Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Just keep swimming!

Since arriving in Tonga, alongside my ‘official’ volunteer role at the Ministry of Agriculture, I have also been volunteering at one of the local swimming clubs, Malolo Swim Club. In Tongan, Malolo means ‘flying fish’ (not to be confused with mālōlō, which means ‘to rest or do nothing’!)

I first heard about the swimming club through one of my volunteer buddies, Sarah, who is now on her second volunteer assignment in Tonga and has also recently married her Tongan moa (boyfriend). Sarah and I arrived in the same volunteer intake in February this year. She mentioned at our pre-departure training that last time she was in Tonga she used to help out with the swimming lessons run by Malolo Swim Club. This struck my interest as I am also a swimming instructor and really enjoy teaching kids to swim, so a few weeks into our time in Tonga, I popped down to the lessons with Sarah on a Wednesday afternoon at the Touliki sea pool to see what was happening.

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Malolo’s Learn-to-swim program running at the Touliki sea pool (Pic thanks to: Pou Panuve)

There were loads of kids and only a few teachers at that point, the weather was still hot and attendance was booming. All the teachers are volunteers. When I first arrived at the club, no one had a formal qualification in swimming teaching, but all were keen to help young Tongan kids learn how to swim. They were mostly running off some training from a coach in Fiji, but the program was mostly focussed on competitive strokes.

Since then, three of our teachers have done their Swim Australia Teacher course through the Pacific Sports Partnership (funded by Australian Aid) which has given them some improved skills and a boost in confidence with their teaching. We have also revised their learn-to-swim program to include more focus on water safety and survival.

Growing up in Australia, most of us have been through swimming lessons to some degree, even if just in schools. And water safety is a pretty common message to hear every summer – things like ‘swim between the flags’, ‘never swim alone’, or ‘never leave children unsupervised around water’ are familiar to most of us.

In Tonga however, many people do not know how to swim, even though it is an archipelago surrounded by crystal clear, beautiful waters! Drowning is not uncommon (although the stats are not collected so it’s hard to know the real scale of the problem). Parents and children have very limited water safety awareness – I have seen parents just telling their scared children who can’t swim to jump in the water, and kids frequently jumping headfirst from a height into seawater of unknown depth. I have also heard it is common if someone is in trouble in the water that people will just jump in to try and help them, then get into trouble themselves. So swimming and water safety lessons are something that there is definitely a need for here in Tonga.

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Teaching at the sea pool (Pic thanks to: Pou Panuve)

It has been very rewarding to be involved with the learn-to-swim program, the kids really enjoy their lessons and I have seen so much progress in the students’ confidence and abilities during my 8 months here – a testament to the hard work and dedication of the volunteer swimming teachers at Malolo.

We teach in what can be a challenging environment – the open water sea pool is subject to the tides and the weather, and the conditions never the same two weeks running! However, the teachers and students genuinely love the learn-to-swim program, and there are always plenty of smiles and laughs. For some awesome shots and profiles of our Malolo swim babies, you can check out @lifeontheislandphotography on Instagram

As well as the weekly learn-to-swim classes, I have also been helping out with the Malolo squad, three very talented and committed young swimmers – Noelani (13), Finau (15) and Calina (19).

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Noelani, Calina and Finau at a fundraising event for their trip to the Samoa Swim Series

Together with Vila and Pou, I have been coaching them a couple of mornings a week at the one 25m pool on the island at Scenic Hotel. It is about 30 minutes drive from town and we train at 6 in the morning. During the dry season it was cold (by Tongan and my tropical acclimatised standards!) and also pitch black! There are no lights in the pool, no lines, lanes or flags, but it’s the best we’ve got, and hasn’t deterred the kids from training (or their incredibly supportive families from transporting them!). Thankfully now it is warmer and getting light earlier!

The squad also do a lot of open water training between two wharves at the foreshore in front of Nuku’alofa, and have mostly been entering open water events this year. They have done a number of distance swims locally to prepare them for these events, such as swimming from Nuku’alofa to the nearby island of Pangaimotu (1.8km or 2.9km depending on start point), or swimming there and back (5km), they have also swum from Holonga to Mounu Island in the lagoon and back again (5km) and their longest challenge was a swim from Nuku’alofa to Fafa Island (6km).

Being on the support kayaks for these swims has been a great way to see a bit more around Tongatapu as well.

As for their competitions, Noelani and Calina represented Tonga in the 5km Open Water at the Oceania Championships in Fiji in June, an amazing experience for them both to compete at a FINA qualifier. All 3 swimmers attended the Samoa Swim Series in August, completing the 5km Pacific Open Water Challenge and the 3-day swim series – Noelani and Calina did the 2km swim on 3 consecutive days, but Finau (the keen bean) upgraded to complete the 4km swim on 3 consecutive days! The Samoa Swim Series looked amaaaaaazing and is now on my bucket list – any open water swimmers out there should definitely look it up!

Most recently, Noelani and Finau competed at the Short Course Central Region Age Group Invitational in Fiji, their first pool competition in over 2 years. They took on 19 events between them in two days, set personal bests in every event and came home with 16 gold and silver medals between them! An amazing effort and we are so proud of them. You can read more about their experience here if you’re interested.

Their next team competition is in January – the 5km Lake Taupo FINA Open Water qualifier, as well as the Anthony Mosse Classic, a long course pool competition in Auckland. I am hoping to be able to attend with them as I’ve unfortunately been unable to get to any of their competitions so far, so fingers crossed we can make it happen!

These three will be the first three homegrown swimmers to represent Tonga on an international stage with Calina heading to the FINA World Swimming Championships (Short Course) in Windsor, Canada in December and Finau and Noelani aiming for the Youth Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas next year. I expect to see big things from them in future, so watch this space.

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Caline, Finau and Noelani representing Tonga in the Samoa Swim Series parade (Pic thanks to Pou Panuve)

It has been so awesome to work with the swimming club because everyone involved is so passionate and dedicated. It means the world to me that the club has welcomed me with open arms, we’ve shared many fun times and being involved with such amazing people has added so much to my experience here in Tonga. I’m so glad to have met everyone at the club, my Malolo family, and count them among my closest friends. I am looking forward to the next 3 months in Tonga, and also excited to see what other adventures await in future.

Samoa Swim Series 2017 anyone? 🙂

 

Thanks to Pou Panuve for many of the photos used in this post – check out more of her amazing shots on Instagram @go.pou

Also, if you are keen to follow what the amazing team at Malolo Swim Club are up to, please check out our Malolo Tonga facebook page .

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Food, Glorious Food!

No blog on life in Tonga would be complete without an entry dedicated to food, glorious food! Food is a huge part of the culture and everyday life here in Tonga, and given that I am working here as a nutritionist and am a self-confessed foodie, food is obviously a massive part of my daily life too.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about food here is sharing. Culturally, food is considered to be a token of love or appreciation, and it is very common that if you have food, you share it. Sharing of food is seen as a way to maintain good social relations. In fact, there is a term here for not sharing food – kaipō – which directly translates to ‘night eating’ but in effect means ‘eating secretly so you don’t have to share’!

I think I have mentioned that in the office staff will share various things, like fruit or root crop from home, leftovers from feasts, crackers, loaves of bread with tinned corned beef, or keke, the ‘Tongan doughnut’ (read: ‘deep fried ball of plain dough’). It is sometimes tricky to navigate this aspect… I know many Tongans don’t eat lunch in the office because they can’t afford to cater for everyone, but then the things that do get brought in are typically the super cheap and not very healthy options which are not great to eat regularly. I tend to only bring things in to share when I am running a training session or if it’s someone’s birthday or a special occasion, and the rest of the time I go home for lunch (or sometimes kaipō a snack from my bag!)

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Gourmet work lunch – sipi (mutton flaps), manioke (cassava) and chicken 2 minute noodles!

With the cultural understanding of food as a symbol of appreciation or respect, it is also believed that the amount of respect is proportional to the amount and type of food… The best food and the most food are given to people of higher status. That brings me to my next point- portion sizes! Religious and cultural events are the epitome of this, where exorbitant amounts of food are prepared for kai pola (feasts) to celebrate. No-one can actually physically eat all of the food on the day, but the provision of plenty symbolises the worth of the hosts, their guests and the community. Truckloads of leftovers are taken home. These enormous feasts are thrown for the church conferences, milestone birthdays, family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, funerals, Easter, Christmas, you name it.

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Table set for kai pola

Ben and I were invited to attend a kai pola for the Wesleyan Church conference in June with one of my workmates, Lini. It is crazy to see the amount of effort people go to for these events and the resulting mountains of food. The women are preparing dishes and table centrepieces for days beforehand and the cost is substantial. I have heard it costs about $1000 just to reserve the table! I have also heard some people take out loans for this, and to ensure they can provide a suitable amount of ‘appropriate’ food to impress, or show the right amount of respect, which is pretty outrageous. The imported (more expensive) foods have a higher status than most local foods and are more likely to impress, so the tables are full of chocolate bars and soft drinks, flavoured milk, potato salad, chocolate cakes and imported fruit like apples. More expensive local foods like roasted pig, seafood and yams are also popular.

When Ben and I went, we were picked up by another workmate of mine, Ma’ata, who was coming to Lini’s kai pola as her church (Seventh Day Adventist) doesn’t have a conference this year. It was meant to start at 5pm, but Ma’ata came to get us at 2.45 and we were quite unprepared! When we arrived near the kai pola, traffic was mayhem so we got out and walked. There were vehicles upon vehicles trying to get close to unload huge 70+ litre plastic storage tubs full of food, while other vehicles were loading up the leftovers and dirty dishes from the previous session (yes, there were multiple feast sessions each day during the week of the church conference! There was a schedule published where each church had a timeslot and table allocated.)

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Our kai pola session…

We wandered around watching table after table decorate and pile up the food. There were amazing (and hilarious) centrepieces on all the tables, like fruit bowls with skewers of cheezels poking out, fruit bowls dotted with blocks of chocolate, baskets with handles laced with lollipops mounted on huge cans of corned beef, and giant food towers topped with Cheetos. And surrounding these fantastic creations, dishes of food in flimsy imported plastic containers were piled 3-4 layers high on each table.

Once things were set up we sat at our table and waited til 5pm. It took so much self-control to sit in front of so much food with a rumbling tummy and not touch it! I had forgotten to bring my water bottle in the rush to meet our earlier-than-expected pick up, but there were only 1L cartons of chocolate milk on the table (one for each person!), so I couldn’t even sneak a sip of water!

Finally, the minster started the opening prayer, during which Ben spied a stealthy young boy quickly pinching the block of Milky Bar out of the fruit bowl in front of him! Once the prayer had finished, it was on. Being newbies to this experience, Ben and I didn’t realise it was an unspoken rule to rock up with an empty bag of reasonable size and start hoarding right away! All the ladies around us started clearing out the fruit and chocolate from the centrepieces, tucking away cartons of flavoured milk and stacking dishes of the foods they wanted to take with them later around their part of the table!

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Waiting for the feast to begin with Ben, Ma’ata and Miho (note the 1L chocolate milks…)

Then started the eating – so many different dishes to try (and deliberate over whether or not eating it would give us food poisoning since all were at room temperature!) There was sweet and sour fish, potato salad, roast chicken, clams, octopus, roast suckling pig, baked fish, lobster, plates of yams, seafood salad, giant trays of cakes amongst a myriad of other things I’m sure I have forgotten…

Beside us, a bunch of older men tagged out and a new contingent of hungry younger men jumped in. We were reaching capacity and no-one had even touched the suckling pig! Ma’ata said we should take it home. We said we don’t need a whole pig, so she gave us half. Then began the process of our Tongan friends trying to give us aaaaall the food, and us trying to bargain for a smaller amount! We ended up with half a suckling pig, an enormous tray of chocolate cake drowning in frosting, a box of yam, a whole octopus, 3 apples and several containers of sweet and sour fish and potato salad. We didn’t have to buy food for a week!

So besides kai pola, every day portions here are still quite big (and cheap to buy!). Here are some examples – 1) A lunch box I was given (one per person!) at a meeting, 2) a $6 serve of Chinese food from Tiger Inn, and 3) a $5 serve of fried chicken (aka ‘Kentucky’) from Singapore Restaurant. (For reference, I am talking in Tongan pa’anga – T$1 is roughly AU$0.60 at the moment!)

Don’t be fooled by the name, Singapore Restaurant is first and foremost a fried chicken joint, best on the island according to many. We’re pretty sure they have kidnapped Colonel Sanders and he is being held out the back of Singapore churning out batter filled with his 11 secret herbs and spices… Fried chicken is all called ‘Kentucky’, and it is hugely popular here. The scent frequently wafts past you as you’re cycling around town. You would be hard pressed to find a take away restaurant that doesn’t sell it, all the Tongan restaurants and even the Chinese restaurants all have it on the menu!

Now for dessert…

Yes, ice cream is dirt cheap here, and almost as big as your head! When I asked how much the ice-cream was for that last one, the lady said ‘$4 for one scoop, or $4 for 2 scoops’ What…?! So it was the obvious choice really!

Here is the famous ‘Juicy Lucie’ double patty burger at Billfish Bar and the wonderful breakfast item ‘Tonga Toast’ from Coffee Post…

The Tonga Toast is obviously inspired by the Tongan method of making a sandwich which I think I have previously described, but basically consists of getting an unsliced loaf of white bread, breaking it in half, pulling out the middle and stuffing it with something else, for example, tinned corned beef, ice-cream or even soft drink if you happen to be thirsty!

White bread is super cheap here, about $1.20 a loaf, and it’s not unusual to see people walking out of the bakery with 9 or 10 loaves to feed the hoardes! That brings me to my next point – bulk buying. Foods that are cheap are often bought in large quantities. An example is keke (the deep fried dough balls) which cost about 20c each and are usually seen purchased by the shopping bag! (Us palangis are always scared about suggesting the idea that they would taste so much more delicious rolled in cinnamon sugar because of the sheer volumes that are consumed!) Pork and fish is sold in massive hunks and chicken in bags of about 1.5kg as standard.

Local crops like root vegetables (sweet potato, cassava and taro) are always available cheaply in big quantities (like an entire shopping bag or basket for $10) which will last several months in a palangi household. Same with coconuts ($7 a basket) and bananas ($3-5 for a whole hand). Vegetables are sold in ‘piles’ in the market which always cost $3, however the size varies depending on how much is available. In season, tomatoes are $3 for an entire shopping bag full, out of season, $3 for a pile of 4-6 small fruits. It’s always a battle to eat all the fresh foods before they become overripe, disintegrate or start to sprout! We ended up with about 12 cucumbers for $3 once so Ben got into making pickles!

