Falling from the sky: Skydiving Fox Glacier, New Zealand


“I don’t feel any nerves or anxiety. Maybe it’s because I know I won’t jump, or more likely because I’m just secretly hoping the whole thing is called off due to the uncertain weather and then I won’t even have to make the decision to jump or not,” I wrote the morning of.

Of course I always prefer a good reason to an excuse. I’ve never had a strong desire to skydive, although I will admit that every time I come and go to New Zealand I always leave with a teeny tiny regret of not participating in the adrenalin-obsessed country’s biggest tourist adventure.

I woke to a buzzing alarm earlier then I would have preferred and pushed the curtains aside at Sunset Motel. In view, thick and bushy grey clouds and dense fog covered the Southern Alps along the West Coast of the South Island in New Zealand. More importantly, hidden behind the haze was the face of Fox Glacier, a massive retreating icy structure I’ve yet to see in a clear view.

We arrived at Skydive Fox Glacier on time for our early morning appointment. Wes, Ceri and Rob had booked months in advance and paid up front. Backing out wasn’t an option for them, and even better the Aussie dollar was more favorable at their time of booking. A week prior to arriving I made a phone call and confirmed that putting my name alongside theirs just guaranteed there would be a slot should I want to jump, but there was no monetary obligation to do so at that time. I took that as an indicator that it was okay that I would ‘maybe’ jump but assumed the likelihood that I actually would was very, very slim.

As the gang approached the office I took a quick wander over to the small plane parked in the bunker. One glance at the size in conjunction with the modest glass door I presumed I would potentially be jumping out of and I said “nope, count me out.” At that point Francoise, a 25-year skydiving veteran and part owner, pulled me aside for a chat and before I knew it my plans for the afternoon took a very unexpected and fear-provoking turn.

Skydive Fox Glacier Plane

Skydive Fox Glacier Plane

In his soothing South African accent Francoise talked me through the process. We discussed my fears, which I couldn’t exactly pinpoint. We walked through the safety process, including the backup parachute and the probability of unfavorable events. With over 9,000 jumps under his belt I trusted his experience. We agreed that we’d go together and more importantly, we’d go first. Before I knew it I was wearing a jump suit, a silly cap and harness. Once I was fully suited up along with the rest of the group I turned to my adviser Francoise and said, “Um, I sort of have to pee”.

Lisa and Francoise, Skydive Fox Glacier

Lisa and Francoise, Skydive Fox Glacier

I sat in a corner on the outdoor wooden bench taking deep breathes and mentally battling my anxiety away as my friends sat across from me making jokes. I couldn’t quite understand how they so discreetly masked their fear. But just as I started to get used to the idea of willingly leaping from a moving aircraft we were approached and told the bad news.

In professional and honest practice we were informed that although it was safe to jump from the launch point, it was too cloudy and the likelihood of us seeing any of the beautiful landscape was minimal. We had to make a call to jump anyway, or postpone it with no penalty. We only had a few hours available before having to move on with our road trip down the West Coast to make it to our next destination in time. We took a vote and agreed that although disappointed, the anxiety and cost wasn’t worth it if we couldn’t see the glacier and decided to take some time out and see if the weather would settle throughout the morning.

In a cold and torrential downpour we walked the base of Fox Glacier and I willed the clouds away so I could grab a clear shot with my camera but to no avail. We moved on to breakfast at Matheson Café on Lake Matheson overlooking the Southern Alps and watched and waited for the clouds to shift as the sun slowly crept in between them. We headed back to the skydiving headquarters to let them know that we were closely watching the sky and would be back in a few hours. How timely as just then it cleared and they informed us that very moment was likely the most opportune time to jump. Ahhh, was it really going to happen?

Fox Glacier base

Fox Glacier base

All my anxiety rushed back and I started to have doubts again. This time, I had a belly full of muesli and a fear of vomiting onto my tandem instructor added to the list of uncertainties. My boy Francoise was there for me again, as I wouldn’t have gone with anyone else at that point and he assured me he’d be there for me throughout the whole occasion. We suited up again, much quicker and a bit more self-assured. Faster than expected the call was made. I witnessed a few thumbs up and and then oh-my-gosh it was go time.

Pre Jump Nerves

Pre Jump Nerves

Rob and I waddled to the plane as our instructors followed us, GoPro’s attached to their wrists to record the whole event. Rob and his instructor Paul shuffled themselves away from the exit through the metal passenger tube towards the nose of the small single engine aircraft before Francoise and I settled in at the door. Immediately he connected us at my lower back, then the top bit behind my shoulders and talked me through how we were safely fastened together while tightening the straps. He calmly explained that the noise was the testing of the engine and a few seconds later, take off. This was now the point of no return.

I took quick deep breaths and mentally said a few Hail Mary’s as we wound our way up. Francoise kept me distracted, pointing out the snow-covered top of Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, the semi-cloud covered Fox Glacier and the rain water lakes Tekapo and Pukaki far below. Between the few turbulence bumps I’d receive gentle squeezes on my shoulder in reassurance that we were okay. Just when I started to relax and appreciate the fact that I’m a regular flyer, otherwise I’d really be freaking out, he gave me the news. We had reached the halfway mark. At that point I looked down and all of the uneasiness came rushing back. “We are only halfway?!”

Reaching Altitude

Reaching Altitude

Around 14,000 feet an oxygen mask appeared around my nose and mouth and I slowly inhaled. This meant only one thing; we were nearly at our jumping altitude. Luckily, the freezing cold air and slow stream of oxygen kept me very relaxed. In fact, I was surprised by how much the oxygen gave me a sense of ease. I felt Francoise do the safety checks on our straps one more time and stared at the back wall of the aircraft waiting in anticipation for the indicator light to turn from red to green. Any second now…

Francoise slid the door open and without hesitation hurled me out of the plane. I heard him later telling one of the other instructors that he heard me scream a few profanities when the door opened and just went for it, not taking the time to sit on the ledge as many others do knowing that would only increase my apprehension.

