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Friends beware. It turns out that Nellu and I are the type of people who, when you casually suggest we visit, will likely take you up on that offer. (Our friends who just moved to South Korea, you’ve been warned.) Over the last month of our trip, we visited more than a dozen friends over Europe. Some were old friends and some were new. But it was the perfect way to end the trip of a lifetime…

Sweet Caroline — Berlin

I remember the first time we met Caroline. Nellu and I had just taken the overnight bus from Cape Town to Johannesburg, enduring hours of entertainment like the best music videos of Brandy and Celine Dion. (There are no earbuds on the planet that could block that out.) We had taken the train “where the robbers get robbed” to the airport, where we got a free pick up from the hotel we’d stay with for a night as a part of our G Adventures overland trek to Nairobi. We were tired and after finally connecting with the hotel manager/driver, we loaded into the back of a minivan. But we’d wait for one more passenger. This turned out to be Caroline.

It’s always a little bit awkward meeting people that you know you will be spending the next month with. Will I like them? Will they like me? Will we be able to tolerate each other’s company for weeks? Caroline didn’t say much on that car ride to the hotel but over our 28-day trip, we got to know her well. She’s one of those people who is generally wonderful to be around. She interested and interesting and laughs a lot with this genuine, contagious laugh that draw you in.

Berlin, Germany, traffic lights

Nellu compiled this photo of the Berlin walk signs. I think the little man looks like he’s in a barbershop quartet.

Berlin won me over but I’m sure a large part of that had to do with Caroline. We booked a place in her neighborhood and met up with her often during our brief stay. She took us to Tempelhof airfield, where we got stuck in the rain.

Nellu Mazilu, Tempelhof, Berlin Germany

We got stuck in the rain during our visit to Tempelhof field. But as Caroline and Nellu demonstrate, only our backsides got wet.

She gave us a driving tour of downtown Berlin, showing us where Angela Merkel lives, and took us to a flea market and brunch.

Nellu helped her carry her new mattress up to her apartment. It was folded into the back of her VW Golf. (I include this detail because 1) they use mattresses that fold up in Germany and 2) I love that as a Berliner, Caroline drives a VW Golf. It fits her.)

Caroline also cooked dinner for us. It was so excitingly normal. We felt like we could have lived there. Maybe someday we will.

Eating Danish Danish with the Queen – Copenhagen

Denmark, Copenhagen, Nyhavn Canal

Nyhavn Canal, Copenhagen.

Line (pronounced Leena) was also on our Africa trip. She was on a similar extended adventure, traveling with her friend Kristine over several months and continents.

Line has a worldly sophistication unusual for someone in her early 20s. She lived in South Africa at some point and on the long truckbus rides across southeastern Africa, she attempted to school us in the art of the click constant present in Xhosa language.

She also has easy-going nature that hides any fatigue she may have with English-speakers pronouncing her name as if they were referring to a long, narrow mark.

We had originally hoped all of us—Caroline, Line, Kristine, Nellu and I—would be able to get together in Copenhagen but we just couldn’t get the dates to work out.

We were thankful to be able to connect with Line. “I forgot that you haven’t gone home yet,” she said meeting us.  It was true. We were still wearing the same clothes she’d seen us in three months earlier in Africa. Line,  of course, rocked that effortless style that Danes seem to acquire as a birthright.

ROKOKO-MANIA, Design Museum Danmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Dress made out of straws one of the ROKOKO-MANIA exhibits at Design Museum Danmark. (That’s not a typo.)

(Seriously, Copenhagen looks like a showroom for Design Within Reach with everyone riding around on bicycles. It’s  just so devastatingly chic and civilized.)

One item high up on our list of things to try in Denmark: danish. That’s right, Line took us out for Danish danish. And they were delicious.

Danish, danish, Denmark, Copenhagen, Nellu Mazilu

Line takes us for some delicious treats: authentic Danish danish. Photo by Nellu Mazilu.

We headed over to the Amalienborg Palace to see the changing of the Royal Guard only to have Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II drive right past us.

