Monday, January 27, 2014

Day 183: Our French Film

Our plans for our fifth and final day in Paris were to picnic by the Eiffel Tower, tour the Catacombes, and stop by Bastille. Unfortunately, the train system was down, and the weather was cold and rainy, so we ended up seeing Paris through a different lens (ie: watching The Last Man on the Eiffel Tower). Here are a few other photos to encapsulate our brief visit, which truthfully was an excuse to use the beautiful music from Amelie.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Days 181-182: Paris Picnics

Having the major sites under our belts, we endeavoured to spend the last few days basking in the glow of the city. This turned out to be good and bad because the weather took a turn for the worse. The warm winter wind we'd experienced on the weekend (with highs around 10 degrees) disappeared and we met the weather we'd been expecting: drizzly, chilly, 4 degree highs. It dampened our spirits a little, but we tried to persevere, including a picnic lunch on Days 4 & 5, one in the gardens outside the Louvre, the second looking up at Sacre-Coeur. It helped to be able to consume a hearty amount of wine to stay warm. The good side of it all was that we'd gotten our fill of walking around the city during our first two days, so we were content to sit indoors and admire the views.

The original 'selfie' sculpture?
After our frigid lunch in the gardens, we joined the queue in the Louvre courtyard and headed down into the pyramid. We mapped out our route (it was maybe a little on the thin side, but our feet weren't up for hours of museum walking), and started off to admire some Greek and Roman sculptures. We laced our way through exhibits, up grand and secretive staircases, and took moments to sit and appreciate masterpieces. Disappointingly, the Winged Victory of Samothrace was under restoration. But we did manage to spend a lovely few minutes in front of Venus de Milo.

Up on the second floor, Erin once again had that feeling of familiarity. Turning the corner that led down a long open corridor brought back memories of Mr MacAleese's Grade 3/4 class when he shared his pictures from his summer trip to Paris. She knew what was right around the next turn. A large crowd had gathered, people waiting patiently for a turn in front of La Joconde. Large, abrasive signs denoting pick-pocketers in the area contrasted sharply with the soft lines and small frame. Our time in front of her was brief, then we skirted the crowd and sat for moment to rest. Unfortunately, Craig was graced with a present someone had left behind on the seat: a long stringy piece of gum.

On Day Four, we chose Sacre-Coeur as our picnic destination. In one of the most disturbing moments of our trip so far, a group of men tried to corner us on the way up the hill, one grabbing Erin's wrist tightly attempting to put on a bracelet. It took a struggle and some harsh words in French, but the duo eventually was reunited on the other side of the group, thankful for their CAA backpack that kept their belongings safe from the clear scam. We shook off the moment, focused our attention on the beautiful building above and occasionally glanced back at the group, amused to see them scatter anytime a policeman rode by on his bicycle. Needless to say, we found a different route back down.


After lunch, we got up close and personal with the Arc de Triomphe. The carvings were quite impressive and the grandeur was as expected. Going up it was a little pointless, given the fog and rain that had rolled in, so we admired the Champs from the ground, appreciating the view of the Ferris wheel at one end, and the Grande Arche at the other.

Lastly, we attempted to find a wedding dress for Erin, who was eager to bring back a dress from Paris, but alas, most were too expensive, and those not looked too cheap. So to improve our moods, we headed to a part of town known for its flourishing skirts, to a little place called Le Moulin Rouge. We found a quaint cafe for a demi-boteille of red gamay, played a round of cribbage and called it a night.

Day 180: The City of Lights

Walking through Paris was like returning home. Every winding street, every tower, building, and monument felt familiar, even with never-seen-before eyes. Each movie I'd seen set in Paris came rushing back, the skyline of the city settling comfortably in my mind. I loved our first stop of the day, strolling through Montmartre passing caf├ęs filled with couples sharing jugs of red wine. People queued up outside boulangeries and fromageries.

We ate lunch at squished wooden tables listening to a pianist dapple in tunes reminiscent of my childhood. In the square, we admired the diversity of paintings on display. The harpist outside of Sacre-Coeur plucked away, setting the mood more sombre and reverent. I found that I couldn't stop smiling as it all felt just right.

