Ready for the rest of my life

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The South Island

Well I am delightfully exhausted and out of money and have had to bump my return to Canada up by two weeks to not go hopelessly broke and to finish up my thesis. The last three weeks took Jen and I on a whirlwind tour of the south island. We began by meeting up with my German friend Patrick in a beautiful ocean town called Nelson. The scenery was amazing but the sandflies were ferocious. Jen and I took a water taxi to do a day hike out in the Abel Tasman national park and the three of us went to Takaka on the northern most tip of the south island (it was then that I got a severe dose of homesickness that is currently bringing me back to Canada at full speed). The three of us went out in the rain to Fairwell spit and the Pupu springs, the first is the northern most point of the southern island and the second is the second clearest spring water in the world. We were staying in a great hostel called Kiwiana where Jen and I had to rough it out in a dorm room for the only time on our journey. We were lucky to meet a friendly Texan named Colin who joined us and we became “Team Namerica” (our German friend had to stay behind for this segment of the journey).
Our new team headed further south to see the Pancake Rocks along the west coast, which have inexplicable layers of rock that are eroding into these amazing shapes that will eventually be swallowed by the sea. The rain fell more and more the further south we went and the weather cooled off to typically below 15 C. But we had this weird luck of pouring rain every time we had to drive and a break from the bad weather every time we stopped to see something. We continued south the Franz Joseph Glacier were we ignored a series of signs that implied “breaking ice will cause a tidal wave which will wash you away and you shall die!!!” and made our way to the base of the glacier, this warning may have come true had it not been for a guide telling Colin and Jen to back away from the ice minutes before ice and rock came crashing down near where they had been standing.
We made it down to the famous town of Queenstown where the sun managed to shine but the temperature did not recover much. The drive into this town is stunning and the town itself feels much like Banff. We took a gondola up a mountain for some views and a couple of luge rides on a pavement track. At that point we decided we were in search of penguins and trekked on to Invercargill (the southern most point of the south island). We learned about a fellow from Invercargill named Burt Munro and watched the film on the story of his life called “The Worlds Fastest Indian”. For the sake of argument we will say that there is a strong possibility that we saw penguins but we will never really be too sure. You need to go at dusk or dawn to have you best chance of catching a glimpse. We made a second attempt at wildlife sightings in the Catlins where we saw many seals and sealions through our binoculars at nugget point.
We started our way north on the east coast with a couple days in Dunedin, this town is famous for having the steepest road in the world and is very picturesque with beautiful cathedrals covering the city. Not to mention that there is a Cadbury Chocolate Factory in town. We went on a tour and walked away with bags full of delicious chocolate. We did not have time to visit Christchurch and we opted to stay at small ocean towns south and north of the city. On the drive up the east coast we stopped at these neat old boulders that are curiously round and hollow in the middle and scientists are unable to figure out their origin.
We ended our trip in the Marlborough Sounds at this amazing hostel right on the ocean. Patrick had been working there the last couple of weeks and had recommended we come visit him in paradise. So Colin, Jen, Patrick and I spent our last times as a group in the prettiest place in New Zealand. Jen and I went ocean kayaking and saw some stingrays swimming in the teal water, but going swimming ourselves was a little sketchy unless you like brushing up against hundreds of jellyfish.
Jen is off to Australia and Patrick is coming to get me at Laura’s to spend my last week in New Zealand together – not sure where I will choose to go yet but I have lost all my tan and am looking for a beach somewhere on the north island.

