Prague

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My first post for 2015! Already it’s February and the time has really flown by. Between working all the time and having to deal with the crappy Australian internet, I’ve really gotten behind on keeping this site updated. It’s been six months since I was actually in Prague, so my memory of my three days there is a bit fuzzy and I didn’t keep a whole lot of notes about it, nor did I take many photos for some reason, so please bear with me!

After gallivanting around Germany for a week, I made a brief return to France before hopping on a flight to the Czech Republic (for only €40, what a bargain!), this time accompanied with my French travel partner, Servan. Other than hearing from friends and other travelers that Prague was a nice city, I really didn’t know much about it and didn’t know what to expect.

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We arrived in the evening so we didn’t see much of the city in the beginning, other than heading off to a pub to try some goulash, a slow-cooked meat and vegetable stew which is a staple food in the Czech Republic and throughout Central Europe. It was amazingly delicious–not a bad first impression! The following morning we headed off into the city to see the sights. On our way to the Town Square we randomly stumbled across an old Soviet tank and and American army hummer parked next to a big building that said “museum” on it. Naturally we went inside just to check it out and ended up staying for over an hour. It turned out to be the Army museum and it was actually really interesting, covering the history of the Czech’s involvement in WWI and WWII. Best of all it was free!

Eventually we arrived at the Old Town Square where we met up with Servan’s brother and his girlfriend who also happened to be in town. We spent the rest of the day just walking around the city, checking out all some of the big sights like the Charles Bridge (which was so packed I didn’t even bother taking photos there), the Old Town, and the Church of St. Nicholas. We also stopped from time to time and allowed ourselves to be amused by the many street performers on the city streets, most were actually quite good at what they did. There are quite a few talented musicians in Prague!

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The following day we huffed it on up the hill to the city’s most famous landmark, the Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. It’s actually a conglomerate of several buildings, including a few palaces, churches, and halls. We didn’t go inside any of the buildings due to the long lines, but we did a little walking tour through the complex before heading back to the city to wander around some more. We ended up finding a nice little gem, the Valdštejnský palác, or Wallenstein Palace, which currently serves as the Czech Senate. Compared to the Prague Palace just up the hill it was way less crowded. The entrance is a little tricky to find, basically being just a doorway in a big wall. We walked among peacocks grazing about in the symmetrically designed Senate Gardens and even found that we could actually go inside parts of the palace. The rooms were beautifully decorated with artwork painted across the ceilings. I think it might have been my favorite building in Prague. Another added bonus, it was also free!

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Compared to other European cities, things are much cheaper in Prague so we took advantage of that and did some shopping in the New Town district. We also checked out the nearby Communist Museum (also quite interesting) and munched on street food. After dinner we grabbed some trdelník (a sugary pastry wrapped around a stick and grilled over a fire) and walked to Střelecký Ostrov, one of the islands in the middle of the Vltava River, which flows through the city. There was some kind of festival going on so we went to check it out and hung out next to the river to people watch. At the time there was also a storm passing through outside of town and we enjoyed watching the lightning show behind the castle. We didn’t stay out too long however, as we had an early bus to catch to Munich.

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I liked Prague. I didn’t LOVE I did with cities like Paris and Venice. But I did find it quite nice. It’s a city that has managed to withstand the test of time, loaded with lots of history and a well-preserved medieval charm. Unfortunately we didn’t really do a lot of research before coming so I have a feeling we missed out on seeing a lot of cool stuff outside the main tourist attractions. On top of that, we were there during the peak tourist season and with the city being crowded with so many other travelers it was a bit overwhelming at times walking through the narrow streets. Strangely, I didn’t mind the tourist summer crowds as much in other cities, but in Prague it just seemed too claustrophobic. I think it would be a much better place to visit in the off season, particularly in autumn. Maybe one day I’ll return then, and I’ll be able to really appreciate the city’s magic that everyone talks about.

