Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Old and New Memories

Six years ago, I flew to Sydney all by myself. I arrived in a country where I thought the people spoke English, but I could not understand a word they said. I didn’t know a soul (well, I did, but I didn’t know it then).  I was far from home, far from anything familiar, and I cried myself to sleep that first night thinking “What have I done?” It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.

This time in Sydney has begun in a completely different way. I arrived with my husband, eager to introduce him to this city. We were met at the airport by familiar faces, Ania and Sam, who took us out for lunch and dropped us off at our hostel. Everything here is so familiar to me that I forget TJ has not experienced it before. As we navigate around the city, I’m full of memories like “That’s where I used to catch the bus to go into the city!” or “That’s where we used to play frisbee after our beach barbecues!” Being here again is just so darn fun.

Yesterday, we did the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. Our hostel is on the south side of Bondi Beach, so we headed out from there and passed through all the little beaches between there and Coogee. The views were amazing.

Our plan was to walk around Coogee a bit, then catch a bus back home. As we got in sight of the beach, though, we realized we had left our bus passes back in our room! We decided to turn around and walk back, grab lunch at the hostel, and then take a bus back to Coogee later. In all, that walk ended up taking us about three and a half hours. Great exercise! The sun here is punishing, though. Even loading up on sunscreen before and during our outing, we both ended up with sunburns. We’ll have to be even more careful in the future.

We finally made it to Coogee in the afternoon, where I ran around showing TJ everywhere we used to go there. He even stood in line at Chish ‘n’ Fips to get a snack.

From Coogee, we caught a bus to Sydney CBD – downtown. We had reservations on a historic tall ship for dinner, which we enjoyed while sailing through Sydney harbor. They even had live music and an open bar to help us enjoy it, but with the perfect weather and beautiful views, it would be hard to imagine less than an amazing time.

Today, we’re checking out of our hostel and getting ready for our next adventure. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 25, 2013

First full day in Sydney

Our first full day in Sydney was incredible. Started out by waking up early and walking down to the beach to watch the sunrise. I pretty much had the park to myself except for a few joggers, and found it very serene. Came back to the hostel and played around until Courtney finally woke up.

We bought an unlimited bus, train, and ferry ticket for the week, and headed downtown.  We immediately got our tourist bugs out of our system by seeing the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and of course, the Sydney Opera House.

Courtney even touched the tiles on the Opera House. She's such a rebel. From there we took a leisurely walk through the botanical gardens on our way to the travel clinic to get our first round of rabies shots. Gotta protect ourselves from those monkeys in Bali.

After a tasty sushi roll snack and a stroll through the Queen Victoria Building, we headed back to Bondi Beach so I could go to my first Muay Thai class. The gym is just a few blocks from our hostel, and they had an introductory week for only $20. It might have been the most intense workout I've had since wrestling in high school, but I had so much fun. Learned the proper form for punches, kicks, knees, and elbows, and actually got pretty good at stringing them together in combinations. I could barely walk afterwards, so Courtney and I stopped at the pizza place next door for a delicious BBQ meat lovers pizza and garlic bread. I'm starting to get feeling back in my legs, so I'll probably go back Wednesday for another class.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunrise over Bondi

Budget Airlines are cheaper for a reason...

TJ and I have learned our first lesson of budget travel: sometimes, it isn’t worth it.

Over the two days that we traveled with Delta to get to Singapore, we were well taken care of. The flights were long, but the flight attendants were friendly, food and drink were offered regularly, and the entertainment exceeded our expectations. We really had no complaints.

Then we booked a flight with Scoot Airlines to fly from Singapore to Sydney. It is advertised as a relatively new, budget airline, and I was excited to try it out. It is based in Singapore and runs international routes to a lot of the cities we are planning to visit, so it could have been a good option for us during our trip. Ticket prices are very low because they use a different business model than higher priced airlines. You pay for the flight itself; everything else costs additional. Where the Delta flights we were on were pretty much all-inclusive, this flight offered drinks and food for purchase on board. Blankets and pillows are extra. You get the idea. They also fly out at a ridiculous hour – 2:10 AM – which worked just fine for our jet-lagged bodies, and I imagine it costs them less, too.

