Where’s all that Jazz?

So we’re back. Although can you be BACK if you’re not exactly in the same place from which you took off? In any case, by ‘back’, I suppose I mean we are done travelling, back in everyday reality. Currently we’re in Northern Ireland, trying to sort and organise our future. But the memories of the trip are still with us and probably will stay with us forever.

 Just in case the memories fade with time, I’m going to eternalize them here, on this blog. And there’s still quite a bit to write about.  I must admit that posts were very random and few and far between so now I have a challenge to go back in time as far as March 2013 and revisit some of the places we had seen.

So far I managed to cover our first couple of weeks in America, which we spent in Florida, the breathtaking beauty of national parks and shared our tips on how to tackle USA on a tight budget.

Now it’s time to revisit south eastern states.

Louisiana

Jackson Square, NOLA

New Orleans is one of those places that pull you in like a magnet. There’s something about that city – its history, music, wild festivals – that makes you want to experience its atmosphere for yourself.  We were no different. We were late for Mardi Gras, so we didn’t get to witness the madness, but at least we managed to get a spot with a couchsurfer Pat – bit of a Mad Hatter and Mardi Gras enthusiast himself (had a huge collection of hats and costumes of all sorts). He also introduced us to a crazy discipline of ‘hashing’ – essentially running around a predetermined area, dressed up in costumes reflecting a chosen theme for the occasion, with a beer in hand, followed by more beer drinking and singing songs known only to fellow ‘hashers’. It certainly was an unforgettable, if slightly bizarre experience for us…

Only a small sample of Pat's hats and costumes

NOLA (for those who can’t be bothered saying ‘New Orleans, Louisiana’) certainly has a unique atmosphere. Whether it was one we were expecting is a different story. I had this image of smoky bars with a guy playing a trumpet or a piano somewhere in a corner, while the clientele sipped their bourbon. How different Bourbon Street turned out to be – neon lights everywhere, strip clubs, bars playing very loud music straight out of Top 40 Charts, offering fluorescent drinks in the most randomly shaped glasses. The street itself was pretty dirty, smelly and full of people wandering around with drinks in their hands (New Orleans, along with Savannah in Georgia, are the only two places in USA where you can legally drink alcohol out in the open).

Bourbon Street

But as much as Bourbon Street was disappointing, the rest of French Quarter still had its charm. The architecture of old colonial buildings with the elaborate ironwork balconies kept me in awe, while the upbeat music of the superb street performers made my feet tap along with the rhythm. Add to this many interesting galleries, delicious food (we tried po’boys, muffulettas and some pecan pies – yum yum) and great opportunities for people watching. It’s easy to see how you can spend hours and hours on the streets of New Orleans…

Streets of French Qarter

Street Music in NOLA

Muffuletta

Cemeteries are also on a 'To See' list

Art Galleries in New Orleans are pretty amazing

You can’t mention New Orleans without highlighting the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the city back in 2005. The iconic French Quarter wasn’t actually badly affected but other regions of the city took an awful toll. We went to see the 9th Ward, where the devastation was still visible – although some people came back and rebuilt their houses, many still stand abandoned as a reminder of the tragedy that affected so many lives. But this doesn’t stop the New Orleanians from getting back on their porches, sitting in the old wooden chairs and doing what they do best – singing their hearts out.

Humbling Experience in 9th Ward

While in Louisiana we also took a rest stop at Lake Martin – a swampland reserve full of birds, snakes hanging off the trees and little alligators minding their own business on the trails, unaware of the danger that one of us could have had imposed on them. Geoff was so engrossed in bird observation that he nearly stepped on one tiny alligator that stopped motionless in the middle of our path. Fortunately I saw him in time, and instead of squashing him, Geoff decided to give him a little pat. Mr Alligator was having none of that and he very nearly bit his finger off.  Luckily the finger was untouched and no angry mother alligator rushed out of the bushes so we could move on with our travels…

Trees Growing in the middle of St Martin Lake

Feisty Baby Gator

Our further journey in Louisiana took us from NOLA, across Lake Pontchartrain and the longest continuous bridge over water (over 38km!) in the world, to state capital Baton Rouge, where Monster Jam was taking place. So we went to have a look. It was deafeningly loud and smelled of burnt rubber while monster trucks were intent on flattening vehicles right out of the salvage yard – only in America! To sum it up – highly entertaining! We probably wouldn’t go again, but it certainly was worth experiencing it.

