Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Full Year Recap: Air Travel Statistics

If you’re into airports and airplanes and random transport stuff, then brace yourself to be shocked at how much work I put into calculating these statistics that only like three people might actually appreciate.

Total # of flights:  58
-  56 commercial flights (22 domestic and 34 international)
-  2 scenic flights (note that I have only included these flights in the below statistics where possible)

Total # of take-offs and landings:  63
-  56 regular commercial flights
-  4 of my flights had scheduled stops en route but the flights had a single flight number and I did not disembark
-  1 of my flights had to land to refuel because India was acting like a petulant child
-  2 scenic flights

Estimated distance flown:  126,717.42 km (78,738.55 miles)
-  72.6% international vs 27.4% domestic
-  This is equal to 3.16x the length of the equator

Time spent in air:
-  Scheduled:  8:07:38 (d:hh:mm)
-  Estimated actual:  8:04:04

Longest journey:  Tokyo to London Heathrow via Abu Dhabi:  13,604 km / 1:00:40 incl. layover

Longest single flight by distance:  Singapore to Johannesburg:  8,655 km

Longest single flight by time:  Tokyo to Abu Dhabi:  11:43

Longest domestic flight:  Fort Lauderdale to Seattle:  4,367 km / 6:25

Shortest flight:  Armenia to Bogota:  182 km / 0:43

Shortest international flight:  Siem Reap to Saigon:  422 km / 1:00

Airports visited:  58 in 29 countries
-  53 on normal commercial flights:  Sydney, Singapore, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls, Mahebourg, Rodrigues, Dubai, Delhi, Kathmandu, Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai, Vientiane, Hanoi, Danang, Saigon, Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi), Koh Samui, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kaohsiung, Taipei (Taoyuan), Tokyo (Narita), Abu Dhabi, London (Heathrow), London (Gatwick), Fort Lauderdale, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Santo Domingo, Mexico City, Havana, Panama City (Panama), San Jose (Costa Rica), Managua, Quito, Baltra (Galapagos), Cartagena, Medellin, Armenia, Bogota, Buenos Aires (Ezeiza), Buenos Aires (Aeroparque), Asuncion, Santiago, Punta Arenas, Easter Island, Lima, Cusco, Puerto Maldonado, Seattle, Denver, Washington (National), Boston
-  2 for sightseeing flights:  Maun, Nazca
-  3 additional airports where I did not disembark:  Kolkata, Guayaquil, Puerto Montt

Total # of airport visits:  107 + 5 where I didn’t disembark + 2 for scenic flights

Most visited airports:
1.  Fort Lauderdale:  12 visits
2.  Santiago:  6 visits
3.  Panama City:  4 visits
3.  Quito:  4 visits

This brings my lifetime airport count to 120.  My 100th airport was Mexico City.  And yes, I have a spreadsheet for this.

Total # of layovers:  5 (only 5!)
Airports where I had layovers:  Bangkok, Saigon, Abu Dhabi, Panama City (x2)

Abu Dhabi is the only airport where I had a layover that I didn’t fly into or out of on another visit.

Airlines flown:  28
Singapore Airlines, British Airways (operated by Comair), Kavango Air (scenic flight) Air Mauritius, Emirates, AirAsia X, AirAsia, Vietnam Airlines, VietJet, Bangkok Airways, Cambodia Angkor Air, Vanilla Air, Etihad, Norwegian, Southwest, American, Spirit, Volaris, Aeromexico, Copa, Avianca, Aerolineas Argentinas, Sky Airline, LATAM (formerly LAN), AeroNasca (scenic flight), JetBlue, Alaska, United

Most flown airlines:
By # of flights:
1.  Copa:  6 (10.7%)
1.  Avianca:  6 (10.7%)
3.  LATAM (formerly LAN):  4 (7.1%)

By distance:
1.  Singapore:  14,949 km (11.8%)
2.  Norwegian:  14,202 km (11.2%)
3.  Etihad:  13,604 km (10.7%)

By time:
1.  Etihad:  20:02 (10.2%)
2.  Singapore:  19:43 (10.1%)
3.  Norwegian:  18:16 (9.3%)

Etihad and Singapore were both transcontinental, long-haul, overnight flights.  Norwegian was two trans-Atlantic flights.  LATAM was 4th by both distance and time despite being only domestic flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas and Easter Island.

This brings my lifetime airline count to 51 (or 53 if you include the two scenic flights).

This is where shit is about to get super super nerdy!  I kept track of all of my planes along the way and sourced publicly available data regarding distance between airports and actual flight time for each flight.  I’ve obviously had some spare time while I look for work.

Aircraft makers flown:  4
1.  Airbus:  31 flights (55.4%) / 66,387 km (52.4%) / 4:12:28 (55.3%)
2.  Boeing:  24 flights (42.9%) / 59,733 km (47.1%) / 3:13:56 (0.9%)
3.  ATR:  1 flight (1.8%) / 598 km (0.5%) / 1:40 (43.8%)
4.  Cessna:  2 scenic flights

Aircraft models flown:  18 in 9 different series/families of aircraft
-  Airbus A319-100, A320-200, A321-200
-  Airbus A330-300
-  Airbus A340-300, A340-600
-  Airbus A380-800
-  ATR 72-500
-  Boeing 737-400, 737-700, 737-800, 737-900
-  Boeing 777-200ER, 777-300ER
-  Boeing 787-8, 787-9
-  Cessna U206G, 207A

Aircraft series/families flown the most (by # of flights, distance, and time):
1.  Airbus A320 series:  25 flights (44.6%) flown 33,439,05 km (26.4%) in 2:13:19 (31.3%)
2.  Boeing 737 series:  18 flights (32.1%) flown 27,187 km (21.5%) in 1:19:37 (22.2%)
3.  Boeing 787 series:  4 flights (7.1%) flown 21,706 km (17.1%) in 1:04:06 (14.3%)

Aircraft models flown the most:
1.  Airbus A320-200:  12 flights (21.4%) / 17,787 km (14.0%) / 1:08:40 (16.7%)
-  By # of flights, the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A321-200 are #2 and #3, respectively.
-  By distance, the Airbus A380-800 and Boeing 737-800 are #2 and #3, respectively.
-  By time, the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A380-800 are #2 and #3, respectively.

