Friday, February 27, 2015

The Great Barrier Reef (Cairns, Australia)

It's safe to say that the Great Barrier Reef finds a place onto most traveller's bucket lists, and perhaps a fair portion of people who don't even particularly like travel. It's one of those places that you accidentally come across when you're a kid, and know, just by its name that it must be something special. And, as with many childhood assumptions based on basically nothing, it was, somehow, correct.

The decision to head to Australia stemmed from the fact that my brother, Dave, lives in Sydney, and I don't think the promise of summer was too much of a deterrent for Bri and I either, especially considering the surprisingly cold Istanbul winter this year. We spoke with Dave a bit before takeoff and decided we could make the trek from Sydney to Cairns (about 3 hours by flight and very reasonably priced on Jetstar or Virgin Australia)  to catch a glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef during our short stint in Australia. The primary purpose of the trip to Australia was to reunite with my brother, who is arguably my favourite person on earth, but even he was telling us to catch a flight to Cairns, despite the fact that he would have to stay in Sydney for work. Well, we figured, it must be worth it.

Another recommendation that my brother made was to take the day tour of the Reef with Reef Trip. Since we were short on time, he thought it was a good company that did a quality job packing in the essence of the Reef in a day, and, for a very reasonable price. All things considered, he was really pretty spot on with that assertion. If you're looking for a longer trip, they've got you covered as well with Reef Encounter, and if I had had the time, I would have certainly done an overnight trip with them.

And so, in early February, we headed down to the harbour to catch our early morning boat for our Great Barrier Reef Cruise, Reef Experience, which offered both snorkelling and diving. Admittedly, they started off on the right foot, serving up piles of egg and bacon sandwiches, and the views on the way out to our first snorkel/dive spot weren't bad either. Not to mention, the second floor deck also served as a mobile tanning salon for all on board, none of which seemed to be paler than me.

Fast forward through a safety talk from a pleasant, comical Aussie chap and we arrived at our first dive spot.

We rented an underwater camera for the day, one of many extras offered on the trip. As we didn't have all that much extra cash floating around, this is one of the only extras we indulged in, and I would say it was worth the price tag overall. It was less than $50, and you could have the photos thrown onto a CD or keep the SD card at the end. Anyway, Bri had the camera on her dive first time around. Seeing as it was her first dive ever, she was pretty focused on surviving, but she did manage to snap a few pics along the way.

A little tired from combatting the wavy waters, we both rendezvoused back at the ship for lunch. Lunch, unexpectedly, was a veritable buffet of 5 different salads with three different choices of barbecued meat alongside it. I, of course, opted to try everything, in the best interest of preserving my energy, of course. Nothing to do with my eating habits, or my gluttonous tendencies or anything of that nature.

We cruised along to another spot after lunch, which I felt was much better than the first. Reef Trip offered the option to dive again for an additional fee, but Bri and I chose to snorkel together and see what we could find on our own. In retrospect, it was certainly the right choice for us. The reefs in that area were so close to the surface that, in some parts, you'd have to float along and hold perfectly still as to not interrupt anything below. We mostly got photos of the reef itself, but we were certainly surrounded by fish and sea life galore. A few of the shots below were actually taken by the photographer for Reef Trip, who regularly goes around and snaps photos of participants with a camera that looks like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If I do go back to the Great Barrier Reef, I would love to spend a few days and nights exploring all that there is to see, but, for now, I am perfectly satisfied with the notion that I've been there with my better half, and that we'll always have these dear memories. I can already imagine many of these photos adorning walls of our future apartments and houses in destinations I'm yet unaware of. And, I'll recall, politely, that my childhood intuitions couldn't have been more correct.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Volcano Boarding on Cerro Negro (Outside Leon, Nicaragua)

Volcano boarding, in all likelihood, is something you probably only do once in your life. But I've done it, and it was, more or less, just as exciting, random, and dangerous as it sounds.

I had left Pearl Lagoon after spending about a month there teaching (as well as a little teaching in Orinoco), and headed up on my own towards the beautiful, ever intriguing Granada. After spending a bit of time there, which I loved, I caught a bus to Leon, which is just about the hottest place I've ever been. I didn't know I was capable of sweating that much - it was, at times, just plain ridiculous. Though, I had a very pleasant time there, and met up with a friend I had met from the Peace Corps while in Pearl Lagoon named Chelsea. We actually ended up watching a bit of playoff hockey back at my hostel one night, so she passed the litmus test for effectively befriending a Canadian. Perhaps I can post a bit about Leon another time, but for now I want to return my attention to Volcano boarding.

Far, but not too far away from Leon lies Cerro Negro, which is actually the youngest volcano in Central America (formed around 1850). The roads to get there were nice and bumpy, something not unusual at all in Nicaragua. I took what was essentially a pick-up truck with a bench in the back with a few others to get to the volcano, then held on tightly while simultaneously putting on aggressive amounts of sunscreen.

When we arrived I thought to myself, "Yes...this is easily as dangerous as I thought it would be," which explained why I had to essentially sign my life away on a waiver before participating. 

The ground near the volcano was ashen black, which is appropriate considering it has erupted nearly 25 times in its recorded history, the latest back in 1999.

There were six of us in all. I got along especially well with Marie, due in no small part to the fact that she was Norwegian and I have a profound love for Norway seeing as I lived there in 2010.  Anyway, you're given a makeshift backpack and a flimsy wooden board, then you tie up your running shoes and set sail.

Naturally, as we trekked higher and higher, the views became more profound and the reality of what I was about to partake in became more pronounced. I'll tell you though, these views and moments are still crystal clear in my mind. The scenery was downright divine, and, interestingly, the ground became hotter and hotter as we rose.

At the top, I unpacked my backpack to find some googles, gardening gloves, old skateboarding pads, and a fashionable yellow and green jumpsuit. Once I was locked and loaded I looked down at my long wooden board with a metal sheet on the bottom, which, in Canada, I would likely classify as a toboggan. But, make no mistake, these sleds can really move. You can rip down the side of the volcano with serious momentum. Top speeds have been clocked northward of 80km an hour. You drag your shoes in the dirt to break, so the former fact shouldn't really turn too many heads.

I arrived at the bottom dirty but not dejected. Plus, as a bonus, I was alive.

It's funny, looking back on this now I'm thinking, "Jesus...I did this?" And, that's a good thing. I started off the post by writing about how this would likely be the one and only foray for me into volcano boarding, but the important thing is that I did at least try it once. I hadn't heard of it before, and I'm not sure if you can do this anywhere else, so here's to just putting faith in an experience and throwing the dice every once and while. And, to be frank, this was an truly one hell of a time.

Adios until next time.