To help use up the copious cucumbers, I tried making these Indian cucumber pancakes which Ben and I enjoyed for breakfast with yoghurt and chilli sauce. I thought I’d take them to work as the recipe was pretty healthy and cucumbers were prolific, but the workmates weren’t so keen on them (though I did bring them in without dipping sauces…) They asked me, ‘Amanda, what would you put in this to give it flavour so kids would eat it?’ I said it has lots of spices to add flavour, but the difference they were probably noticing was that it didn’t taste like salt! The response was, ‘Maybe people who were health conscious would eat it, but most Tongans, maybe not…’ Sai ke tau ilo (good to know)… no good putting that one in the recipe book! I guess when kids these days are eating Twisties and chocolate biscuits from before the age of 2 they are conditioned to strong salt and sweet flavours… however people will happily munch on plain crackers or boiled cassava, so go figure! All part of learning what recipes appeal to a Tongan palate!

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$3 of cucumbers…!

There was a lot of drama during the ‘Sugar Crisis’ of 2016, when earlier this year the entire country was running out of sugar. A vital ingredient Tongan tea and other sweet treats, people were freaking out. Normally you buy raw sugar here in giant bags of 2-3kg for a few dollars a kilo, but all the shops were sold out. The more expensive white sugar disappeared off the shelves, and then the brown sugar. Apparently the bakery was illegally selling off small bags of their stocks at black market prices, and everyone started rationing out their remaining sweet stuff. Every now and then someone would get a hold of some sugar – I remember one day at work all the ladies disappeared and I asked where they were going. They said ‘Bela has sugar!’ so they were all going to grab a share! Our household managed to survive relatively unscathed, we successfully rationed until the next supplies had arrived (albeit at higher prices, I think because it was imported from Australia rather than South America).

The other major national food challenge has come with the closing down of the bakeries on Sundays. The Sabbath is enshrined in the constitution of Tonga, that “no person shall practise his trade or profession or conduct any commercial undertaking on the Sabbath Day”. Previously, the bakeries were exempt because of a cyclone a while back and they were allowed to stay open so people could access food, but that rule was never repealed until July 1st this year. Disaster for those Sundays you wake up craving a pie and a coke after a few too many drinks on a Saturday night! Initially they tried to shut down all restaurants, even those with accommodation, but it seems like that has been given up now (which is great for the sake of tourism… and the expats!). So there are still a few sneaky places you can get food and drinks in Nuku’alofa on the Sabbath if in need. Phew!

 

Really, even for a Melbourne native, Nuku’alofa is a pretty decent place for food-ventures. I can get my locally grown and roasted ‘Kingdom Koffie’ beans to use in my stovetop espresso maker, or I can buy a nice strong double-shot latte from Coffee Post. I can go out for Korean food or Fijian curry or pizza or find an awesome kebab (if I feel like a trek to the west coast!) and to top it all off, a ‘bubble tea’ shop just opened here!

At home it has been great to experiment in the kitchen with all the local ingredients- using pele, the local leafy green (edible hibiscus), any variety of root crop, arbitrary sour citrus from the tree in the backyard, green or ripe papayas from the backyard, breadfruit from the tree next door, cheap fresh fish and seafood from the market, bananas and coconuts… We have been able to try out a lot of different meals besides our standards. I will leave you with some images of our culinary creations… Til next time, ‘ofa atu! (cheers!)

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My First Tropical Cyclone

For some reason, I thought cyclone season in Tonga finished at the end of March, so in the first week of April, I wasn’t expecting to receive warning of possible cyclones. This being my first cyclone experience, I thought I would share with you the blow by blow…

On Monday, our in-country manager Dave (who is a weather buff and loves keeping on top of Tonga’s meteorological forecasts) sent word out to all the volunteers that there was a low pressure system in the area with potential to develop into a cyclone. We were warned at the least, it would bring some wind and rain. Not too scary yet, but one to keep an eye on.

That night, it rained consistently, then poured with rain again all day Tuesday. It was the heaviest rain I’ve had to ride in since arriving in Tonga. When myself and fellow Japanese volunteer Miho (who is also working with the Women’s Development Unit) turned up at work that morning drenched from cycling to work, we were told to go home and change out of our wet clothes, and “if you want, you stay there!”. Miho had no change of clothes with her so retired home for the day, but I had a dry skirt to change into from my wet leggings. I was still pressured to go home and change my top as my shoulders had gotten slightly wet through my rain jacket, but I explained I was meant to have a lunchtime meeting in town with the swimming club (who I have been helping teach swimming lessons after hours), and there was no point in riding home to change if I had to ride back in the rain later. They ended up getting the driver Enaki to take me home to change my top anyway and then brought me back to work to stay til lunch!

I worked the morning, and at lunch changed back into my wet clothes to ride through the ongoing downpour to the café where the swimming team normally meet. When I got there and couldn’t see anyone else, I checked my phone and saw the meeting was cancelled last minute due to bad weather! I had been told to work from home in the afternoon so that’s where I headed. Tonga really shuts down when it rains (despite the fact it is a place where rain is not at all rare for half of the year!). My colleague’s high school aged children once spent a rainy day in the office as school had apparently been cancelled for the day because of the weather!

On Wednesday, we woke to a cloudy morning but no rain finally. An early email from Dave confirmed the good news that the storm that was brewing had turned south and was weakening so no longer a threat. The bad news was that there was an actual cyclone, Zena, currently a category 1 storm hanging out near Vanuatu that was predicted to pass through Tonga on Friday or Saturday. We were advised to keep an eye on the weather updates and not to travel by sea or to any surrounding islands until it had passed. Wednesday was clear all day until the late afternoon when it started to pour again and continued all night. We came home to our rainwater tank overflowing and the neighbours enjoying a “faka’uha” (a Tongan word meaning “to bathe in the rain”!)

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Overflowing gutters and water tank

On Thursday we woke to a dark and grey morning. It was very still with no rain, but the humidity lay thick around us. The update from Dave that morning was that Zena was now a category 2 cyclone and was moving much faster than expected. The predicted path had her set to hit Tongatapu directly that afternoon/evening. We were advised to get out and do any pre-cyclone preparations such as shopping and clearing loose item around the house early and to stay indoors during the storm.

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Zena’s predicted path – right into Nuku’alofa

We were briefed on natural disasters in our pre-departure training as well as in our orientation in Tonga, but this was the first time we’d had to put theory into action. In the event of a cyclone, there is the possibility of some damage to infrastructure and short term loss of communications/utilities so generally we are expected to have about a week’s supply of non-perishable food and water, adequate gas supplies for the house, as well as essentials like batteries, matches/lighters, toilet paper in case of being unable to leave the house for a few days. The good thing is you usually have fair warning for a cyclone, unlike other natural disasters, (especially with a weather attentive guy like Dave as your in-country manager!)

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Cyclone rations…

So Thursday morning Ben set off to get us some extra non-perishable food supplies and I rode in to work… The attitude at work on the dry morning of a predicted cyclone hit was very different to the one where it was pouring with rain! It was cheerful greetings and business as usual and so we took off to a Division meeting at the research farm, about a 30-minute drive from Nuku’alofa in an area with sketchy phone reception! This had me a little worried, as at least in the office I had internet access and could receive updates on the storm, as well as being just 10 minutes from home if I needed to get back! However my colleagues didn’t seem phased, and since they had all been through this before I figured I would be ok… I texted Ben to let me know of any important updates by text and hoped that my phone would have a bar or two of reception to receive it!

The meeting only lasted 1 hour (the last one I went to was 3 hours long…) before it was prematurely aborted as it was noted the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to fall again. We all loaded into the minibus and made our way slowly back through the wet and crowded streets to head office. The roads were chockers at about 11am, and the skies were dark and ominous. The radio was announcing cyclone warnings and updates in Tongan and then in English, interspersed with jaunty island tunes. They announced Zena was now a category 3 storm, schools and the wharf had been declared closed. The average windspeed was around 110km/hr, with momentary gusts of up to 155km/hr. There was a sense of nervous anticipation in the air.

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Ominous sky and whipping winds on Vuna Road

One of my colleagues Snowden interrupted the radio reporting by telling Miho and I, “See, this is why you need to eat Tongan food- it makes you happy because you won’t blow away in the hurricane!” Everyone had a good laugh at that, quote of the week!

When we got back to head office, no-one wanted to let Miho and I ride home, and we were first to get lifts with Enaki with our bikes in the back of the ute. Everyone was looking out for the nervous palangis! Enaki loaded up the bikes and was saturated before we even left. He dropped us and our wheels off and then headed back to the office to take other staff members who didn’t have a lift home.

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Driving home before the storm

Back at Casa de Pili (as our house is now known), everyone was home and battening down the hatches. We were closing the many louvered windows in the living areas that hadn’t been shut since Ben and I moved in (and noticing at the same time they were pretty dirty and we should probably clean them!). We had all our gadgets and lights charging, as the power was meant to be cut around 2pm. The radio was playing the customary island tunes (obviously it was cyclone update break time).

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The downpour continues

I caught up on Dave’s latest email update which had us expecting Zena around 3pm, though she was moving fast (around 55km/hr, the last storm had been more like 30km/hr) so it was hoped she’d pass quickly. Time to sit tight and wait!

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Ahhh Zena!

At about 1pm I was making lunch in the kitchen and we had decided to open the windows back up because the rain and wind had died down and it was getting really humid inside. I was looking out the window and I could see Champ lazing on the lawn in a patch of sunlight that was pushing through the clouds. I thought, how weird, this must be the old ‘calm before the storm’. But not long after that, the radio announced that the cyclone was weakening and was no longer looking like it was going to hit Tongatapu!

It was a little bit of an anticlimax after all that hype that we weren’t going to get to ride out the storm, though of course it is much better that the island was spared, as even a category 3 cyclone could have done some damage. The worst we have to deal with is several backstreets with yards turned into swamps and probably a heightened population of mosquitoes in the next few weeks!

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Backyard lake in Nuku’alofa

Ben and I spent the afternoon of our ‘storm day’ napping. We got a little more rain during the afternoon, but it was super calm compared to the morning. When I woke up from my nap, I had received an email from SmartTraveller alerting me that Cyclone Zena was currently affecting Tonga and we should monitor the media and follow the advice of local authorities. At the exact same time, Dave had sent an email giving us the all clear – Zena had weakened to a category 1 and was passing to the south of us! Thanks SmartTraveller…

To wrap up our exhilarating day, that evening we enjoyed some of our cyclone rations with Naomi and Matt and ended the day with a ‘Piano-off’, where the goal was to take it in turns play a song from your collection featuring the piano. The trick was you weren’t allowed to listen to it beforehand and you only got 2 tries (though Matt introduced cheating to the game and soon everyone was pre-listening…)

It was a very strange week overall, being on stand-by the whole time with all of the anticipation and preparation turning into a lazy afternoon at home! Hopefully with the excitement of the title of this blog post and the underwhelming ending, you have all felt the same slight disappointment as we did when Zena stood us up :-p But luckily for Tonga, for about the 6th time this season I am told, the Kingdom has again escaped a direct hit from a cyclone. Hopefully they can keep up their record!

 

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Easter Escape to ‘Eua

Everybody loves a long weekend. And I think most people would agree, Easter is one of the best, being a whole four days long! Tonga being a largely Christian nation celebrates Easter, so Ben and I decided to take advantage of the super long weekend for our first getaway to another island.

‘Eua is the second largest island in Tonga, and the closest to Tongatapu (with the exception of the tiny inner islands just off the coast of Tongatapu). To get to ‘Eua from Tongatapu, you can either take the world’s shortest commercial flight (around 7 minutes) or you can take a ferry (around 3 hours). We chose to take the ferry for this trip since we had some time (and it is also about half the price so it suits our volunteer budget!).

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There are two ferries that run between Nuku’alofa and ‘Eua, the MV ‘Onemato and the MV Alaimoana. Our volunteer program recommends the ‘Onemato, so we decided to play by the rules and take that one. The tricky thing about the ferries is no-one really seems to know the schedules. We managed to reach someone at the ‘Onemato office by phone and found out there were no ferries on Good Friday or Easter Monday, and as per usual, they do not run on Sunday either (mandatory day of rest), so I decided to take a day of leave so we could catch the ferry on Thursday and avoid being stuck with a standard 3-day long weekend (what a tragedy). The ferry was returning 5am on Tuesday, so theoretically I would make it back to Nuku’alofa in time for work…

You don’t make bookings for the ferry, you just rock up on the day and get your ticket at the wharf. Simple in theory except for the fact that you don’t know when the ferry is leaving. We looked online and asked around and found a variety of departure times ranging from 10am to 12.30pm, so we thought, let’s get there at 9.30am and hopefully that means we won’t miss it. So we jumped on our bikes with our backpacks stuffed to the brim and a bag full of food in my basket, and with a short detour past the bakery for our weekend’s supply of hot cross buns, we got to the wharf right on 9.30. We parked up at what looked to be a waiting area where people sat on metal benches under a tin roof and saw the ‘Onemato hadn’t left yet, so next up was finding tickets.

It took a little while loitering around near the boat to find someone who worked for the ferry but eventually I found a lady with a book who looked official and found out where the office was located (once it was pointed out it was pretty obvious, but it was behind the boat, so we couldn’t see it from where we were sitting!) So I finally got our tickets (23 pa’anga each, and 5 pa’anga for each bike), we loaded our bikes onto the ferry, and then… we waited.

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Oh… there it is…

The MV Alaimoana was on a neighbouring wharf and we saw it leave a bit after 10.30am, but we then also understood why the program doesn’t recommend us to take it! It is a pretty small boat, and was loaded up with stuff, including a couple of cars which seemed pretty ambitious. An hour later when we were still waiting however, Ben was starting to wish we had taken it anyway! We ended up leaving about 12.30pm and we were already sick of sitting down, but took up a spot in the open air at the top of the ferry. It was quite cool up there and I ended up wearing my rain jacket as it was the only long-sleeved item I’d brought with me! The first half hour of our trip was accompanied by a prayer and then announcements in Tongan blasted from a loudspeaker right next to us. We were starting to think it might go for the whole 3 hours when finally it stopped and we could hear ourselves think!

The ferry ride was pretty smooth for the first hour, the waters sheltered by reef and the inner islands, but after that we hit some decent swell. You actually have to cross the Tonga trench to get from Tongatapu to ‘Eua- apparently the second deepest ocean trench in the world. The weather was quite windy and we went through patches of rain, but luckily we had sat in the middle of the ferry and not at the edges as they copped the brunt of it! The roof was made of tarps weighted down by ropes and the water tended to pool at the edges and pour off even after the rain had stopped. We had one hairy part where we had been hitting waves head on for couple of minutes, feeling the impact and the resounding THUMP to the body of the ferry before careening down the wave, when we hit a huge wave with an even bigger THUMP and all the engines cut. I looked around and saw we were still in sight of the eastern side of Tongatapu, and it did run through my mind that maybe I could swim there if we were stranded… but before I mentally started checking off which of my possessions I would surely have to sacrifice, the engines started up with a shudder and we were off again!

