Travel Notes: Gratitude on Australian Busses

One of the most interesting things I’ve observed on the busses here in Australia is that of gratitude. When the passengers disembark, they always say “Thank you”, or “Cheers”, to the bus driver as they leave. And the bus driver nearly always does the same, making eye contact with each one of them.

This has an amazing effect on the environment of the bus as a whole. 

For example, today there was a young schoolgirl, maybe thirteen or fourteen, who was being rough with a younger boy as she got on the bus. The bus driver scolded her as she passed him and she gave him an attitude and said something under her breath.

Throughout the entire bus ride, I could hear the girl and the younger boy arguing and mocking each other. But when the two kids got off, the bus driver smiled at them and said, “Have a good day!”, and I heard the girls tone suddenly change as she said quietly under her breath, “Thank you.”

Travel Notes: The Cheapest Way to See Australia

When I decided to visit Australia a few months ago, I knew that getting to see a large portion of the country was going to be difficult. Australia is about the same size as the continental United States in land area and having lived in the US for 28 years and only scratching the surface of the country, I knew that traveling around Australia was not going to be easy.

Putting aside the sheer size of Australia, the other issue I worried about was the cost. My research told me that Australia was going to be at least, if not more, expensive than the United States and one of the primary reasons I haven’t explored more of the US is because it’s so damn expensive.

While getting to the country itself is quite an expense, once you’re here traveling around doesn’t need to cost a fortune.

For the past week, I've been on the train in Australia, hopping from one long-distance train to another as I make my way from the northern city of Darwin down through the center to Adelaide, then across to Sydney, then up to Brisbane, and finally all the way up to Cairns, a total traveled distance of 6,883km / 4,277mi.

While one certainly needs to get used to sleeping in recliner chairs, showering in small bathrooms, and sitting next to strangers (that is unless you dish out more money for the higher class sleeper rooms), this mode of travel is incredibly rewarding if your intention is to actually see the Australian landscape. 

You’ll wake up to sunrises and watch sunsets from your seat, see endless sheep and cattle, and even catch a glimpse of a few kangaroos and emus. It’s like your own Australian safari, except when the train stops at its destination you can get out and explore even more.

In the United States, train travel is quite expensive. A one-way, 2,400km/1,500mi journey will cost you at least $250 USD. (On the other hand, the same journey by air will only cost you $90 USD; air travel has been heavily subsidized by the US Government, so it’s a lot cheaper.)

Now compare that to the cost my recent one-week train journey here in Australia, which will be ending in just a few hours. The travel itself only cost me $58 for the entire week. That’s $58 for traveling 6,883km / 4,277mi!

For less than it costs to take a train from Boston to New York, I’m traveling across the Australian continent not once, but twice.

This isn’t to say the cost of living in Australia is cheap. It’s not. In fact, the past few months have taught me that living here is actually more expensive than living in the US (especially the cost of food; however hotels, air travel, and apartments are about the same price).

So how is travel by train so cheap here? Well, there’s a catch. If you don’t have a non-Australian passport, travel by train is almost as expensive as the United States. However, if you do have a non-Australian passport, you can purchase one of several different a rail passes.

The most expensive pass, the Ausrail Pass, will give you unlimited travel on all of Australia’s long-distance trains for 3 to 6 months, costing you $750 or $950 respectively.

I did the math on what the journey this week actually cost me and it came to just $58 (my $750 3-month Ausrail Pass, divided by 90 days, times 7 days = $58). 

By the end of my travels here in Australia, I estimate that I will have traveled roughly 21,000km/13,000mi by train, bringing the total cost per mile down to about $0.04/km ($0.06/mi). That’s about the same cost per mile as traveling by train in India!

So there you have it. If you’re thinking of visiting Australia for a few weeks and you want to get around the country cheaply, definitely consider picking up one of their rail passes.

Travel Notes: Left-side Driving in Australia

I could feel my brain resisting the change, like stirring molasses with a big spoon my brain pushed against the reality that I was forcing it to accept.

