Let’s paint a picture.
I’m sitting on the floor, working from our coffee table. There are tiny Myanmar men in our storage room inside our apartment. What they’re doing exactly, I have no clue. I can hear tape being pulled and the rattling from their ladder. The ceiling is falling down because the air con is leaking. At least in that room, when I hear creaking and cracking, I know it’s not ghosts- just the ceiling literally falling apart. (It's widely accepted that Myanmar is full of ghosts.)
The city view from our balcony is slowly disappearing, as the monsoon season drags itself over our building. A message dings to tell me my delivery is on its way, “But they have traffice jam.”
This is Myanmar.
We live in Yangon, Myanmar. Sometimes I say that aloud, and it makes me laugh. We actually live here! It’s bananas.
According to our landlord, we were the fourth set of people to move into our building. That which is new is definitely not without problems here. It more signifies being a guinea pig. As the apartment units are individually owned, workers arrive as the units are rented out. Sometimes the noises I hear, from above and around us, genuinely sound like the pyramids are being built. That, or someone is playing marbles. Unidentifiable noises are a constant companion.
Note: David mentioned to me that our home is the most peaceful place in Yangon.
Since we have moved to Myanmar, I have grown extremely comfortable with having multiple strangers running-around inside our home. On our officially moving day, I counted 16. However, they are nearly always adorable, tiny people. Sometimes they are very stinky, and I follow them around with incense. Because I’m especially foreign, I figure they have no idea what I’d normally be doing.
Three additional people have walked through the front door, followed by the tropical humidity. The door was open for possibly two minutes, and the tile feels tacky.
Oh, I do have other things to paint today.
Let’s paint a picture.
Godspeed to all tourists who wander into the Medina of Marrakech.
In most North African cities you will find a Medina quarter. They are known for their high walls, and winding and narrow passageways. These tight spaces forcibly turn the Medina into a pedestrian zone. Almost. You may not be able to extend both arms without touching a wall, yet many streets are still occupied by donkey carts, toy-sized trucks, and other imminent dangers to unwary extremities. A Medina is also a personal nightmare for the directionally inept. Some were even constructed with confusion in mind, planned as deterrents for invaders.
One can imagine why this information is not immediately presented in your travel guide. But, for all the things you can find there… the Medina presents experiences well worth wandering for.
We simply didn't have the time to join the exasperated tourists, who grieved over their city maps. We learned our routes and quickly became preoccupied with the overwhelming stimulation of the Medina.
Gorgeous rugs covered every surface imaginable. Traditional lamps in all shades of brass, gold, and silver were seen high and low. The fragrances of spice shops wafted through the streets. Fresh mint and vegetables for sale were laid on bed sheets along on the ground. And, rows upon rows of brilliantly colored babouche slippers caught my attention.
Also begging for our attention was every hawker in the vicinity.
Marrakech may be best known for their souks- a collection of markets, shops, and small workshops of various craftspeople. In fact, the Medina in Marrakech has the most expansive traditional Berber marketplace in Morocco. And, there is no doubt you will be harassed and hounded.
Stepping into a stall is a dangerous move. It is no simple task to walk in, and walk out with the same amount of dirham in your pocket. Yet, sometimes you also leave with a worthwhile memory.
There was an especially convincing man peddling herbs, homeopathic remedies, and other jars of curiosities. He boasted that his eucalyptus smelling-salts would cure snoring. Then, he demonstrated. He scooped a few salts into a small dingy cloth and twisted the fabric around them, creating a compact bundle. He proceeded to press down one of David’s nostrils with his finger, and shoved the small sachet into David’s other nostril. “NOW, breathe deeply!”
I felt a wide smile spilling over my face.
To fully prove the effectiveness, I got the same treatment.
Beyond the covered souks, more sensory experiences awaited us. Most especially in the main square, Jemaa El Fna. A place that transforms every day and night- where depending on the hour, you can find storytellers, snakes, human teeth, or an amazing variety of the dishes and delights of Moroccan cuisine.
A mountainous country, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, home to the Berber people, the Sahara desert, and mint tea. This would be my first trip to Africa. Specifically, the Kingdom of Morocco.
