"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home."
Wendell Berry

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bangkok and Tonsai

*Note: Haven’t uploaded photos of Thailand yet, but I wanted to get this update in before I head to the elephant park. Photo update will follow later.

I arrived in Bangkok on Sunday night and met up with Wayne, a friend from high school (and my prom date, haha) who I hadn’t seen since we graduated (Ten years! Man, I feel old). He and his girlfriend, Nicole, are, auspiciously, doing a round the world trip now as well, and we happen to be hitting up a lot of the same places. We wandered around the city together a bit, poking in temples-under-repair (those gilded windows are all painted by hand!), meandering around the frenzied tourist hub of Kaosan Road, and chowing down on both curry and insects. It was a good introduction to Thailand, but I also found Bangkok totally overwhelming with its farang-focused markets, pushy touts, and seedy sex tourism, and wasn’t so sure I wanted to hang out there alone for a full week as planned before heading to Chiang Mai. I also had a great time with W&N, who were headed to rock climb near Krabi, and was kind of depressed at the idea of being alone again.

On Tuesday I decided it would be great to hang around with friends for a bit longer, so a last-minute flight, a cab ride, and two longtail boat rides later, I arrived at Tonsai, a beachy climbers’ haven in the south. Tonsai is ultra chill, with a strangely rural, jungly feel, even while it’s crawling with white/Western Rastafarian backpackers. I stayed in a teeny tiny hut with a mosquito net (which I came to foolishly, desperately believe was a forcefield that protected me from not only mosquitoes, but rats, geckos, roaches, and ginormous spiders, all of which I had seen up close and personal around the area). An arachnophobic, I think I'll eternally resent Wayne for ever showing me the web with a certain enormous, sinister monster crouched in the middle). Either way, I grew very attached to my little abode, and was sad to leave it in the end.

My week in Tonsai passed in a blissful blur of red curry for every meal (Phed mak mak!—very very spicy), countless banana shakes, doggy paddling in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea, ultra cheap yet ultra terrific Thai massages from Didi and Sa, working, and hanging out with my friends at a bizarre open mic night, during which many jokes were exchanged regarding a peculiar character called “Dave 1.”

On Saturday, we got up before the sun rose to beat the morning rush of climbers over on Railey Beach. Using Wayne and Nicole’s gear and with their expert coaching, I had my first go at rock climbing in a world-class location, full of insane stalactites and really cool crags. Despite what it might look like at first when you see ten year old kids scuttling up the bare face of the cliff quick as spiders and when you watch people like Wayne and Nicky expertly maneuvering their limbs using invisible toeholds with hip-twisting grace, let me tell you, climbing is hard . With Nicole belaying me, I felt totally safe, but physically, it pushed me to my limits. It’s incredibly frustrating when you just want to GET THERE, and mentally, you have total willpower and confidence in your ability to do it, but your body just fails you and you fall, again and again. It doesn’t help that I have arms like noodles with zero upper body strength. I have some serious rope burn and bruises that make me look hardcore, but mostly it was my ego that took a bit of a beating—a dangerous situation that always makes me want to do it AGAIN, and BETTER. I can see how people get addicted to the rush; I’m already investigating climbing classes in NYC. Sweet.

At Phra Nang beach—epically beautiful, a la Garland’s “The Beach,” but very busy—we had a mid-afternoon swim and peeked into the bizarre phallic shrine (think wooden penises—peni?—everywhere). We also saw around a dozen monkeys. Close up! And with day-old baby monkeys clutching at them. As much as I didn’t want to be the stereotypical tourist, I couldn’t help but gawk. I’d upload a video here if it wasn’t so huge.

Later, it was time to wave farewell to Wayno and Nicky, and to Tonsai. I could’ve probably stayed there for another full month, vegging and learning to climb, but Chiang Mai with its elephants was beckoning. While I waited for enough people to gather for a longtail ride to Ao Nang, we decided to post up at a beach bar and split a bucket of Samsong and coke. Naturally, on the way there, a monkey leapt from a tree onto my back and attempted to throttle me. Because that is the type of thing that happens in Tonsai. Luckily (and also sadly), the little booger ended up being tethered to the tree, so while I panicked and shrieked bloody murder, Nicky and Wayne shouted to “Keep walking!” and soon I was free from his tenacious grip. Authentic Thai experience right there, folks.