I drove in Australia for the first time today, a short 15-minute ride to the supermarket. But those few minutes felt like hours. When I stopped and got out of the car, my brain physically hurt, as if my brain had just run a marathon. I could feel the new synapses forming in what seemed like previously dead areas of my gray matter, like someone waking up from a coma and needing to relearn things that felt both vaguely familiar and all so wrong at the same time.

Everything that had become second nature from more than 14 years of right-side driving in the United States suddenly felt all wrong. The rearview mirror was on the wrong side, the gear shifter, the turn signal, the steering wheel -- all of it felt backwards. But not the gas and brake pedals: they were the same as in the States. Everything in the car was mirrored except those. Confusing! But there it was, all of it in front of me, awaiting my acceptance, asking me to embrace it.

And then when I started driving I knew there were others depending on my brain accepting these changes. Stay on the left side of the road!

It was tough. Left turns were right turns. Merges onto the freeway were made from left to right. The fast lane was now on the left instead of the right. Exits were always on the left. Rotaries — or roundabouts as they're more often called here — were particularly challenging to get correct. Cars went clockwise around them instead of counter-clockwise.

Everything felt wrong! It was the same weird feeling a right-handed person would feel when throwing a ball with their left hand.

But I pushed through this. I knew this was why I traveled, to feel my brain returning to its pre-adult state, to re-plasticize the hardened gray matter.

Day after day, I drove a little more each day. After one week of driving with a navigator in the passengers seat, I've now graduated to driving alone by myself. And then one day something strange happened: everything began to feel normal. It started to make sense. Left-side driving started to feel normal. And that was an incredibly freeing experience, so suddenly become mobily ambidextrous.

To remember which turns are yield turns, I've come up with an easy way to remember: whatever side of the car I'm sitting on, that's the side that is a yield turn. If I'm driving on the right side of the car, then right turns are yield turns. If I'm sitting on the left, left turns are yield turns.

But still I find myself occasionally mixing it up. When I’m told we’ll be making a right turn ahead, my brain identifies right turns with non-yield turns, which in Australia is actually a left turn. So I’ll hear right, but feel left.

But again, this is why I travel. To grow. To experience something new and unfamiliar. To push myself outside of comfort zones and over the edge into the unknown.

Travel Notes: Flying to Australia

"I am in New Zealand... of all the places in the world, I am in New Zealand."

As I sat in the New Zealand International Airport lounge waiting for the departures screen to tell me which gate my flight to Australia was leaving from (in the area where the gate number for my flight should appear, it simply says "Relax"), I look around and feel the need to keep reminding myself that I'm actually here, in New Zealand, that place on the map that, until now, was really just a place on the map.

As my trip to Australia approached, I was asked several times what I was feeling. All I could say was that it didn't feel real. 

It's hard for me to comprehend how my physical body is going to move from one spot on the planet to an entirely different spot, across huge oceans and continents, in the matter of hours. Yes, I simply "fly across", but that doesn't feel simple to me. I'm in absolute awe with how that's even possible. I understand the science, but it feels like reality hasn't caught up with the science.

I look outside the airplane window and marvel at the wings, these giant metal structures that move and expand like a bird when landing, but manufactured by human beings, with materials and chemicals formulated by human beings, parts and pieces engineered, assembled, tested, and finally flown by human beings. 

An entire buildings worth of people, with multiple floors, carrying 100 tons of fuel and, on this particular trip, transporting 10 tons of asparagus from Los Angeles to New Zealand, some 6,200 miles through the air, like a giant, mechanical, human-made bird. And here I am in the air with all this stuff and all these people, 40,000 feet above the Earth, traveling at nearly 600mph, through an atmosphere that would certainly kill me a −57F.

How is any of this possible? And why do I feel like I'm the only one absolutely dumbfounded by it all?

A few hours ago I was in California and a few hours before that I was in New Hampshire. Now I'm in New Zealand, on my way to Australia! I can only imagine what Magellan or Christopher Columbus would've given to have this freedom, and how disheartened by the future they would feel if they had the opportunity to observe how easily people today take such fantastic things for granted. 

