Road Trip to Space

Monday 10 to Thursday 13 November 2014

I’ve always been fascinated by space travel and exploration. So a key motivation of visiting Florida was to tour the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. The place of moon landing missions, space shuttle lift-offs and now the new Orion outer orbit exploration program. So, it might have been tough leaving my Miami Beach apartment, but I was excited to go on a road trip north.

I bussed to the airport to collect my Kia Forte rental car – not fussy on the car make/model. I’d read that this can take a long time waiting in line and it was true. About an hour to get to the front of the line and then collect the car. January was the last time I drove on the right, and that was in Ghana where driving is more about dodging pot-holes than staying inside your lane. So I was a little anxious, but for no reason, a few miles in and I was in the zone. I’m glad I got an electronic toll pass thing so I didn’t have to worry about what route or lane to be in. One less stress. I selected ‘scenic route ‘ on my GPS as I wanted to follow the coast. Turns out scenery = traffic gridlock on a suburban road that saw about two glimpses of beach. Frustrating, but lesson learned and lots of time to listen to American radio.

Palm Beach: My first pit stop for lunch. Only because it’s a place I’d heard of. Very upper class swank ville with all the buildings lacking the usual advertising vomit that is everywhere else. Immaculate gardens and clean streets. At times it felt like walking a movie set.

Melbourne: Picked this place to stay simply because of the Australian city connection. And that it is only a 45 min drive to Cape Canaveral. Nice town with a bit of history and had a brilliant steak for dinner at a classy beach steakhouse. I ended up staying 2 nights here because the day I’d planned to go to NASA was Veterans Day (Remembrance Day) public holiday and also because I saw a news story that they were moving Orion to the launch pad and if I delayed by a day then I might see it. That’s the beauty of making it up as you go – amend your plans on the hop. Although it did mean I would not make it to Orlando. I was relieved by that as I didn’t want to tackle another big city and the theme parks – I like Disney and Universal, but going to Disneyland alone is possibly the most depressing thing I could think of at that point in time. Another time.

NASA Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral: 10/10. Exceeded expectations with a full day (8 hrs!) on 12 November 2014. Lots to see, read, watch, touch, tour. $50 entry and a 2.5 hr up close optional bus tour for $25 extra. I didn’t see everything, but saw the hit-list I selected from the tour map and particularly enjoyed the Space Shuttle Launch Experience, Space Shuttle Atlantis hanging from the ceiling, and the moon landing Apollo/Saturn V exhibit with one of the unused Saturn V rockets on display. Excellent audio/visuals and very educational on the space race with the Russians, the new commercial space programs and ‘simple’ stuff u don’t think of like how they transport the rockets/shuttles to the launch pads from the vehicle assembly building. With the sun set and a head full of new info, I drove to the nearest town (Titusville), pigged out at dinner after skipping lunch, then had a big fat Glenfiddich scotch whisky to close a memorable day.

NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame: 8/10. Just out of Titusville, I went here the day after Cape Canaveral, but it doesn’t open til midday so a good excuse to sleep in and chill. Brief compared to yesterday and it does a good job displaying in chronological order the achievements of the NASA space program starting with the very first astronauts to today. Free with yesterday’s ticket.

Fort Lauderdale: I headed here with McDonald’s in hand following the astronaut thing. This time much wiser not to select ‘scenic’ route, however I still met peak hour gridlock eventually but was smart enough to get off the 95 and take a different road – I only got honked twice the entire 300 kilometres! I found a good beach bar with live music and then found a cheap hotel just up the road. Good way to spend my final night in the US of A.

Next stop….Curacao

Websites Used to Make this Trip

Booked the ‘Dollar’ rental car through rentalcars.com

Found booking.com had the best for cheap hotels. Their mobile phone app (Android) has become very intuitive and one of the best apps out there. I stayed at Days Inn, except for Fort Lauderdale which I can’t remember and wouldn’t recommend.

Research on NASA at www.kennedyspacecenter.com. I debated booking online tickets, but didn’t and didn’t need to either. If paying by credit card, use the self-service kiosks at the entrance to bypass the line up entirely.