Tomorrow I’m headed to the Elephant Nature Park. I’m there for two weeks, and internet will be spotty, so don’t worry if things are a bit quiet around here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Hong Kong, Part Deux

I spent my last several days in Hong Kong exploring the markets and—shocker—eating Dim Sum like my life depended on it. I walked around the fruit markets (Alvina turned me on to wax apples) and fish markets of Reclamation Street, saw some grisly sights at the wet market—not for the squeamish—and poked around the orchids and ranunculus (my favorite) at the flower market further north. Those red, beet-like vegetables are given to people for good luck and good health during Chinese New Year. I also made my way to the nearby bird garden/market and watched giddy old men feed live grasshoppers to their songbirds with chopsticks. It was one of my favorite places.










My last night in town, I went with John and his friend Jesse to see CocoRosie, which was surreal both because I was seeing a band I love with friends in Hong Kong and because it was CocoRosie and they embody surrealism. The weirdest/most awesome part of the experience was the supremely bizarre Tez, the French beatboxer who opened for them. Watch this if you have a minute to get a taste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbpCiFa-gNY&feature=related

Bye bye for now, Hong Kong. My Buddha belly thanks you.









Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Updates

I'm currently in Bangkok, but after having a great time with Wayno and Nicky (involving whiskey and grasshoppers* in soy sauce...), I've decided to follow them down to Krabi before heading up to Chiang Mai next week.

Update on the remainder of my time in Hong Kong coming soon.


Also, some bigger news: I cancelled the South American leg of my trip.

After traveling fairly quickly through New Zealand last month, I realized that I might get more out of this experience if I slowed down a bit. I had planned to do three countries in South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Peru) in just under a month, which seemed way too fast. Since I'm not able to extend my trip for longer (and am not sure I'd want to, anyway), I decided to stay in Africa for a bit longer and join a volunteer program in Uganda. I'm still returning in the beginning of August, but South America will have to wait until next time.


*Note: I have a hunch that most Thai people do not in fact feast on scorpions and insects and that the stalls exist solely for tipsy tourists, but it was all in good fun nonetheless.

Excess

You guys, I committed a MAJOR no-no for traveling light for an extended period of time: I bought heels.

I seriously don’t know what I was thinking. It was like I had a temporary lobotomy. I have nowhere to wear these things anyway, and there is virtually no space in my backpack. They aren’t even a light, strappy pair, and they don’t even have a low heel that I could actually get some use out of. They’re high, chunky, and extremely heavy. My only explanation is that I was weak and feeling gross, the salesman was very convincing, they were cheap, and they were extremely cute. Unfortunately, like everything else in Hong Kong, they are also extremely non-returnable. Since they’re too heavy to ship, I guess I will do my penance by carrying them around for a month, and then hopefully Ad can carry them home for me from India. Lesson learned.

Unexpected things I've needed on the road:

Large scarf—good for a variety of purposes, from towel to blanket to headscarf to belt to great way to dress up an outfit.

Divacup—I couldn’t be a bigger fan. You do not want to lug around a year’s worth of tampons, do you?

Hankies—I have two and use them constantly, particularly since arriving in HK since I’m eating a lot of spicy food and napkins in restaurants seem to be a rarity. My hankies also made me feel good when we hiked down Lantau and someone had left about 200 used tissues along the path.

Lipstick (or another unnecessary/feminine item)—I’m normally not a lipstick wearer at home (or much of a makeup wearer period), and not really a very girly girl in general. But after feeling totally grubby and wearing the same very functional, plain, less than cute clothes for a month, I’ve found it can really make me feel attractive again. If I had been wearing lipstick, I probably wouldn’t have bought heels.

Fake wedding ring—Comes in handy more often than you’d think.

A sweet knife—Ditto. I use my pocket knife multiple times a day (this might be because it has a bottle opener as well…).

A hidden pocket—I found that I hated money belts and refused to wear them, so I sewed (or had my sister sew, because let’s be honest, I am not that craftsy) a pocket in my bra. I carry some extra cash in there just in case. It’s come in handy twice, and I suspect it would be even more convenient if I ever got robbed.

