About Me

My photo
"It is always the simple things that change our lives. And these things never happen when you are looking for them to happen. Life will reveal answers at the pace life wishes to do so. You feel like running, but life is on a stroll. This is how God does things" Donald Miller

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

New Zealand: South Island

South Island


We landed in Christchurch, took our stuff to our homestay, and headed downtown.  Unfortunately, there was no much to see in Christchurch.  A 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch on February 22, 2012, resulting in the death of 185 people and absolutely leveling the downtown area.  As we walked around down, we saw lots of construction as well as lots of building that have been partitioned off and eventually demolished.  There are gravel lots where buildings once stood as far as the eye could see.  It's pretty depressing.  Many people have moved away from this once vibrant city (the second-largest in NZ).   It's crazy to think how much still needs to be rebuilt in the city especially because it's a developed/fairly wealthy country; it makes me think of places like Nepal and Haiti and how tragic natural disasters are in those kinds of place, places that are poor and underdeveloped to begin with. 

We had a great lunch on New Regent Street (a great, quirky street with fun cafes, restaurants, and shops) and then hopped on the Christchurch tram for a tour around the city.  There are 17 stops on the tour, and you can hop on and off anywhere.  It's a great way to see the city and hit the highlights especially if you have limited time.  Throughout the tram tour, we jumped on and off at points of interest including Cathedral Junction, Avon River, Re:START Mall, Gothic-style Arts Centre, the Canterbury Museum. The Re:START mall was particularly interesting as it's a mall constructed from giant containers.  We finished the evening with a really great meal downtown Fiddlesticks which is right off the tram track (super convenient!).  We headed back to our homestay to relax, read, and get some sleep as our train was due to leave quite early the next morning.

Re-store mall.
Memorial for those killed in the earthquake.  Each chair represents a life lost. 
Cardboard Cathedral

Christchruch to Greymouth to Fox Glacier

Early the next morning, we boarded the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch to Greymouth.  It's supposed to be one of the best train experiences in the whole world, and after a 3-hour journey, I don't doubt that claim.  Here is the train's advertisement, "Climb aboard one of the world’s most famous train journeys, between Christchurch and Greymouth. Cross the fertile farmlands of the Canterbury Plains, and enjoy thrilling vistas over deep gorges as you travel alongside the ice-fed Waimakariri River. Traverse the mighty Southern Alps, where spectacular views of the chiseled alpine landscape will take your breath away at every turn."  The scenery was incredible.  It's some of the most beautiful landscape I've ever seen with my own eyes.  You could also listen along on a headset to commentary on important points of interest along the way.  It was really fun and so breathtakingly beautiful.  I'd do it again and again; it was definitely a huge highlight of the entire trip.

We arrived in Greymouth and rented our car.  On a whim, we decided to drive north (which was going the opposite way of where we intended to stay the night) to see the Pancake Rocks.  The Pancake Rocks are a heavily eroded limestone area where the sea bursts through several vertical blowholes during high tides. Together with the 'pancake'-layering of the limestone (created by immense pressure on alternating hard and soft layers of marine creatures and plant sediments).  The rocks were awesome, but the best part was probably the drive to and from Greymouth.  You drive right along the coast, next to the Tasman Sea.  It's what I would imagine driving in California is like, through Malibu, along the Pacific.  It was fantastic.  My mom and I had to switch driving duties because neither of us wanted to drive due to our inclination towards looking out the window.

Pancake Rocks

Driving on the wrong side of the road.  A little scary :) 
Fox Glacier 

We arrived late in the sleepy, tiny town of Fox Glacier.  We opted for Fox Glacier over Franz Josef due to the closer proximity of the glacier to the car park.  With my mom's bad ankle, we couldn't really do heavy duty hiking, so we opted for the shorter trail to the glacier, but were promised it was just as amazing.  We hiked roughly a mile back to Fox Glacier, and both the hike and the sight at the end were well worth the effort.  It is breathtaking.  When you look at the pictures below, I tried to capture the scale of what we were walking through, you can see how tiny the people look in comparison to the surroundings.  I'd never seen a glacier before, so I was mesmerized by it.