Monday, January 22, 2007

South of Down Under

Well, here I go again, another country, another batch of epic stories. It all began with some crazy biosecurity at the Auckland airport where my camping gear went into quarantine, but Jen was waiting on the other side of security with a big smile and two helping hands to put my gear all back together. We picked up our rental car and upon each of us having a turn as drivers on the left hand side of the road we decided that Jen was the driver and I the navigator. Shortly after arrival we were adopted by a local family (Jen’s friend Simon) and whisked away to their bach (cabin by the ocean). It was a great way to come to a new country as it reminded us so much of our summers as children at our respective lakes, although it was the ocean and much more impressive. We took a day trip to Hot Water Beach where you can dig holes in the sand and create your own hot spring. We made our way back to Auckland where we stayed with Simon’s parents and were treated to some amazing kiwi hospitality. But the time had come to branch out on our own and begin phase 2 of the journey. With a couple of great maps and high hopes we headed north to Piahia, and found a decent hostel where we met some other Canadians. We took a ferry across the bay of islands to Russell, where we learned about a turbulent history with the local aboriginal culture – the Maori. The town used to be filled with brothels and hoodlums but is now a quaint little ocean town. We continued north to Henderson Bay where we happened across an amazing backpackers lodge in the middle of nowhere which happened to be run by a Calgarian. Jen and I lucked out with the master bedroom that had vaulted ceilings and a great view of the ocean. The place was crawling with German backpackers (just like in the Simpsons) but they were fabulously nice and we made some great friends, some of which may join us for travels on the south island. This was one of experiences that everyone stays longer than they intended too just because there is a certain sort of magic that is occurring and you can’t walk away too soon. Jen and I continued north to the northern most tip of the country called Cape Reinga, we made a wrong turn and ended up at these insane sand dunes. But sometimes life is about those wrong turns when you discover things you didn’t even realize you were looking for. We did find the cape eventually and saw where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collided.
We ventured south back through Auckland and found our way to Rotovegas (Rotorura), tourist capital of NZ. But we are tourists after all and I though that all the volcanic activity was pretty impressive despite the constant whiffs of sulfur. We busted out our tent which we have fondly named Wilma, to be companion to our car Fred and our keys Pebbles. We made some American friends and as always drank far too much wine. We did a walking tour of the town and say some Maori carvings and some volcanic mud pools and steaming ground. We went to a spa/hot springs and onto Wai-o-tapu Volcanic Wonderland. Here we saw a geyser, champagne pools, craters, and all sorts of interesting touristy things.
We ventured further south to Taupo, a massive lake in the northern interior that was formed from a volcanic blast back in the day. We did the Tongariro crossing, which is known as the most famous one day hike in NZ. This hike is made even more famous with one of the mountains cameo appearance in the film Lord of the Rings as Mount Doom. So I have walked through the lands of Mordor and have seen craters and lava flows in a barren land that is less than inviting. By far one of the highlights of the trip, as each turn was jaw dropping.
Further south was the plan to New Plymouth to see my cousin Laura and her husband Chris. I, as navigator, calculated what appeared to be the shortest route to our destination. But have learned that 300km does not equate to 3 hours of driving. In fact, in this instance it equated to nearly 6 hours down the “forgotten world highway”, the road was gravel in parts, and one lane in other parts, in the heart of sheep country. Truly amazing but heart stopping as the road was barely wide enough for one car and the hobbit hole tunnel gave me a taste of death. Then out of nowhere we happened upon the town of Whangamomona where they were having their republic day. The highway was crawling with thousands of people and sheep. At the turn of the last century this town declared themselves a republic and was separate from NZ. Now in this old fashioned town (population 40) you vote for a goat as the mayor in this hectic celebration. Jen and I obtained some new passports and now are officially members of the republic.
We finally arrived in New Plymouth and spent the weekend with my cousins. My friend Mark from the town of Hawera (about 45 minutes away) came to town to act as tour guide and once again treated us to kiwi hospitality.
We will now venture to Wellington briefly before heading to the south island, which from what we have heard, is practically like being in another country. Much more rugged and full of mountains than the north country. I love New Zealand and have decided for the first time in a long time I feel like I am at home. As scary as it is for me to quit a secure job and walk away from my life, I think that that is exactly what I will do. For those of you that have been here you may understand the appeal and for those of you that haven’t you are welcome to come visit and you will understand why I will not be returning any time soon.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Koh Samui

