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Winging it in Patagonia

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Glacier Grey on our way to an ice hike

Exploring the End of the World (Tierra del Fuego)

It was in the middle of the night when our airplane touched down in Punta Arenas (Southern Chile), a medium-sized, sprawled out city that serves mainly as a military base and hop off point for Patagonia hikers and Antarctica travellers. We had 5 days to spare before our epic Antarctica journey. For some reason we hadn’t really made any plans in advance, which was probably attributable to a bit of travel planning fatigue (it felt much better to play with my nephews in Australia than doing google searches) combined with an increased desire to go with the flow. I guess you could say we decided we’d just wing it. Initially we figured we could just spend the 5 day hanging out in Punta Arenas. However, after one day of strolling through the city, visiting a couple of museums, and stopping by the fish market for ceviche we felt like we had seen it all. That’s when an idea struck us: let’s explore Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago off the southernmost tip off the South American mainland. So we found the nearest car rental place, jumped on Google to book a few hotels, downloaded a map and then set off.

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Punta Arenas

The further away we got from Punta Arenas the more beautiful the landscape became, a mix of steppe and grassland. Guanacos (a type of lama) started to emerge and suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

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Guanaco in Tierra del Fuego

After a day of driving through this beauty we arrived in Porvenir, a small port town. The place had a unique feeling. A ghost town with colourful houses that while looking charming had seen better days. A hint that we were approaching the “end of the world” after all. Leaving Porvenir the next morning the paved roads gave way to dirt and gravel. Slowly, we were winding our way through the rugged nature. Once in a while we saw signs hinting to former gold mines. Bumping along the increasingly difficult dirt track, we realised that we hadn’t seen other cars in a long while. It struck us that our little Renault rental car might have not been the best choice for this terrain. Compared to our Australian Outback adventure where we were fully prepared with a 4wd camping vehicle, this car was so bare bones that it didn’t even have a clock on the dashboard! It also hadn’t occurred to us that we should have stocked up on water or brought something to eat. Plus, Google maps (also not unsurprisingly) had lost satellite connection. With a somewhat uneasy feeling in our stomachs we continued the journey. It was either a choice of going all in or returning. We chose to keep going. And were happy that we did. After 2 more hours of off-roading (I’m still surprised that the car didn’t fall apart … turns out French cars are more solid than I thought) we hit the coastline and with it a somewhat better and more frequented road. The day turned out to be a highlight. Little did we know that we would pass by the only king penguin colony in the area. Beautiful creatures!

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Entrance of the King Penguin Park

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King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

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King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

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King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

Hugging the beautiful coastline we continued the journey, passing big farms and a couple of small villages, before turning land-inwards.

Then the landscape changed from steppe into woodlands. Soon we arrived at our accommodation for the night, Parador Russfin. A street sign pointed us towards a reception. To our confusion we found ourselves at the office of a wood cutting factory. Were we at the right place? With my very limited Spanish vocabulary and lots of hand waving we finally figured out that we indeed were at the right place. Tripadvisor had failed to inform us that this place was basically an accommodation for the seasonal wood workers in the area – and the occasional tourist that passes by. Well, we got our fair dose of adventure after all! Dinner and breakfast were served in the factory canteen where we found ourselves amongst workers in blue overalls. Fun things happen if you don’t plan much in advance. The next day we jumped back into our little Renault winding our way back to Porvenir and then setting over via ferry to Punta Arenas. Next day we flew out of Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams to begin our Antarctic adventure. Albeit only spending a few days in Tierra del Fuego, we had gotten a teaser of its rare beauty.

Hiking in Torres del Paine

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Beautiful Patagonia (Chile)

After spending 21 days in the Antarctic cramped on a small sailing yacht, we found ourselves back in Patagonia and ready to move our legs again. This time we were in Puerto Natales as the starting point for 5 days of hiking in Torres del Paine. I was super excited as I had always wanted to hike in Patagonia and everyone who had been there described it as a “must see”.

While most hikers in Torres del Paine come fully prepared with the big hiking packs, tents, sleeping bags and cookers, we were somewhat less prepared. Once again, we were kind of winging it by just bringing along a small day pack with a change of clothes, a few toiletries, a camera, headlamps and Kindles. For one, we didn’t have a tent, mats or sleeping bags with us on our year-long journey. It would have just been too much to carry around the world given our diverse set of activities and and our decision to travel with carry-on luggage only. Plus, Torres del Paine offered several lodges across the main trail, called the W-trek. So we opted for either staying in bunk beds or rented tents along the way. And lastly, the thought of trying to get on with the absolute minimum seemed a good challenge.

The whole week exceeded our expectations. The landscape was just stunning. The sharp edges of the grey stone massif with its distinct granite peaks reaching high up into the sky looked spectacular. As a contrast to the peaks, the well-trodden hiking paths took us past unbelievably clear, ice blue lakes surrounded by scrubland. The lakes have an incredibly bright blue colour due to the fresh glacier water and the lack of sediments and provide a beautiful contrast to the vegetation with its green, brown and yellowish colours. To our surprise, the lodges were well equipped and quite comfortable (apart from the occasional snorer in the mixed dorm rooms). For the most part, the meals (including a bagged lunch) tasted surprisingly good. As advice for the less heavy meat eaters out there, opt for the vegetarian option once in a while. Otherwise, get ready for a filet of meat and rice for dinner 🙂

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The Torres – the famous three granite peaks

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On the way to Valle Frances

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Valle Frances 

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Hiking in Torres del Paine

Thinking that nothing could beat this stunning scenery, we encountered yet another highlight on this trip, Glacier Grey. It’s a massive glacier that winds its way down the valley all the way into the lake Lago Grey. We had booked a glacier hike and were excited to set foot on this massive piece of eternal ice. Just getting there was a trip in itself: with the dingy across the choppy waters of Lago Grey, followed by a 1.5 hour ascent through rocks. We put on crampons and after a few instructions we set foot on the large ice shield. Surrounded by the high peaks of the National Park with the glacier coming down on one side and the blue lake on the other, this felt like being at the heart of Patagonia!

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Hiking towards Glacier Grey

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Glacier Grey

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Getting ready for our glacier hike

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Hiking on the glacier

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Torres del Paine’s stunning scenery!

One other highlight on our hike was to make friends along the way. Most hikers walk the W-trek from East to West so we kept running into the same people at the lodges. At dinner on Day 1, we set next to a Swiss-Italian couple, Anna and Marco. Marco spoke only Italian but that ended up not being a major barrier for us to communicate. While Anna translated most of our conversation, Marco would at times happily chat with us in Italian, cracking jokes and looking at us expectantly for a reaction. At times we had no idea what he was saying and laughed along with his jokes. It was refreshing to meet someone who didn’t let a language barrier get in the way of connecting with others! Excited about our new friends, we caught up again in other lodges along the way and even hiked the last day together.

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With our hiking buddies Anna and Marco from Switzerland

Halfway through our journey, we arrived at one of the lodges early in the afternoon. Waiting for our rented tent, we struck up a conversation with a couple sitting next to us and hit if off right away. Morena, an actuary, and Sebastiaan, a software developer, were both from Holland. I was intrigued by the fact that they both worked part-time in interesting jobs and managed to take a two-month vacation every year – one month for traveling and the other month for volunteering. Quite inspirational! Over a couple of beers the conversation moved from work-life balance, volunteering and travels to metaphysics and meditation. Before knowing it, the afternoon had passed and we were sharing dinner together.

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Meeting Morena & Sebastiaan at Refugio Cuernos

Sadly, Morena and Sebastiaan were going against the stream on the W-trek, hiking it from West to East. So unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to catch up along the way. Just before we parted ways, however, we figured out that we’d all be back in Puerto Natales on the same night. A double date it was. And even better, it was Sebastiaan’s 40th birthday giving us a good reason to celebrate! We ended up having a lovely dinner and fun evening at Mesita Grande Pizza (great thin-crust pizza, highly recommended). After parting ways that night, I felt confident that somehow the four of us would again cross paths somewhere in this world.

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Change of plans

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Although we had originally planned to stay longer in South America and then head to Africa to finish up our year abroad, our plans have recently changed. Instead, we’ve ended up back in south east Asia. Bali to be specific. To do a hula hooping course (I’ll let Christine fill in the details soon!).

From here we plan to visit Japan and then finish up our year abroad in Berlin. If anyone has plans to be close by these places over the next couple of months, please let us know!

Best,

C&C

10

Antarctica: Our expedition to the end of the world

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Santa Maria Australis in the Antarctic Peninsula

A year ago while we were planning our trip to Antarctica, our research uncovered that there are really only two options for touring the region. Since there is no accommodation for tourists on land and highly restricted access via air, your choices are to either go on a large cruise liner (ice-breaker), or alternatively you can sail on a smaller sailing yacht. The cruise liner is relatively safer and more comfortable. Sailing in on a yacht is considerably bumpier, more cramped and you are required to help out with many of the duties from sailing to cooking and cleaning. Despite what you might expect, the yacht option is no cheaper than the cruise liner. A year later, as we boarded our Qantas flight out of Sydney en route to Puerto Williams, Chile, where our boat awaited us, I struggled to understand what was going through our minds when we decided to go with the sailing yacht. I dreaded it may be a decision we would later regret…

Why Antarctica?
My fascination with Antarctica sprouted a few years back after reading about Ernest Shackleton’s doomed expedition in 1914 on board The Endurance. Since then it has held a firm place at the top of my bucket list. Similarly for Christine, Antarctica represented a real adventure and the trip of a lifetime. Antarctica is the only continent uninhabited by humans and in many places on the continent, entirely uninhabitable by any flora or fauna. The vast majority of the continent is covered in ice all year round. Some areas have not had a drop of rain for more than 2 million years and the general lack of precipitation in Antarctica makes it the largest desert in the world. Although conditions are generally too harsh for land animals, it’s a different story for animals that thrive in the sea. Whales, seals, orcas are found in abundance. Deeper beneath the sea you can find fish with antifreeze in their blood as a natural adaptation to the ice cold waters. And then of course there are the continent’s most well known animals, those loveable penguins.

Although many countries have made claims on Antarctica, in 1959 a treaty was signed by these nations to establish Antarctica as a territory only to be used for scientific research that belongs to all mankind. This treaty protects Antarctica’s environment and prevents any commercial development on the continent, allowing it to remain in its untouched, pristine condition. The only exception to this is the handful of scientific bases scattered across the continent and even those operate in a way to ensure they leave no permanent mark. Science in the region is varied, from meteorology to oceanography to global warming to understanding whether life could exist in Antarctica deep below the ice. Some scientists compare the harsh conditions in Antarctica to those on Mars, and so the discovery of life forms could give hope to finding life in other environments beyond this world.

