Blake graduated from SMU in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. The Albuquerque native is traveling the world this summer from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to bobsledding in the Baltics.
|Click to View Some of Blake's Photos|
The Clampetts meet the Scottsman
Maria and I boarded a ferry on the morning of July 25th looking like the Clampetts of Beverly Hillbillies with more luggage then we could carry. We had been so accustomed to having the car that we didn't realize how much stuff we had accumulated. As is typical for all of New Zealand the ferry crossing was extremely scenic. We actually met a few people on board including some Kiwi's (that's slang for New Zealanders) that were very helpful in giving us some pointers on what to do in the South Island. We also met a fellow traveler from Scotland, named Neil MacLeod. It so happened that Neil was trying to get to the same place that we were driving to that afternoon and he came across as a nice fellow, so we decided to ask him if he just wanted to ride with us. Neil was a great addition--he had some great stories to keep us entertained for what was by far our longest drive of the trip. He was from Inverness known for the Loch Ness monster and thick Scottish accents, which he definitely had. The drive was very long, but the scenery was great and somewhat different from the North Island. The North Island was more about picture perfect, rolling, green hills whereas the South Island was filled with wide open meadows surrounded by huge jagged mountains with snow at the peaks. The roads were even windier. I can only imagine what Neil thought he had gotten himself into because the whole drive down Maria and I sounded like a married couple, even though we are just friends, complaining about each other's driving. After getting to the coast and seeing even more unbelievably scenic places, including Pancake Rocks, we eventually made to Franz Josef our final destination.
Slip, sliding away
Our reason for our stop in Franz Josef was to hike a glacier. The particularly unusual thing about this glacier is that it is in the middle of the rain forest, but because the snow just piles up so quickly there the heat doesn't have enough time to melt it, however on a given day the glacier will melt several meters only to be rebuilt overnight. The glacier was unbelievable. For the entire day we hiked up the glacier wearing crampons (the spiky things that go on the bottom of your shoe). We slid through crevasses (some of these I did not think I had a chance of fitting through, and I am not exactly a big guy), we explored some ice caves, played around with the pick axe, which at times was useful but really was a glorified walking stick, but it made me feel more rugged to hold it and not to mention it was a great prop for the endless amount of photos I was taking. Overall it was an amazing day of just playing around on a giant ice cube. That night I dropped Maria off at a nearby airport as she had to get going onto Argentina to meet up with her relatives and her brother.
Skiing off rock ledges with moderate success
That did not mean however that I was traveling alone because Neil decided that he wanted to come along, which was great. We decided to try to go skiing, which for me was not originally part of the plan, but we did have a free day and only a five hour drive. Along the road to Queenstown, there are plenty of ski areas. It's the first time I have ever skied in July. Neil and I only were able to fit in a half day because on the way to the ski area we stopped to take too many pictures, but Treble Cone Ski Area wasn't overwhelmingly big so a half-day was perfect. The skiing was a little icy, which for a person used to skiing in Colorado in the thick of the winter, it isn't a condition that I am particularly fond of. In addition the obstacles weren't really marked so I few times I found myself flying off of an unexpected rock ledge, and I would say about 50 percent of the time I managed them successfully. However, the views from the ski area were stunning. From the top you could see a lake and a river that reflected the mountains above--unreal. Did I mention that New Zealand is scenic yet? Eventually, Neil and I finished skiing and continued on the Queenstown after a brief stop to watch the sunset behind the snow-capped mountains.
Bungy jumping with the “crazy American”
Queenstown is rumored by other Kiwis to be a big tourist trap. Well, they were right, I was certainly hooked. As usual it was in a very scenic location, but there were so many adventure activities to do that were just a short distance outside of town and there were certainly a plethora of tourist companies offering to take me out to them. I had signed up for the Nevis Bungy Jump, which is the highest bungy jump in New Zealand at a height of 134 meters (about 440 feet). Neil at first said he was going to come watch me, but didn't want to come across as a wimp, so with some hesitancy he signed up, blaming me for convincing him to do it even though I said nothing. He called his girlfriend and said, "This crazy American is getting me into things that I have no business doing." From then on out whenever he talked to his girlfriend she referred to me as the crazy American. Anyways, the jump was from a cable car hung in the middle of a canyon. I have to admit my heart was beating quite rapidly and the cold weather was just a convenient excuse to explain why I was shaking. After a few people jumped (they make the heaviest people jump first or else of course I would have been the first one to go--they just wouldn't let me), I started to get a hold of myself and by the time I was ready to jump I had no problem. Neil said that he didn't even have time to take a picture of me because as soon as I got to the platform I didn't wait. Apparently, the guy who holds the rope said, "You are all set" not realizing that I had already jumped--I apparently just kind of blacked out right before jumping because I didn't notice any of this. It was an amazing feeling though going head first towards a small creek. It was such an amazing feeling I did it twice.
The adventure for the day wasn't over yet though because Neil and I also decided to ride some jet boats in the Shotover River. Jet boats need the water to only be at a depth of about 4 inches to operate because they just glide across the top of the water. The driver took us through narrow canyons right next to the rocks at what seemed like pretty fast speeds, and at various times he would throw the boat into a 360. Surprisingly only one person got a little sick. That night Neil and I had a few pints after eating at this burger joint named Fergberger that I highly recommend for their ridiculously huge and good burgers. We said our farewells as we were heading different directions in the morning.
Town closed for rugby game
The following day I was to head to Te Anau, which was a short drive away so I killed some time in Queenstown before getting going. I was almost beginning to take the scenery for granted on the drive down. I was definitely getting into a rural area as the only traffic that I passed during the three hour drive were three cars and six sheep that had gotten loose. I decided that I had had enough of hostels and wanted something a little more personal so I opted to stay in a Bed and Breakfast, which was a great choice. Te Anau is another tourist town, but because of how far south it is and how cold it is there in the winter, it is only popular during the summer. When I got there nothing was open, not even the grocery store. I thought that maybe it was because everything had closed down during the winter, but it turns out that I happened to show up when the local rugby team had a very important game. I only discovered this because I heard tons of cars honking and a bunch of people cheering. When I went to explore I found a rugby field surrounded by people who had parked their cars there to watch the game. So I sat down in the grass and killed the afternoon just watching rugby halfway understanding what was going on because the rules, even though I played the sport for a year, are slightly confusing. It felt like a New Zealand version of the “Sandlot,” even though the players were older. That night I watched more rugby at the local bar because New Zealand was taking on Australia in a very important game. New Zealand's legendary team, the All Blacks, crushed Australia.
