel or jet into the sound for the cruise and fly back out. We decided to actually stay two nights a stone's throw from Milford Sound at the Milford Sound Lodge, lodged deep within Fjordland National Park. The lodge was a tasty appetizer as our cabin was actually more sleek and modern than creaky and old and was nestled next to a babbling brook, against a backdrop of jagged peaks, and under some of the shiniest stars I have ever seen.

My kind of cabin

It was a quick stroll the next day to our main course; Milford Sound. Once our Jucy Cruize ship set sail under a cloudless southern sky, I knew it was going to be one of the best days of the trip. Little did I know, I was going to end up really needing that sun. Our cruiser was one of the smaller ships on the Milford Sound that day, but that was great because it was able to get into almost every nook and cranny on the sound. After seeing the largest waterfall of my life right outside the ferry terminal, we pulled up right next to some fur seals whose sunning techniques seemed inspired by a certain basset hound back in St. Louis I know well.

soaked but still loving it

Now one thing I had been obsessed with since arriving on the South Island was the water. Everywhere you turn there are crystal clear streams gargling "drink out of me!" or teal blue rivers screaming "swim in me!" Little did I know, I was about to get to do both.  I was commenting aloud that I wanted to "just jump into the water" when right on cue the captain pulled up to a tiny cascade called Fairy Falls and announced that anyone who wanted a drink was going to get their chance. The crew then came out to the deck and handed out plastic cups and a few of us stayed on the deck as the nose of the boat bobbed under the falls. You might be able to guess what happened next. Yep, I got my second shower of the day, but this time a fully-clothed, frigid, teeth-chattering cleansing. I emerged from my soak with a nearly fully glass of water and a sense of accomplishment as the others had long scrambled inside for dry land at sea. Thankfully it was a sunny day as I was able to take to deck and do my best fur seal impression the rest of the cruise and dry off.

Cruising Milford Sound was really one of the highlights of my time here in New Zealand, and I really would love to write more, but I think this is one of those situations where the pictures should be the ones doing the typing.

I received a complimentary cruise courtesy of Jucy, but that in no way affects the opinions or words published above. I promise, I mean look at the pictures for crying out loud.