The problem comes from having to pay for things you do NOT want, like checked luggage. They had a strict 7 kilo limit on all carry-on bags, and both of our bags were over that limit. The desk clerk that checked us in informed us that each checked bag would cost us $80. Woah! I tried negotiating with her, but the furthest I got was to finally succeed in explaining that we would check one bag, and we would take out the heavy things in the other bag to bring it under 7 kilos. It was the best case scenario under the circumstances, I suppose.

At this point, we were both physically and mentally exhausted. We had been standing in line to check in for 45 minutes. We were watching the clock countdown to when the check-in desk closed one hour before flight time. Now we were dealing with an unexpectedly high extra expense. Suddenly, everything the airline did was infuriating.

We waited in a second line to pay our fee while they held TJ’s luggage and boarding pass. This line was only about 5 people long, but it moved painstakingly slowly. Eventually, they informed us that they could only accept cash for the payment and that there was no ATM nearby. TJ hurried downstairs to the arrivals part of the airport to find an ATM, and we were able to pay the fee, plead with the clerk to tag and load the backpack, and rush off to our gate.

Then we had to deal with Singapore airport security. The security at this airport is set up outside of each gate, instead of for the whole terminal. Since everyone is arriving for the same flight, that means long lines at the gate while the checkpoints for other gates stand empty. Our bags went through the scanner, and the lady asked me to pull my scissors out of my bag. These scissors had been pulled out in Tokyo, too, and they were specifically approved by security there because they were small and rounded. I told her that they were ok in other airports, and she nodded and said “Not ok in Singapore, ma’am.” Great. She took my boarding pass and sent me to another security agent, who wrote up a report about the confiscation and asked me to sign it before returning the pass.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the plane with no concept of what time it is or how long we have until we land in Sydney. The only time a flight attendant has spoken to me was to ask me to raise my seat so the man behind me can eat, immediately after I woke up. The “drinking water” supply is so cloudy people have complained, and even the flight attendants seem grumpy. The land down under is looking more promising by the minute. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Welcome to Singapore!

After just over 32 hours of traveling, this was the most welcoming sight I could have imagined:

It was tiny, but it was all ours, it had air-conditioning, and we didn't even have to make the bed ourselves. That's pretty luxurious by the standards of the rest of our trip.

Since we left Atlanta on Thursday morning, we have touched down in three airports. JFK was no surprise for us, but we did get to spend a few hours in Tokyo's airport. I was surprised by the lack of efficiency in that airport. We spend a lot of time in business school learning about different methods of processing that come from Japan, and yet it took us a ridiculously long time just to get through transfer security there. For example, the tables that lead up to the x-ray scanner are a good six inches shorter than the scanner's conveyor belt, which meant each person had to lift every bag or tray individually before they could go through the metal detector. We were thankful for a two-hour layover, but a lot of other people were upset about the wait.

We also had the privilege of enjoying four airplane meals during our flights. I had forgotten one of my favorite things about flights to Asia - the food! We ordered the rice dish for every meal, and they were actually pretty good. One of them even came with a shrimp cocktail appetizer.

Our longest flight even offered free beer and wine, so I had a glass of wine with dinner, and TJ ordered a beer.

With decent food, good drinks, and an impressive choice of movies, TV shows, and games on the new screens right in front of us, the 13-hour flight was a lot more tolerable than I expected. We had a bonus of getting a row with only two seats in it, instead of the three that were in the rows ahead of us. That meant that we had a little extra space between our seats and the windows of the plane, where the other seat would have been, so we were able to spread out and have a little extra leg room. I even managed to get a couple hours of sleep!

