Austria: Vienna and Salzburg

Friday 17 April to Wednesday 22 April 2015

travellingross rating = 7/10

An idea popped in my head a couple months ago when my suitcase turned up in Perth at my mum’s house – fly my mother and bag to meet me half way in Amsterdam. Thereby saving me coming all way back to Perth and being able to meet mum in Europe for her birthday and mother’s day. Plus this break aligns with the centenary Anzac day and I know we both wanted to tour the French WW1 battlefields following our last trip in 2012 to the Normandy D-day landing beaches, so it was perfect. I had two flights from Paramaribo and mum two from Perth, meeting in Vienna. Highlights and observations:

  • Always amazes me how full flights can be when several per day across Europe but not a spare seat from Amsterdam to Vienna
  • Amsterdam airport seems to be in a permanent state of renovation lately. And their free Wi-Fi requires you to reconnect every hour which is annoying.
  • Cold in Vienna. About 13C max. First day wet but other 2 days were clear and sunny.
  • Easy to get into old town centre via a tram stop on our closest corner. Highlights were elevator up north tower of saint Stephens cathedral – not that stunning or globally worthwhile; saint Peters church with its impressively decorated interior; Hofburg palace where we learned about the Austrian monarchy that ended in 1918 and in particular the empress Elisabeth aka Sisi who seemed like a spoilt brat who whined about life too much and was stabbed thru the heart with a letter opener in 1889.
  • The Austrian monarchy seemed doomed well before WW1 and the assassination of heir Franz Ferdinand.
  • Schloss Schoenberg was a train trip out of town and included a tour of many well preserved state rooms. The grounds and gardens were not that amazing but maybe better in late spring or summer. Lots of walking but we got there in good time with an express ticket to jump the line which meant the day was not rushed. Plenty of time to head back into town and visit the state hall library with its thousands of books dating back to the 1300’s when the university was founded. Beautiful room.
  • Our apartment was very nice and spacious with full kitchen which we made use of for breakfast and an evening meal.
  • Train to Salzburg comfortable and new but going through tunnels created a vacuum which was annoying for mums ears.

After training to Salzburg we walked about 15 mins to our hotel in the newer part of town. Not a far walk from there to the historic centre and the walk had many shops etc to explore. I wanted to visit this city back when I did the Munich Oktoberfest trip but didn’t have time. The city is known for its scenery and the film location for The Sound of Music. Also was the birthplace of Mozart. Good to finally visit and I think it would be even more scenic in winter covered with snow.  Highlights and observations:

  • Too many bikes on pedestrian streets and malls.
  • Wandering the alleys, getting lost, popping out into a scenic platz (square)
  • Sound of music tour. I can’t remember a lot of the movie but a good half day tour which is ever popular as 50th anniversary of the film.
  • Fortress high up on the hill with panoramic views
  • Late breakfasts in town squares
  • Learning about the Prince archbishop history and that Salzburg was its own state for a long time becoming very wealthy from salt mining.

Next stop – Paris and the champagne region of France.

Suriname: A Dry Easter with Sloths

Tuesday 24 March to Wednesday 15 April 2015

travellingross rating = 9/10

Still in Costa Rica, the newly tyre changed rental car made it to the petrol station on the sniff of an oily rag where I fuelled up and returned the car. Sitting in the free shuttle to the airport I yelled stop as I glanced out the window to notice my wallet sitting on the rental car company counter. Phew, close call. Costa Rica is one of those silly countries that charges a departure tax. And u have to pay before going to check in. I didn’t leave much time for this but lucky I checked in online and no bags to check. 3 flights and I was back in Paramaribo fairly exhausted which is not how this break thing is meant to work. It actually took me 5 or so days to get back to a normal sleep pattern which is odd for me.

This rotation was zero alcohol! It’s something I wanted to do when I started. I actually hoped this would be a dry camp not selling alcohol. Working continuously like this is tiring enough without throwing in the temptation of a beer or several down at the bar. Most people couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t drink but I still socialised and went to the bar. Sometimes with a mug of tea! I think I’ll make this a trend.

Highlights this rotation:

  • Installation of new air quality and weather monitoring stations. Was a long planned project so it was good to see it through to install.
  • Easter. Quiet and not really commemorated here. But I still had my own Easter moments.
  • Putting on weight. When I drink, I lose weight.  So the best part of a month without booze is I have noticed a few extra kilos which is a good thing for me.
  • Sloth. I saw my first one!!! It’s kind of a must-do in Suriname to see a sloth and better yet to relocate one that could otherwise be harmed by clearing activities. So this Good Friday was my sloth relocation day. Strange looking, slow-moving and shy. Remind me of koala’s.
  • Running. I finally started running again. The geology superintendent is a runner and dragged me along. He was impressed I could go the 7 km distance and keep pace. So I guess I’ve still got it and we went several times when weather was kind.  We actually had a whole week without rain. Driest I’ve seen Suriname yet.
  • Work. Continues to be enjoyable and I’m happy overall. Some testing times that raise my heart rate. But nothing I can’t handle. I’m focusing on the big picture a lot more this time around and not sweating the small stuff. So long as I’m learning, I’m happy. I am exposed to different perspectives and methods to build my work and life knowledge.
  • TV. They didn’t pay the bill so the t.v. in dining room didn’t even work 90% of this rotation. No CNN, not even crappy soccer. And the internet has been terribly unreliable, but that doesn’t really affect me since I have a private SIM card with internet. We joke that this workplace is worse than North Korea for external communication. When international dialing was cut, along with TV and internet, the IT Manager was re-named Kim Jong Un and I started to wonder if I woke up in 1995.
  • Evictions. The army came to site to evict the illegal miners from our property. Never seen so many guns and ammunition in my life. Overall no violence, but a bit concerning to have breakfast with a bunch of uniformed guys carrying weapons.

