Koala Cairns Australia

Poking Things in Australia

Growing up, my mother constantly had to tell me not to touch things.

Don’t touch the cookie jar (too high), don’t touch the remote (too loud), don’t touch that counter (too unsanitary), don’t touch the stove (too hot), and don’t touch that mud puddle (oops, too late). In fact, I think it might’ve been easier for her to outline the things in life I was able to touch, as opposed to keeping up with my desire to stick my hands in places they didn’t belong.

Fast forward a decade or two, and I’m well into adulthood. Years of social conditioning have taught me that touching random stuff is generally frowned upon—I do it anyway.

I love poking things: buttons, soft leaves, the pristine surface of a newly opened jar of peanut butter. But my true addiction is poking animals. Fortunately for me, this isn’t usually an issue. In DC, the only animals close enough for me to poke on a daily basis are rats and pigeons (aka rats with wings). Ain’t nobody got time for that mess.

Then there’s the non-issue of pets. I’ve had pets my entire life: dogs, cats, birds, a chicken (once), and all of them were mostly OK with/didn’t hate a gentle tummy poke. (Hey, I said I’ve had pets my whole life, not that I was a particularly good or savvy pet owner.) The animals I live with right now, which include two cats and a tall, hairy man, are trained really well/trapped in a long-term Stockholm Syndrome-type situation. Both ways, it works for me.

Yup, things were going pretty well on the poking front, but then the Significant Other took me to Australia, the land of extremely poisonous, vicious, murderous and pokeable animals.

*We were there for two weeks. Now’s the time to place your bet. Exactly how many of my fingers ended up in some exotic animal’s digestive tract?

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Sydney Opera House

Top Things to do in Sydney

One of my life goals has been to visit all seven continents—before I turned 30. WELP, it took some convincing, a LOT of planning and, not one, but TWO hellish plane rides, but I made it happen! The Significant Other and I spent four days in Sydney. You can definitely do it in two, but we wanted to go slow, take it all in and spend some time recovering from jet lag before we continued on our journey. Here are our recommendations. Enjoy your time Down Under!

  • Watch the sunset “over the Sydney skyline. Ah, that famous Sydney skyline. There is nothing quite like watching the sunset over the harbour bridge. Head over to Darling Point for the best views over the city during golden hour.”
    • You can also hike to the top of the bridge! We didn’t opt for hiking because it’s pretty expensive, and we wanted to save up for a diving trip at our next stop. But, if you do it, let us know how dizzyingly terrifying it was in the comments!
  • Take the Ferry to Manly: “No trip to Sydney would be complete without taking the ferry over to the beach town of Manly. A return ticket costs around $13.20 and the ferry departs from Sydney Harbour, taking around 30 minutes each way.” 
    • Manly is a really cute little beach town. We went when it was windy and rainy so the only people on the beach were surfers. It was still a LOT of fun to take the ferry—sit on the upper deck at the front of the boat, and prepare to be splashed by the waves! Plus, we got some great photos of the Sydney Opera House. Walking around Manly was relaxing in the drizzle. I’m sure it’s a packed tourist trap in sunny weather! If you do make it over there, check out their aboriginal art store. It’s right on the main path from the ferry to the beach, on the right-hand side. You can’t miss it!
  • Art After Hours (Wednesdays) 
    • Rub elbows with the locals and enjoy cool art! We were way too jet lagged to do this when we first got in, but we’ll definitely attend on a future trip.
  • Free walking tour
    • 2.5-3 hrs
    • 10:30am and 2:30pm Every Day from Town Hall Square.
    • “No need to book. You’ll find your guide wearing a bright green ‘I’m Free’ T-shirt on George St between Sydney Town Hall and St Andrew’s Cathedral.”
    • If you’re well-traveled, this might be a bit of a bore. Everything in Sydney is so new that there’s not too much in the way of history. I’m glad we took the tour because I enjoyed learning about the culture and history that does exist, but I could’ve skipped it if we’d been crunched for time.
  • The Hayden Orpheum: Cinema in operation since 1935
    • It’s a trek to get out to the theater, but I’m glad we did it. We got to see neighborhoods we wouldn’t have otherwise explored. Plus, the theater really is a lot of fun to check out, and you can’t beat an action movie on a rainy afternoon!
  • Paddy’s Markets
    • This is where you go to get all your souvenirs. The prices are over-the-top for clothing so head to a thrift store instead. Paddy’s Markets is really all about the boomerangs (made in Indonesia) and cute koala keychains. It’s a tourist trap, but it’s been in operation forever and, well, you are a tourist, aren’t you?
  • Sydney observatory
  • Museum of human disease
  • Wendy’s secret garden
  • Lawn bowling
  • Ground of Alexandria