Gravity did its thing as I fell from 16,500 feet at 200 kph toward the ground below. The first ten seconds were exhilarating. I felt my heart in my throat and a high sense of fear and confusion mixed with adrenaline. For an entire minute after that, literally I free fell for over one minute, I was still falling at terminal velocity and experienced the most intense range of emotions. The air was so cold and the wind hurt like being slapped in the face a million times over. For a second I even thought my nose would bleed. I had to remind myself to take in the magnificent scenery all around me as I dropped through the clouds. I only let out a few screams and then with a massive jolt the parachute finally opened. I went from 200 kph to 10 kph in four seconds.

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I did it! I did it! The hard part was over and I looked up and there was Rob floating down not too far in the distance. How cool to see each other. Francoise handed over the parachute reigns and I pulled down with my right arm to steer us into view of the coastline. A pull down with my left arm and we were facing the mountains again. As I didn’t want to experience any motion sickness we kept it calm and left all the swirls and twirls to the more adventurous. This was the part I enjoyed the most; just calmly floating in the air, watching the sea, the mountains and lush green grass below.

Driving the parachute

Driving the parachute

It was time to land so I handed the reigns back and got into position. With my two feet stretched straight out in front of me we slowly descended and slid across the grass in a very soft and graceful motion. There was Rob waiting for me, and a big high five from Francoise from behind me. I did it! On the ground and safe with a big smile I turned to Francoise and said, “That was cool, but I don’t know if I’d do it again!”

After taking off our gear it was only a few minutes later and Rob and I looked up into the sky. Just a speck next to the sun, we could see Wes and Ceri zooming down toward the ground. Mouth dropped, we turned to each other and went, “Wow, look how high they are! Can you believe that’s where we just came from?!”

High fives all around, proud of each other for such an incredible and brave accomplishment we cheered. Throughout the entire event I never thought I was going to die, or even fathomed the thought. It was all just a big ball of anxiety and apprehension, but that’s normal of course when you’re fleeing yourself from the sky for the first time. Just like the Francoise said, if I didn’t have a sense of fear to jump then I’d be crazy and they don’t jump with crazy people. As we pulled away in our rental car from Skydive Fox Glacier we turned to each other and said, “Um, I need a beer!” So we celebrated.

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Everything in the world can be on your way


I’ve always been envious of those who have literally traveled around the world. You too likely know someone daring who’s done it. They buy a ‘round the world’ ticket that entitles them to travel to a pre-specified number of continents, then a specific city on each continent, to be used in one direction over a maximum length of time. This type of ticket offers freedom to those people who have time at a very affordable cost. The benefits to an independent traveler mean that they can ‘generally’ stay for as long as they like, move on when ready, and can decide when and how to make the most of their destinations.

Last month I circumvented the globe. I can assume this counts too, but it wasn’t your typical trip or initially intended to be as such. I reclaimed my old haunts while in London, sipped wine in Paris, explored architecture in Oxford before a 12 hour stint in NYC to grab a pint and a snuggle with old friends. I moved on to Charlotte to celebrate my sisters wedding then relaxed on the beaches outside of Charleston before an afternoon of fine dining over lunch with the ladies back in Manhattan. My long hauls took me from Melbourne to London (via Dubai) to New York then back to Melbourne (via LA) and alas, global circumference.

Sitting on multiple planes (for an entire day at times) during this 3 week whirlwind of a holiday sure gave me a lot of time to think. Here are my 5 biggest reflections while circumventing the globe:

  1. Australia really is really, really far away. But it’s not the distance I took note of, by now I’m used to the flight time. What was more interesting is that for the first time since living here for close to 3.5 years the segregation of Australia to the rest of the world became prevalent. I was clueless that I missed out on major global media scandals, was reminded of diversity walking through the streets of New York and how few Americans I encounter living in Australia compared to the constant sound of a hard ‘R’’ that accompanies the American tourists in central London.
  2. Don’t let jetlag control you; jetlag will control you. Despite a motto of ‘just ignore it and it will go away’, jetlag really is the pits. And whilst I was in and out of cities faster than being able to unpack a bag, there was no time to waste on an extra nap or late sleep in. Once you throw a few wines into the mix your body clock is even more thoroughly confused. If you can ride the jetlag wave, all power to you.
  3. Frequent Flyer Status is holy. In a world where I’ve achieved One World Gold status, which entitles me to the business lounge, free food and alcohol, free Wi-Fi, priority check in, priority baggage and occasional upgrades, flying a non-partner airline is like going back in time. The disappointment, as self-entitled as it may sound, to have to pay for wi-fi while waiting to board a flight or annoyingly wait in a ridiculously long and disorderly queue makes me cringe at the thought. I can at least say I witnessed non-Gold perks during all the flights it took to obtain it in the first place.
  4. Waiting to write drains the intensity. I have pages and pages of notes from my trip encapsulating the emotion I felt when stepping outside Victoria Station for the first time in 8 years to seeing my nephew for the first time in 8 months. Unfortunately, there’s too much to say and sometimes it feels all too late. Next time, I’m writing to you on the go.
  5. The world really is a small place, and quite accessible if you make the opportunity to see it all! It is possible to fly around the world – even if you’re not on a yearlong journey with a backpack strapped to your back. And while I’m still envious of those who take an extensive amount of time off to discover the world in one pre-paid for direction, I’ve also discovered that hopping over to London before my trips to New York, or maybe somewhere else in Europe is quite do-able. I don’t need to wait another 8 years to see the places I love.
Louvre

Catching up with an old friend in the rain outside the Louvre, Paris.

My Tasmanian Secrets


Tasmania is not in Africa. It’s is not a remote tropical island in Southeast Asia either. If fact, Tasmania is just another state within Australia.

Often the butt of insensitive jokes by many Australians about inbred farmers, backward small town ways and the like, my recent visit was nothing of a joke though. I came purely for the Pinot Noir but left with so much more.

Hobart

A flight from Melbourne to Hobart round-trip cost me less then accommodation for one night in Launceston. It’s cheap and conveniently an hour away. I’m also lucky my friend David has a corporate apartment downtown so that was a gracious offer that made things very easy.

But with less than 48 hours in Hobart we had to narrow down our options and I would highly recommend the below:

Salamanca Place: for a small town, this is where the action happens. An old historic square with cafes, restaurants and bars around the parameter its one of the few areas open late and bound to have some people around, especially when we flew on a Thursday evening. On Saturday mornings the Salamanca Market is one of the most famous in Australia, with over 300 stalls of local crafts, produce, street performers and more. For drink and nosh I recommend Cargo Bar Pizza Lounge and Grape Food and Wine.

