The Great Barrier Reef (Cairns Day 3)

Today I got to check off another major life bucket list item, visiting the iconic Great Barrier Reef!

Based on square meters, the Great Barrier Reef is the most diverse ecosystem in the world. The reef is located about an hour and a half off of the coastline, and is made up of coral cays, which are essentially semi circles of reef formations, with the more built up areas on the southern side. As the currents push water and sand south, it builds up into these formations. The reef has over 2,900 reef cays, and stretches over 1,400 miles of the Coral Sea. This area is so large that it is the only living thing on planet Earth that can be seen from outer space, and is the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms. It is categorized as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Combined with the Whitsunday Islands, it generates $3 billion of tourism revenue per year.

Unfortunately, human activity on the reefs has drastically impacted the health of the ecosystem. The coast of downtown Cairns is essentially a contaminated mud flat where boats dock, leaving a not so attractive view. However, the reef protects the ocean closer to land, therefore providing a natural barrier, which makes the water relatively calm. Unfortunately the windy and rainy weather the past few days has made the visibility in the water not very good, but there is also a problem with coral bleaching. Tragically, over 50% of the reef has already been killed off, so it is extremely important to make sure products being used are environmentally friendly.

Snorkel Trip One

To explore the reef, we took a 60-person tour with Ocean Freedom. The crew was extremely knowledgeable, very friendly, and helpful. After our boat ride out, we docked and went for a half hour snorkel. Although visibility was low, we still were able to see a lot of wildlife! Our first friend was a barracuda over a meter long that likes to hang out around the back of boat (according to the staff). Although this wasn’t particularly my favorite sighting, it was still a story that I survived to tell! We also saw sea turtles, which are gorgeous and impressive creatures. One of our guides explained to us that most wildlife on the reef gets their name because it literally looks like what it’s named after. For example, brain coral looks like a brain, and boulder coral looks like a boulder. To follow this story, I saw a unique fish that was yellow with black dots, and was shaped sort of like a box. When I later looked it up, it was in fact called a “yellow box fish,” creative! I also saw a humphead wrasse fish, which is basically a large dark-colored fish with a bump-like structure on its head. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it was massive, probably about three feet long!

Bumphead Parrotfish (picture from http://www.swissnomads.com/2014/09/best-dive-sites-lhaviyani-atoll-maldives/)

Bumphead Wrasse (picture from http://www.swissnomads.com/2014/09/best-dive-sites-lhaviyani-atoll-maldives/)

Parrotfish (picture from https://phishdoc.com/2015/09/14/parrotfish-i/)

Parrotfish (picture from https://phishdoc.com/2015/09/14/parrotfish-i/)

One of my favorite fish was the parrotfish, which males are a rainbow of colors, and females are beige and brown. They are absolutely beautiful, but also contribute to a large portion of bioerosion on the reefs. They consume microscopic organisms that live on an in coral rock by using their beak-like teeth, and in the process destroy the coral. This natural devastation of the reef actually accounts for a large portion of the ecological loss. Parrotfish also do this cool thing at night where they spit out a large cocoon of balloon-like skin, which they swim inside of it and sleep there for the night. The properties of this sticky skin make it so that other sea creatures cannot sense its presence by its electrical impulses. If a predator were to attempt to break this casing, it would be repelled my the thickness and stickiness of it. Our tour guide said he was once on a dive where a friend picked up the bubble with the parrotfish asleep inside, and it didn’t even wake up!

My mom and I before snorkeling

My mom and I before snorkeling

My mom and I post snorkeling

My mom and I post snorkeling

Glass Bottom Boat

Next I took two back to back trips in the glass bottom boat, because you never know what you’re going to find in the big blue sea at any given moment! We saw countless sea cucumbers and blue starfish, and got briefed on many different types of coral and fish. After returning to the boat, we enjoyed a fabulous lunch, then headed to the second snorkeling location. This was just a short distance away, on the other side of the cay. Marine life there was about the same as the previous location, but it was great to see two different areas on the same trip.

Snorkel Trip Two

Since there was more of a current in this area, we took the smaller boat out ahead of the cruise boat, then jumped into the water and followed the current back to the main boat. A staff member swam with us, teaching us about various ocean facts. She also led us to a sort of coral cave where there were often sharks. Lucky for us, they were hiding out there! You had to dive down a little and look under a ledge, but we did get to see a few incredible black-tipped sharks. About the only “big” thing we didn’t see was a manta ray. Small blue-spotted rays are very common in the sandier areas where we were, I just didn’t happen to see any. I also got to see my other favorite fish, nemo’s! Or, “clownfish,” if you want to be technical. They are definitely the other most adorable thing I’ve see in Cairns, in addition to the aforementioned baby crocodiles. Despite the cloudiness of the water and roughness of the waves, we were able to see quite a satisfying amount of ocean life!

Enjoying the Great Barrier Reef

Enjoying the Great Barrier Reef

Tour Advice

Overall, I would say that our tour was extremely successful! If you are looking for what tour to do here, I would recommend Ocean Freedom for several reasons. Their company is one of the few family-owned businesses left, and they truly do act like a family. All staff was very well educated, and everything on the boat was clean and organized. Their was plenty of food throughout the day and it was always good, and staff was quite accommodating. I didn’t bring along any sort of underwater camera, but if you have one, bring it! When the water is clear, the footage is great, especially with a mounted GoPro. However, if the water quality isn’t very clear, you’re honestly better just enjoying the trip and not bothering with trying to get decent photos. If you get seasick or motion sick easily, and find yourself here during rough weather, definitely take something prior to heading on the boat. Additionally, when the weather is more rough, snorkeling in the ocean is also a little more difficult that you may imagine. Pretty much anyone can do it (they even will personally take you out with a life guard ring and guide if you’re elderly etc), but you do need to be aware of strong currents and larger waves. It’s a little different than snorkeling in calm water, but far worth it! If you are nervous about trying it out, there’s a huge scale of beginner to advanced options, so definitely go for it!