And now, for some less statistical lists…

As I went along, I didn’t make a list of best airports or best airlines, because it was hard to compare.  Sometimes I only arrived at an airport and promptly left.  For departures, sometimes I was hours early and sometimes I didn’t have much time to explore the airports at all.  Some flights were peak hour and sometimes I flew out in the middle of the night when the airport was a ghost town.  Some airports were huge (Tokyo Narita, London Heathrow, etc.) while others were tiny (Rodrigues, Easter Island, etc.), and some were located in wealthy countries and some were located in not-so-wealthy countries.  So it’s definitely hard to compare and make a proper list.  But, these are a few of the more memorable air travel experiences, both bad and good.

Best flight experiences:
1.  Santiago to Easter Island on LATAM (formerly LAN):  It was my second Boeing 787 Dreamliner and I had a window seat to take in the views of Easter Island on approach.  The only window seat when I checked in was the very last row which was disappointing at first, but worked out so well in the end.  There was actually no bathroom behind me, nobody sitting next to me, and the row was completely different than the other rows.  Instead of the 3-3-3 configuration, the last row has a 2-3-2 configuration, and the seats are the reserve seats for the crew to rest in.  I had double the leg room, a wider seat, two tray tables, a foot rest, extra recline pitch, and enough space between my seat and window to place my little backpack.  AMAZING.  I got the back row again on my return leg.
2.  Sydney to Singapore on Singapore Airlines:  It was the first flight of my gap year AND my first Airbus A380 ever!  I was also super stoked about my flight from London (Gatwick) to Fort Lauderdale on Norwegian as that one was my first Boeing 787 Dreamliner ever!
3.  Fort Lauderdale to Seattle on Alaska:  I used to make this trip twice a year when I lived in Seattle, but there was never a direct flight during my time there and I always had to stop and change planes somewhere.  I was super pleased that this non-stop route now exists and I even paid a little more just to take it.

Worst flight experiences:
1.  Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia X:  The turbulence was long and unbearable.  Unbeknownst to me, I was also just hours away from my massive food poisoning episode so my body wasn’t handling anything well.  At least I had my own row to lay down in and try to drown out the shaking.
2.  Saigon to Bangkok on VietJet:  The flight was fairly smooth for most of the journey, but the approach down through the clouds into Bangkok was super rough including a big drop that probably only lasted about a second and a half but caused about half of the passengers to scream.  Fun.
3.  Bogota to Buenos Aires (Ezeiza) on Aerolineas Argentinas:  The flight itself was ok, but my row had didn’t have functioning televisions, reading lights, or attendant call buttons.  It was an overnight flight and the business lady next to me wanted to read her documents and I wanted to watch a movie to try to fall asleep.  I know things break, but the flight attendant’s attitude toward the issue was the bigger problem.  He just didn’t seem to care at all and he was very dismissive when the lady next to me asked about it.  That being said, I had another flight on Aerolineas Argentinas the following week when the flight attendant gave me an extra alfajores because I declined the ham sandwich meal that is offered on all airlines based in Latin America.

Cheapest flight:  $22
-   Cartagena to Medellin on Avianca:  I don’t know why or how, but it was cheaper to fly the hour than to take a 14 hour bus on hellish roads.  BEST. DEAL. EVER.

Oddest flight experience:  being the only white person
-   Saigon to Kaohsiung on Vietnam Airlines:  I was literally the only white person on the plane.  The flight was also predominantly male – like, there may have only been 3 or 4 female passengers on the full flight.  I am also pretty sure that I was the only person the flight attendants could speak to as they all spoke a little English.  Everybody but me seemed to get a written menu from one little stack on the service cart.  I glanced at the one next to me.  It had no Vietnamese on it – only Chinese.  So basically they were ALL Chinese businessmen heading to Taiwan to do business.  This is what happens when you fly into a manufacturing hub like Kaohsiung which isn’t on the radar of most western tourists (but should be).

Longest delay:  roughly 4 hours (if I recall correctly)
-  Baltra (Galapagos) to Quito on Avianca:  This was by far my longest delay, but in all fairness, they don’t have spare planes sitting around in the Galapagos and if the incoming flight or airport has a problem, there’s pretty much nothing that can be done.  Most of the airport was closed for the duration of the delay because most of the flights come and go around the same time, but I was with our entire tour group so I had company.  This actually felt shorter than my 1-2 hour delay in Saigon, but that’s because I already had a 4 hour layover scheduled and my incoming flight was surprisingly early and there isn’t much to do at the Saigon airport.

If that was my longest delay and I had no cancelled flights or lost luggage, then I’ve been pretty damn lucky this year!

Best airline experiences:
1.  Singapore Airlines:  The staff were super friendly, the food was good, and everything went smoothly.
2.  LATAM (formerly LAN):  The staff knew I was an English-speaker but talked to me in clear, slow Spanish so I could practice.  The food was also good and everything went smoothly.
3.  Bangkok Airways:  The airline provided a free snack and drink station at the gate at the Koh Samui Airport.  How nice of them!

Honourable mentions:  I was surprisingly impressed with the two Mexican airlines I flew – Volaris and Aeromexico.  Southwest continues to be the best in the US.

Dishonourable mention:  I was surprisingly disappointed by the food on Etihad.  For a flagship carrier, I expected better, but my flight was actually really cheap so I’ll let it slide.

I’m not going to list the worst airlines.  I avoided notoriously bad ones when I could and the few discount carriers that I flew on met or exceeded my low expectations.