The Antarctic treaty is due to end in 2041. While many are trying to get this treaty extended there’s no guarantee how things will play out. So there may be a limited window to see Antarctica in its current, untouched form. And that’s why we were eager to go there now.

Chilling in Puerto Williams (the calm before the storm?)

Puerto Williams is the southern most town in South America. Originally little more than a fishing village, in recent years the population has spiked with the set up of a naval base, along with the increased tourism to Antarctica for which the town is well positioned to support. Puerto Williams along with Ushuaia on the Argentinian side are the two most popular ports of embarkation for Antarctica tours. That said, Puerto Williams is still little more than a village with fewer than 2000 inhabitants.

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Puerto Williams

Puerto Williams made a great first impression upon us. Stepping out of the airport we saw sunshine, blue skies and a stunning view over the waters of the Beagle canal onto the picturesque town centre, just a few kilometres away. Seeing all the other passengers from our flight get into their private cars, it became evident that there wasn’t really any public transport or taxi infrastructure supporting the airport so Christine and I figured we would have to walk into town. Fortunately, a few hundred metres later, a friendly local asked us if we’d like a lift. His name was Nelson. Nelson didn’t speak much English but between his limited English and Christine’s limited Spanish, we were able to tell him the place we were staying, which he knew, as well as some details of our upcoming trip. To our delight, he told us he knew the skipper of our boat and described him as “muy bien”. Upon arrival at our Hostal, we tried to communicate to Nelson that we’d like to buy him a drink to thank him for giving us a lift. Unfortunately neither Nelson’s English nor Christine’s Spanish was up to the task, so we had to settle with just saying “muchas gracias” and then parted ways. Our Hostal was called Residencial Pusaki and owned by a lady named Patty. Patty was equally as warm and friendly as Nelson and made us feel very much at home at her place. Seemed everyone in Puerto Williams was incredibly friendly.

We had two days in Puerto Williams before we began our Antarctica expedition which turned out to be the perfect amount of time to explore the small town. It gave us a chance to make a couple of short hikes, visit the local museum, stack up on some supplies and visit the 1 cafe, 3 restaurants and 2 bars on offer.

Meeting the boat and crew (day 1)

After two days in Puerto Williams we headed down to the marina to join our boat, the Santa Maria Australis, where we met the captain and the rest of the group. A great first impression. Everyone seemed super friendly. People were already cracking jokes, playing off one another. Both Christine and I loved the intimacy of having such a small expedition group, something we would not have had going with the option of a cruise ship.

Our captain was Wolf Kloss, a German sailor who had been sailing to Antarctica more than 30 times since 1989. It was this depth of sailing experience in the region that convinced us to go with him and SIM Expeditions. I also took comfort in his German heritage since I tend to associate Germans with safety and doing things properly which seemed appropriate for the expedition at hand. Before meeting Wolf, I had pictured a burly German guy, who is serious, strict and has a sharp German accent. In reality, Wolf was nothing like this. He was relaxed, cheerful and incredibly friendly. While he ran a tight ship, he did it in a surprisingly positive and light hearted way. His crew were a young Austrian couple, Daniel and Beate, who grew up in a town only a stone throw away from the town Christine grew up in. Daniel even went to the same high-school as Christine’s brother. Small world! While young, they themselves were incredibly experienced sailors having sailed together on their own boat around the world for more than 6 years. Throughout our expedition I was to be constantly impressed about how smoothly they ran all the operations of the boat in such varied and trying conditions.

And if there wasn’t already enough combined sailing experience among the captain and crew, so too did we have a huge depth of sailing experience with the other 7 passengers on the boat. Turned out that Christine and I were the only ones without much experience. Our fellow passengers were: Roberto (owner of a boat building company) with his son Leandro (industrial engineer, entrepreneur) from Buenos Aires; Joerg (pipe organ builder) from Sipplingen, Germany; Heinrich (process consultant) from Soest, Germany; Michael (tax advisor) from Bammental, Germany; Werner (editor in chief) from Berlin; and Martina (physiotherapist) who was Daniel’s mother from Bad Hofgastein, Austria.

The first day was all about getting the boat ready and settling in. To our surprise, the yacht was quite spacious. High ceilings inside the saloon and cabins meant that no one would have to crouch. Our assigned room was close to the rear with bunk beds. That pleased us since we’d heard that the back of the boat rocks less at rough seas. After packing the boat with supplies we then covered our first round of safety instructions. Shortly thereafter, it was time for a round of pisco sours at the local bar (one of the only two bars in town) followed by a fun dinner. Our first impression was further solidified – this group is really fun. Everyone was interesting and seemed easygoing. A lighthearted group that was excited for this special trip! We spent our first night on the boat that day and slept surprisingly well.

The dreaded Drake (days 2 to 6)
To get from Puerto Williams to Antarctica requires crossing a stretch of open sea known as the Drake Passage, that connects Cape Horn with the Antarctic Peninsula. It is considered to be one of the most tempestuous straits in the world. Even on the large cruise liners, many people struggle with intense sea-sickness during the 2 day crossing. For our yacht, the passage was expected to take more than 4 days and be a somewhat bumpier journey. The crossing would be a good first test of whether we’d made the right decision to sail on a yacht.

We set sail south out of Puerto Williams down towards the Drake on a picture perfect day with blue skies and sunshine. This turned out to be a good omen for our crossing of the Drake Passage. In the end, the entire crossing was, for want of a better phrase, smooth sailing. Christine and I had no problems with sea sickness. May have helped that we took sea-sickness tablets and wore acupressure bracelets. Who knows? Wolf later remarked that it was one of the better crossings he’s experienced. I guess we got lucky.

The day we set out was a Sunday. We learned that Sundays on the boat are good food days with treats like eggs for breakfast and freshly baked cakes for afternoon tea. Turns out Thursday are also a special day called “Seaman’s Sunday”, at least on German boats. So we would be getting cakes and elaborate meals twice a week. Nice. Impressive that Daniel and Beate found the time to pull this off with all the other things they had to do.

Although we had no troubles with sickness, there were still some new things to get used to. First, was learning how to balance on a boat. Simple things like carrying your coffee to the table, or going to the toilet became feats of acrobatics. We would constantly hear Daniel yell out “one hand for the seaman!” to remind us to keep a hand free to balance when walking around the boat. Another thing to get used to was getting out of bed in the middle of the night for our nightwatch. Once on the Drake we had 4 days of continuous sailing which meant working in shifts of 2 hours on and 6 hours off. Although it was tough at times to pull yourself out of bed, I nonetheless took pleasure in the adventure of being at the helm in the middle of the night on the Drake Passage.

For most of the crossing we saw nothing but sea to every point on the horizon. However, there were a few treats to break up the monotony. Just before we entered the Drake we stopped by Lennox Island and stumbled across a lone king penguin, unusual for the area. Such a majestic creature with the orange across its beak, neck and head.

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Christine and king penguin

Later, on the Drake, a group of dolphins came racing along beside our boat, darting from side to side and at times jumping out of the water playfully.

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Dolphins swimming with the boat

Others on the boat also had some brief whale sightings although none unfortunately on our watch. And then on day 6, we started seeing icebergs. First small ones, and later huge ones, 40m high and hundreds of meters long. It was a sign we were getting close. By the evening we finally reached our first stop in Antarctica, Deception Island. We cracked open beers to celebrate our arrival.

It’s an expedition, not a tour (day 7)

Early on during the trip, Wolf set expectations that our trip to Antarctica would be an expedition, not a tour. During a hike to a penguin colony on our first day in Antarctica, I started to understand what he meant. What I thought would be an easy walk over the hill to see penguins became a true 5-hour expedition, that included some seemingly never ending ascents of icy inclines so steep that our gumboots struggled to maintain grip. We started off from the shoreline covered in black volcanic stones (Deception Island itself is actually an active volcano and one of the biggest crater islands in the world), passed ice covered lakes, where the blue of the water shone through incredibly brightly, and then trudged our way up over the peak to where we could hear the chatter of the penguins through the mist down below us. The stretch between us and the penguins was a steep slope down, covered in snow and ice. The only way to get through was to slide on our bums. Lots of fun, but we dared not to think about having to go all the way back up.

At the bottom of the ice peak we found ourselves among hundreds of Chinstrap penguins with their chicks. Despite how excited I was to see my first colony of penguins, I have to admit that the initial thing I noticed was their bad smell. And up close, I saw that they were pretty dirty too from the food they regurgitate to their young. Plus, their poo everywhere! Somehow the documentaries fail to show that side of penguins when they breed. That said, they were still incredibly adorable. Their waddle is just as cute in real life as on the documentaries. It was really funny to watch the younger chicks chase their parents around, seeking regurgitated food!

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Chinstrap penguin colony

After spending the better part of an hour hanging out with the Chinstraps, we headed back to tackle the steep icy slope that we slid down to make our way back. Christine remarked “it’s like we’re climbing Mount Everest” seeing everyone slowly making their way up, at time losing their footing and stumbling. The only one in the group who seemed at all prepared for this was Heinrich who’d brought along clamp-on grips for his boots (“they only cost 3 Euro from Aldi” he proudly told us). The rest of us had to make do with just our gumboots. But we all made it out alive and felt very accomplished to have done it. I wouldn’t expect we would have had an experience like this had we gone with a cruise ship voyage.

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Skua

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Fur seal

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Two penguins (TLP!)

Later in the afternoon I asked Wolf where would be a good place in Antarctica to go kayaking or to take a quick dip. Two things I was keen to include in our Antarctic expedition. He thought there would be better places later on to kayak but here would be as good as place as any to take a swim. So Christine and I took the plunge from the boat into 1 degree Celsius waters. It was so cold that we’re literally in and then out in less than 10 seconds. I was glad to be able to check that off he list of “crazy things I’ve done and will never do again”… or so I thought. Later on, Michael mentioned that he’d be up for swimming in Antarctica but would prefer to dive off an iceberg. I couldn’t resist and made a pact to jump in with him when we had the opportunity.

That evening, Roberto and Leandro volunteered to cook dinner. What followed was an impromptu Argentinian evening: Pastel de Papa, followed by Alfajores (cookies with chocolate and dulce de leche) and even some Tango dancing in the 2 square meter saloon. A fitting end to a great first day in Antarctica.