Cairns

After docking at the marina, we walked to the lagoon pool and took a few photos in the beautiful infinity pool built right on the beach. Cairns has fun things like giant stinging jellyfish and plankton that don’t hurt you but make your skin tingle, so the lagoon is a great option for when these creatures are in season! We got back around dinnertime, still feeling somewhat like we were on a boat, and had a relaxed evening. Cairns still gives me a slightly weird feeling that I haven’t gotten anywhere else in Australia, I am 100% glad to have come and that I was able to do everything on my Cairns bucket list! However, I think if I come back for this sort of trip, I will try somewhere new, like farther up North (where snorkeling is supposedly even better), the Whitsunday Islands, or Fiji. Tomorrow we will head to the airport in preparation for Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road!

Cairns boardwalk

Cairns boardwalk

Terra Australis Incognita (Cairns Day 2)

Today we got to explore one of the oldest and most impressive parts of Australia, the Daintree Rainforest. Covering about 460 square miles, this national park layout is unique because is consisted of small irregularly shaped areas, rather than one large block of land. This rainforest is the largest continuous area of tropical rainforest on the Australian continent, with the rainforest extending all the way to the edge of the sea.

One unique story we were told tells the history of the Idiospermum australiense species, more commonly known as the idiot fruit. Essentially this tree was thought to have gone extinct many years ago, then was accidently rediscovered in 1970 by a farmer who was confused why his cows were dying from consuming this tree’s fruit. Named one of Australia’s most significant discoveries, this find identified that the Daintree Rainforest was far older than recorded, dating back 110 million years. Since evident of this species exists from that long ago, and it only grows in very specific and limited environments, this discovery was a huge mile marker for Australia.

Daintree River

Our day with Tropical Horizons tour group started with an hour and half drive to Port Douglas, following the edge of the ocean since only one main road links the two areas. Inland of the coastal area is very mountainous, so it makes sense that only main road runs along the edge. Despite what you might think, the road is very well kept and the drive is quite lovely with oceanfront views the entire way. After picking up the rest of the guests in Port Douglas, we drove through a residential area that was home to hundreds of wallabies and kangaroos, then headed to the first main stop at the Daintree River.

Here, we experienced the incredibly diverse ecosystem of the river. Within the first five minutes of our river cruise, we saw a saltwater crocodile and three baby crocodiles that were only 6-8 inches long! It was probably one of the cutest things I’ve seen on this trip. Although called saltwater crocodiles, majority of the species lives in freshwater. They get their name simply because they also have the ability to survive in saltwater. Later on we saw a larger crocodile, as well as a small snake in a tree, and a variety of birds. We learned about mangrove trees, which have vast root systems creating a swamp-like environment and wildlife haven among the water’s edge. Providing shelter and warmth, this creates the perfect living grounds for all sorts of flora and fauna. With only a little rain, our boat ride through the river was quite successful! We got off the boat upstream and on the other side of the river, where the bus picked us up again.

Baby crocodile

Baby crocodile (on center of lower half of branch)

Alexandra Lookout

Our next stop was Alexandra Lookout, also referred to as Walu Wugirriga by aboriginals. As you can see in the picture, it is absolutely stunning (sarcasm)! It was more than a little foggy due to the unfortunate weather, but you could still sort of make out the outline of the landscaping. With a clear view, this lookout offers views of the Daintree River mouth and it’s surrounding environment. We had just enough time to attempt a picture through the raindrops, then jump back on the bus.

Alexandra Lookout

Alexandra Lookout

Rainforest Lunch

For lunch, all we were expecting was “lunch in a rainforest setting,” which in Australia is an extremely vague description, considering detailed descriptions here are often to be taken loosely. However, we enjoyed an absolutely beautiful lunch at a restaurant that is tucked away in the middle of nowhere in the rainforest. This small property also houses a resort, and has a restaurant literally set in the rainforest. It is built next to the river, and you can look over the edge and down onto the river right next to the dining tables. The staff was very friendly, and it was a fantastic meal! To make it more quaint, this restaurant was established a long time ago, before Cairns tourism developed, and was a typical spot for locals to stop by and enjoy a meal.

Cape Tribulation

Our second to last stop took us to the beach, at a point that was named by James Cook after his ship ran into some trouble there. Although his voyage was delayed, it was not ended, and he therefore named the point something representative of its nature, Cape Tribulation. By this point in the day, it was starting to just about pour buckets, so if anyone didn’t know how the rainforest got it’s name by then, they learned quickly. After a short walk on the beach learning the history of the point, we walked through the forest to a lookout point. Again, it was a bit foggy and rainy, but at least it felt appropriate to have this weather when visiting the rainforest!

Cape Tribulation lookout

Cape Tribulation lookout

Going off of that story, in case you’re wondering, here’s how Australia got it’s name. A long time ago, people knew the mapping of the North and South America’s, as well as the large European and Russian landmasses, so they assumed that in order for the world to balance out (in regards to land verses water masses), there had to be another land mass countering South America. When James Cook set out on his voyage from England, they had the idea that this land mass was wider and skinnier than it is now, and therefore he was sure to run into it when heading South. Although he did end up reaching what is now Australia, he had many unexpected adventures along the way that lead to many new discoveries. In the process though, Australia was originally named “Terra Australis Incognita,” or more simply and appropriately put, “the great undiscovered land.”