North Africa has always captured my attention. Since I was a child, nothing has been more fascinating than ancient Egypt. Then, I discovered babouches- traditional Moroccan slippers. If slippers igniting my desire to visit a country isn’t bad enough, I won’t explain my desire to see goats climbing trees.
As luck would have it, David surprised me with a trip to Marrakech as an early birthday gift.
It was late January, but we stepped outside of the airport to find a brightly shining sun. We were elated to escape the winter weather of our Swiss home. There was still a briskness to the air, but our heavy coats were taking a break.
Our hotel arranged a taxi to meet us at the airport- an amiable driver and a jalopy of a Mercedes. We weren’t convinced it was an actual Mercedes, or that the car would remain in one piece for much longer. The taxi had zero evidence of ever having seatbelts, and I worried the chassis was made of rubber bands. Marrakech was quickly sprinkling hints of an impending adventure.
Despite its other qualities, the car ride provided a great introduction to the city sights. Palms, olive trees, minarets, and desert colors decorated the landscape. It was as if the city was painted with sand and warm spices.
The taxi took us as far as possible, but our accommodations were only accessible by foot. Our driver knew the way, and wasted no time. He kindly snatched up my suitcase and sped down the narrow alleyways- often disappearing from view, making quick turns. I could still hear the clacking of my luggage wheels on the cobbled streets which gave me some solace. After a few minutes of imagining the vanished contents of my suitcase, we arrived at our hotel safe and sound.
By hotel, I mean riad. A riad is a traditional Moroccan home. They’re built around a centralized garden or courtyard, and were intended to house entire families. Thus, the hotel transformation is a perfect fit.
Our room opened directly into the courtyard on the ground floor. It was lovely to open our doors to the sunshine and a blooming orange tree.
After being welcomed with mint tea by the hotel owner, we were ready to take our first stab at the Medina- the extensive old quarter of Marrakech, labyrinth of wonder.
We had already driven two hours away from the Christchurch airport when we found out the unfortunate news. Our airline moved our flight back. An entire day. Our departure was now less than 12 hours away. As you can imagine, our future bookings and travel plans were officially a huge mess. If the airline was a person, I would have been tempted to plot revenge… like dying all their shirts pink, or snipping off all of their pant pockets.
Needless to say, our time was cut short in Kaikoura- a seaside town best known for whale-watching and all manners of sea-life encounters. Luckily, the owners of our charming bed and breakfast (where we were, again, the sole occupants) had excellent advice for our unexpectedly brief visit. The next morning, we took a quick drive in hopes of catching a glimpse of a New Zealand fur seal colony.
We had two chances to see the seals: Directly off of the coastal highway, or across the road by a waterfall down a forest path. The baby seals sometimes played in the later area, so we heard.
You could say serendipity had found us, again. At Ohau Point, there were seals of all sizes bathing in the frothy waves of the South Pacific Ocean.
There was time to spare, so we said, Why, not. We’re here already, and wandered down the forest path. It was simply opposite the point, afterall.
“Unbelieveable!!! You’re in for a real treat!” exclaimed an apparently flabbergasted man who we passed along the way. Hm. I shifted my eyes over to David’s, raising my eyebrows.
However, it didn’t take long for us to start understanding the man’s reactions. First, there were a handful of seal pups in the stream. Hands down, it was the closest we had ever been to such an animal. Then, we saw a seal sitting in the middle of the forest. By himself. Weird. And then, we arrived at the waterfall…
Oh, my goodness. So many seals!
There were more seal pups than I could count, and they were splashing and jumping and playing like truly wild children. We could have very feasibly touched them. However, I imagined my finger as a fish, and decided to keep my hands to myself.
Nearly every New Zealand experience we found was unexpected. We knew a beautiful land awaited, but my! what a trip this turned out to be. It was all a sort of weird and wonderful time.
Thus, we had many kiwi visions dancing in our heads for our journey back… A trek which became a 42-hour calendar day.
It was time to turn right-side-up again.