This isn't the future. This is the future and the past combined. This is now.

Travel Notes: Thoughts on Florida

I don't know what it is about Florida that attracts me here. Perhaps it's the way I'm reminded of space travel and humanity's quest for exploration and pushing boundaries. Perhaps it's the constant reminder of flight by the birds and small airplanes that always seem to be circling and flying overhead.

Or maybe it's the way everything always seems green and reminds me of tropical places, or perhaps it's all the long, straight, and well cared for roads.

Perhaps it's how whenever I'm here it feels easy to blend in, like a tourist among so many other tourists, in a country that feels familiar, on a coast that holds enough cultural similarities to my northeastern roots to make me feel at home.

Perhaps it's the way things sound, the way construction projects and big trucks seem mostly absent and the chatter of birds somewhere in a nearby tree creates a background for the consistently flat landscape, creating what acoustically feels like a gigantic empty room with a blue ceiling dotted by the occasional cloud.

Or maybe it's the way the beach feels, the way I can walk around for hours dragging my feet in the warm ocean at the beginning or end of the day, even during the height of tourist season, and still not feel crowded or claustrophobic but rather invited, embraced, calmed, and welcome.

It's comfortable here and the more time I spend in Florida the more I understand why this is such a common place for retirement within the United States. Beaches here are plentiful. Warmth and sun is abundant. Sidewalks look new. Roads and landscapes are well cared for and the breeze always seems to blow at just the right time.

Whenever it becomes known to me that I will soon be leaving a place, possibly not to return, I always take some time to contemplate whether or not I've been able to capture the essence of the place.

Have I been able to capture the essence of Florida? That's seems hard to say. In the past year, I have spent nearly eight months living here and yet I still feel a longing to remain. Does this pull extend from laziness or from contentment?

Instead of waiting around to find out, I will continue traveling.

Travel Notes: An Abrupt Closing on Road Trip Notes

I've been procrastinating with finishing my travel notes from the road trip. Today I finally took some time to analyze why that was. 

The remainder of my notes do not contain more than casual observations or a simple "here's where I went, here's what I did next". 

Sure, there are a few interesting tidbits here and there -- exploring Auburn, Indiana, also known as the 'Home of the Classics', and touring the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum where several multi-million dollar classic cars were on display; being chased by a violent tornado storm that killed more than 40 people in the states I was traveling through and then hearing tornado sirens for the first time just outside Atlanta, GA and  experiencing a near miss with a tornado myself (it touched down just down the street from where I was). 

But beyond those highlights, there was just a lot of driving, meeting up with friends for lunch or dinner, torrential downpours, and then more driving. 

I had originally intended on writing travel notes that described my whole journey in detail, but as I worked on those I realized that the writing would contain so much fluff. There would be so little substance, so little meaning to what I was writing. As a result, I procrastinated. I delayed. I put it off until tomorrow.

By not finishing the travel notes from my road trip, I've felt mentally held back from sharing what I'm experiencing right now, here in Florida. 

My regular evening walks on Cocoa Beach have birthed many interested thoughts and feelings and I've wanted to share those here with you. That stuff does feel like it has substance, but I was pushing those notes off until tomorrow too, until I finished "catching up" with the road trip stuff. 

So this is my last travel note on the road trip. The trip taught me how much I dislike driving long distances and it reminded me why I've avoided owning a car for the past two years. It's nice to see places while traveling by land, but I find that travel by train, bus, bicycle, or even just my own two feet is far more appealing and educational.

I've also learned that making regular notes to capture the travel experiences in the moment is vital to capturing their essence. That's why I'm going to start publish shorter, more frequent travel notes from here on out.

Travel Notes: Ithaca, NY

In February 2012, I began a 17-day solo road trip through ten US states, driving a total of 2,498 miles. The following travel notes are from that road trip.

