Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Friendships Sail

Not to get all sappy on you, but you know those friends that really get you…like deep down to the soul kind of connection?  My friend, Danielle, is one of those people.  Even though we grew up just miles from each other (but attended different schools), we weren't introduced to one another until freshman year at TCU.  Little did we know at the time, but we were going to play a crucial role in each others' lives over the next four years supporting each other through nursing school. 

Whether that be sitting next to each other in EVERY nursing class, studying side by side in the quiet section of the library basement at all hours, sharing notes and organizing 30 page study guides, or carpooling to 6am clinicals at the hospital, she got me.  I can't tell you how many times I broke down in tears as D was dropping me off after a stressful clinical day or how many looks and giggles we exchanged during lecture.  As I tried to keep my social life separate from nursing school, we would often go off and do our sorority thing with other friends.  At the end of the day, though, we knew we could always count on each other….and have fun together too! I am so thankful for her friendship, guidance, and honesty she has and continues to give me.
Since college, we have put the textbook talk aside and grown our friendship independently of what initially bonded us.  When D started talking about coming to visit, I knew it was going to be an unforgettable experience for us both.
I was so thrilled that her best friend Katy wanted to join the fun, too.  While we knew each other as acquaintances, we had never taken the time to develop a friendship.  I mean, how could we not get along if we both loved D?!  Sure enough, it was a great success and all four of us really hit it off from the start.  Another example of how Sydney has brought us closer to people (and ironic that we lived in Dallas together but it took the 8,000 mile distance to become friends).
Fresh off the flight and after a maxi dress incident getting off the escalator, we explored the Royal Botanical Gardens, devoured meat pies from Harry's, and toasted with bubbly at the Opera Bar. 
Fun night out in Newtown!  A bottle of "red hooch" wine solves all problems.  I think this spontaneous night out had to be my favorite.
Total tourists doing the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk on a beautiful day.
  You had to be there to understand the scarf pose…lets just say we were only repeating what we had seen from a group of eager tourists a day earlier.
Watsons Bay day!
Instagram hits.  
Lunch in Paddington, sunny day on the Manly Ferry, and goodbyes to Katy and R as they made their way back to Dallas (total coincidence).
After we were down two members, D and I took time to relax and catch up.  It's pretty obvious who else loved her company.  Cuddle buds!  I loved walking around a new part of town with her and cooking a fresh meal at home with the fish we picked out at the market.  We were pretty proud of ourselves!  
Since spontaneous is my last name (errr), we booked it outta town to wine country for our last weekend together. 
 After a whirlwind day of tasting, we treated ourselves to a fancy vineyard dinner…but not before scarfing down an entire cheese platter while chasing kangaroos from our hotel porch.  Ya, we got a little goofy by the fourth glass.  I couldn't have asked for a better time with these perfect house guests! 
Right when I thought things would get lonely after D left and with R still in Dallas, a bunch of ships sailed into town.  Over 40 warships and 17 tall ships from around the world to be exact.  To kick off the International Fleet Review celebrations, Anne and I headed to Garden Island where we were able to go onboard the HMAS Sydney and HMAS Perth.
The weekend long celebration was to commemorate the first Royal Australian Navy fleet entering Sydney Harbour 100 years ago in 1913.  It was quite a spectacle, and with a front row seat, I stayed glued to the balcony with camera in hand.  Flyovers, salutes, flags, uniforms, music, and naval demonstrations were all captured as the crowds of people cheered and buzzed about the eventful day.  
The star of the show, though, had to be the arrival of Prince Harry as the guest of honor.  When I heard chatter that he would be attending a dinner at Kirribilli house (just three doors down from us), I went into full stalk mode.  Sure enough, as the police force on water and land began to intensify, he emerged on the dock in plain sight with the prime minister and a mob of media waiting to greet him.  The highlight for me was when his boat cruised just a few feet in front of us and he gave that cheeky smile and wave as if we were the only ones.  I swear he looked right at me! Well played, Harry.