Whales! (days 8 to 9)

Besides penguins, the other creatures we were most excited to see in Antarctica were whales. Although our crew told us that there were no guarantees on seeing whales, we nonetheless got our hopes up. Fortunately, we were not let down. On day 8, while sailing south from Deception Island to our next anchorage on Enterprise Island, a huge group of more than 10 humpback whales came up to our boat to say hi. They swam around and under our boat, and at times their head would pop up less than 2 metres away from us. Just magical.

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Humpback whales

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Humpback whales

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Humpback whales

We thought that this experience would be hard to top, but were proven wrong. The following day, it happened again. Another large group of humpbacks came right up to our boat. This time the water was perfectly still and the sun was shining. It’s hard to describe how serene the moment was. Again, I thought that this experience would be hard to top. Again I was wrong. Just moments later Wolf asked, “do you want to try kayaking next to them?”. So Christine and I quickly threw the kayak in the water, jumped in and gave chase. As we were paddling out we saw the group go down under water. We knew this would mean they probably resurface in a minute or two in a different location. The key was to follow the bubbles. Once we spotted where the bubbles were we knew they’d resurface there. We started paddling full throttle to the bubbles. When we were about 5 metres away, Christine started getting nervous so we dared not go closer. And then they resurfaced right next to us. Breathtaking. Just a few metres of water and an inflatable kayak between us and these massive, majestic creatures. This experience is one of our absolute highlights for our Antarctica trip and probably for our entire travels to date.

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Kayaking

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Kayaking next to humpback whales

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Kayaking next to humpback whales

We stayed out on the water and followed the whales around for a little while before returning to give some of the other guys a turn on the kayak. Afterwards, Roberto remarked “you wouldn’t get to do that on a cruise ship.” By now I was thoroughly convinced we made the right decision to go on a yacht rather than a cruise liner.

In the early afternoon on day 9 we arrived at our next anchorage, Cuverville. Cuverville is a popular spot for both its beautiful scenery and also large Gentoo penguin colony. To me, Gentoo’s look cuter than Chinstrap penguins with there bright red beaks, so I was very excited to go meet them.

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Gentoo penguin

Walking among the penguins we thought that this would be a good place for Christine to do her Antarctica hula-hooping video. It turned out OK, but I had a feeling that we could do better and made a note to be on the lookout for better locations for the next video.

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Hula hooping with penguins

Later that day we enjoyed a feast. Not only was it a Sunday but also Martina’s birthday. Daniel and Beate went all out in baking a Malakov birthday cake accompanied by champagne, and cooking Martina’s favourite meal, lasagna. Delicious! An amazing day ended with interesting conversations and lots of laughter.

Scientific base visit (day 10)

As mentioned, the Antarctic Treaty declares Antarctica as a territory dedicated to science and research. So throughout Antarctica there are numerous scientific bases representing various countries. While we were fortunate enough to be taken on quick tours of the Spanish base at Deception Island (Gabriel de Castilla) and the Argentinian Base (Base Brown) near Skontorp Cove, our most substantial base tour was at the Chilean base, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. The base is right in the middle of a Gentoo penguin colony, in a cove called Paradise Bay. 13 members of the Chilean air force live here from November through February each year. They arrive in November and typically spend 3 weeks digging the base out of the accumulated snow. The air force has two objectives at the base. One is to support the scientists that work on their base from time to time. The second objective is to provide emergency support for anyone that needs it in the region. The colonel showed us around the base, including the living quarters for the crew. He was proud to announce that this year they’ve finally been able to hook up satellite television. A big boost for the crew’s morale. They also have internet access. Arriving into their dining room we’re surprised to be greeted with coffee and biscuits. As a thank you, we invited the colonel back to our boat that evening for whiskey and popcorn. In this environment he opened up and told us what it feels like to lead a team in one of the remotest places of the world. An interesting conversation.

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Argentinian base

Iceberg graveyard (days 11 to 12)

The best weather we had during our whole trip was on day 11. Blue skies and sunshine the entire day. This happened to coincide with our sailing through one of the most beautiful channels along the Antarctica peninsula, the Lemaire Channel. Lemaire is an impressive narrow canal taking you between tall ice peaks on either side, and also through some of the most densely packed ice we’d seen to date.

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Lemaire

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Iceberg

Christine and I were steering at the helm through the Lemaire. Deeper into the canal the ice got denser and denser, until it became almost impossible to avoid them. At this point we handed the reigns back to the captain, and he decelerated the boat speed to barely a crawl. Slowly, we drifted through the packed ice. The quietness was occasionally broken by the sounds of ice fragments scraping the side of the boat.

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Lemaire

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Lemaire

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Lemaire

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Lemaire

After what seemed an eternity, we at last reached the end of the canal where the sea opened up again. Then we saw the most spectacular landscape to date: Port Pleneau. Nicknamed the “iceberg graveyard”, Port Pleneau is an area where huge icebergs accumulate together after they are blown into a bay. All around us were icebergs from 5m to 30m tall, each with unique shapes. Some looked like faces, others like sky scrapers. Looking across the landscape it felt like we were in another world. Spectacular.

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Iceberg graveyard

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Iceberg graveyard

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Iceberg graveyard

Sailing through these impressive and imposing structures, it struck me that this would be an even better spot for Christine’s hula-hooping video. So after reaching our anchorage, Daniel sped Leandro, Christine and I on the zodiac to one of the icebergs, where Christine climbed out and we shot one of our favourite hula hooping videos yet. Leandro and I also took the chance to climb on the iceberg. It felt surreal standing on a floating piece of ice, swaying with the movement of the water.

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Hula hooping on an iceberg

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Standing on an iceberg

That evening, everyone was in high spirits after experiencing one of the most spectacular days of our expedition. Martina, Joerg and Werner cooked up a German/Austrian feast of smoked pork ribs with potato puree and Sauerkraut. We then witnessed a stunning, colourful sunset followed by the rising of a full moon. A perfect end to a perfect day.

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Port Pleneau

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Daniel, Beate and Martina

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Moonrise at Port Pleneau

The next day was far from perfect. We awoke to almost the exact opposite weather conditions. Blasting winds, dense cloud cover and drizzling rain. Christine and I made a brave attempt to kayak over to a seal and penguin colony.

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Weddell seal

Battling the strong winds, we barely made it. When we later returned to our kayaks we saw that the wind had blown it metres away and in the process snapped one of the kayak paddles. Bummer. The whole group retreated to the yacht to wait out the storm. Unfortunately it didn’t die down the entire day so we had to abandon our visit to the Ukranian base, Vernadsky. No vodka shots with Ukranian scientists. Instead we had to settle for red wine and pisco sours (personally prepared by Captain Wolf) back on the boat. A worthy consolation.

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Captain making pisco sours

Visiting the southernmost post office in the world (days 13 to 14)

After a full day of being stuck in Planeau we were relieved to see the winds subside so we could make our way to our penultimate anchorage in Antarctica, Port Lockroy, home to a British base. This base is one of the few bases in Antarctica not dedicated to science. Instead it is a heritage listed museum, where you get to see what it was like for the former British scientists that lived there from the 1944 until 1962. The museum is really well done. And it’s ably supported by a souvenir shop and post office (the most southern post office in the world) that appears to be an incredible money maker for the base.

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Port Lockroy

I’d almost forgotten my pact with Michael to dive off an iceberg, but as our time in Antarctica was coming to an end, we realised that if we didn’t do it now we may not get the chance. And so again I headed off in a zodiac to climb an iceberg, this time with Michael accompanying me and both of us only wearing swimsuits. At first, things felt OK standing half naked on top of the iceberg. Then my feet started to feel like they were burning. The only way to give my feet relief was to dive off the iceberg into the freezing water that felt even colder the second time around. Once again, I was in the water for barely 10 seconds before returning to the zodiac and rushing back to the warmth of our yacht. Now I think I can safely say that I’ve checked it off the list of “crazy things I’ve done and will never do again.”

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Michael and I standing on an iceberg

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Me diving off an iceberg

The following day we headed a bit further north to make our final stop in Antarctica at Melchior Bay, and prepared for our return trip back across the Drake.

Return of the Drake (days 15 to 19)
While we had an easy crossing of the Drake the first time around, the same cannot be said of our second crossing. Most of the journey was through waves up to 5m high that would hit our boat in rapid succession from all angles. Christine and I both felt our stomachs churn early on in the crossing, but eventually our bodies adapted. Fortunately for us, we never really got hit with a full bout of sea sickness. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for some of our fellow passengers, who struggled throughout the four day crossing. During that time, Christine and I got into a routine of sleeping, waking up for our 2 hour shift at the helm, eating, and then sleeping again. We probably were sleeping (or at least in bed) for 14 hours of the day. It seems unreal but some combination of the boats rocking and our sea-sickness tablets was probably the cause of these marathon sleeping sessions.

A highlight on the way back was observing the albatrosses that loved to follow our boat for long stretches. I never knew how graceful these birds were. Daniel told me that they spend most of their lives out at sea, only coming back to land once every two years to breed. Amazing animals.

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Albatross

As we approached land, our initial plan was to make our first anchorage at Cape Horn. However, we got blown too far east and had to settle on Nueva Island, a little further north. When we finally set anchor I could feel the relief on the boat to finally be done with the Drake. To celebrate, we again cracked open beers this time accompanied by freshly roasted peanuts.

Return to Puerto Williams (days 20 to 21)
We used our last days to slowly make our way back up the Beagle Canal, and on the afternoon of day 21 we finally arrived back where it all began in Puerto Williams. That night, over dinner, we toasted a successful and incredible journey. And then made our way to the yacht club bar for a final drink (or in the case of some, many drinks!).

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Our expedition group at the farewell dinner

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All in all, the expedition to Antarctica rates as one of the best journeys we’ve ever made. The scenery was like nothing else. And to know that this landscape has remained largely untouched for millions of years makes it all that more special. The animals too were an absolute highlight. Both the adorable penguins and the majestic humpbacks that we got up close and personal with.

And as for the decision to do the sailing yacht rather than the cruise, we couldn’t be happier with our choice. It was truly special to go with such an intimate group, and we both really enjoyed the adventure of sailing across the Drake. One major advantage of a sailing yacht that I didn’t mention earlier, is that you get to do a lot more landings. There is a restriction in Antarctica that no more than 100 people from a boat can come ashore at any time, which massively limits how much time cruise passengers spend on land and where they get to go.