After leaving Fox Glacier, we drove through the Westland Tai Poutini National Park.  We stopped a handful of times to walk back to waterfalls and beautiful streams, to see overlooks and walk through mossy-green trails.  The way to see the South Island is really by driving it.  The natural landscape is what makes the island so spectacular.

Wanda.  Pondering big life questions.  

Scary high bridge.  

Lake Wanaka

We arrived in Wanaka, a cute, little artsy town in the southern part of the island, to spend the evening and the next afternoon.  We stayed through AirBNB again at a quirky, cool home stay at the Rippon Winery (click here for link).  Lois had an amazing house.  We sat with her for a long-time in the evening by the fire discussing her life, how she started the winery, her antique collection, and New Zealand culture/history.  The next day we wandered around Wanaka, exploring fun shops, visiting a lavender farm, eating some delicious food, and finally hit the road for our last stop in New Zealand.  On the way we drove through the mountains and encounters even more amazing scenery.  


I love Queenstown.  It's beautiful.  It sits right on a stunning Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by mountains.  While walking to dinner one night, the sun was setting and the lake was perfectly reflecting the mountains, and it just looked fake.  It was actually SO beautiful that it just looked like someone had painted a gorgeous backdrop and stretched it up to the sky.  

On the first day in Queenstown, we took a scenic flight and boat cruise to Milford Sound.  Milford Sound is about 6 hours away by bus or a 45-minute flight.  Although much more expensive, we opted for the flight + scenic cruise package.  The flight was well worth it because we flew over the Fiordland National Park and between some intense mountains.  I say it was incredible, but I actually was so scared the entire time and felt very sick when we arrived (hello, it was an 8 seater plane).  The whole time we were flying, I kept thinking that if we crashed, we die.  Not the greatest thoughts for the flight. Haha :) We arrived in Milford Sound and headed towards the dock to board our cruise.  The cruise was about 2 hours long.  We saw waterfalls, drank fresh glacier water straight from one, saw wildlife, and learned about the history of the area.  After the cruise, we headed back towards the airport to catch our flight back to Queentown.  We returned to Queenstown.  I opted for a nap and some lounging time in the hotel room.  I was reading a fantastic book ("All The Light We Cannot See") and wanted to just relax.  After almost 2 weeks, my legs were tired!  We had an early dinner and came home early for bed since it had been such an early morning. 

The only foolish person who braved the cold and stood under the waterfall.  That's my mom.  

On our last day in Queenstown, we took a tour on the iconic steamship the ESS Earnslaw, which began sailing the same year as the Titanic.  We took a ride across the late to Walter's High Country Sheep Farm where we watched sheep shearing demonstrations, sheep herding with some cool dogs, and had the most fantastic gourmet BBQ lunch.  We ate SO. MUCH. FOOD.  I had BBQ chicken, ribs, lamb, lots of veggies including brussels sprouts which are my favorite.  It was a perfect day to be outdoors and enjoy the crisp, cool New Zealand air.  After lunch, we headed back to town, enjoyed one last diner overlooking the lake, and headed back to the hotel to pack up and get to sleep for our early morning flight back to Sydney. 

Piano by the lake.  

We loved New Zealand.  We saw so much in 2 weeks, but it hardly touched all that I would love to see given unlimited time.  It's a place I hope to get back to one day, to explore & hike & eat & drink more flat white coffees.  Definitely a highlight from my time in the SE Asia region, and I'm so happy I got to experience the trip with my mom.  It's an adventure I will always treasure.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Oh Cambo, I'll miss you so