Well so much has happened that I don’t know where to begin and with a thousand pictures to choose from I can only give you a glimpse of my time in Thailand. Our group started as 7, swelled to 12 and is down to 3. The first week was just family and our parents treated the 3 of us to all sorts of adventures and great cuisine. They managed to convince me to go on a canopy cable tour that consisted of 7 flying foxes at least 100 feet in the air above the jungle canopy. As I am afraid of heights I do admit to having a mild meltdown when I had to climb down a 30 foot ladder 100 feet in the air the was attached to a tree that swayed in the wind. But I was proud of myself for even going at all. The next day we had an island tour where we went to see monkey’s pick coconuts from trees, a butterfly garden, grandfather and grandmother rock (which legend has created life on the island) a waterfall with elephants, a mummified monk and a giant Buddha. After the first week the winter ended here and the weather changed dramatically. Currently it is 30 C in the shade. Many hours have been spent on the beach and poolside.
The woman shopped like mad and we have all been getting the infamous Thai massages. Christmas was spent on the beach and was very quiet but relaxing. The wedding was very exotic with monks and a drumming procession. I cried through the whole thing. The reception was small but we shared a lovely meal by candlelight on our rooftop patio and turned in early.

A couple of days ago we hiked to another waterfall in the Jungle. We climbed to the top and went for a swim in the pool above the waterfall. Our skin was so hot and sweaty that the water felt heart stopping but cooled us nicely for the journey down. A couple nights ago we went to watch some Thai Boxing. Four of the fighters got knocked out and a female fighter got hit in the head and threw up. I was sitting in the very front beside the judges and had a great view.

Last night Andrea, Lindsay, Curtis and I left the island by ferry to Koh Phagnan for the New Years beach party. We danced, drank and took it all in. It was off the hook, and was the biggest party I have ever attended, with 10,000 people on the beach. I can’t remember it all too clearly as we shared buckets of vodka and redbull. We caught a ferry back at 3:30am and arrived home at 5:30am in time to say goodbye to my parents as they were arising to catch a plane to Bangkok.
Two massive earthquakes, registering 7.1 on the Richter scale, rocked Taiwan a week after I left. And last night 8 bombs killing many and injuring more rocked Bangkok. New years celebrations were cancelled in the capital and they are expecting more attacks in areas frequented by foreigners.
So that being said I am ready to leave Asia behind for a while and make my way down to the Deep South. I keep dodging disaster but am safe and having a great time. My next traveling companion will be flying to meet me in a few hours and I will leave in a few days.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Siam

Well adventure has found me again. After a 17-hour trek from Kaohsiung to Bangkok, I arrived a bit frazzled and hungry. But in this massive city of 10 million or so, I managed to find my Russ and Ang at a very nice guesthouse. The next morning we met a good family friend for brunch and then made our way to the Grand Palace. It was like being in a dream, there are no words really. I’ve seen palaces in Europe but this had a lot more bling. Everything is covered in gold and mirrors so it shines brilliantly. And the Thai people (or Siamese) love their king; everyone wears yellow to honour him. He used to be a monk and has been king for 60 years and has devoted his life to the people and humanity. Pictures of him are everywhere, for example the only art in this room are framed pics of the king and queen. But the king has not lived in this palace for 10 years or so and a lot is open to the public.
In the evening the shopping madness began at a night market. It carried over into the next day and I spent a lot of money but have an entirely new wardrobe. I became a hippy overnight. But there is such an abundance of beautiful things and I have honed my bargaining skills. Sunday evening began the disastrous trip to the Island. We bought tickets for a VIP overnight bus. They promised to pick us up by a minibus and an express bus would drive us overnight to the Island, the bus was to load on the ferry and a minibus was to pick us up and take us to the hotel, all by 8 am the next day. Well the only truth was that we were on a bus all night. No minibus came and we had to carry our bags (which for me is over 100 lbs) in the hot sun for a good while. We managed to get the back row in a double decker bus where they cram in an extra seat, that won’t recline because of the back wall. The bus bumped and shook and we could not get a wink of sleep, we ate and drank practically nothing, and I won’t even discuss the state of the bathroom. The bus did not go onto a ferry and they put us on a boat that was much too small for the distance. We got onto the ferry 3 hours late, and they said the ride was 2 hours but in reality it was near 3.5 hrs. Everyone got so sea sick that their heads were between their knees and a few lucky kids (like Ang) took turns puking in a garbage can on deck. Than no minibus picked us up and we waited for an hour before accepting we got completely scammed and climbed into the back of a pick up truck (which is like a cab) and made it to Seaview Paradise. The whole trip took 19 hours. While we waited for our phantom minibus, there was a sweet little girl that lightened the mood. She kept pointing at me and smiling, I realized she was excited about all the stickers on me (to indicate we paid), so we covered her in stickers and managed to find a way to smile.
Our parents arrived an hour later and the rest has been a blissful paradise lifestyle. I have never stayed in such a nice place where they have anticipated your every need. We went with the owner and his family for a meal last night and today the girls went shopping and the boys went to the beach. Actually I didn’t shop (I am out of funds) but I bartered for my Mom and Ang’s Mom. Our villa is nestled into the side of a mountain that is covered with jungle and massive boulders. We are away from the noisy town and have a magnificent view of the ocean. Right now it is just our family but more friends arrive later in the week.
I am in love with Thailand and will probably come back a few times in my life cause it is the best place to eat, shop, and soak in the sun. Getting from point A to B is always an “adventure” but a very small price to pay for an experience that will shape your life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Visa Run