I also can’t speak more highly of Wolf Kloss and his crew from SIM Expeditions. Fantastic operators. Before we booked with Wolf we considered some other operators and found Wolf and his team to be the most professional and impressive of the lot. And during our trip it was clear to us how valuable Wolf’s experience was to handle the challenging, unpredictable and constantly changing conditions of Antarctica. So as you can imagine, we feel very fortunate to have chosen Wolf. And what’s more, the Santa Maria Australis is a very well equipped and comfortable boat too.

Thank you Wolf, Beate, Daniel and our fellow passengers for an incredible expedition!

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Living like Sydney-siders

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One of the main reasons Christian and I decided to stay in Australia for two months was to spend more time with family and friends. Over the last 5 years while we’ve lived in San Francisco, we’ve typically only had time to see our families once per year, alternating Christmases in Sydney or Vienna. This year, we got to spend over a month in Vienna leading up to our wedding which was particularly nice. So adding two full months in Aussie-Land felt like the icing on the cake. Luckily, my sister and her family live in Australia as well and I was especially looking forward to spend time with my two little nephews (Jayden, 3.5 years; Lukas, 18 months) and, vice versa, for them to see their auntie for more than the occasional quick visit. I guess with kids it’s particularly apparent how quickly time passes and how much can happen in just a few months. I constantly had the feeling that I was missing out on some important parts of their childhood. Apart from squeezing in a short Outback adventure we ended up splitting the remainder of the time between Christian’s family in Sydney and my sister’s family in Austinmer. Reconnecting with Christian’s friends from high-school, university and college (i.e., Aussie terminology for student housing) was the other highlight. Our schedule was packed with fun activities from beach picnics, to leisurely lunches, kayaking, hiking, cricket and basketball games and many fun dinners. Not only did I get to know an incredible group of people, I also got a better sense for Sydney-siders, what they do, how they live and what they value in life. At times I felt like being at home in this city, not just a visitor passing by. We did not foresee that we would have such a hard time leaving as our time was up, almost feeling homesick. Here is why:

Enjoying food heaven with great company:

  • Exploring Sydney’s restaurant scene: New restaurants are spreading through Sydney like mushrooms which reminded me a lot about San Francisco. Lots of different concepts with a good mix of Australian/Western and Asian influences. Some of my favourites included Nomad (creative modern Australian dishes, fun & lively atmosphere), Porteno (Argentinian influenced, incredible grilled meats!), Ripples (perfect for lunch in the sun with stunning views of Sydney) and Mamak & Hawker (authentic Malaysian street food brought to Sydney by Christian’s university friend Alan Au). But let’s not forget dessert. There is one spot in Sydney that everyone tells you to go to for real gelato: Gelato Messina. Lines are long but the creative flavour combinations justify the wait. Heaven for ice cream lovers.
  • Indulging in delicious, home-cooked meals:
    • Our travels through Malaysia and China introduced me to the vast array of delicious Asian foods. And our culinary journey continued in Sydney where Christian’s dad Vincent cooked up some traditional Malaysian recipes. I tasted my first “real” congee for breakfast (rice porridge with a variety of condiments prepared the way that Christian’s grandfather grew up with), Rojak (exotic fruit salad with tofu, bean sprouts and prawn paste), and Char Kuey Teow (fried rice noodles).
  • On another occasion Jason, one of Christian’s university friends and true food lover, invited us over for a home-cooked meal. Little did we know that he was preparing a multi-course Korean dinner. Delicious! I’m ready to incorporate some of those Asian flavours into our recipe book.
  • Another treat was an invitation to Sophie’s (one of Christian’s university friends) for lunch together with Lara. Nothing beats good meatballs and a glass of champagne for a leisurely lunch while getting to catch up and play with the kids.
  • A special highlight was catching up with my host family from 14 years ago. Back then I came to Australia for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. As part of the experience our group (the Olympic Youth Camp) was split up and assigned to host families for only 3 days. I was lucky to be assigned to the McGrath family in Bowral. A connection that we maintained up until now! An afternoon of good conversations and lots of laughter accompanied by delicious Aussie BBQ and wine.
  • Expanding our healthy food horizon: As a bonus of living with my sister, we also got a full immersion into “very healthy” cooking. Christian and I would consider ourselves to eat fairly healthy but my sister, who has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, took our knowledge to the next level. She has an endless list of easy-to-cook wholesome meals with healthy, local ingredients. I rediscovered home-cooked warm breakfasts that are nutritional yet easy to digest (cooked millet with chia seed puree, fresh berries and some almonds was my personal favourite), how to prepare simple yet tasty dishes (homemade frittata, hand-rolled sushi, freshly made spelt pizza) and how to prepare some healthy desserts (e.g., raw “no cheese” cheesecake, carob balls made out of dates and nuts – no sugar or dairy added). I left Sydney with a long list of healthy eating resolutions. Travelling through Southern Chile and the Antarctic in the past few weeks, I’ve already had to compromise. It’s hard to avoid the omnipresence of white wheat bread here. Well, options are limited at the end of the world 🙂 But the plan is to pick up my resolution when we are back in the real world.
  • Enjoying a 7-course NYE dinner with friends: New Years Eve in Sydney can get crowded out on the streets. So we met up with a small group of friends and enjoyed a home-cooked 7-course dinner with wine pairing! Dishes on the menu included some Australian classics like ocean trout (looks like salmon but tastes MUCH better), barramundi and lamb cutlets. To top off the evening we enjoyed a good glass of champagne while watching Sydney’s spectacular fireworks.
  • Exploring new wine bars & remodelled pubs: Back in the day, it was hard to get a liquor license in Sydney. So typically only larger establishments were able to get a license to sell alcohol on-premise. Just recently, laws have changed to allow smaller establishments to serve alcohol. As a consequence a variety of wine bars have opened throughout the city and are becoming a new meeting point. The added benefit is that the increased competition forced the old establishments to revamp their image resulting in creatively renovated old pub buildings. The perfect mix of old and new! One of those places is Coogee Pavilion on Coogee beach – an old pub turned party parlour which combines a lively bar scene with a restaurant and a game area (life-size jenga and scrabble!). We ended up there twice with Christian’s university friends, on both occasions having a fantastic time.
  • Tasting outstanding coffee: Nothing beats Australian flat whites. Australia has a well renowned barista culture, true coffee artists, that prepare your order to perfection. The consistency of coffee throughout the country is quite incredible.

Taking advantage of Sydney’s beach & outdoor lifestyle: Sydney is unique in that it combines the urban with the beach lifestyle. The city centre smoothly merges with suburban neighbourhoods at beautiful sandy beaches. I can see why people here strive for a good work-life balance. It does make one happy to get up to the rising sun and go for a run on the beach feeling the wind on your skin and hearing the roaring ocean just a few feet away. It’s pretty invigorating to be amongst such a healthy and energetic group of people. My admiration goes especially to all the ocean swimmers out there. Doing 1k+ morning swims in the open water (many of them are legitimate races) is the ultimate level of fitness! On the weekends, the ocean walk hugging the coast from Bondi all the way down to Coogee is bustling with people. One of our outdoor Sydney highlights was a picnic with friends at Tamarama and hiking in the Blue Mountains.

Spending 24 hours alone with my sister: Living on different continents for 10+ years, I couldn’t remember when I had spent a solid number of hours alone just with my sister. Therefore, I took the opportunity to get away and kidnapped my sis to a small town called Kiama just south of Austinmer. Spending a full 24 hours together and having no time pressure for our conversations felt like a rare luxury. I realised that it’s not only family time by itself that matters, it’s also the one-on-one time with your loved ones that enables us to strengthen our bonds and truly understand each other.

Getting a crash course in bringing up kids: We got the full immersion into the life of a young family, living with my sister, Bobby and their kids. I learned how to change diapers; discovered that kids need an endless amount of food; got reminded about children’s endless imagination which caused a daily dose of healthy laughter; witnessed some unique moments (Jayden fearlessly mastering his first swim lessons, Lukas learning to catch a ball – just to name a few examples); noticed that kids are really smart and that you need to be careful what you say because they understand more than you think!; realised that there is no real “off-time” with kids; and how important it is for parents to work as a team and become the most patient people in the world. I must admit that I have a new appreciation for what it means to be a parent, and how much joy those little beings can bring to your life.

Losing ourselves in long conversations over lovely family dinners: Many of our evenings we were reminiscing about the past, discussing our current challenges, and getting excited about future ambitions. Ultimately, our conversations were a reminder that we all grapple with the same questions. What are our priorities? What are we optimising for? What makes us truly happy and how does that change over time? Our stay in Australia reminded me that a big portion of my happiness is linked to spending time with the people I love. I recently read an article about the connection of time and happiness which probably summarises my feelings the best: “Spending time with people you love doing the things you love is the best road to happiness.”. Also offers some good guiding principles for how to be more happy in our professional life!

SPECIAL THANKS: We are so privileged to have stayed with so many of our friends and family while in Sydney to save us on having to fork out on hotels. For this we send a big thank you (in no particular order) to:
* Jason To
* Bill & Veronica Marriott
* Lara Ette & Greg Kaspar
* Jen Davies
* Vincent Wong and Judy Grey
* Bobby Cheema and Verena Raschke-Cheema
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18 days in the Outback

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“Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m tanned, or just really dirty”.

This quote of Christine’s, from our campsite in Tennant Creek, nicely sums up our 18-days traveling through the Australian outback. Lots of sun and lots of red dirt.

Our route took us from Darwin on Australia’s northern coast right down to Adelaide on Australia’s southern coast; the first time either of us had driven across the entire length of a continent. The main highway for the journey is the Stuart Highway and the journey itself is dubbed “The Explorer’s Way”. Both are in reference to the early Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart who was the first white person to cover this stretch back in 1862. One slight difference between Stuart and us is that he did the journey from south to north. Another slight difference is that he didn’t have a car.

In Darwin, we picked up our 4wd rental, fully equipped with tent, sleeping bags, mini-fridge and cooking equipment. Having a fridge was a pretty sweet addition and meant we’d have more flexibility in what we cooked than we otherwise would have with just an esky.

Before we left Darwin, we stopped by a supermarket to stock up on provisions. The two most important items for us to buy were 30 litres of water in case we broke down in the outback, and a bunch of lacinato kale because Christine doesn’t eat any meal that doesn’t include kale these days. Along with this we bought some other moderately important things like toilet paper, soap and non-kale food items too.