After Saratoga Springs, NY, the next stop on the road trip was Ithaca, NY. The journey to Ithaca reminded me of something I wrote in 2010, Starting the Journey to Ithaca

Much like the message in that essay, the journey to Ithaca took seemingly forever, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it because I wasn't focused on the destination.

On the way there I made some interesting observations: I saw someone refilling five-gallon water bottles with water from a stream trickling down from the mountain (there was a pull-off for cars; it looked like that was a common source of drinking water). I also saw a farm with lamas grazing in the... snow.

The road to Ithaca snaked up and down the mountains with an average speed limit of 55mph; it was typical to drive 65mph on these roads with no divider between you and oncoming traffic. I felt like I was on a racetrack for most of the drive once I got off the main highway.

Lots of farms surrounded Ithaca, but they were mostly used for growing feed for the animals (cows, horses). While Ithaca itself felt affluent and modern (especially in the downtown area), only a few miles away in all directions lie farms and communities that hadn't changed much in a hundred years.

I met my friend Molly Yarrington for the first time after arriving in Ithaca and we walked to a small local cafe where there were lots of young people with at least a dozen laptops. It reminded me how much the Internet is changing everything. 

What would've once been a town to leave for the "big city" (or 'village' as many signs on the highway called them) is now a place where you can experience small town life while remaining connected to and working within the modern world.

After the cafe we walked around a bit and visited a waterfall (Molly tells me there are lots of trails and other outdoor stuff to do in Ithaca). We then had lunch where the conversations continued. 

I ended up spending the night in Ithaca and after doing an interview with Radio Enso, Molly and I continued talking into the early morning.

We talked about a seemingly endless number of things but one topic that we explored on several occasions was that of what to do with our natural talents. 

Should we pursue the things that we're naturally good at, or should those things become the foundation for exploring other areas that are of equal interest to us but are perhaps of less natural inclination?

For example, few people know this about me but I'm very military-minded. I genuinely enjoy the hardship, the discipline, and the dedication of soldiers and warriors.

Emotional detachment comes naturally to me, as does the tendency for sacrifice and service. I even generally live the lifestyle of a warrior, only living with what's necessary.

But I have other interests that are in conflict with those natural inclinations. For example I consider myself a humanist and I enjoy philosophy. The concepts of peace and equality are very important to me as well and I seek sustainability and harmony.

If I pursued only the things that I was naturally good at, then I would probably become a solider or focus only on sports or other activities that complement my natural inclinations. 

However, if I instead use those natural inclinations to create a foundation from which I can explore other things, then I would create and live a more vibrate and rich life. 

Harmony would be built upon a foundation of dedication; sustainability would be created with a willingness to sacrifice. I would create and build things with a tendency for sharing and service.

I feel that I've been fortunate that my interests have always been so varied and so strong that I've never 'settled' on one thing. The closest I've come to 'settling' on something was in the choice of my first career. I didn't like computers any more than I liked space travel, but in my early teens pursuing a career in the technology industry was the most practical choice.

I believe that balance is important and if all we do is pursue what we're good at, then we'll end up living a very one-sided life.

On leaving Ithaca the following morning, I drove by several of the 'finger lakes'. These huge lakes are literally shaped like giant fingers. (See them on the map.)

Travel Notes: Saratoga Springs, NY

In February 2012, I began a 17-day solo road trip through ten US states, driving a total of 2,498 miles. The following travel notes are from that road trip.

After Northampton, MA, my next stop on the road trip was Saratoga Springs, New York, where I was visiting two friends who I met in Florida last year during the NASA Tweetup: Joel Glickman and Phylise Banner.

Joel is an experienced pilot who has flown all around the United States solo in his single-engine Cherokee airplane. Phylise, who was previously terrified of flying, is now training to become a pilot herself.

Joel took me up in his friends airplane last year and gave me the controls for a few minutes -- it was an absolutely incredible experience. I happened to arrive in Saratoga Springs shortly before Joel and Phylise returned from a flight that day and Phylise sent me a message via Twitter (yes, it works up there!) inviting me to meet them at Saratoga County Airport if I wanted to go up again.