Mossman Gorge

Our last main stop of the day was Mossman Gorge, where we first enjoyed tea at the visitor’s center, then a short presentation by an Kuku Yalanji aboriginal. We took a shuttle to the park entrance, then followed the rainforest track walk to Mossman Gorge, passing over a suspended bridge along the way. Mossman is also known for its sugar cane farming, as many areas around Cairns are as well. Due to the fitting environment, sugarcane grows extremely well in this area, contributing to make Australia the world’s fifth largest producer of the sweet stuff. While harvesting used to be gathered by hand, now it is all processed by machinery to avoid infection by toxic waste products of rats living in the area. This change in methods caused the time limit of transporting the cut cane from the field to the mill from two weeks to a mere 14 hours. For this reason, small train lines run all across the countryside, because it is faster than transporting it on the limited roads with such a large volume of cane. Recently though, a successful sugar mill was bought by another company with the intention of solely trading ownership, then completely shut down after two months. This was done through the eyes of the competitor as a means to regulate the price. However, this devastated the town, which prided itself on the sugar mill business, and impacted a lot of lives and related businesses. This is just one example of how politics happen all over the world.

Mossman Gorge

Mossman Gorge

Another interesting story of the day was learning that the company Palmolive started in the Daintree regions. Essentially, palm tree oil was mixed with olive oil, which was used as a base to make soaps. Two inventors, William Colgate and B.J. Johnson, joined forced to create a company for which they could both benefit from the credit and sales of a product. Therefore, Palmolive is not a name, but rather simply an addition of the words palm and olive.

Overall, we had a fantastic day learning about and exploring the incredible world of the ancient Daintree Rainforest!

Anzac Day Adventures (Cairns Day 1)

My mom has officially joined me from across the pond, and our first big stop is Cairns! The evening of our arrival, we checked into our Airbnb, got a little advice from our host, and headed out to town. After a walk down the Esplanade and a lovely dinner at a café, we headed in for an early night.

Cairns

For location references, Cairns is essentially the main tourism point of Australia where people go to visit the Great Barrier Reef. I was expecting a smaller town with mostly tourism, however this is the first place in Australia I have traveled to that gives me a slightly odd feeling. Although a beautiful area filled with activities to do and places to see, the town and surrounding area is just not what I expected. The main attractions here include the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, and aboriginal culture. The towns themselves are very old fashioned, looking like the type of area that could easily (and realistically) get swept away overnight by a natural disaster. The streets aren’t designed the best, and the villages are very small, considering most attractions are on the water or in the forests. Although the weather is a bit off from what is normally expected of this time, it has been completely overcast with dark skies and rain. It has been quite an abrupt change from the beautiful beaches and clear skies of Gold Coast, but hopefully Cairns has some wonderful things in store for us!

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef from plane

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef from plane

Anzac Day

As a perfectly-timed way to start our trip, our first day in Cairns is was also Anzac Day. Essentially, this is an Australian War Memorial holiday that commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (abbreviation: ANZAC) soldiers who landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey during the first World War. This day reminds Australians of those who served and died in war and on operational service with qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice. For celebratory purposes, the best way to describe it is like a combination of America’s Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. For Australia, this holiday is so important that it is known second to Christmas, and even has it’s own official website (https://anzacday.org.au/home). Although our tour that day left too early to see the Cairns Anzac Day Parade or join in on an early morning remembrance ceremony, we still got to spend the day learning about Australia’s natural and historic beauty!

Wooroonuran

This morning we joined a tour through Wooroonuran National Park, one of the wet tropics world heritage areas, which contains some of the oldest surviving rainforests in the world. Just one of the many unique trees of this rainforest, the Blushwood tree, has been found to cure the breakdown of cancer tumors. This has been successful with animal testing, and human trials are in the process. This just goes to show what other undiscovered secrets might be hidden in this ancient paradise. Contrary to common belief, parts of the Australian rainforest are actually older than the Amazon, comparing the Amazon’s mid 50 million year old ecosystem to Australia’s 180 million year old landscape!

Lake Barrine

This freshwater lake was formed when a large volcano erupted over 17,000 years ago, leaving a crater that was formed then filled with rainwater. At 730 meters above sea level, there are no streams or springs that feed into the lake, but one small creek that flows out during the wet season. We also walked through the Lake Barrine Tea House Restaurant, and it looked like a lovely place to enjoy tea.

Lake Barrine

Lake Barrine

Yungaburra

Stopping through Yungaburra village, we learned it is a haven for wildlife, including the platypus, tree-kangaroo, wallabies, and many species of birds. We took a drive around Lake Tinaroo, and headed to the Curtain Fig National Park. With traditional aboriginal owners, this national park is part of their country, so naturally it is a place to be respected. The park protects endangered mabi forest and a large fig tree, in fact one of the largest recorded in the world. Technically known as the species ficus virens of the strangler fig, this tree’s aerial roots drop 15 meters to the forest floor forming a curtain-like appearance, hence the name curtain fig. Esentially they grow by germinating on top of another tree and trying to grow roots into the ground, then grow more, until the hosting tree is killed and it can grow independently. These trees are considered epiphytes, which feed from the ground, as opposed to parasitic plants, which feeds from the sap of host plant. This protected tree in specific has overtaken four other trees in its time.

Curtain Fig Tree

Curtain Fig Tree

Millaa Millaa Falls

This was one of my favorite stops of the day, as I have recently discovered I am slightly obsessed with waterfalls. “Millaa millaa” is an aboriginal phrase meaning “plenty of water or waterfall.” This particular fall is known casually as the most photographed waterfall in Australia, with a suitable swimming pool at it’s base. Unlike most of the rock pools I’ve encountered, this one was quite flat, and although it was a bit too cold to try out, it looked like a lovely place to go for a swim.

Millaa Millaa Falls

Millaa Millaa Falls

Crawfords Lookout

Our next stop took us to Crawfords Lookout in Mamu Valley. It was still a little foggy, but we could still see the view of the North Johnstone River Gorge.