Fully stocked, I was itching to hit the road. But one last thing to do before we left was to set the trip odometer to zero and photograph it so we could capture the full number of kilometres we travelled on our journey. Little did I know that this thing resets itself every 2,000km so I was unable to get a nice picture with the total kilometres we covered. In case you’re wondering, we covered 5,425km and if you do the math you can work it out with the pictures below :).

Our first stop was Litchfield National Park. Although less well-known than the nearby Kakadu National Park, Litchfield is a beautiful park in its own right. Upon arrival we went straight to the nearest waterhole for a quick dip, which was a great relief from the 40+ degree (Celcius) temperatures. Cool and relaxed from our swim, we then found a nice patch of dirt to set up camp. Admittedly, we struggled at first working out how to pitch our very large 4-man tent. It was not as easy to assemble as the 2-man tents we’re used to. However, later we were very grateful to have a large tent since the night time temperatures throughout the trip were often north of 30 degrees and the bigger tent was actually quite airy, providing some relief to the heat.

The following morning we awoke early to sunrise and did a short hike to a peak where you could look out over Litchfield. Having built up a sweat we then made our way to a waterfall for a swim and were lucky to have the entire place to ourselves. An incredible first 24 hours.

Next stop was to backtrack a little and then head east over to Kakadu National Park. I’ve been wanting to go here for years so I was excited to finally make it. We ended up spending 3 nights in Kakadu. Highlights were our first evening picnic at the Ubirr sunset point; seeing some of the oldest Aboriginal rock paintings; the Yellow River cruise which allowed us to get upclose to tons of saltwater crocodiles along with other beautiful bird life; and the little advertised waterfalls at Yurmikmik that Christine and I stumbled across and got to swim in.

On the topic of swimming in Kakadu, because of the saltwater crocodiles there aren’t really any truly safe places to swim in Kakadu. Waterholes are either signposted as “Don’t swim”, where you’d be stupid to swim since there are known crocodiles in the area; or “Swim at your own risk” which is where the rangers do not believe there are crocodiles and make an effort to check on this, but just can’t be 100% certain. Knowing that nothing is 100% certain, definitely made the heart beat a little faster on the couple of times we did swim in Kakadu.

On day 5, we woke up early to hit one of the longest stretches of our journey from Kakadu down to Tennant Creek. Fortunately the road conditions were good so we got into Tennant Creek a little earlier than expected. This allowed us to spend some time getting to know the town. We hit the local RSL club for a beer and a steak, chatting with one of the locals who regaled many a story about Tennant Creek’s booms and busts over the years with mining and cattle butchering. Afterwards we stopped by for a beer at the Tennant Creek Hotel. We were the only non-indigenous clientele there that night. Interestingly the only people who gave us funny looks were the bar staff.

Next morning we got up at 4:30am so that we could make our way down to see the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu) at sunrise. It was breathtaking experience and well worth the effort. The Devil’s Marbles are this incredible set of rock formations where weathering over time has created these large round rocks everywhere. At sunrise you got to see the rocks change colours and the landscape come to life.

Later that afternoon, we arrived into Alice Springs where we stayed with Christine’s brother-in-law’s sister, Geeta, and her partner David. Geeta and David were incredibly hospitable, taking us out for lunch and showing us around Alice Springs. It was great getting an opportunity to get to know them. It was also great to learn from them and their experience working on Aboriginal health issues. One of Australia’s most pressing social issues is the state of affairs of Aboriginal communities and our country’s dealings with its original owners. It’s an incredibly complex issue and was great to hear perspectives from people who work and contribute to change in this area.

Although we were tempted to stay a little longer hanging out with Geeta and David and getting to make use of a real bed and clean shower, we were also excited by the next few days ahead: a short detour off the highway to pass through the West Macdonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru (Ayers Rock). Highlight of the West Macdonnel ranges was driving from gorge to gorge, where we’d do a short hike followed by a dip in a beautiful waterhole. In Kings Canyon the highlight was our sunrise hike around the rim of the canyon. And the highlight for Uluru was  probably the highlight for our whole trip: seeing Uluru at sunset. I’d been to Uluru before about 10 years ago. Since then I’ve always remembered it as my single favourite place in all of Australia (and maybe the world). Coming back to Uluru for a second time, it was equally as incredible. As you approach the Uluru from 50km out, there is only flat earth as far as the eye can see. And then, on the horizon, you see Uluru as this massive rock that seems to emerge from nowhere. It boggles the mind as to how this rock should exist there. Up close, Uluru feels like it has its own field of gravity, pulling you in. For our sunset there, we went to the lookout, prepared a wonderful picnic spread, popped open a bottle of bubbly, plugged in our headphones to our iPod and sat on the roof of our 4wd admiring the changing colours of the rock at sunset. We ended up staying there long after the sun had set, admiring the beauty of our surroundings. Just magical.

After Uluru was another long driving day of about 750km, first heading east back to the Stuart Highway and then south all the way down to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is a quirky town of only 1,500 residents. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s largest Opal mining town. Its other claim to fame is that it is the most uninhabitable place on earth with ground temperatures often above 65 degrees, along with extraordinarily strong winds. In order to deal with these conditions, many of the people live in houses built underground. So one of the “must do’s” in Coober Pedy is to stay underground for the night. In our case, we camped underground which was a really fun experience. It was actually one of the more comfortable places we slept in given that the temperature was a cool 22 degrees and we didn’t have to battle with any rain or wind. While in Coober Pedy, we also made time for an Opal mine tour and a visit to an underground church.

After Coober Pedy, we decided to take another detour of the Stuart highway so that we could make our way over to the Flinders Ranges. Along the way, we bumped into some travelers we’d seen at our underground camp place in Coober Pedy, so we hung out with them for a couple of days. Dimitri and Els from Belgium and Maarten from the Netherlands were in the middle of a longer road trip from Perth to Melbourne, also via the Flinders. Together we visited some cool natural springs, camped under the stars, and had a lunch of Australian feral animals at the very “hip” Prairie Hotel. The Prairie Hotel is worth a call out because it was an absolute gem of a find. Situated in the town of Parachilna with only 2 permanent residents (which, as described by Grant, the hotel manager, is “northeast of the middle of f***ing nowhere”), the only reason to stop is to come to the Prairie Hotel. 20 years ago, on what sounds like a whim, the new owners decided to turn the run down pub into a boutique hotel. The hotel itself is very tastefully done. But the reason we came by was to try the famous “Feral Platter” which is an antipasti plate of emu pate, camel wurst and smoked kangaroo. Everything we ate there was just delicious. And Grant was a barrel of laughs too.

Along the drive to the Flinders we saw emus in the wild for the very first time. Crazy animals as you can see in this video:

But the highlight was for Christine getting to see big red kangaroos in the wild for the first time. Prior to this, Christine had been complaining that she’d only seen small kangaroos and wallabies in the wild and was starting to not believe me that you could see big ones in the wild too. But once we arrived into Flinders Ranges National Park, we saw big ones everywhere. Very cool.

Flinders is famous among geologists for having some of the oldest known rocks in the world that now potrude out after movement in the earth millions of years back. But beyond just having really old rocks, the area itself is beautiful. We spent two days there, hiking around and enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures than further north. Given the vast area of the Flinders Ranges, that we could never entirely cover by hiking or even by car, we decided to take a scenic flight which gave us a very different and spectacular perspective of the landscape.

Our penultimate stop along the journey was in the South Australian wine region. It was two stops really, one in Clare Valley and the other in Barossa Valley. Part of the reason for deciding to go from north to south was so that we could finish up our journey in this beautiful wine country. In Clare we hired bikes and rode along the Riesling Trail (Clare is famous for its Rieslings) from winery to winery tasting wonderful wines and gourmet food. In Barossa we did a wine hike, walking from winery to winery to taste the wines and food. Mixing exercise into our wine tastings helped us justify the 4 straight days of indulgence.

And finally, 18 days after departing Darwin we arrived at our destination: Adelaide. We’d both been to Adelaide before so didn’t budget a lot of time here before we flew back to Sydney. That said, we still made time for one last gourmet experience dining at Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar where we celebrated the amazing journey we’d just completed.

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Maximising Happiness: 10-day silent meditation retreat

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As Christian and I have begun to learn about meditation, there has been one recommendation that has come up again and again from friends we’ve spoken to and books we’ve read: Do a 10-day silent meditation retreat, a full immersion into the world of meditation. While such a commitment seemed daunting (especially for novices like us), the idea of going all in and seeing for ourselves “what it’s all about” was also appealing. So we went for it and signed up for a Vipassana Meditation course at the Dhamma Malaya Center in Malaysia. It turned out to be a truly unique experience. It was new territory for both of us. And as such it was really challenging (mentally and physically) but also rewarding. It was a personal growth experience. Instead of writing a summary I felt that sharing my stream of consciousness from the 10 days would give a better account of what it was like. Here is what was going through my head (to the best of my recollection):

Day 0: “It feels like the first day of school”

