In the late 90s, I was a European Tour Manager for a company that specialised in tours for 18-35 year olds. See?
Aside: Gotta love those ‘mom jeans’.
I always said I would never go on one of these tours, let alone work as a TM, but when you have a devastating breakup in Paris from a 5-year relationship and you still want to see all the places you were supposed to see on that trip with your now ex-boyfriend, you book a last-minute tour.
After said Parisian breakup, I arrived home (in London) on the Eurostar, got on the phone, and booked a 2-week trip that started the next morning at 7am. I was back in Paris within 24 hours of leaving and on that trip, I met 5 women who became my bus besties. I am still in touch with Michelle, the tall blonde.
Months later, while I was living in London and doing day-to-day relief teaching, I saw that the tour company was hiring. “I could do that job,” I thought. I applied, along with a couple thousand others, and after an interview process that would NOT pass muster in this #metoo world, I got a spot on the 7-week training trip.
Surviving that was like getting to the final four of Survivor. It was something akin to bootcamp, but with less creature comforts. We averaged 4-5 hours of sleep a night and we slept in tents – in winter – in the snow. We were quizzed relentlessly on routes, opening times, history, currency conversion, places of interest, and architecture. I made lifelong friends, because, really, in the extreme circumstances, all we had some days were each other.
And then I was placed in charge of my own tour – a 5-week camper – the first of a long season that took me into November. It was one of the best and worst years of my life. The best because of the friendships I made, the places I saw, and the experiences I had. And the worst because … well, that’s another blog post.
But, one of the most incredible things about that time is the material it has given me for my writing.
In my 1st and 3rd books, the main character is Sarah Parsons, and like me, she once ran tours in Europe. When her sister, Cat (the main character is book #2), books a 2-week bus tour around around Europe to escape her lovelorn flatmate, Sarah is able to rattle off the full itinerary without hesitation.
And Cat booking that tour meant that I got to write a 2-week bus tour around Europe!
Cat’s 3 bus besties are inspired by my real life bus besties. Michelle inspired Mama Lou, Weyleen (far left above) inspired Jaelee, and Sophie (second from the left) inspired Danielle. I was able to write the places in great detail, because I’d been to them many (many) times. And I was able to write exactly what it’s like to travel on a bus tour – right down to the (ridiculously) early starts, the heinous ablution blocks, the tight schedules, the fast-but-firm friendships that are formed, and how wonderfully Europe excites and entices the senses.
Here’s a little peek into that world…
My first tour, Florence
My fifth tour, Florence
With my first crew, Lucy and Richard
It was brilliant fun writing That Night in Paris. Early readers are loving it, and you can preorder now (April 15 for the ebook and June/July for the print version) – just follow the link above.
We’ve been living in Ubud for 7 weeks now (one week to go before we move to the US). We opted not to get a scooter for the duration of our stay and walking most places has been transport, sight-seeing and exercise. For longer journeys, we’ve grabbed taxis, but according to my FitBit, we’ve clocked up hundreds of thousands of steps in the last two months.
The trickiest thing, though, is that walking here is a precarious endeavour. Obstacles include:
no footpath – you’re essentially walking on the road a lot of the time
stray dogs and dog excrement – even the dogs with owners wander here
offerings to the gods – to be respectful, we must avoid stepping on these
scooters and motorcycles – MANY of them, both driving and parked
giant tour buses, trucks, cars, and taxis – all driving within inches of you as you make your way down the road that doesn’t have a footpath – eeek!
streams of unidentifiable water – hopefully it is just water, but you never know 😉
stalls and shops that spill out onto the street
rooster in baskets – they’re fighting roosters 😦 – and random roaming chickens
giant piles of dirt/gravel/bricks used for building – when people are building a home or business or even a wall, often the materials will be dumped by the truckload on the road and footpath – everyone just has to go around it until it’s all used up
uneven, patch-workpaths – including the (running) track along Campuhan Ridge and the pedestrian-only paths
So, here’s my photo series called: Don’t (not) look down!
When you’re living abroad, there are things that were initially obvious to you – or even jarring – that over time become your new normal.
Here are some from living in Bali over the past couple of weeks.