Good bye to my favorite place
Milford Sound is a popular tourist destination as well, but once again typically only during warmer times. It was freezing outside, so logically I decided that I should go kayaking in Milford Sound. Honestly though, I love sea kayaking and I figured it would be a great way to see one of New Zealand's most beautiful places. The drive there was slightly interesting because of how windy, mountainous, remote, and slick the road were, but I made it of course after stopping for a few photo opportunities. The guide was a Kiwi who said that due to the winds the trip might be "quite adventurous." Coming from a Kiwi (I am convinced that all Kiwi's have a death wish) that kind of got my attention. However once we got out there the water was quite calm. The clouds had descended upon the sound and covered the tops of the surrounding mountains giving it a real mystical feel. My tour group consisted of four people including the guide and besides one ferry that I saw we were the only people I saw all day out on the sound. It was really serene, relaxing, and a great activity to close out my New Zealand stop. Driving back that afternoon to Te Anau I couldn't believe that I had to leave my favorite place that I have ever been to. I made many stops to hike along various trails that went off from the side of the road. I just spent the afternoon playing and exploring. A drive that should have taken me one hour took four because I knew that I was leaving and I just wanted to do as much as possible before I did.
Twenty-eight rather enjoyable hours in the air
The next morning I packed up, drove to Queenstown, and sent a package back with stuff I didn't need before boarding a plane to Christchurch. I had a few hours to explore Christchurch, which was a very quiet, calm city. Then I boarded my plane for my flight to London which was to take a total of 28 hours in the air. It sounds miserable, but because of Emirates airlines and how nice the Dubai airport is, it was actually rather enjoyable. Not to do Emirates's advertising for them, but their in-flight entertainment is unmatched with 500 channels of entertainment and a video game system at your control and their service is unbelievable. Any airline from America does not even begin to compare.
Back to familiar territory: Oxford, England
After the epic flight and a short bus ride I made it to familiar territory. I had spent the previous summer at Oxford with the SMU program and this summer I decided to stop in to meet up with a friend named John Wimer who was going to travel for a couple of weeks after the program with me through Eastern Europe. I spent four days at Oxford and it was deja vu all over again and a lot of fun not to mention nice to be in a place for several days. It was the first time that I had been in a place for longer than three days since graduation. I caught up with several of the professors, which as anyone who has done the Oxford program knows, the professors, both the SMU ones and the Oxford ones, and Dusty and the Rev. Bill Sikes make that trip into the best five weeks one can hope for, so I definitely enjoyed getting to see them again. Overall, it was a fun stop, even though I did feel like that guy who has just graduated and shows up at SMU things because he refuses to let go of college, but if you understood how good the Oxford program is, it is hard to blame me for that.
When in Croatia . . .
Wimer and I had an early flight to Croatia. After spending the entire first half of the day in Split, Croatia trying to figure out how to get to Korcula Island, we figured out that with our time constraints we couldn't make it, so we settled for Brac Island, which was quite pleasant and reminded me a little of what Italy is supposed to be like, in other words scenic, full of cafes, and not overrun with tourists. The next day though we just decided to get onto Dubrovnik because we had heard really good things, which to say the least were accurate. Dubrovnik is the nicest European city that I have been to and I have been to several. Wimer and I were lucky enough to meet a fellow who grew up in Georgia, but had Croatian roots and I had decided to move back. He gave a few pointers, which were spot on. He said to live as the Croatians do, which we did. Let me tell you the Croatians must live one heck of a life. During the middle of the day when it is hottest we didn't bother trying to beat the heat, like most of the tourists did and we just went to the beach to swim. In the afternoon, we went to explore the historic downtown which was correctly described by George Bernard Shaw as "the pearl of the Adriatic." It was a city surrounded by walls, the roads inside were all made of marble, and we spent the whole time tripping over different outdoor cafes while passing by various street performers that were particularly talented I thought. Wimer and I were even lucky enough to get a private tour of the walls by one of the guards because we got stuck in a part of the walls while we were walking because it started to rain. We got stuck all the way until closing time. The guard though said we couldn't come down from the wall until we had seen the ocean side view. So he took us around the wall on basically a free private tour, which is particularly special because typically the walls are crowded with tourists.
Wimer and I bought him a beer to say thanks and we chatted with him for a little while. I asked him a few questions about the war times they had gone through during the early 90's, even though I was hesitant because I am sure that he always gets those questions, but he was happy to answer. Eventually though, as does all conversations around a beer between three guys, he started asking us questions about what American women were like. He couldn't understand why women from Western Europe and the few he had met from America thought he was too pushy. Apparently, it was because even though missing a few teeth, his method of flirting was just skipping flirting altogether and just starting to kiss the girl. Wimer and I got a good laugh out of this.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Arsenal Gunners
The next morning Wimer and I came back to reality after attending a few museums and exhibitions on the war that had recently occurred in Croatia and on the horrors of war in general. Then we were off to a much less touristy area, the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. Zagreb was a rugged city covered in graffiti even on their government buildings. We lucked out however because it so happened the local football club (soccer team), Dinamo Zagreb was playing the Arsenal Gunners that night. We got some tickets off of scalpers because the game was sold out. Actually it was more than sold out, they sell so many tickets that not only is there no more sitting room, but there was hardly any standing room. The atmosphere was crazy until the Gunners scored three goals in the second half in a short time span, which completely deflated the Croatian crowd.
Broke in Ljubljana
It was time to get up to Slovenia. Our first stop was Ljubljana (Loob-ee-ahh-na). Ljubljana was home to poor luck. The place was rumored to be the new Prague, which I sort of agreed with and it definitely did not have nearly as many tourists. Unfortunately, though Wimer and I quickly were limited to what we could do because of money. My bank card had been over drafted because my roommates had cashed my rent checks for while I was gone all at once, so I was waiting on a transfer of money before I had any access to cash, and Wimer's bank card was not being accepted at any ATM. So, in typical college fashion, I did what every other kid would do, I pulled out the parents’ credit card for "Emergency use only," I decided this qualified. Wimer and I enjoyed a huge meal that allowed me to feel full for the first time in months. We then explored the city a little bit, checked out the castle on the hilltop, went to a Slovenian national and natural history museum, which had a great exhibit on earthquakes. Eventually, my money transferred into my bank account and we were able to get out and do some stuff, but it had been kind of fun just always searching for free stuff to do.