  • We board the bus taking us from Kuala Lumpur to the Meditation Center. Four hours left before Christian and I will start the course. The bus is full with fellow meditators. To my surprise, they are less yogi-like than I expected. Only one girl has the cliched dreadlock-and-pyjama-pants look. This is a relief. I was afraid that this might not be for us and that we find ourselves in a world of serious yogis that dedicate their life to this. For Christian and me it’s really about learning how to control the chatter in our mind and reduce the stress in our lives without giving up on our ambitions and goals. Along the drive I find myself getting more nervous the closer we get. I can’t even imagine how I will be able to sit on a cushion for ten straight days. I can’t even keep still on the chair in my office for one straight hour. This will be painful.
  • As the bus pulls up at the center, we enter through a driveway uncovering a property set among lush greenery, bordering a papaya and palm tree plantation. I think “wow, this place looks nicer than I expected”. I love nature and always find it very calming. This environment might help me get through the next ten days. We roll our luggage to the office and get our rooms assigned. I feel a pang of anxiety in my stomach as I realise this is the last time I will be able to speak with Christian. From now on, women and men will be separated. The only exception is the main Meditation Hall. I am advised to go to the female dining hall for further instructions. I’m greeted by a room full of women, probably close to 100 in total. I am surprised by the age mix. There are teenagers as well as women in their 70s or 80s. The crowd is radiating a mix of excited anticipation mixed with anxiousness about the unknown. It kind of feels like it’s the first day of school. Nobody really knows anyone else. Everyone is kind of pretending to look like they’re keeping to themselves but at the same time eyeing everyone else.
  • After registration we check into our rooms. I’m positively surprised by my room. First, I have a room to myself (which most meditation centres don’t offer). Second, it’s nicer that what I expected. Well, it’s very basic. A small room with a window furnished only with a tiled bench with a mattress and a little stand for personal belongings. Adjacent there is a small bathroom with a shower, toilet, a small sink and two water buckets for doing laundry. I guess you could say it is similar to a prison cell, but I’m happy because it’s clean. After I settle in, I head to the office to drop off my personal belongings. You are not meant to keep anything that could interfere with your meditative concentration and mindfulness. Turns out I have a lot of things to let go of: our iPad, our Mac, my mobile phone, my camera, my Kindle, my iPod, a couple of Lonely Planets, and my notebook. It feels strange to hand everything over. What if I get bored? Ten days are a long time… I make my way back to the dining hall. We are about to get instructions on the course schedule. There will be two main vegetarian meals a day (breakfast and lunch) with a tea break at 5pm (with fruit for first time students only). The day will start with a wake-up call at 4am and end at around 10pm, broken up into 1-2 hour blocks of meditation and breaks for eating and rest in between. I do some quick math in my head. This means 10.5 hours of sitting meditation a day! This will be tough.
  • With the end of the instructions the course and therewith “Noble Silence” officially start. This means no talking, no eye contact or gestures with any of the other participants. The point is to not disturb the meditative concentration that we are supposed to be keeping throughout the day. With that I make my way up to the main meditation hall for our first meditation session. The hall is quite big. It looks inviting with its large white walls and tilted wooden roof. Lots of fresh air is coming in from the large openings under roof. Thank god that there are so many fans! I would have died of the heat otherwise. The lights are dimmed. Square seating pillows, about a dozen in each row, are neatly arranged. The dark blue ones on the right are for us women. Men are on the left on light blue pillows. I find my assigned spot and notice that some other women have extra pillows, some brought extra shawls. I feel a bit clueless. I’ve heard that the prolonged sitting can get pretty painful and people try to support their bodies with extra cushions. There is also the option to sit on a chair in the back row  But this seems like cheating. I promise myself that I’ll make it through these ten days on this cushion. I go to the back of the hall and find myself two extra pillows. I’m sure they’ll come in handy eventually. Two assistant teachers, one male and one female, walk in and sit down on two small elevated podiums in the front. They turn on a tape with the first instructions from the master teacher, S.N. Goenka. The assistant teachers will support the sessions and answer questions for students. Our first task: focus on our breath, specifically, the sensation from breathing in and out. With those instructions, we are left to our own devices. I have practiced this type of breathing meditation with Christian before. This feels comforting. Thoughts keep flying through my head but for the most part I am able to focus on my breathing. The hour is over quite quickly and we are allowed to retreat to our rooms. This wasn’t too hard. That said, this is only Day 0 and the course officially starts tomorrow. With a sense of anticipation of what lies ahead, I stroll back to my room through the dark night.

Day 1: “Is this what meditation feels like? I don’t know, but it feels good”

  • I hear a loud gong and almost jump up in bed. It must be 4am. It’s pitch black outside. Didn’t we just go to bed? The gong seems to go on forever. At least 10 times. They really want us to get up. I roll out of bed and take a cold shower (for hot water you need to fill up your bucket at specific hot water stations). I figure I might as well start this first day refreshed. I feel energised and excited for what’s to come. As I step outside, I join the stream of co-meditatiors who are on their way through the dark to the meditation hall. Once in the hall, I wiggle around on my cushion to find a comfortable position. Here we go. I focus on my breath. But my concentration keeps getting interrupted. Random thoughts keep coming up. “I’m hungry. What’s for breakfast today? Who is breathing so loudly close to me? This is disturbing. My legs feel numb. Airplane flying over the building. Birds are chirping. They are quite loud. I’m hungry…”. I get a little bit annoyed with myself. Why can’t I focus better? Then I remember what Christian and I had read in meditation books. Acknowledge the thought that comes up but don’t dwell on it. Let go and softly come back to your breath. This helps. I’m getting into some sort of flow. Suddenly I hear some chanting. A taped recording of the master teacher. It’s not very melodic and sounds a bit weird. Maybe it’s a sign of the meditation session to end soon? I really hope so. My legs are close to falling asleep and I keep wiggling around on my cushion. A loud, vibrant gong announces the end of the session. I made it! It’s 6:30am. Breakfast time.
  • I quickly get up and suddenly remember that we are meant to be mindful throughout the day. By focusing on each individual activity our meditative state is supposed to continue. I try to walk slowly but see some others rushing down the path to the the dining hall. Aren’t we all meant to be mindful? What if not enough food will be left when I get there? Seems like they were running low on food at the light dinner the day before. A feeling of stress and anxiety overcomes me. This is ridiculous, I think. Here I am, learning how to take the stress out of my life but obsess about getting enough food for breakfast. While I keep up the slower pace, it feels forced. The breakfast has plenty of food left when I arrive. It’s also a surprisingly great spread. I fill up my plate and find my assigned seat. The room is filled with the clinging sounds of cutlery and plates. The food tastes good. And to my surprise, I don’t miss the talking. I stroll back to my room and decide to take a short nap. It seems that only minutes have passed, but here it is again, the gong. Back to the meditation hall for the 8am session.
  • I have three hours of meditation ahead of me! Encouraged by my morning session, I sit down. It’s the same pattern as in the morning. Batches of good concentration, mixed with batches of lots of thinking. But I’m never really getting lost in my train of thought for too long. This is good, I think. I keep playing around with my sitting postures. Will I ever be able to sit still for one or two hours? With that, I keep making my way through the morning. The lunch procedure is the same as breakfast. The day continues with another three meditation sessions, followed by the tea break. I feel great throughout the afternoon. The hours seem to go by at a decent pace. I have a lot of energy and feel comfortable with the sitting (albeit, still changing my posture a lot). At one point I feel a vibrant sensation around my head. It feels as if an electric field is surrounding my head. This feels great! It’s almost as if I’m in and outside of my body at the same time. Is this what meditation feels like? I don’t know, but it feels good. I make a mental note to ask the female assistant teacher in the evening Q&A session. The tea break feels like heaven after meditating for so long. One more hour of group meditation before we listen to the daily “Dhamma Talk”, a video-taped talk by our master teacher. What a welcome change to watch a video vs. focusing on my breath! The assignment for the next day is to continue concentrating on our breath. The teacher reminds us to not control our breath but rather just observe it. I’m glad he mentions it. I realise that I had been trying to breath slowly and deeply at times to better concentrate. I make a mental note to follow my natural breath from here on.
  • After the talk, there is one more hour of group meditation. I’m starting to get tired but make it through. I stay for the Q&A session and ask my teacher about my “electric field” experience. Her answer is simply that different sensations will come up as my mind gets sharper. I shouldn’t read into it too much. We’ll learn more about it in Days 4-9. I guess, I have to be patient. But I’m also a bit disappointed that my experience wasn’t the sign of the “perfect” meditation. I think back to a book I read by Dan Harris about his first mediation retreat and that there is no such thing as a perfect meditation. Every session will be different and the goal is not to sense a particular feeling, be it positive or negative. The point is to sharpen your mind and not get attached to anything. Feeling relieved that the day is over I walk back to my room. I notice the beautifully clear sky with its many bright stars. 9 more days to go. So far so good.

Day 2: “This feels like torture”

  • I’m already awake when the 4am gong goes off. I feel exhausted. The bed and the pillow are quite hard. I barely slept. My neck is starting to hurt. Also, who would have thought that nature could be so loud? All those nocturnal animals cause a hell of a noise level. I should have brought ear plugs. I go through my morning routine and walk up to the meditation hall. The fresh air is nice and I regain my positive spirits. I’m almost looking forward to the dimly lit hall. It is very peaceful in there. But already after ten minutes of meditation I know that this session will be hard. My neck and upper back start to hurt. The pain is slowly crawling up into my head. I start to sweat profusely. Changing my sitting posture doesn’t seem to help. I remember that I should try to stay peaceful. Our goal, after all, is to practice “equanimity”, i.e., to neither develop attachment (to positive sensations) nor aversion (to negative sensations like pain). I tense up and slowly start to get annoyed. Why is this experience so different from yesterday? Am I doing something differently? I barely make it through the session. Somehow the two hours go by. I can’t wait for the breakfast break to recharge a bit. Despite my positive attitude on the next few sessions, the whole day feels like torture. My body continues aching and I am slowly getting a headache. This day seems to be my test of equanimity, I think. And I have eight more days to go! I can’t get this thought out of my head anymore. How in the world can I endure eight more days of this physical pain? A recommendation from a book on meditation by Joseph Goldstein comes to my mind. “Your promise is to show up and sit. Leave the rest to itself and don’t try to control it. Take it hour by hour”. Hour by hour. Ok, let’s go hour by hour then. I try it. And things are getting a bit better. After the afternoon sessions I’m still feeling somewhat down but a bit more optimistic.
  • We get our next assignment during the Dhamma Talk that evening: continue focusing on your breath. Really, we’re just going to keep doing the same breathing exercises tomorrow? I feel some frustration. When are we going to start with Vipassana Meditation (the main part of the course)? This seems to get repetitive. My impatient self starts to show itself. The question is quickly answered. One more day of breathing meditation will help to sharpen our minds even more. Then we’ll swap to Vipassana on Day 4. I’m sure there is a good reason for this sequence and duration. At least I hope so. We are also told that as of Day 4 that during three of the sittings we won’t be allowed to change our posture during the full hour. They call this “sittings of determination.” I haven’t yet been able to sit completely still for a full hour. This seems daunting.

Day 3: “Starting to feel like I’m in the zone”

  • The morning mediation session on Day 3 is another uphill battle. I can’t believe it. It seems like my body is playing games with me. First my neck, then my back, now my legs and knees. The pain keeps moving. I try to stay relaxed and focus on my natural breath. This seems to work. Bit by bit my increased concentration seems to come back. My body also feels a bit less tense. At last, some progress. This positive trend continues throughout the day. With every meditation session my concentration gets slightly better. Most of the pain disappears. Even outside of the meditation sessions I feel like I’m in some sort of “zone”. I start to observe my surroundings more consciously (there are some pretty impressive ant streets on this property. And some of the ants are gigantic). I start to truly enjoy each meal, savouring every bite. I’m more mindful when doing benign tasks, like hand-washing my clothes, focusing on each piece at a time. And I’m finally able to walk more mindfully as well. It seems that my meditative state continues even outside of the hall. I feel very alert. At the same time I feel very peaceful and content.
  • I also start to experiment with different sitting postures, forcing myself to maintain them for a full hour. It’s hard. But I want to succeed in the sittings of determination that will start tomorrow. I wonder why there was no introduction to “proper sitting postures” to begin with. Shouldn’t that be the basis of every meditation course? This evening we finally get the instructions for the “real meditation”, Vipassana. I’m excited to kick into the next gear!

