A Travellerspoint blog


Leaving the comfort zone to embark on a new adventure

sunny 29 °C

Summer in Chicago is having time be on fast-forward. 3 months can feel like a short couple of weeks. It feels like yesterday that I made the decision to quit my job and travel before “repatriating” to Australia. There have been months and months of preparation leading up to today, yet it still doesn't feel real that in a couple of weeks, Chicago is technically no longer "home", in the sense of where I live.

After calling Chicago home for 3.5 years, my apartment is now empty with all furniture sold and all my belongings crammed into boxes and a few suitcases. The key milestones have been reached - one-way ticket is booked, broken the news to my family that I'm quitting my job and traveling, and handed in my notice. My beloved bike is dismantled and boxed, and all my favorite photos and artwork off the walls and carefully wrapped into boxes. Despite all these painful processes, leaving Chicago is not yet part of my reality.

A common question I get is, "Why are you leaving?" It's a hard question to answer because its not that I hate living here. I love this city and feel completely assimilated and at home as a Chicagoan. I've learnt how to adjust my accent and use words so that people can better understand me. Learnt that the red line smells like pee, and which el stops/lines to avoid. Learnt which times the lake front path is the worst death trap of tourists, rollerbladers, marathon runners and cyclists. Learnt that if the waitress gives you the wrong or unsatisfactory order, you can send it back. The list goes on - all the small and novelty, to large and life-changing, quirks of Chicago. There have been times when I've felt conflicted in my decision - mostly when I'm with good friends either at a great concert or delicious dinner that was super affordable, or taking advantage of the easy access to travel being in the US. But my need to be close to my family outweighs it all. In April, my dog of 13 years passed away. Not long after that, it was the Boston bombings. These two key events validated for me that moving home to be closer to my family is the right decision. And let's be honest, I probably couldn't have survived another Chicago winter, no matter how "mild" it is :)

It's still hard to feel completely comfortable with the decision, as I now feel I am Chicagoan first and Melbournian second. I hadn't heard the term "repatriation" until recently, when I started planning for the transition back to Melbourne. It helps to know there a term for it - makes it feel more...tangible...if that even makes sense. As irrational as it sounds, its a bit scary to think of assimilating back to Melbourne life. Most of my friends in Melbourne are moving in with significant others, getting married, buying houses and adding pets to their family. I'm quitting (what society considers) a great job to travel for 3 months, and I'll be returning "home" to live with family, unemployed and broke. I know I can't compare, yet I still do and envy the grass being greener over there.

What has helped is an article that described "re-entry shock". It is "when home just does not feel like home anymore". It helps to know these despondent feelings have been experienced by others before. Also, I know that just because I'm going back to Melbourne, doesn't mean it's forever. I can always come back to Chicago, or even go somewhere else. It's just right for right now. I know I have a lot to figure out, but I'll get there in my own way and in my own time.

All this talk about "home" reminds me of the TED talk by Pico Iyer, where his words ring true - "Where you come from now is much less important than where you're going...and home, we know, is not just the place where we happen to be born. It's the place where you become yourself".

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in USA Tagged home chicago repatriation Comments (0)

Chicago’s Never-Ending Winter

Embrace the mundane

overcast 3 °C

Looking back, the Fall season into the start of winter in Chicago is one of my favourite things. Colourful leaves, the smell of cinnamon, pumpkin decorations, the empty lake front path, Thanksgiving and Halloween are all things that hold a special place in my Chicago experience.


When December rolls around, the temperature can drop below what Melbourne considers a “freezing” day, and the city is lit with Christmas lights and decorated with fun Christmas decor. If I’m lucky, there will be some snow for a White Christmas, rendering everything beautiful and making the freezing cold temperatures worth it.



But after Christmas and New Years, the time seems to drag. January through April in Chicago always sends me into hibernation and I am reminded that SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real thing. I don’t mind the cold, I actually prefer it to the hot, so it’s not the temperature that bothers me. It’s the lack of sunshine and the shorter days. The sun doesn’t come out that often, and when it does, it’s during the middle of the day when I’m stuck in the office. The worst is when it starts to set as early as 4pm on some days. There are many winter days that I leave home and return home in pitch black darkness.