Best airport experiences:
It’s hard to rank the best airports as I mentioned above.  But I’ll give a few shout-outs.  These aren’t the best per se, but they deserve an honourable mention.
-  Danang was the most surprising by a long mile.  I was thinking it might be a shed, but Vietnam’s third largest city has a proper, big, modern, new airport – better than Hanoi or Saigon!
-  Buenos Aires (Ezeiza) and Santiago also both exceeded expectations with their modern looks, ease of navigation, and cute baristas at the airport Starbucks.
-  Easter Island has the breeziest airport with a lovely outdoor patio waiting area overlooking the taxiway.
-  Seattle continues to impress in the group of American airports.  A big food court right in the middle and nice shops always make it a pleasant airport experience.

Worst airport experiences:
1.  Delhi:  there is minimal signage for the immigration process and I only got in the right queue on the third try.  The duty free salespeople were also extremely aggressive… tragic foreshadowing of the trip to come.
2.  Havana:  Immigration was an ornery lady at what appeared to be a picnic table and the rest of the staff just seemed to be sitting around.  Luggage took about an hour to hit the conveyor belt.  What were they doing with it?  On a positive note, the staff wear tight little uniforms and some of the men were the epitome of hot Latin lovers.
3.  Victoria Falls:  They should really have more than two staff at the immigration counter when two flights come in.  I waited in line for ages.

There were other crappy airports just by pure aesthetics and facilities.  One example is Kathmandu.  I had almost no expectations for an airport in a place like Kathmandu, so I guess it met my expectations.  It was quite basic, fairly dirty, and many of the chairs seemed a bit damaged.  But overall, it was sufficient and didn’t shock me.  Though I am pretty sure I waited until I boarded the flight to use the bathroom.  Just in case.

Dishonourable mention:  I’ve always had a gripe with the food options at Sydney’s international terminal.  The two domestic terminals have good options, and the international terminal has good options outside of security, but once you go through immigration, the best thing is a McDonald’s. WTF? Sydney is full of amazing restaurants and cafes.  Why don’t they get one or two to open branches in the airport?!?

Congratulations:  you made it to the end!  You’ve earned your nerd badge and if you’re a decently attractive single gay man aged 26-38 and you actually enjoyed reading this then maybe you’re my soulmate and should get in touch with me ASAP.

Here’s a rough route map of my trip.  Click to enlarge if you’re not sick of this yet.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Full Year Recap: Initial Statistics

The gap year is over (Noooooo!) but the statistics are just beginning.  I’m still unemployed and homeless but I’m working on that.  In the meantime, the little gnomes that compute my statistics have been hard at work making all sorts of lists for your reading and nerdy pleasure.  There will be several parts to this, but if you have any requests for specific statistics or lists of favourites, then please let me know.  I’m open to suggestions!

Total time spent:  403.5 days and 403 nights
Start:  Morning of Sunday, July 12, 2015 at Sydney Airport
End:  Afternoon of Thursday, August 17 at London Gatwick Airport

Continents visited:  6
1.  Asia:  115.8 days (28.7%)
2.  North America:  114.1 days (28.3%)
3.  South America:  85.2 days (21.1%)
4.  Africa:  67.7 days (16.8%)
5.  Europe:  11.9 days (2.9%)
6.  Oceania:  4.0 days (1.0%)
In transit between continents:  4.7 days (1.2%)

I will get to Antarctica one day… maybe on the next gap year!

Regions visited:  13
1.  South America:  85.2 days (21.1%)
2.  North America:  76.9 days (19.1%)
3.  Southeast Asia:  58.9 days (14.6%)
4.  Southern Africa:  44.6 days (11.0%)
5.  East Asia:  37.8 days (9.4%)
6.  Mascarene Islands:  23.2 days (5.8%)
7.  Central America:  21.9 days (5.4%)
8.  Caribbean:  14.5 days (3.5%)
9.  South Asia:  13.8 days (3.4%)
10.  Northern Europe:  11.9 days (2.9%)
11.  Polynesia:  4.0 days (1.0%)
12.  Middle East:  1.0%
In transit between regions:  6.9 days (1.7%)

Countries visited:  34
1.  United States:  69.9 days (17.3%)
2.  Japan:  27.0 days (6.7%)
3.  Chile:  24.7 days (6.1%)
4.  Mauritius:  23.2 days (5.8%)
5.  South Africa:  22.6 days (5.6%)
6.  Peru:  22.2 days (5.5%)
7.  Colombia:  21.8 days (5.4%)
8.  Vietnam:  15.7 days (3.9%)
9.  United Kingdom:  11.9 days (2.9%)
10.  Thailand:  11.6 days (2.9%)
11.  Laos:  11.1 days (2.8%)
12.  Ecuador:  10.9 days (2.7%)
13.  Namibia:  10.8 days (2.7%)
14.  Taiwan:  10.6 days (2.6%)
15.  Cuba:  10.4 days (2.6%)
16.  Costa Rica:  10.0 days (2.5%)
17.  Malaysia:  8.6 days (2.1%)
18.  India:  8.1 days (2.0%)
19.  Cambodia:  7.9 days (2.0%)
20.  Nicaragua:  7.8 days (1.9%)
21.  Mexico:  6.8 days (1.7%)
22.  Nepal:  6.0 days (1.5%)
23.  Botswana:  5.0 days (1.2%)
24.  Panama:  4.1 days (1.0%)
25.  Argentina:  4.0 days (1.0%)
26.  United Arab Emirates:  4.0 days (1.0%)
27.  Dominican Republic:  3.9 days (1.0%)
28.  Singapore:  3.2 days (0.8%)
29.  Paraguay:  2.8 days (0.7%)
30.  Uruguay:  2.0 days (0.5%)
31.  Zambia:  1.9 days (0.5%)
32.  Lesotho:  1.8 days (0.4%)
33.  Swaziland:  1.0 days (0.2%
34.  Zimbabwe:  1.0 days (0.2%)
In transit between countries:  9.1 days (2.3%)

And just for fun – time spent in countries that drive on the:
1.  Right side of the road:  63.2%
2.  Left side of the road:  36.3%
In transit between countries driving on opposite sides:  0.5%

And just for more fun – time spent in the hemispheres:
1.  Northern Hemisphere:  65.9%
2.  Southern Hemisphere:  33.5%
In transit between the two hemispheres:  0.6%

Only country where I’ve been both north of, south of, and on the equator:  Ecuador!

