Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef

So today was absolutely amazing – and a total bucket list item – many of you know that when I was young we lived in a trailer on the lake on Corps of Engineer property at Little River Landing off of Bells Ferry – so I could swim about the same time I could walk. Water – particularly coral reefs have always fascinated me. I have snorkeled and scubaed throughout the Caribbean, Florida and recently New Zealand – and I have always dreamed of snorkeling or diving in Australia at the Great Barrier reef – and I am so blessed that I have now had this opportunity. Today I snorkeled in 3 sites within the Great Barrier Reef, all on a Reef called Flynn Reef. (Unfortunately due to having had Sinus Surgery and being cautioned by my ENT that diving would likely be uncomfortable, I was not sold on the idea of scubadiving, and I was told by many that snorkeling was just as good, if not better, and I was not at all disappointed.)

But, back to Flynn Reef.

Here is a diagram from Pro Dive Cairns Queensland that shows where Flynn is located:

Great Barrier Reef Dive Site Maps – 

Great Barrier Reef Map

Unfortunately the wind was high (30 Knots) and the sea was quite rough – so there was a lot of sea sickness on the way out – including yours truly. (even after meds, as they were highly recommended by the crew given the sea conditions) Seasickness was another first for me, in fact – but not one I really would like to repeat. I will spare you the details, but I assure you that everyone on the boat (including the crew) was glad when we docked at our first spot of the 3 locations we were visiting.

We stopped at 3 great sights on Flynn Reef: Tracy’s, Gordon’s and Coral Gardens.

Here is a close up of the reef with these sites marked, again from Pro Dive:

Flynn Reef Map

I saw all sorts of fish, a turtle, a small shark, rays and so much beautiful colorful coral that I just can’t even explain the beauty. It’s amazing that such a small organism can join together to make such a large living thing. I am going to let pictures and videos do the talking now.

First, Tracy’s site (with 2 videos):

 

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Next stop – Gordon’s Site:

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and the final site was Coral Gardens:

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So yeah – it was an amazing day. . . I hope you enjoyed the pictures and videos! 🙂

Housing Update!

My housing situation is once again settled.

So, I have some great news!

My housing situation is once again settled. I cannot say how appreciative I am to my landlords, Ian and Jenny. They have truly gone above and beyond in helping me deal with this little hiccup in my preparations for New Zealand. They have been incredibly helpful with the housing situation, and thanks to their connections and friends, I have found a place to stay until the construction on the Aulsebrook’s Apartment building is completed.

I will be renting a room in a 3 story villa from some friends of theirs in Aro Valley, a neighborhood just west of Te Aro, where the apartment is located. The house is actually just 2 km from the apartment, so I am still close to the Central Business District in Wellington, and walking distance to everything I will initially need access to in the city. The house is also very close to several bus stops, so when the weather is less than ideal, I can easily catch a bus.  It is definitely a great thing, and they are both very excited to host me. Julian is a former New Zealand Consul General to Hong Kong, and Joanna is actually a librarian in a local primary school in Wellington, so I look forward to learning from and with her, and I think the connections she will be able to help me facilitate will be very beneficial to my research project. Things do work out in mysterious ways!

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Part of Aro Valley

Aro Valley is also home to The Garage Project, a lovely brewery that I am certain to enjoy (and it is less than 650 meters from the house!). Wellington’s Central Park will literally be in my backyard, so I am excited about strolling through the park and getting to know the unique ecology of my new home! You can learn more about Aro Valley and Te Aro if you are interested.

Staying with Julian and Joanna will also be a great introduction to Wellington for me, and I look forward to sharing meals and getting to know them and my new temporary home better while I am staying there. Going from knowing no one in the entire country (or hemisphere, actually!) to feeling like I am going to a place filled with friends absolutely makes the whole living abroad thing less stressful. I have been so lucky to have people reach out to me who know others, or have friends in New Zealand and have facilitated those connections for me to get to virtually “know” their people, and the Fulbright Alumni and my Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert Networks have both been so great in figuring out logistics and details. I truly feel like I am getting ready to go and see friends, which is a blessing.

By the way – the countdown is certainly on – as of today,  I am 50 days away from taking off and heading to Wellington! I guess I should start packing, eh?

Preparing to live abroad – Celebrations and Setbacks

2 months out – celebrations and setbacks!

THE GOOD

As of yesterday, I am 2 months away from my New Zealand Adventure – 60 days until I depart to be exact. The past few weeks have been filled with exciting steps in the whole process, and I was finally feeling like I was settled and ready to go – I had a FABULOUS apartment booked, secured and ready to go, all of my paperwork was in order – had been assigned a fantastic university supervisor – who I cannot wait to collaborate with and learn from her expertise, and I had (most importantly) reached a point with my fundraising that I felt I was in good shape getting ready to leave and having everything in order.