Criterion salted caramel waffles

Criterion salted caramel waffles

Criterion Street Café: was literally the best breakfast I’ve had in my life. After a friends recommendation to try the caramel salted waffles with vanilla mascarpone I was immediately smitten. We also wanted to try to the corn and green chili fritters since after all, it was breakfast. The service was impeccable, anticipating we wanted the fritters to share at the start and the waffles for dessert; they brought out two separate, huge servings and didn’t even charge extra. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so full, but I would get on a plane right now to eat there again.

Museum of Old and New Art (MONA): This is the place known for being weird. Australians flock to Tasmania to visit the one true modern art gallery in the country. Those who have visited places such as MoMa and the Tate think it’s nothing too different but if you’re in Hobart this is a must visit.

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While you can drive, one of the best parts of the experience is to hop on the Mona Roma, the high-speed ferry that takes about 40 minutes to reach the museum. While not only being an educational ride with commentary about the landscape, the ferry offers decorative artwork, a funky interior of leather stools, a live parrot and even fake sheep as seats (cattle car) in addition to serving Moo Brew and Moorilla Estate wines on board. On the MONA property you could literally spend a whole day in the exhibits alone, everything from a room of TVs singing Madonna acapella to a poo machine, a project simulating the digestive system of the human body. But then there’s the food such as wood fired pizza, local cheese and meat platters and even fine dining; and the drink, like wine tastings from Moorila Estate and beer flights from Boo Brew; and the scenery, overlooking the water, the vineyard and the town in the background. Saturdays they host markets on the lawn, where on occasion are live performers and it’s just a great place to relax in the sun and enjoy chilled out Tasmania.

East Coast

After leaving Hobart we decided to drive up the east coast to make our way north to Launceston. It all happened in just one day and was jam-packed. I definitely recommend spacing it out if you’ve got the time.

Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park: There’s a reason why I love and thoroughly read my in flight magazine. In this instance, without doing so I would not have known to visit and contribute to saving the endangered Tasmanian devils. They’re only found in the wild in Tasmania, so what a once in a lifetime experience. The entrance fee was a bit steep at $33, but knowing the proceeds went toward a good cause made it worth it. The dog like animals, many of which have a contagious facial cancer were interesting to watch, as they are the largest meat-eating marsupial. While in heat they made loud, screeching noises while barring their razor teeth and were quite aggressive during their feeding time, which we got to watch (dead possum, yum). There were some other animals at the park as well such as kangaroos, wallabies, and birds so there is enough wildlife to kill an hour or so to make it worth the visit.

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Port Arthur

Port Arthur

Port Arthur: is a historical site about an hour and half southeast of Hobart that used to house convicts. Not just any convicts, but those that had already committed a crime and their first punishment was to be sent to Australia in the first place. If you committed another, Port Arthur was your likely destiny. The admission fee included a 40 minute guided tour, which was enough to help us understand what we were looking at and where we wanted to spend the remainder of our time while exploring the grounds. Unfortunately, because we had such a long drive ahead of us it meant we didn’t discover much, but even dropping by made for a beautiful drive and an educational experience.

Freycinet National Park: is a beautiful national park on the east coast of Tasmania about 3 hours north from Port Arthur. Our sole purpose was to visit Wineglass Bay, an outlet of Cole’s Bay shaped like a wineglass. Our plan was to drive up the coast, have a hike around the national park, watch the water shimmer against Wineglass Bay and then travel on to Launceston. But we arrived too late. Dusk was starting to set and frankly, Wineglass Bay didn’t look like anything special. The park information center was already closed and we didn’t have a permit to park. We went for about a 5-minute hike, or more specifically it was just a walk to the water’s edge, and decided to call it a day. Luckily the Edge Restaurant at the Edge of the Bay Resort was open for dinner. We figured, at the least enjoying a delicious meal overlooking the bay would make the long travel time worth it before we had to head back into the car to make our way further North. I had the local specialty of the blue eye trevalla coupled with the Freycinet Valley’s own, Gala Estate Riesling.

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No one told us in advance not to drive at night though. I will tell you now, do not drive at night! It was another two hours after we left Cole’s Bay to Launceston and we figured easy enough. But once on the road, winding our way away from the coast inland and north the GPS took us through another national park. Pitch black, there was no one else on the slow, curvy road. I put on my glasses because at that point I had one official duty, to watch the side of the road for animals. Carcass after carcass of dead animal bodies lay splattered on the road ahead of us so we decided to slow down even more, going no more then 40 kilometers while the radio blasted Saturday evening techno music. It was going to be a long 2 hours, and despite our best efforts before we knew it, boom. Regrettably, a huge kangaroo ran into the car from the side. Luckily he hopped away and we are still praying he is okay.

Launceston

I recently discovered that Tasmanians from Hobart and Launceston have a city rivalry. With just a short amount of time in both cities, I’d put my money on Launceston.

Tamar Valley: Pronounced tame-er, out of all the wine valleys in Tasmania we chose to tour this one. Their Pinot Noirs can be described as heavy and earthy, similar to those of Oregon in the Northwest of the US.  I had high hopes and anticipated shipping home cases and cases, but I left with just one bottle in my suitcase (interestingly from the Coal River Valley outside of Hobart). I’m not sure if my disappointment was because I don’t fully understand my own pallet, or simply because I was more surprised to learn and love their dry Rieslings, interesting Fume Blanc’s and mild Sparkling. I even revisited my old friends Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio and learnt in more detail the actual difference of the two.

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We booked a tour with Prestige Leisure Tours, and by luck we were actually the only ones booked in for the day. That meant we could customize the tour to our liking and our number one priority was to visit Bay of Fires, one of our top picks from the Pinot Palooza event we attended back in September.  But first we made a stop a Josef Chromy, the worldwide winner for their 2011 Chardonnay that was obviously, but unfortunately not available for tasting. I did however purchase the 2013 to hold on to in the hopes it will mature just as nicely as I’m told that Chardonnay is Tasmania’s best kept secret.