3.  Western Hemisphere:  54.0%
4.  Eastern Hemisphere:  45.7%
In transit between the two hemispheres:  0.2%

This assumes the division between the hemispheres is at the Prime Meridian which places the parts of the UK that I visited totally within the Western Hemisphere.

I changed between the northern and southern hemispheres seven times not including jumping back and forth across the equator like a stupid tourist.  I changed between the eastern and western hemispheres only once.

Border crossings:  43
-  30 border crossings by air
-  10 border crossings on land (8 in vehicles and 2 on foot)
-  3 border crossings by ferry

Time zones:  33 (based on governments’ classifications)
- 15 different time zones based on times in relation to UTC
- 39 times I had to change the time on my iPhone

Biggest time zone changes:
-9 hours from Tokyo to London via Abu Dhabi
-6 hours from Singapore to Johannesburg
-5/+5 hours from London to Fort Lauderdale and back again

Smallest time zone change:
+15 minutes from India to Nepal

Landmasses stepped on:  39 (I think)
1. Singapore
2. Afro-Eurasia
3. Robben Island (South Africa)
4. Mauritius and Rodrigues + 6 small offshore islands
12. 2 artificial islands in Dubai
14. 1 small island in a lake in Vietnam
15. 3 islands in Halong Bay (Vietnam)
18. 2 terrible Thai islands
20. Taiwan + 1 offshore island
22. Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu + 2 small offshore islands (Japan)
27. Great Britain
28. America
29. Hispanola
30. Cuba + 1 small offshore island
32. Isla Ometepe (Lake Nicaragua)
33. 4 islands in the Galapagos
37. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
38. Isla Taquile (Lake Titicaca, Peru)
39. Long Island (USA)

And now, for a few less statistical lists…

Top Overall Countries (in chronological order):
1.  Mauritius  (read more)
2.  Taiwan  (read more)
3.  Japan  (read more)
4.  Costa Rica  (read more)
5.  Chile  (read more)

I would elaborate on why each country was amazing, but I think my past blogs should sufficiently cover it.  Feel free to ask me in person if you want more details!  Also, note that I didn’t have a whole lot of time in some countries.  I had limited time, for example, in Argentina, and it definitely warrants a more robust visit in the future to better make a determination on its inclusion in a list like this.

Top Overall Cities (in chronological order):
1.  Cape Town  (read more)
2.  Taipei  (read more)
3.  Sapporo  (read more)
4.  Buenos Aires  (read more)
5.  Santiago  (read more)

Again, ask me about these in person if you want more details, but I think the previous blogs should paint a good enough picture of why I really loved these cities!

Best & Worst Passport Stamps:
-  Best:  Mauritius because it’s big, has a dodo bird on it, and perfectly filled in blank space at the front of the passport.
-  Honourable Mention:  Cuba for its super gay hot pink colour.
-  Worst:  Mexico.  Why would you stamp on page 50-something on my passport when every other country stamped in the first 20 or so pages?  Ugh.

That’s enough for now.  Stay tuned for my next installment when I get super nerdy with airplanes and airports and other sorts of travel.  Brace yourself for the nerdgasm to come!

For the stats blogs, I will switch to maps because you’re probably sick of all my selfies.  Here’s a map of my travels both before and during the gap year.  You can click to enlarge if you’re nerdy enough.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

'Murica, Round 2

After Peru, I headed back to the United States for a whirlwind tour of the country to visit friends and family that have been long neglected by my Australianess.

A few highlights of my time en Los Estados Unidos:

I hate Florida.  There is nothing to do in Florida and all but two of my friends escaped after high school.  Because Florida is fucking terrible.  So, I saw some family.  I saw the two friends that I still have there.  I unpacked and repacked a few times.  And that is all.

I was long overdue for a visit to my ex-home, and I realized how much I missed Seattle.  It was so amazing to catch up with all of my old mates and hit up my old stomping grounds.  I went to most of my old favourite restaurants and reunited my trivia team for a trivia night at our favourite dive bar.  Elcid – another American friend of mine that I know from Australia but now lives in Japan – also came to visit me in Seattle with another friend of his.  It was his first visit to the Pacific Northwest so I also got to do a lot of touristy things that I would normally have missed out on in my mad rush to see everyone:  Kerry Park, Fremont, Gas Works Park, Ballard Locks, Olympic Sculpture Park, and Pike Place Market, where Elcid was unimpressed by the original Starbucks but totally impressed by the piroshkies.  I consumed proper craft beer and ate proper brunch (not together, of course) including proper breakfast burritos.  Oh, breakfast burritos, how I have missed you!

I also did two other key things in Seattle.  The first was a tour of the Theo Chocolate factory!  I took Elcid and his friend for the tour and then bought a substantial amount of chocolate afterward.  It’s my favourite chocolate in the world and the whole thing was a chocolate-flavoured orgasm.  The second was to take part in some new key laws that had passed since I’ve left.  No, no, I didn’t get married, but I did go to the store to do some shopping.  I still vote in Washington state.  I voted for the law and I had to test it out just to make sure it was the right decision.

It certainly was.  I was sort of thinking I should move back to Seattle based on this alone!

My good friends Della and Eric were getting married in Denver and I knew I couldn’t miss the wedding.  I planned my time around the event. I came in early to have a bit of time with Della and Eric before everybody else arrived.  I know the bride and groom from university, and nearly all of our old friends flew in for the occasion.  It was so great to see everyone all together!

