I'M BAACCCKKKK...

And I’M BACK! Back on U.S. soil, back in the land of easy accessible technology, and back on top of this blogging thing...I hope.

I’ve been through a lot these last eight months. Experiences I still don’t think I have fully absorbed, and that I hope will continue to impact me for a long time to come. I've collected countless stories and memories that I don’t want to let go of. So I am going to share; put them down in ink so they don’t fade away...so they are real. This is me grasping onto a chapter that I don’t want to admit is closing. A journey that has changed me in ways that are yet to be revealed, even to myself.


I am going to attempt to remember it all and reflect through this journal. Originally I thought I would diligently narrate my journey as I went, in clean chronological order, full of details that painted the perfect picture of what exactly I was up to. Clearly that didn’t happen. Life took over. Challenges popped up. So instead I’m going to just let it flow now. Out of order, fluid, a little random. Basically what’s going on upstairs in my messy mind all the time.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2015: GLOWWORMS

Woke up bright in early in our car this morning, around 6am. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the worst night’s sleep I’ve had this trip! We were able to confirm with the hostel that they wouldn’t charge us for the night- thankfully. Splurged on some eggs benedict as we debated which activity we would do at the glowworm caves today. We landed on the cheaper, more basic tour of the caves, rather than the full on black water rafting, as we were both eager to move on to Lake Taupo. The tour was only about an hour, but we lucked out with an awesome guide again. Once again, the Kiwi sense of humor came out as he poked fun of our American accents and how we say things funny. We learned all about stalagmites and how the caves were formed. We were brought into the Cathedral of the cave- where performances are often held. He asked people in the group to sing whatever came to their hearts, and a large group of Indian tourists broke out in the most beautiful song- the acoustics were incredible! Apparently they hold a Christmas celebration in this Cathedral every year, where Santa emerges from the top of the cave to give the children gifts. The end of the tour and highlight was when we floated in boats in pitch-black caves, surrounded by thousands of glowworms. It was short & sweet, but I am glad we saw them. We left Waitomo immediately after the tour. Thankfully the drive to Lake Taupo was really straightforward, so we arrived with plenty of sunlight and time to check into our next accommodation. I think the universe was rewarding us for making it through some rough nights of sleep, because we were upgraded from a studio to a suite at the hotel. We have our own little cottage for the next few days- complete with a bedroom, living room, full kitchen, and porch! We went to the grocery store to stock up on a few things, picked up Chinese for dinner, and stayed in for a movie night. It’s the little things like movie nights that you really miss when traveling!

SIDE NOTE: REGARDING HITCH-HIKERS

Funny side story. On our drive out of Whitianga, we pulled over for a quick photo-op. A young man was hopping out of a RV across the street, backpack and random boxed cakes in tow, when he noticed us pulled to the side of the road. Jess decided to start some friendly banter with him, asking if he was hungry (referring to the cakes). I think she was caught off guard when instead of replying back to the comment, he asked if he could hop in. Completely flustered, the only response she could come up with was "Sorry, we can't. We have to pick up our moms?". The inflection in her own voice was a dead give-away that she was lying. I could not control my perplexed expression as I watched her completely lose her cool in this situation. It was really comical. I enjoyed poking fun at her inability to improvise, but it brought up a really good conversation...

What do you say when you know you are fully capable of helping someone, but for some reason are resisting? Do you have to explain yourself?

Hitch-hiking is such a big part of the culture and way of life in New Zealand. It works in this country! People are fundamentally trusting, and willing to help a stranger always. It is wonderful! From what we gather, everyone benefits. The person catching a ride is getting from point A to point B, and the driver often welcomes the company of a stranger on their long journey. It's a way to get to know one another.  It's really a shame that as Americans, and as women, we have been hard-wired to approach these kinds of situations from a place of suspicion and distrust. Just another reason New Zealand has been such a breath of fresh air for these two travelers! Maybe we will be more inclined to help the next hitch-hiker. Unfortunately for that guy, he looked a little too stinky to be picking up for a long drive , and the cakes were just too confusing.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 31, 2015: SAILING DAY!