The favorite of the day was Dalamere Vineyard, a small family owned winery in the Pipers Brook region. We got to sit with the winemaker Fran and chat in detail about their handpicked fruits and it was pleasant to just be in a casual, non-touristy setting. Despite them being known for their excellent sparkling, I left with the most interesting of them all, the 2013 Fume Blanc.

We had lunch at Piper’s Brook Vineyard, but I was less impressed with their larger scale production and average food. We then moved on to Leaning Church, another small, picturesque vineyard with amazing views, but I found none of the wine too memorable. At the least, our fabulous driver Michael was helpful in providing recommendations on how to spend our last 24 hours in Tasmania.

Dickens Cider: offers amazing, locally produced ciders and the cute bar in downtown Launceston was a clear next stop once we returned from the wine tour. This is real cider too, thick, cloudy and only natural sugars, it was a refreshing alternative to the bottled stuff I usually drink on other occasions.

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The owner recommended and made reservations for us at the Black Cow Bistro, one of the town’s best upmarket restaurants offering Tasmania’s finest steak. Oh my, truffle béarnaise sauce on lean Tasmanian beef, despite us being quite a few drinks deep we still enjoyed the deliciousness of it all. We made one last stop off for the night, despite it being a Sunday and stumbled over to St. John Craft Beer. I was so excited to try some different beers offered on their ten or so taps but left frustrated and disappointed. The two brothers who owned the place were quite rude and unhelpful, assuming I would want just an average lager and didn’t offer tastings. It was like pulling teeth before I got handed over the amazing Kooinda Black IPA.

Coal River Valley

It was only 2 hours south down the middle of the state to the quant town of Richmond before we turned off to visit much acclaimed Frogmore Creek Wines. We had a couple of hours to kill before our flight back to Melbourne and I refused to leave without a Pinot Noir, despite the other 3 bottles of white wine in my suitcase. Unfortunately their restaurant was closed so we had a quick tasting, I bought a bottle of the 2012 42 degrees Pinot Noir and we moved on.

Coal Valley Vineyard

Coal Valley Vineyard

Coal Valley Vineyard was just a kilometer or so down the road so we turned off to enjoy an amazing cheese platter and a glass of pinot in the sunshine overlooking the vines. This was the perfect way to close off the vacation. Shortly afterward we made our way over to Barilla Bay Oyster Farm, literally a five-minute drive from the airport to try some fresh oysters before boarding our flight. The restaurant didn’t open until 5 unfortunately, so we got a plate of 12 fresh oysters from the take out counter and sat and enjoyed them on ice with a squeeze of lemon.

The Qantas Lounge in Hobart’s airport is only open until 4 pm fyi, which was really disappointing. We still had some time until our evening flight departed so sat in the airport enjoying one last pinot, Abel’s Tempest Pinot Noir, the same wine we had on our first night in Salamanca to close out the trip in a very Tassie way.

Sydney lightening storm

All for gold


It happened to me. I had heard horror stories from time and time again but somehow in my arrogant travel-god mindset I thought I could escape it.

It’s 6.55 am. I’m rinsing my morning breath out with tap water from an airport hotel sink. My underwear have been put back on inside out and I just sniffed the armpits of the shirt I wore yesterday and then slept in, to see how bad the damage really is before putting it back on.

On my way to Melbourne Airport I was tense, fearing that I would miss the first leg of my long haul flight. So tense in fact, I was gripping my knee with one hand while the other was balled in a fist; giving my cab driving glaring glances anytime he slowed down or didn’t take the plunge and make a life-threatening pass by another car.  But I made it.

Even worse, I was the second to the last person to board the plane on my second leg outbound to Tokyo. I didn’t even get a chance to make it through to duty free. It was exhausting. Little did I know I’d be sitting on the runway for 2.5 hours while a horrific lightening storm engulfed Sydney. Now I feared being struck by lightening. The plane never took off that evening.

I spent the next hour or so going through immigration in reverse, then wondering why my luggage never appeared on the carrousel. There were 6 of us from Melbourne, none of our luggage made the transfer. It was the lightening’s fault.

We bound together in line to request our airport hotel voucher, along with the passengers of the other 6 flights cancelled that evening. Luckily a lovely Japanese lady bit the bullet and requested we get ours immediately, we didn’t have any luggage after all. Relieved to get a room, we then stood in line for another hour waiting for a taxi. At least I made some new friends out of it.

So here’s the funny thing. I didn’t follow the rules. You know, the standard international traveler rules. I had no clean clothes, no toothbrush or deodorant and by luck managed to sneak my phone charger in last minute otherwise would have been worse off. How could I ignore my own rules?

Flying is such an important part of my life. I have packing down to a science. I own different suitcases and travel bags for every different purpose: overnight duffle, weekend duffle, weekend wheely, work wheely, summer trip wheely backpack, long trip wheely backpack, long trip wheely duffle…I can go on. Ensuring I only pack what I can physically carry, at the same time guaranteeing I have enough outfits to not have to duplicate when possible.

When going through security my eyes scan the lines like a hawk seeing prey. I squirm at children, dodge baby strollers and avoid the elderly at all costs. I can predict the Qantas Lounge’s meals by time of day and day of the week. I know when to eat, sleep, drink, watch, and read to maximize my sleep time.

I have memorized two different frequent flyer numbers by heart. My phone apps are synced to weather in multiple cities, airline check in, currency converters, and offline maps.  My favorite day to fly is the first of the month; it’s when a new inflight magazine becomes available. I want to chat with pilots as often as I’m given the chance.

But at the end of the day I will pay for loyalty. I must admit one of my biggest bucket list items is to become Gold on Qantas. I’m envious of those who board the plane first and those that get to use the special line when going through security.

Despite my pride as the almighty entitled traveler, the tables had turned that day boarding my flight to Japan a few weeks ago. I was lucky that in the end it worked out and I arrived at a similar time to my old college roommate Holly. It made the 1.5-hour journey on the Narita Express to Tokyo, then navigating from Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, to our hotel a few blocks away a major relief.

As I logged into my Qantas Frequent Flyer account today I was overjoyed at what I saw. As of my hassle-free flight back to Australia on November 30, 2013 I am now officially Gold status!

More on Japan coming soon!