The Apartment:

Many of you have had to look at pictures of my amazing flat – I have been so very excited about it. I really did luck out with the opportunity for this flat – I found it by “blog stalking” the other Fulbrighters – primarily Lisa (http://lpurcell.weebly.com/) and Sue (http://www.staffdevjnkie.net/). This flat is where Lisa stayed, so way back in April, right after I received word I was selected for the Fulbright, I contacted Lisa and she put me in contact with her lovely landlords Ian and Jenny – this flat is amazing – it is sunny – bright and in the perfect location in Central Wellington – and the building has a cool history – it used to be an old biscuit factory – the Aulsebrook’s Building. Fantastic Location – beautiful apartment. I paid my deposit back in September, happy to have living arrangements situated – short-term furnished rentals can be difficult to find in New Zealand! (More on this later).

The Advisor

This week one of my biggest questions was answered, when I found out who my university advisor will be – and I must say – I could not be more excited. I will be working with Dr. Louise Starkey at Victoria University in Wellington. I have read many of her publications, cited her work in my academic research and am absolutely flattered to have the opportunity to collaborate with her during my time in New Zealand.

Fundraising

Many of you know that I was at a deficit of the funds provided by the program and the expenses I had to pay to maintain insurance and things here in the states while I am abroad. I have been blessed with generous gifts from individuals and organizations that I belong to, and I am so pleased to say that I am within 10% of my fundraising goal – and I am so humbled by the outpouring of love and support I have received. I am a lucky, lucky lady! I am confident the last bit of fundraising will come through in the next few months, and I am grateful.

THE BAD

But, as they say – they best laid plans often go astray. . . As many of you are undoubtedly aware, New Zealand suffered a significant earthquake a few weeks ago. At that time my landlords and I were in contact – and all appeared well. Unfortunately – after further inspection by the engineers – it was determined that the building did, indeed, have some damage that was in need of immediate repair – repairs that would require evacuation of all units in the building for part of the time that I was planning to be there. So, for at least a month, I will be in need of another housing location while repairs are completed. I just found this out last night – and there are still more things to work through – but I am so thankful that Jenny and Ian have some suggestions and ideas, and we will Skype in the next few days to chat about where we go from here.

 

There is much to be celebrated – and I am confident that this will all work out – and sometimes it is good for my “plan ahead” self to have to exercise some flexibility and work through a minor setback – who knows – this might just lead to an even more amazing adventure than I could have anticipated. As they said to us all multiple times at orientation – it will all be ok!

~Merry

My Tech “Travelosophy” ~ 39 days 3 hours and 41 minutes to go

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Everyone that knows me, knows that I am a bit of a gadget geek. This has caused me to spend a bit of time planning the technology part of my trip. There is something to be said about just being completely disconnected and enjoying an unplugged trip (one of my favorite things about a cruise, honestly), but there were lots of reasons why being completely “unplugged” for this trip wasn’t going to work.

1 – Safety and peace of mind as a solo traveler

Yes, I am traveling alone for much of this trip, except when I am visiting friends. People have a lot of different ideas about this “brave”, “crazy”, “stubborn”, “independent”, “adventurous”, “insane” plan of mine (I will address this in a later post – :-)), but I do acknowledge that there are certain precautions I need to take as a solo international traveler, and an option for emergency communications is certainly one of those precautions.

2 – People genuinely care and want to know what I am doing over there

Almost from the moment I began telling people about my adventure, I got the “will you have a blog?”, “will you send me pictures?”, “will you let us know what you are doing on Facebook?”, etc. I would need a way to connect to the internet periodically and update a few key services.

3 – I take pictures – lots of pictures. . .

I am a bit of a nature and architectural photography nut. . . I take more pictures than any device will hold in a week just exploring a hiking trail or cool building– a month in Europe? I’m not sure I could buy enough memory devices for my camera for that. Add to that the concern of losing a memory card with photos from my time in London before it made it to the cloud? NO WAY! I was going to have to have a way to get pictures off of my camera and to the cloud for safekeeping.

All of these things in mind, I was going to need #traveltech that was powerful enough to handle what I needed to do, wasn’t going to add to much bulk to my suitcase, and allow me to get the most out of my experience.