Lake Pontchartrain Csway - 38 km long bridge

Ironman doing Donuts during Monster Jam

From Baton Rouge we drove west and crossed into the Lone Star State. And this will be a subject of the next post.

 

Advertisements

Life on 4 wheels – around Australia in a campervan

For over three months now, a white 1996 Mitsubishi Express van has been our home here in Australia. We bought it in Melbourne off a French couple and after saying our good-byes to our Workaway family, at the end of the June, we set off on our Down Under adventure.

Australia Rock

Our ‘bus’ has it all: comfy queen size mattress, lots of storage, kitchen at the back and an inverter to charge our electrical goods. It certainly gives us freedom to go wherever we want and at whatever pace we choose, without too much forward planning.

Our bedroom and living room

Van posing in Emu Park

Since June in the south of Australia was pretty cold, we decided to head up north, where endless summer is a reality. Following the beautiful east coast we crossed through Victoria, New South Wales and are currently around the Cairns area, which is known as ‘far north Queensland’. You may think that Australia indeed is a large country, but you can put all of Europe right in it and still have half of the country left over! So to travel from south to north would take you a while and if you were travelling with us, it would take you even longer. True, that it is pretty much one beach after another, but what beaches they are! And as we have already figured out, travelling in Australia isn’t really about sightseeing – it’s about relaxed and slow living, day by day, enjoying yourself and the sun.

Relaxing with a book and a cuppa at one of the rest stops

And of course the wildlife. Kangaroos are a-plenty, but in some parts you see more of them than in others. They are super cute. Hopping around with their two tiny front paws and two massive back legs, plus a tail! We were lucky to see some of them dining, relaxing, and even boxing. We also saw mummy roos with tiny joeys poking out of the pouch. That really was something.

Mama Roo and her Joey

In the beautiful Kangaroo Valley apart from loads of roos, we have also seen wombats. What funny creatures they are – looking like small bears or massive hamsters, wandering around and at the tiniest hint of danger they quickly run off and hide in their burrows. While at night they dug some more holes and actually shook our van with us inside. Each time the shaking happened we giggled like two little girls.

Mr Wombat

We have also seen whales, dolphins, seals and turtles. We fed a friendly possum at Tooloom Falls and spent a few hours following our platypus friend, ‘Bill’, in Eungella National Park (they are way tinier than we expected them to be!). We discovered that the ‘monkey noises’ that we hear in the mornings are nothing else but chatting kookaburras. Other noisy but beautiful birds are lorikeets.

Shy but curious Kookaburra

 

And very colourful but noisy lorikeet

We took hundreds of pictures of pelicans, which right next to Toucans are our favourite bird. We spotted 16 koalas, either snoozing or munching away, on gumtrees on Raymond Island, Victoria. We had brief encounters with an echidna, an emu, a cassowary and a fleeing snake. A palm sized spider landed on our car windscreen, at a campsite, and I was scared to get out in fear of one of them jumping on my head. We saw a couple of big iguanas, hundreds of cute little newts and lizards and Geoff saved a few huge frogs that decided to reside in public toilet bowls. Not to mention all the mesmerising fish we swam with whilst snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef – our absolute favourite had to be the ‘Lunar Wrasse’, who flapped their tiny little fins just like birds do. Each and every one of those encounters felt amazing – they were right there, minding their own business, all those creatures we have previously seen only in pictures or in the zoo. And it did not matter that we saw kangaroo number 315 – it was still a cute Skippy to us!