Costa Rica: Road Trippin, Hiking Volcanoes, White Water Tubing

Tuesday 17 March to Monday 23 March 2015

travellingross rating = 8/10

I didn’t need to be at the Panama City airport until 4:30 pm so I had most of the day to relax and final minute explore. Being St Patrick’s Day I went to the Irish Pub a couple of blocks from my hotel for lunch only to find it closed. Huh. I arrived at the airport to hunt down Madison, my friend who I met in Ghana during that Project and together again in Suriname. She is from Nevada and another reason for my tainted accent and un-Australian words. And also the reason for my now relaxed approach to travel, not booking everything, not over-planning as much. Pre-Madison I would never roll into a town without booking something, but that’s pretty much how this whole trip went.

Madison had flown in from Suriname and waiting in Panama City to connect with me for the 1.5 hr flight north to San Jose, Costa Rica. This capital city does not have good reviews, but I found it better than expectations and while busy, slightly dirty and chaotic, it had many shops and facilities that were enough for me. Nothing globally amazing from a touristic perspective though. We overnighted here and then got an afternoon tourist shuttle bus for $50 USD each 4 hours north to the tourist epicentre of La Fortuna.

La Fortuna was great. Right on the edge of the Arenal Volcano Park with many things to do. In hindsight we should’ve stayed here longer than the 2 nights we allocated. Our full day was a morning hike up a dormant volcano that has a green lagoon at the summit looking up to Arenal. A crazy steep and rough ‘path’ takes you to the top which would be very slippery in the wet. It was good to explore this though as Costa Rica is not as forested as I previously thought and this national park showcases some of their best. Which after being in Suriname is not as good. We had lunch at the waterfall nearby and then taxi’d to the Baldi Hot Springs which were awesome. Not a natural representation of hot springs, but swim up bars in 30C plus water with 28 pools and some that are insanely hot. Aside from the 150 kids on a school trip, it was bliss. We both dislike kids (especially teens laughing and taking up our barman’s time for soft drinks) so this was annoying. It was not until dark that we found the “sin ninos” pools (no kids!). The drinks were more expensive but worth it for the peace and higher quality hotter pools. We rode some slides too. One that you’re meant to only go down the slide, go around once and then drop out the bottom. For some reason I kept going round and round like 4 times before I forced myself to drop out. I badly bruised my tailbone in the process and a slight rip in my brand new board-shorts right on the bum. The food made up for this with an excellent buffet. I would go back in an instant.

After discussing transport options with our awesome hotel reception guy, we rented a car and hit the road to our only pre-arranged part of the trip. Meeting up with some Suriname work mates at Blue River. This drive took 4 hours to get 150 km. Terrible roads made from sharp rocks and plenty of potholes to dodge; tested my driving skill a bit. We got to the resort and I seriously thought our GPS had navigated us incorrectly. It didn’t look at all like the website. But it was the right place. We glanced at each other with the same ‘what have we got ourselves into’ look and checked in. The rooms were huge and comfortable, except for the lack of bar fridge for our champagne and the poor water pressure. The resort is not what I would call a resort. Run down and lacking in features so it was disappointing since it was the most expensive and hard to get to accommodation of our trip together. Very weak internet was only at reception which is a 300m walk so that sucks for people who have yet to book their next destination. Not much of this place made sense to me. There wasn’t even a view. The Blue River is impressive – volcanic minerals reacting together to create bright blue water. The only activity we did (aside from cover ourselves in mud, stand in the green hot springs) was tubing. Now, my understanding of tubing is gentle floating down a river with beer in hand sitting in an inflated tube. This was far from that. White water tubing that should be done in a raft. Knee and elbow pads, helmet, life vest, shoes. It was an hour that made me feel like I was in a washing machine. My body aint cut out for that and I ended up hitting rocks with my butt and constantly trying to navigate away from rocks.

We left early morning to head towards Liberia where everywhere in the city had lost internet. So without a plan we made a snap decision based on a conversation I had with 2 girls in Blue River to head to Playa del Coco on the coast. As we drove in, it was apparently a tourist haven but maybe the wrong time of year as the landscape looked like a fire had been through or so tinder dry that one spark would set off a wildfire. It was HOT. And the beach was black sand and not very appealing to swim. But a good spot to be.

