• Stories from New Zealand: Part III

    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.

  • Stories from New Zealand: Part II

    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.

  • Stories from New Zealand: Part I

    We awoke in New Zealand to our first Autumn morning of the year, in the month of April.  It was crisp and sunny weather. A perfect day to spend underground. 
    We were scheduled for a rafting tour in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, an adventure that would include subterranean tubing, climbing, clambering, and leaping.

    Once we arrived at the site, the first step was to put on our wetsuits. Neoprene overalls, jacket, and booties. Each piece was damp from previous use, and extremely cold. My jacket seemed to have been last worn by a small human with powerful body odour. I was increasingly grateful for the one-piece swimsuit I wore, minimizing the amount of direct skin-to-suit contact. The moist booties were bad enough, believe me. But, they had to be snuggly laced into rubber boots. It was all very squishy and unsettling.

    Due to my facial expressions and body language that drew the attention of our guides, I got an extra accessory for my caving costume. A kidney warmer! That’s not what they called it, but it was an insulated belt that wrapped around your kidneys to help maintain a safe body temperature. It looked like a strange combination of one giant ankle weight and a wrestling championship belt.

    Before we went underground, we practiced for our “waterfall jumps” by leaping off a platform into a river outside. Stand with your back towards the water, hold your tube directly behind your bum, aaaaand JUMP!  Somehow I was selected to provide the leaping demonstration for our group.

    The characters of our crew added additional spice to our experience. There was Summer, our new friend of the day- a sweet Chinese girl who went on the expedition solo. A genuinely terrified Indian woman who made us all a bit nervous. A sprinkling of British and German tourists. Then, a jovial Japanese man whose frequent thumbs-up made everything better. 

    Inside the cave, we found the trekking to be challenging enough to feel exciting. The cave boasted slippery rocks and unexpected holes under the rushing water. We climbed with our inner tubes over one shoulder, but still have plenty of time sitting inside them.

    Once we had been afloat, our guides told us to extinguish our helmet lights. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, as tiny pin-prick dots of greenish-blue light came into vision. It was a miniature galaxy installed across the limestone architecture. In reality, the starlight was bioluminescent glowworms.

    To my understanding, the glowworms are the larvae of a type of fungus gnat. They create sticky, illuminated threads of silk which they use as snares. These caught insects as well as the attention of our own eyes.

    Later on, one of our guides produced a jar of goodies. “Do you want a fishie?” he asked, as I noticed everyone munching on something.
    Yeah, I do! Cave snack! It was a little chocolate fish-shaped treat. Upon my first nibble, I discovered a strawberry marshmallow interior. I decided it tasted yucky, so I just used the fishie as an oar for the remainder of the float.

    After being sixty-five meters underground, the sunshine returned at the mouth of the cave.

    The experience seemed to have whett David’s appetite for more adventurous exploits, but we were both happy to find a warm snack at the end of the tour. Until later notice, New Zealand’s spectacular subterranean wonders and tomato soup would suffice.

  • Stories from New Zealand: The Prologue

    After a day of outrageous complications that skirted between comedy and madness, we finally made it to New Zealand. From the Auckland airport, we immediately began our North Island tour. This also meant we were driving on the left side of the road for the very first time. Turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinker would be commonplace over the next two weeks.

    We also changed seasons. While it was warm and sunny in Fiji, it was nearing wintertime in New Zealand. In the land where there are more cows than people, we would feel a bit upside-down. However, not for the reasons you might think. We were “at the end of the world,” as a local described. Like doing down the rabbit hole, only to climb out of a glowworm cave.

    New Zealand would offer us perfectly gorgeous, incredibly varied terrain, with a touch of genuine quirkiness just to keep us on our toes.

