Saturday, August 13, 2011

London so far

Yikes! I've been here for four months now- HOW did that happen?! I mean geez- I've already made it back to California once in that time! It would bore you to tears for me to document all my goings-ons since April, so I'll just give you the highlights. In a list. Because I love a good list.

- I'm working in a lovely little office in Soho- it's a fantastic central location and my officemates are top notch. In fact, I went to school with one of them here in London when we were four years old, so I sit three feet away from someone I've known for almost 24 years. Bizarre.
- It was great to be here in time for the Royal Wedding. Because I spent all my formative years in the US, I do 'feel' more American, yes, but that day made me so immensely proud to be a Brit! God Save Kate and Wills!
- I have become a full-on Londoner and I growl angrily at the tourists on the tube in the morning- MOVE PEOPLE!
- I go out drinking, ah, quite a lot. Everyone knows the Brits drink, shall we say, a healthy amount, but it's actually not the volume that I've noticed, it's the FREQUENCY. Every night! And the boozy lunch still thrives in London, but to this I can't subscribe!
- Every morning I smile at the politeness of it all- there's an announcement on the train in which a lady's voice says "Please do try to keep all your personal belongings with you." Of course I will as you're asking so nicely!
- I gorge myself on English chocolate every day- it is better than American chocolate by leaps and bounds. Before you get defensive, American friends, remember that I've been doing 15 years of rigorous research on this topic and don't worry, when it comes to ice cream, it's the USA all the way.
- In an attempt to answer that age-old question, English boys or American boys, let's just say, rigorous research...
- I've had loads of visitors already! Angie, Lindsay, my sister and my mom- plus my dad is here for business, like, every other week. Set up a fare alert people! London is a hop from WHEREVER you are. I have a spare room all ready for you!
- It's really nice to have my family nearby- I can get to know my cousins better, spend proper time with my Granny and I always have a nice comfy place to go in Cambridge or Somerset if I need a break from London.
- It's amazing to pop over to Paris if I feel like it- which I have done. I'm popping over to Bruges in a few weeks just for the weekend. Brilliant!
- I love reconnecting with my childhood friends- many of them are still around and for the most part, none of us has changed that much. I went to a Take That concert with one of them recently and we giggled when we saw Mark Owen, now in his 40s, up there on the stage and remembered how we used to cover our bedroom walls with his face and dream of being Mrs. Owen!
- I also love reconnecting with my backpacking buddies! Though I've seen many of them several times now, it's still bizarre to meet for a drink in central London and recall how we started chatting at that awful Irish pub on the Khao San Road, or on the bus to Goa, or at the hostel in Queenstown...ah, those were the days...


But you know what, THESE are the days too! London is rainy and crowded and full of rioters (I managed to avoid that for the most part, in case you're wondering, but it was actually quite terrifying) but it's an ADVENTURE. I have to remember that when I first moved to San Francisco I had two suitcases and no friends, and I made a huge success of that! This time I had four suitcases and already had loads of friends- so I was doing OK before the wheels even touched the ground.

And I am having a blast. As with any city, once you get to know it better, there's way more than meets the eye. So come and see me, let me show you around and meet my new friends. Plus, I miss you!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

London, via New Hampshire, Boston and DC

Oh gosh, I'm pretty behind here- let's catch up! So I got back from San Francisco still fuming from the Delta fiasco, but had no time to dilly dally as by then I only had six weeks to get ready to move. Hence, it was straight up to New Hampshire to claim some of my things from the storage room in my sister's house. As has been documented in past posts, I freakin' love it up there. This time was just as awesome, mostly because we went snow tubing. Which is perhaps the most fun thing EVER. I've never skied or anything, and despite going to Syracuse (or perhaps BECAUSE I went to Syracuse), I'm not really interested in snow. Until now. Now that I've discovered snow tubing, you can count me in for every ski trip you've got coming up and I will happily tube the days away. Amazing.


On my way back from New Hampshire, it seemed only right that I should make a pit-stop in another city home to many lovely people in my life- Boston. This time I visited my dear lady friend Natalie (she of birthday party in Sonoma fame, many blog posts ago), recently relocated from San Fran. We had a fabulous evening of wine, pizza and intense girlie chat, followed in the morning by coffee, brunch and even more chat. Brilliant.

Once back in Darien, I launched into an intense regime of babysitting, New York-ing and gyming- interspersed with some 'Ladies Who Lunch'-ing with my good friend Kerry, who had ironically just moved back to the area from London in search of a job. The plan was to save some dough for my arrival in London (as is widely known, things are NOT cheap here!), but that darn St. Patrick came along and ruined my plans, as did several other totally awesome social engagements. It was all worth it, but I remained completely broke!

With both dwindling time and funds, I decided I'd better hurry up and get to DC to visit Broseph, my good friend from college Kim, and one of my best chums from high school Stephanie. I arrived on a rainy (never!) Thursday afternoon, and moseyed around some galleries and things to stay dry (oh, and to absorb the culture, bien sur) until my brother was free. We then strolled past the Washington monument and other such landmarks to the George Washington University campus where Joseph was able to show me where he takes classes and whatnot. In the evening I took the metro out to the 'burbs in Maryland where Kim and her husband Dan treated me to fabulous Italian dinner, after which I stayed over at their super cute apartment in North Potomac and got to meet Fozzie- see below and don't shriek over his cuteness I like did- you'll scare the neighbors.