Day 4 to 9: “Peacefulness, exhilarating highs, and painful lows” 

  • In the following days, we start practising Vipassana. Vipassana is about sensing your body, i.e., you scan your body, trying to feel the sensation of each inch of your body. This exercise has two goals. First, to get an understanding of “impermanence”. Things inevitably keep changing and through experiencing this with my own body sensations, I’m supposed to get an understanding of the impermanence of everything. Second, to develop “perfect equanimity”. This means to stay perfectly peaceful regardless of the sensation i.e., to not develop any clinging to pleasant sensations and no aversion to unpleasant sensations. Initially it takes me a while to sense every part of my body. But with every session, I get better at it. I notice that it’s easier to focus on my body sensations than my breath. My mind wanders less and less. The meditation sessions seem to go by much faster. I feel good and am enjoying the daily routine. Not being able to move during the daily three “sittings of determination” turn out to be a real challenge, however. For the first 30 minutes everything is a breeze. Then, predictably, some part of my body starts to hurt. I feel excruciating pain. But I promised myself to get through it and not move. I start to sweat profusely. Is it just hot or am I really working that hard at sitting on a cushion? Again, I feel doubts arising. Why the hell am I putting myself through this? But with every successful session, I feel more proud.
  • Day 4 to 8 become somewhat of a blur. When we reach Day 5, I feel proud that I’m halfway through. But still five more days to go. Yet, my outlook on them is quite positive. I know what I’m capable of by now. I also enjoy the state I’m in. Everything is very peaceful. The more body scans we do, the more I can feel my body sensations outside of the sessions. When I’m standing, I feel my feet being firmly grounded. When I’m walking, I feel my leg muscles moving. When I’m eating, I notice my specific finger, arm and mouth movements. When I take a shower, the water is more noticeable on my skin. I particularly enjoy lying down in bed during the breaks or at night. My body feels heavy and relaxed on the mattress. I still have trouble sleeping but it seems that my body is resting even when my mind is awake. When I hear the 4am gong, a vibration is going through my body. I have heard people talk about similar experiences with meditation but was always quite sceptical. It sounded esoteric. But here I am, feeling these sensations. And they are pure and real. I start to believe that meditation could help me in being more present. I feel exhilarated. I’m so glad we are doing this course! But then again, the high that I experience during Days 4-6 comes to an end.
  • Day 7 and 8 pose another challenge. Sitting for 10.5 hours for 6 days straight has a toll on my neck and back. I’m in constant pain. Stretching doesn’t help anymore. Nor does sleep. I’m a bit defeated. Where did all the progress from the previous days go? I really have to fight through some of the session. Eventually I schedule time with my teacher. I want to know if I’m doing something wrong. She diffuses my concerns. Everyone’s body is in pain at the end of such a course. She promises me that daily one to two hour meditation sessions after this course will feel like a breeze. I really do hope so! Day 9 is our last true day of Vipassana. I learn that Day 10 is a wrap up day, with fewer meditation sessions that will be focused on Loving Kindness meditation. Noble Silence will end as well. This means I can talk to Christian again (at least around the dining hall where men and women are allowed to mingle as of then). That’s great news. This will make Day 10 so much easier! I try to give each remaining meditation session my best. As I fall into bed on Day 9, I can’t believe that we almost did it! We made it through.

Day 10: “We made it!”

  • I wake up with mixed feelings. This is the last 4am gong followed by our morning meditation. I will miss the tranquility and serenity of the mornings. At the same time, “we made it” and I am excited to see Christian and hear what his experience was like. There is one question, however, that keeps nagging at me. How will feeling our body sensations help me in real life? How am I supposed to apply this newly learned technique in day-to-day life? I am lucky and get one of the last interview spots with the assistant teacher. She looks at me with an amused smile. I’m probably not the first one asking for a “how to guide”. She promises that by continuing to practice Vipassana meditation and equanimity (no clinging, no aversion), I will start noticing changes. Old baggage (e.g., perceived notions, emotional patterns) will get lifted over time. I really want to believe her but am still somewhat dissatisfied. I buy into the technique of meditation but have a hard time to subscribe to Buddhist religious beliefs quite yet. I need something more tangible. Luckily, she offers me more practical advice. The body scan technique we learned will help me observe my sensations in day-to-day life. For example: If I get angry, I will feel certain sensations arising in my body. Previously, I might have immediately reacted. But with meditation practice, I will get better at observing myself and name different sensations and emotional states. With that I’ll be able to take a step back, think about how I want to respond and then act on it (or not). Responding versus reacting. Now this is something tangible for me to ponder over.
  • Lunch that day feels like a mad-house. Everyone is talking. The noise level seems unbearable. I reconnect with a few people that I met on Day 1. It’s interesting to hear what motivated others to join this course. The range of reasons is broad. Everything from curiosity to serious life events and illness. Slowly, I feel like I’m reemerging into the real world. I realise that I am barely able to talk and eat at the same time. I was so focused on being mindful and present that parallel processing of eating and talking seems overwhelming. I almost have to laugh. I would have never thought this could happen to me. Then I see Christian. I want to tell him all about my experience. But just sitting in front of him and looking into his eyes, I feel overcome with emotions and start to cry. I do not even comprehend why. Maybe it’s because all the tension of the past few days is released at once. Maybe it’s because I feel something special has happened.
  • The rest of the day is broken up into a couple more meditation sessions, packing, cleaning of rooms and community areas and some final go-forward meditation instructions. Day 11 is the official departure day. We have one more night and one last morning meditation session ahead of us before we’ll head back to Kuala Lumpur. Falling into bed that night, I feel peaceful, content and tired.

I don’t know exactly how meditation will influence our lives over the long-term. I do know that both Christian and I went through a unique, personal growth experience. We got a good understanding of the technique and hope that if we keep up the daily practice we will eventually see the benefits come to fruition (e.g., being more present, a better ability to respond vs. react, increased concentration). For now, we do know that we want to continue on this journey and believe that it can just change us for the better.

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Maximising Happiness: Experimenting with meditation

maxhap meditation.001Several years ago I was in a taxi caught in traffic, running late to get my flight from Sydney to Melbourne. There was really nothing I could do. When I finally made it to the airport, I rushed all the way to the gate only to see my plane pulling away. I’d missed the last flight for the day so I had to wait for the early flight the following morning. I was incredibly stressed during the whole “ordeal”: stressed out in the cab anticipating missing my flight; stressed out when I arrived at the airport and was told I had missed my flight; and I barely slept that night afterwards as I replayed over and over again in my head the episode of missing the flight, and as a result I felt terrible the next morning when I had to get up early for my new flight. I’m sure many people can relate to a scenario like this in one way or another.

However, I realise now that the unhappiness I felt was entirely my choice. I could have chosen to remain calm during the entire situation knowing that having to get the next flight would have an immaterial impact on my life. By doing so, I would have felt considerably better. Of course there are higher stake situations that can create stress (e.g. related to health or safety), but even then the degree of unhappiness and defeatedness you feel is still a choice. Choosing to be happy (or to not be unhappy) is easier said than done. When we feel stressed it’s hard to simply decide to be happy. What we need are tools that help us in these kinds of situations. Our initial search for such a tool has led Christine and me to meditation.

The promise of meditation
Meditation means many different things to many different people. The way I define it is as a practice of focusing your concentration on an object (e.g. your breath, feeling your body sensations, a mantra etc.) and observing it in a neutral and passive way. There are many reasons why people meditate. For some people it is spiritual and often heavily tied to Buddhism. For Christine and me, the reason to meditate is less spiritual and more practical. Specifically, we see two potential ways this practice can make us happier in life:

  • The first is turning off the voice in your head. This is the voice that unnecessarily creates anxiety either anticipating something or even stewing on something that has already happened. Many a sleepless night has resulted from this form of stress. Meditation is a practice of dealing differently with your thoughts (aka the voice in your head). Rather than allowing yourself to get lost in your thoughts, you learn to turn down the volume of chatter in your head and as a result reduce this form of anxiety.
  • The second way meditation may help is in dealing with a stressful situation in the moment. All too often we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t go the way we want it to and we react in a negative way. In doing so, we make ourselves feel unhappy and generate unhappiness for all others involved. However, we can choose to respond more gracefully, not allowing ourselves to react in a knee jerk fashion, and as a result not generate the same degree of unhappiness. The way meditation is said to help with this is that through practice you learn to assert a level of control over you mind that in the moment you can more effectively control your reactions.

Our journey with meditation so far
Meditation first came up as a topic of conversation on a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul in early August. It took us until mid-September when we found ourselves with a lot of time and not much to do due to a plane delay in Jiuzhaigou, China to start proactively learning what meditation is by reading books and asking friends. Shortly afterwards we started doing 5-minutes of meditation per day, building up to 20-minutes per day by the end of October (with the occassional 45-minute session). And then we jumped in the deep-end: a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Malaysia where we meditated for 10.5 hours every day. But more on that later. Right now we’re doing between 1-2 hours every day.

Results from meditation so far
At this point I’d say it’s too early to tell. As we are right now experiencing one of the happiest periods of our lives, there isn’t a ton of anxiety floating around in our heads nor do we face many stressful situations. But on the odd occasion that we have faced some kind of stress I don’t know if I’ve yet seen a major difference in how we’ve reacted in the moment. A few weeks back we found ourselves getting frustrated with each other when we were lost looking for our hotel in Kuala Lumpur, lugging our suitcases around in the sweltering humidity. Ironically, we were in KL to go to our meditation retreat. Although it wasn’t a big deal, afterwards we had to laugh because it didn’t seem very “zen” to let such a little thing annoy us.

However, if there has been any progress, it’s probably more at the intellectual level than the visceral level. While I still may be falling for the same knee jerk reactions, once I have time to think, I have been able to respond differently. The other day, I was playing with my wonderful nephew, Jayden, pretending to be scuba divers for literally the 12th time that day. I found myself getting kind of bored with the repetitiveness of the game. However, I then realised I could either choose to be bored by the game, or choose to enjoy the moment of playing with a great kid with such a wild imagination. I chose the latter.