    Day Trips

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Best Free iPhone Games for Calming Anxiety and Relaxing

Stress and anxiety suck, big time, and they always seem to strike hardest when you need to be at your best. While it’s usually smart to address the issues at the root of your stress/anxiety, sometimes we all just need a quick way to relax and calm down. These are all free game apps that I find helpful when in a pinch. My research comes from personal experience and sites like Gizmodo and Mic.

Calm

OK, so Calm is not really a game—it’s a meditation app. The premium content comes at a cost, but there are lots of shorter meditation practices (10 minutes) that are free. The app will walk you through meditation specifically for stress, and there’s no experience required. I love this app more than others like Headspace because I swear it can read my mind. Every time I catch myself thinking “jeeze, I’m SO awful at meditating,” the app will reply “and if you think you’re bad at meditating, there’s no such thing.” How’s THAT for an awesome way to combat stress AND self-criticism?

Neko Atsume

This game is absolutely wonderful because it involves CATS! Everyone starts out with a yard that you can then fill with toys and treats. Cats will wander in and out of the yard as they please (because cats). You can read up on each cat and take pictures of them being pixelatedly adorable. Up your game by “purchasing” the coolest gadgets and highest-quality chow!

Rise Up

Keep a balloon from running into obstacles as it makes its way toward what I can only assume is space. This game is challenging, but in a way that you really don’t care if you win or lose so there’s no pressure. Instead, it’s just mind-numbingly calming.

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cape town, table mountain, south africa

Top Things to Do in South Africa

This is the list I used when planning my trip to South Africa. Scroll through it and see what jumps out at you. Enjoy your trip, and ping me with any questions!

Johannesburg 

Two days is plenty of time to see all that Joburg has to offer. Tack on an extra day to do quirkier trips and explore the city. Uber is the best (and cheapest) way to get around if you’re new to the city and unaware of its good/bad areas, especially since there aren’t that many sidewalks for walking. Make sure your cell phone works overseas without crazy fees because there’s very little free wifi in this city!

  • Soweto
    • “For real insight into post-apartheid South Africa – a visit to the township of Soweto, home to an estimated 3.5 million people – you need to hire a guide. Besides providing a glimpse into how millions of black South Africans live today, Soweto is historically fascinating. Nobel Peace Prize-winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both lived on tree-lined Vilakazi Street and Mandela’s former home is open to visitors. Left as it once was, Winnie’s military boots stand next to a bed with a jackal-skin throw, and old photos line the walls. Just down the road, the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, named after the 13-year-old whose murder by police sparked an uprising in 1976, is another hard-hitting reminder of the horrors of apartheid.” –Condé Nast Traveller
    • The guided tour of Mandela’s home is simply a memorized speech of significant dates. It’s interesting, but don’t expect it to take more than 20 minutes at the maximum.
    • The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum was fantastic. It did a great job of explaining the uprising and its aftermath. All the feels.
    • I was skeptical of paying $70 to take a tour of Soweto, especially when I’d been told that it’s fine to walk around in the daytime. But I’m really glad we went with Township Travel (Siphiwe Kumalo info@township-travel.co.za sowetour98@gmail.com). The tour offers perspectives, not only from the tour guide, but from residents in their early 20s who take you around their neighborhood and answer all your questions. I highly recommend it!