Cute resident of Raymond Island

And then there are the aforementioned beaches – gold sand, white sand, rock fringed, cliffy – with nearly 50,000km of coast and over 7,000 beaches you are sure to find it all in Australia. Top it up with sapphire oceans and some palm trees and you get a picture of paradise. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that if we happen upon one of those beaches we seem to forget that the real world exists, and we spent a few relaxed days (or weeks) nurturing our tan, reading book after book and cooling down from time to time in the 26 degree waters of the Coral Sea.

Beautiful Clifton Beach

Eameo Beach - one of many sunrises we get to watch on this trip

But coming back to reality, what we are doing over here is bread and butter for many retired Australians and young European people. And there is a whole network enabling such adventures – across the whole of Australia there are numerous rest stops, where travellers are allowed to stay a night, or a few, if they so wish. Some of these rest stops are very basic, but most would have some toilet facilities. And there are some that are situated in a lovely area away from the main roads, sometimes even with showers, where you just want to stay for a bit longer. Another common feature of Australian life are countless public barbeques. Any more popular spot would have a few along with some picnic tables, and as long as you can throw something on those hotplates, you’re going to have a good time and a yummy meal too. Although the more popular the place, the more people want to use them and a few times we had to find barbeques further away, as the ones we had hoped to use were ‘booked’ for the day. Booking a barbeque involves, piling out as many boxes and food items onto the barbeque and picnic tables as possible, so others are aware that this is your spot and you’re not to come near! Once we were delicately bullied out of one of those picnic tables, but ‘the bullies’ gave us enough beers for the whole incident not to matter.

Preparing dinner on one of the public bbqs

As long as you travel along the coast, most beaches would have showers. Some are indoors, but most are outside and have only cold water of course – but in these temperatures, who needs a hot shower anyway. After a while you even stop caring if a few people are sitting watching you lathering up and washing your hair…

Outdoor showers on the coast are great for us

The one downfall of travelling in Australia is the cost of pretty much everything. You can find cheapish basic food in supermarkets but things like fruit, vegetables and seafood – something that Australia should have in abundance,  aren’t as affordable as one might expect. We tend to pick up some occasionally from fruit stands situated along the main roads – they are cheaper and usually taste better, apart from the 8kg of oranges we got one time that had very rummy taste to them. But the cost of accommodation and tourist attractions are pretty much outrageous! For an unpowered spot in a caravan park you would have to pay between $20 and $40 per night. The very cheapest, most basic backpacker room would set a couple like us back an easy fifty bucks and that’s with a shared bathroom, or between $80 and $100 for a motel room.  We are talking no frills and out of season. And since we have had no luck with couchsurfing here either, we won’t be getting a break from our van anytime soon.

The tourist attractions cost an arm and a leg and possibly your other leg too. Entries to zoos, museums and most National Parks (with a few exceptions and all of Queenslands National Parks) cost a lot of money and sometimes quite frankly are not worth the money at all. There are loads of fun activities such as: Great Barrier Reef cruises, whale spotting tours, snorkelling, diving, paragliding, hover boarding (Google it), bungee jumping, jet skiing, fishing trips or basically anything you can possibly think of, but they are almost entirely reserved for those with hefty wallets.

Looks fun but 10 min costs $60

We did splash out on one of those cruises to the Whitsunday Island and we did have loads of fun. We covered three islands: Hook Island, Whitsunday Island itself and Daydream Island. Just being on a boat was fun, but then a couple of hours snorkelling on Hook Island exceeded our expectations. All sorts of amazingly colourful corals covered the ocean floor and loads of brightly painted fish were hiding in their nooks. We were literally surrounded by hundreds of fish, who didn’t seem to care that we were there and were occasionally bumping into our masks in search of food thrown from the boat.

Our boat on Whitsundays

After that, while heading towards Whitehaven Beach, one of the top ten beaches in the world, we were served some lunch. The beach was indeed dreamy – the sand was as white and as soft as flour. It felt amazing under our feet. In fact it’s so fine, that it was used in the mirrors of the Hubble Telescope. And being 99.8% silica, it never gets too hot, which has been one of our most recent problems when the sand gets too hot that we really can’t walk on it.