I arrived at the small airport just as they were landing and Joel took me up. We skimmed a few feet above the frozen Saratoga Lake and then conducted a few Zero-G maneuvers (the pilot pulls the plane up almost into a stall, then pushes the nose down hard, creating weightlessness for a few seconds before straightening out again).

In airplanes not designed for acrobatics, I learned that you're not supposed to do turns greater than 90 degrees without wearing a parachute, as there is an increased risk of something going wrong. Joel asked me if I wanted to do a few 50-degree turns. With a big smile on my face, I agreed.

The turns were so hard that I could feel the blood rushing out of my head and upper body, being pulled down towards my seat. The forces were incredible! I could only imagine what fighter pilots must experience doing similar moves, going much faster and turning much harder.

After we pulled out, Joel turned to me with a smile and said "So much for 50-degrees... that was 110."

We headed back to the airport and Joel let me take the controls. I've always been somewhat familiar with airplane controls because when I was ten or eleven years old, my dad bought me Microsoft Flight Simulator for the PC, along with the yoke and rudder pedals accessory.

Flying a real plane doesn't really compare to a flight simulator, but having at least some familiarity with the controls definitely helped with confidence.

I lined the plane up with the runway and slowly took the plane down. Joel was handing the pedals, the trim, and basically everything else; I was steering and pushing the nose of the plane down, controlling our decent.

When we were about a hundred feet off the ground, Joel took over and landed the plane.

You can see our entire flight path here. Joel tracks all his flights using an app on his iPhone called MyFlightBook (yes, there really is an app for everything).

Travel Notes: Northampton, MA

As I mentioned in my latest journal entry, I'm going to start publishing travel notes here on the places that I visit. These notes will contain anything from short anecdotes to odd experiences to conversations with people that I meet during my travels.


My first stop on the 2012 USA road trip was Northampton, Massachusetts where I met my friend Jasmine Lamb. Northampton is located in the western part of Massachusetts. I had never driven that far out west, but I wasn't surprised to find that it didn't feel much different than the rest of the state.

Northampton itself is a small but noticeably older town that was settled in the early 1600s. I couldn't decide if I should pronounce it 'north-hampton' or 'nor-hampton' but Jasmine told me later that she always pronounced it 'north-hampton'.

In the downtown area, there were lots of cafes that seemed quite busy and I got the sense that the town was popular with the younger crowd. A little research on Wikipedia taught me that Northampton has a large and politically influential LGBT community and that the city is part of something called the Knowledge Corridor.

After meeting Jasmine in a local cafe and talking over a cup of jasmine tea (ironic, huh?), we walked around town a bit, first through the bustling downtown area and then on an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail. 

We talked on a wide array of topics, but one part of our discussion that really stuck with me was a story she told me about her brother: While traveling in a developing country, he learned that amputee children would often outgrow their prosthetic limbs and then need to wait long amounts of time until someone older than them outgrew their prosthetic limb and passed it down to them (that is if they were lucky).

Instead of seeing the problem and just thinking how unfortunate it was, he decided to invent a prosthetic limb that could be adjusted in size to account for the child's inevitable growth. That way, once the child gets a prosthetic limb, it remains the child's limb regardless of their growth.

Such a simple invention and yet he did something that I think few would-be inventors (including myself) actually do: believe in the invention enough to make it a reality and then overcome the discomfort of following through. 

It takes more than belief in the idea to make it a reality. Jasmine told me how her brother also spent many years learning other things related to business -- stuff that he wasn't even remotely interested in -- to make his invention a reality. He was committed to creating a solution to the problem he observed and as a result his adjustable prosthetic limbs are now being used by children in developing countries.

My next stop was Saratoga Springs, NY, where I got to fly a small airplane for the second time in my life. This second experience seems to have given me the 'flight bug' and now I'm itching to become a pilot. I'll write more about the experience in my next travel note.