The following day was a real treat- Joseph spent his last two semesters as an intern for Senator Max Baucus of Montana. A big part of his job was giving tours of the Capitol to constituents, and for friends and family he's able to do the same. He therefore was able to spend a few hours taking me on a FANTASTIC tour of the Senate and the Capitol building. We skipped lines, went ways the tourists couldn't go, listened to someone speak in the gallery, rode the little underground train thingy for the lazy folk who can't walk the three feet between the buildings, ate at one of the cafes (tax free!). Excellent, and Joseph is super duper well-informed. I mean, did YOU know that if you were to put the Statue of Liberty inside the Capitol's rotunda, there would be NINETEEN feet from the tip of her torch to the ceiling?! Top trivia! (Take note, Roguers!)




After that I hopped the metro again to Stephanie's adorable one-bedroom apartment in Columbia Heights. She's a bartender and had to work that night, but that was fine because I joined her at the bar and enjoyed a complimentary tipple or two with my friend Josh, an old coworker who lives in DC now.

The following morning I was up early to meet Joseph again. We had brunch right around the corner from the White House, then went for a stroll through the city (which included getting caught in a flash downpour, of course) towards the Newseum, a huge, recently opened museum all about news! (Sorry, that was probably obvious.) As a PR person and media junkie, I thought this museum was fabulous. All about the history of news, and how huge events in the US like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were covered, down to the second. Joseph and I even honed our journalistic skills by recording a little news story live from Capitol hill. I was reminded why those who can't do, teach!

video

That evening, it was back to Steph's to get ready for a night out. First we hit a 90s dance party at a bar she frequents- excellent. Nothing says good times like a little Skee-Lo. She then took me to another of her places of employment, where further drinks were doled out free of charge. Result. Tipsily, we made it home sometime in the early morning, which was good because the next day was nothing short of epic! We rounded up some of Steph's friends and headed to brunch around 1pm. Standard for a hungover Sunday. We ordered food and mimosas- hair of the dog is always good. We ate our food and ordered more mimosas- we were starting to feel better. Then we had some more. Aaaand more. We ended up being at brunch for not one, not two, not even three...but SIX AND A HALF HOURS. Brilliant. An evolving group of seven to ten people at any one time managed to order FIFTY mimosas (or something). Legendary.


It was back to Connecticut the following day (after a quick dinner with my tres chic Parisian friend Isabelle, visiting from France), and good thing because my dear mother and I had a goodbye party to prepare for! My mom is known around Fairfield County (and beyond, I dare say, certainly across the Atlantic) for her top party throwing skills, and this one proved to be no different. We had an absolutely ridiculous amount of food, not one but TWO live bands and a never-ending supply of drink! The best moment of the night was me and my mom making little toasts to each other and to my siblings (both who came up/down for the occasion), and to conclude hers she had a friend sing me a song, dedicated to me via Scott Allison (CEO of my company). It was, "Take Good Care of My Baby" by Bobby Vinton. Super appropriate and totally awesome. I don't know what time I got to bed, but when I woke up, I realized I had something like 19 hours to get ready for London and my room still looked like a bomb site.



Still, I did it somehow and at 5am the next morning my dad hauled me off to JFK. And I was off. Watch this space: since I've arrived there have been travel buddy reunions, four-day weekends, Royal Weddings (well, just one of those), general London shenanigans and, oh yes, my job! As will soon become clear, I'm loving it!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My visit to San Francisco and the perils of flying with Delta

Oh San Fran, why must you always make my heart ache so? Beautiful, familiar, full of fantastic people, I had a BLAST there during the last two weeks of February. I set off almost immediately after Fashion Week, and though Delta got me into town almost three hours late (but that's not why Delta is perilous- more on that shortly), I was just happy to be back and looking forward to catching up with friends and coworkers. 'Coworkers?' I hear you muse, 'Wouldn't they technically be former coworkers?' Technically they wouldn't be, my friends, for that is my happy news that I might as well get to sooner rather than later: I am again an Allison & Partners employee! (Gasp!) But not in San Francisco! (Huh?). I'M GOING TO LONDON!!! (Whaaaaat the...?) Yes yes, I've been charged with taking the A&P name to the UK- a grand task and an even grander adventure. I leave in two weeks to return to the land of my birth and my original home town: Wimbledon. Watch this space for how it all goes, I'll be documenting it all here!

So, of course my acceptance of this fabulous position was one of the most exciting things to happen while I was in San Francisco, but it was one of many fantastic activities organized by my wonderful wonderful friends: a day trip to Napa (natch), an Oscar party (the King-Corrals created eats based on all the best pictures: Soy Story 3, The Salted Nutwork, some King's Quiche, anyone?), an A&P happy hour (always epic), trivia night (established 2007 and still going strong), reliving the dream at The Boardroom and Kells (there are no words. The photos say it all...), coffees, brunches, lunches, dinners out, dinners in- I even managed to squeeze in a baby shower. Phew! Thanks SO MUCH to everyone who made it so much fun- you know who you are. What an absolutely phenomenal visit- I can't WAIT to get back (say, in, July...?).



Needless to say I was sad to leave. Very sad. Who wouldn't be after all that fun? Plus I've spent almost a year now having amazing times in unbelievable places and then having to tear myself away. I'm a bit sick of it, if I'm honest. Anyway, I head off the airport feeling very, very glum. Excited about London for sure, but like I said, I hate goodbyes and I feel like it's all I do lately! It was a bummer of a day as I went to check in for my Delta flight to New York. Not only was I sad, I was also TOTALLY broke (still am, until I start working in a few weeks), so when Delta charged me NINETY dollars for a bag that was NINE pounds overweight, yes NINE-ZERO for nine pounds, I just about lost it. I will leave you with what I had to say to the good people of Delta, and I trust all my dear readers will now use the company's services with great caution. Farewell for now, I am leaving for a visit to our nation's capital, during which I trust UNITED will treat me just a tad better. Oh, and carry on baggage only.