Things I'll Miss in Cambo...
  • IJM--the work, the people, the mission. 
  • Seeing monks.
  • Stillness time to start my day.  Staff prayer to pray for our work and clients.  It's so, so special.
  • Riding past Independence Monument at night when the lights are sparkling.
  • Lots of things in Tuk Tuks and/or on motos.  Transporting 3 slaughtered hogs but only have a moto? No problem.  Have 17 pieces of furniture but all you can find is a small, Tuk Tuk?  No worries, it'll fit.  Are you carrying a passenger and a huge piece of windshield glass?  Jump on, but just hold the glass windshield above your head while I drive. 
  • Cheap food. Cheap movies.  Cheap drinks.  Cheap spas.  Cheap everything.
  • Grilled bananas from the street carts.
  • Traveling--when will I ever be able to pop over into Thailand for a weekend? 
  • Fresh fruit--by itself, in smoothie form, whatever.  It's ALL good.
  • Specifically, passion fruit.  I'm obsessed.  It's delicious.  I will mourn not having it regularly.  
  • Community--everyone here is semi-transient, so everyone wants community and new friends.  People are willing to go out of their way to be friendly and engage because no one is "home" so we are all forced to do Cambo-life together.
  • Flicks movie theatre--a community movie house where you can lay on mattresses on the floor and stuff your face with food.  It's divine.  It should exist in the US.  SOMEONE MAKE IT EXIST IN THE US.
  • Funny Cambo phrases: "Same, same but different", "See you when you see me"
  • TBT (Taste Budz Tuesday)--a tradition with IJM interns/fellows.  Taste Budz is a fantastic Indian place here in PP.  We order before prayer, arrive at 12:15 and gorge ourselves with incredible Indian food (palak paneer, butter chicken, aloo gobi...yummmm!).
  • The frustration but funny stories that ensue after trying to make changes to your order at a restaurant.  Wait, you want no cheese, dressing on the side, and add black beans?  OVERWHELMING. 
  • The security guard at my gym who is the sweetest, friendliest man.  Our conversation every day...Him: "How are you?!?!" Me: "Fine, and you?" Him: "Fine!  See you tomorrow!!"  That's it, that's all we've ever and always said, but it makes my day better every, single time. 
  • "Cannot Bong"--the response one receives when you ask for something and it cannot be provided or given to you.   Even if it seems like something relatively simple, you are always at-risk to receive the response "Cannot Bong." 
  • People smiling and talking to you while waiting in traffic on your moto. 
  • Women who wear patterns with patterns (e.g. plaid skirt with a floral print top).  Basically, pretty + pretty = pretty.  One can never have too much pretty when it comes to clothing. 
  • Answering your phone at any and all times.  Judge in the middle of a trial?  Yup.  Attending a funeral?  Answer it!
  • Weddings and funeral tents set up on main roads and the ability to drive straight through it on your moto.  And it's appropriate. 
Cambo, you've given me years of stories this year.  You've made me laugh, cry in frustration, and curse like a sailor in traffic, but man oh man, I wouldn't trade this year for nothing. 

New Zealand: North Island

First of all, New Zealand is gorgeous.  It is by-far the most beautiful country I've been to in all my travels.  We spent two weeks in total exploring New Zealand, one week on each island. So let's start with the North Island.


We began our travels on the North Island in Wellington.  Wellington is a great city right on the coast.  If I lived in New Zealand, I would want to live in Wellington.  It wasn't my favorite city, but it's a super chill, cool city that offers bigger city options while feeling small.  It is also the capital of New Zealand.  We arrived late (almost midnight) Monday, April 13, so we went straight to the hotel to get a good night's sleep.  We stayed at the Rydges Hotel.  The hotel was in a great location, had lovely, plush beds and a really helpful staff.  The only con was the breakfast.  It was extremely expensive and not great, in my opinion.  It was a mid-range option and satisfies all our needs while in Wellington.  We spent 2 nights in Wellington, but only one full day exploring the city.  We saw the capital building, also known as the Beehive due to it's unique shape, then headed to old St. Paul's Church.  St. Paul's was built in 1866.  The church has an interesting history with the US and armed forced.  An American flag is displayed inside the church to pay homage to US troops who were stationed in New Zealand.  Every year, the church has a memorial service to honor the fallen US troops on Memorial Day.  We walked through Cuba Street which is a fun street full of stores and great cafes and eateries.  We took the Wellington Cable Car, which has been in service for 110 years, to the lookout point above the city.  It provides a fantastic view of the city and coast.  Lastly, we wandered over the Te Papa Museum which is the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand.  It provides some great exhibits on Maori history (the native people of New Zealand), New Zealand history, and New Zealand's natural world (including a huge preserved giant squid).  It was interesting to learn more about the country, specifically the Maori influence on the New Zealand culture.  I particularly enjoyed watching a Maori haka (or "war cry") dance, which is now traditionally performed before rugby games.  Here is a haka performance; it's seriously awesome and so intense.  If I were playing rugby against a team that did this, I'd be pretty intimidated.  They scream and make crazy faces and stick their tongues out.  Seriously, watch the video! 


