Jumping From A Plane at 15,000 Feet – My Kiwi Adventure

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“Be brave. Even if you’re not, pretend to be. No one can tell the difference”.

These are the wise words I was given before jumping out of a plane from a dizzying height of 15,000 feet in New Zealand; a country that  is foremost known for being home to the set of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The All Blacks rugby team and lots, and lots of sheep.

In fact there are 10 sheep for every one person in New Zealand. That is one hell of a lot of sheep. But enough about sheep…what some people may not know is that New Zealand is also the adrenaline capital of the world. You name it, no matter how crazy the concept, they probably have it.

My 2 weeks of adrenaline  and adventure junkie heaven started on New Zealand’s South Island in the picturesque Queenstown, where I met up with my best friend Ali and my parents. Queenstown is like no other place I have been. As my plane from Melbourne landed you could see everyone admiring the stunning surroundings of  huge, snow-covered mountains and never ending glistening glacier lakes. It is such a popular destination, especially during the winter ski-season, yet some how has managed to hold on its quaint, small town charm.

On our first day we set off to get our hearts pumping on the ‘Shotover Jet’, tagged as ‘The World’s most exciting jet boat ride’. And by god was it exciting. On many occasions I thought my heart was going to fly up and out of my mouth as the driver spun crazy 360′ turns at breath-taking speeds in the narrowest parts of the canyon with the sheer cliff face mere inches from my frightened face. Despite only lasting about 35 minutes, it was boat ride I will never forget.

Back into the Camper and off we set on our 10 day adventure with our next stop being Lake Wanaka, which I decided would be a good place to throw myself out of a plane. I saw this toilet graffiti while over there and felt it really explains my reasoning;

“If not here, where? If not now, when? If not me, who?” The only available jump was at 2pm so we set off to the near by National Park, where I, despite sub arctic conditions, decided to run off the jetty and dive into the lake. The glacier lake. The lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Cold would be one way of describing it. Icy would be another!

After drying off and feeling wide awake I was ready for my sky-dive. I suited up, was given a 5 minute safety breach and off we went. The 3 other jumpers casually ‘fell’ from the plane at 12,000 feet but as I had opted for the ultimate adrenaline rush from the altitude of 15,000 feet I had to hold on a bit longer. As the plane slowly climbed higher and higher, and my heart started beating faster and faster at the thought of soon having to jump out, I was given a oxegen mask to wear (as we were climbing to an altitude where it was becoming difficult to breathe). Far from calming me down or making me feel safer, this actually made me nearly poop my pants. Finally we had reached our destination and from the plane we flew.

As we tumbled from the sky, free-falling towards the ground at breaking speeds, and the ice-cold air brushed against my face I felt ecstatic. After about 45 seconds of free-falling the parachute shot up and we slowed right down, finally bursting through the cloud to take in the absolutely mesmerizing scenery of Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring National Park. As we gazed over to the glistening waters of Lake Wanaka, I told my tandem partner of my swim earlier that morning to which he replied, “Girl, are your crazy?!” Funny reaction I thought, as I’m not the one who jumps out of planes for a living! 

It was an absolute once in a life time experience that I’m sure to never forget.

After all, it’s not everyday you strap yourself to a beautiful stranger and leap from a perfectly good aircraft!

 

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9 Reasons NOT to Solo Travel. Seriously.

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9 Reasons NOT To Travel Solo - Solo Travel Tips

9 Reasons NOT To Travel Solo

 

If I had a penny for every article I have read recently about how amazing it is to travel solo, I would be a very rich woman. Well, I would at least have enough to pay for a Tinder upgrade and find myself a hot travel buddy.

All this talk about how incredible it is to travel solo and how ‘everyone should do it at least once it their lives’ is such a load of recycled rubbish. Sure, traveling by yourself can be amazing sometimes and there are certainly benefits do doing it at least once, but it’s about time someone laid down the facts about what it’s really like to travel by yourself. Solo. Alone. With no friends. Not even one.