Delta Airlines
Atlanta, GA

March 3, 2011

Dear Delta,

First of all, Delta, let me say this: We’ve had some pretty good times over the years, you and I. I’ve trusted you on many occasions to ferry me safely back and forth between the American coasts. You typically succeed in getting me to my destination on time in as much comfort as one can expect on a domestic flight these days, and I’ve often selected you over your competitors for your reasonable fares.

Therefore, when on my way to San Francisco at the end of February, I let it go when I was kept sitting on the tarmac for three hours in New York. I thought, ‘It’s OK Delta, I know you’re doing your best, I understand.’

But yesterday, Delta, you got me thinking that I might have to abandon this relationship for good. Yesterday, you made a pretty awful day a lot worse.

I was leaving San Francisco after a visit. A former resident, I was claiming the last of my stuff and saying goodbye forever not only to a beautiful city and fabulous friends, but also to a former love. All in all, devastating.

I knew my suitcase was heavy, but I had no choice. I had to stuff those belongings in there so as to effectively remove myself from said love’s apartment- it would be too awful for both of us if my bits and bobs were still lying around.

Arriving heartbroken to the airport, I checked in and paid the obligatory baggage fee- let me just say I’m not one to be too bothered by this, I just accept it as a way of today’s world. Following that, I went to baggage drop, and that’s where you dropped the bomb on me Delta. My bag was nine pounds overweight- nine pounds, lighter than most free weights at the gym- and you charged me…wait for it…NINETY DOLLARS!

Ninety dollars for nine pounds? Doesn’t that sound ridiculous even to you? Now listen Delta, I get that you have to make money, and I’m happy to abide by the policies of your organization and pay my fair share. But $90? The bag wasn’t 50 pounds overweight, it was NINE.

I was stunned Delta, absolutely shocked. My life was in that suitcase. It was like the doctor saying, ‘You’ve had a beautiful baby girl! But she weighs eight pounds and here we charge extra for babies over six, so you’ll have to pay before you can take her home. Or would you like to repack her into two babies?’ I mean, really?

I am so disappointed Delta. That said, like the relationship I left behind in San Francisco, it doesn’t have to end this way. You’ve had a loyal customer in me for so long, let’s not let this ruin it.

I’m happy to send along a copy of my receipt, and I look forward to your feedback. I’m going to put my faith in you Delta, and trust that you’ll do the right thing. If you do, I’ll refrain from sharing this little hiccup with my 770+ Facebook friends and several hundred Twitter followers.

Best,
Susanna Hughes
SkyMiles Member


UPDATE: Delta refused to do, how do I say this elegantly, s**t. (Although the first lady to write me back said my email made her day and she hopes I keep flying with them.) I realize Delta isn't much different from its competitors, but when does it stop, my friends? "You can't wear jeans in the First Class Cabin. Unless you have something to change into, that'll be $100." "Your bag has 11 pockets and our policy is that carry-on bags can only have 10, $50 please" "Your Marc Jacobs bag is from last season, $75 please". I also wonder, what if I had weighed nine more pounds? Which up until a couple of weeks ago I actually did. "Oh miss, you're looking a little chubby. Too much naan in India? Thought so. $90 please." I mean, really.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fashion Week, Dahling!

There's no doubt that my travels have affected me profoundly, but HERE'S something I didn't expect: a decreased interest in the lives and times of celebrities! "What?!" I hear you exclaim! "Susie? Who would EAT Us Weekly and People if they provided any nutritional value?" Yes indeed friends, and here's how I know...

In late January I had the good fortune to receive a phone call from an old (as in, long time!) friend who works for IMG, the company that owns and produces Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The team needed an admin person to handle the sponsor invitations (I won't bore you with the details), and PJ was aware that I was available and totally broke. "Fashion Week?" said I, "Sounds terrible. I'm in!"

The following week I relocated to New York City, taking over my mom's studio apartment in the meatpacking district (thanks Mother!). I worked at the IMG offices to start with- a good reintroduction to desks and cubes and coffee machines and late nights, etc.- but the fun REALLY started when we moved uptown to Lincoln Center where the event was to take place.



Let's just say that though I was busy, it was basically a week-long party that I was paid to attend! Fashion shows, free drinks, amazing goodies, karaoke extravaganzas and...wait for it...CELEBRITIES! I saw Denise Richards, Patti LaBelle, Eve, Cat Deely, Natasha Bedingfield, Vanessa Hudgens, Anna Wintour, Fergie (as in the BEPs, not former royalty), some Real Housewives, Gwen Stefani- the list goes on. Aaaaand, I kinda didn't care. I mean, it was great to see if they look the same in real life as in the pictures (I was surprised that Denise is SO skinny, but Eve is truly stunning), but I was sort of...over it. I REALLY knew I was over it when someone said, "Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas are backstage at Michael Kors- go see!" and I didn't. "Eh," I said to myself. (I DID go sneak an up-close peek at Gwen before her L.A.M.B. show, but only because someone else wanted to!)






What had I become? Was I all 'holier than thou' and above this stuff after my travels? No, I don't think so, because I'll still indulge in an episode of Jersey Shore or whip through a Life & Style given the chance (or given the $2.99- I just really can't afford this stuff at the moment!). I think I've just got some different/new interests now. Maybe it's temporary and I'll rekindle the old flame with celebrity gossip, but for now, Snooki can wait.