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Hangry

Where to Take Spanish Classes in Miraflores, Peru

I did extensive research on Spanish classes when I first moved to Lima. I read reviews; I compared prices; I talked to friends, and I sat in on classes.

Since I was on reporting trips every other week and learning a lot on the road, I didn’t end up taking a class. BUT, perhaps you can benefit from my many hours of research:

ICPNA

A friend of mine swears by these classes. He’s says they’re quick, informative and, most importantly, effective. He’s been going for about a year now, I believe, and loves it. This one ended up being way too far away from my house to consider as an option, but check it out!

Hispana Spanish Language School

I would highly recommend Hispana Spanish Language School. The staff were very efficient, helpful and approachable. The professor was a woman from Cusco, and the lesson plan doubled as a Peruvian culture course. We learned learned about politics, Lima’s landmarks and foods. The curriculum was tough—there were often words I didn’t understand—but it’s a friendly atmosphere, and the professor welcomed my questions. I learned quite a bit from just one class, and, if I’d had time, I would’ve signed up for courses here.

ECELA Spanish

This school is more expensive than the others I looked at. They also expected me to pay in U.S. dollars, which is a bad deal 1. Because I need U.S. dollars to travel 2. Because the exchange rate is forever growing in North America’s favor. However, their customer service is amazing. They got back to me very quickly and answered all my questions, which often doesn’t happen here. And, if you sign up for their mailing list, they frequently offer discounts.

El Sol

A friend recommended this organization, but I didn’t have a good experience with the staff. They weren’t friendly or helpful, and they insisted on placing me in a Beginner class. When I explained (in Spanish) that I know numbers, colors, verbs, etc., they didn’t listen. So I sat in on a class and wasn’t impressed by their teaching style. The class itself wasn’t very structured, and I felt like the professor (a very nice individual!) took things too slowly, wasting time. I could’ve bumped myself up a level and taken classes in Intermediate, but meh.

 

In summary: I’d recommend going with Hispana or ICPNA. Enjoy!

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Staying Safe in Peru

Safety is a problem here, and it isn’t. As long as you’re hyperaware and don’t make silly mistakes, you should be fine. Here are some tips on staying safe in Peru:
  • Have you taken a basic self-defense class? This isn’t Lima-specific. You can use those tips to get out of bad situations in your own neighborhood. Check out the options available in your city, and sign up! It’s incredibly helpful and empowering.
  • It’s common to get robbed here. I rarely carry a purse. I invested in a lot of lovely sports bras and keep my money there. I could still get robbed, of course, but I feel like I’m less of a target. The Significant Other uses a money belt.
  • Leave your passport in the hotel/hostel and take a copy of your passport with you. You’re more likely to get robbed on the street than in a hotel, where a bad review on TripAdvisor could bring down business. NOTE: Hostels generally have lockers so bring your own lock!
  • If you have a lot of expensive camera equipment, I’d recommend getting insurance for it. In Miraflores, you’re safer, but be very careful with your camera equipment in downtown Lima. Exercise common sense and:
    • Don’t leave your purse/camera on the back of your chair or under your chair. Always keep everything important to you on your lap, with the strap wrapped around your wrist.
    • Don’t walk around alone with equipment. Always have a partner/group.
    • Get a camera case that doesn’t look like a camera case.
    • Put your camera away unless you’re actively using it.
    • Keep the camera strap securely around your wrist at all times.
    • Keep the camera close to your body.
  • If you’re in an unfamiliar area, try not to speak English. It instantly makes you more of a target.
  • Don’t walk around at night alone.
  • If you’re here for a while, buy a Peruvian SIM card from Claro or Movistar, the local cell providers. If not, use free wifi. Then download the app EasyTaxi. It’ll let you call safe taxis. They’re slightly more expensive, but always worth it. I rarely take taxis off the street. People get robbed quite frequently. [Significant Other adds: EasyTaxi also offers a price guide, so you can keep your driver honest.]
  • Taxis will try to stiff you. Count your change before leaving. Ask how much it costs before getting in. For off-the-street cabs, a ride shouldn’t cost more than 15 soles to downtown. For EasyTaxi, it shouldn’t cost more than 20. If you’re getting around within Miraflores, it’ll be 10 soles. Check the price guide for the current rates.
  • When going out drinking, be overly cautious. It’s conceivable that the bar tender will slip you something—even if you’re in a large group. And this warning doesn’t just apply to young women. Everyone is a target. Stick to bars that are recommended and in nicer areas of town.
  • Don’t drink the water. I use it to brush my teeth, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re new to the country.
  • Don’t eat fruits without washing them in a cleaning solution. Also don’t eat any uncooked vegetables, especially salads, unless you’re at a nice place. I got food poisoning my first week here because I ate a salad at a fast food restaurant.
  • Don’t wear flashy jewelry (or any jewelry!).
  • Be aware that stores open late most days and very few things are open on Sundays. Don’t leave any necessary purchases to the morning or the weekend.
  • Everyone says this, but it’s worth repeating… If you’re getting robbed, give them your stuff. Your stuff is replaceable—you aren’t!
With the exception of food poisoning, I’ve never had a problem! But it pays to be vigilant so keep an eye out. =)

