December 29, 2009

Auld Lang Syne

Another year comes to an end. And what a year:

Began on a cold January day when I took off on a plane, staring down at the empty eternal snowdrifts of Kamchatka, landing in Korea and then on to chaotic, chili-scented Bangkok, then to South America for my television debut in Chile and the overwhelming landscapes of Patagonia (still breathless). Then sleeping horizontal on the seven seats of a spanking new A380 all the way to gold-spattered Dubai, a midnight tour of that constant skyscraping in sand, then across the changing blue waters of the Indian Ocean and dropping down into the blissful Maldives (ah! wonderful). Finding serenity on those beaches, on the complete separateness of that island country, the wet sun there and the world of coral underneath and the shark shadows. On to Wales, land of my fathers, to the high perfect mountains, to the low shores packed with baby lambs and crumbling gray castles and ancient words whispered in even more ancient pubs. A swift run through Londontown, a city of real memories and the true spirit of travel that simmers in every rail station--an obligatory pass through Terminal 5. Back to South America. To Argentina, it's tango, it's chic, and then it's jungle. The red earth and brown rivers, the thundering spray of Iguazu Falls in the moonlight, drowning me upwards. A wet face and crossing into rainy season Brazil, a peak at Paraguay. Midnight in Lima and back to JFK, a regretful second home for me this year. To Vienna, to expensive coffees on the cobblestone square and clean shops and European preciseness, an inconsistent preamble to . . . INDIA. An imagined land of my lifetime became real. The shiny brass, the pink dawn and pink dust and the unbearable heat of a land sucked dry. Tigers in the grass, literally. Elephants and tigers that roared, holy temples with smiling toothless priests. Silk, more dust. Stone of the ages piled into beautiful towers, carved into stories that never die. Vomiting along the road, my head brought low, which is the real point of India after all. Happy go lucky kids, then needing a rest from India until the next time which I pray daily will be soon. India is the infection that never leaves, the constant affair. Texas for the 4th of July. Shooting fireworks in the bayou. A birthday, and then to Iceland, another country that I love that starts with "I". The deep black sand desert interior, the highlands, off road and sinking tires, hot sulphur springs and my brother bundled up in synthetic fabrics. Walking four days across the naked landscape--sun overhead, snow, rock and moss underfoot. Crossing bare streams so cold it disappeared all feeling and crept up to your knees. The exhaustion from a day of walking and the endpoint of more glaciers than stone, impassable grey rivers that roared, ripping white waterfalls. To Canada, the west. Helicopters in the Rockies, scrambling up 10,000 ft. high peaks. Testing my fears and gripping white knuckles to stone without any handles. Seeing sky beneath my feet. To Maine. To simple, quiet, seaside farms, 2-day county fairs with prizewinning blueberry jam, to high and low tides and kind women heavy with life and knowledge of lobster anatomy. Back to Iceland where the skies move too quickly. Beautiful music, rainy streets and a nippy cold dip in the steel ocean, big waves passing over my icicle head. Night after night in Reykjavik, even dancing. Utah, another land of my fathers. High rock mountains once more. Snow-dusted peaks, the end of the summer hinted. Alma mater walkabout, the happiness of family closeby. The Great Salt Lake running out of shades of blue and watching the furrowed deep grooves of a lifeless landscape from the air. Rescued again by family from LAX, a terrible place. A layover-cum-picnic with palm trees and fog, then one more plane and another . . to Tahiti and beyond. French Polynesia unveiled--the old library books became real, my toes dug into the shell-sharp sand. Grass skirts without irony and drums that still beat in my ears. Hitchhiking 'round Moorea, falling in drowsy love with an island I may never see again. To Quebec, the great far north, snowless but dark pine green, to women singing beautiful French carols in a brick church. And back again, then off . . to Tasmania, to the colored facades of Hobart, to a ship that carried me past icebergs and diving penguins to uninhabited islands, and into the fjords of New Zealand. And then New Zealand fully, it's December warmth, it's blue skies and rough beaches and dinosaur-sized tree ferns. Flying back across the Pacific, reviewing and remembering it all, dizzy with the mileage I have covered, filled with joy and gratitude for such a rich year of great travel. Thankful to all my friends out there who've shared with me.

And now two days left until 2010. Another great journey awaits. Happy New Year to all of you who read and thanks for being there.