Small change purse—I don’t have a wallet, but use either my daypack or my passport pouch to carry money. When I don’t want to lug crap around with me, the change purse comes in really handy, especially since a lot of countries are coin-heavy in their currency.

Shampoo bar—Lush makes a great shampoo/conditioner in one solid bar that I’m obsessed with. You don’t have to worry about leakage (my first 2oz liquid shampoo spilled ALL OVER my backpack), plastic baggies at the airport, toting multiple bottles, or replenishing, since it lasts a really long time. Totally biodegradable, so you can take camping, and can also double as soap.

Multivitamin and hand sanitizer—An attempt at sickness prevention. Again, I’m not normally a proponent of either at home, but with an immune system weakened by constantly switching time zones, eating less healthfully, and constantly using public transit, I’ll take ‘em.

ColorSome of the best advice I received before I left was to pack only things that I felt really good in. I did, but on the recommendation of many packing lists, I also packed only blacks and neutrals so that everything could go together, and that really contributed to feeling like I was wearing the same thing every single day (I kind of was, since my two t-shirts are exactly the same shirt). When I lost my only sweater in my final days in New Zealand and then arrived in Hong Kong to really cold* weather, I was so bored with black that I bought a bright red sweater to replace it. And I love it! So my advice is, bring one really bright, stand-out item, but one that is functional and that you can still wear regularly.

A smilethis might sound obvious, but I've started to realize that my default expression, while not a scowl exactly, is kind of frowny (I blame 5 years in NYC). A smile can communicate a lot when you don't speak the language, and makes people want to help you.

*Note, for all you New Yorkers and Michiganders: Okay, not *really* cold at all, more like 50 (F), but cold for HK!

**The hearts were stickers on my wall at the Hong Kong guesthouse. Seemed appropriate.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Love and distance

Something I haven't really written about on this blog but which affects my life a whole lot and which I get asked about quite a bit is being in a long distance relationship. When I left for my eight month, round the world solo trip, I was three months into the best relationship of my life. Three very amazing months in.


So why did I go when things were so great at home?

My only answer is that I couldn’t not go. I had this trip planned for a couple months before things got serious between us, and there was a point when I honestly considered cancelling it. But in the end I knew that I might never get this opportunity again—that I might have a regular-hours job again, that I might be broke again, that I might have kids or a mortgage, and that it would only be harder for me to leave for that long if we’d been dating for a year, or five years. And I knew I had to do it. With anyone else, I think I would've ended things before leaving or not left at all. But with Ad, things are different—good different. Maybe it was exactly because things were going so well in my relationship that I felt okay about leaving, and about staying together through it: It seemed strong enough to survive the time and distance. And if it wasn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be anyway, right?

Isn’t it hard?

It’s incredibly hard. Even while I’m having all these sweet experiences, it’s hard to miss out on everything at home. Christmas was hard. His birthday. I’m missing attending three or four weddings with him. Sundays—New York Times and coffee and lounge day—are tough. Difficult days when we can’t give one another pep talks are bad. Not being able to just physically be around one another is the worst.

How do we cope?

We hang out together on Skype. We email things we'd usually chat about. I write letters and send postcards. I carry pictures around and show people I meet and talk about him constantly. I count down the days until we meet in India. We make plans for when I get back. But while I think about him a lot, I also try to focus on the experiences I’m having, why this is important to me, and why I’m not ready to come home just yet, despite what I’m missing. After I cried four days in a row after we talked on Skype, I realized we just can’t talk every day. Because as good as it is to see one another, it actually does make it harder.

What does Ad think about all this?

He’s been incredibly supportive and reassuring that everything will work out. Of course, after a month and a half, I’d say that it’s been much harder than either of us imagined it would be, and eight months, which sounded like a long time when I started, now feels like an eternity. But I still feel like it was the right thing, and I’m so grateful to be with someone who is sure enough of himself—and us—to be able to deal with my craziness. I can’t wait to travel together some day (and also to be together at home). Til then, Skype has my undying gratitude.

Monday, January 17, 2011

唔好意思. M̀h'gōi.

