With our trip to Australia drawing to a close it was time to look across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, where more discovery and adventure than we knew was waiting for us. Upon reconvening in Auckland, having taken different flights, we met with our gracious host Stephan with whom we’d be spending a couple days. The weather the next day wasn’t exactly fit for exploring, so we decided to check out the Auckland Museum, for a backpacker’s price, of course.
For anyone curious about anything to do with New Zealand, this is the place to visit. This museum covers everything from initial Maori settlement, the country’s involvement in the World Wars, and even massive freaky birds who wandered the land millions of years ago. There’s even a section about the volcano in the middle of Auckland Harbour, and what can be expected should it ever erupt. The simulation of being in a house in the volcano’s path is enough to knock your socks off, and anything else depending on how well you hold your nerves.
From Auckland we took a flight to Christchurch, our gateway to the Southern Island and ironically the center of Chabad Lubavitch in New Zealand. We rented a car there, being cheaper than taking the ferry, and quickly resumed on our way. Our first stop was in Dunedin, where we would see how chocolate is made at Cadburry World, and how beer is brewed at the Speight Brewery, both special commodities society simply cannot live without. Rebecca had the time of her life sampling beer at the brewery; she will never turn down a cold one. We also found out that Dunedin has the steepest street (Baldwin St.) in the world, not San Francisco.
At the invitation of a phantom couch surfer we drove to Queenstown, where the most avid thrill seekers come to ride on the silver backed fern. While initially we thought we would go white water rafting, a new idea unique to Queenstown presented itself at the agency. Canyoning turned out to be an exiting activity where we would jump, slide, and climb, rappel and zip-line through gushing mountain rivers. First you’re dressed in a wetsuit, helmet, and marched up a never ending trail. When you figure the heat has become too much, that’s where the excitement begins. The inauguration isn’t exactly smooth; you’re specifically instructed step, not jump, from a height of 10 meters and land on your back, if you want to face another jump.
The next challenge would be one I’d have to face on my own, especially with my fear of heights. I had never considered doing bungee jumping before but when we made our way to Queenstown, New Zealand I thought, "When in Queenstown." I was apprehensive at first about jumping into the abyss, but then slowly I gathered my wits and made it to the edge. Then I took a deep breath, spread my wings, and with the help of a countdown I leaped to what I was told would be like flying. While the experience was undoubtedly exhilarating, I did not feel the promised flying sensation but rather a falling one, which coincidentally is exactly what I was doing. Now that this endeavour is off my list, it's time to pursue one not nearly as reckless, or perhaps one far worse...
With the thrill of Queenstown behind us, we looked to activities far more subtle, but none less breathtaking. In Wanaka we decided to check out Puzzling World, a place where every perception of reality is fooled by your own overactive imagination. You haven’t seen everything until you see people standing sideways, water flows upslope, and Gadi and I simply, “change sizes.” Further down the road, our journey consisted of many good hikes, and the vain search of the silver backed fern. One night even included sleeping in the car we rented, since poor planning and high demand resulted in all accommodation occupied for the remainder of our visit.
By this time I had only a few days left in New Zealand, and took as much warm weather as I could before I had to return to Calgary. We stopped in Golden Bay to see one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but found it hard to appreciate it being pelted by sand. Gadi also got too close to a seal, unaware they are just as agile on land as they are in the water.
Fed up with the lack of available accommodation, we returned to Christchurch and stayed with our gracious hosts Merryn and Michael for the next couple days. This warm and loving family spoiled us by taking us on a boating trip. It was the perfect end to an incredible trip to see the other side of the world, and where I would part ways with Rebecca and Gadi, for now. The only thing now to do is wonder where I will go next. See you all there!
What is CouchSurfing?
For the people that are unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, we will go into explaining the essence of it. Couchsurfing is a online network for the purpose of exchanging/providing accommodations or to meet people in a new city.