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Germany

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I went to Germany mostly to visit friends that I met traveling in New Zealand or knew in high school. To be honest, before I knew any Germans it wasn’t really a place I ever dreamed about or considered going to. But I’m really glad I went because I loved my time there! And since I was staying with friends, I went to some places that tourists don’t really go to and experienced the “real” Germany. Some things I observed during my time there:

  • Germans seem to have a reputation of being so serious and unfriendly, but I found a lot of people were very friendly!
  • There are a lot of nice cars on the road and they all look really clean and well-kept.
  • You really can drive as fast as you want on the Autobahn.
  • Nobody talks like the German guy in this video. The German language  isn’t as harsh as most people make it out to be, especially in the north where it actually sounds quite nice!
  • The cities were clean and modern, yet still preserved their Old Word charm.
  • Like many other European countries I went to, the food was soooo good! From currywurst to apfelstrudel to all the delicious breads, I ate really well in Germany. And yes, the beer really is the best!

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Like throughout the rest of Europe, getting around is very easy. The train system is very good and travelling within regions can be very economical if you’re travelling with a few people using a regional pass. Bus companies like Meinfernbus are great if you don’t mind spending more time getting from place to place. They’re very cheap and comfortable, sometimes costing just a few euros. Most of my time in Germany was spent in the west and the north, although I did spend a few days in the south as well.

Düsseldorf
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Düsseldorf was the first place I went to and it’s where I met up with my friend, Annette, whom I met traveling in New Zealand. It wasn’t the best day weather-wise, but we still spent the day out in the rain walking around the city for a few hours. Düsseldorf is an artsy upscale city in the west of Germany situated along the Rhine river. We tried some Leberwurst and Kartoffelsalat (German potato salad) for lunch and spent a few hours walking the streets and along the riverfront admiring the city’s modern style and funky architecture.

Cologne
kolnoldtownAfter Düsseldorf, we hopped on the train further up the river to the nearby city of Cologne. After leaving the station, the first thing you see is the Kölner Dom, a massive Gothic-style cathedral in the city center. It’s huge–even bigger than Notre Dame in Paris. In fact when it was completed it was the tallest building on Earth for a short time. After checking out the cathedral, we followed the grey cobblestone streets to the Altstadt or Cologne’s old town. Compared to Düsseldorf, Cologne seemed more laid back and trendy with a definite hipster scene going on. Even in the rain, the streets are bright with colorful buildings and lively with hip cafés and bars. And of course no visit to Cologne is complete without drinking some Kölsch beer!

Bielefeld
IMG_9815After Düsseldorf and Cologne, I stayed with Annette and her family in her hometown of Bielefeld for a few days. It’s a big university town in the northwest that hardly ever sees tourists (at a population of over 300,000 people I would call it a city, but by German standards it’s a big town). Many Germans haven’t even been there and there’s even a joke about how the town is just a conspiracy and doesn’t really exist. But it does and it was actually a nice area to visit for a few days! The town is surrounded by forest covered hills, with lots of hiking and biking trails. There’s even a castle on top of one of the hills that overlooks the town, so one day we decided to hike to the castle via a long hike through the hills. Somewhere along the way we missed a turn and got lost, ending up in some neighborhood at the other end of town. While walking down one of the streets, we came across an old couple out in front of one of the houses and asked them for directions to the castle. Instead, they kindly gave us a ride all the way up to the castle in their nice clean car, even with the little muddy dog we had with us! It’s one of my favorite memories from Germany.

Another day we drove out to the countryside to the nearby town of Detmold. It’s a beautiful little town that looks just the way I thought a German town would look like– cobblestone pedestrian-only streets lined with little shops and charming old German-style buildings. The town had a very relaxed atmosphere and on a warm sunny summer day it was the perfect place to be. Visiting places like Bielefeld shows that it pays to go off the beaten track sometimes!

Hamburg
hamburgskylineAfter saying farewell to Bielefeld, I took the bus north to the city of Hamburg and stayed with my friend Alena, who was an exchange student at my high school I’ve stayed in contact with over the years. I’ve always heard Hamburg was a nice place. While it’s less popular than other big cities like Berlin and Munich, Hamburg was pretty amazing. It’s a big riverside city that happens to have the 3rd largest port in the world and is said to have more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined.