The American-Australian Debate


I’m an American expat and have been living in Brisbane, Australia for exactly 1 year and 10 months (in two days). Acquaintances of both nationalities often ask me what the other is really like. Are we really all so different?

What’s interesting is that many Australians, like many other societies, have an idealistic vision of certain aspects of America influenced by pop culture. Going to Disney World, New York City, and Vegas are top priority destinations on a bucket list for many. For some equally naive Americans, Australia is depicted as a laid back, blond-haired surf community who put shrimp on the barbie and have pet kangaroos.

So here are 6 observations – and I must preface “in my opinion” – between Australian and American ways of life.

There will be people, places and ideas that of course don’t apply to everyone, and everything. I’m in no way insinuating that they do. You could argue that I could include facts about dueling healthcare systems, poverty lines and unemployment rates, but I’m not going to go there. There are also many topics like food, drinking cultures, and television. This is just a small aspect of current reflections of my time on both continents.

1. Societal pressure

This is my ultimate number one; a topic I engage in conversations regularly. As an American growing up on the East Coast there is a simple formula to success. You go to school and get good test scores. You choose a university and the more prestigious the name, the better. While enrolled in university you partake in extra curricular activities, clubs and begin undergoing internships as soon as possible. You graduate in 4 years, no more. After graduation due to your collegiate success you have a job lined up and gradually work your way up the corporate ladder. There is no gap year; there is no break to sit back and think about your future. At 18 before you even leave high school you sign up for the rest of your life.

Furthermore, your career becomes your status. Blue collar jobs are frowned upon and success is measured by you and your significant other’s occupation.

I find that the societal pressure I speak of above is drastically less significant here in Australia. A university degree is important, but not essential to obtaining a career. And I use the term career loosely. Less significant is what job you have, but better the fact that you have a job. Blue-collar jobs, mineworkers, plumbers, construction workers, what they term as “tradies” are highly regarded, because they require skill and get paid big bucks. There is no shame in saying your significant other is an admin assistant or carpenter.

With that, keeping a long-standing career in one area isn’t as essential. Most young people go traveling between graduating high school and going to university, if they even do. In fact, its called a “gap year” and encouraged. Many people work for an amount of time to save their money and then go traveling…in their 20s AND 30s. But what about your job when you get back, saving for a house, babies? The priority tends to be more about enjoying your life and spending the time and money you do have on experiencing it.

Of course, there is the current economic state and unemployment rate in the US compared to the high economic success Australia is having at the moment (ahum mining) that one could argue are attributing to both of these factors and cannot be ignored. However if you removed them from the equation I still feel strongly that it’s an underlying mentality of each culture more then anything else.

2. Cost of living

In Australia, it is astronomical. Again, the economy…I get it. Australians get paid more and therefore things cost more. New York is expensive but in comparison to everyday Australia, it’s a bargain.

Here are a few examples of Brisbane and New York price comparisons:

Piece of Pizza: AU $7; US $2.50

Bus Ticket: AU $4.80; US $2.50

6 Pack of Beer: AU$ 16; US $8

Pair of Nike sneakers: AU $240; US $180

Gatorade: AU$4.80; US $2.50

Another example is retirement packages. In the US, your employer may provide you with a 401K package, in which you contribute a certain percent (typically a 3% minimum) of your salary in which your employer contributes another 3%. In Australia, your employer legally has to pay you Superannuation of 12% on top of your salary, and you can contribute to it as you like. Not a bad deal.

3. Airline etiquette

One advantage of being a country that has no majors concerns about national security means that your airport traffic and regulations can be a whole lot more lax. Let’s compare the two experiences.

If I were to have an 8 o’clock domestic flight, I would depart Brisbane Airport at 7:40. I would therefore likely arrive at the airport before my flight at 7:20 or so. Yes, 20 minutes before boarding is plenty of time. Upon entering the destinations lounge I would approach one of the 30 or so Qantas kiosks scattered around the area to check in. To do so I’d simply search by my last name, then first name, and finally select my destination from a list in order for my boarding pass to print. While I’m at it, I would also print my baggage tag and then check my own bag without the assistance of anyone needed, but the friendly service attendants make themselves available just in case.

Once approaching security, at worst will take more then 5 minutes, I put my bags through the scanner. The only thing I need to take out is my laptop or any sort of aerosols. Shoes stay on, sweatshirt stays on, water stays put and get this, and so does my ID the entire time! I’m through, whew, although I will add that I always get picked for that darn bomb detector swifter.

There’s also something strange about the plane etiquette. It’s an unspoken signal. Just as its time to board, without an announcement needed everyone just files into line to board the plane. Sometimes they announce to board by row, buts its unnecessary as everyone takes into an orderly fashion. There are some passengers with carry-on items but not everyone carrying everything they own on earth.

Qantas domestic provides one bag complimentary checked, complimentary meals or snacks on every flight, and free booze during evenings. Sometimes I even get inflight entertainment – like movies on my own personal screen. Just saying. I’ve never seen anyone get bumped for an oversold flight or asked to give-up his or her seat.

The flipside. Where to start. Smelly home-made food, old-school planes, madness, no overhead room for luggage, chaos at security.  My god.

Most US airlines oversell their seats. That means that if you don’t select your seat when your purchase your ticket (usually at a cost if you’re not a member of their loyalty program with a certain status) there is a chance that when you arrive at the airport to check in you may not have a seat on your purchased flight. Notice boards are now customary in many airport lounges with a long stand by list. A plus, if you’re in no rush you can usually give up your seat for a voucher for a free future flight and get on the next plane.

Because luxuries like complimentary meals, even measly food like the classic bag of peanuts, no longer exist, that means that people have begun the disgusting habit of bringing left overs from home or in take out containers from the airport food court. There is nothing like sitting in a vacuum-sealed compartment with the pungent smell of hundreds of passengers’ leftovers wafting in the air.

And one final point, as plane upgrades seem like a thing of the past and flying aviation from 20 years ago is trending, airlines have tacked on costs for checked baggage. Yes, this exists here in Australia too for airlines aside from Qantas. But, for some reason I find that American passengers have decided it’s just not worth the cost to check a bag, and therefore try and beat the system by bringing on board everything they possibly own. If you’re unfortunate to board the plane last you won’t even have room to tuck away your handbag.