Even when the clocks spring forward in March and the days start to creep longer, there are gloomy days, freezing days, and rainy days that make us think that spring will never come. I find it impossible to know what to wear, especially when going for a run outside - so I end up avoid running outdoors altogether. Every now and then we’ll be teased by a beautiful sunny day, at “warm temperatures”, where anything above 0 °C feels warm. A glimpse anything above 10 °C and everyone is outside in shorts and t-shirt.

It is in the Chicago wintertime that I feel most homesick. I see all the Facebook posts of my friends enjoying the Melbourne summer and I wish I could teleport myself back for it. I came across an article that said "Don’t dismiss your life — if you’re bored with it, it’s probably just because it’s yours. Know that even if you realize your dream of moving to the exotic destination of your choosing, after sufficient time there you’ll start to feel the same hint of the mundane you felt before." This made me stop and remind myself of all the great things about Chicago winter: Board game nights, trivia nights, the novelty of snow storms (e.g. “Snowmaggedon” in 2010), music concerts, ski trips and St. Patty’s Day,


I love that the horrible winters don’t stop all the “crazy” athletes from getting out there and working out, whether it be running, biking, or even swimming in the freezing lake. And if don’t want to work out, you don’t have to. There’s the perfect excuse of needing an extra layer for winter, and you’re bundled up like a Michelin Man every day anyway, so noone can tell if you’ve packed on the pounds :) This city is set up for the cold, with the public transport system usually unphased and all buildings well heated. As long as you have a decent snow jacket, snow boots and a good group of friends, Chicago winter isn't too bad.



Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in USA Tagged winter cold Comments (0)

Sweet Home Chicago

My Love Affair with a Beautiful City

sunny -17 °C

My Favourite View of Chicago

I never thought about starting a travel blog until my recent trip to Peru. I wish I had started blogging once I started traveling, but guess better late than never! I always tend to wordsmith and be too verbose when writing, so my challenge is be to be concise...

I guess it's best to start with where I am now - Chicago. I can't describe Chicago in a simple blog entry ... even after calling Chicago home the last few years, I still feel like there's so much more I could get to know about this wonderful city. All I can say is that despite suffering from homesickness and winter blues for a lot of the time that I've been here, I love this city and I have made it my home. During the fall last year, I wrote a list to help remind me during the unbearable January/February winter months of why I love this city:

- Lake front for running, biking, swimming, beach-going, picnicking
- My triathlon group and training
- Public transport system that allows me to not need a car
- Great offering of concerts
- Summer!!
- Snow, bright sunshine on a freezing cold day, White Christmas
- Easy access to travel
- Cost of living that enables me to live alone in a nice neighbourhood

Next Sunday will mark my three year anniversary with Chicago. This milestone brings me to stop and reflect on my time here. Looking back, my decision to come to Chicago was more a push to leave Melbourne, rather than a pull to go to Chicago. I was stuck in rut and had a couple unhealthy relationships that I needed time away from. I craved independence and needed to find something to be passionate about. Being so far away from home allowed me an excuse to take a time-out from "real" life expectations. Being able to "start fresh" in Chicago without existing boundaries and expectations, I have been able to stop and get to know myself. I discovered what I want in my life, what makes me happy, what I am passionate about. I've been completely selfish the past three years, and I don't feel guilty about it. Cheesy and cliche, huh?

Because of these reasons (and many others) of why I love Chicago, it was very hard to finally decide on a date to leave my lovely city. This week I had an "official" meeting with my manager, to get the ball rolling on transferring back to Australia. We're talking about something that's not happening for another 6 months or so, which seems a bit silly cos it sounds forever away, but I feel in a way I need the time to mentally prepare to leave. If you haven't figured by now, I'm a bit sentimental. For a while now, I've been discussing my ideas with my friends, but the work meeting has made them feel real and tangible.