I’m in Miami…Beach

Of course I had the LMFAO song ‘I’m in Miami Bitch’ in my head on repeat for most of the 2 flights (via Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago) to Miami. And then I got to Miami Beach and I had this moment of internal contemplation that maybe it is not ‘Bitch’ but ‘Beach’ and I have been singing it wrong all this time. ‘I’m in Miami Beach’ would be so geographically correct and appropriate, but too academic for the singers and not really a title befitting a #1 hit. Then I saw the t-shirts that confirmed that of course it’s not ‘beach’. Crisis over.

9 nights in Miami Beach had a bit of everything: sun, swimming, tourism, party, sleep, vegetating, ridiculously expensive meals out, rain, TV, celebrities, basketball, hot people, omg people, shopping, and old men randomly singing on buses. Arriving Saturday 1 November, I had been up since 2:30am Suriname time to get a 6:10am flight and landing in Miami at 12:30pm. Getting the Miami Beach Airport Flyer Bus was easy and cheap at $2.65 and dropped me off a 2 block walk from my Ocean Drive prime position apartment between 9th and 10th Streets (love how the street names are so basic). The walk was short but a sensory overload. On a beautiful day, it was crowded and still busy with Halloween revellers. I wasn’t expecting or wanting a party atmosphere (this time), but that’s what I got, and I should’ve realised this but wasn’t exactly here for that. It’s got a Cancun vibe where everyone drinks from way too big glasses and is dressed to impress. Give me a couple of days (hours?) and I’ll adjust.

With such a chunk of time to spend in one place, I am glad I stayed in a vacation rental apartment rather than a hotel or cheap hostel. Here I felt like a Miami Beach local and could do my own cooking etc. I did this in New York City for a week a few years ago and it is still one of my most memorable trips. Plus an easy way to save money. This was $94/night and for the location is incredible value. The idea was to stay put for a large portion of my 19 day break to catch my breath and explore a little. Miami has not really been high on my travel list, but there were still a few things I wanted to see. And I am glad not to be somewhere (like a NYC or Rome or London) that I would be out of the house every day exploring or sightseeing. Here are the highlights:

Miami Heat NBA Game: I rate it an 8 out of 10 experience with great seats at the American Airlines Arena versus Houston Rockets. Game started off competitive and entertaining, T shirts parachuted from the ceiling rails at half time, but people started leaving with 5 mins to go when obvious that Miami were getting embarrassingly beaten. Houston player bounced ball for last 15 seconds. Then they all just walked off court. Jumbo hot dog not so Jumbo. Beers $8. Burger tasted like artificial display burger. Lots of food outlets though and a very well run event.

Lincoln Street Mall and Holocaust Memorial: 7/10. The outdoor mall is like many in the world. I bought some new Oakley sunglasses and a jumper/sweater cause it is colder here than I hoped (mid-twenties). I was going to avoid the holocaust memorial cause I’ve seen so many but I glimpsed it on a bus and it looked unique. I’m glad I took a closer look. All outdoor and very well put together with an emotional experience walking through an enclosed hallway to the centre of the memorial where a sculpted girl is crouched down reaching for your help as hymn music plays. This opens out to circular area with some of the most emotive sculptures I have seen.

Everglades National Park: 6/10. I did a little research into tours and you know I hate choice, so I just went with the tour recommended by the tourist centre – Everglades Safari Park. The 4 hour tour satisfied my Everglades curiosity. Airboat ride, swamp, alligators, interactive wildlife show, gator burger. Reminded me a little of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but with fewer wildlife encounters. I guess going in the heat of the day means not seeing many animals. If I went back, I would explore with a car and head down towards the Keys area.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: 9/10. Fascinating mansion south of Miami and easy to get to by bus and train. Built in 1914, it looks like a much older Italian villa and has some elements of my dream home. I did the audio guided tour and was really interested in the history and place showcasing some of the excess of the gilded age in the USA when new millionaires wanted to show off their wealth by largely copying European aristocracy.