On my second night in the city, Della arranged a big group of us to go to Casa Bonita – a giant Mexican restaurant made famous by an episode of South Park.  And yes, South Park was accurate in their portrayal of the place.  There are actually cliff divers doing a show in the middle of the restaurant.  WTF?

I had been to Denver twice before.  The first time was for a big math competition in high school (yes, I’m a nerd) and the second was to visit Della over one summer break when we were in university.  I didn’t really like Denver then, but I was excited to see if my opinion of the city would change.  It definitely has.  We had some good ethnic food while in Denver, including Ethiopian cuisine and Taiwanese shaved ice, and I also found proper coffee.  Denver still needs to badly fix their crap transport system, but at least they also have a law similar to the law I was talking about in Washington state.  Oh yes…

Fort Worth:
There is absolutely nothing to do in this shit city.  I visited my grandma and ate some Mexican food and BBQ and a bit more Mexican food and got fat.  Texas.

My trip to Washington was all about visiting my friend Lenora, but I did manage catch-ups with a few other friends while I was there.  In true Phill/Lenora style, we also went bowling one night and played board games and cards.  It was good chill time.

New York:
As with Washington, my trip to New York was more about visiting friends and family than it was about doing anything touristy, though I did manage to do two touristy things.  I met up with a friend of mine who had his parents visiting from Texas and we took them out to Coney Island.  It was surprisingly my first time there.  We ate Nathan’s, did the bumper cars, and rode the Wonder Wheel.  Check.  I also went to the Central Park Zoo with a friend from Connecticut who came into the city to meet me with her two small children.

Aside from that, I hung out with some cousins and a lot of my friends from high school and other places.  The gang took me for my first escape room, which we conquered in near record time (though it was more them conquering it and me just looking confused).  I had Jewish deli, pizza, bagels, and – and this was key – I got to sample several of the Australian-style cafes that have popped up in New York in recent years.  The coffee tasted like home!

I saw some of my mom’s cousins in February when we all happened to be in Florida at the same time.  They invited me up to Boston and I gladly took them up on the invitation.  While in Boston, I visited with my family and met up with a few friends (mostly from university) who moved to the city.  I also wandered around some of the historical areas of the city, but as with the other cities, I wasn’t really here to be a tourist.

In addition to the food mentioned above, I just have to add that Dairy Queen now serves their famous Blizzard in a waffle one, which is about the fattiest and most American thing that could ever happen.  Also, I had my favourite salad which is called the Quesadilla Explosion salad from Chili’s.  It a salad with big wedges of quesadilla in it and covered in cheese and beans and tortilla strips and it’s basically the least salad-like salad in existence but it’s delicious and everything America is supposed to be.

And that’s a wrap.  That’s the gap year.  That is the end of the travels.  What’s going to happen next?  I’m still figuring that out.  More to come when I figure out life.  Until then, I’ll have all sorts of blogs coming up with facts and figures and top lists of all sorts of things from my gap year.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in the United States, follow this link:

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Amazon & The Erotic Palm

My final new stop of the entire gap year (nooooo!) was the Amazon!  Not just confined to Brazil, the Amazon actually stretches across nine countries, including Peru, and oddly enough, France (I’m not joking).  After being high up in the Andes for the past two weeks, it was refreshing to get back down to an altitude with oxygen.  It was a quick flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, our gateway to the Amazon.  Looking out the window, the scenery rapidly changed:  the mountains just stopped and all of a sudden there was thick green jungle.  It was an incredible transition.

Our flight landed in Puerto Maldonado and we boarded a bus to a little dock to hop on a boat down the Tambopata River, which is a tributary of the Madre de Dios River, which itself merges with another tributary to become another river all together, which then flows into the Amazon River, and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.  Our lodge was lovely – despite being super hot and humid outside, we had no air conditioning.  The rooms actually cooled down quite well at night and the “windows” were big screens – letting fresh air circulate in while keeping the insane amount of bugs out.  We only had two days to explore this tiny little slice of the Amazon and nearly everything we did revolved around the flora and fauna.

A few highlights of my time in the Amazon:

Caiman-spotting night cruise:
Caimans are smaller cousins of alligators and crocodiles, though smaller doesn’t mean cuter and I’d still be deeply terrified if I saw one anywhere near me.  We saw white caimans during our time in the Amazon, though black caimans also exist there.  Our first caiman spotting was on the initial boat ride to our lodge during the daytime, but the next night we took a boat ride down the river with the explicit purpose of spotting more caimans at night.  We saw some adults as well as little baby caimans which were about the size of burritos.  Yummy!

Night walk and bugs:
Our first night including a guided night walk through the jungle.  It was just a small trail that extended out from the lodge so it was perfectly safe and not as scary as “walking through the jungle at night” sounds.  It was here that we saw various insects including leaf cutter ants, bullet ants, a golden silk spider, an owl butterfly (so named because the design on its wing looks like the eye of an owl), stick insects, hunting spiders, crickets, and the wandering spider.  The next day, we also saw the chicken spider tarantula.  That’s what our guide called it so I’m just going with it.  His name was Elvis (the guide, not the spider) so the whole experience was meant to be a little crazy I think.  Elvis poked a stick into the spider’s hole to lure it out.  Not at all crazy.  We also saw a big ass beetle and the skeleton of a spider that had been killed by wasps, just like the ones I learned about previously in Costa Rica.