It is this feeling of setting my ideas in motion and making plans to reach my goals that has inspired me to start this blog. They are by no means grand plans or anything crazy, but they are pretty significant and kinda scary to me. I'm hoping that by blogging and thinking that someone is reading, it will keep me accountable, and more importantly, prevent me from chickening out! So here it goes...

Goals for 2013:
- End of August/Early September: Finish work in Chicago
- Early September: Take ~2 month sabbatical and travel around North and South America
- November: Move to Melbourne (hopefully with a job lined up)

I know this is a travel blog and I'm not really writing about travel right now... but I think the process behind planning a big trip/moving countries kinda counts, right?

Until next time,

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Inca Trail | Day 2 | “The Challenge”

sunny 24 °C

Maximum Altitude: 4,200 m/13,776 ft
Minimum Altitude: 3,000 m/9,840 ft
Distance Travelled: Approx. 16 km
Approximate Walking Time: 7-8 hours / Ascent up: 900 m

Starting at Ayapata, ending at Chakicocha
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

Day 2 - The biggest climb of the trek
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

Day 2 we were woken up by our porters with coca tea in bed at 6am – lovely. After brekky we met our porters. We formed a circle and introduced ourselves with names and where we're from, and going around the circle and shaking hands. (On a side note, I had to stop and consider which country to say I was from – Australia or Chicago? It felt weird but good to naturally consider Chicago - my second home). It sounds like a corny exercise, but it was really, really nice. The team was 15 men in total - 12 porters, Head Porter, Chef and Assistant Chef.

Our group of chasquis (porters) and chefs

After a slip, slop, slap, we were off again. The first half of the day was all uphill – a 900 m ascent. Our guides explained to us that we’d be going through several different ecosystems. It was cool to see and experience the distinct differences. At the start of the day, the environment around us was cooler, with more a rainforest-type feel. Then we moved to more dry climates, with more sunshine and dry plants.

A rainforest-y part of the Inca Trail

The whole time along the trail there would be shouts of “Chaskis!!” (Porters!!) and everyone would move to the mountain side to allow the porters to speed past us with their massive packs. Still baffled at how they do it. I don't think you could be a porter and have a fear of heights!

Dead Woman’s Pass

When I was planning the trip, my friend who’d done the Inca Trail had warned me about the challenges of Dead Woman’s Pass. I had no idea what to expect, but when I saw it, I knew we had reached it. It looked like a never-ending uphill, with no shade, just sun beating down on you. After Aldo and Danny told us we had reached Dead Woman’s Pass, we continued, all silent except for our panting; sighing when we’d turn a corner and saw more uphill. It was nice to go at my own pace, and I felt the competitive side in me keep me going. I was not going to be beaten by this hill! :) Every time I turned around and saw how far I’d gone, I felt like I was on top of the world.

The start of Dead Woman's Pass

Periodically on Dead Woman's Pass, porters would run past with ease, carrying their big loads and being light on their feet. I also watched Nick with his full backpack breezing up the hill. I was very glad that I had opted out of that challenge and had the porters carry my stuff ;)

For the last part of Dead Woman’s Pass, I walked with Becca. She asked me if I found this part of the trek harder than the marathon. I can’t remember what I said at the time, but looking back, it wasn’t. But, the feelings were similar to the feelings at mile 21 - you’ve come so far, and you feel like you’re close, but you can’t see the finish line. Also, for me, the sense of achievement after conquering Dead Woman’s Pass was a sliver of the feelings at the marathon finish line. Feeling adrenalin from the phenomenal view, and feeling as high as the sky being at the same level as the clouds.

View from Dead Woman's Pass

It wasn’t over after Dead Woman’s Pass. After a quick break and some pictures, we started going downhill. This was a whole other experience that my knees did not appreciate. When running, I find it harder running downhill than uphill because it feels like the impact is harder on the knees - it was the same for me when hiking (sounding like an old lady now!). I was really glad I opted for the trekking poles that helped me balance and took a teeny bit of the weight off.