Here are 9 good reasons why you should do whatever you can not to travel solo on your next trip. For the love of God, find yourself a travel buddy. An acquaintance. A lover. Anyone who will turn your solo adventure into a trip to remember and one you can share and reminisce on in years to come.

9. Solo travel is expensive.

When you are traveling by yourself, everything is suddenly so much more expensive. There’s no one to share that expensive taxi ride with you. No one to rent that car with. There’s no one to split the costs of a hotel room. Many tour groups actually penalize you for being alone, and force you to pay humiliating ‘single supplements’.

8. Eating alone is depressing

Would you go to a restaurant back home by yourself? Didn’t think so. Trying to find restaurants where people won’t judge you for being alone is an absolute pain. You either sit in a nice place nervously, wishing your food would arrive faster so you can leave quicker, or you succumb to only eating at crap fast food joints so people won’t have enough time to see you eating alone. Half the enjoyment of eating out is sharing a meal with others, tasting their food and enjoying some good conversation. Eating alone sucks.

7. An album full of selfies

Anyone who has travel led alone even once is sure to have mastered the art of the travel selfie. But there really are only so many angles you can take of your gigantic face with the Pyramids, Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower in the background. Continually having to ask strangers to take your photo while you stand alone and pose can get tiring pretty fast, and you also risk your camera or phone getting stolen each and every time you hand it over.

6. Traveling alone can be dangerous

When you travel alone, you are taking a risk. You will always be an easy target and will, sadly, might even have some really horrible experiences. You won’t have a buddy to fall back on. You will have to defend yourself. There will be no one to help when your wallet gets stolen in Barcelona with all your money and cards or when your bags get taken after you have fallen asleep on a 12 hour bus ride across Northern Vietnam.

5. It’s hard to make friends

Have you ever walked up to a group of people in a bar and tried to make friends with them? It’s hard, right? They will most likely smile and then turn away. Making friends while traveling can be really difficult and leave you feeling drained at the end of each day and with a horrible feeling each time you wake up and know you have to do it all over again. Sure some people are nice and you will find some like-minded people in hostels and in bars on nights out, but those people move on or fly home and leave you right where they left you, looking for new friends.

4. Solo travel is boring

Unless you are a seriously introverted person who likes to hang out by yourself all day back home, solo travel can get boring. Quickly. There are only so many museums you can visit by yourself, books your can read and activities you can do before you start to wish, “Man, I seriously wish I had a friend to do this with”. Cycling around a city by yourself? Boring. Doing a sightseeing tour by yourself? Boring? Even mad bucket list activities like skydiving or shark cage diving are a million times better if you have someone to share the adrenaline rush with.

3. You will question all your life choices.

Spending a  little bit of time alone is great. Spend too much time alone and suddenly your mind starts to fill with endless thoughts about life choices, your career, past relationships and what direction your life is going. The smallest things, like seeing kids laughing or watching the sunset, can trigger a waterfall of emotions. A little bit of deep thought never hurt anyone, but it can get too much when you become overrun with emotion throughout your trip.

2. It’s harder to laugh off the small things

When you travel with a friend or a group, it is so easy to laugh off the small things such as missing your train or getting extreme diarrhea or getting scammed into buying tickets for a bus that does not exist. When you are alone, these problems become magnified and, at times, make you want to cry, scream or even pack your bags and fly home.

1. You have no one to share your memories with

Even your friends and family back home, who I’m sure love you dearly, will only be able to cope with 2-3 days max of your endless travel tales. They get it. You spent some time abroad. You met some Maasai warriors. You ate a rat. After one week max, they won’t want to hear about it. If you have traveled with others, you can spend as long as you like reminiscing about that crazy boat ride in Laos or those dodgy milkshakes in Bali. You will always have that bond between you, and it is an incredible bond to have.

Authors note: I have had many, many positive solo travel experiences. I think everyone, and I mean everyone, should take a solo trip at least once in their life. It will shape your personality, give you confidence and help increase self-esteem. This post is simply a reflective piece on 10 years of solo travel

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Your Irish Adventure – New Blog!