4. Shortening of words

Is it shortening of words, or just slang? I think a bit of both. Some say it derives from the criminals who founded this darn continent (geez lets just forget about the indigenous people), regardless, picking up new fashion slang and slicing every multi syllable word in half is right up my ally.

Ranga – someone with red hair (short for orangutan)

Tradie – someone who works a trade job

Arvo – Afternoon

Bicky – Biscuit aka cookie

Cuppa – Cup of coffee or tea

Barbie – BBQ

Togs, Swimmers – Bathing Suit

Snags – Sausages

Singlet – Tank top

Sunnies – Sunglasses

Bottle O’ – Liquor Store

Servo – Service Station/Gas Station

Mate – Friend

5. Sitting in the front of cabs

So one of the best things about New York City is the cabs. You can get across town, uptown to downtown etc. for under a $20 cab fair. While your at it, yapping away to your friends passing street vendors, bodegas, and various bars, although it can be annoying at times, you have a TV sharing with you the latest weather, pop culture, and news. Don’t like it, simply turn it off. But sometimes it’s a nice distraction to pass the time. Rarely do you sit in the front of a cab, and that’s only when you’re exactly 4 people.

In Brisbane at least, a cab from the trendy “going out” area of The Valley to my apartment a 15-minute walk away cost $12. Public transport is outrageous, hard to come by without dialing a number, and the fairs increase the later it gets.

The expectation is that if you’re a solo passenger you sit in the front. It can be an exhausting experience. Sometimes I don’t want to make conversation and so I’ll say my brief hello, provide my destination then stare aimlessly out the window or watch the expensive meter tick by. Other times call for being a chatterbox and time passes quickly with friendly attentiveness from my chauffeur.

I’m aware this isn’t a comparison on America as it is more on NYC versus Brisbane but for someone making the transition, sitting in the front one on one with the driver can be intense.

6. Service and options

But none of the above comparisons can go without mentioning the luxuries that America has that Australia, or at least Brisbane can’t compare by an inch. It’s what makes America, well, America and so many other nations and cities envious. America has options, and a lot of them.

In Brisbane shops close at 5 or 6, there is no mid-week shopping – except one day a week allocated for “late night shopping”. What!?!? Not only in NYC, but also even in suburbia shops are open until at least 9. And there are options, so many options. There are cheap clothing stores with cheap clothes for cheap prices and cheap stores with decent clothes for cheap prices and expensive stores with cheap clothes and expensive stores with expensive quality.

When it comes to food you can’t even compare. 24 hour options, fast food, gourmet foods, trendy restaurants, hot dogs, pizza, donuts, cheesesteaks, hoagies, beer. Yum yum yum yum.

Minimum wage in the States is appalling. Many service works don’t receive incentive packages like healthcare and live solely by tips. With that, you expect attentive service and if you don’t get it many know the restaurant’s reputation and their tip will reflect. For me, 20% was standard. What’s great about tipping is you can incentive better service. What’s not great is you can spend a lot more then the cost of the meal shelving out those incentives. Because more customers mean more money, it’s not customary to take a table for a full evening. It’s in and out.

In Australia, many service workers make around $20 an hour. Tipping is only done if service is extraordinary and you want to thank a server for going above and beyond. Tipping is very rare. Although the food prices are higher, the atmosphere can be a bit more relaxed and you can take your time with your meal. That also means though that the servers have no incentive to provide exemplary service and at times this can be very frustrating.

I leave Australia again this week to head for America for a quick trip. What I’ve noticed has become a bit of a pattern is that for my first few days in the States I’m constantly making comparisons in my head to my life here in Brisbane. I’m grateful for the laid-back lifestyle and simplicity of things here. By the end of my trip after enjoying the luxuries of a fast paced lifestyle back in New York indulging in all its luxuries the tables turn.  Oh the woes of living abroad.

Dear United


I’m hoping you may be able to provide some clarity on some details of your international flight routes. Specifically, customer comforts such as in-flight entertainment and refreshments? I thank you in advance for reading, despite the length of my letter, as I think it’s important that you hear my story. I’ve also shared my story with the readers of my travel blog www.thesetwoeyes.com and look forward to disclosing your feedback with them as well.

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the economic situation and the impact it has had on the airline industry. As a fellow person in business, day-to-day I see various industries shifting and shuffling trying to make ends meet to keep afloat. Those that I value the most are the companies that look to the future and acknowledge customers’ needs, rather than cut corners to hit hard budgets. In all business, customer loyalty and word of mouth can fortunately or unfortunately make or break you.

In the United States we’ve seen trends such as this take over the industry and for much of Europe as well. The airlines that get the most praise are those that are doing something different than the rest and give the perception that they’re customer focused; airlines such as Jet Blue and Southwest come to mind. Internationally, there are handfuls of airlines aspiring back to the days where it used to be a privilege to fly; as a customer on a plane you were treated with respect for your time and loyalty, even in economy. I’ve experienced this myself on Qantas, Emirates, Thai Airways, Air New Zealand, British Airways and others.

As a loyal Continental flyer for a number of years, I can honestly say that I looked forward to flying domestically. With Newark Liberty International Airport being a fantastic hub for a northern New Jersey resident, I always made Newark and Continental my primary choice for flying both business and leisure. I found the service hospitable, the planes in tidy condition, and even appreciated the small snacks like the turkey sandwiches. This truly gave them a competitive edge while others were taking away perks such as complimentary baggage and even soft drinks.

When Continental merged with United I got a bit nervous; what could this mean for my favourite airline? I found out too soon after cashing in my hard earned miles for a flight from Newark to Sydney, Australia in November 2010. As a frequent international flyer, I was astonished at what I found on the other end of the jet-way. I’d like to acknowledge that yes, I did cash in my miles and despite the taxes this flight could be classified as “complimentary” however I do not think any service should be downgraded due to this.

United LA to Sydney

My thoughts from November 2010 flying United LA to Sydney

I have my notes from that flight still today. I was so uncomfortable with my experience that I took the time to write them down and it’s unfortunate that I’ve waited this long to notify you. What is most interesting is that on my flight from Newark to LA I had a fantastic experience. The plane was in impeccable condition and I had an empty seat between my window seat and my neighbour in the aisle. I was surprised and grateful that I had my own in-flight entertainment in the seat in front which made the long journey go by pleasantly; something that was not expected for a domestic flight. I remember specifically thinking to myself to not watch any of the good movies yet, I’ll save them for the long haul flight on my next leg.