Entering Notre Dame, our instincts took over, and we turned left instead of right, getting a view up the entire church and its grand archways and stained glass windows. It wasn't until halfway up the building that we realized we were going against the flow. After two months admiring Hindu and Buddhist sites of worship, we were accustomed to touring around counter-clockwise.

The locks on the Love Bridge
We rested our tired feet at a cafe and timed our walk along the Seine perfectly so we could see the Eiffel Tower sparkle on the hour. We strolled underneath it for a picture 'up her skirts' as Craig called it, then crossed the large roundabout for a view looking back from Trocedero. Our magical evening was made complete by heading back to a home instead of a hotel, to cook dinner and enjoy cheese, olives, and cured meats alongside a bottle of French wine with our gracious host.

Day 179: Bonjour Paris!

It was 11:30 pm when we lifted off from Asia, another continent behind us, a new one ahead, 13 hours on a plane in between.

We rested lots, watched hours and hours of movies, and enjoyed a dinner only Air France can prepare: braised chicken with haricots verts, a baguette, a slice of Camembert, and chocolate torte, all accompanied by a splash of champagne as an aperitif, and a bottle of Vielle Ferme rouge with the meal.

We touched down in Paris at 6:30 am local time. We leisurely collected our bags and easily navigated our way through the public transit system. The cold was one thing we'd prepared for, our jackets were perched at the tops of our bags in waiting. The darkness at the early hour was something different. We've been used to long days of sunshine.

Erin had been able to secure us a home for the next five days with a fellow couch surfer, Alexis. He turned out to be incredibly thoughtful and kind, and lived in a spacious apartment in a suburb of Paris. We settled in to his living room with a large pull-out couch, then hit the road to see the sites. As it was Alexis' only day off work, we were overwhelmed by his generosity to spend it with us, showing us around. We treated him to an elegant lunch in the Bercy village at a cute wine tasting bar, then walked our way along the Seine.

An impromptu performance outside La Comedie Francaise

Slowly, the sites of Paris unfolded in front of us: the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, then finally a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. For Craig, it was a reminder of his two previous trips to the City of Lights, for Erin, it was her first look in person. Finally, with aching bodies and tired eyes we conceded, and Alexis took us home. Thinking that it must be close to 6 pm, we were surprised to see that it was only 3:15. We had now been up for 40 hours, enduring a 13 hour flight, plus the four hours of travel that preceded it. We somehow managed to stay awake til 9, when exhaustion took over and we slept like logs.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Leg 4 Video: Survivin' Borneo

Our time in Borneo was short but memorable; hopefully like this video:

Days 166-177: Pulau Langkawi

The days passed surprisingly quickly in Langkawi because of the amount of work we had to do. We spent countless hours working on the Leg 3 video, poured over our Chile and Argentina books and found an apartment for our time in Buenos Aires. South America was necessitating a change in travelling style because we read that accommodation needed to be booked up to a month ahead of time in Patagonia. By the end of our two weeks in Langkawi, we had a very structured plan for the rest of our trip. For the first time, we could see the end of our year ahead, and it was approaching all too quickly.

10 different beers for $10 (also wine and vodka)
In between the hours of work, we strolled the beach, swam, and admired the sunsets. We made good use of the games we received for Christmas, throwing a frisbee around on the beach, and conquering three of the five versions of our new Settlers cards. But we mostly just sat on the beach within a few hundred meters of our room, and it was wonderful. We enjoyed having a mini-fridge to keep snacks like cheese on hand, and of course, for allowing us to have some cold beverages, a luxury we rarely enjoy.

Craig's only requirement for the two weeks was that he wanted to be buried in the sand. We squeaked it in our last morning there, just in time. We left with most of our blog entries written, more wedding planning done, and a clear plan moving forward. Now we'll pack our bathing suits and shorts at the bottom of our bag, as we're on our way to five days in freezing Paris!