Insta snapshots throughout the day.  A spectacular fireworks and lights display over the harbour bridge topped of the festivities for the evening.  What an exciting day to be a part of!
I hated that R had to miss the monumental celebration that won't come around again until 2113.  Better luck next time?! You never know with modern medicine…
Teddy was on camera duty all day, patiently guarding my tripod.  He sure didn't know what to think of all the commotion, but was smart enough to let out a few barks when Harry passed.  We were happy to welcome R home the next day, and it didn't hurt that a bunch of American goods were coming back with.  Hello anthro candles and summer sale wear!
Night noodle markets in Hyde Park with friends before our early morning flight to Queenstown.  I can't wait to share with you the beauty that is New Zealand.  In other exciting news, my best friend since sixth grade will be here in five days!!  We already have some exciting things planned for her birthday and I can't wait for it to be "just like old times".  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

In The Moment

After a month hiatus, things are back into full gear.  We've had a lot going on with visitors in town, weekend trips, Ronnie flying back to Dallas for work, and prepping for a busy summer ahead!  R was even able to sneak away to San Diego for the weekend first with his dad and brother for some quality bonding time.  I know they had a great time checking out the beaches and the Cowboys game (even though they couldn't come home with the W). 
We are starting to feel the pressure now that we have LESS than a year left in Sydney.  I know our families have already started the countdown.  While we've grown so much over the past year, we also feel like a part of our lives has been on pause.  We can easily get distracted by dreaming of our future, which is exciting, but can't be everything.  That's why we have to constantly refocus ourselves to living in the moment.

Balmoral Beach days have become our favorite weekend hangout.
Since Teddy isn't allowed on the sand, we park ourselves on the grassy hill overlooking the beach.  We have found that we don't lay out in our swimmers as much as we would on vacation now that we live near the water.  Instead, we like to have picnics and find a shady spot!
Forgot to post about our 14K run, City2Surf, in late August.  After doing it alone last year, I knew R would enjoy joining in the fun of the day!  
While we aren't much of runners and didn't do any training, I'd say we ran about half the distance.  It was all a bit of fun for us and a chance to be amongst the crowd.  R was kind enough to stay at my pace (baby steps) and we embarrassingly proudly held hands across the finish line in true obsessive couples fashion.  
Instagram hits this month.
Spring has brought us outdoors for long walks and laying in the grass.
Sunday afternoon BBQ at our place with great company.  We loved the sunshine and a chance to be on the lawn after a chilly past couple of months.
I think Teddy agrees! He loves him some Jenny and Blake.  
Miss Isabella made her debut into the world last month and we stole some cuddles from her here, at 1 week old.  Doesn't she look like a doll?!  I just love this family photo of our friends, who are now glowing as proud parents and have transitioned so smoothly into their new role.  We couldn't be happier for this family of 3! 
By coincidence, we bought Bella a panda bear in Shanghai…and when we showed up to meet her, she was wearing this perfectly matching panda onesie!  
I always love an excuse to entertain, but rarely get to here in Sydney.  When Ronnie's coworkers from Dallas had a few nights in Sydney, we decided to have the whole office gang over to welcome them.
Bubbles, babies, and some bubbly!
Ronnie has been a loyal Sydney Swans member all season, so it was about time I made it out to one of the playoff games.  I was so happy that Rachel joined us, but it's a shame she had to go back to Dallas the next day!  She was such a trooper for getting the full Aussie experience. 
Full moons bring out the possums and dolphins I guess.  Walking home, this little guy in the tree (that my neighbor, Anne, feeds every night) was just hanging out waiting for something to happen.  Then, an hour later, a pod of at least ten dolphins goes swimming past the harbour in front of our apartment and under the bridge.  It was an unbelievable sight that is very rare (never seen anything like it in the entire year we've lived here) as there is constant boat traffic and commotion. 
Anne graciously invited me as her guest onboard Lady Hopetoun, a 1902 VIP steam launch who has seen many dignitaries during it's time.  We enjoyed a nice half day cruise around the harbour, learning about marine life and conservation.
The vessel was quite impressive, with its copper furnishings and restored wooden planks.  I couldn't believe the boat was still fully powered by a steam engine, with conductors constantly adding coal to the extremely hot boiler below deck.  