The rest of the journey was not so eventful, though I did feel the need to hang on to my seat at times because we were rolling around on such big waves, but the engines held up all the way to ‘Eua. Phew! When we got off the ferry, we had to find our way to our accommodation at Taina’s Place toward the south of the island. We got off to a cracking start when we had to walk our bikes up the first hill because we couldn’t make it with all our luggage! (We haven’t ridden a hill for a month as Tongatapu is really flat for the record…) And just our luck, school had just finished so the street was swarming with high school kids who would grin and wave and yell ‘Bye!’ to the crazy palangis who thought riding bikes was a good idea. There is one main road in ‘Eua which runs down the Western side of the island, unfortunately for us it was ascending the majority of the way to Taina’s. The humidity was thick because of the recent rain and I’m sure I looked a treat with sweat pouring down my face trying to muster a smile and a cheery ‘Bye!’ when we passed anyone.

It was almost 5pm when we finally made it to Taina’s, and despite sitting down for three quarters of the day we were pretty ruined! Taina’s Place is the only accommodation in ‘Eua which isn’t on the beach, but it is surrounded by beautiful gardens in the rainforest. It is also the only accommodation with a self-catering option which was appealing as we didn’t really want to buy all our meals for 5 days. The rooms were basic, but comfortable and the shared bathrooms were all kept very clean.

Taina’s is a family run guesthouse and has the feel of a homestay. You share all the common spaces with the family who were all very friendly and welcoming. We often played cards with the girls in the evenings after dinner. There are also 12 dogs (no joke), as well as a male cat named Rose (after the character in Titanic).

‘Eua is not nearly as developed as Tongatapu. Outside of the main town area where the wharf is, there are no markets or banks, so you rely on the little village falekoloas (corner stores) for supplies. These are not usually open on public holidays or Sundays so we had brought a stash of food from the main island with us to see us through the weekend, and were glad we did. The main supplies at these stores are sweet biscuits, chips, instant noodles and staples like water, milk, butter, eggs (when in stock!). Our stash included some vital Easter goodies too- no Easter eggs available in Tonga, but we got a block of NZ Cadbury chocolate as well as some Tim Tams that were made in Indonesia to compensate (these ended up being quite underwhelming, but the Cadbury was good!).

‘Eua only has a population of 5000 spread through about 10 villages. There is no real nightlife or restaurants here, the only ‘eateries’ are at the guesthouses, all the locals just eat at home. It is fairly quiet and there is a slow pace to life so it’s the perfect place for a relaxing retreat, but with plenty of outdoors activities if you’re keen to explore. The roads are pretty quiet and mostly sealed, so it’s nice for cycling, and you can also use the clear space for activities like pumping up your bike tyres and having snack breaks…

On our first day we decided to hit the beach as the weather was looking improved after 2 weeks of rain! Taina’s Place has a great map originally produced by a Peace Corps volunteer as well as a bunch of detailed directions for various walks which were super useful for self-guided exploring (their website has an interactive map which shows several of the sights). We first rode to Ha’aluma Beach on the south coast of the island, it was a short walk from where we parked our bikes on the main road down a hill to the beach. You were meant to be able to see areas where large slabs of reef rock had been cut to make royal tombs thousands of years ago, but we couldn’t figure out where this was (perhaps the tide was wrong). We did see some cool coral fossils in the rock though…

You were also meant to be able to snorkel at this beach, but again, don’t think we were there at the best tide, or perhaps not in a good spot, as we did attempt it but it was quite difficult in about a foot of water! It was still a cool beach, with some great blowholes where the ocean hit the reef. A couple of German girls who were staying at Taina’s had walked down to the same beach accompanied by 2 of the dogs, Simba and Sarabi. The dogs made sure we didn’t feel left out and came to hang with us for a while too…

We then went to check out Fangalahi Beach on the west coast. We rode most of the way and then parked our bikes up before a massive dirt hill that I was sure to stack on. We did take a wrong turn at one point which sent us out of our way for 10 minutes to a dead end, but eventually we found the right track and followed the overgrown path and then goats trail through the jungle down to the beach. This beach was truly very isolated, we were the only people there.

Again it was meant to be good for snorkelling but we may have misjudged the tides as we were creative snorkelling in a foot of water once more, though this time we did see some cool things like sea urchins and a nudibranch.

We ended our Good Friday with pizza night at the ‘Ovava Tree Lodge in town, one of the other accommodation options and also the home of ‘Eua’s dive operator Deep Blue Diving. We thought there might be a few people we could chat to over a beer, but other than us there were only 2 others there! It is still off season I guess… As soon as we arrived they had a pizza ready and served us right away. We had caught a cab and originally arranged a lift home at 10.30pm, but luckily we got his number so we could ask him to come back at 8.30pm instead! We enjoyed too much pizza (which was tasty albeit with some interesting toppings like canned ham, mixed frozen veg and seafood extender) accompanied by some crazy sweet and heavily artificially coloured Tongan cordial, then retired to Taina’s to watch a movie on Ben’s laptop (a nightly event over Easter!)

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Tongan style meat lovers pizza at ‘Ovava 

Our next day’s adventure was a guided tour with Mathew from Taina’s Place around a loop in the centre of the island to the east coast. We left accompanied by the standard Pacific Island hiking tool (machete) plus an entourage of 3 dogs, Toby, Simba and Sarabi. First stop was the big ‘ovava (banyan) tree #2. It certainly was impressive, and Mathew showed us how easy it was to climb (“Just like steps!”) in his Tongan climbing boots (thongs). He scaled the tree in about 30 seconds and then strolled down the back of a big branch back to ground level as if it was easier than walking on the ground.

We then saw the “Smoking Cave”, ‘Ana ‘Ahu, a huge sinkhole which usually has a waterfall running into it, so it gets its name from the mist that appears to be coming out of the cave. It was not “smoking” on our visit, but still quite an impressive sight! Our walk was peppered with sightings of edible plants- a clove tree, galangal, snacks of fresh fruit picked from the wild fruit trees (guava, banana, orange), and at one point, drinking water from a vine (Mathew told us the Tongan name for it is Tarzan vine, but I’m not so sure that’s an official botanical name…)

We then visited Rat’s Cave (so named because it looks like a rat’s hole, not because there are any rats there), which we climbed down into and had magical views over ‘Eua National Park and Lokupō Beach on the East coast. (Fun fact: ‘Eua National Park is home to the largest remaining patch of virgin rainforest in Tonga.)

We got some more great views over the coast and forest from a lookout a little further along the trail. There is a guided hike that goes down to Lokupō Beach, but it is straight down a steep slope through thick jungle and then back up again, so we didn’t attempt that one this visit!

Our next stop was Makalea Cave, which involved scaling down a wet and slippery rock face which I almost chickened out of. I didn’t feel my sandals were grippy enough, so I ended up doing some barefoot rock climbing because Ben had already gone in and of course I get massive FOMO and didn’t want to wait at the top while he had all the fun!

Once we were down the initial vertical climb, it was a lot easier. There were some cool formations inside the cave, including one that looked like a soft serve ice-cream hanging from the roof (my personal favourite).

On Easter Sunday, we decided to take the obligatory day of rest. Ben hadn’t been to a Tongan Church service yet, so we went with 2 of the girls from Taina’s, Christine and her friend Helala, to their local church, a little wooden hall in the village of Ha’atu’a with an old rusted oxygen tank as a church bell. There was a small congregation of about 25-30, so I was wondering what the singing would be like, but what the group lacked in numbers they certainly made up for in volume! It is always amazing to hear the multi-part harmonies that everyone just knows. The rest of the day was spent napping (as is traditional in Tonga) and watching movies.

On our last full day in ‘Eua, we rode our bikes down to the south-eastern point and did a walk up the coast from there. There are quite a few wild horses in this area, we kept our distance but they were quite cool to see. We passed several “rock gardens” which were pieces of ancient coral reefs pushed up onto land by volcanic activity, and got some pretty spectacular views of the cliffs on ‘Eua’s east coast along the way.

There was a side track up to a lookout where you could view the “Natural Archway”, with a peculiar direction sign and a ridiculously difficult to open gate (where you had to prise a pole out of 2 loops of barbed wire), but it was worth the short struggle and almost stabbing of the hands in the end, and the platform did still look like it was being used…

The walk to the archway was through some amazing mangrove type forest, the root systems of the pandanus were incredible. The story about the creation of the archway is that an ancient Polynesian God called Maui threw his spear from the centre of ‘Eua to this spot on the south-eastern coast, and then he pulled it out to make the archway. The sign didn’t tell us why, just how. Anyway, it was a beautiful spot to watch the tumultuous ocean crash into ‘Eua’s rocky shore.

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The natural archway

We ate our lunch in a cool and shady cave, one much easier to get into than Makalea! The last stop on the walk was meant to be a freshwater stream but at the end of the trail we reached a pretty steep rock face which we would have to climb to get to the source of the stream so we decided to call it a day and head home. It was an early night for us, with the 5am ferry back to Nuku’alofa the next morning.

A 4.15am start on our bikes got us to the wharf at 4.40am, just in time to scamper onto the ferry, rack up our bikes and get a seat up top. It was packed, because there had been no services Sunday or Monday. I don’t know what time people arrived to pick up prime lying locations on the deck and benches!

The weather was fine and it was a much easier ride back than on the way, half an hour quicker too. We got home at 7.30 and picked up breakfast from the bakery before I headed home to change and get to work! All in all, a great break and recommended destination for visitors to Tonga who like a bit of trekking. We hope to get back again later in the year to explore the northern part of the island as well as do some diving, so I’ll keep you posted!

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Sunrise from the ‘Onemato

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A Home Away From Home

Now that we have been living in Nuku’alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, for a few weeks, I thought I would share some of what it’s like to live in this happy island nation. Of course, this is only based on my short experience to date, but I feel like the differences are more noticeable at the beginning of a new venture than they will be in a few months’ time so am writing it before I well and truly get used to everything!

To begin with, I guess I should tell you about my house. We are pretty lucky to be based in a great location a few minutes’ bike ride from the centre of Nuku’alofa in an area called Pili (however I don’t think you can find this area labelled as such even in google maps). As a matter of fact, addresses are fairly non-existent here, I don’t even know if the road our house is on has a name!  Directions are pretty much given based on the few major roads with names people know and landmarks such as churches and shops. Eg. ‘Go straight down Mateialona Road, past the 2 roundabouts and the green falekoloa (shop) on the corner. Pass the small white church on the left, our road is the next one on the right with the new white street light and a vacant block on the corner’. We have to give these kind of directions to the water company who deliver our drinking water or to taxi drivers.

Our house is on a block with another house where a lovely Tongan family live. We have a big yard with an umu (ground oven) as well as many fruit trees (breadfruit, banana, papaya, lime, guava) as well as a curry leaf tree and some lemongrass.

We also have two dogs who we have dubbed Champ and Sprocket (apparently they belonged to some volunteers who previously lived here). Champ is quite young and crazy energetic, he still likes to nip a bit when he is trying to play, but Sprocket is pretty chilled and likes to lie down for a lot of the day.

We kind of share care of the dogs with the family next door. The family are quite generous and often bring us a plate of food from the umu on Sundays, and also lend Ben and I their coconut husker so we can make our own coconut milk and dessicated coconut.

Our house itself is quite large, we have a good sized kitchen with a gas oven and stovetop, though the oven has no temperature gauge which has been interesting for my baking addiction! The gas bottle is located in a cupboard under the sink however… The town water supply is safe to drink, though is quite hard – our electric kettle has calcified shut and we can’t open the top anymore! But in addition to the town water, we also have a rainwater tank shared with next door, as well as our bottled drinking water supply (in the big 20L containers with a dispenser).

The taps don’t have great pressure, but we have a pump outside in the laundry we can turn on before a shower and have a decent spray. We can also have hot showers if we turn on the gas bottle in the laundry, but we’ve mostly been having cold showers while the weather has been warm. We often use rainwater to do the washing (because it is free) but this makes doing the laundry quite a process, as my house-husband Ben can attest to! We have a couple of buckets which he fills at the tank out the front and walks around to put in the washing machine out the back. Then the wash goes and when it finishes you drain it and bring more water from the tank for the rinse. After the rinse you put all the wet clothes from the washing tub into the spinning tub and then they are ready to hang out! Ben is really earning his dependant stars with that ordeal each week…

Ben and I have scored a big bedroom- it’s actually bigger than we had in Katherine, so we have plenty of room for our 2 suitcases worth of stuff! Our lounge room is about the size of a tennis court with an old but giant TV (of dubious quality… In the words of Ben: ‘When you watch anything it looks as if someone has smeared butter all over the screen’). We do get a channel called Australia Plus, so Ben can watch some of his favourite ABC shows and some of the footy as well. Despite the two 3-seater couches, a 2-seater couch, 3 armchairs, giant TV and cabinet in the lounge, all 4 of us can also keep our bikes inside!

Since we have arrived, the climate has generally been quite nice. We just had a week of pretty continuous rain which has amped up the humidity but brought some nice breezes. It has gotten hot at times, but our fan has been able to take the edge off. No luxury AC here, but the nights luckily aren’t as hot as a Katherine wet season!

In terms of other luxuries, there is not too much we are having to go without to be honest. One thing of note is that we are now living in a world of 1-ply toilet paper, which I don’t think I succumbed to even as a student! The bug situation here is probably comparable to the NT, we have had some ants recently and we get a few spiders (mostly daddy-long-legs for potential visitors!), but I would say less cockroaches here than in Katherine. Mozzies can be annoying but our house is really well fly-screened so we haven’t had trouble at home, mostly when we go out. The Tongan symphony of the night has taken some getting used to though, with typical selections including chorus of dogs, dog chasing chicken, rooster crowing and/or squealing pig.

On the side note of mosquitoes, I imagine people have heard quite a bit of the Zika Virus hype in the media recently. It is present in Tonga, but from what I have heard from a few people who have had it is symptomatically, it is a lot milder than the other common mosquito-borne illnesses in Tonga (Chikingunya and Dengue Fever). Many people are even asymptomatic. The main factor of concern is the possible link for pregnant women who get infected and microcephaly in their babies, as well a possible link with Guillian-Barre syndrome, but there’s not a lot of firm information around at the moment. We just have to douse ourselves in repellent, cover up and hope for the best.

With regards to material things, on the whole, though some things are less available than in Australia, we still have access to a lot. The internet is more expensive compared to home and we have data limits which takes some getting used to after mostly unlimited usage/streaming etc. in Australia, but we have unlimited data between 12am and 6am, so have to save our downloads for the wee hours! Also some food items we love at home can be more expensive and/or hard to find here, eg. Coffee, nuts, dried fruit, yoghurt, cheese, chocolate, wine, but we are rationing them if we buy them which makes us enjoy them when we have them. (Except for the coffee… I am still having that everyday! You can take the girl out of Melbourne, but you can’t take Melbourne out of the girl!) I have become a big fan of the Easiyo yoghurt maker, and am making my own yoghurt from milk powder these days which is a lot more economical than buying it here and means I can still enjoy my favourite breakfast food (thanks to Sustainable Suburbia for the know-how). It really is super easy; I don’t know why I haven’t done this forever!