Crawfords Lookout

Crawfords Lookout

Josephine Falls

This tiered cascade waterfall is a natural beauty, and also danger. At 192 meters above sea level, it is impossible to see the top of the waterfall when standing below. It is also impossible to tell what rainfall activity is happening above, and essentially the basin at the top fills and fills with water until it hits a tipping point, then spills of the edge all at once, flash flooding the rock pools below. Although a fantastic swimming area at first glance, it can also become a nightmare in an instant. A great place to visit though!

Josephine Falls

Josephine Falls

Babinda Creek

Our second last stop of the day was the Boulders at Babinda Creek. As compared to above, this lake-like area is perfectly suitable for swimming. The creek is lined with huge boulders, which help to give it its name, but also have aboriginal significance. According to local legend, the boulders are guarded by the spirit of a beautiful girl named Oolana, and you can still hear her calls for her lost lover. 

Babinda Creek

Babinda Creek

Mulgrave River

We ended the day with an hour-long crocodile cruise through the Mulgrave River, although the unfortunate weather made it not super successful. We learned above the lives of crocodiles, and explored an area with beautifully reflective waters. Overall, it was a lot of driving through the countryside, but a great day of sightseeing South of Cairns!

Muray River

Mulgrave River reflections

Brisbane: A Meeting Point

Brisbane Airbnb

On Friday night, my mom’s flight got in at around midnight, and she met me at our Airbnb in Brisbane. If you aren’t familiar with Airbnb, it’s basically a website with profiles of places to stay, essentially rooms available for rent in someone’s home. Like an a hotel version of uber, we have heard and had great experiences with Airbnb so far. My mom and I will be staying at them all throughout our travels here, and our first in Brisbane was quite lovely!

Exploring Hamilton

While our stay in Brisbane was essentially a meeting point for my mom and I between Gold Coast and our next stop in Cairns, I thought it would be great to show her around the city! The next day we had a full day to explore Brisbane, before leaving on our flight to Cairns the following afternoon. The area we were staying in, Hamilton, is the wealthiest part of Brisbane, which is quite apparent from the beautiful homes in the area. We spent the morning walking around a little, and enjoyed breakfast at a lovely local and organic sourced café. After returning to our Airbnb around lunch to finalize all packing details, our Airbnb hosts kindly dropped us off at a nearby ferry wharf. We took the ferry through the Brisbane river, where a friendly local pretty much gave us a tour while on board.

Exploring Southbank

We walked around the Southbank area (see “B-R-I-S-B-A-N-E” post for more detail), and it was fantastic to see my mom so excited about everything being new and amazing here in Australia. We walked to the big Brisbane letters, through the beautiful landscaping and markets, and ended up at the pool. Although it was cooling off a bit, we swam and laid by the water for a little, then shared an acai bowl at Kiss The Berry. From there we walked through the botanic gardens, which is a beautiful area and amazing how much they pack into the relatively small area. We had dinner at a fantastic French restaurant, then made our way home. Between my mom’s jet lag of a 32-hour flight, and my exhaustion from finals week and moving out, we were ready for an early night.

Acai bowl afternoon snack

Acai bowl afternoon snack

Bunyan tree in Southbank Botanic Gardens

Bunyan tree in Southbank Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens of Southbank

Botanic Gardens of Southbank

Brisbane Markets

The next morning our Airbnb hosts invited us to join them for a trip to a market, and we happily joined! It was a great way to spend the morning, looking at crafts, produce, and as many food options as you can imagine. We enjoyed breakfast while at the markets, and soon headed out to finish packing. Soon after that we traveled to the airport, next stop, Cairns!

Brisbane market

Brisbane market

‘Til I See You Again

This last week has been filled with bittersweet goodbyes and checking off the last of items on my study abroad bucket list. Additionally, it was also finals week for Bond, at the end of which was move out.

A Last Weekend in Paradise

Last weekend all of my study abroad friends and I got together at one of our apartments, and had a goodbye dinner. People would be starting to leave throughout the next week, so we all decided to have one last cookout by the pool to wrap up the semester. The following day we went to Burleigh beach, and I finally got to explore the other side of Burleigh Heads National Park. A short walk around the edge of the park will take you to a beautiful lagoon area on the other side, with water that is so clear.

Southside of Burleigh Heads National Park

Southside of Burleigh Heads National Park

In the evening we all enjoyed Surfer’s Paradise one last time for our semester abroad. We attempted to stay out and watch the sunrise on the beach, although most people couldn’t quite make it and we ended up heading in early. I also had quite the adventure losing my FitBit (again) that night, and over an hour later found it innocently lying unharmed on the ground. For someone who is addicted to their FitBit (and already had it replaced once), it was a not so good moment that ended well. However, it was a lovely way to spend our last full weekend in the Gold Coast. It definitely proved how amazing my semester has been here, with the friends I’ve made, places I’ve been, and things that I’ve gotten to do.

Finals Week

The earlier part of last week was spent mostly in the library becoming an expert on all things class-related. Although I only missed one class (to make a flight) this semester, and did stay on top of all my academics, I still had quite the game of catch up to play before exams. After my Wednesday and Thursday 8am exams, to say I felt home free was an understatement. However, on Thursday it dawned on me that finishing my last exam (in my terms) means that I am officially a senior. How this crazy thing happened, I’m not quite sure. Regardless, it also meant that the studious part of my travels had concluded and it was time to enjoy the rest!