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Mind Powers Mollie

I’m Leaning In

Me: how do you check in on a job?
Significant Other: how?
Me: yeah, like what do you say?
Significant Other: say “hey, i just wanted to check in regarding the science writer position. i’m glad to answer any other questions”
Me: or I could photoshop a picture of me riding a dragon
SO: ha
Me: because I think someone who could ride a dragon would be a great hire
SO: that, too. couldn’t hurt #psdSkillz
Me: wait, are you seriously telling me to do this? because I think yes
SO: go for it
Me: today just got better
NOTE: OK, so the dragon photo didn’t happen… BECAUSE LIFTING A CAR WITH MY MIND POWERS IS SO MUCH COOLER!

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Jurassic Park, Dinosaurs, Arequipa

Top Things to Do: Arequipa, Peru

Transportation in Arequipa

  • Before we get to the fun stuff, here are some tips on getting around Arequipa.
  • There are two bus stations in Arequipa: Terminal Terrestre and Terrapuerto. Luckily they’re right next to each other!
  • The bathrooms are pretty clean as far as terminal restrooms go. s./0.50 for bathroom + a little toilet paper
  • The terminals themselves have LOTS of snack options, breads, candies and chocolates
  • When you’re leaving the terminals, grab a taxi on the main road and avoid those parked in the parking lots—those ones will overcharge you. The cost of a taxi from each terminal to near the Plaza Mayor is s./7

Getting to Monasterio Santa Catalina in Arequipa

  • Note: The opening times on the monastery’s website are INCORRECT. Here are the times listed on the building itself as of mid-April, 2015:
    • Tues and Thurs nights 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Jan. – April
    • Mon, Weds, Fri, Sat 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Jan. – April
  • The cost is s./40 pp (which is CRAZY expensive), and they take Visa, AmEx, MasterCard
  • If you can avoid it, don’t bring your backpack because they’ll make you check it, and that’s never safe.
  • We didn’t end up going in because the opening times on their website were incorrect (*sigh, oh Peru), but we’ve heard a guided tour is best rather than exploring yourself.