Next week, I can't wait to share some of my favorite moments with my girlfriends who were visiting.  We had a blast and I'm so happy they were able to experience Australia with us.  Also, I have about a million photos from last weekend's International Fleet Review celebration.  We lucked out with a prime viewing spot of all the warships, Prince Harry, and fireworks show.  More on that later, don't you worry!

In the mean time, we are off to New Zealand (the south island) for ten days to celebrate our three year wedding anniversary. Thanks for all of the kind words this week…we are feeling the love!  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Travelog: Shanghai

While Beijing was all about historical attractions, Shanghai was a luxury escape.  It may have been because we were constantly on the move in the capital city, but by the time we got to Shanghai, room service was calling our name.  We didn't come to China for this?!   We reminded ourselves that it was ok to give up a few hours of sightseeing for a little R&R, which made all the difference.  By the afternoon, we were refreshed and ready to take on the big city.

Finding a balance when traveling is always key.
Our hotel was the perfect backdrop to relaxation and we couldn't have asked for a better view of the skyline from our room.

First stop, The Bund.  This promenade along the water is in the heart of the city and a widely popular tourist destination.  There is plenty of eclectic and historical architecture to look at along the way!

While walking past the popular Oriental Pearl TV Tower, we came across this elaborate traffic circle where a pedestrian roundabout was built above the street. Random?  
The most hilarious fail of the trip was The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.  It's like Shanghai didn't have enough tourist attractions, so they built this super cheesy tunnel to entice travelers around the world to visit (not!).  Essentially, it's a slow-moving tram that flashes lights and plays 'Back to the Future' music as you scoot along in a carriage with other naive tourists.  Major fail…but we got such a laugh out of it, that maybe it was worth the rip off.
To give you an idea just how fast Shanghai has grown over a 20 year period, these two images compare the skyline from 1987 to 2013.  We found Shanghai to be highly westernized and a major modern city.
My favorite part of Shanghai, though, was exploring the streets of Old Town.  The first part of our walk was down a street to the tea markets.  I got my fix of China's signature green tea with almost every meal!
The image of an older woman making homemade dumplings stacked ten bamboo steamers high is one of my standouts of the trip. In the second picture, this woman is spraying down all the produce to keep them from wilting in the scorching heat.
Walking down this hectic residential street, we also saw everything from fresh vegetables and grains, to sleeping babies, to bicycles stacked high of unknown goods, and antique sewing machines. 
The most bizarre thing we came across was this "pet shop".  Men gathered around selecting the "perfect" cricket, which is a symbol for good luck in their culture.  
We ended our walk at Dongtai Road Antique Market, which is full of junk, treasures, and random finds. Right up my alley!!  And thanks to my patient husband for letting me do my thing as I sorted through miles of dust and history.   
Where's Waldo? By Waldo I mean the Texas Tech nutcracker perfectly placed among the junk.  Yes, junk.  We survived the scorching hot day and miles of walking, but just barely.  Do you see me hugging the hotel in relief when the day was all said and done?!  
Food diaries.
Lots of fish, dumplings, peking duck pancakes, and afternoon refuels!  We couldn't resist the DQ blizzard to make us feel a bit at "home".

Our short visit to China gave us even more reason to want to visit less popular tourist destinations and reminded us that we have lots of the world left to see!  Speaking of traveling, my sweet friend from college and nursing school is visiting us with her best friend for the next week or so.  So far, we have had an amazing time and hit all the must see attractions.  I can't wait to show you their time with us!  Personal tour guide at your service….