Springbrook

After my Thursday exam, one of my local Australian friends was kind enough to drive a couple of my friends and I to Twin Falls in Springbrook National Park. This had been one of my bucket list items since the very beginning of the semester, and during the last week I was still determined to get there. However, being a 45 minute drive from campus makes that a little difficult. The circuit we walked lead down the Currumbin mountains to the base of Twin Falls, around and behind another waterfall, back up the mountain, then along the top ridge to the starting point. When we reached the top of the mountain, the first lookout had a view of the other side of cliff so that you could see Twin Falls from across the mountain gap. It was a great little circuit through the rainforest, and took about an hour, definitely recommend it! Unfortunately it was a little cold when we visited, but I’d imagine the best part would be swimming in the rock pools at the base of Twin Falls! Later that evening, I did one last run around Lake Orr, the lake surrounding my apartment complex and campus.

Twin Falls

Twin Falls

Walking behind the second waterfall

Walking behind the second waterfall

Top ridge lookout

Top ridge lookout

Panorama of top ridge lookout

Panorama of top ridge lookout

View of Twin Falls from across the mountain valley

View of Twin Falls from across the mountain valley

Lake Orr

Lake Orr

Burleigh Heads

On my last day in Gold Coast, a few of my friends and I made the trip down to Burleigh, which had become somewhat of a tradition. We spent the better portion of the day on the beach, enjoying the beautiful weather. Saying goodbye to my friends was sad, but I was also exited for the travels ahead. While I do have to wave farewell to Gold Coast, luckily I still have two weeks of traveling in Australia before heading back to the states!

Northside of Burleigh Heads

Northside of Burleigh Heads

Enjoying an acai bowl on the beach

Enjoying an acai bowl on the beach

See Ya Later

As I finished packing up my apartment after returning from the beach, I couldn’t believe that it really was my last day of study abroad in Gold Coast. When originally coming, I was under the impression that because it is so far and I got to live here for a decent period of time, that I more than likely would not be back again. In reality, I know now that thinking like that was completely naive, and I will most definitely back again someday. Despite all the incredible places I got to visit, interesting people I met, and amazing memories I’ve created, there are still so many items I didn’t get to do. I did a LOT while studying abroad, so that just goes to show how many places there are to explore and things there are to do over here. When saying goodbye, to friends or someone you just met, a lot of people use the phrase ‘see you later,’ even if they are a complete stranger that they most likely will never see again. However, I like to think with the mentality that you might someday see them again, even if it’s 25 years from now. With that being said, it’s not goodbye, it’s ‘til I see you again, Gold Coast.

Stockholm, Sweden

Riga, Stockholm and London!

Classes began again the Tuesday after Easter, and to call to crunch time was an understatement. I had a 16 page term paper due the Wednesday after Easter break, and we left for our next field study trip on Thursday. For anyone wondering “when do you do schoolwork?”, the answer is between the hours of 7:30 pm and 5:30 am on Tuesday into Wednesday. Yes, the reigning Queen of procrastination was coronated once more when I researched, outlined and wrote an entire term paper in one night. Many thanks go to Lindee and Josh who brought down chips and guacamole that they made, instant coffee, my favorite German cereal ‘Crunchy Nut’ and my favorite Haribo candy, ‘Schnecken’ for getting me through those 10 hours. With my term paper submitted and suitcase hastily packed, I headed to get the bus to Zürich with the rest of my classmates in our group for 9 days in Latvia, Stockholm and London.

For this IES field study, we were split into four groups, with two going to the North and two to the Southwest (Rome, Madrid, Barcelona) and Southeast (Athens, Budapest, Bucharest), respectively. This was a odd experience for all of us, since up to now we have gone on every IES trip together. We have quite literally been together 22/7 since we arrived in January. It was nice to see how many close friendships that I’ve made since coming abroad, because we all really felt the absence of our friends who were on the other trips.

We flew from Zürich to Riga, Latvia on the prettiest ascent I have ever seen. Taking off above the alps on a clear and sunny day was absolutely spectacular, and part of me wanted to just circle Zürich in the plane for a few hours. But alas, we were off to Riga! I never in my life thought that I would be going to Latvia, land of the Letts, but if my time abroad has taught me anything, it’s that you should always expect the unexpected!

Riga was interesting because it still very much bore a resemblance to it’s Soviet Bloc self. The tram cars that we saw looked like they could have been in operation 30 years ago, and it seemed like the Riga police station would still have a portrait of Josef Stalin on the wall. This was the first city where you could see the remnants of their past throughout the whole city; whereas in Berlin they were more isolated to older areas that have not been rebuilt. During our course discussions in Riga, we focused a lot on the threat of Russian aggression, which is actually very real formats Latvians, since Riga has a large Russian minority who retain their Russian citizenship. We were only in Riga for 2 days, however it was enough to see the small city and hear about their future within the EU.

Next, we headed off on a dubious-looking propeller plane to fly to Stockholm, Sweden! Stockholm was a gorgeous city: clean, beautiful people, beautiful stores, but expensive. It was like a city of Fifth Avenue in New York. In Stockholm our course-related discussions became a bit more interesting, as we discussed the infamous ‘Swedish model’ and the fate of Sweden in light of the refugee crisis. Due to their highly advanced social welfare system, Sweden is a popular destination for migrants, but there is still a huge lingual, cultural, and skill divide between the Swedish and the migrants. Stockholm was a gorgeous city with plenty of museums, but I would not go back until I had a six figure salary. As a college student abroad, I would suggest that you skip Stockholm. Especially since our next stop (and favorite city in the world…) was London!

As we descended into Heathrow airport on Tuesday afternoon, I could clearly see Big Ben, the London Eye, Tower Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament out the airplane window. This was my third time visiting London, but the whole scene was just so Parent Trap-esque that I burst into tears. If you’ve been following my blog since it’s first entry, you know my struggle that went into chasing my abroad destination. Going back to London was wonderful for me, and also made me appreciate my time spent in Freiburg a bit more. It was great to be back, but I am definitely glad that I took the plunge and experienced a completely different culture, language and city that I was definitely not used to before.