Line also humored us, accompanying us on a  boat tour of the canals.

Nellu Mazilu, Nyhavn Canal, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn Canal. Photo by Nellu Mazilu

Our visit coincided with the first truly warm days of spring where everyone makes a point to be outside as much as possible just to soak it all in.

Copenhagen, Denmark, spring, sun, canal, Nellu Mazilu

People hanging out by the canal. Photo by Nellu Mazilu.

It was really just one of those stretches that makes you feel good to be alive.

Rockabilly – Oslo

After traveling extensively over the last two years via trains, plans, buses, boats, camels, etc., I feel confident in declaring the loveliest way to travel is by ferry. Ferries are comfortable, luxurious even. Many of them have free wifi. Need I say more?

ferry, Copenhagen to Oslo, Denmark, Norway

See ferries are so classy they have models of the boat on the boat.

We took the overnight DFDS Seaways ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo (thanks to help from the fantastic seat61.com). We booked one of the smaller, cheaper cabins: a room with two single beds and a bathroom. It was amazing. We had privacy. We could work, explore, sleep and most importantly shut out the rest of the boat for one peaceful evening.

We had gone to Oslo to meet up with our friend Morten, who we had met nine months earlier in Beijing. He and two friends had been preparing to drive back to Norway from China on two motorcycles with sidecars. They made it in about four months just before Christmas.

But over the few days we spent in Oslo, we’d learn that a lot went wrong. Their bikes broke down often. A bag with a passport (and an important visa) fell out. And it got very, very cold. (Read all about it on their blog “From East to West on an Iron Horse” with the help of Google Translate. They’ve also started working on the book about the trip.)

Morten let Nellu try on the gear he’d bought to stay warm. This included a wolf skin that looked way too close to the husky dog I had growing up.

Nellu Mazilu, wolf skin

Nellu and Morten pose with some of the items Morten collected across Asia.

“I can’t believe you guys are here,” Morten told Nellu when he called to schedule a time to meet up.

How best to describe Morten? Morten is the strong streak of creativity that runs through him. The word jovial (sorry Morten) also comes to mind. He and his friends had everyone in our hostel in Beijing entertained for nights with a song they’d made up at the airport. “Don’t leava your baggage unattendo,” was the bridge,  which they sang with faux-Jamaican accents. (There are several verses to this song. It’s really quite impressive.)

Morten is also talented photographer and actually won trip to New York a few months back for one of his pictures.

Morten in New York. Photo Courtesy of Morten Espeland.

Morten and the Big Apple. Photo Courtesy of Morten Espeland.

(When you click on any of the pictures on their Iron Horse blog, it will pull up a slide show of Morten’s work on the road. It’s worth checking out.)

We met Morten in downtown Oslo and he took to a place he referred to as a “rockabilly” bar.

“Rockabilly? What the hell is rockabilly?” we teased.

Apparently rockabilly is huge in Oslo and refers to places styled in that vintage diner look. (Wikipedia says the word is a combo of rock and hillbilly.)

We got beers as Morten pointed out all the Norwegian celebrities.

We spent time in Oslo doing a lot of the touristy stuff without Morten—visiting the boat museums like the Kon-Tiki museum and the Viking Ship museum. (It’s Norway. Boats are big there.)

Nellu Mazilu, Kon-Tiki, Oslo, Norway

Me & Kon-Tiki. Photo by Nellu Mazilu.

We also went to the Munch museum.

Edvard Munch,  Madonna, Edvard Munch Museum, Munch

Edvard Munch’s Madonna. Photo by Nellu.

With Morten, we spent time seeing a more nuanced Oslo. He took us for a walk along the river all the way down to Parliament.

Nellu Mazilu, Akerselva River, Oslo, Norway

Art along the Akerselva River, Oslo. Photo by Nellu Mazilu

He also explained why so many high-school aged kids were walking around with red or blue overalls.  (They’re Russ. It’s a fascinating tradition which I can best describe as a month-long Mardi Gras for high school seniors. But you can read all about it here.)