St. Paul's

Had to.  #lawnerd

Supreme Court of New Zealand

We finished up our day of exploring with a great dinner at the Ortega Fish Shack.  It's the #1 rating restaurant in Wellington and for good reason.  We had some delicious seafood followed by a coconut panna cotta with lychee sorbet, passionfruit curd and meringue.  Yum!  It has great ambiance and a lovely selection of wine and liquor.  It's a great, sit-down option with local fare.  After eating, my mom headed back to the hotel to rest and I headed to the Welsh Dragon Bar to meet some friends (Dawson, a Marine who was stationed in Phnom Penh for a year and his girlfriend Therese) I had met in Cambodia; after leaving Cambodia, Dawson was stationed in New Zealand.  We enjoyed some local beer and cider and caught up.  We even all matched in plaid which was hilarious.  It was great to end my time in Wellington with some familiar faces and good drinks. 
Team Plaid. 
On Wednesday, April 15, we got up early, met our bus, and headed north towards Rotorua. We opted for the bus because it was (1) cheaper than renting a car, and (2) we both wanted to be able to look at the scenery.  On the way to Rotorua, we passed through Tongariro National Park which features Mount Ngauruhoe (better known as "Mt. Doom" from movie "The Lord of the Rings").  The park itself features stunning and somber scenery.  We also passed through Lake Taupo and the town on its shores.  It was a beautiful little town, and if I ever return to New Zealand, I think I'd love to spend some time there. 


In Rotorua, we experienced our first AirBNB accommodation.  I'd always wanted to try AirBNB, and thought it'd be a great way to get some ideas on what to see since you are staying with a local.  We stayed with an older couple in a little cottage in their backyard.  They were the sweetest hosts in the whole world, even feeding us when we showed up late the first night without having had dinner.  They gave us the rest of their dinner which was some yummy vegetable soup.  If you are ever if Rotorua, I would highly recommend staying with Floss and John in their cute little cottage.  We spent in total 3 nights in Rotorua, exploring the town as well as the surrounding area.

On our first day in Rotorua, we went to one of the famous geo-thermal parks, Waiotapu.  We walked all 3 walking tracks which took us by bubbling mud pools, highlighter-yellow pools, steaming cracks in the ground, and clouds of sulfur.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous for a stroll through the park.  We spend a couple of hours enjoying the sites and the sunshine before heading back into town. 