So this magnificent spot is where Geoff chose to pop the question. I said ‘yes’ and that’s how Whitehaven Beach will stay in our minds and hearts forever – as a place where we got engaged.

As an engaged couple on Whitehaven Beach

Now we have another thing to look forward to. At the end of October, Geoff’s parents are coming and joining us for a month. They are getting a campervan of their own (if only a little fancier than ours) and together we will travel from Alice Springs to Port Augusta and then west to Perth. Once we are on our own again we will head back to Melbourne and decide what’s next. These are the plans, but as always, who knows what life will bring.

A Few Tips on Travelling in America

Now that our three month road trip in USA is finished, we thought it might be useful to mention a few tips we learnt along the way, and wouldn’t have minded knowing before we started.

For most long term travellers money is always an issue, and while America isn’t an expensive destination for those on holidays, it can be tricky to stay on a shoestring budget if you’re spending more than just a few weeks in the country.

So here are some of our ways to see a lot, have fun and not spend a fortune. By no means it’s a great guide; all I’m saying is that it worked for us.

ACCOMODATION

Let’s start with one of the biggest expenses there usually is. And guess what – you can eliminate this cost almost entirely if you put your preconceived notions aside and use Couchsurfing. It really is a great idea and if you want more than just a free place to stay, you won’t be disappointed. During our three months in America we spent 47 nights with our Couchsurfing hosts. And really only two of them were bit weird, not unpleasant or anything, just a tad awkward. Other times the people we met were friendly and hospitable beyond comprehension. And for those experiences we both strongly recommend trying it. Just be honest in your profile and DO READ THROUGHLY other users profiles before sending a request and agreeing to stay with them – there are some people out there with whom you might not feel entirely comfortable (nudists, for example), and it’s best to avoid them if you can. Even the cheapest motels generally cost from $50 (at the very very least) up to $100 depending on location. We assumed a conservative average of $60 per night. So, if we were to spend those 47 couchsurfing nights in dirty, rundown motels in bad parts of town, we reckon we saved at least $2,750 over the course of our trip.

Then there are campsites. We only stayed at the ones located in national parks (15 nights altogether) and were quite impressed with them. The facilities were basic (mostly pit toilets but very clean, no showers, some sites didn’t have running water but it was mentioned beforehand ), but the sites were quite big, usually had a picnic table and bbq pit and were pretty cheap ($10-20 per site, per night, there are some free ones out there too). We didn’t even have any camping equipment with us. All our camping gear that we had so carefully researched,  got left behind with our bikes, in Greece. So we ended up in Walmart buying the cheapest tent there was: junior dome for $25 (good job we are little people) and a couple of blankets for another $20-30. No mats, no camping stove, nothing. And we did survive quite a few nights like this, in below freezing temperatures…

With our Tent in Canyonlands NP

But if Couchsurfing and camping isn’t for you, there are countless motels and hotels wherever you go. Depending on location and season, the average price, as mentioned before, would be somewhere between 50 and 100 bucks a night. In many locations (restaurants, rest stops, tourist info) you can pick up free copies of hotel coupons, which have discounted rates for listed motels. These coupons are generally for one to two people from Monday to Thursday. It would save you a few dollars here and there, or you can try hotwire.com, which also lists discounted rooms, but you don’t find out what the hotel is or its exact location, until after you have booked it.

For those who travel in a vehicle and don’t mind spending the night in it, you can stop at any Walmart carpark and stay there for free. I don’t know why it’s so, but a few people mentioned it to us and indeed we have seen some campervans parked at the far side of the parking lot. So there you go, another free option, if you’re up for it.

FOOD AND DRINK

America might not be known for its gourmet cuisine, but it surely has the most fast food restaurants in the world. If you don’t mind putting a lot of rubbish in your tummy then you’ll be just fine. Mind you, they aren’t all that cheap, unless you just go for something straight from the $1 menu. For us good old Subway worked the best – share a footlong stuffed with all the veg there is (no raw onions and olives on Monika’s half) and you have a healthy-ish cheap-ish meal.