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Travelog: Beijing, China Top 5

Take this post as a timesaver for when/if (you really should) visit China's two biggest cities, Beijing and Shanghai.  Per usual, I spent days on end researching the top sights, transportation tips, trendy and authentic restaurants, local markets, and everything in between to prepare us for the different culture we were about to immerse ourselves in.  The same tidbits kept popping up like little red flags...Crowds! The scams! The language barrier! Questionable food preparation!!  O boy!  I was so anxious to test them out for ourselves (luckily not the food poisoning part).

Not even five minutes into touching Chinese soil, red flag red flag!!  You know the scams I was talking about, well apparently black taxis run rampant trying to rip off naive tourists.  I specifically had an escape route to avoid them while leaving the airport (following the tips of knowledgeable guides) by getting in the official taxi line after passing the many posers.  Even then, we were still escorted to a fake taxi that didn't want to run the meter and instead use the "fixed prices approved by the government".  Once he pulled out the rates sheet, we were shocked to find that he was trying to charge us seven times more than what was standard (and we had read that if they pull out a fixed price sheet, don't believe it because there is no such thing).  I tell you this story because it's a great example of why traveling prepared can save you time, money, and frustration.  We ended up saving US $80 by aborting that taxi by the way.  

Now on to the fun stuff.  Out of all the places in the world to visit, everyone keeps asking "Why China in particular?". Firstly, since R was fortunate enough to travel around Asia as a child, we always wanted to go back and experience the continent together with a different perspective now that we are older and have a greater appreciation.  Secondly, we knew it would be more convenient to travel to from Sydney and our time here is running out.  The flight was still ten hours, but that's nothing new for us these days.  More than anything, we find it important to experience different cultures and I can definitely say we gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the Chinese people. 

Our Top 5 of Beijing:

1. The Great Wall
Being one of the main reasons for wanting to visit Beijing in the first place, this was the highlight of our trip.  The Great Wall is at least an hour drive from Beijing city, and instead of doing a cheesy tour bus, we booked our own driver and explored the wall by ourselves so we weren't rushed for time.  Once we got to the base, a ski lift took us up through the mountains to the starting climb point.  We were supposed to go down the longest luge slide I have ever seen, but it started sprinkling as we were leaving and they shut it down for the day.  It's times like these that remind me I am still married to a child…R was so bummed that the "once in a lifetime" luge experience would never happen.
There are three main parts of the wall that have been restored and are open to visitors.  Most tourists travel to Badaling, which is the closest section to the city and the most visited part by far.  Wanting more of an adventure, we traveled a little further through the countryside to the Mutianyu section.  There, we found a much steeper trek with less tourists in our path.  Mutianyu's position allowed for breathtaking views between the lush green woodlands and mountains and you couldn't beat the smaller crowds.
It's all in the detail to realize the historical significance of this place…the ancient brick, boot imprinted steps, and cannons positioned to defend.   In the bottom middle picture, you can see a section of the wall in the distance that has not been restored and has bushes filling the steps path.
We were surprised to find just how steep and windy the walk actually was.  In the top left picture, R is pointing to our starting position (all the way up there at the tallest peak!).  It was surreal to look back at our journey and we couldn't imagine how exhausting it must have been to build the structure through the mountains and forest.
My best piece of advice for visiting this historic landmark…go early and on your own!! We literally only saw two people for the first hour we were walking the wall.  It was an unforgettable and surreal experience to have the wall all to ourselves and the morning was so peaceful as the fog settled so perfectly between the mountain peaks…well worth the painfully early wake up call! 

2. Summer Palace
Summer Palace was the largest luxury escape for royal families to relax and entertain and is now a World Heritage listed sight.  UNESCO described it as "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design".  The grounds were very extensive and had everything from a little village to grand buildings to a massive lake. 
Like the Great Wall, we didn't realize that it was such a climb.  The main feature is Longevity Hill where the focal point, the Tower of Buddhist Incense, stands three stories tall. 
Beyond the temple and detailed halls,  be prepared for a steep walk down through the rest of the grounds towards Kunming Lake.  Look at those stairs!
The best way to end our tour of the Palace was being able to retreat in a paddle boat on the water.  We are so glad we rented one, and for only $10/hour, you can't beat the price!  Too bad (or lucky me) that I couldn't help R paddle because I was wearing a dress.  