Fewer than 48 hours after Fashion Week ended, I hopped a flight to San Francisco where I spent a fantastic 11 days chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' all cool with my California besties. Much has happened since my return and new adventures are afoot- more on that soon! Right now, I gotta head to a babysitting gig- hey, she works hard for the money!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Home

It's now been just over three weeks since I got home and, well, in lots of ways it's great. On Christmas morning, just over 12 hours after getting back from the airport, my mom, Broseph and myself set off for New Hampshire to celebrate the day at my sister Miranda's house where she lives with her boyfriend Abe. The plan was for me to sleep during the four-hour plus drive, but It just wouldn't come! By the time we arrived I was therefore fairly delirious, and by the time all Abe's family showed up for Christmas dinner I was positively unravelled! I managed to stay awake for the important bits though and was able to speak fairly lucidly as lots of people had questions for me about my journey. You know when you're quite drunk, and are aware of it, but can carry on a conversation and other people probably wouldn't know you were so hammered? That's what it felt like for me! I didn't touch a DROP that day, as it would have sent me into a coma, but the floaty, exhausted feeling I had can be most likened to intense tipsiness! Still, it was a fantastic day, and I'm glad I never gave any real thought (as all backpackers do) to extending my trip, as there's no way I would have wanted to miss it. We hung around there for the next couple days, as Miranda's birthday is Boxing Day, so there was more to celebrate!





We made it back to Connecticut in one piece, despite having to travel through the first big snowstorm of the season. It took me and Abe an hour to dig out the cars and driveway so that we could actually leave! Once home, more shenanigans were underway- a day out in NYC with my mom to check out her sweet new apartment there, unpacking, catching up with friends and my dad, visits from San Francisco friends for New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, drinks in NYC, a broadway show in NYC....I barely had time to catch a breath until the second week of January.

I have to say that it IS really nice to be in one spot for any length of time! All that packing up and moving on every three to six days or so was utterly exhausting, and I didn't really realize it at the time. It's also nice to have a bit more structure to my days- something I learned about myself (one of many things!) is that I do actually enjoy having some semblance of a routine. Although exciting in its own way, it can be hard to plan your days around...nothing. Then again it leaves you available for any sort of adventure that might pop up so, hey, pros and cons. These days I'm spending my time catching up with friends and my parents, working on my resume, babysitting and GOING TO THE GYM. Oh yes folks, it wasn't so much travel chubbiness as total travel overload! My skinny jeans (and other miniature clothes. Where did I shop? Baby Gap?) hang there forlornly in the closet, waiting to be worn. Not long now, jeansies, I'm working on it!

I'm also able to take time to really process everything I went through, saw, felt and learned. The whole thing feels like some crazy dream at the moment! I'll soon be going through all the photos and will start putting them up (I know I know!), so that will help, and I've been keeping in good touch with my travel buddies, and to be honest it's the people that make it more real than anything. It was great to hang out with Broseph over the holidays and laugh about all the crazy stuff that happened that one just had to BE there for!

Anyway, for now, I'm here in snowy Darien, Connecticut slowly floating back down to Earth and ruminating on all my options. I feel VERY lucky- I've seen so many places that I could consider as potential new homes, and my dual citizenship really does mean that the world is my oyster. It is overwhelming in its own way though- sort of like being in the 'salad dressing aisle of life'. Balsamic Vinaigrette? Low Fat? Low Sodium? Or should I just get Ranch? I DO always like Thousand Island...

I'll continue to document my musings as I figure this all out. In upcoming posts I'll also write about why India was my favorite place, awesome things I learned about Susie and totally rubbish things I learned about Susie, more travel by the numbers, how much the backpack actually screwed up my back and how much eyeliner I decided to take in the end. And if it was enough.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Kia Ora Aotearoa*: Vol. 2

The morning after my nice afternoon in Christchurch, I got up at 6:30 to drag myself and the backpack to the bus stop for 7:15am. Groan. I arrived in Queenstown at about 2, and while trying to figure out the way to the hostel, I met Grace from England. We found the place, and once settled made a plan to grab a drink in the evening, as we both had some errands to do.

Queenstown is absolutely beautiful! It's set on Lake Wakatipu with gorgeous mountain views as a backdrop. After some Internetting and some dinner, I went to sit by the lake and read as the sun started to go down. Amazing. At about 8 o'clock I strolled back to the hostel to meet up with Grace. Our hostel gave us a coupon for two for one drinks at a local joint called Buffalo Bar, so we rolled back into town and grabbed a couple of glasses of wine. After about an hour of chatting, we learned the other reason Buffalo Bar is popular with backpackers (particularly of the male persuasion). Girls. Dancing. Everywhere. In Hooters-inspired attire. They were on every available surface, and ironically Grace and mine's conversation on the topic of feminism was all but completely interrupted when a hot pants-clad girl jumped onto our table, almost kicked our wine over and wiggled her bottom at us. Ah, yes, thanks. Goodbye.

The next morning, after a trip to the Internet cafe and the supermarket, I was feeling outdoorsy thanks to the stunning scenery, so I took myself on a walk/hike around the lake. Though it was drizzling a bit (shocker), it was a lovely trail and I walked for about two hours, getting me back just in time for another carol service at a local church- more progression in my mission to get into the Christmas spirit! Although a lovely service, it didn't help my mission that it was outside, on blankets, in the evening sun. "Are you on holiday," asked a local lady. "Ah, yes, I'm backpacking," I said. "I'm going home next week." "And where's home?" said she. "The New York City area- it'll be cold there! It's crazy that you guys do Christmas in summer." She laughed, "People from the Northern hemisphere always say that!" People from the what? I mean, I think of people as being from different countries, continents even, but never from another hemisphere! "Oh, those Northern hemisphereans, always causing trouble!" I don't know.

After the carol service I made some supper at the hostel and Grace came back from her day out at Milford Sound. Then together we went down to the lake with a cheap bottle of wine (Fat Bird- brilliant!) to meet up with friends I'd made on Fraser Island in Australia- the three lovely Dutch boys who'd taught us the 'Box Game': Roy, Roy and Ruud. We had a lovely time catching up, and it wasn't long after we'd replenished our beer and wine supply that the Queenstown police force paid us a visit. THIS is when I learned one cannot imbibe outdoors in NZ. Luckily a swift cover-up with a sweatshirt saved the Fat Bird, and the kindly officers went on their way. I felt 17 again, eluding the Darien PD. NOT that a drop of that sort of stuff ever crossed my lips before I turned 21. Ahem.