Sailing day! We woke up early, packed for the sail, picked up some subway to go for lunch, and headed to the boat. I could tell we were in for a good time the moment we met our skipper, Avon, full of life and full of jokes and sarcasm! It was a small group for the sail, which was perfect. There was a family of five from England, and a group of three friends from Switzerland. We set sail around 10am to explore Mercury Bay, discovered and named by the explorer, Captain James Cook. Apparently Captain Cook was on an expedition to map the paths of Mercury & Venus, as they were visible on their pass across the Sun, which only happens every hundred years or so. Timing the planets’ transit between locations was one of the first ways of determining the distance of Earth from the Sun. Avon provided us hot tea & coffee and cookies, as we listened to story upon story along the way.

One of the first stories he told one of the young boys was quite entertaining. I guess Avon was anchored out at sea one night, sleeping below deck, when he heard some noises from outside. Upon checking around the boat, he found no sign of activity, and proceeded to relieve himself off the edge. While peeing, he heard the loud noise of a whale breathing through it's blow-hole.  There was a killer whale in the ocean right beneath where he was taking care of business! How many people do you know who have peed on an orca?

He then told us of his multiple run-ins with the law, as he was a big protester with green peace, against Brazilian drilling for oil.

Avon’s longest sail to date was 23 days to Fiji.

Avon has been divorced several times, and has multiple, adventurous children he spoke of. His son, Julian, is a six time champion of deep sea fishing/free diving. On the afternoon portion of our sail, Julian and a group of his buddies sped up to the sailboat on their small raft, after a day full of spear-fishing. He tossed a Spanish Maceral onboard to his dad, which Avon then proceeded to cut up for us to enjoy sashimi style…and I actually enjoyed it! If you know me, you know I don’t do seafood. I try and try to like it, but just can’t get past the fishy flavor. Maybe it was because it was so fresh, or maybe it just complimented the entire experience so well, but I almost liked the fish!

Avon is the epitome of someone who works their ass off, with little monetary reward, but is truly HAPPY. He spent his life savings on this boat- his beauty. I would dare say that she is his big love. Before skewing too sentimental, I have to note that the Kiwi's are a sarcastic people, and Avon was no exception. His quick wit and playful sense of humor was so refreshing and fun.

The day was unforgettable! Aside from the great conversations, the freeing feeling of sailing, and the phenomenal views, we actually got to participate in sailing. Avon taught me to tie a bow knot (which needs some practice before I master it). I helped lift a sail, and even got steer the boat into wharf.

After a sweet farewell with our funny skipper, we hopped into the car and were off to Waitomo! Our surroundings changed from the beaches of Whitianga, to mountains as we passed by the Pinnacles again, and then the back-country which reminded me a lot of West Virginia. It then transformed into miles of gorgeous vineyards lined with tall walls of trees, and the smell of honeysuckle brought up nostalgic feelings of Montauk for me.

The afternoon departure after a day of sailing was not a great idea in hindsight. We ended up getting a little lost, driving too far south into the Bay of Plenty region. Because we got turned around, we didn’t arrive to Waitomo until late, and after dark. We missed the check-in at our hostel, with no way to get into our accommodation. After driving around the desolate town of Waitomo, having no luck in finding another hotel that was open or in our price range , we decided our best course of action was to sleep in the car. It really hit me at that point how lucky I am to have a travel companion with a like “go with the flow” kind of attitude. I am grateful Jess doesn’t get her panties in a wad when things go a little off plan. We were able to laugh at ourselves and the situation. We even made a make-shift “tent” in our car, in attempt to have some privacy/peace of mind while we slept. You have to admit, sleeping in a car right outside of your hostel cabin is pretty good stuff.