From LA to Sydney is where my real complaint comes in. The plane was dated and the interior was in poor condition. I didn’t feel as if it were going to fall apart, however I am always comfortable in the interiors of Virgin and British Airways and expected the same conditions (if not better) for an even longer haul, especially the leg room. I thought to myself, how was my domestic flight superior to this?

My biggest disappointment had come with the entertainment. The last time I’d been on an international flight in economy where the entire plane had to squint to watch the same program, as there were no personal entertainment systems, was on an Olympic Air in 2008, and despite their bankruptcy, I swore to never fly with them again. With average meals and no complimentary alcoholic beverages it makes me wonder how United can stay in business against the likes of Virgin Australia and Qantas on this same route?

I am now residing in Australia and take the international flight from Brisbane to New York, or some similar combination whether it be from Sydney or to Philadelphia, a handful of times a year. I am very loyal to Qantas due to their service, professionalism, entertainment, efficiency, and refreshments being above par. So much that I rave about them quite regularly on my blog www.thesetwoeyes.com. In fact, I make a point to ask every person I meet who has travelled via LA to Australia what airline they took. Before even answering I know by their expression if was United. It’s a common joke amongst cross-Pacific travellers that if you have a United flight, you might as well not even go because it’s anticipated to be that bad.

As the holidays are approaching I’m returning to the US on another long haul flight.  I cannot express the intensity of my disappointment when the only option within my budget during overpriced holiday season was with United. I write this to you because I don’t want to have the panic that I felt when I spent over $3,000 on a flight and already anticipate a horrible experience. I am not cheap, I will pay for a bottle of wine or sandwich if that is what is required however after already paying $3,000 this is completely unnecessary. And as far as entertainment goes, I think your flight crew may have a more pleasant time if their customers were distracted and content watching what suited them on a personal level rather than overhearing their neighbour snoring because they can’t see the communal television.

I can appreciate that all of these may sound like superficial complaints but for a frequent flyer who enjoys flying, who looks forward to the experience and has praise for many airlines that get the formula right, I’m asking you, United, when are you going to lead the pack? Or as a minimum, improve your services to be on par with your direct competitors? What are you doing about in-flight entertainment, service, leg room, and refreshments for long haul flights?

An Australian colleague recently said to me, “We look to the United States as a global leader, as someone who always has the best. How is it that flying a US airline is one of the worst experiences a traveller could have?”

Thank you for reading this lengthy letter. I do anticipate your response and look forward to hearing about how my experience and future travels will be improved.

Kind Regards,

Lisa

Please take my poll below.

The Art of the Long Haul Flight


Flying economy is a skill. I mean this whole heartedly. But flying long haul economy is a talent.

Sort of like the band Nada Surf’s “teenage guide to popularity” in the 1996 alternative hit “Popular”, the below is my ABC’s to a successful long haul flight.

Firstly, it all starts with the airline. There are airlines that I praise, as do others hence why they win awards. They soar in excellence for in-flight service, entertainment, customer care, culinary delights, cabin décor and leg room. Of those I’ve personally flown I put Qantas, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada, Air New Zealand and Emirates on this list yet I know there are still many more to dip my luxury toes in.

Jaime and I on Emirates from JFK to Thailand via Dubai in 2009

Then there is the DO NOT fly list. And I will more than happily cough over an extra few hundred dollars to avoid this list. This includes Olympic Air, Iceland Air, United or better yet, any US airline both internationally and domestically. But those are all a story for another day. Let’s assume you’ve done the sensible thing and purchased a ticket on a credible airline.

Eileen and I not happy campers on Olympic Air on our way to Athens in 2008

You’ll need to arrive at the airport approximately 1.5 hours before the flight, merely due to immigration hold ups as you will undoubtedly experience a smooth check in procedure as your chosen airline is a professional and competent organization.

After checking in and upon clearing immigration, grab that bottle of water and start the stretches. Long haul flights are long, and you want to avoid leg cramps otherwise known as DVT (deep vein thrombosis). Use the furniture such as a chair to prop your leg up on and reach for your toes. Try the big floor to ceiling window next. Put your hand on the glass while admiring the massive plane you’re about to board and the base of your foot against the bottom of the window to stretch your calves. Next grab hold of the vending machine to stable yourself while pulling your leg back to stretch those thighs.

It should be almost time to board. They may call you by row number, or request flyers with more elite statuses to approach first, however I like to assume I’m one of the elite and begin boarding as soon as possible. Yes, it’s annoying to have to sit on the plane longer then needed however people can be stupid, and if you can avoid watching them try to awkwardly maneuver their suitcase into the overhead compartments or tell their child…not that row, keep going, not that one either, hurry up people are waiting…you get the idea.

The big debate – aisle verses window. You’ll need to make this decision the moment you purchase your ticket, because not only do you want your preferred seat you also want to be as far in the front of the plane as possible and this can only be guaranteed if you choose your seat immediately while booking.

I see the perks in both sides of this debacle yet I’ve been a loyal snoozer to the window for nearly ten years. So saddle in to your window seat, remove your shoes and put on a comfy pair of slippers, or slipper socks is what I prefer. Pack your water, Kindle, and journal into the seat pocket in front of you but leave the iPod behind, there’s plenty of in-flight entertainment to satisfy your aural needs. Open the in-flight magazine and let the journey begin.

To put the next 24 hours of flying into context, let’s assume you’re flying from Sydney to New York. The first hour will be spent reading the in-flight magazine from front to back cover, even admiring all those lines dotting around the world map in the very last page while you envision yourself and all the air miles you’d acquire connecting them. While reading, safety procedures will be conducted by the air hostesses in the background.

Once finished the in-flight magazine, turn on your in-flight entertainment screen on the headrest in front of you and scan the entire list of movies, yes even the classics, TV shows, games, destination guides and the flight map. Pick at least 4-6 of your favorites. Begin movie # 1.