Driving, driving, driving, and more driving. To fully experience New Zealand, you are obligated to take a serious road trip. At least, it gave us plenty of time to practice driving on the left side. We started to actually turn on the blinker instead of the windshield wipers!
After another stint on the highway, we arrived in our Fiordland hub- Te Anou. It was the off-season, and we had the entire Cosy Kiwi “bed ‘n’ breakfast” to ourselves. We did everything there was to do in town: We saw the scenic short film of Fiordland, Ata Whenua - Shadowlands; We had coffee and another pumpkin pastry in the town’s sole cafe; And, we checked the conditions of Milford Road- the only driving path to Milford Sound.
Luckily, we had exceptional weather for the season and the drive proved to be another highlight. We found numerous forms of terra, fauna, and flora along our way.
Milford Sound is actually incorrectly named, as it is not a sound at all. I will allow you to look up that definition on your own, if you’re curious. Milford Sound is a genuine fjord, formed by glaciers tearing through the earth.
To sum up our experience, Milford Sound was spectacular. We saw dolphins, seals, waterfalls (and rainbows exposed through their mist) amongst the awesomely carved passageways to the Tasman Sea. Words pale in comparison to the physical visions of the fjord.
Afterwards, we had a light trapse through a moss-covered fairy forest. A serendipitous finding that easily sat amidst my most enjoyed New Zealand moments.
To maximise our time, we took a flight up from Queenstown to Christchurch. It was our first zero-security flight experience to our memory. Neither our carry-on luggage, or ourselves were screened or inspected. Unbelievable and honestly confusing.
Upon arrival in Christchurch, we got back in a rental car and drove north to Kaikoura. We anticipated spending two night in the coastal town… Yet, we had no idea of the looming kerfuffle in our very near future.
Wrapping up our adventures in the North Island, we made a quick visit to the Coromandel Peninsula. We saw the Hot Water Beach, where at low tide you can dig yourself a natural hot tub in the sand. We enjoyed scenic views all along the coast, including ones seen from a short hike to Gemstone Bay.
Then, it was off to the South Island!
We had heard especially glowing reviews of the South, and were eager to see it for ourselves.
Our first stop after landing in Christchurch was the small town of Lake Tekapo. Twinkling and glittering reviews might have been most appropriate for this destination. The town is situated within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve- over 1,000,000 acres dedicated to being free of artificial light pollution. Thus, the star-gazing was phenomenal and never to be forgotten. We could plainly see the Milky Way and an unusually brilliant Mars and Saturn.
One night, we drove even deeper into the countryside n persuit of stars, and nearly scared the bugeezums out of ourselves. “Why is there a tiny shed right there? There’s nothing around for miles…” A small, ratty structure stood completely alone in the darkness. A chain, that might have held a bell at one time, swung menacingly above the door. I pretended to be brave enough to inspect the little hut, but decided against it when I was about 5 feet away.
As the night’s sky is my favorite natural wonder, all spookiness endured was more than worthwhile.
There was the sky, then there was the inland sea. Lake Tekapo is an actual body of water, for which the town is named. And, it was our first demonstration of how glacier lakes exceeded our expectations.
The lake was big, beautiful, and blue. We were nearly blown away. I mean this literally, as we viewed the lake from atop Mt. John where the wind was unbelievably strong. It was the type of icy wind that makes your nose run profusely. But also the type to be kind enough to blow so forcefully that it acts as a tissue- blowing nose-water clean off your face. "Why, thank you, Wind," one might say begrudgingly.
We were advised to also pay a visit to Lake Pukaki, another glacier lake. Perhaps it was the right day, time, and temperature, but Lake Pukaki was perfectly incredible. It was a shade of blue water that we had never seen before. Like a cocktail of cool turquoise, aquamarine, and frothy seafoam.
It was truly a day of bewilderment. In a stone’s throw, we left the azure lakes and hazy blue mountains to find an utterly new landscape. As if we had driven directly into a wormhole, and popped out in another land. Yet, we simply were transversing the Lindis Pass- a valley covered in New Zealand’s iconic tussocks, which made the mountains look as if they were made from camels’ backs rather than of earth.
Every day, another place, unplanned, amazed, in the Land of the Kiwis.