  

FRIDAY, JANUARY 30, 2015: WHITIANGA "FITIANGA"

In pre-trip planning I stumbled upon a sailing charter that I really got my heart set on! There are a plethora of tour options in this area, but I was gravitating towards something a little less touristy. Most of the advertised tours use small motorized rafts filled with at least 15 people, which circulate all of the spots in just a few short hours. Sailing for a full day with a true local seemed a little bit more appealing! I had emailed the contact info on the website a couple times, with no luck. We woke up early this morning with the intention of tracking down the office so we could reserve a spot. This would not be as easy as it sounds! After a full morning of asking around the wharf, going between the information site and cafes, we finally were able to get a contact number (the skipper’s direct cell) off the internet using the free wifi at the library, and then used a payphone around the corner to make the call. Miraculously a chipper voice picked up on the other end, and told us we were in luck! He was taking his boat out tomorrow, and there was room for us! We decided to enjoy the rest of our day in Hahei- a short drive from Whitianga. A “quick” hour long hike from the car park would bring you to Cathedral Cove. This hike was drastically different from The Pinnacles- and stunning in its own right! A lot of the Narnia movies were shot along this very coastline, so you can imagine the gorgeous views. We were rewarded after the long, humid hike, with Cathedral Cove, which has to be one of the top three most beautiful beaches I have ever been to. Although a little touristy, I like the fact that you have to hike a good hour to get to the beach with no option for shortcuts, as it really helps weed out a lot of the mass crowds. A stunning cove separates two beautiful beaches. And the sound of the waves crashing into the cove walls sounds like fireworks going off. We relaxed on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, soaking in the sun and the views.

We had passed a winery a few times driving in and out of Whitianga, and thought it would be a good idea to stop on the way home to pick up a bottle of wine for our sail tomorrow. Once again, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The entrance was a long gravel road lined with trees and surrounded by sheep. We decided to get out and take a few pictures because you can always use more sheep pics! We were immediately charged by a crazy rooster. I was snapping pictures of the scene- Jessica and the rooster- laughing my butt off, when her eyes got extra wide and she told me to GET IN THE CAR. I immediately leaped into the passenger side door without asking questions, and quickly realized that some kind of pig/boar had taken interest and was starting to charge as well. Once both safely in the car, we continued down the path, only to be greeted by what looked like a reindeer straight off of Santa’s sleigh! It was a scene. There were trees, and creeks, and ponies grazing, and crazy animals around every bend. I am not kidding when I tell you it felt like we had entered some kind of alternate universe. We were really stumped when we arrived at an arrangement of wooden signs pointing every which way- each one with a different kind of wine posted. We were so confused. Do we try different kinds of wines in each of these small cottages surrounding us? On cue, a woman emerged out onto the porch of one of the cottages and asked us what we were looking for. “The wine of course?!”. She quickly informed us that there was no wine there…we were in a residential complex. I guess these people just got together one day and decided to call their little paradise “Summer Wines”- nevermind the confusion the sign off the highway may cause. We were out of luck on the wine front, but had way more fun stumbling upon this strange, strange place. What a gem!  I am falling more and more in love with all the odd surprises NZ offers around every corner.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 29, 2015: TO THE TOP!

We woke up bright and early to attempt the 40 minute hike up to the Pinnacles Peak.  The fog and moisture were pretty bad, but we set out anyway, hoping it would burn off as we made our way up. We had to use our headlamps for the first 20 minutes, as it was still really dark out. The hike got steeper and more slippery as we gained altitude. The hill transitioned into stairs, which transitioned into tall ladders, which turned into metal rungs installed directly into the rock mountain face. We were greeted by one obstacle after another, around every corner, each more intimidating than the last. To top it off, there was no end in sight. Nothing was in sight. The fog was too dense to catch any views, and it had started to pour on us. When we reached a series of boulders with more rungs, almost at a vertical angle, we decided to call it. Neither of us felt comfortable proceeding without the proper gear. Not to mention we were completely alone on this mountain top. It was a little frustrating being so close to the end, but we found comfort knowing that even if we had proceeded, we wouldn’t have been able to see the sunrise we were chasing to begin with. We counted the stairs from the peak just down to the hut- a whopping 550!