Toro Muerto, Arequipa

Getting to Toro Muerto From Arequipa

  • Go to the bus station (either one) and book a ticket with Transporte Del Carpio to the town Corires s./12.
  • The trip takes a little more than three hours because of stops along the way. Make sure to buy return ticket as soon as you arrive in Corire because posted times are unreliable and, in our case, the bus was almost full for the ride home! You don’t want to get stuck in this town.
  • If Transporte Del Carpio is full, there’s another company across the street and half a block to the right of the Del Carpio office, which is off the main square. The proprietor of that company was on her phone for the whole time we waited (at least 5 mins), so we left. Because CUSTOMER SERVICE, JEEZE.
  • Bathroom Break: The polleria off the main square let us use their bathroom for free (bring your own TP). If you’re standing in front of the giant lobster in the square it’s at your 9 o’clock.
  • OK, so once you’ve had your bathroom break, you can head off to Toro Muerto. We got lucky and ran into Felix Pichuilla Condori. He’s lived in the area his whole life and has two kids, an 18-year-old daughter and much younger son ~10. He drove us to the site and offered to take us on a mini tour, leading us to the best hieroglyphs. Without his help (and unlimited patience!), it would’ve taken us forever to get around the whole park, and we would’ve missed a lot. Give him a call beforehand at 957864424 and have him pick you up from the main square. He charged us s./50 for the whole trip. Highly recommend getting in touch!
  • Getting into Toro Muerto costs s./5 pp. Photograph the map on the wall for reference. There are three routes:  30 mins, 1 hr, 2 hrs
  • We’d recommend wandering through. Sticking to the path won’t take you by the most interesting hieroglyphs. Plan to spend a maximum of 2 hours at Toro Muerto.
  • When to go, Toro Muerto: If you can, go to Toro Muerto around sunrise for the best photos and most comfortable hike. It gets hot quickly ~9 a.m. because of dry desert conditions so make sure to have more than enough water and sun protection. Lonely Planet says to bring mosquito repellent, but there wasn’t enough water to breed mosquitos (again, desert) when we were there in mid-April.

Jurassic Park in Querulpa Chico

  • If you have some extra time after visiting Toro Muerto, catch a combi directly in front of lobster (yup, lobster) in Corire plaza and ask them to let you off at “los dinosaurios”.
  • The trip only takes ~15 mins and s./1.20 soles.
  • The town is tiny, and the opening to the “park” is well marked. You’ll see a ginormous dinosaur from the road. The walk up the trail to the park’s viewpoint is about 45~ depending on your pace.
  • There’s brontosaurus and T-Rex model as well as a “museum” (I’m using this word very loosely!) with ~6 nondescript fossils.
  • Bathroom break: Bathrooms are available at museum. Bring your own TP.

Brilliant Views of Arequipa

  • Climb to the top of Iglesia de San Miguel for a panoramic view of Arequipa. Then grab dinner in Cayma, a neighborhood with brilliant views of the valley.

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Which Galapagos Islands Should I Visit?

If you’re hoping for gorgeous beaches and landscapes, the Galapagos Islands can’t compare to, say, Hawaii. Go to the Galapagos for the wildlife. You’ll see species there that aren’t living anywhere else. It’s absolutely incredible.

Here’s a rough guide of where you can spot specific animals. Of course, there’s no guarantee! And please note that it’s easier to see animals in the dry season. (Although we went in March and only had one, light sprinkle.)

NOTE: There are several islands you can’t visit without a cruise. The national park service is very stingy with permits, and for good reason—they have to protect the animals. As of March 2015, I know (100 percent certain!) you can take day trips to San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, Bartolome, South Plaza, Santa Fe and North Seymour.

Which places in the Galapagos Islands are best for seeing wildlife?

Blue-Footed Boobie, GalapagosBlue-Footed Boobies

According to a study from 2014, there are six blue-footed boobie nesting sites in the Galapagos.

  • Ferdinandia (Daphne)
  • Isabela (Punta Roca)
  • North Seymour
  • Santa Cruz (Playa Perros)
  • Espanola (Punta Suarez)
  • San Cristobal (Punta Pitt)

Our guide highly recommended North Seymour, and we did see a good number of boobies walking around with that adorable deer-in-the-headlights look forever plastered to their li’l faces!

Giant Tortoises, GalapagosGiant Tortoises

Skip the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz. (ProTip: It’s open from 7:30 a.m.-12:30 and 2 p.m.-5) It’s not very interesting unless you want to see baby tortoises. Even then, the whole thing will take you about an hour, maybe two if you savor every. single. minute. (ProTip: Bring an umbrella and lots of water because the sun is unbearably hot, there’s little shade, and the center is a decent walk from town. Luckily, there are bathrooms evening spaced throughout the trails.) Instead, I’d recommend taking a cab to El Chato where you can get up close and personal (stay 1 meter away!) from the GIANT tortoises that roam all over a farmer’s property. For a reasonable fee, you can take your time, wander the paths and hang out with tortoises—which generally ignore you as they go about their day. The place also has a little cafe, gift shop (of course!) and decent restrooms.