The main reason that Wimer and I had come to Slovenia was to get to a wedding in Bled, Slovenia. Stephanie Gschwendtner, another SMU student, had an older brother that was getting married. Mr. Gschwendtner, Stephanie's dad, was one of the people who had helped me plan my trip because he absolutely loves to travel and has covered a good portion of the globe; so much of my trip was based upon his good recommendations. First off Bled was beautiful. It was a lake nestled in the Slovenian Alps with an extremely old church on an island in the middle of it and a castle on a ridge overlooking the lake. A family of swans even patrolled the lake to make the environment feel even more like a fairy tale. It was a bit of a resort town, complete with rope swings, rowing, and my favorite--the alpine slide. The wedding was extremely fun and well done. Stephanie continually wondered how she could possibly have as cool of a wedding without just doing exactly the same thing. The wedding was held at the church in the middle of the lake after we were paddled out there on boats. Afterwards, the groom had to carry the bride up 99 steps, before we went on to the dinner and reception in the castle overlooking the lake. It had been raining all day right up until it was time for the wedding to start when the rain thankfully took a break. Wimer and I at first felt like we were a little out of place considering everybody there were Darrell and Jamie's (the groom and bride) best friends and closest family members, and then there was us--we kind of thought of ourselves as John and Jeremy from the movie wedding crashers. However, everybody there was so nice to us and it was unbelievable at how much they tried to incorporate us into everything even though the last thing we wanted to do was get in their way. Not to mention they fed us really good food, especially considering a backpacker's budget. We really appreciated it and had a great time and it was a great way to get some energy for the last week of our trip.
Float the moat
Wimer and I felt as if we could have spent a couple of more days in Bled, but it was time to move on. Our next stop was Lithuania, the first of three Baltic countries. Because we had a limited amount of time in the Baltics, we realized that we really only had time to check out the capitals of each country, which also happened to be their biggest cities. This was unfortunate, but we had to move and we moved fast. Vilnius was the first city we went to. We basically just saw the sights including the Stebuklas tile which is a small tile right outside of the big cathedral where a human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius (across the Baltics) ended. It was part of a protest against Soviet occupation. Much of what we learned in the Baltics had to do with the Soviet occupation and the Nazi occupation for that matter. Otherwise in Vilnius we just kind of walked around various places, in fact much of the town was closed because of a holiday so many of the museums and sights we wanted to see we couldn't. We did go see a nice castle called Trakai and we rode paddle boats that were shaped like dolphins around the lake that the castle was in, or maybe it was a moat, but if it was a moat, it was a heck of a moat and the first active one that I have ever experienced. The only other point of interest in Vilnius was Uzupis, which was a small section of town filled with artists and drunks that had to declare themselves an independent republic with a bizarre constitution, including one rule that "Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat."
We hopped on a bus and started on our way to Riga, Latvia with a quick stop in Siaulai, Lithuania to see the Hill of Crosses, which was a powerful testament to resistance against the Soviets. The Hill of Crosses was..well..it was a hill of a bunch of Christian crosses (Lithuanians are quite religious). They were put there to remember loved ones and for other memorial type reasons. However, the Soviets for propaganda reasons and to try to eradicate religion bulldozed I think on more than one occasion only to find that many of the crosses would be put back up overnight at the risk of death on the part of the Lithuanians. Knowing that story it was a really cool sight. After that short stop it was on to Riga after a small problem with our bus not showing up and Wimer and I having to jump on a different one. To be honest at this time I was beginning to get really tired and Wimer was pretty tired himself, so we started taking things easier.
bobsleds? We’ll take the AK-47s
In Riga, we were really excited to get to ride the bobsled even though it would be on wheels, but we found out it was only run on weekends during the summer and we weren't there on weekends. Instead we settled on firing AK-47's. Our target was a person who had taken a woman hostage--I don't think Wimer got the point that we weren't supposed to shoot the woman as she had more holes in her than the hostage taker. The Latvian girl that took us to the shooting range found that quite amusing. Otherwise in Riga we went to a museum of the occupation that discussed the occupation of Latvia and the Baltics in general. During World War II times it is amazing how the Soviets and Nazi's just threw the Baltics around like a football without any regard to the people. It was a tragic, but fascinating story. Wimer and I just took easy after that--we experienced cafe culture at its finest and went across the river to get great views of the city. In our last stop at Tallinn, Estonia, we relaxed even more. We had a huge Estonian breakfast of pancakes with various fillings--my personal favorite was one topped with honey, bananas, and vanilla ice cream. In the afternoon we took a bicycle tour with an Estonian guide that basically described to us how much the Russians are still hated and not just on a political level--I was told by some Russians that they are often times refused service in a store because they are Russian. Overall, though throughout the Baltic countries, I found the Baltic people to be extremely nice even though they had every right to be hardened and rude after all they had been used to. That is they were extremely nice unless you were Russian. That was about all for the Baltics, but I had a good taste for them and definitely want to go back when I have more time to do it and more energy.
No place like home
After that it was time to start the process of going home. We flew to London and just walked around the city for the day. The following day Wimer flew home and I had a full day to just hang out in London. I went to the Salvador Dali museum (he is one of my favorite artists, even though he is slightly bizarre), and I walked from Parliament to the Tower Bridge and back before having one last meal at a pub. I went to the airport the night before, which I had done almost exactly one year earlier. After quite a mess of security to get through I boarded my flight home on my way back to Dallas. It's good to be home, but it certainly was a fun and interesting trip.
July 22nd was my birthday and there was no better way to turn 22 than to hike one of New Zealand's most scenic crosssings--the Tongariro. Many scenes from the movie series "Lord of the Rings" were actually filmed at this place. As it was winter in New Zealand much of the hike was in the snow, but we had such good weather and could see for miles that we could easily see the east coast and some of the lowlands that were not covered by snow. The guides got a few good laughs when they saw I had lugged a bottle of champagne along for this whole crossing just so I could open it at the top. One of the more hilarious pictures I have is where I am sliding down the mountain on my bum drinking some champagne. Overall the Tongariro was beautiful and it was a good 17km hike.
To finish my birthday celebration we went to Hawke's Bay vineyards on July 23rd, but the way I figured was that because of the time difference it was actually still July 22nd in the States. We went to four vineyards tasting some great wine, and may have even had a little too much wine. Thank goodness that we had a driver. Under the influence of the wine I purchased four bottles of it for myself without thinking how I was going to lug it all back.