Day walk with a penis tree:
Our morning walk took us through some trails further up the river.  It was here that we learned a lot about the local plants.  My favourite plant was the “penis tree” or “erotic palm” so-called because of its dildo-like roots that shoot out from the base above the ground.  Hehe!  We saw several strangler figs, which I had seen in other parts of the world as well.  The kapok was a less funny tree with a fibrous cotton-like substance in the seed.  The tallest we saw was about 45 metres but they can grow up to 60 metres in height.  The local custom is to walk around the large base of the tree three times:  once for health, once for love, and once for money.  I walked around three times but it didn’t work.  I feel fatter than ever after spending six weeks in the USA and not having gone to a gym in well over a year.  I’m still single as usual and my bank account is slowly draining (I need a job fast!)  Our day walk also consisted of a jaunt around Lago Condenado (“condemned lake” in English).  The lake is an oxbow lake, the arc of a winding river that has been cut off from the main river.  It will eventually dry up, hence the name.  I had a moment of unleashing my inner geology nerd and I’m sure the rest of the group was just like “shut up now please but do still be on our trivia team”.

Birds birds birds:
If you’ve been following my travels and looking at my pictures, you’ll notice that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of birds along the way.  This is because of James, a young Englishman I met on my first Africa tour.  James seems cool at first, but he’s actually a huge bird nerd, and he spread his bird nerdiness around to the rest of our safari group.  In Zambia we are all like “Whatever, James”, but then by Cape Town we were all like “Did you see that fucking bird?!?!? So cool!”.  So, yeah, thanks James for destroying twenty seemingly cool people.  Anyway, the whole point is that I saw a shit ton of birds in the Amazon.  The red and green macaw was colourful like Christmas, and the mealy parrot (the largest of the Amazon parrots) wasn’t disappointing either.  We saw a lovely photogenic white-winged swallow, an ugly vulture, and an even uglier bird:  the hoatzin.  The hoatzin is more colloquially known as the “stinky bird” because its particular leafy diet gives it a bad smell which therefore makes it unappetizing to eat which means it has no natural predators.  So this ugly ass bird is basically the lion of the Amazon.  The birding highlight, however, was an AMAZING juvenile crested owl sitting on a branch only a few metres from where our group was walking.  My university’s mascot is the owl so I made sure to snap a great close-up photo of this beauty.

At the lodge:
The lodge itself has an array of wildlife for viewing pleasure.  Our guides began calling us all over one afternoon to see two species of monkeys just swinging around in the trees next to the dining room.  The red howler monkeys were everywhere, but I think the saddle-back tamarins are way cuter.  There were quite a few common lizards running around.  Their colouring – bright green body and tail with a brownish-grayish head – was anything but common.  We chopped some brazil nuts which led to the appearance of some brown agoutis hoping to have a little snack.  They are decent-sized rodents but actually super cute – not ugly and scary like mice and rats… and squirrels.

Elsewhere in the Amazon:
If we thought the brown agouti was a large rodent, then the capibara was a shocking surprise.  The largest rodent in the world, the capibara is as big as your good-sized dog.  Ewwww!  Surprisingly, they actually look super cute!  We also saw beautiful butterflies licking salt out of the eyes of turtles (so cool!), fruit bats, and tapir tracks.  The tapir is a big mammal related to nothing really, but closest to horses, donkeys, zebras, and rhinos, though it looks sort of like a pig crossed with an aardvark.  I was hoping to see a tapir on the trip, but I had to settle for its footprints.  Sadness.

I do plan on getting back to the Amazon one day, with one trip to the Brazilian Amazon, and one trip to cover the Amazon in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana (that pesky part of France that is actually in South America).

And that’s it.  That’s the gap year.  Mostly.  We flew back to Lima from Puerto Maldonado.  After one more day in Lima, I flew back to my hometown in Florida.  Despite doing a mini-tour of Texas and Florida back in January and February at my halfway point, I still hadn’t seen many of my friends in four years (I’m a neglectful American).  So, the final journey of the gap year was a grand tour of the USA.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in the Amazon, follow this link:

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Cusco, Machu Picchu, & the Inca Trail

Undoubtedly the highlight of Peru, and one of the highlights of the entire gap year, was the Cusco region, including Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail.  The first thing tourists notice about Cusco:  its flag is super gay.  It’s the same rainbow as the gay pride flag except it has a seventh stripe of sky blue.  This previously caused some problems in conservative Peru, with some calling for the city to change its flag because too many tourists were thinking the area was just one big gay-friendly jizz fest.  But, most have finally gotten over it and the traditional flag has remained.  I like it.

A few highlights of my time in and around Cusco:

The tourist centre of the city is the Plaza de Armas with its statue of Pachacuti displayed prominently in the centre of the square.  Pachacuti was the ninth Inca king.  He had 200 children.  His official motto was “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.”  Surrounding the plaza are several churches, including the main cathedral and the attached Iglesia del Triunfo.  The cathedral has an excellent videoguide that took me around the expansive building all the while providing immense detail about the structure, artwork, and history of the area.  This was definitely the best cathedral tour that I took in all of Latin America (and believe me, I saw plenty of cathedrals…)  My favourite part was an educational one, and probably the only cool thing I’ve ever learned about the Catholic religion.  Did you know that there’s a patron saint for women who want to marry?  There’s also a patron saint for men who want to rid themselves of these women.  AMAZING!

Also near the Plaza de Armas is the Museo Inka, though I visited that after doing the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, and all of the other sites, so I quickly breezed through the collection.  Also nearby sits a prime example of an old Inca wall, stretching down one long alleyway known as the Lareto.   It leads to Qorikancha – Inca ruins located right in the city.  Sacsaywaman (pronounced to tourists as “sexy woman”) are another set of Inca ruins located on a hill above the city.  While we didn’t do a formal tour of those ruins, the site offers great views over the whole of Cusco.  There’s also a big statue of Jesus because… Catholicism.

Best of luck to you in pronouncing the name of this place.  Ccaccaccollo is a small weaving community outside of Cusco.  There we stopped to learn how the women make wool from alpaca fur.  They use natural elements to dye the wool, including using imported eucalyptus from Australia to get a gray colour.  They had alpacas on site and I got to feed them!