3. Markets
Panjiayuan Antique Market.
Loads of beads and jade jewelry, art, pottery, among other things.  The energy was exciting and I'm sure you could walk away with some interesting articles if you had all the time and money at your disposal.  We did not, however.  But it was still fun to browse.  
Wangfujing Snack Street.  
Think exotic street food and crowds galore…where you can find scorpions and starfish on a stick, baby duck heads, dry ice drinks, candied grapes, and everything in between!  This was one bustling street that reminded us of our cultural differences.  Loved every minute of it!
Gui Jie or Ghost Street.
Over a hundred restaurants line this long street, but that wasn't the main attraction in my opinion.  The sea of red lanterns hanging above the walkway continue to follow you for as far as you can see down the brightly lit street, and you can't help but feel a little bit luckier.  This was what I pictured the busy city streets of Beijing to be like thanks to hollywood movies.  We had a delicious food experience and I give the ambience five stars (duh). 

4. Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
The Forbidden City was the imperial palace where the emperors and their families lived.  It was also the political center of China from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, dating back to the 1300s!  I loved seeing the traditional Chinese architecture that has influenced so many other structures worldwide.
We opted for an audio tour to work our way through the large complex.  So much history here!
The wood and stone details were so intricate.  
With the summer heat in full swing and the many miles walked before noon, we definitely worked up an appetite for an authentic Chinese lunch.  At every meal, we found ourselves staring at the locals to see if we were using our utensils correctly and how the heck to eat noodle soup properly with chopsticks and manners (not possible by the way).
Across from The Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square.  It is the third largest city square in the world and the site of many important events in China. As you can see, there were so many people visiting this site and everyone had to pass through a metal detector and bag check.  The main attraction is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where his body is embalmed and displayed to the public for viewing.  Unfortunately, we showed up fifteen minutes too late to witness this…and visiting hours are very strict and limited in the summer months.
R is standing in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes and I am posing with a sweet girl who asked to take a picture with me.  No, I'm not that cool.  Apparently this is a very common practice for Chinese who live in smaller towns and rarely see Westerners.  We were warned that this would happen, but we didn't realize just how many stares and sneaky pictures would come our way!  It was quite startling at first to have "all eyes on you" while packed like sardines on the subway, but we started to play along with the locals and enjoy the experience. The school kids really got a kick out of saying "hello!" to us, and if we responded, they would run off giggling.  

5. Spontaneous Adventures
Hot pot for dinner and a talented show of acrobatic performers afterwards.  We were lucky enough to find the theatre with no English signage and the written address in Mandarin by asking about every tenth person that walked by on the street.  One lady was nice enough to escort us a few blocks to our destination.  Lucky us!  
Clutter and crowds started to overwhelm us, but we always saw interesting things walking around.
A random dog in the street reminded us of my sisters dog, Presley (without those scary teeth)…but when I went in close to take this picture, it snapped and started barking at me.  Instead of walking away, I drew even more attention to us by screaming and running off.  While we got a few laughs by the locals nearby, I literally thought those fang teeth were coming for me. I swear!  
One afternoon was spent collecting some knock-off goods at the Silk Street Market.  Score!
We found it common that restaurants would offer patrons sunflower seeds while waiting for a table…R loved it!
Beauty among the smog.  A peaceful morning for a local fisherman.  
Crazy crowds in the much so that we would fear the doors slamming in on us because there was nowhere else to move inside the carriage.  Rookie mistake when R forgot he had a backpack on and it got stuck between the doors…good thing I was able to pull him in while toppling over a few others with my fast reflexes (not really, but I did act fast under pressure thankfully).  
Who knew that a chopsticks shop could be so fancy and have so many choices?!

Next week I will write about our adventures in Shanghai and my overall thoughts on China.  This has been a great way for me to reflect on our travels over the past year and we have another busy year of destinations coming up!