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Luxury items here in Tonga…

On the topic of food, shopping here is a bit of an adventure as you often need to visit several different stores and the market depending on what you want and who has it that week. There are several fresh food markets in different areas of town for your fruit and veggies; the fish market with fresh, unscaled, ungutted fish; the fish shop where you can buy big chunks of larger fish (like tuna) pre-scaled and gutted; several butchers and bakeries (but to get multigrain bread your best bet is the largest bakery and you have to get there early in the day!); the dairy shop which has the cheapest cheese… Then certain stores are renowned for having a good supply of affordable spices, others for having a variety of canned goods like corn kernels, chickpeas or beans, others for having the cheapest dried fruit. Everyone told us when we arrived- if you see something and you want it, BUY IT! Because it might not be there next time you go back… or even for several months after!

One of the other quirks of life here so far is the Sunday shut down. It is quite nice to have a designated day of rest and wake up to the sound of church bells ringing, but can cause unplanned inconveniences in other ways. We had an incident in our second week here where we were cooking dinner on Saturday night and the gas ran out. Our house has two gas bottles- one for the oven and one to heat water for the shower. Since all the shops tend to close around 1pm on a Saturday and don’t open again until Monday, we had the ingenious idea to swap the kitchen gas bottle for the laundry gas bottle so we could finish making our dinner. After a half hour bottle-changing interlude we managed to finish cooking – cold showers til Monday but a warm dinner on Saturday! Worst case scenario, the bakery has a license to operate on a Sunday, as well as a few restaurants so we wouldn’t have gone hungry. The bakery is actually a popular hangout on Sunday afternoons where people can go and buy huge trays of 60 cream buns or 7 loaves of white bread to feed the hoardes!

I think I will have to write a whole other post on Tongan food, so more on that next time. Til then, big hugs from the friendly isles 🙂

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Welcome to the Friendly Island!

So there has been a bit of a gap between now and my last posts in 2013…! Since finishing my roadtrip with Laura and Hugo in the US and Canada, I travelled to Columbia and Ecuador and then headed back to Australia. After living in Katherine in the Northern Territory for 18 months and back home in Melbourne for about 6 months, I have landed in Nuku’alofa, Tonga where I am starting a 12 month assignment with Scope Global as part of the Australian Volunteers For International Development program, an Australian Government initiative. I will be working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries’ Women’s Development Unit as a Health Promotion and Nutrition Officer where I will be helping the local staff to develop health promotion programs and resources aimed at promoting home gardening, healthy eating, and healthy cooking to help prevent non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease), the largest contributor to the burden of disease here in Tonga. My partner Ben has also come along as my trusty ‘dependant’ (in the official program lingo).

We started our adventure by arriving at the airport in Melbourne super early to sort out excess baggage with our airline after having been handballed to 4 different departments over the prior 6 weeks. We had a 23kg allowance and they are pretty strict about not allowing pre-booking of extra bags to the pacific islands (we have been told by previous volunteers that this may be due to islanders previously attempting to bring extreme excess baggage such as washing machines…) but for whatever reason they like to charge you an arm and a leg to bring anything extra on the plane and do not guarantee that anything you bring will be allowed to be taken with you… Bit of a pain when you are uprooting your life for 12 months! Anyway, thankfully we had a very helpful supervisor at the service desk who checked with their operations team and allowed us to take our 1 case and 1 bike box each, and let us pay the pre-booked baggage rate which we were very relieved about. It took a while to figure it all out and had been quite frustrating as every person we spoke to about excess baggage told us a different rule so wherever possible when travelling to the pacific, I’d advise to stick to your luggage limits! After grabbing lunch with my sister Cara and Ben’s mum, Marg, and taking the obligatory airport snap with Caz, we were off!

We flew from Melbourne to Sydney where we met up with the other 3 volunteers mobilising with us (Sarah from Tassie, Ina from NSW and Emma from Brissy). We had our intro to ‘Tonga Time’ when our flight didn’t board at its scheduled time with no announcements telling us what was going on, but when we did finally take off an hour later than we were meant to, our flight was pretty uneventful. We were provided with our ‘meal’ (as referred to by our flight itinerary) or ‘dinner snacks’ (in the words of the air hostess…)- literally a box containing a bread roll, a pack of crisps, a mini quiche and a muffin for our dinner! It was like they had run out of meals and had to chuck together the leftover snacks from the bottom of the barrel! Since we had been overfed for a week before we left at our pre-departure training in Adelaide, we weren’t too worried!

We arrived in Nuku’alofa at about 2am local time. Ben and I were last of the volunteers out of the terminal not knowing how to gracefully push into the queue of determined Tongans with our trolley of cumbersome bike boxes! We were greeted by a little 3-piece band playing lively tunes outside the terminal (still going strong at 2.30am!) and were met by our in-country management team, David and Una. They transported us and all our gear to Sela’s Guesthouse, our home for our first week of orientation. Sela’s is a little locally owned B&B with some very interesting décor!

For those of you who have not heard much about Tonga, I will diverge a little here to enlighten you. Tonga is an archipelago of about 170 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. For my assignment, I am based in the capital city of Nuku’alofa which is on the main island, Tongatapu. Around 70% of Tonga’s whole population (a total of ~100,000 people) live on Tongatapu, but it is not a large island. Apparently it would take about an hour to drive end to end (and the local speed is around 60km/hr!). There are many uninhabited islands in Tonga, and small populations living in the other main island groups, ‘Eua, Ha’apai, Vava’u and the Niuas. The official languages are English and Tongan (a Polynesian language). We had some basic training in Tongan as part of our orientation. So far my favourite word is ‘fakapikopiko’, which means ‘lazy’.

Tonga is the only remaining monarchy in the pacific, and is the only pacific nation to never have been colonised, a fact which Tongans are very proud of. Just in our first few days we have seen that culture is strong here, with many people wearing traditional garments such as the keikei (an ornamental belt worn over the skirt for ladies) and the tupeno (wrap skirt, for men and women) and tuvala (woven mat, worn by both men and women). The current king is HRH Tupou VI who was crowned just last year in July. The Kingdom is undergoing a transition toward democracy with the king relinquishing some of his constitutional powers in recent years, and the people now having elected members of the public in parliament (not just the nobles). Tonga has held 2 democratic elections so far in 2010 and 2014.

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The waterfront in Nuku’alofa

Tonga was given its nickname ‘The Friendly Isles’ by Captain Cook. The story goes that when he arrived in the 1700s, the locals actually wanted to kill him and his men and take their boats so they threw a big feast for them as a decoy. However the chiefs then had a disagreement which foiled their plan, so in the end, Captain Cook sailed off unharmed with a full belly telling everyone how friendly the locals in Tonga are! I’m not sure if that story is true or not, but I must say the locals sure are friendly for real here. Riding or walking down the street, everyone smiles and says hello (or “Bye!”). I talked to another customer in the bank on my first day here, a girl who works in a local café and when I visited the café a few days later and she saw me, she remembered my name and greeted me like an old friend!

Explorers and missionaries of Cook’s era brought Christianity to Tonga which remains a strong part of Tongan life today. The main religion followed is that of the Wesleyan Church, but there are also Church of Tonga, Catholic and Mormon followers. Sundays are officially a day of rest, most people go to church in the morning then come home for a lunchtime feast cooked in the ‘umu’ (ground oven), often followed by a food coma/afternoon nap (like Christmas every week!). Most of the shops are closed (with the exception of bakeries and a couple of restaurants at hotels) and it is frowned upon to exercise or go swimming at the beach (unless you head out of town to a resort where anything goes). I plan to use Sunday as my baking day, and Ben plans to take up the local hobby of Sunday eating and naps!

We were lucky enough to experience a church service at the King’s church during our orientation (sadly the King was not in attendance that day though). Unfortunately, Ben missed it as he was down with what he has dubbed as ‘Tonga tummy’ L But I went along with Ina and Emma- our language teacher Poli was excited to dress us all up in tupenos and tuvalas to celebrate the special occasion of our first Sunday in Tonga. We headed to church with her daughter Seini and her friend Nelu while she prepared the umu. The service was in Tongan but was very enjoyable as it was interspersed with beautiful harmonies from the amazing choir as well as a brass band.

After church Poli spoiled us with 4 types of lu (a taro-leaf-wrapped package of meat dressed in coconut milk and cooked in foil)- she had corned beef (the tinned variety, very popular here), salty beef (what we would know in Australia as corned beef), as well as fish and lamb (mutton flaps), served alongside ufi (yam) and kumala (sweet potato which is often purple here). There are the biggest yams I have ever seen here, more than half a metre long!

We also had some amazing ‘ota ika, a local dish which I think of as the ceviche of the pacific- raw white fish is dressed in lime juice and then mixed with a range of chopped veggies (carrot, capsicum, tomato, chilli) and coconut milk. It is delicious! Poli very sweetly packed up a Tongan-sized take home umu pack for Ben to try as well (sans ‘ota ika at my request- I wasn’t sure raw fish was the best cure for Tonga tummy!).

So far we have been very impressed by Nuku’alofa and it seems like it will be quite an easy place to live. There are like 10 times the number of cafés and restaurants than we had in Katherine! There are Korean, Italian, Indian, Filipino, Chinese, local and western options to name a few. Though some ingredients are more expensive than back home there is a good range of foods available in the shops. The roads in Tongatapu are quite good too, most are sealed and there’s not too many potholes which has been good for riding. Lots of the volunteers get around by bike, and Ben built us one each from old parts before we left. They have ridden well so far, apart from a few minor mishaps with my left pedal falling off, my front wheel being dislodged (luckily not while riding!) and Ben’s back brake getting stuck on the wheel a couple of times.

We have moved into a share house with another Aussie couple, Matt and Naomi, who are from NSW. It is a 3-bedroom place which means we have a spare room for visitors! (Yes, you! Come visit us!) It sounds like there is plenty to see and do both in Tongatapu and the outer islands which Ben and I are looking forward to exploring on weekends and holidays. There are lovely beaches a-plenty, sea kayaking adventures, great snorkelling and diving, and one of the biggest draws is swimming with humpback whales. So if you feel the need for a tropical island getaway in the next 12 months, definitely let us know! So now that I’ve completed the shameless plug, I’ll sign off for now. Toki sio (see you later)!

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo) – Part IV

The Midwest to NY

Ahhh the Midwest… Home of bourbon, motor sports and rednecks. We felt our trip would be incomplete without a (small) taste of this part of America. So from Washington D.C we headed out toward Kentucky. Our first stop was a picturesque bourbon distillery called Four Roses in a little town called Lawrenceburg. I’m not so much a whiskey girl, but Hugo and Laura are big fans.

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The tour took us through the working distillery and the process of bourbon making. To be called bourbon, the whiskey has to be made in the United States with a minimum of 51% corn grain, distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in a new white oak barrel charred on the inside. The barrel can only be used once, as this gives bourbon its distinctive flavour. Four Roses has been around since 1860 and they are interesting as they have 10 different types of bourbon produced form two ‘mash’ (the grain combination) recipes and 5 different strains of yeast- you can buy the single barrel varieties too, which all taste slightly different. I didn’t mind at least one of the varieties we tried after the tour, but Hugo and Laura both left with some bottles!

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We headed on to Bardstown, which advertised itself as ‘America’s most beautiful small town’ (not sure if they were given the title or if they just made it up…) Here we had a delicious lunch of Kentucky specialties at a little family restaurant- some fried chicken of course, and a ‘hot brown’- like an extreme welsh rarebit. It’s a piece of toast layered with sliced turkey breast, smothered in cheese sauce and topped with bacon strips then grilled!

The hot brown came served with a ‘congealed salad’ which I can only assume is another Kentucky specialty except it sounds disgusting. We asked the waitress what it was and she replied ‘It’s Jell-o with pineapple in it’, which sounded more like a dessert, but it showed up in a big slab with mayonnaise! It tasted ok (better sans mayo), but Kentucky, this is a problem… Just because it is served on a piece of lettuce, it does not even remotely constitute a salad, and as such, should not be adorned with this false title! Maybe you could consider changing the gross name too…

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After lunch we visited the history of whiskey museum which took us through prohibition, as well as having lots of fun paraphernalia to look at…

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After all the whiskey touring, we went to St Louis, Missouri. We drove by the famous Gateway Arch and checked out Forest Park, an urban green space bigger than Central Park, with it’s beautiful, with lakes and streams. Later, we headed to The Hill district, St Louis’s ‘Little Italy’ for dinner to try the local toasted ravioli. We ended up at Mama’s, one of the two restaurants in the district that claims they invented the dish. The little parcels are actually deep fried and naturally, were delicious. We then headed into town to visit the City Museum which was open til midnight.

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This place was definitely a highlight- it’s like a crazy playground maze made out of urban materials with a few little exhibits on antiques or preserved insects thrown in for good measure. It’s quite hard to describe what it was like, the place is designed by a sculptor and is just amazing. We started up on the roof where there is a ferris wheel, a couple of giant slides, and an old school bus hanging off the edge of the building.

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Inside a few of the exhibits were closed, but we made a shadow puppet with an interesting character called Stuart and then explored a bit of the ground level, including two suspended aeroplanes which were part of the creation. I would absolutely go back again, you could spend ages in there exploring! And they are still creating new spaces so it’ll probably be even better in a couple of years… I’ll see you again St Louis 🙂

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The next day we were off to Kansas City for… wait for it… NASCAR! We’d managed to get some cheap tickets and thought the experience would be well worth the hike. Luckily for us, there was a Walmart about a 20 minute walk from the speedway, so we were set! We had by this point gotten into the habit of counting how many ‘friends’ (other campers) we have in each parking lot. And Kansas was a record- there would’ve been at least 20 other vans/RVs. We’d looked into camping at the speedway and it was $150, so Walmart campers: Winning!

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So here’s another fun fact: you can BYO booze to NASCAR! You are only limited by the size of the bag you bring, but we picked up two cooler bags that hold 16 cans for $10 each and a case of 30 beers for $20 so we were set!! Booze is soooooo cheap in the states… The only thing you weren’t allowed to bring in with you were firearms… phew!

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NASCAR is pretty much as boring and repetitive to watch as you’d expect. Which is probably why you need all that beer. Sad to say, but this means it is actually more exciting when something goes wrong! Whenever anyone spins off the track or crashes the crowd is up on their feet yelling and cheering! NASCAR is actually the 2nd most watched sport in America (only to football) which is worrying… watching the cars go round n round n round on TV is not quite the same as being in the crowd at the speedway… They can be more entertaining than the cars at times!

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We watched the whole 200 laps (a short race!) then went across the road to Hooters to round out our experience… Hooters was also what you’d expect… greasy food, beers, a whole lot of dudes and teeny underage waitresses in minuscule shorts running around the place. It was good to check out once but not somewhere I’ll rush back to (though the wings were very good…)

The next day we started making our way up toward Chicago, driving part of Historic Route 66, which included a giant statue of Paul Bunyan holding a hotdog, and visiting a maple sirop farm at Funk Grove. We had lunch at Sonic, a drive-in restaurant (kind of the epitome of laziness) but we felt we had to try it. We just sat in the car, ordered through a speaker and then someone brought out our food and we ate it in the car!