Where there’s a wool…
I have turned into a sheep. I have naturally curly hair; it’s fine and I have a lot of it. In Bali, where the humidity creeps down to 80% but typically sits in the 90s, my hair has turned into what I can only describe as ‘wool’. I can slick it back, pin it back, put a shot-glass full of product on it, and half-way through the day, I look like a sheep. Yesterday, I decided not to fight it. I loaded up the hair product and let it dry naturally. The result: thick spiral curls. I was okay with the curls until I went for a massage and she massaged my head. Goodbye curls, hello wool. When I sat up I looked like Shirley Temple after she’d been electrocuted. It’s my new normal.
Quite simply, in Bali, there is garbage nearly everywhere. While visiting friends on the north coast over the weekend, we were admiring the water views and watched a local woman simply sweep a pile of garbage – mostly plastic – into the ocean. In fact, there is so much garbage in the water off Singaraja and Lovina Beach, no one but the locals swim there. Every dot in the water in this photo is a piece of plastic and there are hundreds of pieces in amongst the rocks. It’s sad to see in this otherwise idyllic scene.
And here are some local kids playing amongst the detritus, oblivious.
Apparently, the speed limit across most of Bali is 40km/hr. From our road experiences to date, there will often be long stretches of driving where we won’t crack 20 and then suddenly, we’ll be flying down the road on the wrong side doing 80 and overtaking a scooter piled high with reeds or baskets.
There seem to be no road rules, and even a red light is merely a suggestion. Overtaking is the only way to get anywhere and there are no roads with more than one lane in either direction. On many occasions, I’ve had to place a lot of trust in the driver that they don’t want to die either, and that we will not have a head-on collision with that huge bus coming straight at us. My new normal is to take these journeys in stride (Valium sold separately).
I’ve also stopped being baffled by the westerners who wear helmets while riding a scooter, and strap their helmet-less baby to their front, or let their helmet-less toddler ride standing up between their arms. No, your parental powers will not prevent your child from getting a serious head injury if you have a collision.
The last time I was in Bali in 2015 and the time before that in 2003, the cry from vendors as you walked down the street was, ‘You buy? You buy?’ In 2018, I have yet to hear ‘You buy?’, but even a short walk will elicit cries of ‘Taxi?’ from all directions. Men – I have yet to hear this from a woman – watch for tourists who look lost, hot or tired – or all three – and ask if they want a taxi ride. They will then ‘phone a friend’ who shows up in a car to whisk you away to wherever you want to go.
Taxis here are reasonably cheap, most are newer model cars, and as the Balinese take pride in their vehicles, they are immaculate. That said, we’re more than happy to walk – especially when it’s for exercise – so our new normal is to say, ‘no thank you’ a dozen times any time we decide to walk somewhere.
(Not) wining and dining
Wine is expensive in Bali – even the bad stuff, like Yellow Tail. Sorry, Yellow Tail, but even though I miss wine, I will not pay $30 Australian for you. There are some Balinese wines, but as they pick 3 vintages a year here, the grapes – and the wine – are apparently flavourless. Our new normal is to drink Bintang beer (that is, Ben drinks Bintang) and spirits. Spirits are not cost prohibitive, and it’s nice to have a gin and tonic with fresh lime (Mmm, lime) as a sun-downer. I am, however, looking forward to our stint in Seattle in May when we can hit some of our fave Washington wineries!
Also, my new normal is co-living, but that’s another blog post…
I was a lucky bugger and I won a trip – an all-expenses-paid trip – to New Zealand. 25 words or less on who I would take to NZ and why, and a couple of months later Ben and I were winging our way to Wellington. This is a retrospective of our 7 night, 8 day adventure along the New Zealand Classic Wine Trail. Kia Ora, New Zealand!!
We arrived in Wellington where it was a little windy and wet and the locals kept apologising for the weather. Settled in at the Wellesley Hotel rather quickly, we then made our way to the Te Papa museum for a private tour. At both places we were expected and were greeted with, “Are you Sandy and Ben?” We decided that we could get used to this treatment, which we received at many of the places on the rest of the trip – others seemed to have forgotten that we were coming (oops). Either way, though, the Kiwis are lovely and gracious people and we were generally treated like the rock stars that we think we are.
Te Papa, by the way, is phenomenal – NZ’s history, culture and natural wonders encapsulated in one impressive structure. I was particularly struck by the Colossal Squid exhibit.
The next morning, we drove north-east for about 4 hours to the Hawke’s Bay region.
The sun was high in the sky as we pulled into Ash Ridge winery for lunch – the first of MANY wineries.