December 27, 2009

Farewell to New Zealand

About to board a flight in Auckland and whirl my way back across an ocean and a continent to home in Washington, DC, after which I'll have exactly three days to get my stuff in order and head off on my great new adventure for 2010: taking the bus to Antarctica. In a way, it's been fitting that New Zealand be the unwitting preamble to my next long haul overland journey. This country is small, green, peaceful, and most conducive to quiet reflection--the calm before the happy storm of travel on which I am about to embark. I really love this place. Driving to the airport, I enjoyed watching all the fern-covered hills, the black and white dairy cows and the impertinent sheep.

How I spent my last day in New Zealand? Out at sea, in the Bay of Plenty, fishing. That night, we barbecued snapper (delicious), piled a pavlova high with fruit and cream, and I relished the last few hours of my December summer before heading back into the snow of the Northern Hemisphere's winter.

I am excited. I have a lot to be excited about. Also a little overwhelmed with the longest to do list in the world and three days to do it in. But it'll all work out. Stay tuned . . .

December 23, 2009

Official Announcement

So it's really official. In a week's time I'll be boarding a bus in Washington, DC and heading to Antarctica . . . overland. I've been trying to get to the world's least-known continent forever, and now it's finally happening. I'm thrilled. I'm even more thrilled to be making the journey through all three of the Americas and doing it the hard (fun) way--on a bus! And . . . I'm thrilled most of all to be writing about the whole thing for National Geographic Traveler.

You can read my official first post here at Intelligent Travel. You can also follow me on Twitter where I'll be tweeting away the whole trip on @Bus2Antarctica and sometime next year, there will be an article on paper that you can read.

I leave in a week and as always, am totally unprepared. It's alright, because I have Christmas to celebrate first and a mental checklist a mile long. But the important thing right now is to say THANK YOU to a whole lot of people.

I am so grateful to all the people who've listened to my crazy plan to ride the bus to Antarctica and nodded, smiled, and agreed to help. So, thank you National Geographic Traveler! Thanks to Keith, Marilyn, Janelle, Amy, Stefan, Jeannette, Gio and all the others who are pitching in to make this the best bus trip to Antarctica ever.

You know that feeling when something really exciting is about to happen but not yet, so you have to just sit there and wait except you can't because you have so much to do to get ready? Well, that's how I feel right now.

December 15, 2009

Magnificent Milford Sound

Coming to the end of my life at sea for two weeks. We finally made it to the New Zealand 'mainland' (meaning South Island), cleared customs, and then head straight for Fiordlands National Park, which is incidentally the largest single contiguous national park in the world. Amazingly, we had good weather the day we were in Milford Sound. Wow. There is little I can say about this place other than it had me gawking for hours and left me with a sore neck. The cliffs shoot straight up from the see for thousands and thousands of feet--mile high mountains that come straight down to the water. Also, we couldn't anchor because the water was too deep.

I have been blogging at sea this whole time, which is not so easy I discovered, given the rocking ship, satellite internet that comes and goes but I'm not complaining. It's pretty miraculous that one gets to blog at all whilst totally unconnected to anything out in the middle of the Southern Ocean.

So, Milford Sound, according to Trip Advisor, is the most beloved and favorite destination of the entire world. Understanding the slanted democracy of the internet, I'm taking this with a whole pile full of salt, but I will say that having spent a day in the middle of Milford Sound, it's definitely up there wherever 'up there' may be. The natural beauty, sharp mountains, mist rolling in and out, the streaks of waterfalls--all of it was just so overwhelmingly powerful. I'm still trying to decide if we like it because it makes us feel so impossibly small or because it is such a pure view no matter where you look. Not a house, car, or neon sign to be seen. Just rippled water, vertical rock and in my lucky case, a blue, blue sky.

December 4, 2009

Baby Penguins at Macquarie Island

You ever have one of those days and you think that you're the luckiest person alive? Well, that was me yesterday, when I spent the entire day on the black sand beach of Australia's Macquarie Island--the southernmost point in that country. Although I was warned of horrific storms, we still had great weather, and I just laid in the sand and watched these baby king penguins for hours. Such melodramatic little creatures! For the next week I'll be exploring some rare and wonderful islands aboard the Orion, an expedition ship that ventures to the lesser-known islands of New Zealand. So far it's been utterly fabulous.

December 2, 2009

The Southern Ocean

48 hours after leaving Washington, DC I find myself on a ship headed to the southernmost point in Australia, which is actually a very cold place. On the way, we spotted icebergs like this one--huge blocks of blue and white ice that were beautiful to look at. It's starting to get colder but I'm loving being out at sea and the excitement of all the new islands I'm about to discover.