Some of the things we did included climbing to the top of Church St. Michaelis for a wonderful view of the city, taking a quick jaunt through the Reeperbahn, munching on Franzbröchten (a pastry you’ll only find in the bakeries of northern Germany), and checking out the miniature world. The latter was really impressive by the way—uber nerdy yes, but it’s incredible how much detail and work went into the project.

In the peak of the summer season, the city was alive and buzzing. Heaps of people were out everywhere you went, especially in the parks and by the water. We spent an afternoon canoeing through the city’s maze of canals and lakes, which in my opinion is the best way to experience Hamburg. There’s even a café where you can order ice cream from, right from your boat! There’s many more things to see and do here, but I didn’t have the time to see it all unfortunately, which means I’ll just have to pay another visit someday!

Munich
IMG_0254I actually traveled to Munich after visiting Prague as a stopover on our way down south to Italy. It was a very short two days, but we still managed to see quite a bit with the help of my friends Marco and Magdalena (also friends I met traveling in New Zealand). They took us to all the big sites: Olympic Park (where the 1973 Olympics were held), the famous Glockenspiel clock tower, the Marienplatz, the BMW museum, and the famous Hofbräuhaus for some weisswurst, massive brezels, and huge mugs of beer. Munich is a fun city. It’s very green with lots of parks and you can tell a lot of people like to spend their free time outdoors. The city has a big system of biking trails and there’s even a special spot in English Garden, a huge park in the middle of the city, where you can go surfing on the river! And with the Alps only an hour away, the opportunities for some outdoor fun is endless.

On our second day, we took a train out to Dachau to visit the concentration camp and WWII memorial. I’ve seen lots of movies and documentaries about the concentration camps, but being there in person was a very sobering experience. It’s very easy to get to from the city, admission is free, and it’s very well done–well worth the visit. Overall, Munich was probably my favorite city in Germany. If I was German, I’d live there!

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Merry Christmas From Down Under!

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Merry Christmas from Australia everyone!

It’s a strange feeling hearing “Winter Wonderland” being played over the loudspeaker at the grocery store when it’s 85°F (29°C for my non-American friends). This would be my second summertime Christmas and I still haven’t really adjusted to it. Even though I’ve seen the Christmas goods on display at the stores since September, it just doesn’t feel the same not celebrating next to a cozy fire on a cold and rainy day. That and spending Christmas Day at work two years in a row isn’t the most festive thing either, so next year I will definitely be home for the holidays.

Since I’ve been trying to catch up with my trip to Europe, I really haven’t done a lot of updates on anything current. So here you go! At the moment I’m living and working in Dunsborough, a little beach town in the Margaret River region of southwestern Australia and it’s quite nice! I’ve been working at a big resort nearby for the past two months. Things are fairly isolated out here compared to the east coast so not a lot of travelers make it out this way, which is a shame (or maybe a blessing?) because it really is beautiful. Not too crowded, nice summertime weather compared to the rest of the country, and the beaches here are stunning–way better than anything I ever saw in eastern Australia. The only negative would be the flies, which are now out in full swing that summer is here. I thought New Zealand’s sandflies were the worst, but they’re nothing compared to Australia’s bush flies. They don’t bite fortunately, but whenever you go outside they suddenly appear in swarms and crawl all over your face, up your nose, and in your eyes and ears. Swatting them away doesn’t do a whole lot since they come right back. It’s a part of life throughout most of Australia it seems that you just try and get used to (though I don’t think anyone really does).

My new friends I live and work with are a great bunch of people. It’s very international group which keeps things interesting :) Overall, I’m happy staying a while in this part of Australia and looking forward to spending another summer in the southern hemisphere!

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A Day In Amsterdam

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It’s sad, I know. Only one day in Amsterdam? There’s a lot to do and see there, I’m kicking myself now I didn’t plan ahead more and stayed a few more days! Despite the brief visit, my first trip to Netherlands was still fun and interesting.