On Friday when some of our classmates went back to Freiburg or other places across Europe, some friends and I decided to stay and explore the English countryside for the weekend. My friend Jeff had studied abroad at Cambridge previously, so on Friday we spent the day at the historic and adorable university town. We went for a “punt” on the river Cam, which is sort of like a gondola ride, and I really contemplated transferring. Cambridge was gorgeous, and we really lucked out with the weather as well. On Saturday we went on an all-day bus tour of Kent, where we visited Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and got a glimpse of the White Cliffs of Dover. I would highly recommend seeing Leeds Castle, it was built in Norman times for a conqueror who was friends with William the Conqueror, and has housed its fair share of English Queens from medieval times to the Renaissance. Leeds Castle actually became a queen’s residence, because it was gifted to the queen on her wedding day, in case the king died she could go and live safely and peacefully in the castle. Our guide told us that it was known as the “loveliest castle in the world”, and it was easy to see why. Leeds castle has a real life moat, black swans, and a cozy library that I could’ve stayed in for days.

Canterbury was also an exciting destination for me, as a lover of British literature. For those who snoozed through Brit Lit, the Canterbury Tales are an illuminated manuscript written about various medieval pilgrims and the tales they tell on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. Why Canterbury? It was a popular religious site in medieval times because it is the spot of the martyrdom of Thomas Abeckett, the Catholic priest who died because the king misspoke about his distaste for him. While we were inside the cathedral, the choir was practicing, and it was stunning to hear the music and walk the same path that pilgrims would have centuries ago. On our way back to London, we stopped at the White Cliffs of Dover for a photo, however the stellar English weather hampered much of the view.

Sunday morning we woke up early and headed to the airport, as we were catching a 7am flight back to Basel (the closest airport to Freiburg). I was sad to leave London after so short a time, and coming back to Freiburg was difficult because I knew all about the amount of work that awaited me there. The past week has been chock full of papers and projects, really putting the “study” in study abroad. However the week flew by, as by Friday afternoon I was off to another country where the hills are alive: Salzburg, Austria!

Facades of Riga, Latvia

Facades of Riga, Latvia

Freedom Statue in Riga

Freedom Statue in Riga

Tulips for sale in Stockholm

Tulips for sale in Stockholm

Stockholm harbor

Stockholm harbor

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Good to be back in my favorite city!

Good to be back in my favorite city!

Trinity College, the most prestigious of the colleges at Cambridge

Trinity College, the most prestigious of the colleges at Cambridge

Bridge of Sighs from the punt

Bridge of Sighs from the punt

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

My favorite room in Leeds Castle- the library

My favorite room in Leeds Castle- the library

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Site of the martyrdom of Thomas Abeckett

Site of the martyrdom of Thomas Abeckett

Cliffs of Dover, featuring stellar English weather

Cliffs of Dover, featuring stellar English weather

Good night, Ben!

Good night, Ben!


Location: London, England

Culture in Kumasi and Togo!

My time in Ghana is flying by and I cannot believe I only have about a month left! I finally finished all my midterms and now have to begin preparing for finals. My internship is going really well, I have enjoyed spending so much time with the kids at Hope Community Children’s Home and watching them grow through their schoolwork. For the rest of my time here I will be working towards my goal of buying a table and chairs for the Home, as currently the only surfaces in the main living space are a few tree stumps. I also am hoping to establish a clothing drive in the States upon returning home to make sure the kids look their best when they start school again in the fall. I have been so busy lately that I will just post an update from some trips several weeks ago!

Kumasi

My study abroad program went on a trip to Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city. We spent the first day helping two past CIEE students who are building a library in an isolated fishing village on Lake Bosomtwe. We walked about half a mile with the children of the village to get water for the cement, and it was incredibly eye opening to see what it is like to have to walk to a neighboring village for just a gallon of water. The children there wake up at 4:30 everyday to fetch enough water for their families, and little kids were passing us carrying three times the amount of water I was struggling to hold. After lunch a few of us went on a hike to see the lake, which was a very rare and unique experience because our guide allowed us to use his village’s footpath. He told us we were probably the only Americans to have ever used the path because it is exclusively for fishermen of the village. Lake Bosomtwe is breathtaking, it was formed by a ancient meteor and now there are many superstitions surrounding the Lake. Fishermen there do not use any metal at all and only fish using traditional methods, so no fishing rods or nets. It is taboo to bring metal near the water.

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Later we visited a kente weaving village, where all members of the community are in some way involved in this traditional art. Kente is an intricate and prized fabric hand woven specifically in the Ashanti region. Every piece is unique because the weaver creates the pattern as he goes, and this attention to detail means it can take three days to finish one yard. We were lucky enough to watch expert weavers creating kente and had way too much to choose from when buying.

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We also visited one of the few Adinkra villages left in Ghana. These villages specialize in printing the traditional Adinkra symbols of Ghana, which were originally stamped on an individual’s funeral cloth to describe their life. There are over 100 of these symbols which are still recognizable and meaningful in Ghanaian culture today. A few members of this community spend their days making the authentic dye that was reserved for these symbols, which is extracted through a long process of grounding, mixing, boiling, and mashing specific tree barks from the jungle to create either black or red dye. We were all able to pick out a symbol and stamp it with the traditional dye on a cloth for our program.

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On our last day we visited Manhyia Palace, home to the Asante King. The Asante King has been an incredibly powerful leader in Ghana throughout history, and now the palace grounds also house a museum. On Saturday we visited the museum to learn about the Asante King and his people’s history, and then we were lucky enough to attend his celebration ceremony the next day! Every 42 days there is a ceremony held on the palace grounds where people come to see the King, and we by chance were there on the 42nd day. It was an incredible experience to see a real King in this traditional and authentic ceremony, and I felt very honored to have been welcomed to witness it.

The King is coming!