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Exciting news readers…I have decided to set up a new website all about adventure in Ireland. Don’t worry, I will still be maintaining this as my main site, especially when it comes to my travel adventures.

The new site is aimed at people living in Ireland looking for fun things to do and places to go in Ireland and is aimed at both visitors to Ireland and locals living here. If you think you fall into either of those categories, or you just want to see what sort of fun adventures there are to do in Ireland, head on over to Your Irish Adventure and give it a follow! :-D

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Hitchhiking To Detroit – An Adventure Like No Other

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You’re hitchhiking to DETROIT?” friends asked of me incredulously. “Are you mad?” they would enquire, ever before I even mentioned that I would also be couchsurfing there. i.e. staying on an absolute stranger’s couch for the weekend.

I never planned to go to Detroit, it all just seemed to fall into place. I was invited to attend the Detroit Couch Crash, a meeting organized by all the wonderful couchsurfers in Michigan to unite people from all over for the US for Memorial Day weekend. It also happened to take place during DEMF (Detroit Electronic Music Festival), an annual event attracting thousands of hard core music fans.

After standing awkwardly on the main highway out of Toronto, with my thumb stuck out and a strained smile on my face, I waited patiently for a kind stranger to pick me up. Many people pulled in, slowed down or stopped, before performing rude hand gestures or shouting obscenities in my direction and subsequently speeding off. The joys of traveling in a country not accustomed to hitchhikers!

Eventually I secured a ride with what seemed to be a very decent man travelling all the way to Windsor, a town on the Canadian/US border. However normal he appeared, his initial greeting once I sat into the car was anything but conventional.

“I hitchhiked myself once”, he said.  “All the way from LA to Montreal about fifteen years ago. Yup, and I got picked up by a mass murderer and all. You just ‘know’ when you have sat into a car with a mass murderer, don’t you.”

Words escaped me, but he continued.

“Lucky back then I was a lot bigger.” He flexes his now deflated ‘guns’. “We were driving through the corn fields of Iowa and BAM I knocked him out and threw him out of the car. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?”

Indeed, I thought, as I contemplated jumping out of the moving vehicle.

The four hour journey continued on a similar note with him telling me about how he asked God to find him a wife – he found one 2 weeks later and they have been married ever since, how he broke his crack cocaine habit in a bar days before ‘finding’ his wife, and of course all about his journey becoming a born again Christian and door-to-door salesman.

If having to listen to this mans slightly scary and equally bizarre life story for four hours wasn’t interesting enough material for a blog post or two, soon my worst nightmare was coming true. We were running out of petrol with not a gas station in sight. Hopping over the border for a weekend break to Detroit was proving to be more hassle than I ever could have anticipated!

Upon finally making it to the American border, alive and well, I was quizzed about where I was from, where I was living, and of course where I was going in a stuffy little immigration office and was once again questioned about my sanity.

How did you get here? the large, stern looking woman asked.

“I hitchhiked from Toronto”. Cue shocked, incredulous looks.

“Where are you staying in Detroit?”, she continued.

“Oh, I’m couchsurfing in Corktown with…”

‘You’re what??’ she interrupted.

‘I’m couchsurfing…it’s a website where you can stay on peoples couches for free all over the world’.

“So it’s (glances at her watch) nearly midnight on a Friday night and you are planning on meeting a total stranger in the ghetto, who you met off the internet and you’re going to sleep on their couch?! Are you crazy woman?!”

I was beginning to think she might have a point, but couldn’t help but laugh. As I get my visa approved and head for the exit, the woman’s colleague calls to me, ‘Have you got a gun with you?

Puzzled and thinking they are trying to catch me out and deport me from the US before I have even taken a step over the border, I immediately (and truthfully) reply ‘Of course not!’ to which the male immigration officer quickly responds,

“I would if I were you. This is Detroit.”