Around the time that movie #1 ends you’ll have been distributed a menu for the duration of the flight, as well as some sort of compliments bag containing an eye mask, tooth brush etc. Dinner will now be served, yet it’s probably only noon or 1 pm in the afternoon. Enjoy it, it’s probably delicious and while you’re at it drink at least 2 mini bottles of red wine throughout the process. You’ll need them and they’re free.

An hour of fine wining and dining and then your meal will be collected. You’re now about halfway into movie #2. You may feel the urge to go to the toilet but not just yet, you’re in the window seat remember. Wait until movie #2 finishes, take a peek at your neighbors, and then do the old, “I’m really sorry, do you mind?” with an apologetic smile.

The next part is up to you. The lights are dimmed, it’s probably early afternoon, and it’s time to pretend it’s night time and sleep meanwhile you’ve only been awake for less than 8 hours. You have a few options – movie #3, but then again, you know you’ll never make it through the whole thing; read, but you’ll probably piss off your neighbor with that darn light; or just go for it, sleep. For approximately 6 hours.

At some point they’re bound to get up, and if they do, that’s your one shot. Do a few laps around the plane, and hang out in the very back by the toilets. You’ll thank yourself for getting a good seat in the front and not having all the people like you linger in the back. Plus, they usually store extra snacks back there so help yourself.

It’s movie #3 time and will you look at that, the cabin lights are slowly glowing brighter. Rise and shine! Breakfast is served, and it’s an option of hot eggs and mushrooms and bacon or boring cereal. Go for the eggs! Yawn, yawn but you know what this means, you probably only have 3.5 hours left. This is very exciting. That’s only one more movie, and a few reruns of The Big Bang Theory.

Take a moment to fill out your landing card so you don’t waste time at customs in LAX and flip over to the flight map. Spend the last hour watching yourself get closer and closer to landing. Boom, you’re there before you know it.

Now, you’ll most likely have a minimum of 2 hours in LAX but after clearing customs and having a beer or 2 at 7 am California time you’ll be on another plane shortly. 5.5 hours to New York is a breeze, and because you will have barely slept on the first leg, this is your chance to catch up because once you land in New York, its go time, probably only 6 pm the same day you left Australia. Weird.

So now that you have this excellent advice from a well versed long haul economy flyer, I wish you luck on your travels to visit me here in Australia or elsewhere around the globe. I’m embarrassed to say I just booked a long haul economy flight on United to visit Philadelphia for Christmas and will not be privileged to any of the aforementioned perks however will stretch adequately prior to boarding.

Start spreading the news…


Start spreading the news…I want to be a part of it, New York, New York!

Descending into John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York, I imagine myself landing in the city that so many people dream about for the first time. It’s by far not my first time, I grew up in Jersey for crying out loud, but that feeling still never goes away. There’s so many of them; teeny tiny lights. They’re clustered nearly on top of each other, and appear endless. This is the true definition of population density.

Stepping foot into Manhattan that old feeling rushes back. It’s euphoric, and energizing, and makes me want to scream from the inside out, “ahh, I love you New York!” There really isn’t anywhere else like it.

Walking the old streets again made me feel like I had never left. The smell of Nuts for Nuts, zigzagging the unpleasant bustle of mid-town, instant aggravation. I craved shopping, took one look at Macy’s with lust, then took another look and remembered the vow I made to never step foot in Macy’s on 34th Street again. It’s an anxiety attack jam packed into one old iconic building.

I jaywalk without fear of a ticket, hop in the back of cab to catch up on the daily news, and squeal a bit that I can go so far, for so cheap. I look up at the symbolic Empire State Building and curse myself for never actually making the journey up myself. Then pass the line down the street, the tourists huddled in groups being bombarded by sightseeing companies. I’m just one with the locals; they don’t know I left.

But the even better part is going to the old hang outs. Dirty dives in the East Village and restaurants that deny you a table without a month’s advance reservation. These streets are just every day streets, with everyday people. It’s not chaos, it’s just living. Cab horn beeping, siren blaring, crazies cursing, stroller pushing, frat boys smoking, high heels wearing, beer drinking, cocktail sipping New York!

And I miss the days where I had no pretentions about it. I knew exactly where to get a $2 beer and 2:1 meals. Where live jazz in an unmarked door in the West Village kept me up past my bedtime on a work night. Or when I’d wake in the morning to the sun on a friend’s penthouse balcony in Hell’s Kitchen or to 3 people in a Murphy bed in a studio on the Upper East Side.  But that was a different time.

This is my New York now, nostalgia for all that New York is.

My View of Manhattan from Jersey

 

Married to the first five rows


In the past few years I’ve felt this strong relationship with sitting in the front of the plane. The reason: pure, selfish impatience. But hey, why not? Sitting on a plane surrounded by a bunch of strangers, screaming infants, incompetent baggage handlers, phony flight attendants, my number one goal is to get on and off this puppy as soon as humanly possible.

Booking a flight these days and scoring a good seat is all about strategy. Firstly, always select a seat upon purchase, even if the options are slim pickens. This guarantees that if they oversell the flight you actually get on it. Many seats are held for Elite members and are released 24 hours before when you can check-in online. Take this as your opportune chance to get a better (hence, closer) seat. You’ll also likely stand a chance of surrounding yourself with the so-called Elite who can at times prove to be good company in terms of flying etiquette.

Unfortunately, this time around I find myself sitting on an over sold flight in row 27 of a 29 row plane. I’m hugging the window upon realization that another drawback of sitting in the back of the plane – aside from the bathrooms – is the shake, rattle, and roll of the tail end. Note: not recommended for nervous flyers. I bop around and intensely read the contents of my in-flight magazine, intent on trying to avoid listening to the woman sitting behind me from Alaska sing bible songs to her daughter while my over-sized neighbor snores ignorantly to my left.

I was in constant fear yesterday as the clock ticked 5:45 and I was nowhere near a computer. This was the exact time of lift-off for today’s flight and hence, my current situation is as stated.

Admiring my 62,000 miles late yesterday evening it abruptly came to my attention that upon the turn of the new year I lost all of my Elite miles! And I was so close. Alas, maybe this year will be the year. I can stop strategizing on how to make my way to permanent Eliteness and start earning bragging rights to all my friends. They frankly do not care. Oh, the woes of a frequent flyer.