Days 164-165: Last Days in Borneo

To ensure that we saw more of KK than just malls, we paid a visit to the Floating Mosque for a little taste of KK's culture. Sadly we had lost track of the day of the week at visited on a Friday which precluded our entry, but the best views are from the outside anyways. Thus we started working our way around the lake, however there is no path, so once the grass got too deep, such that we would not be able to see a snake beneath it, we turned back to the road. Finding our way back on public transit proved to be easy and inexpensive; thankfully the door was broken and would fling open occasionally providing a little extra air conditioning.

Gettin' in shape for the wedding...
One jiggle at a time!
Next on the to-do list was 'find Erin a wedding dress'. Diane and Erin enjoyed searching for styles and laughing at possibilities together. It was a little challenging, with Malaysian dresses not being made for curvy 5'9" North Americans! We came away empty handed, but we managed to get a feel for how a few styles look on her.

Then we walked along the harbourfront and explored the stalls at the open-air market for souvenirs.

We finished up with a delicious dinner and a pitcher of mojitos at one of our favourite restaurants, El Centro.

In the morning, the three of us drove out to the airport together to play a few last game of cards and help Diane kill time before her flight. We hadn't been sure if Diane coming would make us feel more or less homesick, but in the end, it was a wonderfully refreshing break from eachother. We enjoyed spending time with her, feeling like no time had passed, and we are really appreciative of her flying so far!

Knowing we were heading to another island location next, we took advantage of being in the city and decided to see a movie. After some discussion, we chose to take in different films in theaters down the hall from each other. Erin watched Delivery Man, then went back to her massage therapist to even out the time while Craig saw The Desolation of Smaug. We met up afterwards for dinner at our favourite restaurant in KK, Chili Vanilla, a Hungarian restaurant.

We hit the hay late, tired from our fast pace with Diane, but pleased with all that we'd done. Two weeks of 'down time' lie ahead of us so we can figure out Leg 5, and catch up on our blog and videos. It's hard to believe that we're a week away from our sixth month mark!

Day 163: Another Survivor Experience

Day 163:
Dear Diary,

This morning we found ourselves alone and abandoned on a completely deserted island. Based on our latest calculations we determined that we had washed up on the shore of Pulau Sulug. This small island had a treacherous rocky shore protecting the virgin jungle that climbed its gentle slope; thankfully we found ourselves on the soft white sands that jutted out into the sea like a dagger from the tip of the island.

With no ships in sight, we set to work on making the most of our dire situation. Craig began to gather timber to build a shelter, while the women ensured that we would have enough perfectly bronzed skin. After constructing a small structure to protect 1 to 2 people from the blazing sun, Craig dreamed bigger and began his work on what would be our palace. Measuring 9-10 feet high, the giant leanto would have keep all of us comfortably in the shade. Sadly his hubris in building so high led to ruin as the waterlogged driftwood/bamboo began to splinter under the tremendous burden placed upon it. Craig took apart much of the structure to prevent disaster and retreated to the original structure.

Thankfully it wasn't long before we caught sight of a ship and were able to flag it down, wading out into the water, and making our way off the island, though our discovery led to other travellers finding their way to our once untouched paradise.

The short journey back to the mainland was punctuated by a few brief stops. The first at Pulau Mamutik, the second, as the storm that Diane had predicted approached,a stilted Filipino settlement off the coast of the large island to allow our ships crew to unload some goods (only after struggling to rouse the sleeping docksman.

Once on solid ground we took shelter from the rain and gave a toast to our good fortune, after a wondrous day.

Yours truly,

High-Five Adventurers

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Days 161 & 162: Happy New Year!

Our glimpse of Borneo's highest peak, Mt Kinabalu, from the plane.

For our first full day back in Kota Kinabalu, we decided to check out the coastal islands that make up the marine park. We chose Manukan because we'd heard it was less busy than others. That was reasonably true, as we got a look at Sapi on our way out and it was crowded. We were able to find a little patch of beach to ourselves under a tree, and spent the day in and out of the water.

We discovered that Diane had the remarkable ability to predict the weather the day before, down to the hour that it would rain, thus, we made it back to the jetty just as it was starting to come down. We quickly found a table at the covered patio restaurant in order to enjoy the view of the rain pounding down on the harbour.

Our Abercrombie photo shoot at the harbourfront.