The flight from Tokyo to Singapore was the longest 7 hours I can remember. We were both exhausted, my ankles and knees were swollen from sitting so long, and every time I fell asleep, it seemed like the flight attendants were waking me up for a drink or food. We landed in Singapore at 2 am, ready to be out of the airport and a little smelly.

The airport was pretty lively considering the time of day, so we had no problem getting some cash and finding a taxi. The story was a little different by the time we found our hostel, though. The lights were all off, the doorbell wasn't getting anyone's attention, and the taxi driver had driven off as soon as we got out of the car. Now what?

On the door of the hostel, there was a sign to walk to the nearest 7-Eleven and use the public phone to call one of three numbers. We wrote the numbers down, wandered down the street, and then spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to use the phone in our delirious state. The first two numbers resulted in lots of rings but no answer - so we crossed our fingers and TJ dialed the third number on the list - our last option! Fortunately, the guy answered, told us he had gotten our note about our arrival time and was waiting up for us, and then met us back at the door to let us in. I have never been more excited to see a bed in my life!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bags Are Packed and Ready to Go

Our flight leaves Atlanta in less than nine hours, and we are busy wrapping up our lives here at home. I imagined I would spend these days in Atlanta missing my coworkers and catching up on the things I didn't have time to do in Raleigh. Instead, we packed every day full of family and friends, and we found ourselves staying up late at night, once again, to get everything finished. More than worth it, though!

As usual, most of the memories we made this week revolved around food. We had a group of friends over for dinner on Sunday, where this happened:

Our friends Kristin and David never made it to the party because they ended up in a car accident on their way to visit us. Fortunately, they were both fine, so we were able to meet them for dinner the next night!

Tuesday was "Mary Lynn Day," where we spent the day in Newnan having a delicious lunch and then bowling with TJ's mom, Mary Lynn, and her husband, Homero. TJ beat the socks off all of us, but the real competition was whether ML or I would end up in last place. I think we took turns.

Later in the day, we met Sharma at Atlanta Rocks, where TJ went rock climbing and I played photographer. 

We ended the night at Willy's, the Atlanta restaurant I miss the most!

Beyond that, we have been running around getting documents notarized, working on our taxes, and getting in playtime with our pup, Kaylee, while we still can. Once we step onto the plane tomorrow morning, I will be forced to sit still until we arrive in Singapore on Saturday, so I have to get all my productivity out now! That time is almost here, though, so our send off tonight was a fitting dinner at Outback with my parents. Soon, we will be having actual Australian food!

And with that, I leave you with this last image of America:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

And So It Begins

This great big adventure of ours has begun, and so far, I would call it a success. We only turned around twice for things we forgot (or, well, thought we forgot), and once we got past the point of no return, we remembered only small, easily replaceable things. Hopefully we keep it that way and don't discover we left our passports sitting on the dresser at home.

We spent the first night in Athens, Georgia at the home of a family friend of ours. Kevin and Patrice bought a beautiful old house there and promptly tore it apart to renovate/restore it. They are adventurous enough to actually live in the house while they do it, so we decided to join them for a night. Patrice was sadly out of town, but Kevin, Kevin's niece Madeline, and my sister McKenna were waiting for us when we pulled up a little before midnight.
Courtney and Kevin

We were welcomed with an impressive house tour, an impromptu piano performance, and a bed that might end up being the most comfortable place to sleep we'll have on our entire trip. After too few hours of rest, Kevin, TJ, and I wandered to a cafe down the street with the dogs in tow, where we bundled up for an outdoor feast of breakfast sandwiches and clever donuts.
TJ with donuts: Elvis and Strawberry/Banana/Nutella

From Athens, we had a ninety minute drive to my parents' house in Kennesaw, Georgia, which is our base for the few days we are in Atlanta. We cleaned up, dressed up, and hopped back in the car to head north - to TJ's sister's wedding at Red Top Mountain.
Katie, the bride, with mom (Mary Lynn) and step-dad (Homero)