For those with a child’s sense of wonder as well as their sense of humor, Rotarua is a blast. If we hadn’t seen enough evidence that the earth’s interior was hot and unpredictable, we certainly were about to.
In the "Sulfur City," a simple crack in the pavement could quickly resemble the nostril of a fire-breathing dragon. The city park particularly smelled of egg and its landscaping was designed around pools of boiling mud. There was definitely something comical in the air, between the plopping and blooping mud bubbles and the general idea that this was a small paradise for the gassy.
However, the real highlight of Rotarua was Te Puia, the Mäori cultural center just at the edge of town. The Mäori people have lived within the Te Puia grounds for nearly 700 years, and now dedicate the site to preserving and sharing their history and culture. Within Te Puia, is the Te Whakarewarewa Valley- home of an astonishing amount of geothermal activity. Cracks in the earth’s crust called fumaroles, mudpots, hot springs, geysers… Visions of dinosaurs coming to extinction in boiling muddy pits floated through my imagination. The most tremendous natural fountain the park boasted was the Pohutu geyer, which gushes 100 feet (30 meters) into the air throughout the day.
And, for the ultimate cherry on top- they had a REAL, live kiwi bird exhibit! It was like stumbling into a dark room (as kiwis are typically timid and nocturnal birds) to find a thing of dreams come to life. To be quite honest, I never thought of how big a kiwi bird actually was. Perhaps I was completely out of touch with the Avialae world, but I imagine a feathered ball the size of a grapefruit. When in fact, they are comparable to the size of a healthy chicken! It was one of my most surreal experiences. A kiwi bird. And, it looks so.. so strange. It wasn’t exactly helping its odd appearance by fiendishly digging through the turf with its long beak like one of its most valued earrings just fell out.
But, what a wild and wondrous place New Zealand was turning out to be… Even amongst the stinkiest parts. Fittingly, the Mäori called their country by a dreamy sort of name- Aotearoa, or “Land of the Long White Cloud.”
A good morning in New Zealand begins with a flat white.
We found ourselves longing for iced coffee or tea on balmy Fijian mornings. But, it was an entirely different story in New Zealand. One that challenged our love for the tropical heat. On a chilly morning, with no pressing agenda, sitting together in a rustic cafe, drinking a good, hot coffee was idyllic charm for the books.
In layman’s terms, a flat white is Australia and New Zealand’s version of coffee and milk. Specifically, steamed whole milk over a double shot of espresso. Like a cappuccino, yet less foamy and with a typically higher coffee content. Understanding the nuances of milk-with-coffee styles from around the world can be exhausting. The only real thing one needs to know, is that a flat white is unquestionably yummy.
To our delight, we found most of our tastiest meals in the morning. Time after time, we discovered absolutely adorable and delicious cafes across the country. Sweet and savory scones were popular in cafes. The savory versions being slightly new for us, but extremely well-received. With a bit of New Zealand’s best butter (from all those fancy-free cows) we nibbled our way into breakfast bliss.
In Rotarua, we found an exceptional spot, Be Rude Not to Cafe. David ordered quinoa and berry porridge, which turned out to be a pleasant and unusual dish that resembled a purplish Cream of Wheat. Meanwhile, I had some of the world’s most delicious granola. Oh, to revel in joyous morning munching!
No one stopped us from visiting cafes throughout the day, either. An afternoon flat white was certainly taken advantage of. It also felt a teensy-bit less irresponsible to eat sweets in the afternoon, versus during the “most important meal of the day.” Thanks to our unbridled snacking, we luckily stumbled upon one of New Zealand’s most famed treats: the Afghan biscuit. It’s a soft chocolate cookie (by U.S. terminology) made with corn flakes, and topped with a dollop of chocolate icing and a walnut halve. Supposedly no one knows the origin of its name... But, it is a Kiwi favorite and we understood why.
Concerning our favorites, we truly visited New Zealand at the opportune time. Late autumn translated to pumpkin and gourds galore- some of my most loved foods.