  • Stories from Fiji: The Departure

    Even before we left the island, I could imagine the gentle pangs of Fiji-homesickness. It seemed that Fiji didn’t want us to leave, either. We disembarked the tiny plane with approximately 50 minutes to transfer in Nadi. We had already checked-in to our final destination. Yet, somehow, the airline gave our seats away, and we were genuinely left to our own devices. It was a scenario where you rather pop a blood vessel in your brain or practice meditation. David dealt with the airline, while I sent optimistic wishes into the aether and tried to look as nice as possible, in hopes that someone would want to help us. Exactly two seats opened on a different airline, leaving a few hours after our anticipated departure time!

    It was a bittersweet farewell, but we were rolling right into another exciting adventure…
    New Zealand.

  • Stories from Fiji: Part VI

    As gems fill a treasure chest, fish flourish in Fiji's waters. However, if you are familiar with tales of treasure, you know adversities always precede your map's marked "X."

    Snorkeling makes me feel and act awkwardly. Breathing through my mouth, fogging up my goggles, chewing on a plastic tube, and gulping unexpected bursts of briny water. Anything that involves gear typically makes me into a mess.

    As he is in many things, David is my complete opposite. He is reasonable and delightful in these scenarios. But, I do my best to act as if the glass is half full, even if it is filled with salt water.

    Fiji's “Hidden Paradise,” as Savusavu is known, was indeed an aquatic treasure trove. Buried under deep waters near a reef's drop-off, or in more shallow depths, there was much to be seen. If prisms produced fish instead of tiny rainbows, it would be very similar to the sights of Fiji's reefs. All amidst multicolored coral and sponges. We even saw a sting ray.

    Though my snorkeling struggles were clearly more laughable than dire, Fortune still favors the bold.

  • Stories from Fiji: Part V

    Fiji was turning out to be quite the tropical Wonderland. Flora resembled swirly, old fashioned candy sticks and ribbon candy. The lollipop plant and frangipani flowers might as well have started talking.
    Never in my life have I seen so many hermit crabs. Or, more gigantic geckos. On my first sighting, I actually thought the gecko in question was an oversized figurine mounted on the wall. Then, it turned its head. And, looked straight into my eyeballs. Eels were another creature that we saw plenty of, and dually gave me the heebie-jeebies. Among the more charming animals were the colorful crabs, the brilliantly blue Kingfisher, and the butterflies which climbed on our fingers. 

    It is true that “I see what I eat” is not the same as “I eat what I see.” Nevertheless, we nibbled nearly every tasty thing we saw.  

    In Savusavu town, we found homemade ice cream in flavors like honey ginger chai, cashew praline, and cinnamon. We even tempted ourselves with the dessert special, the cleverly-named Banana Kayak. It was absolutely delicious, and we found ourselves teetering on the edge of an ice cream binge.
    However, we used some restraint. Inside the supermarkets, curiosities were on every aisle. One salty snack caught my attention: UFO's. Unusually Flavored Objects. In this case, burger flavored. We found them betwixt chicken and cheese flavored Twisties, and Yumo's- “The Big Snack!”. For a while, I stood and stared at this spectacle. We were also not so accustomed to seeing so much corned mutton.

    Indulgence is an expected characteristic of Travel, however we have learned one thing- you should not ingest everything that seems to say, “Eat me.”

  • Stories from Fiji: Part IV

    Fiji supplied many opportunities to be active, or quite leisurely. As in most aspects of life, we decided it was best to find the medium.

    Since I was on my way to becoming a professional piddler, we signed up for something called a “Salt River Drift.” David made a number of considerations, and told me he thought we should do it. I assumed it meant tubing. But, when we were given life jackets, I looked at David with a very quizzical brow.

    We were driven to the river, told to simply climb on in, and then given a beer. Because of the salt water, we were notably buoyant. 
    Our party was comprised of our guides (toting behind us in a small boat- with the beer), the two of us, and two other international couples. The Japanese couple pounded their beers, while the Canadian couple told us of their recent hunting trip in New Zealand. The wife described the delights of their hunt, “If you see anything you like, you shoot it.”  She was a butcher.