I took the Megabus from Paris, my first experience with the company in Europe. I’ve ridden with them in the US before and it was pretty similar. No thrills or anything special, just a very cheap way to get from Point A to B. It isn’t the fastest way but it’s certainly the most economic way to get from Paris to Amsterdam, costing me only 20 euro.

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Upon arrival, I spent a few hours walking around on my own to get a feel of the city. One of the first things which were blatantly obvious to me was that the Dutch have an affinity for bicycles. One of my Dutch friends even joked that they’re all born riding out of their mother’s womb. Everywhere you go, tons of people are out and about riding their bikes. Between all the canals and narrow streets, it’s much more efficient getting around via the numerous bike lanes and paths that weave about through the city. They even have huge parking lots just for bicycles in some places. And this isn’t something exclusive only to Amsterdam, it’s throughout the Netherlands. It helps that a majority of the country is flat, making it easy to get around this way.

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After a few hours getting introduced to the city, I took the train to stay with a friend in Arnhem about an hour away. It’s a city in the eastern part of the country that isn’t usually visited by tourists, so it was nice to experience the “real” Netherlands. The following day, we went back to Amsterdam and met up with some more friends and we all spent the day wandering the labyrinth of streets and canals. I really wanted to see the the Anne Frank Museum, but the line was soooo long (the wait would have been a few hours) we decided to pass. Fortunately the weather was really nice so we spent the day outside walking aside the canals, hanging out at the park, and stuffing our faces with delicious Dutch food (I could kill for some stroopwaffles right now!).

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Since I was only there for a day, there’s not a whole lot more I can say about Amsterdam other than I liked it enough the first time to want to come back again someday!

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Paris

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Paris. The city of light. The city of love.  Whatever you want to call it, I was very impressed during my time in the French capital and it now holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite cities in the world. I loved everything about it. The café lined streets, the symmetric gardens, the beautiful architecture, the efficient metro system, the incredible food, the vibes of the different neighborhoods, the picnicking in the parks. There is just so much more to this city than the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. It’s a city that you can visit countless times in your life and never truly see everything. I spent nearly three weeks there and feel that I still barely scratched the surface. Nonetheless I did manage to see some of the main tourist attractions as well as a few other hidden gems a little off the beaten track. Here are some of the highlights of my trip to Paris:

 The Parks & Gardens

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For such a big city, the parks in Paris are plentiful. Walk a few blocks and you’re bound to find a patch of green somewhere–from the small hidden neighborhood parks to the grander gardens decorated with fountains and symmetrically designed fauna. I really liked taking walks through the Jardin du Luxembourg. Popular with tourists and locals alike, it’s a great place find to people watch. There’s also a really good place to get macarons nearby at Dalloyau. Parc de Sceaux was another favorite park, which is actually located just outside of Paris in the southern suburb of Sceaux. It’s huge and consists of a large symmetric lake, woodland walking trails, grassy fields where people come to play sports and have picnics. There is also a small, but beautiful château on top of a hill. You won’t find many tourists here at all, only locals!

The Picnics

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Picnicking is a popular French pastime. In Paris the parks were filled with people enjoying a meal on the grass. It’s very simple to go to the nearest store for bread, meat, cheese, and wine, grab a blanket, and simply find a place to hang out with friends and watch the life go by around you. One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon.

The Eiffel Tower

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Of course no trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Iron Lady. If you think it’s amazing by day, it’s absolutely incredible at night when the tower is bathed in golden light and a beacon shines from the top like a lighthouse. And each night at every hour on the hour, it suddenly lights up with a dazzling display of shimmering lights; like moonlight sparkling across a body of water. Absolutely incredible. We never went to the top, but we did enjoy some nice picnics under the tower on the Champ de Mars!

