I was Impressed, Then I Wasn’t: the Sydney Opera House

I stepped off the train at Circular Quay and gasped at the iconic structure ahead of me. The Sydney Opera House was brilliant, stunning white against blue, glimmering in the sun.

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And then the clouds moved in and it practically vanished against the backdrop of gray.

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As travelers we often pour over magazine and online pictures, travel guides and tourist brochures, listing landmarks on a to-do list and building expectations.

Sometimes the expectations are met, as they were at the Great Wall of China. Sometimes they aren’t.

I expected the Opera House to be more impressive and, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, or the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, covered in shiny metal panels that curved in whimsical swathes.

No such luck.

The Sydney Opera House was covered in tiles. Kitchen tiles. Alternating beige and white ones.

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When the sun’s out, the building radiates white. When it isn’t, the whole thing slumps to drab.

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Regardless, I came to visit the Opera House every few days I was in Sydney. The whole bay drew me as a public space. The nearby botanical garden, the Harbor Bridge, the museums and restaurants along the quay, the ferry boats coming and going, it was a lovely scene overall.

And the shapes the Opera House makes when you get close up make up for its occasional lack of showmanship.

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The Things She Carried: The 15 best things in my backpack this year

“What the heck do you pack for a round the world adventure?”

That seems to be everyone’s favorite question since my return. (That and “What was your favorite country?” But I’ll answer that one later.)

You could agonize forever on what to pack, but the key is to have a few essentials and fine-tune along the way. You can always get rid of things you don’t need, give them away or send them home. You’ll have plenty of chances to buy what you need as you go.

 

The Pack Itself

My backpack was the 40-liter REI Vagabond. I loved that it carried like a backpack and was (almost) small enough for carry-on. Technically it’s two inches too long, but I took it on board several flights and no one stopped me. It’s panel-loading, which means I could pack it up more like a suitcase and access everything by zipping it open, instead of pulling everything out from the top.

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1. Goretex Trail Runners from Brooks

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Waterproof, inconspicuous, and perfect for running and hiking. They didn’t give me blisters and held up ALL YEAR, which is impressive considering they were basically my only pair of shoes. Other shoes: black ballet flats, flip flops.

2. Eagle Creek Packing Cubes

blog_eagle creek cubesIncredibly handy. ALL the clothes I carried fit into these three zip-up sacks which acted like my dresser drawers. It saved me from folding and refolding my clothes each time I packed, which was sometimes as often as every few days.

3. Icebreaker hoodie

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Merino wool clothing: deceptively thin, light-weight, warm and stylish. Unlike most technical clothing, in these you won’t look like you got lost in Paris on your way to the alps. I set out with a black hoodie and a 260-weight tech top, and added a lighter top and long johns later. Icebreakers are pricey, but they wear really well. And like the claim on the tag, they don’t stink after multiple wears. You can live in these an entire week at a time, not that I did, ahem.

 

4. ExOfficio Undies

Not your grandma’s travel panties! Comfy, stylish, and quick dry. I could wash these by hand, wring them out in a towel, and they’d be dry in two hours. Amazing.

 

5. Yoga Paws

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Like wearing yoga mats on your hands and feet. Sturdy and non-slip. I tried out a few kinds before deciding these were the best. These little things made yoga portable and gave me an easy way to work out anywhere, especially indoors in small spaces. They come in multiple sizes which means they even fit my super tiny hands!

 

6. Headlamp

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Nothing fancy. Just a basic 20-buck headlamp. I kept it in my handbag and it worked great as a flashlight on dark streets. I used it in my hostel room so as not to wake everyone up if I came in late, and of course to light my way in caves, on night time hikes, and during power outages.

7. First Aid

Don’t go overboard here, since most things like bandaids and aspirin are widely available almost anywhere. But do take prescriptions and a few basics. I filled a small ziplock bag and had more than enough to get me through the year. I had inhalers with me for the super-polluted air in China and they were very necessary, even though I’ve never used them regularly in the US.