So, I'm in Hong Kong! (I actually have been for about a week.)


I'm staying in a guest house in Kowloon, the peninsula north of Hong Kong Island, and though most people on the island speak English, up here I've gotten very good at explaining myself through sign language. I can't seem to get a grip on even a few short phrases in Cantonese with its daunting nine tones, but I have gotten "M̀h'gōi" down. It can be used to mean "please," "thank you," or "excuse me," which makes up for a lot of other things I can't get across. The strangest thing about being here after New Zealand has been going from being surrounded by backpackers in hostels to being alone and unable to communicate a large amount of the time. It's a bit isolating, but I've really been enjoying it.

Hong Kong is expensive, but there's loads to do on the cheap as well--like eat with friends. Or eat alone. You could eat dim sum. Or wanton soup. Or moon cake, fish balls, tea eggs, congee, pork buns, various noodle, rice, and curry dishes, sweet tofu soup with ginger (tong sui), giant shrimp, bird's nest soup, spicy crab, these tasty bubbly waffle things they sell on the street... You get the idea. A few people told me that two weeks was way too long to be in HK, and that there wasn't much to do. To those people I say: you gravely underestimate my dedication to eating. Hong Kong is ALL about food, and I have been reveling in it. There's even a terrific vegetarian restaurant right next to my guest house (though I am eating meat, too).


My old friend (as in we go way back), John, lives here, and we've been hanging out. John is a toy designer, so I got to see the showroom full of all the awesome stuff he's working on. Way to be 500% cooler than the rest of us, John. When I first got to town, we met up for very hot fish soup at Spicy Mama, and rode the ferry over to Hong Kong to watch the light show on the buildings (every night at 8pm). Later in the week we checked out Wing Wah, which Francis had recommended. Delicious shrimp and pork wonton soup with hovering-between-soft-and-crunchy-perfectly-done egg noodles. John also told me about this famous Australian dairy where they have the fluffiest scrambled eggs served with noodle soup. Yum.

Besides eating and thinking about eating, I've mostly been working quite a bit in various cafes (slurping down pearl tea and milk tea with condensed milk; I'm seriously going to gain 100 lbs). I have ventured out to a few of the night markets like a good little tourist, and am sharpening my bargaining skills.

On Saturday evening, I met Joe, who Bryn and Ad grew up with and who is also living in HK. We joined up with his friends for a very lively night of bar-hopping in Lan Kwai Fong, including everything from a dive bar with a great jukebox to a club with a Filipino band covering American pop songs to a swanky rooftop place with a view of the harbor to the place at the very end of the night when Joe said, "You might be the only woman in here who is not a prostitute. Are you okay with that?" Hey, I just go with it.

Sunday morning, I got up early and joined John and his friends Jeff, Nancy, and Winnie for an all day hike up to Lantau Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong at 934 meters. Lantau Island is also home to the Big Buddha and Lo Pin Monastery, both of which we passed on the way to the trail head. I thought it was the biggest Buddha in the world, but John said it's more like the world's tallest, outdoor, bronze Buddha seated on a lotus blossom with its right hand up... or something. Either way, the statue is gigantic and impressive, and from the scale of this picture, you can see how it towers over its surroundings.

The hike itself was awesome, challenging, and unlike anything I thought I could've found in Hong Kong. Over seven hours, we scrambled up a steep hillside dense with reedy grasses, crawled over boulders, and tip-toed across narrow exposed ridges on a trail that you wouldn't know was there were it not for the ribbons hanging from trees every so often. It was particularly surreal to be pushing our way through such wild surroundings and still be able to see the skyscrapers of the city below. Through the fog at Lantau Peak, the sun looked like it was setting right in the middle of the sky. It was there one second, and then just gone. With darkness encroaching, we started the hour and a half jaunt down rock stairs that went all the way back to the Buddha. If you are feeling like you are in decent shape and not so very old, attempt this activity and see how you feel afterward. We were all creaking and groaning, and my knees were already starting to swell by the time we reached the bottom.

The meal after our long hike was pretty much the culmination of all my food fantasies. Amazing crispy tofu (the inside was silky smooth), broccoli in black bean sauce, steamed veggies with canned fish (way better than description implies), and the wonderful, hot, garlicky goodness that was the spicy crab.