The Museums

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The number of museums and galleries in Paris seem to be endless. The most famous of these of course, is the Louvre. To be honest, I got a little bored at the Louvre. Aside from seeing the Mona Lisa, the Egyptian Hall, and the famous painting depicting the French Revolution, I wasn’t really keen on spending a whole day there. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had gone with a tour group, as it’s a huge museum that can really only be properly done after several visits. Even some of my Parisian friends haven’t seen it all and they grew up there! I did like the Musée d’Orsay however, which is known for its impressionist collections, including some pieces from Van Gogh.  Sometimes the museums have free days during certain times of the month. It’s a good idea to find out when they are and just go to a random museum. You might be surprised at what you discover.

Montmartre

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Paris is divided into 20 districts (arrondissements). I only visited a fraction of these, but my favorite was probably Montmartre, the historic and artsy area in the 18th. We came here twice and really did nothing but getting lost and wandering around the narrow winding streets up the hill to the Sacre Coeur, a huge and beautifully built white marble Catholic basilica (I like to call it the French Taj Mahal). In some ways, being in Montmartre felt like being in a small village in the middle of a metropolis.

Walks Along the River

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Walking along the Seine is great by day and even better at night when the city lights dance across the surface of the river. My favorite place to start was from Notre Dame, through the streets on Île de la Cité, and then walk west from there ending at the Eiffel Tower. There are some famous bridges worth visiting along the way including the Pont des Arts (the famous “love lock” bridge), the elaborate and beautifully decorated Pont Alexandre III, and Pont de Bir-Hakeim, which was featured in the movie Inception and has some really nice views of the Eiffel Tower. The walk also takes you past other famous Parisian landmarks like the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Invalides, and Le Grand Palais.

Bastille Day
I was fortunate enough to be in Paris for La Fete nationale, or Bastille Day, which is the national holiday that commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution on July 14 1789. The day starts off with a big parade down the Champs Elysees and ends with a huge firework display right at the Eiffel Tower. The streets and parks within view of the tower all become packed by late afternoon, so it’s best to get a good spot early. Champs de Mars is probably the best place to watch the show, but we ended up finding a nice spot by the river. One of my favorite memories from Europe!

The Catacombs

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Under the streets of Paris lay miles and miles of underground tunnels lined with the bones of 6 million people. The tunnels are actually the remains of an extensive system of limestone quarries, which were filled with the remains dug up from overcrowded and unsanitary graveyards around the city. It’s a grim, yet very interesting attraction well worth visiting.

Canal St. Martin

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Another good place to get away from the tourist crowds is at Canal St. Martin in the 10th arrondissement in northeastern Paris. I only knew about this place after watching the movie Amelíe but apparently it’s a popular place where the locals like to hangout. The canal was built to link the Canal de l’Ourq in the north to the Seine and today you can climb the arched bridges and watch the boats go up and down the series of locks.

Palace of Versailles

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The Palace of Versailles is another must do while in Paris. It’s actually located outside of the city to the southwest. It was really hot the day we went and since we were there in July at the height of the tourist season, it was a long wait to get in. Once inside, you’re free to roam about home of the former monarchs of France. It’s huge and we spent a few hours wandering beautifully decorated corridors and gardens. I also recall having the best baguette I’ve ever had from one of the local bakeries in the town of Versailles.

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A Year On The Road

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It’s been a year since I left home. A year since I sat at the airport, anxiously waiting for my flight to New Zealand, wondering what I was getting myself into. With only a backpack, a camera, a laptop, and a few sets of clothes, I left behind my world of familiarity for the unknown. I was going alone, to a country I had never been to before, without any prior work lined up. I knew no one there. I wasn’t even sure how long I would be gone as I had only bought a one-way ticket. The thought of sustaining myself outside the comforts of the US and living abroad both excited me and filled my stomach with butterflies. But just as the old Dutch saying goes, leaving and getting yourself out the door really is the hardest part of the journey. Once that was out of the way, I realized that I could feel right at home on the road.