Doesn't look like it, but the start of a steep downhill climb

We stopped for lunch before starting another ascent to the ruins at Runcuracay. These ruins were small, but it’s cool to know that you can only visit them if you trek the Inca trail. The view from the ruins made you feel really secluded and hidden. The guides said it might have been used as a lookout, which totally made sense.

Ruins at Runcuracay

After Runcuracay, we did another descent to make our way to the ruins at Sayacmarca. Before heading off, Aldo and Danny told us about a sacred stop we'd pass along the way. I can't find any details on the origin, but I think the explanation was that one should bring a stone from the valley to leave at this point and make a wish because the Inca Trail was a sacred pilgrimage for the ancient Inca. We all brought a stone and made a wish.

Inca wishing rocks

After making our wishes and arriving at Sayacmarca, I was just plain tired, and when I’m tired I get a tad bit grumpy. It had also been a day and a half of being with people all the time, and I was beginning to crave some alone time. Unfortunately, to welcome my tired and grumpy self was massively steep and narrow staircase to get to the ruins. Wooh!


From the Sayacmarca ruins, I could see across the valley, getting a great view of Dead Woman’s pass and the massive mountain that we had just climbed. Wow. At this moment, I thought, what a wonderful world we live in and how lucky am I to be physically fit enough able to experience it. It was re-energizing. (Yeah, I'm cheesy).

The view of the mountain we had climbed to get to Sayacmarca

Our second campsite wasn’t far from Sayacmarca. I decided to take it slow, stopping to take photos and enjoyed a nice chat to Katrina. When we arrived, we were welcomed with more beautiful views of the Andes. I felt that where our tents were set up, was engulfed by mountains and clouds - again I felt like we were in the sky. No matter how many photos I took, I couldn't capture that feeling. More delicious food and drink, and another early night to bed. Only our second night and already we had gotten used to the 7:30/8pm bed time. Tomorrow would be a “sleep in”, with a wake-up call of 7am.

View of our second campsite

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains sky hiking peru trekking camping inca_trail Comments (0)

Inca Trail | Day 1 | “Acclimatizing”

sunny 20 °C

Maximum Altitude: 3,300 m/10,824 ft
Minimum Altitude: 2,680 m/8,790 ft
Distance Travelled: Approx. 12 km
Approximate Walking Time: 6-7 hours / Ascent up: 620 m

Starting in Cusco, ending at Ayapata
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

The night before the first day of the trek, I didn’t sleep much. I stayed up to pack my things, trying to keep it within the 9kg limit that the porters would carry. I’d originally booked for a 6kg limit, but after realizing the sleeping bag and mat rented from the company alone weighed 4kg, I had to increase. There were extra camera batteries to bring, as there would be no electricity along the trek, except for my final night in Aguas Calientes. For the entire Peru trip I had limited what I brought, so there were no temptations to over-pack. This was my first big trekking and camping trip, so the nerves and excitement made it hard to sleep.


The first day of our trek was an early one, with the bus picking us all up around 5am. In the hotel lobby, there was a couple who I remembered from the briefing night who were packing and weighing their packs. They were busy with their pack arranging, and I'm not a sociable morning person, so we hopped straight on the bus without introductions. After about 30 mins of driving and picking up others, we arrived at a small shop where we had breakfast and an opportunity to buy coca leaves (to help with the altitude sickness), beanies/gloves, and other forgotten items. We met our second tour guide, Aldo. It didn’t seem like Aldo or Danny were going to do introductions, so we took this first chance to introduce to ourselves. The couple from my hotel were Katrina and Shenny from California. There were 6 Aussie girls -Lauren, Rachana, Shan, Emily, Rebecca and Tamsin. I learnt that they studied at Monash University where I went, and lived in the Eastern suburbs near where I used to live – small world! Angela and Jim were a couple from Colorado who had very calm and chilled personalities that I really enjoyed being around. Nick, from London, who coincidentally worked for the same company as me - super small world. And finally, Sabrina, the Brazilian with a strong and fun personality that I felt matched her current city, New York.