We were having too much fun chatting over beers at a bar called the “Last Train,” that we missed the last train that night to our apartment. We ended up roaming through Oslo in the middle of the night, fighting as people do when they’re lost and stranded in a foreign city, all the way back to Morten’s. He didn’t look a bit inconvenienced when we knocked on his door.

More to come…

~ Molly

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I’ve found a new appreciation for the freedom of the road, which makes relocating cars our new favorite cheap way to travel. (If you’ve missed our adventures relocating vehicles in Australia, check out this post.) So when we wanted to head from Auckland on the north island of New Zealand down to the south island, finding a campervan to relocate was high up on our priority list. We used the same services as we did in Australia to look for opportunities – transfercar and standbyrelocs. But unfortunately, we hesitated on a couple of offers and missed our chance. So we were back on the bus.

It’s an 11 hour bus ride from Auckland to Wellington. From there we’d hop on the ferry to the south island. We took an overnight bus getting a pass through Intercity that would cover not only our bus fare but our ferry as well. The Interislander ferry can be tough on those faint of budget.

The Interislander ferry on a rainy morning.

It was a harsh wake up call being back on mass transit after having vehicles all to ourselves. At one point I turned to Nellu and said, “I forgot what I hate most about the bus… other people.”

Our bus driver whose name I believe was Ed sounded like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. And boy did he like to talk. This bus was a milk run bus that made many stops throughout the night. Every time a new group came on the bus, Ed went through the rules one more time, retelling an elaborate story about kicking a man off  because he was smoking and then having to call the police to arrest him because he wouldn’t get off the bus. “It’s tough to see a grown man cry,” Ed said, “But by smoking he was breaking the law and his ticket was invalidated.” The first time Ed told this story it was mildly interesting. The fourth time, it was sad.

But despite the talking and the subsequent lack of sleep, we made it to Wellington, on and off a  ferry, and on to another bus to Nelson. We ran into some trouble as we arrived in Nelson due to flooding there. But after some time and a hitchhike,  we made it to our lovely holiday home on Tahunanui Beach.  We’d have 11 days there filled with friends and Christmas celebrations and a lot of time getting caught up on our work before heading back north for a flight to South Africa.

On the way back, we vowed to snap up any relocation we could. There were no campervans available but we did find a van we could drive from Wellington to Auckland. Certainly, it had to be better to sleep in a van than in a car, even if it wasn’t a campervan.

When you relocate, you never know what condition the vehicle will be in when you get it. Usually, they’ve been cleaned up but our van this time was dirty, really dirty, both inside and out. The man at the desk at the rental car agency bragged that the Hobbit production team had been using the vehicle and dropped it off just before Christmas. It would be a bit inconvenient to live out of the muddy van for a few days but at least it makes for a good story.

It was late afternoon when we picked up our van so we drove for a few hours before stopping for dinner – takeout from a food joint that made everything from Chinese food to chicken burgers – which we took to eat on one of New Zealand’s wide beaches and watched groups of people tailgating and enjoying a beautiful Boxing Day holiday. It’s moments like these that I appreciate most the more we’re on the road.

We drove for a few more hours and settled in for the night at a rest stop. The next morning, we resolved to get coffee at a McDonald’s where we hoped we could use the free wifi and check our email.

This is the point in what should have a very easy trip where everything started to go wrong.

The gas tank was almost empty so we pulled into a station to fill up where we could use the “save 4 cents on fuel” coupons we’d earned at the grocery store. I was very proud of our diligence in collecting these coupons. Even though it would only save $1 here and $1 there,  these were dollars that we could spend on something better.

It had briefly crossed my mind that the van could have a diesel engine and I flipped through the materials the rental agency provided to check but found nothing. Surely the agency would have told us the car was diesel, I thought, and we weren’t responsible paying a diesel tax associated with such vehicles, so we barely thought twice about filling it up with 20 liters of unleaded.

This was a big, costly mistake, one that we’re blaming on the lack of coffee.

We were about 10 km outside of the town of Tokoroa when we first started noticing problems.