After lunch it was into Napier, a town on Hawke’s Bay that was destroyed in 1931 by and earthquake and completely rebuilt. It has one of the world’s finest collections of Art Deco buildings and architecture. We were taken on a walking tour of the town by the Art Deco Society.
Back at their HQ, the Art Deco Society showed us a film about the town – with footage from the ’30s and gifted us with some souvenirs. How lovely!
The next day we were driven out to Cape Kidnapper’s to see the gannets. Actually, when we arrived at the appointed time, we waited (and waited) and finally decided to call our contact. Her immediate response when we said we had arrived for the gannet tour was, “But the gannets are gone!” Then she realised that we were “Sandy and Ben – the prize winners” and roused her hubby out of bed to drive us out there anyway.
We were on private property most of the way – it’s a working farm and golf course owned by an American billionaire. The views are ridiculous. And there were a few gannets waiting for us at the cape – the late bloomers who had yet to depart for the winter.
After Cape Kidnapper’s (so-called because when Cook arrived, the Maoris mistook one of his crew, a Tahitian, for one of their own and kidnapped him. Cook and his crew got him back and sailed off around this cape and he named it at that time), we were due to collect bike for a 1/2-day ride, but instead we found Clearview winery.
We were greeted by a lovely lady who took us on a guided tour of their tasting menu and then deviated from it a few times. She and her partner had found a couple of unlabelled cases the day before – and ’00 cabernet and an ’02 cabernet-merlot – and she gave us a pour. Holy guacamole. She said she would price them while we had lunch – which we thoroughly enjoyed – and we bought a bottle of the ’02. Pricey, but we’ll save that for a special occasion.
We did end up grabbing the bikes for a couple of hours when we got back to Napier. We rode 8kms to the closest wineries – Mission Estate and Church Road – and bought a bottle from Church Road (a Riesling). It is easy to excuse yourself from buying when you’re on bikes. And it is a little harder than you might think to ride back into town after tasting at only two wineries – not that we were too tiddly, but after a few days of no exercise, lots of sitting and lots of wine, the body can protest a 40 minute bike ride (each way).
The next day we drove south, heading towards Greytown where we would have $100 to spend at Schoc chocolates.
At a place where the 75g bars are $11, this took less time than you might think, but we tasted our way through their menu too – and found some great selections. Dark chocolate rose – yum.
And on the way we saw some cool stuff, including 2 giant kiwis and a Viking (for Ben’s mum, who barracks for the Minnesota Vikings – and for Ben, who is descended from them).
We even met this little gal, at Loopline, one of the first wineries you will come to heading south on the 2, just before Greytown.
She rushed out to greet us at this beautiful place.
It has a simple tasting room, where you’ll meet the winemaker and his lovely dog, whose name we never caught. Still, we bought a bottle of their Riesling, because it was dry and delicious.
Into Martinborough, which is a lovely town reminiscent of small towns in the south-west of Australia, like Bridgetown, we were shown to a spectacular suite, which had an equally spectacular bathroom.
We just had a night there, and popped across the road to the local where we had great wine, and great food – and met the locals! Packing the next morning was a little tricky – we had a kilo of chocolate, 5 bottles of wine, we still had Marlborough to go, and we were getting on a ferry that afternoon.
We headed towards Wellington, and miscalculated the arrival time at the (not so) stunning ferry terminal, so got to spend 3 hours there. On the ferry we were treated to the executive lounge, and had a lovely late lunch and wine as we headed to Picton on the South Island. The views were rather gorgeous.
That night and the next we were at the Marlborough Vintner’s Hotel, where we woke up both mornings to stunning sunrises over the vineyards.
Our full day in Marlborough we were treated to a private winery tour, with our guide (other) Ben. He took us out to Cloudy Bay.
And then he took us to Cloudy Bay.
We got private tours and tastings at 6 wineries, and stopped for lunch at Wither Hills, where – again – we bought the Riesling. Seeing a trend??
The next day – my birthday – we returned via ferry to Wellington (back to the Wellesley), where we were greeted with champagne and a Devonshire Tea. Did someone mention it was my birthday? We decided to skip Zealandia, which was supposed to be our afternoon activity, but the weather was not great for an outdoor nature experience, and we really just wanted to go shopping. Wellington is a hip city, reminiscent in many ways of Seattle, although (sorry Seattle-ites) the Wellingtonians dress FAR better than the average Seattleite. The 40 and 50-somethings had the coolest style. Diggin’ the Kiwi vibe.