The following day I woke up quite early because while I was under the influence of the wine I apparently had signed up to try my hand at flying a plane. Maria had signed up to do skydiving. So we went to the local airport, where I received about 15 minutes of instruction on the ground got in the plane expecting that once we got up there I would get to play around with the controls. However, the instructor started explaining to me how to take off and I quickly learned that I was going to do the takeoff, which was quite a thrill. In fact, with 15 minutes of instruction under my belt I apparently was ready to do the takeoff, fly the plane, and even land it (well the instructor controlled the power on the landing because he said that is the most crucial part). It was quite fun and only cost $30 (keep in mind that I don't suggest choosing where to learn to fly based upon what is the cheapest). The rest of the day was spent driving with two stops. One stop was at a Kiwi House to check out the Kiwi birds which is New Zealand's national symbol (in fact New Zealanders are usually called Kiwis themsevles). Another stop was at the Tui brewery. Of course, there were also many stops to take photos. That night was spent in Wellington, which seemed like a nice place, but we really didn't have much time to check it out.
Maria and I arrived in Auckland on July 18th after an overnight flight from Bangkok. We immediately picked up our rental car and bought some cold weather clothes considering we had gone from temperatures in the 90's to temperatures in the 40's and 30's. It was nighttime before we began our drive to Tutukaka (yes that is right we went from Bangkok to Tutukaka in a day--sorry the names still make me laugh). New Zealand was quite a treat to drive in because the roads were windy and narrow making them fun and difficult, and it was also an experience trying to remember to stay on the left side of the road.
The next day we woke up to some high winds, but the guys at the dive shop said we were going to try to get out still to Poor Knights Marine Reserve to do some Scuba Diving. Those winds sure did cause some high seas--the swells were up to about 4 meters, but we eventually made it through the sea to the Marine Reserve and got in some diving. The way I look at it, we got a free adventure boat ride out of the process. The diving was cold to say the least (usually about 3 minutes into the dive I was no longer able to feel my feet), but after I got passed being cold, the environment was like something that I had not seen before even in other dive sites. We were continually surrounded by kelp and I kind of felt like a fish myself as we swam through the kelp. Every so often I was reminded that I definitely was no fish when I bumped into a wall. Some of the stuff we saw down there included scorpionfish, eel, and some cool coral formations. Due to the rough seas, we were unable to dive some of the area's top dive sites, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless.
If driving New Zealand at night was fun, driving it during the day was slow. It was only slow because I demanded we stop about twelve million times to take pictures. New Zealand is the most beautiful country I have ever seen. In the North Island, which is where we were at this point, is full of endless picturesque green fields dotted with various farm animals, which are typically sheep. Also, there were some amazing views of the coast. The only reason I did not spend the entire day taking pictures was because Maria kept me motivated to move on quickly at the promise that we could watch Pirates of the Carribbean 2 in Auckland as a rest stop (I am a 5 year old when it comes to movies). I loved the movie of course and can't wait for the 3rd. I have a slight obsession with pillaging people throughout history and because of that I almost demanded we stay in Auckland for an extra day to see the grand opening of Viking exhibit that was to occur the following day. As it was, Maria convinced me it wasn't worth paying $50 to extend my stay in New Zealand just for a Viking exhibit and we decided to continue on to Waitomo.
We were following a strict itenerary put together by a New Zealand travel agent and the reason he brought us to Waitomo was to do some caving. We were supposed to be on a full day trip, but because of rains, we had to do two half day trips to avoid the flooded areas of the cave. Thank goodness we did because we got to do a part of the cave that we were orginally not signed up to do. That was the most adventurous part where we rappelled down waterfalls within the cave, did some rockclimbs within in the cave while waterfalls were pounding down on our heads, and at one point we even had to hold our breath and go under the water to get under a wall of the cave. To add to it, there were many other tight squeezes and even some glowworms. That was just the morning. That afternoon we did a 100m abseil down into a giant cave which we hiked around for a little while. All in all, it was fun. I started to realize that New Zealand was going to be one big playground.
24 hours in Kuala Lampur
I arrived in Kuala Lampur really tired from all of the traveling. It was actually an eight-hour flight so I was somewhat jetlagged. As soon as I got out of the airport terminal, I felt like prey fed to the predators as I, a virgin to Southeast Asia, suddenly found myself among what seemed like hundreds of cab drivers each wanting to take me to my hotel--it was extremely annoying, but finally I bargained one down to a reasonable price, something that I got more practice with as my trip went on. Honestly, I should not have even stopped in Kuala Lampur because I didn't have enough time to do anything. I managed to get a decent night sleep in what was supposedly a four star hotel (only cost $35--everything is so cheap) and the only other things I did were to see the Petronas Towers and buy some less than authentic Polo, Lacoste, and Fred Perry shirts for something like $5 each. I even missed my flight leaving from Kuala Lampur because my flight was flying out of a terminal that had just been built and because of that I got off the train at the wrong terminal, which was a 20-minute cab ride away from the other terminal. After just buying another plane ticket instead of waiting until the following day, I eventually made it to Bangkok to meet up with Maria and Lauren at the airport in time for our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Slam-landing in Hanoi
Hanoi was immediately interesting, especially because our plane didn't land--it basically just slammed into the ground, thankfully it was wheel first, but I would hardly call it a landing. Even in our cab ride to our hostel I could tell just how different the place was to anything I had experienced. The cab driver continually honked as he passed people, which I later came to find out was actually required of Hanoi drivers, but it was really annoying. We passed tons of motorcycles that had three or four passengers on them or enough cargo to feed a small army--it was insane. We spent our time in Hanoi seeing the city and its sights, including the Hanoi Hilton, which was really interesting. I also tracked down a typical Vietnamese farmer type outfit and one of those ridiculous conical hats that many people think of when they think of Vietnam. I wore the outfit off and on as I toured Vietnam and looked absolutely ridiculous, especially considering I found out later that the hat that I was wearing was only for girls--it would be like wearing lederhosen in Germany or a woman's kilt in Scotland. The city itself I thought was incredibly dirty (in some of the bathrooms, people actually just go on the floor) and crowded (walking across traffic was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life) and honestly I wasn't overly impressed with the people. I thought that they were really out to rip me off and they weren't even polite about ripping me off. I think they have a little to learn about dealing with tourists, but that is my opinion and that of several other travelers I met (Maria not included). The best part of Hanoi was when we took a 2-day side trip to Halong Bay, where we lived aboard a boat and got fed amazing food and saw some unbelievable scenery. The second best part about Hanoi was Bia Hoi, which sold beer for 12.5 cents.