 

8. A Good Book

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A few favorites I found along the way:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Meredith Maran

I bought a Kindle off some friends at Christmastime thinking I’d use it all year, but I missed the feel of a good old-fashioned book. Even in foreign countries you can find an English language book if you look hard enough. I stocked up at English bookstores in Thailand and Hong Kong, book swaps in hostels, and at flea markets in Europe.

9. Toilet Paper

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Do I have to explain this one? You’d be surprised how often it’s not provided. In some countries you just have a hose or a bucket of water to clean up with, so carrying your own pooper paper is highly recommended.

To save space, remove cardboard center roll and squish into ziplock bag.

10. Scarf

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Napping with scarf as blanket, in Laos.

Doubled as an eye mask, blanket, pillow, handkerchief (ew but true), shoulder/head cover in mosques and temples, towel… you get the picture. A good scarf goes a long way. Mine was this eco-friendly bamboo one, but any will do. For the fashion conscious you might want to have two or three. I was pretty sick of the same green scarf after 12 months.

 

11. iPod

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My 8G ipod wasn’t just for music listening. It was a handy way to use the internet without taking my whole laptop out. It also held lots of information in a small space. I downloaded free aps for wherever I was: subway maps, city maps, dictionaries, survival phrase podcasts, currency rates, etc. and got rid of them when I didn’t. (I know I say I don’t usually carry maps, but they’re good to have on hand.) I’m a tech minimalist as well, so keeping the memory down to 8G minimized digital clutter.

12. Earplugs

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These are essential in hostels. How else are you supposed to sleep in a room with nine other people in the room, three of whom snore and/or stumble in drunk at 4 a.m.?

 

13. Sleep Sack

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Can you tell I like to sleep? Some people say you don’t need a sleep sheet, but I used mine all the time. It’s like a flat bed sheet folded in half and sewed into a sack. It was great when the sheets where I was sleeping weren’t so clean or were rough textured. Hey, I’m sensitive to texture! Used it on trains, planes, and buses. Pulled it over my head to protect from mosquitoes.

 

14. Sunscreen

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Take care of your skin. It’s a no brainer. I swear by Neutrogena (and you can’t get it everywhere) so I stocked up when I found some even if I hadn’t run out yet.

 

15. Rash Guard

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Sunscreen is bad for corals and the ocean in general, and I didn’t want to slather it on every inch of me every time I got in the water, so this rash guard worked great. Also, I lived on a fairly conservative island in Thailand for a couple months and felt self conscious being in a bikini around the locals, so the rash guard helped cover up.

 

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There are my favorites! I  used each one. Actually, I’m  wearing the hoodie right now. It’s full of holes but after a year together it’s going to be hard to part from this dear friend.

tas_mona trampolineblog_with deer hawk on my armTasmania, New Zealand, and China. Same hoodie (and scarf) every time.

If you want some of these great finds for your backpack too, click on the links.

If you buy via the links to Amazon I get a few pennies from your purchase.

Hiking in Los Angeles: Fern Dell and Griffith Observatory

“Wanna go for a hike?”

“Where?”

“Fern Dell.”

“Where?”

“Fern Dell.”

It was five miles from my sister’s house in Los Angeles and she’d never heard of it, a sweet shady walk along a trickling creek that led to a wide trail uphill to the Observatory at Griffith Park.

Green, lush, stream, trail, are not words usually associated with Los Angeles, but there are many wonderful green spaces in the city, and miles of trails and parkland.

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What do you do after you’ve been on the move for a year, every day an adventure, every minute unexpected, making it up as you go along? You keep on exploring, of course! Even though that exploration might be closer to home.

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So I’m in the hills now admiring them in the golden glow of a Los Angeles sunset, the din of traffic softened by the trees and brush.  It’s a city I’ve lived in most of my life. I know all the good places to get lost, can drive from one end to the other solely on side streets, and have more friends than I have time to visit. But it’s not holding me. It’s not telling me to stay.

I have some ideas about what’s coming next, but I’ll leave that all a surprise. For now, suffice it to say life continues to be one adventure after another, whether I’m on the move or staying put.

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Back in the States Update

So it’s been a quiet few weeks over here at Colleen Gets Lost since I’ve come back to the U S of A.

I still haven’t written about Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Prague, Rome, Tuscany, or Venice, but I might get around to it eventually.