We hopped back on the bus after a very simple brekky, and for about an hour we were on the bumpy and windy road up to the first check-in point - Kilometer 82. We had to show our passports and trekking permits before entering. Here we met our porters who very efficiently took our duffel bags and went off on their way. It was amazing to see how much they could carry! The maximum a porter can carry on the Inca Trail was limited to 20kg. Seeing the porters and the massive packs they carried was jaw-dropping, but to think there used to be no limit and they would carry more, was mind blowing. These tiny men with unstable footwear were definitely inspiring.


During our trek, we heard many stories about the life of a porter. Some saddening - where porters are paid only 40 soles for the whole trek (~ US$10), but they do it because they need the extra income as their farming income is not enough. Some were more heart-warming - where we heard about a porter who was in his sixties but still doing the job because he loved the scenery and the “atmosphere”. Or where a porter is paid so well they do it for a few years, save up money to buy a car and become a taxi driver. It reminded me that it is extremely important that when I travel, particularly to developing countries, that I need to do it with ethical companies. Despite the hard work required, whenever porters would pass us on the trail, it would usually be with a nod and a smile. I need to remember them and their attitudes next time I’m struggling on a rough run.

So we began the start of trek – Day 1 is supposedly the “easy” day. After taking the obligatory picture with the sign of the Inca trail, we were off on our way. It was approximately 10am and within an hour it was so hot, most of us shed down to our lowest layer. Who would have thought there would be a day that I would be thankful for zip off cargo pants? Actually, who would have thought I’d ever BUY zip off cargo pants after year 9 camp?!. The slower pace was a great opportunity to talk and get to know others in the group. I chatted to the Aussie girls and learnt about their amazing round the world trips - the rite of passage for Aussie uni graduates. I felt that travel bug inside of me get inspired (and jealous!) by their itineraries.

Llactapata, a.k.a. Terrace Town

Day 1 was hard because most of the group were still adjusting to the altitude. Afterall, this part of the trek was called “acclimatizing” according to SAS Travel. I thought I had adjusted to the altitude pretty well after my three days in Cusco, but I was still getting pretty puffed. How could months of marathon training not help me with a 12km / 7.5 mi walk?! I chose to blame the altitude and heat rather my level of fitness and lack of hiking/trekking training ;) It’s sad to say, but I also took a while to adjust to the simple fact of being outside for so long. It’s depressing, but I felt like I was just let back outside after being cooped up in a cage (slash office). It was really nice.

We stopped for lunch and it was the first time (of many) that we were amazed by how luxurious our porters made our dining experience. There was a tent which picnic tables and chairs, and a massive amount of delicious, hot food. They gave us lemonade, which tasted delicious after the hiking, and provided little buckets to wash our hands. How did they carry it all up, set everything up AND cook, all while getting there FASTER than we trekked?! Our minds were blown. I would have been happy with a Vegemite sandwich.

Lunch on Day 1

We were able to set down our day packs (our wonderful porters would keep an eye on them) and began to furiously reapply sunscreen and insect repellant. After lunch, I walked with Nick. I was so caught up talking...well, let’s be honest, whinging about work, that it wasn’t until we stopped that I realized I was walking at a pace much faster than normal. Probably not the best idea keeping up with a 6ft man on the first day of the trek. Once we got to the campsite, we were all exhausted and just wanted to crash. Thankfully, we were welcomed with “afternoon tea” – hot drinks and popcorn. After 6 hours of hiking, it was the most delicious popcorn I’ve ever tasted. Aldo and Danny told us that we were a “fast” group, having gotten to the site an hour earlier than planned. We needed to slow down – no one objected to that feedback! We enjoyed a delicious dinner and not long after, we all crashed.

Our first campsite, at Ayapata

Day 1 completed!
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in Peru Tagged hiking trekking machu_picchu camping inca_trail Comments (0)

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