“Every time I accelerate, we lose speed,” Nellu said. Our Hobbit-mobile struggled to overcome even the smallest hills. By the time we had reached our McDonald’s the van started to stall. Nellu was able to coast into a spot in the parking lot. He jumped out and checked the gas tank. On the back of the door there was a small sticker that said diesel.

We crawled inside the McDonald’s with my laptop. We’d planned to use the free wifi to research what to do about our problem, but this particular Mickey Ds had no internet. We ordered our coffees (flat whites) and waited for the slow staff to bring them over to our table. Nellu and I both sat on the same side of the table, starring defeatedly over the chaotic scene in front of us.

An older couple sat directly to our left and started playing the where-are-you-from game with Nellu. “Israeli?” the man asked Nellu who was clearly not in the mood.

I was hoping that Nellu would chat this couple up and maybe, by luck or coincidence, they would have not only the expertise but the tools to solve our problem. But he wasn’t feeling chatty and I knew better than push to it. So we sat quietly sipping the coffee we needed to take on the next couple of hours.

Nellu was pretty confident that all we needed to do was get the bad gas out and the engine would quickly recover, but you’d be surprised how few people actually know how to siphon gas. There were two gas stations in walking distance and we checked with both to see if they had the materials we needed to siphon out the bad unleaded. I loudly announced our problem to the woman at the front desk at BP hoping that if she didn’t know how to help us, someone who did would overhear and offer to help. But no dice. Ironically, BP does not have siphoning tools “for environmental reasons” and the guy who usually performs this service for them was on vacation for two weeks.

But there was a car parts store in town where we bought a 20 liter red, plastic portable gas container to receive our bad diesel/unleaded mix, a 5 liter container to fill with fresh diesel and what we thought was a siphon hose. The hose turned out to be a siphon for the portable gas containers and not the gas tank, so I headed over to the hardware store across the street. The woman at the hardware store suggested I should favor a shorter clear tubing over a longer length. We learned later that this was bad advice. The hardware store closed for the day as I walked out with my short tube.

But Nellu and I were resolved. We could do this. We had a few tools. We could siphon out the gas. Maybe this problem only needed to cost us $50 to resolve. We took turns trying to suck the gasoline into the clear tube to create the pressure needed to usher our bad gas out of the tank. It didn’t work. Instead of getting a stream of gasoline rushing through the tube, we got a cupful at a time.

Who knew it’s so hard to siphon gas.

But I learned that gasoline actually doesn’t taste as bad as you’d think. I remember Harry Connick Jr. talking about gagging when siphoning off gas during the aftermath of Katrina. Considering my over active gag reflex, I assumed I would have the same reaction but I’m proud to say I didn’t. Gasoline does, however, have a greasy feeling that sticks with you no matter how many times brush your teeth or rinse out your mouth.

Several people along our tools gathering path informed us that not only did we have to clean out the tank but we also had to clear out the injector tubes or the engine simply wouldn’t work. It would be damaged, they told us. Nellu and I started to lose our confidence.

But as our desperation became stronger, a young couple from Wellington (clearly on vacation) drove past and asked if we needed help. “Do you know how to siphon gas out of a tank?” I shouted.

The man, who we came to know as Scott, parked his car and came over to help while his wife Renee and their five-year old daughter Piper watched. Nellu and Scott tried to no avail to get access to the engine underneath the front passenger seat to check the injector tubes.  This project was quickly spiraling out of control. We decided that it was not a do-it-yourself operation and Scott loaned Nellu his phone to call the rental car company for help. The rental car company referred us to their roadside assistance company with the reminder that we would be financially responsible for what ever it would cost to fix this problem.

The roadside assistance company was zero help. They straight away informed us that it would be very costly to get someone out to help us today since it was still the Christmas holiday. It was December 27th. They found a tow truck for Nellu but the truck operator asked Nellu where he’d like to have the van towed since many businesses were still closed. This guy was clearly no help either.