About a month ago I flew from Amsterdam to Boston and worked my way north to Vermont and south to Washington, D.C. before flying back to my starting point in Los Angeles just this afternoon. While on the East Coast I had the chance to catch up with plenty of family and friends, eat all the foods I’d been missing, and slowly adjust to life back in my home country.

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And it is my home country. That’s the important thing I came to terms with. Standing under the looming columns of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C bundled up against the November cold, looking out toward Capitol Hill and the Washington Monument I got a little choked up and a little voice came up out of nowhere to say, “This is home. You’re home.” Not that particular city, but this particular country.

I’ve never been patriotic, and I’m still not very, not at all, but I think I can handle life here now, tune in more to the good, try to drown out the bad. We don’t have everything figured out here, I wouldn’t even go so far as to say this is the best country in the world, but it’s a pretty cool one and it’s home for now.

Now where exactly in this large country my home will be is yet to be determined.

There was no doubt in my mind, as my sleek space-age-interiored Virgin America airbus with purple backlighting landed at LAX, that LA wasn’t it.

I knew I’d know it when I got here, and I know it now, a single effortless realization. Nope, this isn’t home. Not this city, not if I can help it.

This was a part of the journey I was and wasn’t expecting. I didn’t think I would NOT want to be here so badly. Maybe I’ll feel differently after I meet up with old friends for drinks and have my first taco in over a year, but something tells me I’ll be moving on elsewhere sooner than I know.

Paris for Introverts

It was early September in Paris and autumn was nowhere to be seen, just blue skies and warm sun.

I arrived from Rotterdam by train and walked down a few platforms to meet my Danish friend T, who would be arriving soon from London. Knowing our introvert tendencies, we wanted to make sure our time here was as satisfying and stress-free as possible.

Here are a few modifications we made to the usual tourist must-do list:

Climbing the Arc de Triomphe, NOT the Eiffel Tower

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Why not climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower? Because you can’t get a view of the Eiffel tower from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But really it is just a pile of metal, and a much protested one at that. Before it was built people called it a “truly tragic street lamp” and an “iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed.”

Also, the Arc de Triomphe has no lines, less stairs, and is easier on the pocket book (although this last one shouldn’t be taken into consideration. If you want to climb the tower, climb the dang tower because you’re probably not coming back to Paris again anytime soon.)

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Going to l’Orangerie, NOT the Louvre

There are so many museums in Paris it would make even the most die-hard art enthusiast want to gouge her eyes out to try to see all the works in all of them. Plus, both of us being classic introverts the crowds at the Louvre made our skin crawl.

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We went to see Monet’s waterlilies at l’Orangerie instead. It was a piece we both loved so why not spend some quality time with it. I think I sat in each room for half an hour the first day then went back again the next for another couple hours.

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Taking Naps

Paris has a great Nap-in-the-Park culture. Everyone lies around on the grass in nice weather. No problem. Wake up next to your favorite statues. Unless your favorite statue is Rodin’s  Thinker. We got in trouble for napping under that one.

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I did not get in trouble for napping near these lovely ladies, though.

Eating Wherever We Plopped Ourselves Down

Sure you could pour over restaurant reviews, but unless you’re going for a particular food experience most of the eateries serve the same French classics. We chose places based on ambiance and rarely had a bad meal.

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Visiting Dead People

Historic Pere Lachaise cemetery was two blocks from the flat and full of some really famous dead people. We paid special visits to Doors singer Jim Morrison, classical music composer Chopin, and Irish writer Oscar Wilde, among others.

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Resting Our Feet

Along the same lines as napping, there are lots of places to rest your tired pups in Paris. What’s the rush? There’s great people watching meanwhile.

Find a fountain or a chair at the park and put em in/up.

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And a Good Time Was Had by All

Do I feel like I missed out on the real Paris because of our itinerary modifications? Not at all.

As always, the key to having a good time as a traveler is tailoring your experience to fit your needs. We loved wandering aimlessly, people watching while sipping Pernod on hot afternoons, and catching impromptu accordion performances on the metro. In the end, we had a satisfying time without the stress and exhaustion.