Staying semi-connected and keeping people updated:

Staying connected was a problem with 2 levels. I knew I needed some sort of mobile communication option, and I also knew that I needed a way to communicate with folks back home. I weighed the options from buying sim cards in each country I visited, buying a global sim card, buying a prepaid phone etc. . .

Because I was going to SO many different countries, some of which don’t play nicely with the rest of the EU regarding telecommunications, I finally realized that going with an international plan for my current phone was going to be the best bet. Each carrier is different, but my plan with ATT gives me VERY minimal data (hello wifi!) but the tradeoff is unlimited texts both sent and received, and a reduced rate for any phone calls that might come through or need to be made. If you are on AT&T, the Passport program is worth a look for international travel – just don’t be tricked into thinking the data will be sufficient for use like you do at home. http://www.att.com/shop/wireless/international/roaming.html

I will disable cellular data during the trip, unless I have an urgent issue and have no Wi-Fi to be found near me – but that will be rare, I think/hope/pray. I will also reset my data statistics when I get on the plane to make sure I don’t go over my data allowance.

For updating my blog, sharing on Facebook and emails, I plan to rely on Wi-Fi – all of my lodging locations have access – I will have some access on trains with my 1st class rail pass, and there are always hot spots if needed.

Obviously Facebook is a way to update some folks, but not everyone is on Facebook, and I didn’t want to be THAT person – you know, the one that constantly floods Facebook with every little step of their vacation, and admit it or not, you have thought about, (if not actually) hidden or defriended. I knew a blog was the better choice. I chose to use WordPress for my blog, because it is easy to update – works with lots of types of media, and is very mobile friendly – I was setup and ready to go in about 10 minutes – the worst part was picking a blog name!

However, I didn’t want to make people remember to check the blog, especially those that are my Facebook friends and twitter followers, so I knew I would want to have some cross posting capabilities. One way to do this is to go into Facebook and Twitter individually and post the blog updates, but that is tedious, and a time waster when I could be out wandering through Paris with a Baguette in hand – so, I decided to enable a service called IFTTT (IF This Then That). On http://ifttt.com I set up 2 if/then statements related to my blog so that when I do a new post (like this one), IFTTT will automatically post that to Facebook, and tweet it to my followers. This post will be the first test of that, and hopefully I won’t have to tweak it at all. (If you aren’t on twitter or FB, or you just want to receive email updates when I post, you can subscribe to my blog in the sidebar.

By leveraging the power of the internet to do more steps with less time, I can spend more time enjoying, and less time updating – a win for me.

Taking pictures and videos:

I have 3 methods I use to take pictures – my iPhone (I have a 6+, so it takes some pretty great pictures), my GoPro Hero – cool fisheye lens effect, and my trusty DSLR Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. The GoPro is truly a “pocket” camera – but the inability to see the shot without killing my phone battery is a huge issue. The 6+ has come a long way from the original iphone camera, but as my friend Simone reminded me – if you don’t use the camera, why do you have it? I trust her international travel credentials, so, since she says I’ll want to have it – it’s getting packed (minus the extra lenses (I think)).

Traveling solo in amazing locations does offer a bit of a photography challenge – what if I want a picture of myself at the Tower Bridge in London, or at the top of the Bernina Diavolezza? I am not a fan of the perpetual hand in selfies, and the idea of handing my expensive camera or phone over to a stranger for a picture just doesn’t do it for me. Enter the piece of equipment I swore I would never use. . . The selfie stick. . . I don’t want to be that tourist – and I promise I will not walk around with my camera or phone on the pole throughout Europe, but at certain locations, the ability to pull it out and take a quick, decent shot has appeal – so yep – I did buy one – let your laughter commence. . . .

Managing and backing up pictures and videos:

Taking my DSLR makes the backing up process a bit more complicated. If I wasn’t taking the DSLR, I could back everything up using my phone on the cloud, and wouldn’t need a laptop, but the DSLR needs to connect to my laptop to pull the pictures off. That means my trusty MacBook pro will be accompanying me, since it is my lightest laptop.

Backing up my pictures to the cloud is important – what if my laptop is stolen (eek!) or crashes – it could happen! – so I need a plan B (and C).

For now, my plan is to use my Amazon Prime storage to back-up pictures and videos. https://www.amazon.com/clouddrive/home/

If my videos are in excess of 5GB then I will store additional videos on my OneDrive (https://onedrive.live.com) or Dropbox (Sign-up with this link & we both get free space: https://db.tt/XICPo111).

Keeping Up with my itinerary and electronic documents:

I needed to focus on a way to store my itinerary and copy of documents that did not require an internet connection to retrieve, so I made a OneNote Notebook (Thanks Sandi and Freda for making me LOVE OneNote) which has directions, documents, copies of reservations, rail passes and my passport, as well as sights of interest in each location. This notebook has been a great tool for planning, in the event something bad happens, a way for me to securely retrieve copies of my stuff.

Electricity Issues:

Ok, so this was much less complicated than I thought it would be – I think the electricity puzzle has been simplified over time. Yes, the different voltage is important – but every device I am taking is already dual voltage ready – no need to pack a converter! What I did discover is that a lot of places have limited plug space, and I would want multiple things to charge during the night, so I did my research, and purchased an international travel powerstrip from Amazon: http://amzn.com/B005ZIM73A – with this Powerstrip I will only need to bring my adaptor for England and Europe – and can plug all of my devices in with one adaptor– sweet! J

Batteries die – and sometimes traveling you don’t have access to a plug. I will be taking my MyCharge Power Bank so that I can get extra juice when I need it most.  http://amzn.com/B00CMNZEIQ

The final verdict:

Considering space in luggage, and balancing that with needs, this is my technology arsenal for the trip:

  • iPhone
  • Macbook Pro
  • GoPro Hero
  • Canon DSLR
  • The dreaded selfie-stick
  • Powerstrip
  • plug adaptors for UK and Europe
  • MyCharge Powerbank

All of this will fit nicely in my compact luggage, and I will be able to stay connected (as much as needed) or disconnect a bit as well.

Making an Itinerary ~ 41 days, 2 hours and 23 minutes

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Perhaps the most daunting task in planning for this trip has been setting an itinerary. Possible locations in Europe abound, and the logistics of staying with friends in some locations (Vienna, Oldenburg and Paris) and the reality of the amount of time I really have is the grounding force. As a solo traveler, I am trying to balance the idea of being uber safe (with a thoroughly planned itinerary), and being a bit more impulsive and spontaneous. In many areas (like lodging), being more planned is winning out – but I am leaving some wide open days to just see where the day (or my rail pass) takes me. I have figured out where I am sleeping each night, and do have some tours, experiences and reservations booked, but other days are wide open – so I can hop on a train and have Pirogues in Poland for lunch, or stay in Berlin and explore Museum Island; on a day while in Vienna, I could explore Budapest, Pannonhalma Abbey, Győr, Sopron, Salzburg or . . .? There is something completely liberating, but a little out of my comfort zone about this whole process, but I have made my over prepared, planning self make sure not to “over schedule” and leave some openings for new chances I haven’t even considered as an option.

So, for all those that have inquired – here is my itinerary (as of this second. . . ). 🙂

  • Days 1-7 – London – with trips to Bath, Isle of Wight and of course the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Leavesden
  • Night 7 – Night Bus to Brussels
  • Days 8 – 12  – Rail to Vienna, Austria – with some possible trips to Bratislava, Slovakia; places in Hungary; or other places in Vienna
  • Day 13 – Day in Munich; Dachau?
  • Night 13 – Night Train to Berlin
  • Days 14 – 16 – Berlin (possibly a trip for lunch in Poland?)
  • Days 17 – 19 – Days Oldenburg, Germany (Bremen? Hamburg?)
  • Days 20 – 22 – Amsterdam (Brugges?)
  • Night 22 Night Train to Zurich
  • Days 23 – Bernina Pass (Stop and ride funicular at Bernina Diavolezza)
  • Night 23 – Tirano, Italy
  • Day 24 – Travel to Paris
  • Days 25 – 31 Paris

WHEW! What an Adventure! 🙂

Merry

#Countdown ~ 48 days, 6 hours, 38 minutes

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As the days tick down, my excitement grows. At this moment there are 48 days, 6 hours and 38 minutes until I will be sitting on a runway in Atlanta about to take off, heading to Europe for my great adventure. This is certainly going to be a memorable journey, visiting at least 10 countries (who knows where else I might wander with a rail pass in hand) and traveling more that 12,000 miles when it is all said and done. I have been dreaming of this trip for a lifetime, and planning it since November. I can hardly believe that it is all really coming together. I have my flight booked, a rail pass and some essential train reservations, lodging situated, and have even booked experiences like the Harry Potter Studio Tour, the Roman Baths in Bath, Isle of Wight, High Tea at Claridges, Dachau tour, access to the German Bundestag plenary for a special lecture and Reichstag Dome in Berlin, Anne Frank House and the Bernina Pass through Switzerland (not to mention everything that London, Brugges, Vienna, Munich and Paris have to offer). This blog will be a place to share thoughts, experiences, photos, videos and more as I travel through Europe and experience this fabulous trip! 0 miles completed!