The next day Grace and I paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens, followed by lunch by the lake listening to some awesome live music and a stroll around a craft fair. In the evening we snagged another bottle of Fat Bird and went lakeside again, this time keeping the Bird concealed a bit better! After that, we went to a couple of bars as Grace had some coupons for cheap beverages and ended up dancing our faces off at a fine establishment called "The World Bar." Top night out.

The following day was my last in Queenstown, as I was to spend the next four of my last five nights with a Kiwi family friend, Kelly. When I was growing up in London, we had a nanny from New Zealand for about two years. Her name was Georgina, and I was about eight when she joined our family. George and Kelly are identical twins, and Kelly was also a nanny in England at the time, so I got to know her pretty well also. George is a teacher in Poland, and wasn't going to be home for the holidays, but Kelly lives in Invercargill and drove the two hours to Queenstown to pick me up. It had been 17 years since we'd seen one another, and both decided the other looked mostly the same! From Queenstown we went to see the old gold-mining town of Arrowtown and the remains of the Chinese settlement. Many Chinese came over in the 1800s to the gold mines and it was interesting to see how they lived. Kelly is a teacher as well, and often brings her students to Arrowtown, so she told me a lot of historical tidbits too.

After that we drove two or three hours down to Bluff, basically the most Southern point in NZ. From there, you're only 4800km from the South Pole! It was a bit windy and chilly, and Kelly's brother Phil wasn't around as she'd hoped, so after taking a picture to prove I'd been there we set off for Kelly's house in Invercargill. I cooked some dinner to thank Kelly for driving me all over creation (and there was much more to come), and afterwards George called from Poland and I was able to catch up with her for while which was excellent.

The next morning after breakfast we went to the Invercargill museum to see the tuatara. They're basically lizards, but they're amazing because they live for a hundred years or more, and are the closest things to dinosaurs still alive today as they've barely evolved. The 111-year-old tuatara Henry recently mated (perhaps for the first time! Oldest virgin ever for sure!) with spring chicken Mildred (only 80) and they had 11 baby tuatara who are so cute! They don't move much, the tuatara, or even really come out in the daytime, but Henry did make an appearance and they were a treat to see.

After that we went into town to pick up a few DVDs to watch at Kelly's brother's beach house later on, grabbed a coffee at the world's most Southern Starbucks (I'm generally anti the 'bucks- overpriced!- but this time the novelty overrode that!) and then began the third (and last- yay!) medical saga of my journey.

Sometime during my travels in Southeast Asia, I got two bites on the inside of my right forearm that were definitely NOT mosquito bites (I'm an expert in that department, let me tell you). They itched like nothing I'd ever known, and though I did my best not to scratch and put the itch stuff on, I would wake up in the night tearing at my skin. Soon enough, they turned into a right mess (I'll spare you the details) but what bothered me was that they appeared to be, well, moving. In a squiggly line, along my arm. I didn't like it. I showed them to Kelly and she decided we'd better stop by a pharmacy. So we did that, and they suggested going to the hospital. Thinking that this would be cheap (as NZ has a national health system, plus I could probably claim any costs back on travel insurance and once home I wouldn't be covered for this sort of thing), we went to the emergency room. "Oh, sure, we can see you," said the lady at the desk, "It'll be NZD$780 (USD$590)." Um, what? No, I don't think so. I wasn't dying (that I was aware of). They suggested an after hours clinic that might be cheaper, so we took the number and decided to check that out later on.

From the hospital, we set off for the beach house in Riverton. It was beautiful, right by the water which was a most shocking blue. We spent the afternoon watching two great Kiwi movies- The World's Fastest Indian, which starts Anthony Hopkins and the story basically put Invercargill on the map, and Boy, a very funny, smart new movie about a Maori boy growing up in the 1980s. I highly recommend both.

In the evening we had a lovely dinner at a local restaurant, The Beach House, and then went back to Invercargill to find this after-hours clinic. It was a no-go. For whatever reason, it wasn't open so we called the number and they suggested ANOTHER doctor to try in the morning. OK then, back to Riverton. We spent the rest of the evening watching a movie about the Topp Twins, who are Kiwi institution. They're a comedy act comprising lesbian yodeling twins. Trust me, they rock.

In the morning we tried the last doctor, but he sounded about 900-years-old and by that point I figured I'd probably live, plus I think I'd scared the bites into submission as they were looking a bit better. After breakfast, we headed over to Kelly's parents' house- Mr. and Mrs, or John and Lindy, Dobson. This was very exciting for me, as when George took care of us, we heard a lot about 'mum, dad and the farm'. Kelly took me for a drive around the farm- I even drove a little Rhino 4x4 ATV thing. It was INCREDIBLY windy that day, so much so that many homes in the region lost power, including the Dobsons. No problem, we spent the afternoon reading books and generally relaxing, and then at about 4 set off for the main event- Susie Hughes was going to milk a cow!

Overalls and wellies secured, we headed over to the, um, milkery? I actually don't know what it's called. Now, I'd love to tell you that I went all Little Bo Peep style or something: sitting on a three-legged stool with a bonnet on, milking Bessie by hand into wooden pails which I then carried across my shoulders to the barn so I could churn the milk into butter. Alas not. My task instead, given that cow milking technology has advanced so much, was to attach the four suction cups to the udders of one of the hundreds of cows. I was a bit nervous for two reasons: first, I was standing right under the cow's, ahem, back door and secondly, if she didn't like my technique she'd kick me. Eek! Luckily, it went off without a hitch, and for all intents and purposes, yours truly has milked a cow!