The wedding was lovely, and the building it was in was perfect for such a chilly day. Katie and Matt were married in front of a big fireplace that kept us all cozy. It was the perfect reminder to slow down and appreciate the beautiful things, even in the midst of stress. As exciting as this trip is, preparing for the unknown is always stressful. Taking a few hours to celebrate a joyous occasion with family makes it all worth it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Falling Into Place

It's our last week in Raleigh, and we've been busy packing up the last few things we need, getting everything in order, and saying goodbye to friends. It's tough to finally be wrapping things up, but we're getting there. My to do lists and TJ's energy level are a great combination for getting everything done!

It's actually kind of amazing how neatly this trip fits into our lives. When it comes to two full-time professionals, two dogs, and a house, there are a lot of lose ends to tie up. Fortunately, we have a roommate who will hold down the fort at home while we are away. Our dogs are both going to loving temporary homes: Kaylee is moving in with my parents, and Beau is visiting Paula's family in Durham. My job offered me a leave of absence for the time that we are gone, and TJ is excited about finding a new opportunity when we return.

The leave of absence is particularly convenient because we get to carry over the same benefits that we have now. That means we get full health insurance, life and disability insurance, and even basic travel insurance for the duration of our trip. Having adequate insurance is a priority for me, and I had been stressing about how we were going to replace all that my current company offers. The way this leave works is a dream come true, and it makes this adventure slightly less intimidating. When we get back, I will still be an employee, so I will just have to look for a role on a project that needs me. That's got to be easier that finding an entirely new job.

With the at-home logistics in place, we are knocking the last few items off our to-do list and almost ready to set out. Our first stop is Atlanta, GA, where we'll spend a few days with family and friends there and celebrate TJ's sister's wedding. From there, we will hop on a plane to the other side of the world and hit the following countries in some semblance of this order:


It is hard to believe that this adventure is really happening after all the dreaming we've done. As we get our house in order, wrap up things at work, and say goodbye to the dear friends we've made in Raleigh, it is starting to feel more real. For better or for worse, Friday will be here before we know it!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Long Term Goals

Last week, I came across a list of goals I defined in December, 2007. I had just received an offer for a full-time, post-graduation job, and I was about to start my last semester of college. Considering I haven't looked at this list in years, I was surprised to find that I had done a remarkable job of following the plan 22-year-old me had dreamed up. I was more surprised, though, to find this section at the bottom of the list:

Long term goals (5+ years)
  • Take a sabbatical, 6-12 months
  • Consider changing jobs
  • Achieve a positive net worth
  • Pay off student loans

Sure, my sabbatical has decreased to 3 months instead of 6-12, and my "consider changing jobs" has morphed into applying to a graduate program in a new-to-me industry, but these are all items that are still important to me. From the day we got married, TJ and I prioritized saving and paying off debt so that we could reach a positive net worth, and my student loans are scheduled to be paid off this summer (just in time for graduate student loans!).

I'm not going to lie, taking time off from the typical career path is scary. Exciting and freeing, definitely, but also, terrifying. I've had trouble shaking the "What if I'm wrong?" doubts that stubbornly reside in the back of my mind. What if we've misjudged our budget? What if we can't find employment when we get home? What if our young marriage can't handle the stress of daily travel? If we invested the money we saved for this trip, rather than spending it, we would be that much closer to true financial independence and a perpetual lifestyle of freedom. What if we're making the wrong choice?

Then, I come across little reminders like this list of goals, and I realize that this type of sabbatical is no passing fancy. It really is something I have dreamed about for years. When TJ and I were living in different states, we spent hours talking about this very trip, in all its different forms. Sure, there's a small chance I will look back and wish we had done certain things differently. But there is an absolute certainty that if we don't do this, we will both look back with a lot of regret.

And besides, it makes my plan to go to grad school full-time look normal by comparison.