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My first night in Chicago I stayed with Hugo at his friend Joe’s place- Laura had a conference to attend in the city. Joe has a gorgeous dog called Zeus who is part wolf and freaked a lot of people out when we walked him down to Humboldt Park! We had a pretty quiet night in but did get to try some deep dish pizza from Giordano’s which was AWESOME!

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The following day I met up with Chelsea who I’d met in Nicaragua. We had a great day wandering around the parks, visiting Buckingham Fountain (apparently featured in the opening credits of Married With Children), visited Cloud Gate- colloquially known as ‘the bean’- which is a giant mirrored sculpture in Millennium Park and then walked into the city where I saw a piece of the Sydney Opera House attached to the Tribune Building.

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We ate Italian beef sandwiches for lunch, went up the John Hancock Building for a drink with a view at Signature Bar on the 96th floor, and wound up at a Cupcake ATM! Best invention ever!! After saying goodbye to Chelsea, I finished the day with a run out on Lake Michigan which was beautiful.

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Chicago is a big city, but seems pretty laid back and is really clean and pretty- I really enjoyed it. On our way out of town we did the last foodie taste test- the Chicago dog, traditionally served with relish, peppers and a pickle spear, but NEVER tomato sauce (a challenge for me, but even more so for Laura who ‘likes ketchup on her ketchup’!). We went to a little store called Gene and Jude’s who did a roaring trade in simple, unattractive but delicious hot dogs, and we managed to eat them without cheating and adding tomato sauce!

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We next headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, for some Friday night college football! We used AirBnB again and stayed with a couple of college students a short walk from campus, so we were right in the thick of all the action. During the day we checked out Eden Park, overlooking the city from the top of Mt Adams, and then visited the Freedom Centre, a museum about slavery and particularly escape via the Underground Railroad. This was a network of people who risked their lives to help shelter and guide escaped slaves to freedom in the states of the north (of which Ohio was on the border). There were some really incredible stories in there.

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In the evening all the festivities had kicked off in the neighbourhood, with every 2nd house seeming to be ‘tailgating’ (pre-drinking/partying before the game). The street was covered in red and black, the colours of the University of Cincinnati’s team, the Bearcats, and when we left for the game there was a steady stream of people moving toward the stadium.

We arrived in time to see the team run onto the field accompanied by a 300 piece marching band, a show of fireworks and the rah-rah-rahs of 4 troupes of cheerleaders! Pretty epic. There were about 32000 people at the game and I don’t think anyone was cheering for the opposition, Temple… When Temple scored, the huge crowd was dead silent, but when the Bearcats scored, the sea of red erupted with shouts and applause, the cheerleaders stirred into action, music played and the army cadets even fired off a cannon and dropped for a round of push ups!

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The half time entertainment was the 300-piece marching band playing some Beethoven excepts while marching into different formations surrounded by some baton twirlers and girls waving big flags. There was even a bearcat called Lucy from the local zoo visiting- I had no idea a bearcat was even a real animal! I thought it was a made up name, but it is actually the informal name for the binturong, an animal native to Southeast Asia. Who knew!

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After the game, Hugo’s dream of attending a college party was realised when our hosts took us to one around the corner. There was a guy on the door playing bouncer and enjoying his power trip, but he let us in and we inched our way upstairs into the packed house. I felt so old, everyone looked about 17! There was a keg in the kitchen and people were selling beers for $5 (!). Beer-pong was also going but to stop mess they were using cups with water in and just sipping their beers which Laura was appalled at. Naturally she stepped up to show the kids how it should be done. Hugo on the other hand fell asleep on the couch after all his excitement much to our amusement!

After hitting Columbus and Pittsburgh, we then headed on to Philadelphia, via Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. It was here we ate our first ever cheesesteak (it didn’t disappoint!) and afterward visited Pottsville, where we toured America’s oldest brewery, Yeungling- since 1829. The brewery tour was awesome, but packed as it was a public holiday and a free tour so everyone was doing it!

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We saw the old hand-dug caves which were used for temperature control back in the days before refrigeration (took them 10 years to dig!), the kegging room, the currently used kettles and brewing equipment and also the bottling shed. We finished off with two decent samples- the beer is great, but not very widely distributed- mostly just the north-eastern states of the US.

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We arrived in Philly in the evening, celebrated Canadian thanksgiving with a nice meal on South St and parked up at the lovely riverfront view Walmart for the night. It was actually quite close to town for once, but bit of a scary clientele with domestics in the car park and shoplifting scandals in store!

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My next morning was spent at the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school as I’d had a horrible toothache over the past week and decided it was time to stop putting off getting it checked out. Unfortunately the verdict was I needed a root canal, but I managed to get away with a temporary procedure that should tide me over until I’m back in Aus and covered by health insurance! 3 hours later I met up with Laura and Hugo and we explored a bit in town.

We ate Philly cheesesteaks (again!) at Pat’s King of Steaks, allegedly the home of the ‘original’ cheesesteak and open since 1930. Sylvester Stallone also apparently ate here in the filming of Rocky (one of them), and there is a little memorial stone in the pavement to commemorate the occasion. We walked into the centre through the Italian Market, a stretch of Mediterranean and Mexican stores and restaurants, as well as Washington Square, one of the original parks William Penn laid out in Philly and arrived at the Independence Park where sadly we really noticed the effects of the US government shutdown which was still dragging on.

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We peeked at the famous Liberty Bell through a pane of glass, but many of the historical buildings such as the US Mint; Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed; Congress Hall, the seat of government when Philadelphia was the capital and the National Portrait Gallery were all closed.

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We then visited the Reading Terminal Market, full of amazing food, and walked by City Hall, which is topped with a statue of William Penn and is supposed to be the tallest masonry building without steel infrastructure in the world.

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Hugo and I then walked up to the Art Museum to join all the other Rocky fans running up the stairs and posing at the top just like Sly Stallone did!

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Hugo took a bus to New York the next morning to catch a friend, so Laura and I went on a little adventure to Jersey before meeting him there. We stopped in the faded casino resort of Atlantic City and ate some fish and chips on the boardwalk, then headed up to Seaside Heights, home of the trashy reality TV show, Jersey Shore. Both towns were pretty dreary and abandoned looking, probably a mix of the off season, grey weather and the still tangible after-effects of Hurricane Sandy. We didn’t hang around long and rolled up to the interestingly named Cheesequake State Park that afternoon.

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Cheesequake was a bit strange as it bordered with suburban streets and had a freeway running over the top of part of it, but still felt like you were out of the city! We went for a run to the lake as the sun was setting over the autumn coloured trees, then cooked a curry for dinner and made smores over the camp stove while two racoons watched us. It was a really nice last night of actual camping (as opposed to the Walmart variety!).

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From there it was off to New York, New York! We kick started our visit with lunch at the renowned Carnegie’s Deli which was packed. We shared a ridiculously expensive but extremely enormous corned beef sandwich which was plenty to feed us both as it came with 5 pickles too! Our afternoon was spent at the Natural History Museum (of ‘Night at the Museum’ fame).

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After a couple of hours in the incredible museum looking at the fantastic displays of dinosaur bones and taxidermy animals amongst other things, we went to Magee’s Pub for a beer, which the set of How I Met Your Mother is based on.

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We stayed with Laura’s friend Dave that night in a cool area of town called Hell’s Kitchen- his 28th floor apartment had a wicked view over the city.

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We dragged ourselves up next morning after a few too many beers to hit more Manhattan sights. We started the day with NY bagels and headed to MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) which was a bit strange at times, but had some really impressive work. Strange was mostly the performance art, one of which was this lady walking slowly backwards through the museum (I don’t get it) and some of the really abstract stuff, like this painting called ‘Boy and a knapsack’…

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But there were some amazing pieces by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol amongst many others. We left for lunch at a hidden place called The Burger Joint, located in the lobby of the fancy Le Parker Meridien behind a red curtain. There is just a long line of people and a little neon burger sign telling you it exists. The burgers were good but not spectacular considering the wait, but I guess you mostly wait for the novelty of it.

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From there we walked 5th Avenue, visited Grand Central Station (which made you feel a bit like you were in a movie) and then walked the High Line, a mile long piece of old railway that has been converted into a park running above the city. Super cool concept. During the day we noticed that Pie Face has made it to NY- I wonder how long til they’ll be on every block like in Melbourne?! Last activity for the long day was taking the ferry across to Staten Island for a free view of the Statue of Liberty by night. It actually goes pretty close to the statue and the ferry is free, so I’d totally recommend it for budget travellers in NYC!

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As an aside, the ferry website is pretty hilarious, with many ferry ‘facts’, many of which actually just recount disasters from the ferry’s history! For example:

  • ‘On July 30, 1871 at about 1:30 pm the ferry boat Westfield II experienced a catastrophic boiler explosion while in the slip at Whitehall. Several days after the disaster it was revealed that at least 85 people had lost their lives. Several more were added to the death toll weeks later.’
  • ‘On February 8, 1958 The Dongan Hills was hit by the Norwegian tanker Tynefield. 15 passengers were injured.’
  • ‘In 1960, a bomb was set off on the Knickerbocker.’
  • ‘July 7th, 1986 a mentally disturbed person (Juan Gonzalez) with a machete attacked passengers on a ferry. Two people were killed and nine others were wounded.’

…etc, etc… So if that doesn’t put you off- go for it!

After a night out in West Village, we headed out to Brooklyn to meet my friends Ange and CJ for brunch at a trendy little place called Reynard’s. Ange and I went to uni together and haven’t seen each other for 2 years since she and CJ have been living and working in the UK, but as fate would have it, we were all in NY on the same weekend! It was really nice to catch up, and as the Brooklyn Brewery was across the street we continued our catch up there til Laura and I had to head off for the first of our wedding activities.

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Laura’s friend Ariela was getting married and I was lucky enough to score an invite too, but the activities for this big Jewish wedding were a multi-day affair! I was pretty excited to be going as I’ve never been to a Jewish wedding before. Saturday afternoon was a meet-n-greet at a friend of Ariela’s place, an amazing house in Great Neck (near Queens) with had a 4-tier backyard which went right down to the waterfront on the bay.

Later was a special ‘VIP mystery activity’ which we had to get on a bus for and drove for about an hour to arrive at an indoor multisport centre! Ariela and Harris had wanted all their friends to meet and have some fun so everyone was familiar with each other at the wedding, so we were all split into teams and had to do a range of novelty races and activities against each other, winding up with a 50 strong adult game of musical chairs. A really awesome idea which was lots of fun!

Sunday morning Laura and I spent in Flushing, a huge Chinese neighbourhood near Queens. We enjoyed a walk through the park, saw the ‘Unisphere’ sculpture and the tennis centre where the US open is played, and ended with some quality dumplings, noodles, pork buns and bubble tea, reminding us of our Asian adventures in Victoria St, Melbourne back in days of old!

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In the afternoon, it was wedding time! We prettied ourselves up and walked down to the Queens County Farm Museum which was like a little slice of countryside right in the heart of Queens. It is actually the oldest continuously farmed piece of land in NY State (since 1697!). At the beginning of the wedding Ariela and Harris had their own separate receptions- the guys drank whiskey and sang songs and the girls drank cocktails and went to greet Ariela and the mothers of the bride and groom. We went on a hayride around the farm before Harris was danced in to Ariela’s reception, held overhead on a chair of course, with all of the guys singing raucously and even a couple of brass instruments playing along!

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Afterwards  was the ceremony, which was beautiful. It was conducted under what is called the chuppah, a piece of fabric strung up on 4 poles which represents the home that the newlyweds will share. Ariela and Harris had got all their friends and family to make a little square which were patchworked together in the centre of the chuppah- gorgeous! After the breaking of the glass, it was time for the reception.

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The main part is called the Horah and involves a lot of singing, dancing in circles and entertaining the bride and groom who are every now and then lifted up on their chairs above the crowd. Ariela and Harris had a particularly long horah, and it was so cool to see everyone get involved! After there was the meal, more dancing, some amazing speeches and of course more dancing. It was such a fun wedding, I felt very lucky to have been invited along to join in the festivities!

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The last wedding activity was a breakfast the next morning where Hugo joined us, and then we hit the road once more. We stopped in the interestingly named town of Mystic, Connecticut for a seafood lunch, before rolling in to Boston in the afternoon. We checked out Bunker Hill where a massive obelisk has been erected to commemorate the first battle of the revolutionary war. The patriots actually lost, but apparently ‘severely damaged’ British forces, ‘killing or injuring half of their troops’… but the numbers indicated only about a 10th of the British forces had been killed, and who knows what counted as injured in these stats!

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A short walk away was the USS Constitution, nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’, the oldest warship in the world still afloat. There was a little museum there which had an upper level appearing to be mostly aimed at kids, but entertained and informed us just as well on what life was like on the sea back in the 1800s!

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Our evening was spent walking a little of the Freedom Trail (though we were too late to go in to any other museums) and hunting down the best Boston Crème Pie in Boston. We ended up at Mike’s Pastry Shop, and walked out with a delicious slice of crème pie… as well as a choc-chip cannoli and a piece of NY style cheesecake!

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Our final night in the US was fittingly spent at- you guessed it! Walmart. We pulled up in Salem, New Hampshire, which meant crossing into our 5th state for the day! The following day’s trip to the Canadian border was made a little more exciting by pulling up for gas in a town called Franconia, which had one gas station, unfortunately adorned with a hand-written sign saying ‘No gas’! So for the 3rd time this trip, we refilled from our 5 gallon reserve in the back. After we’d filled up in the next town, we said goodbye to cheap gas and booze, and it was off to Canada, the final leg our our epic roadie!

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo)- Part III

The East Coast

Our first stop on the coast was Charleston, South Carolina. A picturesque, affluent little town on the water, Charleston has a much darker history than its appearance suggests. Back in the 1600 and 1700s Charleston’s port was the heart of North America’s international slave trade. Even when the international slave trade was ceased in 1808 Charleston was still a hub for the internal slave trade where slaves were transported from other states and sold to work the many plantations (predominantly rice) that brought Charleston its large income.

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On our first day in the area, we visited Drayton Hall, the only original colonial era plantation home surviving in the area today, managing to withstand hurricanes and the civil war (apparently by putting up small pox quarantine flags around the property so it was left alone!). It is situated on the banks of the Ashley River, which back used to be lined on both sides by plantations.

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Drayton was a rice plantation and had of course had many slaves working the fields and also helping run the grand home. The house itself has been preserved, rather than restored, which means it is being kept as is, not glammed back up to its colonial glory. It was unfurnished inside because of this, but it was cool to see what each of the generations had added to the place and see the original colonial décor.

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After spending the afternoon wandering the cobbled streets of Charleston, we indulged in a nice dinner at Fleet Landing, an old navy base on the waterfront converted into a restaurant. Laura and I tried the local She-Crab soup (like a bisque made with crab meat and crab roe), and I had a seafood platter with another local addition- called ‘hush puppies’, delicious fried balls of cornbread!