China Beach and tailor-made shoes
I was happy to leave Hanoi to try out other parts of Vietnam and I was especially excited about our next stop--Hoi An. I had read a lot about it and it sounded like it would be a really nice place. We were picked up by motorbike at the airport, which wouldn't really be that interesting except for my backpack is almost as big as me and when you add that to the driver plus me all on one motorbike--it should not fit, but it did and let's just say that the motorbike driver and I were quite close to each other on the seat of the motorbike. I even burned the back of my leg on the exhaust, which now allows me to talk about when I was injured in 'Nam. We ended up at a great little hostel in China Beach. China Beach itself was amazing in that no one was ever on the beach because Vietnamese people think lighter skin is better so they avoid the sun as much as they can, so the beach was always wide open. The hostel was really neat because every night we sat down to family style dinners and everyone at the hostel would sit down to eat together. It was cooked by Hoa and his wife (the owners of the place). Hoa had picked up on some of the backpacker's lingo so it was great to here him crack jokes in English--it was just a fun place. Some Norwegians were staying there so we made some good jokes about Vikings, but they really upset me when they informed me that they don't actually ride polar bears to school. Hoi An is known for shopping. Honestly, I needed a suit for later in the trip so I decided to get a suit tailor made just for me (completed in one day including a second fitting) for $70. The quality isn't amazing, but all things considered it is pretty good, especially realizing how fast they did it. The part that I did not like was that I was under the impression that the suits were done in house by a tailor, but in fact they were done at factory shops outside of town after a customer picked out the style, fabric, and measurements he wanted. I even had shoes tailor made for me. They can make anything. We did some other cool things in the area as well including visiting Marble Mountain (a mountain of marble--relatively self-explanatory) where they did amazing marble carvings and I was almost tempted into buying two huge marble elephants. We also rode around on the back of motorbikes through the countryside to get a glimpse of rural life, which was really cool (I even rode with the same guy that picked me up from the airport, now that we were so close).
Independence Day in Saigon
I started to enjoy Vietnam at that point. Our final stop was Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as some know it. It was another interesting flight there as this time we did a triple jump upon landing as we bounced a couple of times when we landed, while swerving (I am making a t-shirt that says I survived airplane rides in Southeast Asia). We did not have much time to see this city, but I must say that it was much cleaner and less congested than Hanoi. It was definitely more modern as well. The main thing that we wanted to do was to see some of the museums, which we did, including the Independence Palace and the War Remnants Museum, which was a horrible reminder of what the war must have been like. The following day was July 4th, which was an interesting day to go see the Cu Chi Tunnels--it made it hard to look at some of the blown up American tanks, the booby traps that were used to kill American soldiers in the jungle, or even the drawings of what would happen to the soldiers as they fell into the traps. It made me pause a little to realize how much I respect what those men must have went through--I couldn't take a picture next to the blown up tank (this is rare because I take a picture next to everything) because it felt to distasteful on our Independence Day to take a picture next to something that was a deathtrap to Americans whose wives could still be alive, in fact it would feel distasteful any day, but especially on July 4th. I spoke with another American on our tour that had the same feeling. These tunnels were tunnels that the Vietcong forces used to hide from American forces right outside Saigon. The tunnels were tiny and I could barely fit even after they had been widened for tourists. It was a really interesting tour and one of the highlights of my trip especially because I fired an M16 assault rifle, which was my substitute for fireworks--I went temporarily deaf though I think right afterwards. So we left Vietnam on a high note.
Blake’s soapbox: Cambodia
Before going to Thailand we wanted to see the temple of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which is such a tourist hot spot that it is not really authentic Cambodia. We spent three days going around the temples including Angkor Wat (one of the seven manmade wonders of the world), Angkor Thom, another temple in the jungle where they filmed some scenes of the movie “Tomb Raider” and I could see why, and by the end of the third day, honestly, I was sick of temples. The only other thing that we saw was the floating village. It is an extremely poor (at least by American standards) village where all of the houses are built to actually float so that when it floods, the houses simply rise with the flood waters, even the school is built this way. It was neat in this regard, but at the same time it made me frustrated. There were so many beggars (by this time I was used to being regarded as a walking money dispenser, especially after all of the vendors at the temples had been trying to get me to buy their stuff). What frustrates me about the beggars is if so many people are in this dire poverty, then there has to be something wrong with the system that they live in. The problem is that all of the intellectuals (this included some people with any kind of education even just elementary school) and political activists were purged (as killed in mass killing fields) in the ‘70s so the culture is one of fear of the government and a lack of education because all of the educated were killed off just one generation ago. It really gets me when you see a country racked by poverty because of a few sick individuals were able to manipulate the whole country. Of course though it makes me realize how privileged I am, but I feel as if I am pretty aware of that, but it is impossible to just give money to everyone that asks. Anyways, I will now get off of my soapbox and talk about Thailand, my favorite stop in Southeast Asia.
Dancing with the tigers
Maria and Lauren separated from me in Bangkok. They had already been to the north and I hadn't so they went to get scuba certifications down in Ko Tao and I stayed up north for a week. That first night I could not get that song "One Night in Bangkok" out of my head, but all I did was watch Muay Thai boxing. The next morning I was up before the sun and stored my huge backpack at the Bangkok hostel and just took off up north with my daypack and small backpack. It was nice to get rid of that monstrous backpack.