That night we decided on a cocktail (no more wine, please!!!) at Matterhorn and then dinner at Monsoon Poon. Both places gifted me with a complimentary cocktail (thanks!) and the salmon at Monsoon Poon was crazy good. We even got a massive booth, with some cool signatures lining the walls.
How’s that for a cross section of celebs? Sachin Tendulkar, Nora Jones, and Gordon Ramsay.
The next morning, we began the long journey home.
Thank you as always to my darling travel companion, Ben, with whom I row merrily.
Well, not the Buckingham Palace-Tower of London-Big Ben-West End-Leicester Square kind of London, but the real London. You know, where the people live. London people. I have been staying with my sister and brother-in-law (and their son, my nephew) in Isleworth, which is just outside of Richmond, which is just outside of central London. It has some quaint houses and pretty parks.
Within walking distance are three ‘high streets’ where small shop-fronts line up, one after the other, in what can only be described as ‘complete randomness’. The funeral parlour is next to the deli is next to the mirror shop is next to the mechanics is next to the beauty parlour, and so forth. I love high street shopping. As most businesses are owned and run by the same person, it makes you feel like part of the community and you often get personalised service.
Many of the roads around here are one lane each way with parking on each side of the road, but they are just a tad narrower than they should be and buses wait patiently at either end of a row of parked cars, taking turns to navigate the gauntlet. Then they ‘rinse and repeat’ a few blocks down the road. A bus journey from here to Richmond is enough to make you hold your breath, such are the manoeuvres of the practised drivers. The buses are very nice, I would like to add – modern and clean.
And speaking of Richmond, it really is one of my favourite places in London, especially the view as you cross the Thames into Richmond. The river is beautiful, and I love the buildings along the waterfront.
I have, however, not had the nerve – or any inclination – to go into here, which is just down the road:
I wonder if somewhere nearby is the ‘Working Girls Club’. Hmmm.
Our family is on the move. My partner, Ben, is being transferred to Melbourne, Australia early in the new year, and we are packing up and heading down under. For those of you who don’t know, this will be a homecoming for me, as I am an Aussie born and bred. Melbourne, however, will be a new home city for both of us, which is part of its appeal – discovering it together. I will be cheating a little, as I have several friends there I have known for 20+ years; I am very excited about being able to see them on a regular basis. And Melbourne was named the most livable city in the world for the second year running!
Things I will miss about Seattle:
All the people we have come to know and love.
Not seeing all the new babies arrive and/or grow up. : (
Restaurant month(s). 3 courses for $30 is awesome.
Happy Hours – not as popular in Australia (boo).
Dogs. Every other person has a dog here – in the city – and I just love their little faces.
Mt Ranier, the Sound and other stunning views.
Politeness. Even the homeless are polite in Seattle.
Customer service. It is really good most places, including the grocery store.
Woodhouse winery in Woodinville. So good.
Things I will not miss about living in Seattle:
The trash and cigarette butts on the street.
Things I am looking forward to about life in Melbourne:
Buying a bike. Melbourne is basically flat and has lots of bike trails.
Being close enough for family and friends in other cities to visit on (long) weekends. Aussies are happy to take a cross-country flight to visit someone.
Long weekends. There are lots, including two within two months of our arrival – Australia Day long weekend at the end of January and Easter, which is 4 days off at the end of March.
Great coffee pretty much everywhere.
Drivers who can drive and awesome public transit.
Better weather than Seattle. Melbourne is the same latitude as San Francisco, so similar to that.
Traveling within Victoria and beyond, especially the wine regions, south-east Asia, Tasmania, New Zealand and the Great Ocean Road.
Note to self: do not get the flu the day you are going to Paris.
I have been to Paris nine times. I realize that this is an obnoxious comment, but it is true.
A long time ago, in a galaxy that seems far, far away, I was a Tour Manager for a company who specialized in European tours for 18-35 year olds and we began each tour in Paris.
The most recent trip to Paris was going to be different. Mainly because I would not have 50 people following me around. And also because we would be staying at a hotel in the city, and not a campsite outside the Periphique.
Ben and I had planned a trip to Paris for four nights, five days, arriving on a Monday at Gare du Nord via the Eurostar. It was going to be grand.