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From this part of the trip our urban camping takes a turn… I will digress a little to South Carolina, where we tried to visit Congaree State Park, but they didn’t allow van/RV camping. Then the park ranger said ‘You know you can camp at Walmart right?’ We had been told this before but weren’t sure if it was allowed… We asked, ‘So it’s legal then?’ and she replied, ‘Yes, they encourage campers!’ We didn’t go to Walmart that night, we went to another state park instead, but this conversation definitely impacted the course of our trip!

So to continue… outside of Charleston was our first Walmart camping experience… Before you judge us, let’s argue the pros! It’s actually very convenient, because 1) it’s free, 2) it’s open 24 hours so you have access to the bathrooms whenever you want them, 3) because it’s open 24 hours they have security patrolling the car park all the time, and 4) there is usually a McDonald’s or Subway inside where we can grab a coffee in the morning. Perfect! The cons are obviously that it’s Walmart, and therefore filled with monsters (especially in the wee hours of the morning and late at night). But hey, worth it for the benefits of free camping with facilities and coffee, right!? :-p

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In the morning we returned to town and visited the Old Slave Mart, which is pretty much what it sounds like- an auction yard for the buying and selling of slaves. At some point once the international slave trade had been abolished and internal trading of slaves still happened on the street, some high flyer decided it wasn’t good for the image of the city to have all this happening on the street…. So instead of abolishing it they put it behind closed doors. Nice… here you read stories of how families were torn apart as different members were sold to different owners with no respect to family ties, and more old advertisements of slaves and their various ‘uses’.

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Afterward I went to see ‘Rainbow Row’, a bunch of colourful old houses, and met ‘Spidersquirrel’…

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Then  checked out the pier and the waterfront park where I was amused at the warning signs by the fountain…

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Why it would be necessary to have a lifeguard for 1cm of water (if that) on the concrete I am not sure… On our way out we stopped at another cool old town called Georgetown where unfortunately disaster had struck. The main street was closed off and there were old school fire trucks from all the surrounding towns still fighting a fire which had broken out 12 hours earlier.

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Sadly it had burned down a row of heritage buildings housing restaurants, shops and homes above. All the people got out ok apparently, but a couple of pets didn’t 😦 We didn’t hang about too long as everything was shut, and headed on to Myrtle Beach.

We had received mixed reviews of Myrtle Beach, with lots of the locals telling us how fun it is, but our guidebook making it sound a bit touristy and trashy, so we decided to check it out for ourselves. We were going to be camping at Walmart again, so decided to whip up some tacos in a local park for dinner and check out town before heading out to our ‘campsite’!

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The park was pretty dodgy and appeared to be filled with bums, so we were making haste and just starting to pack up when we were approached by Timothy, a spaced out street guy who innocently came over asking ‘What y’all doin’? Oh, making tacos? I love tacos! Can I have one?’ So we donated him 2 tacos while he jumped from topic to topic of conversation, repeating several trains of thought multiple times. We backed away slowly toward the van as he attempted unsuccessfully in succession to plant kisses on both Laura and I and gave him a number of reasons why he couldn’t camp with us before he gave up and we managed to escape!

We checked out the ‘action’ in town, which pretty much ended up being a dead boardwalk, several arcades and the highlight- the Gay Dolphin gift store, which led Laura to dub Myrtle Beach ‘the place where amusement parks go to die’…

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We played a few games of Skee Ball in the arcade and Hugo tried his hand at Deal or No Deal before drowning our disappointment in an overpriced candy shop and heading to Walmart.

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We continued up the east coast to Cedar Island, our jumping off point for the Outer Banks, a series of little islands running up the coast. I never knew this area existed but it is beautiful and I’m glad we got to explore a bit of it!

On arrival at Ocracoke, the southernmost island of the Outer Banks, we were greeted by a sleepy, quaint little waterfront town which immediately felt like a perfect place to relax. We first poked around a little museum chronicling the island’s history, including the many hurricanes that have hit the area over the years, and exploring the strange local accent stemming from old English called ‘Hoi Toid’ (apparently a take off of how the locals said ‘high tide’). The accent has neutralised a lot these days with constant visitors and new residents moving across as the area is not so isolated, so sadly we didn’t really get to experience it!

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Ocracoke is also famed as the place where the infamous pirate Blackbeard (aka Edward Teach) used to hang out and eventually was killed. At the Blackbeard museum we learned he apparently hosted the biggest gathering of pirates that has ever occurred in North America a couple of weeks before his death here at a place known now as Teach’s Hole. Basically a giant pirate beach party! Not a lot is known about Edward Teach before he became a pirate, but it is believed he was pretty well brought up in England since he could apparently read and write. He was apparently a gentleman with the ladies too, despite his fearsome image (he had multiple wives)! He had about a 2 year stint as a very successful pirate before he met his end off the coast of Ocracoke and was beheaded in 1718. The legend is that his headless body swam around the boat three times before it sank and that his ghost still haunts the island looking for his severed head! Thankfully we didn’t run into him during our short stay…

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During the afternoon we hired some bikes and rode out to the lighthouse and then around to a little walking trail at Springer’s point which leads to Teach’s Hole. It’s not the nicest beach, but has a calm sound where they would leave the ships and is a pretty secluded beach perfect for a pirate piss-up!

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We then rode up the coast a bit and stopped in at the beach where I enjoyed my first ever dip in the Atlantic! It wasn’t too cold but the sea was pretty rough that day, it was super windy and the waves were so strong so we didn’t stay in too long. On our way back to town we had a lazy afternoon beer at Howard’s Pub, which has been a local watering hole since 1850.

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We had a nice dinner in town accompanied by the acoustic tunes of a cool folk band, then went in for some country tunes across the road at the Jolly Roger (Wilbur Gupton could play a mean Johnny Cash cover!) before heading to the one late night establishment on the island, Gaffas, once the Roger closed at 10.  The whole town seemed to be there, we ran into both the band and our waitress from dinner as well as our bartender Jimmy from the Jolly Rodger! Things got pretty loose there with all the locals buying shots for us (or knowing the bartender well enough to get them free!) and the jugs of beer going for $7!!

Laura went drinking with the waitress and Hugo and I ended up at a house-party with the band, going via a little Mexican restaurant which was closing down and having a party to try and sell the rest of their booze! There I practiced some Spanish and of course drank tequila (which apparently helps the Spanish…). The band’s house party got too loud for the neighbours who told us the sheriff was on his way, which led to everyone walking all the way down to Teach’s Hole for a ‘beach party’ which just turned out to be standing on the beach chatting (or passing out on the beach for Hugo). Eventually it got too cold and we walked aaaaaall the way back to town. It’s actually pretty far, I think it took Hugo and I almost an hour to make it back to the campground just before dawn!

Needless to say, the next day we didn’t get the early start we’d hoped for, and I spent most of it in a world of pain sleeping off my hangover from hell in the back of the van! The drive up the outer banks is meant to be quite scenic as they are so narrow in places you can see the coast on both sides. I managed to look out the window at the stripy Cape Hatteras lighthouse and later on even sat up to see the giant mansions which looked like blown up doll’s houses roll by.

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By the time we got to Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island I was alive enough to come out and learn about ‘The Lost Colony’. This was where the English first tried to settle in the 1500s, so sent out a small group of colonists. Things weren’t going so great for them, so they eventually convinced their governor, a guy called John White, to sail back to England and get them more supplies. So off John went, but unfortunately for him and the colonists, war had broken out with Spain and John couldn’t get funds or a ship to get him back to Roanoke. When he eventually returned 3 years later, the whole colony had disappeared leaving only the word ‘Croatan’ etched into a tree. This was an island nearby which John tried to get to but a storm forced him back to England, so the fate of the colony (including John’s daughter and her daughter Virginia Dare- the first English child born in America) was never discovered… very interesting.

From Roanoke we drove to the nearby island Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers made their historic first flight in 1903. We wanted to go to the museum there where you could see a replica of their original flyer, but due to our late start it was unfortunately already closed. That evening we landed in Virginia Beach, a slightly less awful version of Myrtle Beach. My first meal of the day was a giant pizza- the only available sizes were large, extra large or jumbo! We didn’t really spend much time in town before heading out to our campsite (read: Walmart) for the night.

The next day we went on a historic adventure of colonial America along the colonial parkway in Virginia. First stop was Yorktown where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought and the British surrendered to the American (and French) army.

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The French were integral to the American victory, though you never really hear about it… We figure it went something like this:

America: ‘Hey guys, we need some back up over here…’

France: ‘Oh really? Who you fighting?’

America: ‘The Brits’

France: ‘Sweet! We’ll be there. How many troops do you need?’

So they came, they conquered and once the battle was over they shipped off back to France…

The highlight of Yorktown was seeing an 18-pound cannon fired twice. Apparently they only do this once a month and we had come on the right day! Quite the process- it requires a 6-man team and quite a few pieces of equipment so was very impressive to see!

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Next stop was Williamsburg, the old colonial capital which today is a ‘living’ colonial city with people in period dress roaming around saying ‘Good day’ and running the stores and stuff. We had a walk around the old streets, sampled some treats in the sweet shop and took an obligatory photo in the stocks before heading off to Jamestown.

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Jamestown was the first permanent colonial settlement in North America. They picked James Island as it was on the river in a good defensive spot and there were no Native Americans living in the area. But the place was pretty swampy and didn’t have a good source of fresh water, so there was probably a good reason why the Native Americans didn’t snap it up! Not exactly prime real estate, but pretty…

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Jamestown is mostly famous for the historic characters of John Smith and Pocahontas, although their real stories aren’t nearly as romantic as Disney might have led us to believe! And Disney got their facts all wrong for the record. John Smith was a good explorer, but sounded like a bit of an arrogant prick by all accounts and he never married Pocahontas (though she did apparently save his life when he was captured by her tribe). She was actually already married to a guy in her tribe, but then married a settler called John Randolph when she was about 19. (I understand the confusion Disney. It seems like every English settler was named John.). So then our young Pocahontas changed her name to Rebecca and renounced all her traditional ways- dress, language, customs… She eventually moved to England, had a baby and then died of unknown causes when she was just 22. Not so faithful to the ‘Colours of the Wind’ huh?!

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All you can see of Jamestown nowadays are ruins of the original building foundations though there is a museum exploring relics that had been found and piecing together the life of the settlers. We learned about the kind of things they resorted to eating during ‘the starving time’ from remains discovered, including turtles, shoe leather and each other! A recent find was the skull of a young girl dubbed ‘Jane’ which has cut marks in it, hypothesised to indicate someone tried to get into the skull to eat the brain! They think she was about 14 and recreated her appearance to bring it home too…

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We had dinner in Richmond at a little hipster café called Black Sheep which was on Man vs Food at some point. They make enormous sandwiches out of an entire baguette and call them battleships instead of subs, so Hugo felt obliged to tackle one! The final result? Man: 1, Food: 0.

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We got into Washington D.C. pretty early the next day and hit the ground running after hearing about the potential government shutdown in the next 24 hours (don’t even get me started on how silly even the concept of that is!). We went to the state capitol and walked 1.9 mile-long park up to the Washington Monument. Washington is really into it’s reflective pools… Lots of significant buildings and monuments seem to have one. Taj Mahal inspired maybe?

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Anyway… after that we made the mandatory visit to the White House where Laura and Hugo thought it would be fun to play ‘spot the Mandy’ taking pics with all the tourists…

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On our way down to visit more monuments we noticed that one of the main roads was closed off by police, traffic at the crossroads stopped both ways. We got an inkling that something was going to happen so stood around on the corner for a while. Another police car rolled up. A helicopter flew overhead… Eventually after looking down the empty road for another 10 minutes, a police motorcycle with lights flashing came around the corner. Followed by several more motorcycles, police cars, and then the presidential limos followed by yet more police cars. We caught a brief glimpse of President Obama as he drove by which was a nice addition to our day in the capital! Though these guys might not have been as excited as us…

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From here we visited the Vietnam War memorial, engraved with the names of the whopping 58,195 soldiers who died in the line of duty, the World War 2 memorial- very pretty, and the Abe Lincoln monument. This one took me by surprise… I was expecting a statue of Lincoln with a little plaque or something, but instead there was a large staircase leading up to a giant columned building housing an enormous 6 metre tall statue of Lincoln! Wow. The site is also famous as the place where Martin Luther King Jr made his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

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We spent the afternoon in a few of the national museums in case they were closed the next day. We got stuck in the Holocaust Museum for several hours, a very well put together but very confronting exhibition that was hard to draw yourself away from. We checked out the Air and Space Museum’s exhibit on the Wright Brothers where we got to see the original flyer from 1903, so that eased our guilty conscience about missing the replica in Kitty Hawk! The exhibit was awesome- it really is incredible how they worked out the science of flight. Their flyer has been re-canvassed which is why it looks so new, but the frame is original…

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Lastly we had a quick run around the Native American Museum- my favourite bit was hearing stories of creation from the different tribes. After that we caught up with Healy who we’d met at Burning Man and was very kindly putting us up while we were in town. We hit a nearby bar to watch some Monday night football and learn some of the rules from Healy while indulging in some beers and nachos. At midnight we found out the government shutdown was going ahead because the US Congress still couldn’t come to an agreement…This meant all ‘non-essential’ services (including national parks, monuments, museums, etc.) would be closed til they could sort their shit out! Grrr!

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Luckily for us the International Spy Museum is privately owned so that is where we headed next morning. This museum is AWESOME. It is set up so the first part you go through is like you are going through spy training. You have to pick a cover identity and memorise the details, then you’d get tested on various parts of you cover story as you went through. You also learned about disguises, hidden cameras, transfer of information (codes, dead drops, microdots, signals), escape… it was really hands on and lots of fun. There were also heaps of displays on real spies, double agents, blown covers, spy activity during the wars, and a whole James Bond exhibit. Sign me up for spy school!

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For our last evening in the capital, I got to meet up with Lindsey, another of my study abroad friends from first year uni who I hadn’t seen for 8 years. We had dinner at a nice Thai restaurant and talked non-stop for several hours. It was so good catching up! Sadly it was again very brief, next morning we were on the move again, heading into the mid-west.

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But that’ll be in the next chapter… 🙂

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo) – Part II

The South East

From Houston, we landed in New Orleans – ‘The Big Easy’ as they call it, where it’s legal (in fact, encouraged) to purchase take-away alcoholic beverages and roam the streets with them! In New Orleans we tried out Airbnb, a website where you can rent out a room in a house (kind of like couchsurfers, but you pay), and met our friendly host Lawrence at his conveniently located house within walking distance of the trendy Frenchmen Street and the famous French Quarter.

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Our first night was spent checking out Frenchmen St, where we found a little bluegrass band playing in the doorway of a closed café, on the next corner saw a jazz band complete with sousaphone and then had dinner accompanied by more jazz. We ended the night at a little dive where Lawrence used to work, offering 24 hour karaoke!

After a few more beers, Laura agreed to sing with me only if they had ‘our’ song (Party All The Time, by Eddie Murphy and Rick James). We were in luck and it was apparently the first time this amazing tune had ever been sung on the Cajun’s stage! Hugo followed up with a rousing rendition of Get What You Need by the Stones, and Lawrence serenaded us with George Michaels’s Careless Whispers before we headed home.