The Land of Fast Food

When we got here we thought that Walmart will be our supermarket for all food items. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only it has the tiniest food selection compared to its size, but you’ll be lucky to find there anything that hasn’t been processed to death or covered in some sugary coating. Even bread and milk (apparently fresh) would last weeks, not refrigerated. To make things worse, their customer service is unbelievably bad: no matter how many people there are in the shops, you always have to wait forever in a queue and staff just in general isn’t friendly at all. Probably the only place in whole of America where you won’t be greeted with a smile… But then you can’t blame them when you know what type of people are the majority that shop there. I hope I’m not offending anyone, but have a look for yourself here. Later on we have discovered Safeway – a much better supermarket, not as cheap but with very good offers for those who have their club card. So when we finally got a card (all you have to do is just go and ask for one and you get it straight away!) we didn’t shop anywhere else, unless we couldn’t find any Safeway nearby. They also had those massive sandwiches in their deli sections. Two of these sandwiches below would feed both of us for three days!

That's One Big Sandwich

And then there are All You Can Eat Buffets, pretty much in any town, mainly Chinese or pizza based, usually for about $10 a person. So you can always have a very big lunch that would last you for the rest of the day…Buffets in Las Vegas are a completely different story: way more expensive, but have more variety and better food in general.

All drinks are cheap. You can find water fountains pretty much everywhere and get your water for free. All soft drinks are cheap wherever you go; it is a birthplace of Coca Cola and Co after all. While we were there, McDonalds was selling any size brewed coffee, sweet tea (very big in the south) or soda for $1. Petrol (or should I say Gas) Stations usually have some cheap deals on ice cold or piping hot drinks too. So there’s always something to quench your thirst. And you must have an idea about the portion sizes in this country…simply massive! And on top of that, if you sit in most fast food restaurants, you are entitled to free refills. That’s a lot of sugar you can consume just from the cup!

If it gets too hot outside getting a cooler to keep all your drinks cold is a great idea. And it doesn’t have to cost as much as you can imagine! All you need is a Styrofoam box ($3 from Walmart) filled with ice (bags available for a few dollars in all supermarkets and petrol stations, or free from the motels’ ice machines if you’re up for it!). Depending on the heat, the ice will last a day or two. The cool box will serve you much longer.

 

ON THE ROAD

We found, that for a three month trip, renting a car was easier and possibly not more expensive. Buying a car in USA requires a lot of hassle and paperwork and if you just want to get out there and not worry about selling the car afterwards too, renting a car is a way to go. We rented two different cars, one in Orlando and one in LA, as a fee for dropping a car at a different location nearly doubled the rental quote. So it was cheaper to do two loops and fly across the country to get a different car.

It definitely is a good idea to get a Sat Nav. They aren’t that expensive (I’m talking about buying one at Best Buy for around $100 not renting one with your car) and they will become your best friend, especially when you have to navigate 8 lane highways to get off at the right exit. Geoff, who did all the driving, swears that as soon as we started approaching cities, he felt like he was on a race track! Pretty stressful, so Sat Nav is always a good solution.

Interstate Signs Give You All Information

Gas (or petrol as we know it) is pretty cheap compared to what anyone outside of America is used to, but varies a lot from state to state and quite often from one station to the other. If you add gasbuddy.com to your favourites, you’ll always find the best price wherever you are. We found that data was always up to date and very accurate too.

But nothing saves the money as good as slow driving. We must have been the slowest vehicle on American roads, but we did 18,770 km on 1,075 litres (and paid just over $1,000 for fuel in total). So it really is up to you.

On main roads, Interstates, there are quite regular rest stops that always have decent toilets and quite often some picnic sites too. Whenever you cross the state line, there are always visitor centres that have free maps of a state and plenty information and booklets and sometimes even coffee, also  free! So you don’t even need a travel guide and you’ll still be surprised how much there really is to see in every single state.

Very Useful FREE State Guides

OTHER

INTERNET is available almost anywhere. For our free access we always went to (not necessarily into) McDonalds. And since it’s USA, you will always find one when you need it! I think that Starbucks and few other places have free WiFi spots too, so you can have your own pick.