A host offers accommodation or the chance to meet up for drinks or a tour around the city, if possible. Surfers, a.k.a guest, request accommodations at his or her destination. The exchange is consensual between the host and surfer. How many people, how long you stay and other conditions are worked out before you come.
The whole exchange is supposed to be free. However, we always like to show our appreciation by bringing a little something for our hosts or at least try to do things around the house like cooking and washing dishes.
As we read different sources on the net, we find that most people are advertising Couchsurfing simply as a free accommodation. Yes, Couchsurfing helps with the budget but it is so much more than that. Couchsurfing is a true cultural exchange opportunity!
We signed up on the Couchsurfing website in January of 2008. At first we thought that no one comes to Winnipeg...but we were so excited when we started getting our first surfers that summer (I guess Winnipeg at -40° C is not very appealing to travellers). We hosted so many amazing people from around the world. One of our surfers was on his round-the-world trip and was our final inspiration to start our adventure.
Since we started our travels, we found that some countries are easier to surf than others. For example, Peru was very difficult to couchsurf, particularly in Cusco. Seems that people in Cusco are using the website for their our personal/business gain. Every person we requested a place to stay replied with an offer to stay at their hostel or so sign up for the tour that they are the guide for. This was very frustrating because this goes against what Couchsurfing stands for.
Apart from our bad luck in Peru (so far), we did find excellent hosts even with last minute requests. The people that have hosted us greeted us with their open arms. We had some people inviting us to parties, sharing their friends with us, cooking for us, giving us full day tours and so many other little but precious things.
As a couple, it has been quite easy to Couchsurf. Firstly, single women are more willing to host a couple (perhaps for safety reasons?). As hosts, we had many single females requesting to stay with us because of the fact that we are a couple. Next, as a couple, we can manage to sleep in close quarters (i.e. single bed) so we can get away with requesting couches for single people.
1) Get involved with couchsurfing BEFORE you leave on your trip. This means host people or at least go to some events and meet people who are involved. Couchsurfing is rapidly growing and is being abused by some individuals. They see it simply as a free place to stay and like to surf but have no intention of hosting. For this reason, many people say that they will not host a person if they have never hosted.
2) Request couches in advance, particularly in the popular cities. We learned the hard...some couches are already booked for the entire summer!
3) Try to surf with the newest members to Couchsurfing. They don't get as many requests and are usually very eager to get involved.
4) Become friends with your host. Go out together or at least get their take on their city...after all, this is what Couchsurfing is all about!
5) This comes as an obvious, but be courteous and respectful. Try to help around the house. Cook for your host, buy groceries or things you use up and wash dishes.
Hope this helps! Write to us if you have any more questions.
I can actually read Greek. I don't know what I'm reading but I can make it out. Turns out all the symbols we used in engineering were Greek letters... I guess my degree was good for something.
We arrived in Athens and went to meet our couchsurfing host, Ced. What an amazing guy! He took us out to a small taverna where we ate traditional Greek food and and tried a Greek alcoholic drink called reki. The next night we all went to a couchsurfing event which ended in very poor karaoke singing but much fun.
While in Athens we also managed to do some typical tourist things. We saw the changing of the guard at Parliament and saw the temple of Olympian Zeus. More impressive was the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Truly awesome! I've seen it in pictures and movies but they don't give justice to what's really there.
We are now island hopping through the Cyclades islands. The first stop was Syros. The town was cute but has little to do other than hang out with friends. Thankfully Nikolas, our couchsurfing host, offered us his friends. We spent two nights hanging out at port-side cafes, eating calamari and drinking ouzo at tavernas and dancing all night at a beach party.
We are now on our second island of Paros. The towns here look like what I imagined: white builgings climbing up the hill side along the sea. We rented a scooter and rode all around the island stopping at beautiful beaches to swim and soak up the sun.
So far, we really like Greece. The scenery is beautiful which captivates you. Also the people are incredibly nice. They are genuinely interested in helping you and getting to know you. We love all the people we've spent time with. And the food is the best...hmmm, gyros...