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Myanmar Travel Guide: Everything You Read Is Wrong

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This is my third guest blog post of 2015, written by the brilliant Brian M. Williams who runs the excellent website NetSideBar.com. Brian introduces us to the land of ancient temples and has written his own mini Myanmar Travel Guide. Be sure to check it out to read the rest of his brilliant travel diaries. His photographs are also incredible – all photos in this post were taken by him.

Where to begin when talking about how different Myanmar is from other countries in Southeast Asia, and, indeed, the world? I guess you can start with the fact that it has a half-hour timezone difference: when it’s 8 in Bangkok, it’s 8:30 in Myanmar. However, this is just the inconsequential-tip of the iceberg when it comes to how different Myanmar is.

To begin to understand what makes Myanmar different you have to know a little about its recent history. Burma, Myanmar’s name during colonial times, was controlled by the British starting in 1886. They would continue to rule the country up until World War II when much of the country was taken over by Japanese forces. After the war, in 1948, Burma became an independent country with an elected government. However, in 1962, the military took over the country, restricted rights, arrested opposition leaders, strictly controlled and centrally planned the country’s economy and simultaneously isolated it from the rest of the world. The end result of all of this was that Burma became one of the poorest countries on Earth. During the the military’s long rule, there were many civilian-led protests that were almost always put down with violent force by the military government.

However, starting in 2008, democratic reforms, which included having open elections and releasing political prisoners, have resulted in Myanmar being allowed to rejoin the world community. The country even hosted President Obama, the first American president to visit the country, in 2012 and again in 2014. Still, there are some who argue that the reforms have not gone far enough and that the government is continuing to persecute certain religious and ethnic minorities in the country. Therefore, they say that foreigners should not support such a government with their tourist dollars.

While I can appreciate this point of view and can testify that there is still fighting going on in the country that can sometimes shut down tourist routes (more on that later), I do not support sanctioning and isolating the people of a country because of the actions of their government. If the idea is that punishing ordinary citizens will cause them to revolt against their government, there has been zero evidence in history to show it works (see Iraq, Iran, Cuba and North Korea, just to name a few). What does work is people from around the world interacting, learning and sharing ideas and views about things like freedom and human rights. So, yeah, I had no moral reservations about going to Myanmar.

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First Impression

Regardless of this debate, the result of Myanmar’s long isolation is that tourism has been slow to develop in the country. The country is full of old cars and old buildings and there are very few things that appear modern or 21st century at all.  There is also a lack of advertising and big name brand Western goods that makes it clear it has not been fully overrun by Western capitalism which is something very difficult to find these days. For these and other similar reasons, travelers, such as myself, have been drawn to this country despite it being more difficult to travel in than many other places.

In many parts of SE Asia, tourists are catered to to such a degree that all anyone has to do is just arrive at the airport and from there they can go anywhere on a VIP bus to any number of high-end resorts (or, more likely, party scenes) and spend weeks in the region without really seeing any of its culture or having to do any thinking or planning for themselves. The original or traditional culture in such places has bent so much to accommodate the wants and desires of tourists that much of it seems lost or at least hidden away very well. In its place has developed a feeding frenzy to get the most tourist dollars a person can which sometimes includes an endless deluge of people asking you to buy the same crappy items every three minutes, constantly being approached by beggars, and ripping people off and scamming tourists. Foreigners are seen as moneybags who are meant to be hit up like a pinata every chance a person has to see if some money will fall out.

My hope in going to Myanmar was that this aspect of “development” wouldn’t have reached the country, and I’m very glad to say it hadn’t. The people in Myanmar still have a friendliness, purity and sincerity that is hard to find in modern and big city cultures. Unlike many other parts of SE Asia, when people in Myanmar talk to you, the vast majority of the time it is without an agenda and someone saying “Hi,” and asking “Where are you from?” is not the opening of a sales pitch but just a reflection of their curiosity about who is coming to visit their country. Every where I went – big city or small town – children would regularly run up to me just to say, “Hi.” They would then, just as quickly, say, “Bye,” all while waving their hands furiously and smiling. While this can happen in other places in SE Asia, it is almost always in remote, small villages that don’t get a lot of tourists.