NATIONAL PARKS are really amazing and you probably have at least a few on your itinerary. Check the entry fees to them and work out if it won’t be better to get an annual pass. It costs $80 and allows a free entry of one vehicle, whether there’s one person in it or five. We definitely saved money with ours and we were there only 3 months. And when you’re done with it, you can always give it to some else.

Zion National Park

CITY PASS. If you love cities and all the museums, zoos and aquariums, most cities have city passes, that include access to the most popular attractions for a discounted price.

TAXES. All states have their own rules and that applies to sale taxes too. Remember that the price you see in a shop isn’t usually the price you’ll have to pay at the till. And they will vary from state to state. California has some of the highest taxes, so if you’re planning to do some shopping and will be going to other states too, save your bucks and get more for their value. You can check online, tax rates in all states and plan ahead.

RECYCLING. I thought I just mention it briefly. Some states charge for plastics bags in supermarkets, some don’t. Some states charge a deposit fee for glass and plastic bottles when you purchase them, but if you can be bothered you can return them to recycling centres and get your money back.

Travelling in USA is really easy and can be cheap. And it definitely is SO MUCH FUN!

Plans are changing, but we’re still going…

…although not on our bikes. Geoff’s knee refused further co-operation, what with his previous injuries and strain caused by cycling, is understandable but regrettable. We had given it enough time to heal and although it did improve, unfortunately it do not improve enough to carry on with our original plan. So yet again we had some thinking to do, but with Geoff’s new passion for DIY and plans to build a house, getting a travel plan together wasn’t all that easy. So while he was researching how to self build a sustainable home, I was on a mission to get us going again. With our new predicament, all of a sudden, the whole world opened up to us and we had to choose where to go.

Bikes ready for a long rest

Firstly we had planned to follow our original route, down to Crete,  onto Rhodes and into Turkey and through Asia. We got backpacks shipped to Greece and started repacking from our panniers. But then I got tired of the wet weather we had for a couple of weeks while still in Greece and decided to change the whole plan completely. I’ve suggested Australia and we had actually applied for e-visas , but while still waiting for their approval, Geoff came up with the idea of a road trip in USA and two days later we had plane tickets booked to…Orlando, Florida! Not because we wanted to see Mickey Mouse or Harry Potter (although I wouldn’t mind, if that pleasure wasn’t $100 per person), but because those were the cheapest flights and weather forecast was promising 30°C.

And so it was, on a grey February Thursday morning, after nearly three months of living and working with the Day family, we exchanged hugs and thank yous and got on a bus going back to Athens. That trip was both sad and exciting; we were whizzing past all the roads we climbed on our bikes a few months earlier which brought back memories, but at the same time we were heading towards new adventures. To get to these new adventures we had to first fly to London and then to… Dublin, where it all began! Waiting at Dublin airport for our Orlando flight felt like we were just beginning our journey.

Welcome to USA!

And this is how we ended up in USA. So far we’ve driven over 3,000 miles, crossed 7 states and are currently in Nashville, Tennessee  The weather has been fantastic, which means holiday crowds are pretty much everywhere we go. On top of that we seem to follow a path of crowd gathering events: Daytona 500 in Florida, medical convention and early St Patrick’s celebrations in New Orleans, Livestock & Rodeo Show in Houston and massive South by Southwest music and film festival in Austin. All that obviously means that accommodation, if at all available, costs a small fortunate. Luckily there’s Couchsurfing, which we’ve been using since New Orleans. Yet again we met some amazing people, had a go at crazy hashing (Google it! you will be as confused as we were) experience with our host in New Orleans, tried crawfish and fried Oreos and shared few margaritas with Maura in Houston and received some down to earth great business advice from Sharon in Austin.

The road goes on and on

We will try to update you about our progress more frequently, but ironically, somehow we did have more time for our blog while we were cycling. I suppose we’re still trying to get used to the changes.

Beautiful beach in Pensacola

Talk to y’all later!