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We kicked off our Monday morning with a typical New Orleans brekky- beignets (a French pastry that is pretty much a glorified doughnut without a hole under a mountain of icing sugar) and coffee, at the famous Café Du Monde, which has been serving this local specialty (and nothing else) since 1862! We roamed the French quarter which has plenty of cute shops that I was strong enough not to buy anything at (very difficult) and also saw the oldest catholic cathedral in the US overlooking the perfectly manicured Jackson Square.

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On the banks of the Mississippi we found out what a gamble it was taking a paddle steamer back in the day, with a >50% chance of a crazy accident occurring which would most likely sink the boat! Also learned this fun fact: did you know that by the time it gets to New Orleans, the Mississippi carries silt and run off from 30 US states as well as 2 Canadian provinces? How crazy is that! File that one away for the next trivia night peeps…

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Once our travellers brains were tired from this learning overload, we hit up a street corner dive called Johnny’s for some real deal shrimp po’boys (basically a baguette sandwich filled with battered shrimp, mayo and salad) and some gumbo (a thick stew often with seafood in it), both typical of New Orleans. On our walk home we were offered cocktails (to go, of course!) by a friendly bar girl on Bourbon St, and we indulged in a Hurricane to accompany our several block walk back. This blend of rum, fruit juice and grenadine was apparently invented in New Orleans in the 40s by the owner of O’Brien’s pub to get rid of rum (which was not so popular at the time), and distributors made him sell the rum before he could get in more whiskey!

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Our dinner was at a more fancy restaurant where I tried yet two more New Orleans specialties on this short Louisiana foodventure- the jambalaya (a rice dish kind of like paella) and some crawfish étouffé (which is Louisiana for crayfish smothered in a spiced sauce). We checked out the renowned Bourbon St, which was a disappointing hive of neon trashiness and cover bands, but we did indulge in some cocktails in novelty take-home glasses! After, we retreated to Frenchmen St for an awesome jazz jam to wind up our night.

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My Louisiana foodventure was completed with a southern soul-food breakfast of grits, cheese, eggs and sausage with a side of biscuits and gravy- neither very attractive to look at, but both pretty delicious! Our next stop was Jackson, Mississippi, for which we were repeatedly asked ‘Why?!’ by locals and interstaters alike… And when we arrived we began to understand. Not the most beautiful city- on our approach we weren’t sure if we were still in the industrial outskirts or the city itself. But no, it was the actual city…

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We visited the prettiest building in town, the State Capitol, for a rundown of Mississippi’s history- slavery, plantations, the making of laws, values of the population back in the day.

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We then went to the Smith Robertson Museum which was Mississippi’s first school for Negro children, opened in 1894, and now home to a cultural centre housing exhibits on different aspects of African American life and culture.  There was an unfinished exhibit on the journey from Africa which looks like it will be really good. Currently you can see the plans for the layout of slave ships and how many people they could fit on each, stacked away on ‘bunks’ barely more than half a metre high for the long journey. They also had a life size model of what the inside of the ship would be like. Very provoking.

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After Smith Robertson, we planned to go get some more soul food and head out of town to a state park on the way to Memphis, but Bernadette had other plans… She broke down just around the corner from the museum! Laura managed to start her again but she died again at the next intersection. Hugo and I got out to push her to the kerb, and a local guy came by to help, telling us luckily there was a mechanic around the corner. Hugo walked over and came back with Bud, the owner of Stokes Repair Shop, a tall lanky man with a thick accent we struggled to understand! Bud had a quick look and then got some of the guys from the garage to come and push Bernadette round to his shop- quite the operation! We had to stop a bit of traffic to cross over, but made it!

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While Laura and I sat out of the hot sun on some dusty chairs in front of a huge fan in the garage, Bud’s investigations determined we had a problem with either the ‘core’ or the ‘scrivnut’ (at least that’s what it sounded like he said…) But all we knew for sure was ‘She got no fire!’ which Bud kept repeating animatedly, so we assumed an issue with the ignition. We had to wait til morning til he could see if he could get the parts to test her out, so looked like we were spending a night in Jackson!

Bud got his lady to come and pick us up and drive us to a hotel. On the way we asked her if there were any parts of town we should avoid, to which she replied, ‘You’re in it!’ We got a room next to a cheap and dirty restaurant called Shoney’s and since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast headed over there for dinner.

So at this restaurant, you could get the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet for $9.99. But because it was steak night, we were informed you could buy any steak and get the buffet as well for free. We asked the waitress, ‘But what about this steak that’s $6.99? Is the buffet still included?’ to which she replied ‘Yes, the buffet is free with any steak.’ We were a little baffled by this and clarified at least two more times (the waitress must have thought we were a little bit mentally challenged) but we finally accepted that it was cheaper to get a bacon-wrapped steak AND the all-you-can-eat buffet. So we ordered 3 of those. How could you not?!

The buffet was ridiculous, including all the southern favourites like fried chicken, mash and gravy, battered deep-fried okra, and even had a salad bar and a dessert bar. Needless to say we all overindulged. And went back again for the breakfast buffet in the morning! In our defence, there were actually no other food outlets nearby, but still… No more Shoney’s for the rest of the trip!

We basically had to wait for Bud to call after that, so checked out of our cheap hotel and walked into ‘town’ to find a McDonalds (aka, the universal centre for free wifi, cheap coffee and toilets). This involved walking along a dirt road in what felt like rural America, at which point I asked Laura if she was sure we were going the right way. She assured me we were and sure enough, we emerged back onto a paved road with cars and the golden arches in sight. Jackson is like no other state capital I’ve ever been to, that’s for sure! Around midday Bud called with the good news that Bernadette was fixed. We cabbed over to the garage and after a bit more of a chat, lots of thanks and some long goodbyes, we hit the road to Memphis, Tennessee.

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We made it to Memphis just after the 4.30 tour at Sun Studios had taken off, and jumped onto the tail end. Sun Studios is famous for launching the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and BB King to name but a few. It is still a working studio too. We got to listen to some original studio recordings (including Elvis’s first demo which cost him just $4 to make back in the day!), look at a whole bunch of old music paraphernalia and stand on the spot where Elvis stood to record his first single for Sun. Very cool!

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That evening we tested out some Memphis-style BBQ (even though Texas is the most famous, several other states have their own spin on barbequed meaty delights). They use a dry rub on their ribs which is different to Texas, but it was pretty damn delicious too! After dinner, we checked out an old, haunted burlesque club-cum-bar in town called Ernstine and Hazel’s. Downstairs it was open mike night, so pretty full of people and quite warm and lively. Upstairs though it was totally empty and creepy. We went up to have a poke around and use the old bathroom (complete with ancient claw-toed bathtub) and took some pictures to see if any showed up some ghosts (which they didn’t).

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While we were up there, a ghost tour came by so we eavesdropped on several stories, the most disturbing about how apparently a prostitute had her throat slit in the bathroom (that very one I had just been in!) and there have been numerous reports of people getting locked in there, seeing blood stains appearing in the bathtub, and hearing knocking coming from the inside of the door!! Ahhhh! So glad I hadn’t heard that before I went in- I was creeped out enough as it was!

And to top all this off, one of the locals told us that the owner of the bar had shot himself in there just a week earlier. We looked it up and there was a news story on it, just saying he had been found dead on site. Even though we didn’t see any evidence of the supernatural, I can totally believe that place is as haunted as they come!

After all that excitement, we went to check out the famous Beale St. We saw some ‘duelling pianos’ – two pianists at two grand pianos on stage playing requests from the crowd, and saw some awesome bands play at BB King’s Blues Club and the Beale St Taphouse.

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We ended up camping in a proper camping ground for the night after asking our new local friends at Ernstine and Hazel’s if there was anywhere safe and out of the way we could urban camp… We received the answer: ‘Well there’s plenty of places you could pull up that the police won’t bother you, but no-where that’s really safe…’ Luckily we were able to camp right outside Graceland so we would be raring to go for our 9am tour next morning.

The home of the King is as extravagant and outrageous as you’d expect it to be, and was totally worth the visit. He had 3 TVs installed in his basement side by side (because he heard President Johnson watched all 3 news channels at the same time and thought it was a good idea) and covered the walls of his pool room in drapes of colourful fabric.

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He even had a ‘jungle room’ put in inspired by his love for Hawaii. This room’s walls, floor and roof are covered in green shagpile carpet, and it is decked out with carved wooden furniture and an indoor waterfall (naturally…)!

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Elvis enjoyed racquetball too so had his own court built, which has now been converted into a homage to the ’68 comeback special and a fantastic display of jumpsuits. We saw his trophy room, of course brimming with awards spanning his extensive career in both music and film.

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And you can also visit the graves of Elvis and both of his parents. Here is a random fact that I didn’t know before visiting Graceland- Elvis had a twin brother! Sadly he was stillborn (he is buried in their hometown Tupelo in Mississippi), but can you imagine two Elvis’s?! Wow.

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The other exhibits we went to showed off Elvis’s car collection (I want his purple Cadillac so bad!)…

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…and also his pimped out private jets. The Lisa Marie had 24ct gold sinks, a kingsize bed on board and sitting room with a bar installed! Luxury. It was a really enjoyable morning- I probably could have spent a day there, as there were more exhibits we didn’t get to, but such is the nature of our whirlwind trip!

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We had a Memphis chopped pork sandwich for lunch (AMAZING) before checking out the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed- now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. It was very interesting to find out more about the event and the investigation and conspiracy theories that followed too. From there, we hit the road to Nashville.

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We were lucky to be put up by my friend LeighAnn, her hubby Mike and baby Ezra in Nashville. LeighAnn and I realised it had been 8 years since we’d seen each other! We met back in my first year of uni when we lived together at Deakin and LeighAnn was studying a semester abroad from her uni in Ohio. It was so good to catch up but was sadly very brief! That evening there was a festival on in town, and we went to a free ‘backyard party’ at a local record store where some Canadian country artists were playing. They were also giving away free beer and free gourmet grilled cheeses from a local food truck, so it was pretty much the epitome of amazing events for a backpacker whose finances are dwindling!

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Later we went into town to check out Broadway, the main street for all the honky tonk bars. We went to Robert’s Western World which was the best music of the night, checked out a trailer-park themed bar (complete with AstroTurf and college 80s party going on), and found a grizzly in a neighbouring bar…

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On our way out of Nashville, we hit up Third Man Records, Jack White’s recording studio which was pretty cool to see, and also went to the Johnny Cash Museum. Johnny lived a very full life- like Elvis, very much a family man- and I learned he was very passionate about prison reform. He performed a lot in prisons and also advocated for better penitentiary systems- he had a lot of great ideas around this.

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Our next stop was Atlanta, Georgia, where we had tickets to the Midtown Music Festival. We were hoping to arrive by 6 to see Phoenix but got stuck in a traffic jam on the way in which had us crawling for almost an hour! We eventually arrived at our fancy sounding hotel ‘Savannah Suites’ which was in a not-so-fancy part of town, requiring 24-hour security and ID recorded and checked for every person each time they entered the property!

From there we walked up to Piedmont Park, about 20 minutes from the hotel, and managed to catch the end of Cake’s set. We then got to see Journey play which was pretty awesome. We were kinda confused to see such a young, energetic lead singer up there (he sure didn’t look like he’d been singing since the 70s…), but we learned from Google the band had discovered the Filipino singer via YouTube in a Journey cover band and since they were after a lead singer and liked his style, they asked him to join! Gee technology is amazing!

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The next day it was sadly pouring with rain so we delayed our departure for the festival so we would definitely last til the end to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers play. We sacrificed Weezer (who Laura and I had recently ‘seen’ for free anyway… by picnicking out the back of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl when they last played in Melbourne!) and planned our arrival for the Arctic Monkeys at 4.30. After packing our vodka in Ziploc bags for smuggling (like the classy citizens we are), in we headed in all our rain gear.

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Laura and I wore thongs but when we saw the state of the ground decided we would be better off to suck it up and go barefoot, or risk losing our shoes forever in the piles of mud! The festival was great despite the weather and how dirty we were by the end! The Chillies were definitely my highlight.

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From Atlanta, our musical escapades were complete for a while and we headed back to the wilderness at Poinsett State Park in South Carolina. We had a campfire and made smores (which consist of a toasted marshmallow and chocolate between 2 graham crackers which goes all melty and delicious in the middle for those who have not had the pleasure…).

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We got out for a hike the next day which was very welcome given our sedentary lifestyle (and all the smores the night before!). We took a trail north which had a few interesting things to see according to the ranger. We started on a wide sandy track, but after a couple of enormous spider-webs in the face (and corresponding spitting-out-web while hitting ourselves all over and dancing a crazy jig to make sure there were no spiders on us) it became apparent these trails were not often walked… This led to us each brandishing a large stick and waving it around in front of our faces the whole way as we forged ahead- would have been quite the sight to see!

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We saw some monster spiders, a lot of little frogs, a stash of old moonshine barrels rusting down by the creek, and the interestingly named ‘Screaming Shed’ – a creepy abandoned old house in the woods. There was a memorial to a man who died in 1969 who presumably used to live there before it fell into disrepair.

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We ate lunch on an old railway bridge over a small waterway inhabited by hundreds of fuzzy caterpillars. Beyond the bridge, the railway-line-turned-trail looked even less well-worn than that along which we had come, so we decided to head back, sticks in hand! We hiked back into the park and around the lake which was pretty before returning to camp exhausted.

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Laura made us a delicious tinfoil meal of chicken and veggies in the campfire that night, and I did choc-caramel bananas in the fire for dessert (we won’t mention more smores for second dessert…)

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Being in the woods for a couple of nights was a very nice end to a run of cities and busy days, which prepared us for our next leg of American history touring up the east coast…

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo)- Part I

The South West

So… from Lake Tahoe, our happy trio set off across the south of the US at breakneck speed in our comfy campervan, Bernadette. Our first stop was Yosemite National Park. Despite the huge forest fires sadly devouring a large portion of the park at the time of our visit, unaffected areas were still open, so we decided to try our luck. On our way it looked pretty smoky and hazy, so we were a little worried, but closer to the park it was actually much clearer. The drive into Yosemite was stunning, with huge craggy rock faces, alpine trees and beautiful lakes visible from the road.

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We camped in the highlands at Tuolumne Meadows and arrived in time for a little afternoon hike to the nearby Dog Lake (we’re still not sure why it was called that) and Lembert Dome (in geographic terms, known as an ‘erratic’- a huge granite boulder carved out by glaciers). The trail was easy walking but scenic, rocky with towering evergreens all around. The lake was beautiful, and the views from the top of the dome at sunset were amazing.

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In Yosemite, we were in bear country, so had to store everything with a scent (all food, drink and toiletries) in a bear locker. The resident black bears have a great sense of smell and have been known to break into vehicles if they can smell food in there- not exactly what you want when you’re sleeping in said vehicle! But we managed to cook our dinner, enjoy our campfire in the alpine chill, and sleep our first night in the wilderness with no bear troubles!