And now, one year later, I’ve been all over New Zealand, spent a summer in Europe, and now going on with another working holiday in Australia! It’s been an amazing year. A big thanks to my friends and family who supported my decision to travel and of course to the people I’ve met along the way that made it incredible. I look back at myself a year ago and see a different person. If I could leave a bit of advice for other dreamers, soon-to-be travelers and working holiday makers, here are five things I learned once I started travelling:

You Will Make Friends
Being able to find new friends was one of the biggest concerns I had before I started my trip and now that I think about it, it really should have been the least of my worries. Although I started my trip alone, I soon discovered that no matter where you go there will always be other travelers in the same situation as you looking for a friend. So don’t worry. You will make friends. Even better, they’ll be from all over the world! I still stay in touch with many of the friends I’ve made overseas. Having shared travel experience really creates close bonds. Some may only be a friend for a day, others a few weeks, and then there’s the few that last a lifetime.

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The Best Itinerary Is Not Having One
I had a planned itinerary for my first few weeks of my travels, but I found that it’s really better not to have one. It’s one thing to have a goal or something in mind for what you want to see and do, but when and how you do it will always be changing. You’ll meet new friends, you’ll discover a place you’ll love, and you’ll want to stay longer. That’s exactly what happened to me after my second week in New Zealand when I arrived in the Bay of Islands. I originally only wanted to stay four days. Unfortunately I had already booked myself a flight to the South Island, but after a short time I came back for the summer and stayed for three months. You just never know what might come up. Besides planning every little detail of a trip becomes super tiring very quickly (for me at least).

Learn to Love Spontaneity
Changing of plans is pretty inevitable when you travel (especially long-term), so just learn to embrace it. That and with a little spontaneity sprinkled in really makes life more interesting. When I first arrived in Australia I had no idea what I was going to do first. A few days later I’m on a road trip going up the East Coast with some people I met in Sydney and afterwards somehow ended up on a cross-country trip through the Outback! The possibilities are endless if you allow them to happen. Of course it’s always good to have goals and ideas on the things you really want see and do, but flexibility is key for those sudden opportunities. Some of my favorite memories while travelling were the unplanned and spontaneous days.

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Put Aside Expectations
Not every day on the road will be the way you envision it to be. You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad days. Sometimes there will be things out of your control. Bad weather. A canceled sailing trip. Missing a train connection. A famous landmark closed due to renovation. Things won’t always go according to schedule and having a lot of expectations really will just mean more stress and unhappiness when things don’t go right. Just enjoy each day for what it is and learn to appreciate the misadventures (sometimes they make for good stories!).

You’ll Be Surprised at What You’re Capable Of
When you travel, oftentimes you’re pushed to breach your comfort zone. You have to learn and adapt to new cultures and find ways to communicate with language barriers. You might even get yourself out of getting lost while finding your way around a new place. Unless you don’t want to make friends, you’re forced to interact and introduce yourself to strangers. You become more social. You find it easier to embrace change and the unknown. You become less afraid of things you might have been afraid of before. You become more independent. You might even learn a new language! Most of all, you become more confident with yourself and you’ll discover you’re capable of. It’s amazing how transformative traveling can make a person.

Cliff Jumping Waimea Bay

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Where I’ve Been

Good day everyone!

I’ve just returned from spending the summer in Europe and I am dead tired! 21 hours flying time with another 14 hour layover in Vietnam thrown in there for good measure. Anyway, these next few days are going to be well spent sleeping.

Europe was amazing! As you can tell, the motivation to update the blog was seriously lacking. It takes time sorting through tons of photos and writing about the experience. That and I really just wanted to enjoy my time time there without being “plugged in” too much. In fact I didn’t even have my laptop with me most of the time so it wasn’t really feasible to do so anyway. But now that I’m back in the Land Down Under, I’ll write a post from time to time on each place I went to: France, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, and Spain (and a very brief visit in Austria). For a sneak peek, here’s a photo I took. Brownie points to whoever can guess where it is!

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Anyway, like I said the next few days will be dedicated to sleep and getting ready to see Australia. I’m not even 100% where I’m going yet first, but the goal is to find a place to settle down and work for a little while. Unlike New Zealand, Australia is huge it won’t be as easy (or as cheap) getting around. Will I follow the backpacker trail and head straight up the East Coast to the Great Barrier Reef? Or maybe out west to Perth? Who knows. It’s a big country with lots of opportunities.

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