As luck would have it, however, I came down with the flu the day before we arrived and it hit me full-force for the first three days of our trip. In my delirium I struggled to answer the question, “how do we salvage this?” Then I cried a little, out of frustration, and then I slept.
For the first two days, I stayed in bed, while my intrepid love traveled the depth and breadth of the city, seeing some of its most prestigious sites. In the afternoons, after at least a dozen hours of sleep, I made myself presentable and headed out to meet him.
The weather was glorious. 80F/27C and sunshine. Loads and loads of sunshine. How could I not feel better?
Although Paris is a city to walk, much like NYC, we availed ourselves of other forms of transportation when the walking got too much for me. Quick hops on the Paris Metro allowed us to traverse the city and hit the highlights, and a Batobus ticket gave us unlimited passage up and down the Seine for one day.
We even participated in the sweet, but increasingly cliched practiced of affixing a lock with our names on it to a bridge.
We had seen this before while walking the Cinque Terre in Italy, and this time we couldn’t resist joining in. We paid our four Euros to an enterprising young man on the bridge, carved our initials and wrote over them in permanent marker, and then locked our lock into place. We threw a key into the Seine and sealed the whole deal with a kiss. Cheesy? Maybe. Romantic? Definitely.
By day four, I was feeling well enough to venture out with Ben in the morning, and we headed to the southern part of the city to visit the catacombs. In all my previous trips to Paris, I had never been to the catacombs. There was a wait of about 90 minutes, but we passed it in good spirits and soon enough we were inside.
The tour is an interesting mixture of geology, history and spirituality. There was something fascinating about the way the bones were stacked, but I concede that the tour would not be for everyone. I joked that they would have us exit through the gift-shop, until we emerged into the brightness only to find that directly across the street from the exit, was in fact, a gift shop. We bought fridge magnets. How could we not?
That afternoon we also visited Musee d’Orsay, which I would name as my favorite museum. Period. They have significantly changed the Impressionists’ wing, but it still holds some of the most exquisite paintings I have ever seen.
And I loved this:
Another place I had never been to was the Rodin Museum, so we made an effort to get there on one of the sunny afternoons I met up with Ben. There are two admission prices, one for the museum (his former home) and garden, and it is only one Euro to access the garden only.
I imagine that if I lived close by, I would pay the one Euro quite frequently just to sit in the beautiful garden.
I was taken with many of his pieces, especially this one:
By the last evening I was starting to feel better, but as luck would have it again, Ben was struck with food poisoning. This curtailed our plans to go up the Eiffel Tower the next morning, but we remind ourselves that this was only our first trip to Paris together. There will surely be another.
And despite everything we managed to hit the highlights.
What makes a perfect weekend? What are the essential elements that must come together to create a weekend of ‘Kismet’?
Well, this past Labor Day long weekend we discovered that the perfect weekend can be as much about what is omitted as what is included.
The night before our departure I suffered a night of insomnia. They come up from time to time, and usually at inopportune moments like this one. I awoke to a rainy morning, an achy neck, a recurrence of a niggling sore throat I have been fighting for weeks, and a bad mood.
Ben was a trooper. I was a trooper. We managed our morning like seasoned travelers and were showered, fed and packed without too many snippy words. We loaded the car in the rain, and made the early ferry (7:55am) with several minutes to spare. We would ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, then drive across the island and over a bridge onto the Olympic Peninsula.
The boys were excited.
I wanted either coffee or sleep. I opted for sleep and soon discovered that the fully reclined passenger seat of Ben’s car combined with my awesome pillow (which I take with me everywhere) is the PERFECT way to travel long distances. I was out like a light.
When I emerged from my coma, we were in Port Townsend, a pretty town on the north-eastern tip of the peninsula. My friend, Todd, had tipped us off that it is was a great spot, so we detoured off course to fit it in.
Driving in we saw this:
The weather in Port Townsend was what my dad would call ‘wild and woolly’. [It is an expression I have grown up with, so I know that it means ‘really windy and a lot wet’, but now that I have written it into this post, I am wondering how the ‘woolly’ part comes into play.] It had stranded these two boats on the shoreline, and when we got out of the car, it threatened to blow us out straight back of town.
We opted for a safe haven in the form of the nearest coffee shop, where we drank tea, and ate American-style scones. Ben asked for soy milk, but we were informed that they didn’t use soy milk, because it is VERY bad for you. Sure. Okay. Whatever you say.