So it has been quite some time since the last entry.
Our first stop from Buenos Aires was the town of El Calafate in the province of Santa Cruz an area known as Patagonia. This very picturesque and expensive was a great place to visit. We followed the advice of Keren (my sister) to try to get the Glaciar Perito Moreno before 7:30 in the morning so we avoid paying. Yeah, if you get to the National Park before the guards do, YOU DON´T HAVE TO PAY the $60 (foreigners) or $20 (local) access fee! To do that we met three other people to share a car with. So woke up early and drove to the glaciar. It was quite the site. Even though it is not the biggest glaciar in the world it is said to be the one that advances the fastest (I believe I got that right, you can correct me otherwise). I even got to see a big junk of ice fall off which made a sound that lasted at lest 3-4 minutes... From there we drove to Lago Roca, a pretty lake, that you get there by driving on a gravel road.
After staying one night at a hostel we got a reply from a Couchsurfer in town. So we decided to join them at their place. It was really a great time. We meet Jose, Fernando, Matias and Esteban which were great host. There were 4 french people there too so it was a great party. We really enjoyed the drinking and all the asado!
We followed the advice of the french couple (Sebastian and Elody) and hitchhiked to El Chalten (our next stop). It was really a great experience. Yes, we were hitchhiking virgins! It only took us a couple of hours but a very nice woman took us on the 2 hour ride.
El Chalten, another must see place for the avid hiker like ourselves! This is the gateway to the Mount Fitz Roy. Here we met some amazing people (Israelis of course, they are the most seen tourist in this area).
The first day rain like crazy so we stayed in our hostel. The next day was a great day to see all the way to the Fitz Roy. The hike is only 4 hour to the base of the mountain but it was quite intense at the last hour. At the top we got to see very beautiful glaciars and lagoons.
Our last day in El Chalten proved to be an interesting one. It started very poorly but ended in a very high note. Our bus was planned to leave at 11:30 pm so we had planned to to take it easy in the hostel because we were a bit sore from the previous hike. Apparently, the hostel manager did not like the idea of us staying there so they order us to leave. After getting threatened by the manager and having the door shut in our faces we were left on the street, nowhere to go! We were pissed!
During our stay we befriended the owners and cook at one of the bar/restaurant called Aires Patagonicos. So we decided to go get some beers to cool off the fight with the hostel managers. We ended up staying there for about 11 hours. These people (Susana, Rodrigo and Mauricio) were the sweetest people we have met so far in this trip. They were so kind to let us use the restaurant kitchen to cook our own food. The israeli boys taught Rodrigo (the cook) how to prepare an Israeli dish called shakshuka. We ended up working as servers, dishwashers, hostesses, etc. Best wishes with the new restaurant.
After 36 hours on a bus through the famous and un-paved Ruta 40 (Route 40) we got to Bariloche, the same city where my parents had their honeymoon. But enough of writing. We will tell you more another time.
The second day of Cusco was pretty lazy. We went to hunt down a method to get to Puno on Lake Titicca and spent the day relaxing as it rained most of the afternoon.
In the evening, we were on our way to meet our Couchsurfing friends when we ran into Matias Kampel, an old friend of Gadi´s from junior high. They haven´t seen each other in over eight years! Instead, we went out with him and spent the night catching up and dancing.
The next day, Gadi and I were walking around town when we ran into Matias yet again! We got ourselves lost in the city, walking through the tiny streets of Cusco. We made it all the way to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced Sexy Woman) and the White Christ. What a walk!
On the way down we took a colectivo (shared mini van) and the door fell off! At least we didn´t have to pay.
At night we took the night bus to Puno and arrived here first thing in the morning. The town is so lively! There is a parade through the city with music, dancing and brilliant costumes...and this was just a practice parade for the official one in February.
The afternoon was spent on a tour in the ruins of Sillustani. It was beautiful!