After dinner, we were all in a food coma and zombified from our physical exhaustion, but Nancy convinced us to go for a late-night massage so we could actually walk the next morning. For one tenth of the cost of a massage in New York, a sweet older lady poked, prodded, and kneaded my aching muscles to total bliss with her Hulk-strength hands. It was the best massage ever, but it's been two days and I'm still limping from the hike. Maybe one more is in order...





Wednesday, January 12, 2011

[Tap tap] Is this thing on?

Hey friends,

After a month of traveling and blogging, I gotta ask... Who's actually reading this?

You see, innitially, I'd planned to blog so that I wouldn't have to email so much (I really, really hate email) and so that my family could follow me and know that I was okay. Now, I realize that my reasons have evolved to be way more selfish than that: I want a way to feel connected with home, even while I'm far away. Only sometimes it feels like I'm just sending out these posts like folded, crumpled messages in bottles, and they're all just sinking somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Ha! Wow, that's dramatic. Sorry for that awful simile. Now I'm too amused by it to delete.

Bottom line: this isn't meant to be a "Yo, why don't you shower me with love?" post, I swear, but if, like Kot, you felt like leaving a comment to let me know you were reading, that would be super cool.

I'd also love to hear opinions on the layout of the blog, etc. Are you happy with frequency of posts? Are the pictures too big or too many? Is there too much junk over on the right? Is it difficult to comment or subscribe? Do you like the Facebook reminders? I don't plan to make money off of this thing, but I do want people to have a good experience reading it.


Love you big, Jill

Month One

I stole this map from a google image search. Don't tell.

Well, I'm one month into my travels, with seven more to go. It's time for a general check in.

Overall, despite my continually evoking the wrath of Mother Nature, New Zealand (Aotearoa) was totally "sweet as" (second "s" intentionally missing, per Kiwi culture). In a country roughly the size of Colorado, there are mountains, beaches, glaciers, hot springs, volcanoes, rain forests, fiords, farms, islands, vineyards, impossibly striking roses and huge lavender plants everywhere, mythical Kiwi birds that New Zealanders believe in like American children believe in Santa Clause, 13 times as many sheep as people, and 70,000 working Germans. Also, everyone is fit. It's like Pleasantville, only in full color, and obsessed with rugby. My parents warned me that if I started in NZ, I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. While that isn't true, I did love the place, and hope to go back sometime.

Favorite place: Wanaka
Favorite experience: tie between skydiving and day two hiking Abel Tasman
Favorite meal: Ferg Burger in Queenstown, with a pint of Mac's Great White
Favorite saying: "Sweet as!"
Favorite lodging: YHA Purple Cow, Wanaka

As far as traveling in general goes, none of the issues I've encountered so far have been more than little hiccups, which I guess was the point in starting out in a very Western country--not too far from my comfort zone. Though I loved seeing so many different things in one month, I think in the future it might be better to stay in one area of a country, volunteering or finding another meaningful way to get to know a place a bit more. I'm really looking forward to the elephant sanctuary in Thailand for that reason.

I've gotten good at making quick friends and staying open to whatever new plans develop, but I'm savoring the time I have alone as well. There was definitely a period about three weeks in when I was already starting to feel a bit exhausted and overwhelmed with being constantly on the move, but a few days to recharge in one place worked wonders. The good thing about traveling alone is having the freedom to listen to yourself and make decisions based on what's best for you, rather than based on deadlines or another person's desires and itinerary.

That said, it does get lonely sometimes. I've never been homesick, really, more just peoplesick. I miss Ad and I miss my friends and fam. I miss having a community that is not so permeable, but I've also met some great people that I hope to stay in contact with and host in New York or Michigan at some point.