Iguana, GalapagosIguanas

It’s difficult to pick a favorite when you’re in the Galapagos, but the iguanas definitely come close to my No. 1. I loved their unique coloring and intricate scales—such gorgeous creatures. You’ll see iguanas everywhere, but I was most interested in the endemic species—species not found anywhere else in the world—on Santiago and Santa Fe.

If you don’t have time for too many day trips and haven’t had your fill of iguanas, you can see some of the marine reptiles at the beaches on Tortuga Bay Reserve, Santa Cruz. (ProTip: You can walk there from town. Bring plenty of water and an umbrella for the sun. Start walking to the beach as early as possible. It gets unbearably hot around 10 a.m.)

Penguins

We saw pretty amazing video of penguins from Isabela and Bartolome. #somuchadorable

Frigates

These dudes are a sight to see! They show off their red pouches all year long, but inflate them only for mating season, which is March and April. The best, easiest way to see the colorful beachballs hanging from their necks is to visit North Seymour.

Lava Lizard, GalapagosLava Lizards

You’ll see lava lizards all over the place—each more brilliantly colored than the next!

Sharks and RaysSally Lightfoot Crabs

Ditto.

Sea turtle, GalapagosTurtles, Sharks and Rays

These aren’t your average garden variety turtle. We spotted some the size of grown men. If you can get to Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz) early, early morning before the sun rises, you’ll see them swimming out of the mangrove and into the ocean. (ProTip: Bring 100% DEET mosquito repellent and wear long sleeves.) Snorkeling around Kicker Rock in San Cristobal is a great way to get close to these majestic denizens of the sea.

We saw sharks almost every time we got in the water. If you’re not keen on snorkeling but still want to see sharks and rays check out the Tortuga Bay Reserve on Santa Cruz. It has a two lovely beaches: walk past the first one to the second, and that’s where you’ll see (and can swim with!) sharks and rays. (ProTip: You can walk there from town. Bring plenty of water and an umbrella for the sun. Start walking to the beach as early as possible. It gets unbearably hot around 10 a.m.)

Albatross

Espanola is the only place in the ENTIRE world where you can see the waved albatross. We explored the island in March and missed the birds. The return home to nest between April and December, although our guide said they’ve been hanging out on the island later and later each year. I’ve heard that seeing these birds up-close is worth the trip to the Galapagos alone. Waved albatross mate for life. When they return home to meet their partners, they participate in this intricate dance—almost like a secret handshake. It’s said that the sound of hundreds of these birds all ritualizing at the same time sounds like a huge sword fight!

Finch, GalapagosFinches

Most islands have their own version of finch, which have evolved to fit the specific conditions of their habitat. *cue science nerdout

Flamingos, Galapagos

Flamingos

According to the Significant Other, “a day trip to Isabela is probably your best bet to see flamingos.” Although we did see a handful at Las Bachas, Santa Cruz, which is one of the stops during a day trip to North Seymour.

Sea Lions, GalapagosSea Lions

As a native Californian, I wasn’t too interested in sea lions. We have oodles of these animals all up and down our coast. BUT California sea lions are nowhere near as amazing as Galapagos sea lions. The Galapagos sea lions spend their lives in utter happiness. I’m not one to put human emotions on animals, but they just seemed so ridiculously blissed out ALL the time that it’s mesmerizing. Watching them play in the water and loll about on the sand is such a feel-good experience. We went in March and got to see quite a few pups, which are VERY curious about humans. These li’l guys are wont to walk up and investigate the strange aliens in their homes. You’re supposed to stay 1 meter away from the pups at all times at 5 meters away from the males (very territorial, very intimidating), but this is plenty close to get good photos!

San Cristobal has tons of sea lions. You don’t even need to leave the town center to see them—they’re known to hang out on park benches and chill in planters. However, you’re sure to spot sea lions no matter where you go—they’re all over!

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