We headed back into town to town to ride the Rotorua Gondola (a tram) that goes up to a lookout point and provides great views of the town and lake.  Once up there, we decided the Alpine Luge looked pretty fun, so we bought some tickets and raced down the luge track.  It was pretty fun and random.  After leaving the lookout, we headed downtown for some grub.  We lucked into finding an outdoor Thursday night market with lots of fresh seafood and local fare.  We enjoyed some oyster frites, seafood paella (my favorite!), kettle corn and hot chocolate.  There was live music and twinkling lights strung back and forward between the food vendors.  You could tell it was mostly a local crowd which made it extra special.  I love going places and feeling like a local.   
The Friday in Rotorua was possibly one of the best days of the whole trip.  One of the tourist spots I'd been dying to visit while in New Zealand was The Shire, home to Bilbo and Froto Baggins.  I'd heard from fellow travelers and travel bloggers that it was super fun, a must-see for a Lord of the Rings fan.  I love Tolkien, the Hobbit and TLOTR...books and movies alike.  There is just something magical about the adventures the Baggins clan finds themselves in.  The Shire is located about an hours drive from Rotorua, outside of the town of Matamata.  We rented a car and enjoyed the spectacular drive through the country.  The Shire is located on a private-family's farm; this family was approached during a film scouting trip by Director Peter Jackson and crew and agreed to allow production on their land. 
Jackson had the set built and the movie was filmed on the farm.  Borrowing from Wikipedia, following the shooting for the Lord of the Rings, the area was returned to its natural state, but even without the set from the movie, people figured out where the location was and the area became a prime tourist location. Later, The Shire was revisited by Jackson for the Hobbit.  The Hobbit was filmed in the exact same location as previously shown in TLOTR, but unlike the previous set,  Hobbitton (as it is seen today on tours) was constructed out of permanent materials so that it will last for several decades.  The family now operates tours through The Shire daily, and it is estimated that they make around 18 million a year.  Crazy!
My mom had never watched any of the films, but even she enjoyed walking around the set as it's full of cute, little hobbit holes and lush gardens. The inside of the hobbit holes are not decorated, so it's basically just an entrance, but nonetheless, you can still open the door and step inside.  The tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn where tourist can enjoy 1 of 3 local brews made exclusively for Hobbiton, a ginger beer, cider, and ale.  The cider was delicious!     

The most famous Hobbit hole of all :)

Green Dragon Inn

After leaving Hobbiton, we headed back to Rotorua, stopping a few times along the way.  We stopped in Tirau for some antique shopping and lunch.  Tirau has some weird shaped building including their I-Site (tourist) center which is shaped like a dog.  Very random, but a fun, quirky little town nonetheless.  After Tirau, we stopped at a hiking trail (the Te Waihou Walkway) and walked back to the beautiful, clear waters of the Blue Spring.  It's basically a beautiful stream with crystal clear water and lush plants on the bottom.  It's bright blue and green.  The pictures honestly don't do it justice.  The walk was beautiful as was the reward at the end.  I highly recommend making this short stop if you are coming back heading back to Rotorua. 

Blue Spring

After our hike, we hightailed it back to Rotorua to make our spa appointment at the world-famous Polynesia Spa.  It was a big of a splurge, but well worth the money.  It was voted as one of the 10 top day spas in the whole world.  Due to the geothermal activity in the area, the spa has mineral pools to soak in (that overlook the lake, swoon) that provide a variety of health benefits.  For years, people have been traveling to Rotorua to enjoy the benefits of these natural springs.    The alkaline pool Whangapipiro (later re-named Rachel Spring) and acidic pool Te Pupunitanga (later called the Priest Spring) have been known and used by Maori for generations. Borrowing from their website, here's how the Spa distinguishes the types of mineral water on site.  "The Priest Spring has the perfect balance of acidity to provide soothing relief for tired muscles, aches and pains. The Priest Spring was named after a Catholic Priest called Father Mahoney who after bathing in the spring claimed to have been cured of his Arthritis.  Historically it was said that those who swam in the Rachel Spring waters will be blessed with ageless beauty - as the alkaline water has a natural antiseptic action due to its sodium silica content. Rachel Springs was named after Madame Rachel of Bond Street born in 1820, who in her time was a cosmetician, con artist and blackmailer who tried to sell for ever beauty products to women."

After soaking in the baths for an hour, we were taken inside for our treatments.  My mom had a mud massage while I opted for the mud facial (in an attempt to get the Cambodian dirt out of my poor pores).  It was so relaxing, definitely the best spa experience of my life.  

Not my own picture, but I didn't take a picture inside the spa.  But these are the mineral pools overlooking the lake.
We were sad to leave Rotorua, but excited to head toward the South Island which is really the gem on New Zealand.  We loved our time in Rotorua, and I'm really glad we spent so many days there.