Our next steps with meditation
Based on the advice from our teachers at the meditation retreat, we’re trying to do 2 hours of meditation every day. We’ll pull up in the new year to re-evaluate this level of commitment but for now, we’re all in. We’ll report back soon on how this journey plays out.

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Maximising Happiness

MaxHap paper

Right now Christine and I are experiencing one of the happiest periods in our lives. Just married, traveling the world… what could be better? One of the many great benefits of our current circumstances is that we have the time to think through the important questions we face as we plan out our lives together. As we’ve been discussing many of these questions they all seem to bubble up to an ultimate overarching question: How can we set ourselves up for lives full of happiness? How can we maximise happiness?

In tackling this question, there have been 3 topics we’ve started exploring:

1. Understanding what makes us happy.
We have a reasonable idea of what makes us happy at a high-level (e.g. being healthy, spending time with friends, success in our career, having a family etc.) but the devil is in the details. For example, I really enjoyed my career at LinkedIn but what exactly did I enjoy? Working at a consumer internet company? Working at a fast growing company? Leading a large team? Ownership over a large business line?… Only by understanding what makes me happy at this detailed level will I be able to properly determine the right next step in my career. Furthermore, another interesting component of understanding happiness is knowing how happy each aspect of life makes us (and over the longer term) so that we can appropriately balance the many competing priorities in our lives.

2. Making the right life decisions.
Understanding what makes us happy is the starting point but then we must also make the right life decisions if we are to maximise happiness. And I can tell you that right now it feels like we have a bunch of important life decisions to make. At the top of the list: Where do we want to live after our travels? What career moves do we want to make? When do we start a family? Not a day goes by when Christine and I don’t discuss these questions. The exploration of them will no doubt be a big part of our journey to maximise happiness.

3. Better dealing with things that can make us unhappy
No matter how well we do in making the right decisions to make us happy, there will inevitably be times when we feel less than happy. Things don’t always play out as expected, and furthermore, many of the happiest things in life require hard work that in the moment can feel difficult. While we consider ourselves to be people that generally have a positive outlook on things (in fact, I’d say Christine is one of the most positive people I know) one can always do better in this regard. Our initial exploration on ways to better deal with unpleasant things has led us to explore meditation. We already have thoughts to share on this topic but we’ll save that for future posts.

Exploring each of these 3 topics will no doubt be a dynamic and lifelong process. What makes us happy today may not be what we find to be important further down the road. And the set of decisions we have to face now will be very different to those even a few years from now.

Our plan is to make this an open exploration and to write on these topics regularly. By doing so we hope that we can share in this journey with our friends, family and all other readers of our blog. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives on this topic too.

More to come…

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5 decisions that helped make our wedding so special

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Christian and I are still dreaming about our wedding day four months ago. It feels like it was yesterday. I guess everyone feels that way, especially after re-playing in our heads the most special, fun and silly moments a gazillion times in the immediate post wedding days. What surprised Christian and me the most, however, was that we did enjoy every single minute of our big day. No lie. You always hear stories about “there will be moments that stress you out”, “you will miss parts of the wedding”, “it goes by too fast”, and “it’s hard to be truly present”. Yet, somehow, we had managed to enjoy every moment. Sounds a bit esoteric and unreal, I know. It actually surprised both of us as well because we wouldn’t claim we are specifically good at being zen and in the moment. So we reflected on specific decisions that helped us shape this unique day, enjoy it to the fullest and be truly present. Here is what we came up with:

1. We wrote our own ceremony and had our best friends marry us: Very early on, Christian and I knew that we wanted our wedding to be as personal as possible. We didn’t want a person we don’t know recite a text that we can’t relate to. So we made two decisions. First, we wrote our own ceremony. And second, we wanted our best friends to officiate the wedding. To get started, we brainstormed what we’d like the ceremony to be: traditional (at least for certain elements like the entrance of the bride), inspirational, emotional, personal but also a bit lighthearted and fun (with certain elements of surprise for us). We also wanted our family and friends to play an active role. I read through various blogs and stitched together a first draft that we iterated on together and with our two friends. Austrian law posed a minor challenge. You need an official registrar to marry you (friends can’t do that like in the US). Our creative solution was to integrate the registrar into our ceremony, limiting the offical part to the “must have’s” only. Our friends practically led 90% of the ceremony but we’d still be able to get officially married. It was a magical 45 minutes. Some highlights included: having my cousin perform the processional and recessional music on classical guitar; standing next to our best friends “at the altar”, and hearing them talk about the meaning of marriage and surprise us with thoughts from the wedding party about us as individuals and as a couple; personally thanking our parents for everything they did for us in our lives; having two married couples come upfront to give us practical advise about marriage; singing a Beach Boys group song together; saying our own personal vows; and jointly laughing over funny (and wise!) Whinnie the Poo quotes. I’m so glad we invested time in the crafting our own ceremony. The process itself was very fulfilling and it made the ceremony more meaningful and memorable.

2. We started the day separately and only saw each other “at the altar”: The idea of not spending the pre-wedding night and morning together always sounded very romantic. When it came down to practicalities, however, I preferred to take our wedding photos before the actual ceremony so that we could extend our time with guests during the cocktail hour. But Christian wasn’t very fond of this idea. So we went with the traditional path. I’m so glad we did as it made the ceremony even more special. I stayed in the hotel the night before the wedding. Christian stayed in our Vienna apartment. When I woke up, I couldn’t wait to read a personal note from Christian. We both gave each other a short letter the day before. It was early in the morning, the sun was rising, it was quiet. And here I was reading some lovely words from my husband-to-be. It was very special to have this moment to myself, being able to enjoy the serenity of it. Funnily enough, we both told each other in our letters to “enjoy every moment of our special day and be present” and “not bother about little things”. I would think about those words throughout the day and the mental framing made a real difference. Also, having some alone time in the morning with my mum, my siblings and two of my best friends created a special bond. Christian had a similar experience, spending the morning with his best friends. All together the morning created an exciting anticipation for the ceremony. And there is nothing more special (and emotional) than walking down the aisle, seeing your husband-to-be for the first time (and vice versa).

3. We made our first dance a bigger, joint project: Every Viennese Ball needs a Viennese Waltz. We needed to step up our dance routine (or develop one in the first place 🙂 ). Instead of doing a quick choreography we decided to go all in and properly learn how to waltz. Not only did we want to enjoy our first dance but also truly immerse ourselves in the classical ball part of our wedding. So we signed up for 10 dance lessons at Val Cunningham’s Dance Loft in San Francisco. What started as a tactical, goal-oriented venture turned into a really enjoyable process of learning a life skill together. And learning how to waltz was like couples therapy. Personalities shine through, moods impact your dancing. Luckily, Val is a great teacher – a therapist and dance instructor in one! It was a great learning experience about us as individuals and as a couple. And besides learning a new skill, we morphed our weekly dance lessons into proper date nights (that we protected from work committments). Being ambitious and a bit nerdy, we kept up the dance practice after the lessons were over. While we improved the dancing, we also kept telling ourselves that the main point is to have fun at our first dance. So we made the pact to call each other out and make each other smile if we’d get too serious or nervous. And that turned out to be key for our first dance. Knowing myself (I’m not a big fan of performing in front of crowds), I thought I’d contemplate about the dance all day long and get all nervous. But it was just the opposite. I didn’t even think about it for a second until it was about to happen. And I think there were two reasons for it. First, we were pretty relaxed because we knew from our practice runs that we could not only pull it off but also really enjoy it. And second, we also used our little, personal hints throughout which made it even more fun. I was so “in the zone” that I didn’t even notice anyone else. It was a magical few minutes.

4. We got a wedding planner (highly recommended, especially for a destination wedding): Not being from the US (where wedding planners are very common), Christian and I never thought of engaging a wedding planner. Besides it not being in our cultural make-up, it seemed an unnecessary expense. Plus, we both are good at organizing stuff so it seemed unnecessary from an organizational standpoint as well. Two months into the wedding planning things were coming along nicely, albeit slowly. The time difference between Vienna (our wedding location) and San Francisco (where we lived at that time) made coordinating with vendors incredibly cumbersome. Plus, the more we got down to the details of our “Viennese Ball” theme, the more we missed some practical and tailored advice. So we eventually decided to go for a wedding planner. We picked “Hochzeitshummel“, a well established company in Vienna, and worked directly with the owner Susanne. It might have been the best wedding related decision we made. Besides tapping into Susanne’s vast vendor network and getting additional creative advice, it was her deep experience that helped reassure our decisions and put our minds at ease. Working with us in the months leading up to the wedding she was on top of all the logistical details. We bascially just needed to sign off on decisions. More time for us to spend with family and enjoy the pre-wedding weeks to the fullest! Another key part was the day-of coordination. If we wouldn’t have taken a wedding planner, we would have definitely booked a “day-of coordinator”. For one, we didn’t want to ask a family member or friend to take on such a big task but rather have them fully enjoy the wedding and party with us. Plus, having someone professional do what they are trained to do put our minds completely at ease. We fully trusted Susanne to execute on our plan and troubleshoot where necessary. During our wedding day, Christian and I didn’t think a minute about the time or the next agenda point. Rather, we were just living in the moment, relying on Susanne to tell us what came next 🙂

5. We made a conscious decision to “be present”: Prior to our wedding, we kept asking married couples about their wedding day. Any advice they had for us thinking back to their own celebration? Almost everyone told us “You will get dragged into so many different directions. Try to take a step back, a few minutes, to take everything in because it will go by so fast”. “Don’t worry about the details.” That was some interesting food for thought. Especially for us, as we are both somewhat perfectionists and want things to go according to plan. So in the weeks leading up to the wedding we kept talking about how to be present. And we found that there is really no magical recipe. It’s all about our mental state. While we would do our best in the planning phase, we decided to not think about the execution anymore once the wedding festivities started on Friday (and left everything to our wedding planner). It was a pact. And we stuck to it. We both included a little “be present” reminder in our personal Saturday morning letters to each other. We both reminded ourselves during the ceremony (e.g., to look out over the crowd acknowledging all the people that came a long way to celebrate with us). We snuck away right after dinner for a short 5 minutes stroll around the premises to take a step back and reflect on what was happening. We had our little code words during our first dance to make each other laugh and have fun. All in all, I was really surprised by how well our “pact” worked. In the end it was all about managing expectations. I’m glad we took the advice from others on this point and consciously thought about being present beforehand.