Togo

The next weekend several friends and I visited Ghana’s neighboring country to the east, Togo. We entered through the coastal capital of Lomé which is also Togo’s largest city. Togo is a French speaking country, so the language change as well as completely different currency and the fact that our cell phones did not work in another country called for a lot of quick adjustments right away. We were lucky enough to meet an incredibly kind woman named Yolanda who invited us to her home for a meal. She took us to her community where we bought ingredients for lunch at the market, and then she and her family taught us to cook a traditional Togolese soup. I am constantly amazed by the selfless hospitality in West Africa and how willing people are to invite strangers into their home. After lunch Yolande invited us to visit her family’s voodoo temple, which we of course agreed to. While most people associate voodoo with Haiti, voodoo actually originated in Togo and is a prominent religion in many communities. Yolande and her family had a small shrine in their home and are very involved with the temple in the neighborhood. At the temple we paid our respects to the leaders in charge, and before we knew it they involved us in a voodoo ceremony! We completely unknowingly had walked into a traditional ceremony where we had no idea what to expect but quickly became involved. To make a three hour long story short, there was gunpowder, smoke, lots of drumming and chanting and singing, a very important bowl of water, strange spicy nuts we had to eat, a shrine we could glance at, two chickens and sacred kola nuts. All of the guys had to take a turn holding this giant stone alter on their heads, and when the woman in charge said a girl had to hold it I switched in and took a turn with the alter on my head. A man chanted at me and lit fires in the alter, and luckily I switched right before they brought out a chicken to be sacrificed on the alter! Later the man in charge hit us all on the head with a live chicken before sacrificing it and throwing it into the shrine. We were then instructed to whisper to a kola nut our greatest wish for our lives, and because we had performed the ceremony the voodoo spirits would help our goals to come true. They would also protect us for the rest of our stay in West Africa and our journey back to Accra. We all left the temple in absolute shock and disbelief. It was a completely unique and incredibly rare experience that happened completely by chance, I feel very fortunate to have been lucky enough to be a part of it. Definitely one of the craziest moments of my life and a highlight of my semester here!

 

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Yoyo and I dancing to American music

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Location: Lome, Togo

Wine capital tour and Finals

I have become less and less frequent when it came to writing this blog, and it’s because these last few weeks have been hectic. I have officially started a countdown of the days I have left before I get to return to the US. I am going through so many emotions, but mostly good ones. This week was my last week of classes at Paul Valéry. Where has the time gone?

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the wine capital of the world. That’s right, I went to Bordeaux. Bordeaux is the 9th largest city in France, right after Montpellier. Of course, I could not resist going to Bordeaux without doing a château and wine tour.

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I had the opportunity to visit a château that is part of the “Grand Cru Classé,” which is recognized as a category of excellent wine since 1855. The château we visited is now under ownership of a French company, but once was owned by an English man. The château (French word for castle) isn’t really a castle, but a huge house or mansion situated in the countryside of Bordeaux. Château Prieré-Lichine was exciting to visit, especially since we got to try a 50-euro bottle of wine.

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Afterwards, our tour ended in a “Cru bourgeois” category château named Château L’Ermitage. This vineyard is family-owned and operated, making it a bit more “homey.” There, I got to try not only wine, but also some goose pâté, which surprisingly was delicious.

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This week has been full of final assignments, essays, presentations, and last days of classes. Tomorrow I will have my first final in modern civilization. The good thing to look forward to is that we have a week off from classes, and that means travel time! I will be heading to the infamous Spanish island of Ibiza for a few days, and eventually ending up in Naples for some more adventures. I look forward to visiting Pompeii, as it is one of my top places on my bucket list to visit.


Location: Bordeaux, France

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Spring Break on the Emerald Isle

When you think of spring break, one tends to think of sun, sand and beaches. Never one for going with the crowd, two friends (who are also Penn Staters!) and I decided to head over to Ireland for the few days we had off over Easter weekend. That’s right, we headed to a place where, as the Irish say, you can experience all four seasons in five minutes.

We flew into Dublin on Wednesday morning, and were soon exposed to our first dose of Irish culture shock: when the attendant selling bus tickets into the city asked us if we knew what stop to get off at, and where we were going. Seems like a pretty normal thing to ask, but after spending two months in Germany, where everyone assumes that you know what you’re doing and where you’re going and glares at you if you are unsure, this was a welcome change. I really didn’t realize how unfriendly the Germans can be until we got to Ireland!

We had enough time on Wednesday to walk around the city and find our bearings, as well as formulate a plan for the next few days as to what we wanted to do and see. High on my list was the Trinity College Library, and the Cliffs of Moher. We decided to sign up for a Paddywagon Tour, which was recommended to me by my friend who visited Ireland last spring. We settled on  a trip to Northern Ireland, and early Thursday morning met a giant green bus on O’Connell Street, which took us north of Dublin on a beautifully scenic ride through the Irish countryside, as we made our way up to Northern Ireland. We made several stops on the Paddywagon tour, the first was at a road called the “Dark Hedges” which was also the spot of filming for the Kings Road in Game of Thrones! Next up was the coast and Carick-a-Rede rope bridge! On a clear day, you would have been able to see Scotland, but the cloud cover only allowed us a glimpse of the land of Scotch and kilts. Being at the coast was stunning, and also the windiest place I have ever been! It was near impossible to take pictures of the three of us since we all looked like Cousin It. The rope bridge, Carick-a-Rede was the most impressive; at one point it was only single rope that fishermen eased themselves across on in order to check on their nets of wild Atlantic salmon. Walking across the “fortified” bridge which still swayed in the wind was an experience enough- I couldn’t imagine doing it without handrails! Afterwards, we headed to Giants Causeway, a volcanic rock formation of hexagonal, pillar-like rocks that descend into the sea, and reappear on the other side in Scotland. Celtic legend said that the giant Finn McCool built the rock ’causeway’ to Scotland in order to steal away the prettiest girls in the Scottish highlands! The ‘giant’ part of the name originated because locals believed that giants were the only ones strong enough and large enough to move the massive stones into formation. On the way back to Dublin we stopped in Belfast, home of the Titanic! Sadly, the museum was closed for the day by the time we arrived, but we were able to sit in a cafe and relax, while reading about the surprisingly tenuous political situation that exists in Belfast today. For anyone unfamiliar with Irish history, in 1916 the Easter Rising occurred, where Ireland declared itself free of the British crown and began a long and bloody fight for independence. Although the Republic of Ireland exists now as an independent nation, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom, and therefore under British rule. I did not realize that so many tensions still existed between federalists and loyalists in Belfast; the schools, for example, are still segregated  between those favoring an independent Ireland and those loyal to British governance. Additionally, there continues to be a lot of gang violence in Belfast that is related to the Irish Revolutionary Army, or IRA. Our guide told us that coming to Northern Ireland even 20 years ago would have been extremely dangerous, and the border between the Republic and the north would have been heavily patrolled and guarded.