Pisaq & Ollantaytambo:
These two sets of Inca ruins we visited on our way toward the start of the Inca Trail.  Pisaq features the typical Inca terraces along with interesting burial holes dug into the side of the adjacent mountain.  Ollantaytambo is a major tourist town and base camp for many who start the Inca Trail.  Though much of the ruins there are still under excavation, the Temple of the Water is mostly unearthed featuring various fountains and canals.  There are of course plenty of terraces, as well as a giant face carved into a nearby mountain and a colca – a cool place on the mountainside where the Inca could store potatoes and other crops for 20 or even 30 years.  The Pachamama Stone – a large rock at the site – has crystals inside to capture energy from the sun.  When you touch it, you get the energy from the rock.  I desperately needed the energy for the next day’s challenge!

Inca Trail:
Most tourists to Machu Picchu take the train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to the most famous of the Inca ruins.  I, however, wanted the full experience, so I booked early and secured one of the very limited spots on the Inca Trail.  The four-day hike sounded daunting:  camping is the only option, bathrooms are rudimentary, showers are mostly non-existent, and the elevation gain can be more-than-challenging on some days, including over one kilometre of elevation gain on day 2 alone.  Oxygen levels are lower and altitude sickness is a major concern.  Luckily, our tour gradually increased in altitude from Lima to Nazca to Arequipa and the highest stop at Puno, so I had ample time to adjust.  I figured now was the time to do it – while I’m still relatively young.  There’s also the threat of the Peruvian government closing down the Inca Trail and access to Machu Picchu as years of tourism has taken a bit of a toll on the ruins.  I wanted to make sure I got in while the getting was good.

I was prepared the best I could be:  plenty of water, Gatorade, rehydration tablets, medicines, snacks, a poncho, walking sticks, and various layers of clothing to adjust to the changing climate (and thank god I brought that – it went everywhere from hot and sunny to cold and rainy).  The tour company provided tents and meals, and plenty of cooks and porters to bring the heavy stuff along the trail for us.  The porters were fucking ridiculous:  the ranged in age from 20 to their 60’s and they could carry up to 25kg (over 50lbs) of stuff in a big sack on their back while doing the trail in half the time as the gringos.  These men should be Olympians.  Half of them were wearing sandals too!  WTF???  They are MACHINES.  The cooks made delicious meals despite having to cook in a tent.  It was insane.

Despite being showed up by 60 year-old men, I actually did quite well on the Inca Trail.  Let’s be honest, I’m not the most fit of the bunch, but years of treating my body like crap has made it able to survive and prosper in harsh conditions.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.  I was relatively quick on the up parts, though fairly slow on the down parts due to me not wanting to hurt my dodgy knee.  I am old.  Rain on the afternoon of day 1 and morning of day 2 was annoying (it hadn’t rained in months!) but the sun came out in all its glory on days 3 and 4.

Day 1 was the easiest of the days – relatively flat and with stops at various archeological sites including Llactapata.  The locals also had little stands along the way to provide some very expensive provisions.  Thank god I stocked up in advance!

Day 2 was the highest day with a steep climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass.  At a whopping 4,215 metres above sea level, the pass is 1,115 metres higher than our start point that day.  It was a tough climb up, but rewarding at the end.  The rain stopped, the views were great, and I totally felt like Rocky after climbing all those steps.

Day 3 featured the Runcuracay ruins and Runcuracay Pass where we placed wishing stones on the mountain.  We also visited ruins at Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarka, and Intipata, along with various old Inca messenger stations along the way.  Our lunch stop was near another smaller pass and it was beautiful – overlooking a valley and actually above the clouds!  Llamas wandered through our lunch site and I got some great photos of them.  Walking to the campsite from the terraces at Intipata, I had the pleasure (along with Lenora and another girl from our trip) of witnessing a llama block the trail off and proceed to squat down to take care of some business.  And yes, I got a selfie with a llama taking a shit and piss.  ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED!

Day 4 began at… 4am.  Ouch.  We climbed another pass up to the Sun Gate where we were surprised by an incredible view of Machu Picchu.  Though we arrived just after sunrise, the sun had yet to climb high enough to get into the valley, and we got to see the whole Machu Picchu site be slowly illuminated a short time later.

Machu Picchu:
After about another hour of hiking, we were down in the valley and at Machu Picchu.  The once-important city of the Incas featured various ruins, including the main temple, the Temple of the Earth, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, a quarry, an urban area where people lived, and Intihuanatana – a stone structure likely used by astronomers to predict the solstice.  This is a rare survivor of colonial times because the Spanish destroyed most of these things.

Machu Picchu is one of my 103 Things, and I was super stoked to check it off my list.  Going into the trip, I thought the Inca Trail was all about getting to Machu Picchu and that Machu Picchu would be the culminating highlight of the journey.  But I must say:  the actual Inca Trail was more of a highlight.  It was up and down (literally) and featured so many other ruins and gorgeous landscapes along the way that Machu Picchu was more of a complement to the incredible journey than it was the star of the show.

After weeks of being at high altitude, after an amazing journey exploring one of the new world’s most prominent ancient civilizations, and after undoubtedly experiencing one of the best parts of my entire year, it was time to do something a little different.  So, off to the Amazon I went!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in and around Cusco, follow this link:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From Arequipa to Titicaca (hehe!)

I cut off the last blog at Nazca.  After the nausea from the scenic flight subsided, our little group boarded an overnight bus and ended up a few thousand feet higher up in the Andes.  Why can’t I breathe?