After tea Ben suggested we walk through the town a bit. For me the day was only just coming in to focus, so I said yes, despite the weather. I needed to wake up fully.
We discovered some gorgeous architecture that has been lovingly restored, and many galleries. I bought a few little trinkets – gifts mostly – including a giant sand dollar from the curio shop. It now sits with our African Goddess and our Indian Elephant – three continents represented in one corner of our living room. The people we met were lovely and chatty, and I know this is a place I would like to go back to sometime soon.
Moving on from the windy town, we made our way south and then west towards Port Angeles. We would be staying at a B&B there later in the day, but it wasn’t even lunch time yet, so we pressed on towards the Sol Duc Hot Springs.
Lunch was an impromptu stop at Granny’s Cafe, an old school diner on the main highway.
I believe it is solely for this reason that people stop there to eat, and has nothing to do with Granny, the food, or the collections of ‘things’ that fill every horizontal surface.
The food was, at best, passable.
Fed, we hopped back in the car, still on course for Sol Duc Springs, and took a detour to Lake Crescent, where we saw our first glimpse of sun that day.
The Lake is in the Olympic National Park, but holiday homes pepper its shore. From one angle I could have sworn I saw how it must be at the height of summer, even though the true temperature was closer to 58F (15C).
As we left, the rain came again. After winding around the south side of the lake – a beautiful drive – we turned off the highway and into the central part of the national forest. We overshot the hot springs and drove instead to a trail head for, among other destinations, Sol Duc Falls. It was only sprinkling lightly, but had clearly rained heavily at some point, because the trails were dense with mud.
Just as I pointed out a beetle for Ben to avoid stepping on, there was a sharp pain in my hand. I quickly pulled off my glove, thinking that maybe a spider had nestled in there over the summer, but no. A yellow jacket hornet had stung me through my glove and it hurt like hell. A quick detour back to the car to dress my wound, and we retraced our steps back towards the falls. We were rewarded for our efforts – and my pain – with this spectacular sight.
And looking further down river:
We made our way back to the car while I watched carefully for attack hornets. Back at the car we met a lovely group of middle aged people who had been stranded by a dead car battery. Fortuitously for them we happened to be parked right next to them, and could give them a jump start. “Thank goodness,” said one of the women. “We were so worried that the people on either side of us were off trekking for days on end.” She had no way of knowing that trekking for days in the rain is my closest idea to hell, but we all agreed that our car’s proximity to theirs was ‘great luck indeed’. Sometimes you meet the nicest people.
Feeling good about our small act of kindness, we drove a short distance, grabbed our swimsuits and paid admission to the Sol Duc Springs Resort.
I kind of knew when I saw first the ‘hot springs’ – essentially giant hot tubs stuffed with tourists and their splashing children – and then the filthy change rooms, that it would be a short visit. I was disappointed for many reasons. Mostly, I had looked forward to the hot springs because my neck, shoulders and upper back had been chronically sore for days. It was becoming hard to sit, sleep, stand and move – which pretty much didn’t leave much time when it didn’t hurt.
I had also been to the hot springs in Aguas Calientes, Peru, which were beautiful, exceptionally clean, and set into the side of a mountain, so my expectations for the Sol Duc Springs were high.
The stench of sulfur did nothing to ease my aches, and I wished it was a better experience all around – especially for Ben, who was experiencing a hot springs for the first time. I stayed in as long as I could, but when I saw the 30th strand of hair float by, and then a band-aid, I got out, quickly showered and dressed. Ben was not too far behind me. Before leaving I filled in a comment card, and as this post goes to press, I received a lovely email from the management apologizing for the state of the facilities and offering a free pass for us both on our next visit. Hmm. Thanks, but we’ll think about it.
It was time to head to our accommodation for the night and I looked forward to getting clean and dry and out of the outdoors. Sometimes, Adventure Chick. Sometimes, Princess. Princess was ready for a bath!
As soon as my work visa is sorted, I will be working for Groundspeak, who run Geocaching.com among many other things.
Geocaching, as a recreation, was new to me when I applied for the job. I researched it, and decided that not only did I want to work with the people at Groundspeak, but that I wanted to become a geocacher. And so I have.
Ben and I signed up right away – when I was mid interviews. He has one of the fancy schmancy phones that does everything – including answer the phone – so we were all geared up with GPS technology. We created an online profile, and searched for caches based on our zip code.