As we started estimating the costs in our head – the cost to get the van towed, the cost to empty the gas tank, the cost to clean out the injector tubes, the cost of returning the van a day late to the rental agency, we became exasperated. “You know what I really want to do,” Nellu announced. “I want to blow up this van so at least will get our $1500 worth.” $1500 was the amount of money we would be responsible for if anything happened to the car.

Thank God for Scott and Renee who proved to be quite resourceful at our moment of need. They spent over an hour with us, loaning us their phone, and in the end researching and finding someone who would help. They hooked us up with Bryan and his company Tirau Motors motors, a one stop shop mechanic and tow operation that was not only working that day but could come pick us up in about an hour. I didn’t get Scott and Renee’s details. I wish I did because we would have been lost with out their help.

Bryan picked us up as promised about an hour later and we got help from a few random men to push the van in neutral from the McDonald’s parking lot to the street and pulled it up onto the flat-bed. We drove about 30km north to Tirau, where his shop was located. On the way we chatted and learned that it was a very common mistake to put unleaded into a diesel running car, even by people who actually owned the vehicles. I suspected this all along. In fact, I kept telling everyone, “This has to happen all the time.”

It took Bryan less than 10 minutes clear our gas tank. He raised the van up with a lift, unscrewed a bolt under the tank and let the unleaded drain out. Once the gas tank was clear, he filled it up with our diesel and through in some of the diesel he had in his shop for no cost. He then pressed the gas pedal to rev the engine and clear out injector tubes and our big problem went up in a puff of smoke.

We got the shy Bryan to pose for a picture before we headed out. If you have any needs on the north island of New Zealand, Bryan and Tirau Motors are top notch.

Bryan: Our knight in cotton armor.

All the worse case scenarios we had been considering never came to pass. We were quickly back on the road, heading up to Auckland to return our van on time, and even managed to visit Hobbiton itself, the town of Matamata which was used as a backdrop for the Lord of the Ring movies.

Our credit card statement may bear the scars of our bad decision but we’re both really glad we didn’t blow up our Hobbit-mobile.

TIRAU MOTORS LTD TIRAU (The fix) Gas/Automotive $248.51
BUNNINGS – 9432 TOKOROA (Our too short plastic tube) Merchandise $4.05
MOBIL TOKOROA TOKOROA (The replacement diesel) Gas/Automotive $6.12
REPCO TOKOROA 18 TOKOROA (Gas containers, siphon tube) Gas/Automotive $36.26
GULL ATIAMURI ATIAMURI (The bad unleaded) Gas/Automotive $33.43
Total Cost of Putting Unleaded in a Diesel Van
$328.37

~ Molly

The famous temples of Angkor Park taking on some water

For awhile there it appeared we timed our arrival in countries to make sure we caught rainy season in full swing. September is monsoon season in India. We arrived in Delhi on September 1st. In Thailand, the wettest month of the year is October. We flew in on September 27th. We decided very early on that it would be impossible to avoid foul weather everywhere, especially with the wacky, pattern-challenging trends happening around the globe. But honestly, this was looking ridiculous.

For most of our time in India, we only had rainy days in Delhi, which gave us an excuse to stay in and catch up on work. And we didn’t start to feel the impact of the wet season in Thailand until we tried to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north via train.

We arrived at the train station in Bangkok about an hour before our 6:30pm overnight train to Chiang Mai was to depart. Immediately, we were approached by a man who started trying to tell us something, but we abruptly brushed him off. Ha! Are you kidding me? We just left India. We’re not going to fall for a random man in the train station trying to derail our plans scam. But we didn’t get more than five feet before a woman walked to us and explained that all the trains to the north were canceled because of the floods.

Floods? I may have seen something about it on the train website (which I guess I ignored.) We looked up at the TV stations in Hualampong Station and it was clear floods were a growing issue in Thailand.

What were we going to do? After we got a refund on our train tickets, the woman in the station directed us to a tourist office which promptly got us on an overnight bus leaving that night.