What else? Having a routine has been key to feeling grounded, and it's made me grateful to have work while on the road and have to set regular time aside for that. I've found that vanity is out the window. Hey, I'm still showering regularly--I'm not going for rank funk--but most of the time I don't bother with a mirror or a hairbrush. Dry shampoo is total bullshit, at least the one I tried. If I'm feeling particularly nast, red lipstick is a cure-all. Despite traveling light, my book addiction is still raging. It's becoming a problem. When I left the U.S., I had a guidebook, two novels, and a book of short stories, but I was determined to get it down to one novel and one guidebook. A month later and I'm done with the novel and short stories, yet I've somehow managed to acquire another three novels. I see good books just sitting there lonely at backpackers' book exchanges, and I just can't say no. Long story short: my back hurts.

On to the heavy stuff (besides books)... This past month has been vital for another reason. I felt like I had lost some part of myself in the past couple of years--a fundamental belief in myself, an independence--and I couldn't even say why, or how to change that feeling. I think traveling has restored some of that. I feel like I can do anything. It's made me remember that I am extremely hardy--a fact that I often forget when I'm in a position to rely on others who seem infinitely better at something. It's not that I feel invincible (that's dangerous), but rather capable again. And that feels pretty damn good.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Envy

Just read that there is currently snow in 49 states in the U.S.

Home, I miss you. Well, snow, I miss you.

But not enough to come back just yet. The food in Hong Kong is too good.

Farewell, New Zealand, Hello (and Goodbye) Australia

(sung) "AAAAAHHHH!"

When I saw the Sydney Opera House from afar, all I could think of was the operatic belt depicted in "Finding Nemo." But I'm getting ahead of things...

On January 4th, I got to Christchurch and pretty much broke all of the rules I had set for myself and so faithfully adhered to over the last month: I bought clothes. I picked up more books. I ate at an Americanized, super touristy pseudo-Mexican restaurant, and paid $26 for a sub-par burrito. I even bought a very overpriced margarita. But I was so happy to finally be rid of my plague funk and out and about again, I didn't even care.

Christchurch was a bit of a ghost town while I was there, due to both New Year's holiday closings and destruction from the earthquake in September. They've had over 1000 aftershocks since then, and there were two during my stay (neither of which I felt due to my extensively-documented obliviousness and heavy sleeping tendencies). Christchurch wasn't a complete bust, though. I stayed at Kiwi Basecamp, which had friendly service and FREE fresh-baked bread every morning, and I had a great dinner with Genevieve, an American from California, and spent a very pleasant day and evening with the darkly-witty Catherine from Auckland. The worst thing about traveling is meeting people for a short day whom you wish you could get to know over years. Two shining examples, here.

From Christchurch, I took a day trip to Kaikoura (pronounced "Ky-kota" by the Maori), intent on swimming with dolphins, as enthusiastically prescribed by Joy. Sadly, this was not in the cards; the water was insanely rocky, and my main sightseeing activity ended up being watching almost everyone on the boat vomit miserably into buckets. Silver lining: turns out, I don't get seasick! Actually, the REAL silver lining was that I did get to see wild dolphins, up close and personal, doing their jubilant wild dolphin thing. It was pretty cool. Observe:
video

After a brief stay back in Auckland (more good times with Cat), it was bye-bye, New Zealand. It was sad to wave farewell to my Kiwi paradise, and I'll admit that I'm already plotting ways to get back there, for longer. But this time, I was headed for Hong Kong, though it took me quite a long time to actually get there.

My layover in Sydney was more lively than expected. In the day and a half I had to check it out, I stayed in a ridiculously huge YHA that had a freaking pool and arcade, and I again met up with Leanne, who has bravely decided to quit her job in the UK and remain in Australia for a year, and her friend, Rhi, at the Sydney Festival in Hyde Park. It was extremely hot out, and while savoring ice cream from one of the stalls and watching a silent movie on the projection screen, we were accosted by these strange birds:

They've got the mentality of NYC pigeons or Ann Arbor squirrels, but seemed way more awesome because of their weird appearance and the fact that I only had to deal with one afternoon of shooing them away. Later, we ambled through the streets and around the harbor, stopping only for beer and macarons. Ah, macarons! Thank you, Abra, for introducing me to these colorful, luscious treats. My life hasn't been the same since. Sydney reminded me of New York (or at least Midtown) like no place ever has. Made me feel a bit cozy in an ultra-commercial, slightly-uncomfortable way. I spent the second day exploring the city on foot, and then it was back to the airport.