Within our calendar year, we would endure winter, spring, two summers, two autumns, and return to winter, again… All due to where we were on the globe. As disorienting as it may be, the littlest things can make it a priceless experience. Like eating your favorite seasonal produce twice in one year. And, sharing a good coffee over a cold autumn morning with your most special someone.
Particularly in the North Island, we saw numerous pastoral scenes. There were a lot of cows, and a lot of sheep. As we were driving along noting this, David exclaimed, “Those sheep look different.”
I paused for a brief moment.
Because those are llamas.
There were many unexpectedly livestock sightings. Like the llamas. We also saw horses, goats, deer, and donkeys. Then, there was the deserted chicken on the side of the road. Why did it cross? To escape from the mental institution, it seemed.
However, on this particular day we were headed to a region that was first inhabited by flocks of sheep. Today, it is known as Hobbiton- the filming location of the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world, Middle-earth.
Plenty of fantasy trivia was to be learned from our tour guide. Ours was a sassy young man, who had a weakness for cheesy punch lines. The staff uniform included a red and white gingham oxford, which our guide tucked into fairly tight shorts. He had unusually dark circles under his eyes. David and I wondered what a Hobbiton tour guide might do by night. And, especially this one...
Thus, our tour began on its informational foot.
When Peter Jackson went on an aerial exploration to find the perfect locations to film The Lord of The Rings, he discovered the Alexander Farm. The farmers still reside on the 1250 acre farmland, alongside their mob of 13,000 sheep. After being rebuilt in 2011 for The Hobbit films, the Shire has now become a permanent installation.
The hobbit holes, complete with their charming round doors and centrally located doorknobs, looked much more like non-fiction. If you told a child this is where real hobbits live, they would undoubtedly believe you and be heartily made fun of later in life.
The grounds and gardens were so well-tended that the landscaping looked exactly like it wasn't landscaped, at all. With the addition of everything being in miniature form, it was one of the most picturesque sights I ever beheld. Only the most cantankerous of persons could keep themselves from enjoying such a delightful place.
They also reconstructed The Green Dragon Inn specifically for Hobbiton visitors. Locally-brewed ale, cider, or ginger beer was available. Our tour guide suggested the cider, which I tried, and David partook of the ginger beer. Both were quite tasty.
The entire experience felt uber touristy and undeniably fun. It gave me reason to wonder what life would be like if all of our towns and cities resembled storybook lands. For starters, I doubt we’d take ourselves so seriously. While dreaming of having a round door of our own, we carried on with our journey. Our fellowship of two, venturing off to find what other fanciful sights New Zealand would offer.
The landscape in New Zealand was incredibly varied. In a single afternoon, we could drive through green pastures and rolling hills, expansive tussock grasslands, and forests befitting the Jurassic period. We couldn’t have imagined that this would only be a sampling of all the scenery New Zealand would show us.
Our temporary base was near the National Park. Most visitor there came for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most spectacular tramping-tracks, also known as the filming site of Mordor. Due to the freezing weather and my wariness towards the serious hike, we declined the 19.5 kilometer/12 mile trek.
After breezing through our travel guide for alternative, near-by attractions, something quickly caught my eye- Craters of the Moon. I nearly skipped the description, due to the irresistible name. If you were to ask David or myself if we’d go to outer space, being aware of all its hazards, we would always say yes. This being said, we were on our way to the Moon.
We arrived at the scenic reserve to find a stretch of land smoking like a city rooftop-view in winter. Scores of geothermal vents were exhaling puffs of steam, as pockets of boiling mud spotted the soil. Strolling along the protective wooden walkway, minding the danger signs for "unstable thermal areas," we passed through intermittent steambaths and clouds lightly perfumed by sulfur.
Our amusement level peaked even higher once we found the giant craters. The largest was a huge scoop of earth brimming with gurgling and bubbling puddles of mud, swirls of hissing steam, and curious colors. Another crater was a cauldron brewing a thick, muddy potion. The sights were unbelieveable. I felt like a wizard was surely nearby.
Whether we felt like we were in a fantastical land of magic, on the moon, or some other planet, New Zealand’s sights were impressive and surprising. And, what was more unbelievable, was that this was simply the beginning.