Next day I dropped Madison at another beach town – more crappy roads to get there since I selected the ‘scenic route’ on Google maps. I then drove 4 hours back to San Jose on decent highways but without overtaking lanes which was frustrating. Saw many monkeys in the trees above the road. And some very scenic landscapes. Didn’t stop once and rolled into the hotel at nightfall with the fuel light flashing and ‘estimated km remaining of 0’. Perfect. Only took one wrong turn on a roundabout and stayed on my right side of the road the whole time. Checked in and laying on the bed checking my messages when the phone rang. Reception asking how everything was. And “Sir, I am sorry to tell you that your vehicle has a flat tyre”. WHAT. We drove on terrible roads and I get a flat in the middle of the city. And it’s the only part of the road-side assistance that the rental car company doesn’t cover. I can change a tyre, but it was the last thing I felt like doing after the long day. So I ate at Denny’s across the road and then got my hands dirty. My last tyre change experience in Perth was not so great, so this time I was impressed with myself and restored faith in my abilities. With that, I spent my last night in Costa Rica.

Websites and Tips to Make this Trip

Stayed at:

  • San Jose – Holiday Inn city for USD $92/night; then Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton at Airport for USD $150. Both good and great locations for what you need.
  • La Fortuna – Hotel Monte Real for USD $86/night. Highly recommend.
  • Blue River – Blue River Resort & Hot Springs for USD $128/night. Not worth it and too isolated. I’m sure there are better places to stay to visit Blue River. Or day trip in from Liberia.
  • Playa del Coco – M&M Hotel for $50/night. Cheap and simple with shared kitchen. Includes breakfast.

Rental car through www.adobecar.com

Baldi Hot Springs was USD $68 per person and discounted when booking from hotel. Included buffet dinner and you can run a bar tab and pay on credit card at end. www.baldihotsprings.cr

Don’t pay for tours of the green lagoon or waterfall. Just get a cab and do it yourself.

Panama City: Canal time

Friday 13 March to Tuesday 17 March 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

I really enjoyed Panama. I never realised how big the city is with Dubai like sky scrapers, major shipping malls, variety of restaurants and fast food, awesome running and walking paths along the foreshore. The shipping canal brings obvious wealth to the country and u can see why they fought hard to win operating rights from the USA that they finally received NYE 1999.  Many ships sit offshore waiting to take the short cut thru the thinnest part of central America.

Flying from Paramaribo to Panama City, via Aruba, I landed mid afternoon and it took far too long to clear immigration. Longest line I’ve seen in an airport. It was first time I have flown Copa Airlines (national airline of Panama) and I liked them. I am impressed that I can take 2 flights and be in such a big city that afternoon. I am inclined to do this again for a future break. Taxi system at airport is semi organised but expect a tip to walk you to the cab.  I hate that. And u share with someone. I shared with an older man who met a woman on an internet dating site and had an internet relationship for 16 months and now time to meet face to face. That’s pretty damn brave. And a better story than the usual “I’m here for work” etc. The hotel taxi actually uses an app to calculate the fare. That’s a first for me. But it is handy that USD is taken everywhere and the Panama currency is paired with USD. Another reason for me to come back and spend my USD (I’m paid in US dollars).

Highlights of this trip are pretty simple. Sleep and the canal. After a long rotation (for me) I was keen to do not much other than relax and catch up on personal life that you don’t get much time for when working all the time. My hotel was adjacent to a cathedral where bells rang out to announce mass times. Starting at 6am. Hmmm. Only down-side of the hotel.

The only touristy thing I wanted to do in Panama was the canal. Construction started in the 1800’s by the French and finally finished by the USA in 1914. 100 years ago last year. Good timing to come as they have refurbished their tourist facilities for the centenary. I like the idea that humans had the audacity, ingenuity, power and capability to cut through a land mass to create a shipping channel that shaved off days of time in sea trade transport around the southern tip of South America. I didn’t know much about the engineering prior to visiting, other than it was a huge feat and technique that has stood for a century. Now after visiting I am a full bottle. A 14 hr tour will do that to you! Arriving at the ferry port at 630am, I didn’t get back to hotel until 830pm. I could’ve done a partial transit. But you know me…if I am here, I will do the full thing. YOLO. So I went from ocean to ocean and transited the full length of the Panama Canal. Long and at times a bit same same, but very interesting to an engineering mind and impressive to rise up tens of metres in a series of locks to reach a man-made lake and then be dropped down to ocean level again at the other end. It takes 8 minutes to fill and drain a lock so it is not a quick process (you go through 3 locks at either end) but fascinating. The boat was totally full (150 people would be my guess) and includes all your meals. I will let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Websites and Tips to Make this Trip

Stayed at DoubleTree Hilton hotel for bargain price of USD $69/night booking through www.worldmate.com

Panama Canal Tour was expensive at USD $250 and you might find something cheaper if you shop around. I think people book through multiple agents for the same boat www.panamacanaltrips.com