Since leaving Australia, I've been in a layover-filled haze, stumbling around Malaysian airports and peeling contacts from bloodshot eyes. I'm now in Hong Kong (my first taste of Asia), and have been in a constant, blissful food coma since my arrival. But more on that later...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Kepler Track



My three-day tramp on the Kepler Track in the southwest (Fiordland) ended on New Year's Eve. It reminded me a lot of Mount Washington, actually: the first and last days wound up and down through dense, mossy forest abundant with ferns, and the middle day was spent picking our way along the Forest Burn Saddle and a long, narrow alpine ridge with heart-stopping views at the top of the Kepler mountains, summitting Mt. Luxmore in the process.


It was supposed to rain and didn't, but during pretty much the entire trek across the exposed passage, we were hit with 100k winds. Sometimes we could barely stand and as the wind caught my pack, I was sure I was about to be catapulted off the mountain into the rocks below. I loved it; it often felt like I was the last person on earth--just me against the elements. Actually, I loved the eerie, haunted feeling of Fiordland altogether and wish I'd had more time there to do the Routeburn and other tracks as well.

Oren from Israel (on the left) was leaving my hostel for the Kepler at the same time, so we agreed to walk to the start at the control gates together (45 minutes out of town). We ended up sticking together for the whole three days and Oren tried to scare me with stories of his friends' legs getting crushed while hiking in South America. A former soldier, he also properly adjusted my pack so that it stopped hurting all the time. I was convinced my new backpack just sucked or didn't fit me right (it adjusts differently than my other pack), but, to absolutely no one's surprise, I was just stubbornly doing it wrong.

At the Luxmore hut, we met more Israelis, and Nadav, Gal, and company taught me a card game called "Yaniv" (spelling?) that I'm obsessed with, even though I always get too excited to play my cards and therefore lose. I now also have several willing guides while I'm in Tel Aviv. Yes!

I didn't chance on a kiwi sighting (sorry, Mom)--unsurprising since the birds for which New Zealanders are named are nocturnal, shy creatures--but we did spot some curious fantails along the track, and several people we met had seen Kea parrots (I wasn't so lucky).

Apart from the Kepler hike, the last week has been pretty quiet. I returned from the Kepler quite sick and stayed in Te Anau for several days to recoup. New Year's was a bust--there was a great live cover band playing in the park right outside the hostel (CCR! Joan Jett!) and fireworks at midnight, but I was feeling too rotten to leave my bed. As 2011 arrived in the Southern Hemisphere, I toasted with my dad on Facebook with a sip of beer and sudafed. I ended up cancelling my kayaking trip to Milford Sound and being a total hermit in my hostel in Queenstown, too. Man, this is sounding really depressing as I write it! But it honestly hasn't felt that way (at least not most of the time). Of course I'm bummed to miss these places since they're two of the best-loved in New Zealand, but I think after a month of moving constantly, recharging my batteries for a bit was definitely the best thing I could've done. I also did a ton of work, which is always a good feeling. I'm still sniffling a bit now that I'm in Christchurch, but I'm back on my feet and exploring happily. Only two more days in NZ. I'll be sad to say goodbye to my kiwi paradise (I swear I'll be back), but I'm certainly looking forward to Asia--and to living more cheaply!

Oh, also, since it appears that even though my backpack is officially carry-on size, no one's ever going to let me take it carry-on, using my Christmas money, I bought this (my first leatherman):

Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Balance

As I wrote to Kate earlier, travel is so strange in that it's draining and invigorating simultaneously; a self-sustaining cycle that makes me long for home one minute and dream of another trip the next.

I was particularly struck by this dichotomy yesterday while walking around Te Anau. I've been sick the last several days after hiking the Kepler Track (post on that coming soon), and, finally venturing outside after two full days spent holed up in bed coughing, sniffing, honking, and working, working, working, I felt exposed, alone, and really homesick. Then I browsed through a book on volunteering worldwide and saw "Ata Wenua," a breathtaking film showing rarely-seen images of Fiordland shot from a helicopter, and, an hour after my bout of sadness, thought this isn't enough time. There is SO MUCH MORE.

But there will always be so much more, and home has it's place, too. The trick is finding the balance.