But I need to give you a little more information. We were warned about the overnight buses before coming to Thailand. A friend of a friend had taken an overnight bus on a very popular tourist route and woke up to find all of his money in his money belt gone. (A money belt is a wallet that many travelers wear underneath their clothes so you can imagine that it’s very difficult to get money out of the belt without waking the victim.) He discovered that many of his fellow bus riders were also robbed. The conclusion of this mystery is they were gassed into a deep sleep somewhere along the ride, allowing the bus driver and a team of cohorts to strip the tourists of their belongings. I did some research on this horror story and it apparently happened enough times to make the official warning list. So as you can imagine, the thought of taking an overnight bus was a little unsettling to us.

I gave the woman at the tourist office the third degree as she prepared our new bus tickets and demanded that she ensure our bus was safe (like that would really help.) Nellu tried impress on me that none of this would do any good while the woman and a colleague showed me that it would be an official government bus. “See this symbol,” they said.

The good news is that we weren’t gassed on the trip unless you count the seriously aggressive air-conditioning that left us cowering under our blankets and anything else we could find. (I lent Nellu my windbreaker which fit his slim figure surprisingly well.) But I still lodged my wallet in a strategic hiding place (which I am not going to disclose just in case I have to use it again.)

There was a little water on the roads but nothing like we had seen on TV and when we reached Chiang Mai, any city we saw was flood free. It wasn’t until Cambodia that we really found ourselves in high water.

We decided to fly from Laos to Cambodia to avoid possibly three days of travel and several tedious overland border crossings. The flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap was less than two hours and were were able to get a deal from Lao Airlines. (Yes that’s right folks – less than two hours by plane but three days via bus and train and tuk tuk). As we flew in over the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, there was so much water on the ground, overflow from their great lake, I wondered where we would land.

We had gone to Siem Reap to see the great temples in Angkor Park, the most famous being of course Angkor Wat. We booked an off-road bike tour that would take us over 40km to see the temples. In the previous weeks, we had seen many reports of the floods so Nellu emailed days in advance to see if we could still go on the tour or if the temples were underwater. The area did sustain some flooding. Parts of our tour we’d have to deal with thicker mud and we might have to walk in water up to our knees. But we were tough, we told each other. We could handle it right?

We would need plastic shoes though. Nellu only had his already incredibly beaten up Converse sneaks. And to me there was nothing like having to walk around in wet shoes. We checked into our guesthouse and immediately inquired where we might be able to buy some flip flops. Some of you who are reading this may be wondering why we don’t have flip flops. I have some leather sandals and a pair of trekking shoes that would have done the trick, but I left those with one of our big duffles back in Bangkok. (Remember, we were clueless to the floods). And Nellu has a personal no-open-toed shoe policy that he has maintained throughout the entire time I’ve known him. So we borrowed two of the guesthouse bikes and headed downtown.

Unfortunately, the route we wanted to take was severely flooded. I went closer to get some video footage, trying in vain to keep my feet dry. It was clear that the locals had dealt with this problem before. There was a tractor to take people back and forth over a particularly deep intersection but for the most part people just walked right through the spots even if that meant being up to their waist in water.

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We finally found the old market and got two pairs of plastic shoes and headed home to prepare for our big ride the next day. Nellu is going fill you in on some of the gory details of our off-road bike trip but here’s a tease: both of us ended up in overfilled rice patties and I found myself at one point up to my knees in mud trying to rescue my new plastic shoe while the ground was working to suction it off.

Up to my knees in mud

After Cambodia, we headed back to Bangkok for an overnight before taking off for the island Koh Phagnan off the eastern coast of the Thailand tail. On the six hour train ride from the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border towns, we witnessed more of the flooding on the Thai side. It was clear that vast areas had taken on much more water than the ground was ready to absorb. Back in Bangkok, we planned to stay with the same guesthouse we had during our first week in the city but we got an email from the owner that due to the floods threatening the city’s inner core he was closing shop. He found us a place to stay nearby and even brought over the bags we left in his storage room.

The morning we left for the beach, the Bangkok Post headline read, “Capital declared safe.” That declaration was clearly premature.

The floods in Southeast Asia have caused more than 1000 deaths across the region. The impact of these high waters will be felt for sometime to come.

~ Molly

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