My first stop was Kanchanaburi. I wanted to see the bridge over the River Kwai, which I did along with the JEATH museum, which told the story of the death railway built by prisoners of war during World War II under harsh conditions enforced by brutal Japanese soldiers. The rail was used to connect Thailand and Burma and was destroyed by the end of the war by Allied bombers. I had also heard about this crazy temple where it is possible to walk among live tigers that were brought to the temple as part of a rescue effort. So I rented a moped to drive out to go check it out. The moped ride itself took me through some beautiful areas. Everything I had heard was true, I paid a small donation and volunteers escorted me out among many live tigers where were resting in a canyon. I could pet them and they took pictures of me with them. I woke one tiger up while I was petting it and its yawn was enough of a growl to really leave me frozen in place, then when it started moving, I thought I was tiger food--thankfully the tiger was a little groggy and just wanted to check me out and I lived.
face in Chiang Mai
After that near death experience, I decided I better get going to Chiang Mai. Getting to Chiang Mai was a different experience than I had ever had. My original intention was to get there by overnight train, but it was completely booked and the flights were too expensive, so someone told me to try the overnight buses. Out of the million or so people at the bus station, I was probably the only Caucasian. It was definitely the mode of transport of choice for Thai people. The bus was nice though and it even had a hostess. It left at 1130PM and arrived in Chiang Mai at 900AM. I would certainly recommend that as a way to travel. That day in Chiang Mai as I was checking in a my guesthouse someone grabbed by the shoulder and said "NO way." Startled, I turned around to see Prem, another SMU student randomly at the same guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand that I was staying at--small world. That day I spent relaxing--I got a Thai massage, slept in a hammock, and had a private Thai cooking course, where I cooked up some things I never knew I could cook (I am not really a good cook, in fact I am barely domesticated).
The next day was truly one of the best days of the trip. I rented a moped again and drove two hours to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center outside of Lampang. This was Maria's suggestion and it was a good one. I loved the elephants--they painted, played music, performed crazy tricks, showed off how they used to be used for logging, etc. I fed them, I rode them, I watched them bathe--it was loads of fun. I was told that this center raised money for the preservation of the elephants, and I really believed that when I went to the elephant hospital on the grounds. One image is particularly tough to get out of my head. A baby elephant was missing a leg because he had stepped on a land mine. His mom was with him in the holding pen and you could see just how upset she was while watching her baby try to just stand up. It was really one of the saddest things I had ever seen and I encourage anyone interested in learning about the efforts of this hospital and how they can help to visit www.faespain.com <http://www.faespain.com> . I spent the rest of the day driving to a temple called What Phra Tat Lampang Luang, which was a really cool temple and some guy who spoke perfect English actually grabbed me and put me in the ceremony--I had no idea what I was doing, but I came to realize I had shown up on the temple on a religious holiday. The same guy even took me into a very unique part of the temple that only men were allowed to see--it was a pretty cool experience.
The next morning I woke up and decided to sign up for a two day "hill tribe trek." I didn't read the brochure close enough, but I had actually signed up for quite a physically demanding hike that ended up being 11km straight uphill--Thai people either don't believe in switchbacks or just haven't heard of them yet--through the rainforest. It was extremely hot. We camped out in a cabin among village people and cooked food bought at a local market (the local market was a huge hassle, the tribe people would not leave me alone until I bought something--their scams are so elaborate that women will pay a mother to rent a baby for the day so that she can lay more guilt on a person to buy something from her to "feed her baby" so I always offered to just give them food and not money, which they really did not like, in fact sometimes they would accept the food from people and then sell it back to the vendor for a cheap price and take the money, so it can be frustrating to deal with these people). The hill tribe people are quite reliant on tourists so they are used to them, but the whole thing felt gimmicky and I wasn't too big on it. I did enjoy my tour group, as I was the only American so I got to meet some Polish people and English people and hang out with them. The second day of the trek was slightly easier. I got to ride an elephant again and we went white water rafting (our guide was good enough to get us completely stuck on a rock and we almost sank a raft, which I didn't think was possible) and then we went bamboo rafting (the raft was designed to carry two people but our guide crammed on five, meaning that the whole raft including us on it were actually under water as we floated down river). Even with all that, I still enjoyed the trek--it was a bit of an experience.
The following morning was my last in Chiang Mai and I decided I wanted to go visit some of the temples. I also decided to get a guide so that I actually learned something about the temples. Well my guide just drove me to temples and refused to actually walk around the temples with me and do his job as a guide. He tried to tell me that in Buddhism, they like tourists to learn for themselves...right...it was a load of you know what, so I said then if I am learning by myself he is free to go and since he did no work, I paid him accordingly--it's easy to get left with a sour taste for some of these Southeast Asians, but overall honestly, I really liked the Thai people--they were very nice, unfortunately the nice people don't make for nearly as good of stories as the scammers.
I left Chaing Mai to go meet up with Maria and Lauren in the southern islands. I received an email that they had switched plans and were no longer meeting me in Ko Phan Ngan at the resort that we had already rented, but instead they wanted me to meet them at Ko Tao where they said it was just partying and scuba diving and loads of fun. In all honesty though, I wanted the resort. It was a really nice resort and it was so cheap by American standards and I just wanted to relax. I ended up just going to Ko Phan Ngan myself and living in luxury on a beautiful beach. The resort actually upgraded me for free to a superior room so I had a king size bed, cable TV--I even got to watch a Red Sox game, and a view that overlooked the infinity pool and the beach. I spent the days there just relaxing--I built a sand castle with some German kids, I sea kayaked, I swam, I had American food, it was a great time of regeneration.
Off to New Zealand
Just before leaving Thailand I met back up with Maria and Lauren, who were raving on and on about Ko Tao. We flew back to Bangkok where Maria and I spent one more day buying some cheap stuff, while Lauren unfortunately had to go home. Maria and I were then off to New Zealand where I am now--it is heaven.
Sinking a schooner in Sydney
As usual my trip started off with me rushing to barely catch my plane. Probably not to anyone's surprise, I was late. I was running errands until 1.5 hours before my flight. I made it to the DFW airport 40 minutes before my plane was due to take off for L.A. en route to Sydney, Australia, but I made it. It was weird arriving in Sydney on June 3rd, considering I had left on June 1st.
I met up with my friend Kevin, another SMU student, who had landed in Sydney on a different flight 10 minutes before me. We immediately dropped our bags off at our hostel and set out to explore. Because we missed a whole day while flying we decided to make up for it by going straight to a bar to have a beer to kick off our trip. We went to the Lord Nelson, famous for how old it was and for its Quayle Ale, named after our former Vice President. The problem was that the bar was not open yet for business--it was 9:30 in the morning and when we walked in the bar the bartendress was shocked--we still obviously were yet to adjust to Sydney time. She told us to come back at 11. So we killed an hour and half by walking around the Rocks area, seeing the famous Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, Argyle Place--a part of Sydney that was really well kept and quite a nice place. We made it back to the bar at 11:02 to kick off the trip by "sinking a schooner" as they called it at that bar. So now that the trip had ceremoniously began we were ready...after a short nap of 5 hours. That night we met up briefly with Natalie, another SMU student who was studying in Sydney at Darling Harbour--a great night spot in Sydney. The rest of the time in Sydney we mainly just saw the sights, hung out with these two English girls that we met at the hostel (I have met more British people on this trip than I did when I was in England for five weeks last summer), went to the Sydney aquarium where I got to see the elusive Duckbill Platypus--probably one of my top three favorite animals) and just enjoyed Sydney even though it was colder than we expected (Kevin and I had this vision of Australia as always warm, with red rocks and kangaroos everywhere just blistering under the desert sun--apparently Australia also has winters, so we had to buy some more warm clothes).