Good Friday in Dublin did not pan out exactly as we had expected, since they do not serve any alcohol on this day! So our plans to see the Guinness and Jameson factories fell through, however we did get to see Trinity College Library, which was a dream come true for me. In true Hermione form, I was absolutely spellbound by the massive “Long Room” with arching ceilings, dusty alcoves, and thousands upon thousands of books. I could have stayed in that room forever.

Friday night we got on a bus and headed to Galway, where we would spend the weekend. Galway is known as the cultural heart of Ireland, and that was evident with our visit. A small, coastal town with a big personality, Galway delivered good food and plenty of good Irish entertainment. One night we went on a pub crawl with some people from our hostel, and another night we joined the other people staying in our hostel for live Irish entertainment. The highlight of our stay in Galway, however, was the tour to the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren on Easter Sunday. The majesty and beauty of the cliffs was gorgeous, and the fact that we were standing at the very edge of Ireland was awesome. The weather cleared up perfectly for our visit, and the blue skies and blue sea were striking against the grass and the rock. Being away from home was tough on Easter, since I received many pictures of my family eating pierogis and kielbasa back in New Jersey. But seeing the natural beauty of the cliffs was so humbling, and it made me feel especially blessed to have such an amazing opportunity and to share it with some incredible new friends.

Next destination: Riga, Latvia!

The Dark Hedges or the King's Road- you decide

The Dark Hedges or the King’s Road- you decide

Coast off Northern Ireland

Coast off Northern Ireland

Falling for Ireland

Falling for Ireland

At Giant's Causeway

At Giant’s Causeway

Temple Bar at night- Dublin's best known pub!

Temple Bar at night- Dublin’s best known pub!

Long Room at Trinity College Library

Long Room at Trinity College Library

Galway harbor

Galway harbor

The Burren- stone field with stone age monuments

The Burren- stone field with stone age monuments

Gorgeous views at the cliffs

Gorgeous views at the cliffs

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Location: Dublin, Ireland

A Long & Winding Road (New Zealand Day 6)

This morning we took a local’s advice (front desk receptionist at Woodlyn Park), and embarked on an adventure to find a few natural attractions in the area. She warned us to make sure we had a full tank of gas (we didn’t), and we set off!

Mangapõhue Natural Bridge

Following one long road the entire time, our first stop was at Mangapõhue natural bridge. Just a five minute walk down through the bush, you stumble upon a huge rock formation, with water flowing underneath it creates a cave as well as a huge rock arch above you. In contrast to what we originally thought, we ended up viewing this natural bridge from underneath, instead of overtop. We explored the countryside for a little, then returned back to the road to continue to our next stop.

Suspended bridge walking to the natural bridge

Suspended bridge walking to the natural bridge

Natural bridge from north side

Natural bridge from north side

Natural bridge from south side

Natural bridge from south side

Marokopa Falls

A few miles later we pulled off the road at Marokopa Falls, allegedly the biggest waterfall in New Zealand. After another five minute speed walk through the bush, we found ourselves near the base of a huge and absolutely beautiful waterfall. It was a little too wet/muddy to try and risk hiking down to the bottom of the falls, but we still had a breathtaking view from where we were. Definitely a fantastic find!

Marokopa Falls

Marokopa Falls

Marokopa

Our final destination took a few more miles of driving along the long and winding Te Anga road, but we made it there successfully (aka with plenty of gas)! Referred to something like Coffee Coast by the hotel receptionist (could not find this name anywhere), we arrived in the tiny town of Maropkopa, where we followed a short trail down to the black sand beach. As you can imagine, we lost phone service around the natural bridge area, and although I forgot to take a picture, at the trail entrance there was a sign posted that read, “in case of emergency, dial 911 from the nearest house or public facility.” So that gives an idea of how far out we were. There was a huge inlet that clearly would completely flood during high tide, but was only about half full at the time we were there. We took a few pictures and moments to take in the incredibly peaceful scenery, then got back in the car for the trek back. I also took a small flat black rock along, to represent the black beach and surviving the trek out to the coast!

Black sand beach

Black sand beach

Panoramic view of Marokopa Coast

Panoramic view of Marokopa Coast

After arriving back to the tiny town of Waitomo, grabbed lunch, filled up on gas, and headed towards Auckland to drop our car off by 5pm. We checked into our hostel, took a short walk around the city, joined a friend for dinner, and got to bed early in preparation for our early morning flight. Overall, New Zealand provided so many incredible experiences, and I have come to the conclusion that one week is not NEARLY enough to explore just part of only the North Island. With that being said, I guess I will have to come back someday. Until that day, Kia Ora, New Zealand!

Scenic New Zealand countryside

Scenic New Zealand countryside