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Staying Fit on the Road at Fitline Sportschool, the Netherlands

You know how Cheers is the bar where everyone knows your name?

Well, Fitline’s like the gym equivalent of Cheers.

This was possibly the friendliest gym I’d ever been to. Anywhere.

(By the way, Sportschool = Gym in Dutch.)

It’s hard to keep an exercise routine going when you’re traveling around so much, so while I was visiting my Aunt Mimi in her small suburb in the Netherlands I finally had the chance to get some much needed workout time in. Before leaving to gorge myself on cheese in Paris and undoing all the good I did, of course.

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There was a hangout area with free coffee, tea, water, and juice. Who doesn’t like that? It was great getting to know the other members over gossip and coffee after class.
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This is the lovely Patrick. Loved his spunky Zumba and Club Yoga classes. Rachel, Lulu, and everyone else I took classes with were fantastic, too. Even though I don’t speak Dutch I picked up a few survival words to get me through. For the rest, the instructors were kind enough to throw in some English to make sure I didn’t trip over myself.

Gym Survival Dutch

Left = Links

Right = Rechts

Arm = Arm (woah, easy!)

Foot = Voet (pronounced fote)

Other side = Overkant

Up = Omhoog

Down = Omlaag

One, two, three = Een, twee, drie (for all other numbers just keep going until everyone else stops)

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Great new equipment! Definitely more high tech than the YMCA back home. blog_fitline facade

Located in a historic building alongside the canal. Isn’t this the cutest Dutchiest gym ever?

blog_fitline canalA huge thank you to the kind folks at Fitline for letting me sneak into the gym during my visit! You were all such fun, positive people and made me feel at home. Also, your workouts kicked my lazy tourist butt. That was awesome. If you happen to be in Maassluis, or near any Fitline gym in Holland, go say hi and get your sweat on!

 

Dubai Three Ways

Dubai: Opulence, extravagance, budget-busting you say? That’s definitely here, but it’s not all there is.

Here are three diverse ways I experienced this corner of the United Arab Emirates.

 

1. The Suburbs

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I opted to stay outside the city center with a sweet English expat family I found on airbnb. I had a small room to myself with breakfast, wifi, aircon, access to the swimming pool, and all their lovely travel advice.

The small neighborhood bakeries and barbeque stands had the tastiest food I had here by far. The mosque around the corner made for plenty of people-watching. After months in Australia and New Zealand I once again, happily, found myself in culturally foreign surroundings. Dubai has a reputation as a  modern city, but in the residential neighborhoods it’s best to be extra modest and aware of local custom.

Men and women shouldn’t touch or make much eye contact. I kept several feet between myself and men as much as possible, wore long billowy pants I’d picked up in Thailand that were perfect for the climate. I covered my shoulders (I was wearing a tank top) with a shawl. I felt extremely safe and very respected in the neighborhood, but being a bit demure and modest made me feel like less of a sore thumb.

 2. The City Center

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The tallest building in the world, a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree, massive malls, an indoor ski slope, and on and on.

I found the modern city of Dubai interesting in the way I’ve always found Las Vegas interesting, like, Wow, look what crazy randomness people decided to build in the middle of the desert!?!

Public transport is great, all air-conditioned (including the bus stops). Buses and the metro run frequently and have women and children only sections if you prefer. Worth a mention are the pink women-only taxis, driven by women in pink traditional dress no less!

3. The Dunes

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Wait, what? I did something cheesy and touristy? On a friend’s recommendation I decided to try a desert dunes safari and I have to admit, the longer I keep at this travel thing the more I appreciate activities like this. After a couple days of wandering on foot, on my own, it was nice to be picked up and taken on a somewhat cushy, pre-planned excursion, in the company of a group.

Dozens of white SUVs made quite a sight off-roading on the dunes across the orange-glowing sands. We stopped for photo ops and ended with dinner and entertainment. It was a full moon (or just about) the night I was out.

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There is really a lot to see and do in Dubai. If I’d had another few days I would’ve liked to ride a traditional wooden boat over to Bur Dubai (old Dubai), wandered the gold and jewelry markets, and visited the mosques. A gold plated cappuccino would’ve been nice, too.

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