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The next day we took off to the nearby but entirely different Death Valley National Park. On the way we stopped to buy food and supplies and actually contemplated buying firewood for another campfire that evening- little did we realise how little of an understatement the name ‘Death Valley’ was! The temperature climbed steadily as we drove into the park, and the wind whipping through the non-air-conditioned van felt like a hairdryer blowing in your face. Bernadette’s temperature gauge peaked at 49.5°C!  After stopping at the visitor’s centre, we learned that the world’s hottest air temperature had been recorded in Death Valley at the aptly named Furnace Creek- a mild 56.7°C in 1913! We also had a look over other enticingly named sites to visit in the park- Deadman Pass, Starvation Canyon, Funeral Peak, Hells Gate or Devil’s Hole… And decided on a spot of auto-touring instead of the hiking we’d initially envisioned…

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We stopped at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, a bunch of dunes randomly sat in the middle of nowhere; visited the Badwater Basin, a salt flat and North America’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level; went on the Artist’s Drive to see the Artist’s Palette to admire the multi-coloured volcanic hills in the late afternoon sun before heading to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset send splays of pink and mauve across the desert sky.

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From there on a tip off from the ranger at the visitor’s centre, we headed out of the park to a clearing by the side of the road to set up camp where the elevation was a little higher and the temperatures a little cooler. Cooking our dinner resulted in a large scale moth massacre as they flew from far and wide into the flame of our cooker, and meant we all squished into the back of the van to avoid the onslaught to eat. We then settled in for the night and tried to sleep despite the temperature, which had just dropped to 28°C by morning!

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Next stop- VEGAS BABY! We had to put Bernadette in for a service as 2 weeks in the dusty desert had made her struggle, then we took off to an outlet mall as I realised I had nothing to wear out in a US city… Scummy backpacker clothes that have been worn over and over again for 6 months and jelly shoes or thongs (both of which are slowly falling apart) were probably not going to cut it! I managed to get a dress, shoes and bag for under $50 so a successful outing! And now I will look like I’ve only had one night out this entire trip as I’ll always be in the same outfit in the pics… Oh well!

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Anyway, we had booked to stay at Excalibur, a medieval themed hotel as you may have guessed. We had a huuuuge buffet dinner (when in Vegas…) and oh my goodness, you should have seen the dessert selection- I was in heaven! (those are not all mine below by the way…)

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We prettied ourselves up for our first night on the town, then set the tone for the night by heading across to the Coyote Ugly Saloon for some beers and a boogie…

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After more bars, more drinks and more dancing, we eventually headed back to the hotel. Laura and I decided we wanted to go to the food court, so we gave Hugo the other key and said we’d meet him in the room. We got waylaid by a random dude throwing his money around on the tables and spent a while gambling away his hard-earned cash. Despite us telling him he should stop letting us choose because we kept losing, he kept throwing money at us saying ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s only paper!’

After a while, we wanted to go, and when the dude went to get a drink, Laura said ‘Mandy, run!’ so we took off across the casino (me barefoot by this stage), literally sprinting, and on the slope down to the elevators took a massive tumble right in front of the security guards. We made it to the elevators with bruised and carpet-burned knees (and egos), only to find Hugo wasn’t in the room! I just had visions of him passed out in the street somewhere, so we went back to find him.

On our way out the security guards asked us if we were ok, but were still laughing about our fall and wondered out loud if they could get a hold of the security video to watch it again… We were just trying to describe Hugo to them, saying ‘He’s English and kind of walks like this…’ (cue Hugo swagger with party arms demo) when who walks down, but Hugo, doing exactly that! Ah, reunited…

We got to bed by 6 and awoke with a shock at 11 as we had forgotten to set an alarm and had to go pick up Bernadette by 12. After a quick food court breakfast (cheeseburgers, corndogs and cinnabon…) we were off again. Ah Vegas… One night was probably enough…!

Once we’d picked up Bernadette and left with much lighter wallets, we headed off to check out Hoover Dam at the Nevada-Arizona border which was pretty impressive, and had a swim in pretty Lake Mead to help combat the still heat. We made it to a cute little town called Springdale just outside of Zion National Park, where Hugo and I had our first taste of Wendy’s burgers and we urban camped outside a Laundromat.

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The next morning we checked out the amazing Zion, with its red-brown layered peaks and canyons towering in all directions. We did a couple of short walks to see a spring called Weeping Rock, and some small waterfalls at the Emerald Pools. We drove out along the beautiful scenic highway which featured an impressive mile-long tunnel through solid rock constructed in the 30’s on our way to the Grand Canyon.

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We got to the north rim of the canyon late in the afternoon, but unfortunately it had been raining, and though still amazing, a lot of the views were fairly obscured by fog so we were a bit disappointed. Also, because there was thunder it was considered too dangerous to walk the rim of the canyon in case of lightning strikes, so we couldn’t do any of the little hikes we’d wanted to either. We made a game-time decision to drive the 215 miles (4 hours!) around the canyon to the south rim, camp there overnight and try to catch sunrise over the canyon in the morning.

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We woke at 5.15am to drive in to the viewpoint. It wasn’t raining but was still fairly cloudy, so sadly we didn’t see the sunrise. The views were incredible though, and I could see the little Bright Angel Trail winding down toward the canyon- one day I’d love to hike all the way across! We consoled ourselves with a giant breakfast and several coffees at IHOP (International House of Pancakes) and headed on for a big day of driving across to Santa Fe in New Mexico.

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This was the first day I had a go at driving Bernadette- on the opposite side of the road! After not driving for 6 months I was a little nervous, but it was mostly freeway, so despite hugging the right a little and occasionally flicking the wipers instead of the indicator, I did ok! The other tricky bit is our fuel gauge and temperature gauge don’t work, and our speedo is in km while the speed limits are posted in miles, so it takes a bit of calculation to work out how fast to go, and some careful monitoring of our odo to make sure we have enough fuel!

So Santa Fe… it was a weird city. To start, we took the bus into town with some interesting characters, like a woman who mumbled to herself the entire way. The centre was fairly compact, but also super quiet and felt more like a small town than a state capital! Hugo was keen to secure himself a pair of cowboy boots so we looked at several cool stores, resulting in Laura walking away with a very nice vintage pair, and Hugo leaving with none! We filled our afternoon with a visit to the Palace of the Governors, the oldest state capital building in the US dating from Spanish occupation in 1610, and also checked out the New Mexico History Museum and learned about the history of cowboys, yee-hah!

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That evening we tried to go out. We had a beer accompanied by awful karaoke at Cowgirl’s, then went to a bar we’d googled which was meant to have funk music, but on arrival it was actually 80s night, and not a soul was in the room! Actually. I don’t even remember seeing a bartender downstairs in all the excitement of the disco ball and coloured lights… So out we went, and followed the sound of some music we’d heard on the breeze. We found a grungy little bar in a basement which had the biggest number of people we’d seen all day! We hung out there for a little while, and when we were ready to go, had to wait half an hour for a cab from the city’s one cab company to get ourselves home.

We weren’t exactly sad to leave Santa Fe, and were excited to arrive in Roswell the next day. This town is home of the 1947 ‘Roswell Incident’, where there were allegedly UFO sightings, alien sightings and a UFO crash which was then supposedly covered up by the government. The whole town is built on this alien conspiracy; chock full of stores selling alien-themed tat, even the street lamps are shaped like alien heads! We spent some time taking fun photos with aliens in Area 51, and then examining evidence from both sides of the story at the National UFO Research Centre and Museum (which almost has the 3 of us converted into alien conspiracy theorists!)

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We shacked up for the night in another national park called Carlsbad Caverns. We went to watch the underwhelming bat exodus at dusk, and then lived it up in the luxury camping ground which had hot showers and wi-fi! (Our standards have fallen such that we’re generally happy if we can shower once every three days at present…)

In the morning we checked out the cave, which was incredible. We walked down til we were 750 feet below the surface and admired the beautiful decorations. It is enormous, we spent a good couple of hours down there, and didn’t even walk the whole way around the inventively named ‘Big Room’.

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That afternoon we headed off to another inventively named place, a town called Junction across the border in Texas. The unexcitingness of its name is no disguise, it really was a bit of a backcountry Texas nothing town! On the way in we had a mishap when Bernadette ran out of gas. I was driving and had no idea what was happening as I’ve never run out of fuel before! But we’d been carving up the freeways at 80mph and must have been chewing more gas than we had calculated… So I pulled over on the side of the road, and Laure and Hugo set to work pouring our 5 gallons of fuel left over from Burning Man into the tank. The spout was broken so they McGuiver-ed it with one holding a tent peg to open the tank and the other pouring into a paper oil cone… I sure felt like the useless girl, til Laura said ‘Mandy! Where’s the photos?!’ so I set to work doing what Mandys do best!

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When we made it to Junction, we entertained ourselves doing a few loads of laundry before urban camping behind the local library. The highlight was getting our first taste of Texas BBQ at a nondescript little establishment called Lum’s, attached to a gas station on the side of the road into town. But what a gem, the pork ribs and beef brisket were amazing! So was the mac and cheese and coconut cream pie… I’d never eaten brisket before and it was just melt-in-your-mouth meaty goodness.

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We are starting to realise why America has such a reputation as the world’s fattest nation… There is some amazing food here and it is all soooo cheap! To upsize anything from the smallest size (which here is equivalent at least to a medium anywhere in Australia) is like 25c. This is what we in the field call ‘an obesogenic environment’ for sure…!

BUT, though that side of the American reputation is somewhat founded, the world’s general negative preconception of the American people, in our experience thus far, is not. We’ve been taken aback by everyone’s friendliness. If people notice our accents (which frequently they don’t it must be said), they’re very keen to talk about where we’re from and how we know each other (an Australian, a Canadian and an Englishman travelling together is generally a very confusing concept for most people! It sounds like the beginning of a joke…). But then people give us all sorts of tips for the local area, declaring ‘Welc’m to Amurica! Y’all injoy yurselves!’ which is really nice!

One thing that does irk me here is the tax and tipping. Sure, have sales tax, but if you know how much the tax is and it’s the same state wide, just add it in to the price on the tag for crying out loud!! It’s so annoying going to the counter and thinking you have the right change and then they say a completely different number and you’re like ‘oh yeah, tax…’. In a place where disclosure is expected because the fear of litigation for anything and everything is rife (eg. any menu with meat on it has a little asterisk saying ‘eating raw or under-cooked meat can be harmful to health’…), I’m surprised it’s not mandatory to declare the ‘real’ price with tax included. It all seems like a bit of false advertising to me. But anyway, on top of the tax is also the tip. In any sit down restaurant, the standard tip is 20%. Then in a bar, you basically just tip a dollar any time you order. This whole system is really testing my mental arithmetic…!

So anyway, from Junction, we headed to the big smoke in Austin. We were pretty excited for this part of our trip as we are all pretty into the live music scene and were heading toward a number of iconic locations. We began our drive into Austin with a couple of wine tastings in the Texas Hill Country, a wine region we never knew existed! We felt a little awkward arriving at Hye Meadow Winery at 10am, the same time as the girl who opened shop did, but thankfully she didn’t think we were deros, waived the wine tasting fee for us and was full of great tips for Austin!

We lived it up in Austin at the Quality Inn, which aside from having beds and a shower (luxury) had a pool and free breakfast… where you could make TEXAS SHAPED WAFFLES! Incredible. But amazing as that all sounds, we did actually leave our hotel a number of times…Our first evening was spent at The Whip Inn, a gem disclosed to us by our mate Trish at the winery. It is right next to the freeway and used to be general store, but has now been converted into a funky little pub with a huge range of boutique beers, Indian-inspired cuisine and live jazz.

The next day we whizzed around the city, visiting the State Capitol, a very impressive edifice and the largest state building in the US (everything’s bigger in Texas!) before going on a food trailer hunt down in ‘SoCo’ (local lingo for the South Congress neighbourhood) to get the famous Torchy’s Tacos and try Gourdough’s gourmet doughnuts. Neither disappointed, though the doughnut was actually a food highlight of the trip so far… We had the ‘Funky Monkey’, a delectable combination of brown sugar, bananas and cream cheese icing atop a fresh doughnut- literally one of the most incredible things I have ever tasted in my life! Probably a good thing they only exist in Austin, otherwise my future career as a dietitian may have been in jeopardy once I started recommending everybody try all the flavours at Gourdough’s…

Hugo had boot-finding success later in the day, picking up a sweet pair in python leather to Laura’s and my relief (we had spent many hours in various boot shops by this point!). In the evening we checked out the main drag, 6th Street, where we saw some cool music early in the night- an amazing duo called Thomas and Hall (https://www.facebook.com/ThomasandHall for anyone interested in a listen) and then bar hopped our way around ending up at a little rockabilly bar. Unfortunately I lost our camera that night which is why sadly there are no accompanying pics for Austin… :-/

The following day we headed to Houston, where we spent the afternoon at the Space Centre. We visited the Mission Control Centre at the Johnston Space Centre, learned about the Orion mission looking at sending people to Mars in 2035 and saw the impressive Saturn V shuttle launcher with its 5 enormous engines.

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In other exhibits we learned about living in space (including recycling pee into drinking water, reconstituting dehydrated meals and having baby wipe ‘showers’), saw some of the tiny capsules the first astronauts went up in and saw some moon rocks and moon dirt. Hugo was excited with all of this information, saying the 3 of us are just like astronauts, living in a tiny space all together and having baby wipe showers!

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In the evening we checked out a baseball game, seeing the bottom-of-the-league Houston Astros play the LA Angels. We spent much of the long, slow game googling what all the abbreviations on the scoreboard were, but did enjoy the ‘7th inning stretch’ and belting out ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ followed by a rousing rendition of a song we’d never heard (but that everyone else knew) called ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’.

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Though the Astros lost, we did get to see them get a home run which was really cool. And eat chili dogs and wave giant hands around…

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We headed out to a suburban park to camp for the night, before finishing our time in Houston with a church service at the largest congregation in America- Lakewood Church. Before this though, we did pull up at the local Walmart to have our baby wipe showers and put on our Sunday Best…

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For those of you that haven’t heard of Lakewood, this mega-church is in a $400 million converted stadium that seats 17,000 people! On the morning of our attendance there would’ve been a lazy 12,000-13,000 at a guess (certainly a bigger crowd than turned out for the baseball the previous night!). The service is televised each week and feels like a massive production. A 10-piece band and 60+ choir started the service with a bang leading the first half hour of can’t-help-but-groove worship songs, not to mention the lights, smoke machines and cameras panning around it all!

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The pastors behind the operation are Joel Olsteen and his wife Victoria, both of whom entered the stage looking very polished and bearing celebrity-worthy smiles. We got to see both of them speak, and Joel’s sermon in particular was very memorable- he is extremely charismatic, very funny and presented his message clearly with relevant anecdotes and sections of scripture woven in along the way. All in all, it was a very enjoyable morning and definitely added to the diversity of our experiences in America’s south!

Next stop was New Orleans, for yet more food and more music… To be continued…

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