Beware: kangaroos crossing
After that it was off to Perth to meet up with another friend named John who was doing the SMU study abroad program at Curtin University. He picked us up at the airport with a huge dent in his rental car. I asked him if that was how he got it and he said "Well no...I hit a [kanga]roo"--I finally felt like I had arrived in Australia. Perth was a great time. John actually was busy because his mom was in town so Kevin and I spent most of the time hanging out with Sarah and Jason, two other SMU students. Highlights included wine tasting at the various vineyards in Swan Valley, including the world famous Houghton winery, seeing the Pinnacles (rock formations), cuddling a wombat and petting a koala at an Australian petting zoo, mopeding around Fremantle, playing at a playground in Cottlesloe (Kevin got photographed while doing this for the local newspaper) going to Little Creatures (a local brewery) and just having a good laid back time.
Trapped in a rain forest
We could have stayed longer in Perth and seen more of the west coast, which I think people overlook when they think of going to Australia, but it was time to go to Cairns. The whole purpose of going to Cairns was the Great Barrier Reef and maybe see the rainforest. Well we got suckered into doing this tour that lasted two days in the rainforest at Cape Tribulation, which when we were booking it we were told it should be called Cape Trap because you won't want to leave. They were right about calling it Cape Trap, but it was called that because you were stuck there in the middle of the rainforest with nothing to do at a hostel that was pretty much a dump. I wasn't too big on the rainforest obviously partially because well not surprisingly--it rains all the time. It had a nice beach, but was always raining, so the beach was no good. We were so happy to get out of there. On the way back to Port Douglas we did get to see a Crocodile, but that might have been the only highlight of those two days. That night things started to look up when we watch Australia beat Japan in the World Cup. Australians were going nuts--they were so into the World Cup even though this was the first time they had been there in many years. They called their team the Socceroos--kind of a weak name I thought, but it was fun rooting for them with other Australians. Just as things looked up though, the next morning we had our scuba dive cancelled due to wind. Kevin and I didn't speak for a good 20 minutes. We met up with John who had come to Port Douglas to dive with us and he was not the happiest either. Instead we decided to have a good time going to the local Aboriginal park, where they teach you about the Aborigines. I really just wanted to learn how to throw a boomerang in all honesty, which they taught you to do, but they also had this corny laser light show that was one of the funnier things I had ever seen--I could not stop laughing.
Welcome to the Outback
We (now it was Kevin, John, and I all traveling together) were pretty frustrated about our time in Cairns because we didn't even go to the Great Barrier Reef at all and that was the whole point of that stop. We had a decent enough time though but were excited about our next stop in Alice Springs where we had booked a three-day tour in the outback to see Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon, and the Olgas. It was a great time. We had a very eclectic tour group that for the most part was older than us including Brits, Frenchies, a random guy from Tahiti who we called Batman because of how he randomly appeared out of the night when we signaled him with a flashlight (he didn't understand his nickname)--the group somehow mixed really well. We became known as "Team America" and were quite famous for the weird poses we struck in our pictures. We rode around in a 4WD bus, which went everywhere, crashing down trees, bushes, camels, whatever--Australians convert almost any car into 4WD including one of their more popular vehicles called the Ford Falcon, which looks like a modern El Camino. The tour was exactly what we wanted. We were disappointed that we could not climb Ayers Rock due to strong winds, but it was a good time sleeping out under the stars even though it was almost 0 degrees celsius, and seeing all of the sites was pretty neat. We also got some good information about Aborigines, especially their executioner man called the Kadachi (sp?) man--I would tell you all I know about him, but frankly he terrifies me--basically he knows how to turn any plant into a weapon, including one plant that he uses to blind you in your sleep. Aborigines in general are very good at using local plant life for anything imaginable--they are kind of like MacGuyvers of the bush, which isn't exactly abundant. Alice Springs we believe is the biggest noncoastal town in Australia--it consists of 32,000 people. So the town itself was quite boring and crawling with displaced Aborigines. We did try some kangaroo, crocodile, emu, and camel (I put them in order of best tasting to worst tasting) for dinner in Alice Springs--Australians joke that they are the only country to eat their national emblems.
A surprise gem
Next stop was Adelaide in Southern Australia. Adelaide was the surprise gem of the Australian trip. No one talks about going there, pretty much everyone just tours the east coast of Australia. Adelaide though should be at the top of everyone's list. The city itself is very well kept and quite scenic. From what we had read though prior to coming there was that Adelaide was a boring town--we read wrong. Unfortunately though, that it is what we planned on, so we didn't even stay in Adelaide for long--our whole point in going there was to get to a nearby island called Kangaroo Island. It was like the Jurassic Park of Australia--a Lost World of sorts. We went with another tour group this time that was much younger, but once again quite mixed with Brits, Germans, an Italian, a Chinese guy (who I am pretty sure understood nothing of what was going on) and other randoms. We saw seals, an echidna, koalas, which sleep twenty hours out of every day and occasionally will just fall from the top of their trees but are apparently ferocious when attacked, tons of kangaroos, which for a while I spent some energy trying to hop with them, and we even went out on a late night adventure to find penguins using red lights to spot them because they hate white light. By far though, the craziest part about the trip was the guide--he made the trip so much fun. It's hard to describe him, so I will just use a short story to give you an idea about him. I had told him about our troubles with diving in Cairns (at the time I was trying to figure out how to get back to Cairns to get some diving in, which is a whole story in itself--but a boring one). He said, "why don't you just dive in Adelaide?" He told me it was great diving, and I figured it would be different, something that not a lot of people do. I asked him if the divers had a big problem ever with the sharks which were quite prevalent in the area because of the seals--he said "oh yeah, my brother had a friend a couple of years ago who got taken by one, that sort of thing happens. A marine biologist got taken recently as well, the shark came up to the boat and grabbed him off of the ladder." He said all of these very nonchalantly and he was not kidding--needless to say I decided against the diving in Adelaide and to avoid sounding weak I just said that we didn't have enough time, which was relatively true. I really wish I could describe the guide in more detail, but one really has to experience him--he was awesome in an eccentric way.