Voila! Over 500 caches popped up within a 5 miles radius. Um, yeah, let’s narrow that down a bit.
We chose one and headed out from our apartment towards the Seattle Center. Unbeknown to us, we had picked the day of a huge festival to find our first cache. Our first task was to navigate our way through the throngs of people all desperate to get their hands on freebies, corn on the cob, or beer in plastic cups.
We rounded a corner and headed down a ramp, finally easing away from the crowd. You see, when you participate in geocaching, you want to keep a low profile. No one wants their cache raided or stolen by ‘muggles’ (they have appropriated the term from the Harry Potter series), so you have to ensure that you are discreet.
Down the end of the ramp, and around the corner, the GPS assessed that we were ‘there’. Now it was our job to find the cache within a 15-25 foot radius, not knowing exactly what we were looking for, and all the while trying to appear like we weren’t looking for anything at all.
It didn’t take long. Ben took a chance on venturing a little way into the garden bed and it paid off. The cache was a sealed Tupperware container, and enclosed was a log book, which we signed, and a few trinkets. We took nothing, but left a coupon for free yogurt.
We were quite pleased with ourselves, despite the fact that the ratings for difficulty and terrain were both 1/5. Still, we were no longer non-geocachers. We went to a film that afternoon, and when we got home, logged onto our profile and shared our success.
Since then we have sought three other caches, two of which were successful. The third is located in a small nature reserve in West Seattle. We chose it because we had yet to get out to West Seattle, and it was deemed a 2.5/5 for both difficulty and terrain. We wanted to kick it up a notch.
We discovered a few things that day.
Firstly, geocaching gets you out of the house, which is a particularly good thing when you realize that you are still in your pajamas at noon on a Sunday.
Secondly, if you choose caches in places you haven’t been to before, then you get to go somewhere new! This may seem obvious, but it is delightful, nevertheless, to go somewhere you haven’t been before.
West Seattle gave us this view of our neighborhood.
We also discovered the joy of finding a cache that someone else cannot find. While we were looking for a Rating 1/1 cache close to where I took this photo, we saw other people looking for the same cache. They were following the readings on their GPS, trying to be surreptitious, and left after they had looked in all the same places we had. Only we decided to keep trying after they left.
At that moment I looked down and saw a small piece of paper next to my foot. I picked it up; it was a fortune from a cookie. It said “Your short-term goal will be realized soon.” I showed it to Ben, just as he put his hand on the cache. Cool!
The last thing we discovered that day was that you can try too hard.
We went in search of the 2.5/2.5 cache (that is 2.5/5 for difficulty and terrain). We had some notes from the previous finders, and we had the location in our GPS, but under the dense canopy of trees, the GPS was rendered next to useless.
It got us in the general vicinity, but we could never seem to get close to the cache, no matter how deep we went into the woods.
At one point I had climbed down a steep incline, fought my way through giant ferns, knocked down about 5o spider webs, and traversed a fallen log that was 8 feet off the ground on its far side. Nothing. And the only way out was to repeat all of that in reverse.
After more than an hour we were both dirty, sweaty and a little baffled. We went back to the main path, and even tried a couple of other small paths. None of them could get us any closer to the location marked by the GPS.
We called it a day.
We walked back to the car, drove back across town and when we got home looked up the cache. One note said, “The position of the cache is visible from the main path.” We had tried too hard. We had been searching for a cache that would have been rated much higher than 2.5/5 for either terrain or difficulty. We had dug holes, looked in trees, and gone WAAAYYYYY off the path.
But we’ll go back. I want that cache!
So, as I wait for the visa thing to be sorted, I am learning many wonderful and interesting things about all aspects of the geocaching world.
I have learned that in Western Australia there are 1818 caches. I have learned that most people I know in North America are geocachers themselves, or know someone who is.
I have also activated the Geocoin given to me by one of the founders of Groundspeak during my final interview. (Thank you Brian). I have set its course for the UK, and then Australia in the hopes that it will find its way back to me here. Isn’t that cool?
And, courtesy of my new boss, Jenn, I have my own geocaching profile now under the profile name, Sandy (for those who have accounts too – they’re FREE!) . At the moment I share all my caching information with Ben and our joint profile. Perhaps we will always cache together, as we are loving our mini adventures, but this gives us the chance to broaden our individual horizons too.
So, this is a little insight into my new world. I hope to see you out in it.