Back at the Dobsons' that evening, Mrs. D cooked us a lovely steak dinner, the power came back on and we relaxed in front of the telly until it was time for bed, as we were getting up early the next day for a visit to Milford Sound. It had been touch and go as to whether we'd even make it, as the main road had been closed the day before due to a landslide following all the wind and rain. Lucky for us, that had been cleared up, and Kelly, Sarah (the Dobsons' exchange student from Montana) and I set off for the four-hour or so drive. As it happened, we made great time and got to Milford early and got the next ferry going. Now, Milford Sound is famous worldwide for its absolutely stunningly breathtaking natural beauty. I'm sure this is the case, but I can't say for sure because, in true Susie style, drum roll please, IT WAS POURING WITH RAIN! The cruise was still a good time, however, and there was a certain romantic, melancholy beauty to the scenery with the fog shrouding the peaks and the waterfalls cascading- by the hundreds- down the mountains. It was MY Milford Sound experience, and I was happy with it and very grateful to Kelly for taking us.

That evening was my last with Kelly. Tired after our day out, we grabbed some pizza and back at her house, I performed the Great Backpack Evisceration of 2010. I discarded old clothes, no longer needed toiletries, grody socks and undies, torn up flip flops- you get the idea. By the time I was done, I'd got rid of about 17lbs of stuff. Excellent- why couldn't I have done that before, before the backpack wreaked so much havoc on my back that I'm destined to look like a hobbit before 30?!

The next day I was due to fly back to Auckland, so in the morning before going to the airport Kelly took me to the very pretty Queen's Park, and then we did some window shopping around town. Upon arrival at Invercargill domestic airport, I went to check in and was told that no ID was necessary, just my name, please. Oh, ok. Boarding pass in hand I readied my handbag for security, only to learn that there is none. NONE. NO security. No metal detector, no x-ray machine, not even a vague body frisk. I mean, there was no security in Madagascar either, but at least the metal detector was there, unplugged in a corner. Someone had at least had the right idea at some point! "But what if I had a gun in my bag?" I asked Kelly. "We trust people here," said she. Well, ok then. Loved the sentiment, hoped that no-one did indeed have a gun upon his person.

I was sad to say goodbye to Kelly, it had been a FABULOUS four days and a totally brilliant way to wind down my trip. I had a long journey back to Auckland via Christchurch where I had a four-hour layover. I thought about going to check out more of the city given that my time there before had been so short, but that involved spending money, and THAT I was not prepared to do! I arrived in Auckland at about 9pm and was at my hostel (where I'd stayed before) by 10. I went for a mosey around and some dinner as it was still quite light out. That's really the reason Kiwis don't go in for massive holiday decorations. What's the point of millions of lights if you can't put them on until 10:30 at night?

And, so, that was the last night of the whole adventure. After a sandwich and a bag of Maltesers (naughty I know, but it was the finale!), I was in bed by midnight. Perhaps it was a bit anti-climactic, but I was probably better off than if I'd gone out partying or something, given that I had a VERY long journey ahead of me the following day, Christmas Eve.

I woke up mid-morning and checked out of the hostel. I went for a walkabout, picking up some last minute gifts and souvenirs for fun and looking around a discount bookstore. Before long it was time to grab my bag and head back to Auckland airport, from whence I departed the 'Land of the Long White Cloud' bound for New York via Los Angeles- Haere Ra Aotearoa**, good times. Luckily, my Qantas flight wasn't full and I snagged two seats for myself. I couldn't sleep though because we departed at 4pm, and though technically flying overnight once we crossed the International Date Line, I just couldn't do it. I arrived in LA at 6:30 in the morning, on the same day, and therefore began Christmas Eve once again! Once through customs (a breeze! The guy didn't even look at all the bizarre stamps in there!), I reclaimed my bag, rechecked my bag, and got right back on the same plane I'd just gotten off. Against what I considered to be all odds, I arrived at JFK only 30 minutes late and it wasn't long before I was on the road back to Connecticut with my dad and brother who had kindly sacrificed part of Christmas Eve to come and get me! Thanks fellas!

And it was over. I was home safe and sound. I SHOULD have gone straight to bed when I got home, but I couldn't let the Epic Voyage end like that, so I cracked a bottle of wine, invited my good friend Matt over to booze with me and tipsily wrapped my Christmas presents while we hung out with my mom.

The days since I've returned have been a whirlwind- I'm still not totally back down to earth, I don't think. The blog isn't going to end though folks, don't you worry about that! I've convinced myself that you must be on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out how I feel now that I'm home, what I've learned and what I'm going to do next. Even if that's not true, I'm going to keep writing, because I really love doing it.

Until then (and it won't be long), THANK YOU, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls, old friends, new friends and family, for accompanying me on my Epic Voyage. It was a pleasure to have you along for the ride.

*Maori for Hello/Greetings New Zealand
**Maori for Goodbye New Zealand

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kia Ora Aotearoa: Vol. 1

I arrived in Auckland late at night on December 5th, and it was almost 2am when I got to bed after taking the Airbus, grabbing a midnight(ish) snack and getting lost trying to find the hostel. Later in the day when I was up and dressed, I hit the supermarket for brunch and took myself on a little walking tour which included a stop at the Internet cafe to book the next leg. In the late afternoon I came across a fabulous outdoor photography exhibit- "Earth From Above." The photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, has spent years documenting fantastic scenes- all related to one environmental issue or another- from helicopters and planes and the images are just breathtaking. Apparently it has already been seen by 120 million people in cities all over the world and continues to travel. I definitely recommend it if it comes anywhere near you.

After that I popped into a bookstore and shuffled around for a bit. This is one of my favorite pastimes in a foreign country (well, where I speak the language anyway!). It's really interesting to see what's 'hot' in literature in other countries and what of that has travelled from your own country. It's also a great way, if you're an avid reader like me, to find new authors and books that you might not come across otherwise. Once I emerged from the stacks, I decide it was feeding time (again) and I went on a stroll for something I hadn't had in a while- sushi. Folks are always surprised by how much I enjoy sushi restaurants given that I don't eat seafood, but I adore veggie rolls, miso soup, edamame, seaweed salads and the like. I found a decent spot and gobbled my favorites down, then moseyed back through Auckland (another fairly small and manageable city) to my hostel.

In the morning I packed up and checked out before dumping my backpack in the storage closet and going to get some brekkie. I also did the last of my gift shopping, keen to purchase presents before I totally ran out of money! At around midday I retrieved my backpack and headed for my Naked Bus to Rotorua. Naked Bus is an excellent long-distance coach company in NZ. I was told it got its name because if you ride it completely in the nude, you will get your ticket free. I can't say I didn't consider this...

I arrived in Rotorua, famous for its natural sulphur hot springs, at about 4pm. The first thing one notices is the, um, odor. The faint smell of sulphur, akin to rotten eggs, is in the air all the time, clinging to the fibres in one's clothes. I suppose those who live there get used to it? I found my hostel, Crank Backpackers, not far from the bus stop. It used to be a shopping mall, so its layout is one of the more interesting I've seen. In my room I met Saskia from Holland, also travelling alone, and we decided to walk to the nearby park and check out some of the bubbling mud pools and things. The smell got stronger as we walked towards the park, and they really are bizarre- little ponds of boiling mud! While wandering around we also came across a natural thermal pool where we could dip our feet. Aaaaaah! So warm and such a relief for tired tootsies that have been hauling a 44 lb (20 kg) backpack around. Barely able to drag ourselves away, we eventually walked down to the supermarket to buy some pasta for dinner, which we cooked in the hostel kitchen. We also bought a cheap bottle of wine to accompany this culinary delight, and merrily gulped it down out of coffee mugs as other backpackers looked at us with suspicion. It wasn't until we were halfway done with the bottle that we became of aware of the myriad signs around us- above us, below us, in front of us, behind us- that said 'THIS HOSTEL IS LICENSED. IT IS ILLEGAL TO DRINK YOUR OWN ALCOHOL. ANYONE CAUGHT DOING SO WILL BE REMOVED FROM THE PREMISES AND THE POLICE WILL BE CALLED'. Ah, right. We stuffed what was left of the wine is Saskia's bag and ran outta there sharpish to a bench in the street to finish it, only to find out later that drinking outdoors is also illegal in New Zealand. What's a broke backpacker to do then?!

The next day, with Saskia departed by the time I rose, I decided to take advantage of one of the hostel's discounted activities that I had seen on the back of the door while on the loo. It was for a visit to Hells Gate, a thermal park featuring mud baths and hot springs. I caught the Hells Gate bus at about 1pm, and upon arrival followed a trail around the park where I saw things like 'The Steaming Cliffs', 'The Cooking Pools' and 'The Inferno.' Surprise, they were all hot. It was really amazing though, the Cooking Pools are actually hot enough to cook in! In some places on the trail the ground is actually warm to the touch all year round, as the earth's crust is very thin in this part of the world. Once I reached the end of the trail, I changed into a bathing suit to go in the mud bath. I figured there'd be other people in there with me, but each individual party gets its own bath. So there I am on my lonesome, playing with mud, listening to giggling couples rub it all over each other. Sigh. I had fun though- it was like being five years old again and getting dirty just for the fun of it. After 20 minutes the attendant told me I had to get out- it's bad for your skin after too long- and shower to get into the first of two hot sulphur pools. Aaaaaah again! So warm and soothing, if a bit smelly (I trashed the bathing suit afterwards). I had a nice chat with a girl from Zimbabwe, Pearl, who was also on a long trip around the world, having extended it past its original end-date. We then climbed into the hotter pool and soaked and gabbed there for a bit until it was time to get out to get ready for the bus back to Rotorua. Before it came, I just had time to visit the workshop and make a little carving of a Kiwi bird as a souvenir. Thanks to the Maori guy who instructed me, Tomato (?), as I know he was just about to take a tea break when I showed up!

The next day I had an early bus to Taupo to see the largest lake in New Zealand. It was just a short hop, arriving mid-morning. At the bus station as I puzzled over a map, I met Andy from the north of England, who was also puzzling. We learned we were staying at the same hostel, so we set off together to find it. Once settled we decided to go for a hike to see the Huka waterfall. It was a good walk to the falls and back, and in the evening we met up with Karen from Scotland, whom Andy had met elsewhere in NZ. We three then took a couple of bottles of wine down to the lake, which really was stunning.

The following morning I had another fairly early bus to Wellington, the capital, having decided that I'd seen and done everything in Taupo if I wasn't going to sky-dive or bungy jump (I was keen on the former, but my budget prevented such fun and games). Andy and I had decided that we would travel together for a few days- always nice to have a travel buddy and he had vaguely been planning similar things. He could only get an afternoon bus however, so I arrived in Windy Welly at about 5pm by myself. And windy it was! I was already unsteady on my feet thanks to the oversized luggage strapped to my back, and now I was literally being blown all over the street. I think the wind actually carried me to my hostel. Andy turned up at about 7, and we grabbed some dinner and then tried out a few bars as recommend by various guide books.

In the morning we got up to do a bunch of errands- most importantly booking the ferry trip to the South Island for the next day. After that and laundry, breakfast, etc., we set off for the national Te Papa museum. It's free, and it's excellent. It's really well laid out, and there was a brilliant exhibit on earthquakes, lots of information on Maori culture and European immigration to New Zealand, and a fabulous photography exhibition featuring photos by Brian Brake. After a few hours there we walked into the center of the city to catch the cable car up to the Botanical Gardens. Once aloft I discovered, horror of horrors, that my little camera had snuffed it! It was making a weird rattling noise and everything was purple and wiggly on the screen. Oh no! And with only 13 days left of my voyage! I put it down to a tumble it had taken the evening before off my 900 foot high bunk bed. I was very disappointed, but figured life could be worse. We had a great walk around the gardens regardless, and in the late afternoon took the cable car back down to look for camera repair shops and then went back to the hostel for the free dinner (which actually turned out to be rubbish and we had to go and get more food!).

After dinner we got ready to go out, and I sorrowfully messed about with my camera, shaking it and turning it on and off. I figured I had nothing to lose and started whispering sweet nothings to it: "Pweeeese wittle camwa, I will wuv you foreva if you work for me again, just two more weeks!" And, miracle of miracles, it came back to life! I was positively jubilant and wanted to go out straight away to get snapping! Andy and I decided to check out a highly recommended bar, Mighty Mighty, which is on Cuba Street- THE place to be in Welly. It's a really cool place with live music and very eclectic decor. We sat at the bar, and while Andy chatted with a Brazilian girl also staying in our hostel, I was suddenly accosted by a lady named Penny who was on her first girls night out since the birth of her first baby. Penny then proceeded to dominate the rest of my evening.

The following morning we had to be up at 6:30 for the shuttle bus to the ferry to Picton in the South Island. It was one of those massive ferries, with restaurants and shops and bars and things, so it wasn't seasickness inducing or anything like that- thank goodness! The ride was about three hours, and the scenery as the ferry passed through the Marlborough Sounds was just incredible. Once on the other side, we hopped on a bus to Nelson where we were going to stay for two nights, primarily to do a wine tour. After two hours driving on very windy roads, I rolled off the bus in Nelson, white-faced and motion sick. A van from our hostel was waiting to drive us there, and all I could manage for the rest of that day was lunch and a lie-down! A nice American girl, Chelsea from Michigan, was also staying in our room and she and Andy went out boozing that evening while I stayed in to book the wine tour and rest my poor tummy!

The next day was wine tour day. Having lived so close to Napa and Sonoma for the past several years, I've learnt a lot about wine but there has been many a time where I've returned from a day of wine tasting a bit (read: very), as some might say, trollied. I therefore made a promise to myself, that in the presence of (basically) strangers, I was not to get 'Napa'd'! Chelsea, Andy and I were picked up at about 11 by our driver Roy, and we set off out to the vineyards with a lovely couple from Vancouver, Marilyn and Richard.

The Nelson wine-tasting region, which does look a lot like Napa, I have to say, is most famous for its white wines, and we tried all sorts of delicious things. After two tastings we took a break for a fabulous lunch, and then Chelsea, Marilyn and I- all chocolate fiends- begged Roy to take us somewhere we could get some of the stuff. After a choc stop, we visited three more vineyards. At the first of those, we were given some avocado oil and bread to enjoy with our wine- YUM! I'd never had it before and it is delish! At the next place, Woollaston vineyard, Marilyn and Richard bought a bottle of champagne which they opened right there in the tasting room and shared with us all. The last place was in the most beautiful setting, and we all sat, Roy included, and had a good old chat. Before we parted ways, Richard and Marilyn gave us three impoverished backpackers one of the bottles of wine they'd bought, and we promptly took it out to a BYOB restaurant to drink with dinner. Oh, and I didn't even end up too sozzled!

The following day I was to part ways with Andy and Chelsea, who were both staying on in Nelson for a bit while I was bound for Christchurch. I said goodbye to my travel buddies, and caught a bus to Blenheim where I was to change. And in Blenheim, it all went pear-shaped. I had two hours to kill, so I hit the supermarket, backpack in tow, got some lunch and went back to the bus stop. I ate it up, and sat and read my book until it was time for the bus. At the designated time, a bus pulled up, but it didn't say Christchurch in the window. Hmm, I thought, should I double-check with the driver, in case this bus is simply mismarked? Nah, my bus will be here soon. Well folks, this is a downside of travelling alone- there's no one to second guess your decisions with. Turns out it WAS my bus and the last one of the day to Christchurch, so I was stranded in Boringsville Blenheim for the night, AND had to buy another bus ticket for the next day. Boo. Total brain fart, totally my fault!

I found a hostel down the road that had a bed for the night, and decided to take advantage of my free time by hitting the Internet cafe and getting an early night. The following morning in the kitchen I met Jamie from Canada, also headed to Christchurch on the same bus. Everything happens for a reason, I like to think, as now I had a travel buddy that I wouldn't have had otherwise. We arrived in Christchurch at about 3pm, and I only had that afternoon to check it out, as I was leaving for Queenstown at 7am the next day. Once we were settled in our respective hostels, Jamie and I met up again and took a walk to the art gallery, which was fabulous. Then we took a long stroll around the botanical gardens, chatting for ages about girly things, and smelling every single flower in the rose garden. We then went back to the center of the city, and decided to check out the beautiful cathedral. As luck would have it, a carol service was just beginning, so we decided to go as it's so hard to get into the Christmas spirit when it's warm outside, if you're not used to it. It was a lovely service, and as even MORE luck would have it, there was free bubbly and mince pies afterwards- result, dinner taken care of! We parted ways after that, and I went back to my hostel to get ready for my bus to Queenstown, from whence I will begin the next part of this here yarn.