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Travel Tips: Everything You’ve Read Is Wrong

Traveling in Myanmar is more difficult than many other countries in the region. While the trains run on time, they bounce, sway and rock violently and often times give you the feeling they’re about to go off the tracks. I literally had to tie my bags down to keep them from falling off the overhead luggage-rack. At another time, a train I was on crossed over a large bridge so slowly I could have literally walked it faster. Still, it’s a great way to see the vast countryside and some very small villages and towns.

Buses there have very odd schedules. Most long distance buses are overnight, which wouldn’t be such a problem except they will do bizarre things like leave a place at 7 pm only to arrive at your destination around 3 or 4 in the morning. The roads can also be bumpy and very swervey. I personally suggest paying a bit more to get a VIP bus when you can just to get a better ride and better sleep on an overnight trip.

There are also many slow boat options in the country. It can be expensive, but slow boats are a very relaxing and pleasant way to travel. However, the five day slow boat I was planning on taking had been closed to foreigners apparently due to fighting along the river banks. (I was lucky enough to find this out the day before I was going to head out to start that part of my trip.) Similar reports of random places, even by land, closing or reopening were frequent among travelers. Talk to your fellow travelers and always try to find people who have been to a place you want to go to make sure your travel plans are actionable.

Accommodations are not the cheapest in Myanmar. Hotels in Yangon start at 25$ which is a big jump up from the $10 a night you can easily find in the rest of SE Asia. While there are certainly places cheaper than 25$ in other parts of the country, they can be hard to find and are no where near as plentiful as Lonely Planet makes them out to be. I would suggest budgeting 15-20 dollars a night while there for rooms. Some days you’ll be under for sure, but some days you’ll be over. Hotel prices have gone up a lot in just the past two years and will likely continue to move that way. The best way to cut these costs is to find someone to share a room with. Also, with buses arriving at such odd times at night, this can create an extra problem: Some hotels will check you in right away if they have an open room and treat it all as one day. Others will, however, charge you for an extra half day. On the bright side though, every hotel, guest house and hostel offers breakfast but some places’ breakfasts are much better than others.

Another very important area where Lonely Planet is horribly outdated is that it is much easier to get money in Myanmar than it was just a few years ago. ATMs are everywhere and work just fine. You no longer need to bring in mint condition US 100 dollar bills which I broke my back trying to get in Bangkok just before my flight. However, if you do bring US cash, the banks and government exchanges offices give very fair rates and there is no need to go to the black-market anymore like LP suggests.

There also seems to be visas on arrival (VOA). I don’t know any details about this, but I did see a counter for it at the airport and several Westerners standing in line for it. Just Google it. If this is an option, it might be much easier than running back and forth to their embassy and might be cheaper than paying a travel agent to do it.

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Final Thoughts:

While I have no way to prove it, I personally believe that Myanmar is attempting to smartly develop their tourist industry and is trying to avoid becoming like certain other countries in SE Asia. To that end, the high cost of hotels, the complete lack of a party scene ( I averaged going to bed around 10-11 while there) and just the overall level of difficulty in traveling is all aimed at keeping out large numbers of tourists. There were plenty of wealthy tourists traveling or flying around the country to visit the ever-growing number of expensive resorts just like much of SE Asia. But gone were the budget accommodations, booze cruises and pub crawls that are common throughout the region.

Myanmar isn’t for flash packers, gap-year party kids or idiot travelers who can’t bother making any plans for themselves (save the very rich ones). The lack of these things showed in the quality of the travelers I met there. No one was there by accident or by way of lazy curiosity. No one was there because they had heard it was a “good party.” No one was there because it was effortless to get there. People where there with a real interest in seeing the country and the culture. They had detailed plans about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see. And everyone really seemed grateful to being seeing this country before it gets further along on the path to integrating with the rest of the world.

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