When we headed back to our hostel to rest for a few hours, the owner, Lucy, invited us to share a New Year's feast with her that evening. The whole hostel gathered to celebrate. We all chipped in, and it had a great family feel! When watermelon was served as dessert, Lucy's friends showed us how locals use watermelon rind as a refreshing facial. Sceptical, Erin gave it a try!

Then we went back out to secure a table on a restaurant balcony overlooking the harbourfront area. We'd heard there might be fireworks at midnight at that spot, though Lucy had said that there had not been any fireworks for 19 years. Numerous Singapore Slings and Buckets of Beer later, we noticed it was a quarter to midnight. Craig smartly suggested that we settle our bill in case it was chaos once the New Year hit. Restaurant employees came around with New Years kits filled with noisemakers, masks, and confetti shooters. We staged our own countdown, when it appeared the restaurant wasn't doing one, and ended just as Diane's phone turned to 12:00! Workers rushed to pop the balloons arching the entranceway, everyone was cheering and blowing their horns, and above it all, we heard the eruption of fireworks - but we couldn't see any over the harbour. A quick glance at the street told us they were coming from the other direction, above the clock tower (that was right next to our hostel!). So we rushed down to the street for the view.

After quick phone calls with our families back home, we headed back to Lucy's where she greeted us with a knowing smile, boasting that the best views had indeed been from her hostel balcony. Exhausted, we tucked in to bed.

For New Year's Day, Diane went out diving, and managed three dives before our friends and family back home had hit the New Year themselves! Craig and Erin took the opportunity to unpack and organize their belongings so things would be ready for Diane to take home. We enjoyed watching our friends' New Year's photos flood in from around the world.

Days 159 & 160: Through Mist and Mud

We awoke to a world with all detail removed; a dense mist had turned everything into a murky outline at best. Carefully making our way to the boat we were headed upriver by 6am. The jungle was even more striking and mysterious with the mist clinging to the water. The rainforests of Borneo are the oldest in the world, dating back 130 million years, and it was easy to feel as though we had been transported to another time as we hummed up the waters alone, the rays from an early morning sun struggling through twisted branches and layer after layer of fog.

The Silver Langur mother with her bright orange baby.

Breakfast provided a short break before it was off on a 3 hour jungle trek. Going deeper into the jungle meant that the mud got deeper, too. With not as much time to get Craig's "MacGyver'd" boots well constructed, it wasn't long before a tear had mud pouring in over his hiking boots. We didn't see much, but we saw more than promised. Arshad sold the hike as being long, hot, muddy and wet, and that we wouldn't see anything except for lots and lots of leeches.

We saw a millipede that we had also seen in Sepilok, but Arshad showed us something new about it. He took he machete and using the dull side, pressed it against the millipede's back moving down along its figurative spine. The result was similar to cutting into a particularly juicy plump orange, a clear liquid shot out several feet. Arshad then told us that this poisonous liquid is its defence mechanism, though not deadly, it would leave us very puffed up should we come in contact with it. We added another hornbill to our list making the total 5 of the 8 species found in Borneo. Craig won the leech challenge finding over 20 of them on him, but Diane became pretty confident in flicking them off of herself and nearby hikers by the end of the hike.

By the time we had reached the turn around point, a lake that sometimes has plentiful bird life, it didn't for us, Craig was soaked with mud from the knee down and had sweat more than he ever had in his life. The hike back was slightly faster as everyone was no doubt dreaming of a cold shower and a nice lunch.

The afternoon was relaxing as we tried to find the coolest place to while away the hottest hours of the day before our afternoon cruise. We were to sneak down to the docks to leave 15 minutes early as the pygmy elephants found in Kinabatangan were last seen very far upriver, and our plan was to go as far as Arshad could allowably go before we had to turn back lest we run out of fuel and have to drift back in the darkness. Sadly we didn't see the world's smallest elephants but we got great views of Proboscis monkeys and others, as well as a broadbill, a rare stork, many herons, several different eagles and hawk species and multiple brightly coloured kingfishers.

We had another great cruise the following morning before departing to bus back to Sandakan to fly to KK.