A few highlights of my time in Peru… part 2:

Though substantially smaller than Lima, Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and one that I wish I had more time to explore.  With only 24 hours to play with, Lenora and I left the group and made our own way around the city on one of my classic “I must see everything” tours.  We started in the Plaza de Armas, where the city’s cathedral takes up one entire side of the square.  It’s the largest cathedral facade in Peru.  Nearby, the Museo Santuarios Andinos houses the famous Juanita – a mummy that was found high up on a mountaintop in the Andes, nearly perfectly preserved by the freezing cold temperatures.  We took the compulsory guided tour and learned about ancient cultures of Peru as well as plenty of details on the mummy herself.  Sadly, no cameras were allowed.  Finally, we hired a guide and walked around the Monasterio de Santa Catalina.  Big enough to be its own little city, the monastery used to house hundreds of nuns and operated for hundreds of years as a convent, school, church, shelter, and more.  A few nuns still live in the compound today, though we didn’t see any.  A short climb up the tower gave us great views of all of Arequipa below.

Outside of Arequipa, on our way to the town of Chivay, we pulled to the side of the road in the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca to view a big ass group of vicuñas – the smallest camelids.  The vicuña is the little cousin of the llama and alpaca, and one of four camelids found in South America (the fourth being the guanaco, the largest of the lot found down in Patagonia).  Vicuñas are not domesticated like llamas and alpacas are, and locals must sneakily corner the animals in order to sheer them for their wool.  This only takes place once per year.  Incidentally, their wool is the finest of the camelids.  This combination makes for an expensive sweater.  A sweater made of alpaca wool could cost $400, but the same one made of vicuña wool would be thousands of dollars.

My highest point ever:
Also en route to the town of Chivay was the highest mountain pass that I’ve ever been over, making it my highest elevation ever.  The Mirador de los Andes rests at a prime 4,910 metres above sea level, or 16,109 feet.  That’s over half of the height at which some commercial airliners fly.  Oxygen levels are low, but luckily I had been on the coca tea that morning, was sucking on my coca candies, and was doing my best to stay hydrated.  Speaking of being hydrated, the Mirador de los Andes is home to the highest toilets in Peru.  That’s one for the record books.  Note:  I didn’t trust them so I didn’t use them.

The little town of Chivay was our base for our visit to Colca Canyon.  We did have a little time to wander around the town, where we checked out their local market full of colourful corn varieties, lots of potatoes, and plenty of dead alpacas ready to be cut up, cooked, and eaten.  Yummy.

Or not.

We went down to the nearby thermal baths for a dip in the warm waters.  It also happened to be the time of year for the largest of the Inca festivals, Inti Raymi, or the festival of the sun, celebrated near or on the summer solstice.  We watched the pre-festival activities and evening procession, though I was sadly too tired to go watch the big celebration and fireworks at night.  The elevation was knocking me out and I needed my sleep for the next day’s early start to…

Colca Canyon:
While not the widest canyon and not nearly as grand as the Grand Canyon, or even the Fish River Canyon that I visited earlier in the trip while in Namibia, Colca Canyon is one of the world’s longest and deepest canyons.  Our group took a short hike along the side, visiting various lookout points, but most of our time was spent at the super-touristy Mirador Cruz del Condor.  Its name comes from the fact that it’s quite easy to see Andean condors at the site.  The Andean condor is the world’s largest flying bird.  We probably saw around ten or twelve different birds which is apparently quite a lot for one day and one spot.  It was a bit unnerving being near them while walking down the paths.  The Andean condor is a scavenger, meaning it eats carcasses of animals that are already dead.  If the birds can’t find a carcass, they have been known to fly into smaller animals (like young cows) on the side of the cliff so that the prey loses its footing and falls to its death in the canyon below, providing some good eating for the shifty condors.  I don’t think they’d likely go after tourists, but still…

Situated down in one end of the canyon, the little town of Maca is mostly deserted.  Devastating earthquakes that haunt the area destroyed the town two times, prompting the Peruvian government to relocate most of the residents to another town nearby.  A few residents refused to leave and remain in the town, taking care of their restored church building (paid for by a donation from the Spanish government) and mostly making their living from tourists who give a few soles to take a photo with a baby alpaca.  I took a selfie with a beautiful five-month-old alpaca named Mateo.  Awwww!

The city of Puno has a few nice plazas and such, and plenty of tourist amenities like restaurants and cafes, but doesn’t really offer much in the way of attractions.  It does, however, serve as the launching off point for the world’s most hilariously named lake…

Lake Titicaca:
One of the world’s largest lakes, and arguably the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca is certainly the funniest sounding lake (hehe!)  It would have been a fantastic day trip from Puno, but sadly turned into an awkward overnighter.

The lake is split between Peru and Bolivia, though we stayed only on the Peru side.  The edges of the lake are full of reeds, and local islas uros (aka floating villages) are built on these reeds.  We took a tour of one of the villages, got dressed up in their traditional garments, and even went for a ride on a traditional reed boat.  The village ladies happily serenaded us with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” after we boarded.  That’s the only English they know.  We also stopped on Isla Taquile, one of the largest islands in the lake.  We did a hike up to the town and had a trout lunch high up on a hill overlooking the lake.

Our final stop was Luquina Chico for our overnight homestay.  Situated on a peninsula that juts into the lake, the local villagers house tourists for a bit of extra cash.  We played soccer with the locals, watched the sunset over the lake, and got dressed up yet again in their traditional garb.  Our little homestay was basic with a family of farmers.  The family grow potatoes and raise sheep.  We witnessed one of their chickens lay an egg.  Exciting!  The family didn’t speak much Spanish (they speak the local Aymara language) so the whole thing was a bit awkward.  We were tasked with helping to herd the sheep in the morning, but seeing as we couldn’t really communicate with their daughter who was in charge of that job, we mostly just watched her.  I asked her a few questions in my basic Spanish, but it quickly became clear to me that my Spanish was far more advanced than hers.  Eeek!

From Lake Titicaca (hehe!) we headed a bit north to the old Inca capital and the current tourism capital of Peru:  Cusco.  More on that in the next installment.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in and around Arequipa and Colca Canyon, follow this link:

To see more photos of my time in and around Puno and Lake Titicaca, follow this link: