Archive | September 2014

Scuba Diving in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

I never imagined my very first scuba diving experience would be in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system! I remember, Jason and I explored the beautiful corals and aquatic life with 2 other divers and our dive master. We got a very quick introduction about how to dive. Before entering the waters, I wasn’t feeling absolutely confident about my diving abilities so I felt nervous. But yet, I was also excited because this was going to be a new adventure!

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The experience of seeing the underwater world for the very first time was absolutely incredible! I remember my senses being so captivated by the numerous colorful fish and corals. I had entered this amazing new world. I truly felt time had stopped, and nothing else mattered except my curiosity for this fascinating aquatic world. I was so present. In fact, I was so enthralled by the underwater life, that I actually lost sight of all the other divers for a brief moment.

When I realized I was alone, I strangely felt pleased at first. I was thrilled that I was all alone enjoying and appreciating the beauty of marine life. However, when I started feeling disoriented in this enchanting but foreign world, I felt a pang of panic. My heavy breathing began affecting my buoyancy and from somewhere my vigilant dive master quickly arrived to help me.

The rest of the dive was smooth sailing. So, that was my first scuba diving experience. I will always remember that brief but special moment, when I was all alone in the world’s largest coral reef system!

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To Braid or Not to Braid?

Traveling isn’t only about visiting the most wonderful sites in the world or meeting new people, it is also about trying new things for yourself. The story I am about to tell you today, begins in Jerusalem, Israel. About 3 months into our one-year World Trip, I met this very nice Canadian girl, who convinced me of the value and convenience of having braided hair while traveling. Not having to style your hair everyday because it would already be neat and tidy sounded very pleasing to me. I had made up my mind, and at the first opportunity I would braid my hair.

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About 5 months later, while I was in Thailand, the opportunity arose. I spent the next 2 hours, sitting at Khao san road, a famous tourist street in central Bangkok, getting my hair braided. I was extremely excited, since this was the first time in my life I would be getting braids.

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In Indonesia in particular, for some reason the locals really loved my braids. I was very surprised by all the compliments.

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Believe it or not, I kept the braids for almost 2 months! When our World Trip ended in Malaysia, I decided it was time to take out the braids. Over the weeks, the braids had gotten pretty tangled and I hate to admit it but my hair had become very dry too. The nightmare was about to begin. I remember sitting in my room in Kuala Lumpur trying very hard to undo my braids. But, it was a disaster, my hair was so tangled at the back. I really did not want to cut my hair short, so despite my frustration, I was determined to untangle those ugly knots. It took the whole day with Jason’s help to finally untangle my hair.

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The next day, I headed to the hairdresser inside the Petronas Twin Towers, and got a nice haircut. I felt refreshed. What did I learn? As much as braids can be convenient during traveling, the price you have to pay afterwards is just so high.

Climbing the Great Wall of China One Step at a Time

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The Great Wall of China is a collection of walls that served to protect the Chinese Empire and were used for border control purposes. In Beijing, the “Badaling” section of the Great Wall is one of the most gorgeous and well preserved parts. Thus, despite it being very touristy, we decided to climb this very scenic section of the Great Wall. Many tourists opted to ride the cable car to the most popular area of the “Badaling” section. However, we wanted to experience what it would be like to hike up the Great Wall.

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It takes a lot of strength and endurance to climb the Great Wall. I have to admit, it wasn’t easy for me. I had to take a lot of breaks along the way. There were a lot of steps and they were steep. However, hiking up the Great Wall was worth it because we were able to avoid the crowds and enjoy the beautiful scenery in peace.

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Once we arrived to where the cable car dropped tourists off, as we expected, it was teeming with crowds. The Great Wall is one of China’s most attractive tourist sites, with over millions of people from around the world visiting each year. The crowds however, did not deter us from enjoying this majestic structure. It was breathtakingly beautiful. After spending the day at the Great Wall, we mustered the strength to hike down it instead of riding a crowded cable car!

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Taking a Risk at Australia’s Whitsunday Islands

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Situated off the central coast of Queensland, Australia lie the pristine Whitsunday Islands. These 74 islands make a stunning archipelago at the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. However, all year around, within these gorgeous waters lie numerous deadly jellyfish. The two main stingers found within this area are the Box Jellyfish and the Irukandji Jellyfish. The Box Jellyfish produces potent venom and is one of the most deadly creatures in the world. Its sting causes immediate severe pain and sometimes even death. The Irukandji jellyfish, whose body is transparent, has been known to cause serious illnesses to humans. Although an encounter with these jellyfish may be rare, it is always better to take precautions.

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Since we were visiting during the higher risk season for encountering jellyfish, we were advised to wear stinger suits for protection. We could not resist the temptation of the beautiful waters, so we put on our stinger suits, and took the risk. Luckily, we ended up having a wonderful day in a tropical paradise!

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How I Became a Geisha in Kyoto, Japan

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While we were strolling the streets of Gion, the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto, we luckily came across a Geisha parade. All the Geishas were dressed in beautifully ornate kimonos, and were walking gracefully in their high wooden sandals. Later that day we watched an entertaining show in which Geishas performed tea ceremonies, flower arrangements, and played musical instruments while singing.

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A Geisha, is a woman who is well-rehearsed in the arts of conversation, dance, and music. They are artisans who serve to entertain men. It takes a lot of training, hard work, and patience in order to learn and develop the skills required for becoming a Geisha. Before traveling to Japan, I promised myself that I would dress-up like a Geisha in Kyoto. I thought it would be pretty neat to walk in the shoes of a Geisha for a few hours.

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I never before had so much makeup put on my face and neck! The makeup included: layers of white power, red-pinkish lipstick, black around the eyes, and black and red accents on the eyebrows. After completing the makeup, a wig decorated with colorful flowers was placed on my head. The wig was very heavy. I was surprised by how a Geisha managed to wear such a heavy wig for hours. Next, I was told to wear a red and white patterned under-kimono, underneath the more elaborate pink kimono. My assistants tied the kimono together with a large intricate waist belt called an obi. At last, I wore special socks called tabi, and large wooden platform sandals known as okobo. When I wore the wooden sandals, I was shocked by how difficult it was me to move at all. The okobo like the wig were very heavy and uncomfortable. It took my assistants 2 hours to dress me up as a Geisha!

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After dressing up I walked over a bridge and down the streets of Kyoto to a park. My two assistants literally had to hold both my arms during the entire walk. Despite the struggles with walking, it was an extremely fun and memorable experience. I felt like I was a completely different person, in an entirely different world.

The Shadows of Indian Society

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The train pulls out of the Chennai’s station and into the early morning sunlight. I am exhausted, it has been a long night. With my heavy backpack on my shoulders, I sit uncomfortably on a second class seat. There are Indians everywhere on the train; some are fast asleep while others are gazing quietly out the windows. I close my eyes. I desperately need rest.

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Soon however, I am awakened by a horrid smell. The stench is so unbearably awful. I open my eyes. As the train, continues to roar down the tracks, I stare with disgust at the fields of waste. There is filth everywhere. It seems like a abandoned dumpsite. I am wide-awake now and what I see next makes my heart sink with pity. From behind the huge piles of trash, I see dark figures slowly emerging. They look like shadows to me.

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They are the shadows of Indian society, the forgotten people, the unfortunate, the poor. They live in the slums, next to the train tracks and dumpsites. As I see the slums now, I begin to wonder how many people live in the slums? How dirty and crowded it must be. How hard it must be to wake up every morning, in such an unpleasant environment. With barely any shelter, food, or possessions, what kind of life can one really live? Could there ever be any happiness in living such a life? I close my eyes again. All this is too disturbing for me to see.

However, with my eyes shut, I still cannot stop thinking about the slums and its people. How could the rich justify living happily, when their fellow brothers and sisters are rotting away in misery? Why isn’t the government trying harder to help the poor? Shouldn’t this be the first priority of this nation? Perhaps, I don’t understand the complexity of India’s affairs and problems. But what I do understand is, something is really wrong, and changes need to be made.

A Sacred Site for Sikhs: The Golden Temple

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This is Harmandir Sahib, better known as the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, India. It has become a holy place of worship for Sikhs. And, it is remarkably beautiful. I absolutely had a lovely experience visiting this sacred site. The moment I stepped inside the temple area, I was overcome by a sense of serenity and happiness. Aside from the mellow sounds of prayer, the water and massive space surrounding the temple created a very soothing atmosphere. It was a haven away from the hectic narrow and chaotic streets of Amritsar.

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Dedicated Sikh worshipers line up in an orderly fashion to have the chance to enter and pray inside the Golden Temple. The inside of the temple was just as beautiful as the outside, only much more crowded. Worshipers sat on the floor, chanting hymns and praying passionately.

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Amazingly, free food and drinks are provided to anyone who enters the temple area. The Sikhs have a strong community of dedicated worshipers, who volunteer their time to make food, clean dishes and do other chores around the temple. The above photo shows worshipers, peeling and cutting onions. I was impressed at how the Sikhs worked together so harmoniously and efficiently. It appeared that everyone did whatever they could to help out their community and keep the Golden Temple a very special place.

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We stayed at the Golden Temple for the whole day. Experiencing the Golden Temple at night was also a treat. The temple’s reflection in the water looked stunning at night.

Spain’s Cruel Bullfighting

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This is Madrid’s famous bullfighting arena, Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. It is regarded as the home of bullfighting in Spain. Typically between April and September, bullfighting events are held every Sunday throughout Spain. During special festivals like San Isidro and San Fermin for example, bullfighting events are held daily.

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It is interesting to note, the price of the ticket depends on whether you choose to sit in the sun or shade. The higher prices are for the shaded seats.

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As I entered my first bullfighting event in Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, I really didn’t know how I would feel about this experience. Usually the bullfighting lasts about 2-3 hours. I believe it was about 30 mins into the event, when I could not bare to witness the cruelty that was being inflicted onto the bulls anymore. I could not understand why all the people around me were having such a thrill watching these innocent bulls being tortured and bleed to death. Even today, I still don’t understand people’s fascination with bullfighting events. The only thing I understood was that I felt uncomfortable and disgusted. Within less than an hour of being at the arena, I decided to leave the roaring crowds behind. What do you think of bullfighting as a form of entertainment?

Partying at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany

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When we were organizing the itinerary for our one year World Trip, we planned it so we would end up in Munich, Germany during Oktoberfest. But, what we didn’t plan for were our accommodations. When traveling, we usually never booked our accommodations in advance because we figured we will somehow find a place, which we always did. However, when we arrived to Munich, it was next to impossible to find accommodations. We should have known better. After all, thousands of people from all over the globe were flocking to Munich for one of the world’s largest drinking parties. Luckily we did manage to find a campsite, and put up a tent. With our accommodations arranged, we were super excited to check out the festivities of Oktoberfest.

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If I had a top ten list for festivals to attend in the world, Oktoberfest would definitely make my list. The atmosphere was fun and electrifying! There were plenty of rides, games, and gingerbread cookies for everyone. Jason bought me a delicious gingerbread heart cookie. We enjoyed Oktoberfest so much that we went twice. The first night, we met some travelers from Europe and Asia. That’s the beauty of Oktoberfest, you can meet people from all over the world and simply have a great time together over freshly brewed beer! On our last day, somehow we were lucky enough to enter a tent. Inside the crowded tent, people sat at tables laughing, drinking, and chatting. Everyone was having an awesome time! We were invited by a group of Germans to drink, sing, and dance with them. It was an amazing cultural experience. And, we were so grateful to the locals, who showed us the true meaning of Oktoberfest.

Take a quick look at the carnival surrounding Munich’s Oktoberfest!

Curious to know what it is like inside one of the beer tents at Munich’s Oktoberfest?

Kerala’s Backwaters in Alleppey, India

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These are the serene and pristine backwaters of Alleppey, India. Upon entering the backwaters, it felt like time had slowed down. The weather was gorgeous. The vegetation was plentiful and luscious. It was a beautiful place in time for me.

We shared our kettuvallam (a houseboat) with a lovely Australian couple, while we enjoyed our two day and one night tour of the backwaters. Together, we reveled in the beautiful scenic views of nature, good conversation, and chess games.

As a treat, we were offered a plateful of fried bananas as snacks. It was the first time we had ever eaten fried bananas and they were absolutely delicious. Eating fried bananas in the backwaters of Kerala, what an experience!

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