Beach and Clubbing: 7/10. Usually it needs to be 32C+ to get me into the water, but I couldn’t leave Miami Beach without a beach day. And then a club crawl tour where you pay $25 to meet up with others (rent-a-friends! Perfect for the solo traveller), get cheap drinks, and free express entry to 5 pubs/clubs. I hesitated about doing this as I am a bit shy (!) but sucked up the courage and glad I went.

Websites Used to Make this Trip

Booked the vacation rental through www.flipkey.com

Found basketball, concerts and other events at miami.eventful.com/events

Bus and train routes www.miamidade.gov/transit/routes.asp

Club Crawl pubcrawl-miami.com/

Art Deco Welcome Center for museum and really helpful people to make the most of your trip www.mdpl.org/

So this is Suriname

I’ll be honest upfront – I had not heard of the South American nation called Suriname before I accepted a job there. I always thought that Suriname was the name of the Project, not the country. As someone who likes to boast about my geographical knowledge, this is somewhat embarrassing. To the people of Suriname, I recommend some serious PR to raise your profile as so far my impressions are of a beautiful country, with generous people, a fascinating history and an enviable global location (aside from the flights in and out which are few and poorly scheduled).

As my first entry to diarise my experiences, I will try keep this brief but hopefully informative for all those that are interested in learning more. This format and website is new to me so let’s see how well I can use it and communicate the message. Here we go…

The journey to Suriname was long, tiring, and testing of my travel skills. Perth to Hong Kong (cause Cathay Pacific was the cheapest 1 way fare to LA) to Los Angeles (overnighted) to Miami to Aruba (overnighted due to work making an incorrect flight booking) to Paramaribo (landed at 1am, overnighted in a nice hotel) to the Merian gold mine construction project site (4 hour car ride south and towards the French Guyana border) arriving at 2pm.

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24 hrs in Aruba was enough to check out the high rise hotel district and wander around town. Not sure I would like to return here. Didn’t really excite me, but that could also have been the head cold and general confusion over what time it was. Paramaribo (or Parbo for short) is an attractive capital city with a few hundred thousand people, world heritage listed with lots of Dutch influence from the colonial days. Inevitably I find myself comparing back to Ghana as my only other international working experience, but really there aren’t many comparisons between this part of Sth America and West Africa. Here is a wide mix of races, clean air, fewer people, less confusion, more organisation and higher wealth.

Why am I here, how and what’s the deal? Well, I am glad you asked. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. The last month or so of life has been a whirlwind where I felt almost sucked into a vortex and now spat out typing this in Miami Beach after my first rotation. Bit dramatic, but that imagery makes for good reading. I left Perth Monday 6 October 2014, and prior to that was a series of appointments to get organised for the trip and job. Prior to that was 7 months off working after finishing up my last job in February. That time off was fantastic overall. The last couple of months a bit monotonous looking for work and thinking about what the next career move would be. I guess this relaxing time explains a fair bit of why the busy last month has been such a gear change for me. Like pressing the power button. It’s hard to think about it much when you’re in the middle of the ride, and that’s why I’ve done very little the last couple of days and I think it is beneficial to write this to take stock and think “wow, did all that just happen” and “how fortunate I am to finish one 3 yr assignment, have 7 months off, and be in South America working on another rewarding international assignment”. And South America was the goal for my next career move. Ideally a Spanish speaking one, not Dutch. But if that is the only box not ticked, then who am I to complain? Doing a 23 days on, 19 days off roster in a warm tropical country on the edge of the Caribbean working as the most senior environmental person on site is a career move I’ll take any day. I worked hard for a decade (and years of study before that) to position myself for these opportunities. Calculated and knowing that if I worked hard and with focus, the rewards will be there for me. Taking those 7 months off was the best thing I could’ve done: to re-energise, reconnect with my goals, live life, meet great people. A year or so ago, I really thought I wanted to give it up and get out of mining, get out of environmental, find a new career where I could do the 9 to 5 without care. I still aspire to branch out eventually and do something different, but not for the same negative motivation I had at that time. So that brings me in a round about way to reflecting on Suriname, the new job, the new life chapter, and the new memories. Here is a list of random observations that I noted down over the last few weeks:

  1. Songs on radio that are from today. So far no Celine Dion like in Ghana!
  2. Airport far out of main town. 30 mins before hit significant buildings.
  3. Fast food place in hotel lobby.
  4. Hotel pool actually looks swimable and breakfast had variety.
  5. Travel brochures in hotel that have tourist sites I’d actually be interested in seeing
  6. Road to site brilliant for first 2 hrs, then dirt road that’s bumpy to the point you can’t read or type. Apparently much better than a month ago though.
  7. The site exploration camp is like a shanty town. The facilities are shared, basic, like a 2 star caravan park.
  8. Site is half hr drive from exploration camp
  9. Saw a monkey
  10. Significant small scale mining everywhere. Called porknockers.
  11. Drive on left
  12. Showers are raw water harvested from roofs but looks clean, drinking water is bottled.
  13. Food is good. First night I had duck but all bones. Beef is imported. Chicken is common.
  14. Bar has small selection. Nice setting. No mosquito protection. More nationals than expats there when I went on first night. My intent is to avoid the bar.
  15. Must take laundry to laundry people to wash and then pick up yourself. I spent 3 days trying to pick up my washing only to realise I was looking for the wrong bag cause I forgot that I’d changed rooms and needed to look for the new room number. Searching through all the laundry bags is a highlight. Especially when I inadvertently started trawling through the dirty laundry bags and the woman had to stop me. oops.
  16. Showered with a frog on second night.
  17. Little spiders, bugs and lizards everywhere
  18. The site vehicles are new hilux and have electric windows and Bluetooth stereo. And machete. Hmmm.
  19. The forest is impressively dense. And trees are ridiculously tall.
  20. Terrain is very steep in places with deep valleys
  21. Forgot my black tea leaves. Here they only have Lipton tea bags nooooooo.
  22. The work mobile phones are from the days when Jesus walked the Earth. Screen is the size of a postage stamp. But I’m since told that smartphones on way coming…. Android. Yay.
  23. Work email account is powered by Gmail.
  24. Windows 8 computers and I’ve got a really good laptop. Nice way for me to experiment with this before buying a new personal one. But it keeps crashing. Argh.
  25. I have 7 staff. 3 senior, 4 junior. Plus 2 vacancies. All great people and I feel the makings of a great team – the rossification has begun. The juniors are all African descendants. Very interested in asking about my time in Ghana and the language.
  26. The work is interesting, the people good and lots of opportunity for me to contribute value. So far so good.
  27. No goats, but stray dogs everywhere.
  28. Internet access is available in wifi and just got a lot better and reliable with upgrade to link going to city. But still slow and drops often. Lots sites blocked. I bought a private SIM to get open net. But it is still slow; will try a different phone company next rotation.
  29. Power outlets are USA style
  30. A mosquito borne virus (Chikungunya) is spreading quickly through the country – I really don’t want this and cover up as much as possible.
  31. Although the new camp has much better facilities, I am in 2 minds about requesting to move there. Because they don’t have internet in room until late November. I value my internet so think I put that above nicer room and nearly private bathroom (share with neighbour). Plus my office is at exploration camp so I’d have half hr commute there and back if at construction camp. I value sleep and my personal time so don’t like this idea.
  32. Instead of moving to new camp, I luckily was moved to a new room in Exploration Camp that is bigger, better furniture, better air con. But…on first night, my bed collapsed when trying to put suitcase under it!! It made such a loud noise that my neighbour started yelling at me through the wall. I called Matt for help to put the bed back together. Hilarious moment. Actually there have been many funny moments and I haven’t laughed so much at work in a long time. Great to work with humorous people who I connect almost instantly with.

And so there you go. First entry complete. Good to get that out there. And for all those that have patiently waited for an update, thank you for waiting while I got myself sorted. I appreciate your interest, thoughts and well wishes. All is good and I look forward to taking you on the adventure.