Diving the Great Barrier Reef
Adelaide was supposed to be my last stop in Australia, but I couldn't leave without diving the Great Barrier Reef, so after some last minute flight changing, I literally was changing my flights as I was boarding the plane to Sydney which I was stopping at to catch my plane to Kuala Lampur. I finally figured it out and that night I met John, who had already planned to go back, in Cairns. For two days we lived on a ship and dove the GBR for a total of 5 dives including one night dive. We saw tons of marine life, some great coral, and a large turtle that I named Mr. Slowsky after the Comcast commercials. Turtles are another one of my favorite animals.
After all of that, I had finally had my fill of Australia and it was time to go on. I had a great time, but I needed to get to Kuala Lampur. I had a little trouble getting there because I almost missed my flight to KL after sleeping through my flight in Cairns that was to take me to Sydney to catch my flight to KL, but I made another flight in Cairns that got me to Sydney just in time. Basically, I am an idiot and I need my mother on these trips to wake me up in time--unfortunately she could not fit in the bag.
Travel philosophy: Go with the flow
I have a lot of expectations for this trip and I guess I should considering how much it is costing. Obviously, I want to see a lot and learn a lot about other kinds of cultures--it's always fun to see things from different perspectives or see how other people do different things. I even enjoy the planning aspect of a trip like this. It's great experience having to put together this kind of itinerary, deal with many entities in planning this event, figure out budgets, but at the same time I don't want to structure it too much so at times I can just go with the flow.
I have learned from prior travels that it is a terrible idea to travel just to complete a checklist, just to say "yeah I have been there and done that." I have also realized that while many people are interested in going to museums to see rare artifacts, I sometimes don't care if I see that artifact on a postcard and I spend my time doing something more active, involved with the surroundings, involved with people. Whether it's hanging out at a local bar and getting hammered with locals or going to a more rural location to see how people live life outside of the big tourist areas, I want to experience the location and not just see its sites. There are obviously some sites that can't be missed and actually are part of the experience.So all I hope to get out of this experience is just that--an experience--experience of seeing what life is like in other countries, experience of having a lot of fun doing things that you can't do in the U.S., experience of being extremely independent and fully responsible for myself, and at times experiencing awe-inspiring sites.
Getting ready: Clothes are complicated
So far I have had a Hepatitis A shot, polio shot, typhoid prevention medication, malaria prevention medication. I live by guidebooks--Lonely Planet are my favorite. Clothes are complicated--I will be in weather as cold as maybe 20 degrees or lower and as hot as 95 degrees with humidity. I need to have clothes for camping and clothes for a wedding. To make things easier for packing I am sending some stuff home with Kevin after Australia, buying clothes in Southeast Asia because they are so cheap, and having John bring me clothes in London, while sending some back with friends of mine from the Oxford program, so it's kind of a logistics effort. The biggest key is layers.
The itinerary that I attached is obviously far from complete. That's what I spend the little down time that I have on my trips doing (flight time is the best time for figuring out guidebooks).
Australia: (I am traveling with one friend, Kevin, who also graduated this year--he leaves at the end of the Australia leg; I am meeting two other SMU students who are already over there: Natalie in Sydney and John in Perth at Curtin University and John will travel with Kevin and I from Perth until the end of the Australia leg)
- Sydney — Opera House, the middle harbour, Bondi Beach
- Perth — Plan on renting mopeds to drive to the Pinnacles and some local wineries
- Cairns — The Great Barrier Reef and tropical rain forests
- Alice Springs — Uluru (Ayers Rock)
- Adelaide — Kangaroo Island (taking a 4WD camping tour that involves seeing lots of wildlife including kangaroos, seals, penguins, koalas, possibly duckbill platypus, we also do some sand surfing, etc.)
Southeast Asia: (I am alone until I meet up with Maria and Lauren, both SMU students, on June 25th in Bangkok. They travel all of Southeast Asia with me except I will go up to Northern Thailand while they go down to the beaches of Southern Thailand)
- Kuala Lampur — Petronas Towers
- Bangkok — Bunch of random stuff, markets, Muay Thai Boxing, maybe take a meditation class with Theravada Buddhist monks, get a massage
- Hanoi and Halong Bay — Hanoi is supposed to be a cool city, plus being in Northern Vietnam I am sure it will be a bit of a cultural experience considering the war. I want to visit some war museums to get their perspective. Halong Bay is just a beautiful two-day trip.
- Hoi An — Get some tailored clothing at ridiculously cheap prices.
- Ho Chi Minh — Cu Chi Tunnels/war museums. Check out the city and just observe the people.
- Siem Reap, Cambodia — Temples of Angkor Wat
- Northern Thailand — Elephant Conservation Centers, the markets of Chiang Mai, Hill Tribe Treks outside of Mae Hong Son.
- Ko Tao — Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Live life on the beach and there is a full moon party, which is supposed to be absolutely nuts.
New Zealand: (Maria continues with me and Lauren leaves. Maria is with me for the first week of New Zealand and then I am on my own for the second week).
London: (I am meeting up with people at the SMU-in-Oxford program which I did myself last year) Oxford and London are my recharge time. I have been there before and I just want to relax, get some laundry done and take it easy before the last leg of the trip.
Croatia, Slovenia, and the Baltic Countries: (John upon completion of SMU-in-Oxford will travel with me for the rest of the Europe leg, except for the last night in London because he returns one night before me)
- Croatia — At this point I don't know that much about Croatia, but we will be seeing Dubrovnik, Split and Zagreb, and probably Hvar Island, which are all supposed to be beautiful places. The interesting thing about Croatia is that it is where Europeans (not Americans) go to vacation, so it's a very European experience.
- Slovenia — We are going to Ljubjiana, which is supposed to be an awesome city, called the "New Prague." Then we are going to a wedding where a good friend of mine has an older brother who is getting married off of Lake Bled, which judging by pictures is absolutley beautiful.
- Baltic Countries — We got some advice that this area is relatively inexpensive, interesting, and they are very open to Americans for the most part. The highlight will probably be Latvia; Riga seems to be a beautiful city and there is a place where we can apparently try our hand at bobsledding.