    Outside of our own chatter, it was nearly silent. Flanked by thick jungle and deep shadows, our surroundings were wild in every sense. The scenery would have been easier to comprehend if you told me we were on a ride at Disney World. 

    During our drift, I spied some absolutely enormous seed pods hanging from a tree. One of our guides, who swam unassisted the entire time for exercise, told us it was a mangrove! Just saying the name aloud felt a little magical.

    The river connected to the ocean and ended in a sizeable lake. We climbed onto a floating platform near the lake's center, where we found a 360º view of untouched land. Jungle, mountains, clouds, and streams of late-day sunshine. It was incredible.

    Balance is not always easily found. For this reason, I was grateful it came to us so effortlessly and with such enjoyment. On that day, we had plenty to be thankful for. We were told that barracudas and sharks often swim in the river- a fact I certainly appreciated to learn afterward.

  • Stories from Fiji: Part III

    For David and myself, food is one of the most interesting parts of travel (and life, in general). Eating, talking about eating, thinking about food. It's all great fun. And, it can be so tasty!

    Toasted nuts and fresh fruit arrived on our plates every morning. Including, the best papaya I have ever put in my mouth- an event which changed my opinion on the fruit entirely. We also had the opportunity to enjoy (lots of) particularly yummy banana pancakes.

    But, Fijian cuisine is not well known. You have to ask around to discover what's most traditional or what Fijians eat at home. We encountered typical ingredients like taro root (dalo) and leaf (rourou), white sweet potatoes (kumala), and Walu fish. Tubers, seafood, fruit, and Indian cuisine dominate the menus. There didn't seem to be a great amount of typical Fijian dishes, but we did get to try Kokoda, Fiji’s version of ceviche made with lime juice and coconut cream.

    Concerning beverages, Fiji does have one that is extremely commonplace. It's known throughout the South Pacific, and its name is Kava. It's basically an herbal version of Xanax in beverage form and tastes like pond water. (The murkiness did not help distance itself from this comparison, either.) The drink is made from the kava plant's root which has anesthetic and sedative properties. When asked how kava tasted to us, we just replied, "It's very earthy.

    We did find other local drinks that we enjoyed. Our favorite beer was Vanu Pure Lager. And, it wasn’t my favorite just because it had a picture of a turtle on its label. We also tried Bounty Rum- which was perfectly lovely over ice, or in various island-appropriate cocktails. Then, of course, there is the freshly-hacked-open young coconut to replenish your electrolytes. 

    Before you think that's the end of tasty drinks in Fiji, let me note one more: the water. If I imagined where every drop of water we drank came from, I would have been in a constant state of melted-butter. A tropical rainfall trickling over volcanic rock, seeping deep below the earth's surface into an artesian aquifer... Whew!  Think about that next time you're in savasana

  • Stories from Fiji: Part II

    We first learned two Fijian words:
    Bula and Vinaka. Bula means hello, and vinaka is thank you. The Fijians were unbelievably friendly and remembered our name as soon as we said them. It felt like we were building a little holiday family very quickly. Bula, David! Bula, LeeAnna! Oh, and how they laugh. Between being frequently called by our first names and hearing such charming laughter, it me took no time to be completely won over.

    Now, my understanding of physics is terribly limited, so I couldn’t even begin to make a stab at explaining if time exists. However, I can tell you one thing is very real— Fiji Time. After no longer than 24 hrs on the island, we were holding time like a wet piece of soap. Having every meal whenever and wherever we wanted to, drinking tropical cocktails at any hour, and piddling around like it was our job. Without a television or laptop to keep ourselves endlessly entertained, we reverted to circadian rhythms. The sun set around 6 o’clock every evening, and to my bewilderment, I naturally woke up every morning at sunrise. Tres bizarre. Every rising and setting of the Fijian sun was witnessed.