I am still recovering from my world wind tour of Hong Kong. I barely slept while I was there and have been in bed and lazing on the couch since I returned yesterday afternoon. I stayed in a clean, modern, and small dorm room at a hostel on the main island. So small that the bathroom was literally a water closet, with the shower head directly above the toilet with a miniature sink. I introduced myself to fellow bunk mates and said I was travelling alone and was looking for someone to pass the time with. There was a guy in my room from Ontario/Quebec (who lives in Japan) and I had great fortune as his friend was a local who had spent a good part of her childhood growing up in Canada. They were kind enough to let me tag along. On Friday we left the main island and travelled to another island where a giant Buddha was perched high in the mountains. We took a gondola up and like hundreds of others climbed our way up to this massive structure. We then toured around some temples and caught a bus to a fishing town that is entirely on stilts. The town is old for Hong Kong (around 80 years old) and is somewhat of a historic site. The residents are mostly older and they make a modest living by selling fish which they often dehydrate in the open air. We wandered around and found some mudskippers - which I had heard of (from Ren and Stimpy and nature programs), the little buggers are camouflaged and impossible to photograph but cool none the less. We took a boat tour around the town and out onto some open ocean for great photo opportunities. We made our way up to the New Territories which is on the main land and closer to main land China. Maggie's family owns a local restaurant and her parents and sisters joined us for a meal. The tables are sort of open to the air but there is a roof to keep off rain. It is a very simple place with folding tables and plastic stools. You have to put your bags on a stool to keep them off the ground because of the rats. They treated us to any dish we wanted and I was finally able to sample a variety of the local cuisine, all of which was tasty. Paul and I made our way back to Hong Kong Island and got off at the central station to view the massive buildings by night.

The following day we went to the famous Stanley market on the main island. I really wanted a traditional silk dress and tried a few on but they are not made to fit my curvy Canadian build and it was rather hopeless, so I bought some silk purses, scarves and gifts. Then we caught a ferry over to Kowloon and finally got to see a view of the sky line. We ate at another local street restaurant and went to another market that sold knock off everything.
That night a guy showed up in our room that was from New Zealand. He had been living in England for a couple of years and had spent the last 5 months backpacking around Europe and was on his way home. I woke up in the wee hours with some food poisoning but managed to keep it down with gravol and rubbing my belly all night.
Matt joined Paul and I for my for my final day of site seeing, we went for breakfast and I had the shakes so I again attemped to order French Toast and specified no pork which confused the waitress. This time I got a fried egg sandwich full of peanut butter - different but tasty. We went to a really busy market. We also went by the cultural center and saw some Chinese Opera. The singing is rather painful really and I had no idea what it was about but the costumes were very colorful. The previous evening we had gone up to the peak and found ourselves in a cloud and unable to see the city view below, so we thought we would try again. The line up for the tram was hours long so we found a tower in their central park and climbed up just in time for sun set - got some great shots. Later we went to the local 7-11 for drinks and partied with our roommates till 3am. Paul and I had to get up at 5:30am to get to the airport. I was so early that the check in wasn't open yet - an hour and a bit later I was at my boarding gate and laid down on the bench to sleep. I passed out and missed all my boarding calls. A flight attendant woke me up for the final call and I was the last to board the plane -oops! Now I am home in Taiwan and will get back to work.
I got more than I bargained for in my visa run.