The few hour hike back down the mountain to our cars was great! We were pretty proud of ourselves when we made makeshift ponchos out of garbage bags at the DOC hut. Despite being a little wet, we really enjoyed the rain, as it offered a different hiking experience than the way up. The change in scenery was really refreshing and exciting, which would be necessary to get us through the next four hours of hiking on empty stomachs. We hadn’t realized it the day prior, but we had taken the harder route up the mountain- Billy Goat Trail. It was no wonder we were pooped! We decided to take the easier Webb Creek route back down on day two- not only for an easier time, but for a change in trails. Although this is considered the “easier” route, it is not for the faint of heart. It was steep, and rough on the knees and legs. We passed quite a few people attempting the hike up, who were struggling. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves though, and soon forgot that we never got to reach the very top. All we could think about was how true the saying was about life being about the journey and not the destination…and what a journey it was!

After reaching our car, we made our way back down to the town of Thames and chowed down on hamburgers and chicken sandwiches at the Thames Brew Cafe, hard earned grub! Took advantage of the free wifi & let our families know we had survived the hike!

We made our way from Thames to the beach town of Whitianga, where we would spend the next few days…another beautiful drive. Checked into Turtlecove Hostel, made some spaghetti dinner, and turned in early.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 28, 2015: "YOU GIRLS HIKING THE PINNACLES?!"

While researching must-do activities in the Coromandel Peninsula region, I read about The Pinnacles Hike- famous for its sunsets and sunrises. The best way to do this hike is in two days, booking a bunk in the DOC hut, which puts you just 40 minutes down from the Pinnacles peaks & their famous views. So, one day of hiking to the hut, a good night's sleep, followed by an early morning ascent to the peak to catch the sunrise before another full day hike back down the mountain. We had bunks reserved for the night, and were all set! Or so we thought.

First order of business was getting directions to the base. When we asked a Thames local for directions we were looked up and down, which was followed by comments like "good for your girls" and "hope you ate a big lunch". That should have been our first warning. In all fairness, we did attempt to buy some meals for the hike and additional supplies from a gas station on the way up, however had credit card issues. We decided that the bananas, granola bars, and almonds we had would suffice. Both of us were starting to feel anxious to get a move on, as we only had so many hours of sunlight to reach our beds for the night.

A 30 minute drive to the DOC welcome center, followed by another 20 minutes up a gravel dirt road lead us to the car park- which held all of 4 cars.

The first leg of the hike had us skipping from boulder to boulder across a gorgeous river. Two hours into the hike we were still pumped full of excitement and adrenaline from the most beautiful hike I've ever been on. We were un-phased by the difficulty of the hike, as we were in total sensory overload. I have never seen so many greens in my life! It was unreal. We went from walking on solid dirt ground, to loose gravel, to huge stone stairs, to hiking up old railroads that were once used for logging. We would hear babbling creeks that grew into rushing rivers, that turned into magnificent waterfalls tucked into the lush green landscape. Jess and I were blown away by the lack of bugs & creatures in this dense forest. Gorgeous trees, beautiful waterfalls, and no bugs?! Paradise found! We were even able to drink straight out of the river with my nifty Lifestraw...thanks Dad!

Hour three into the hike, and the workout started to catch up to us. We were exhausted, hungry, and a bit delirious at that point. Conversations from earlier in the day about how fortunate we were to be able to do this hike, transitioned into loopy conversations about the likelihood of there being a McDonald's and a hot tub at the top, or at the very least a cappuccino machine. We hiked and laughed the rest of the way to the hut, just in time for an amazing fiery sunset.

Upon reaching the hut, we were promptly greeted by more perplexed looks from the other (more prepared) hikers. "Where is the rest of your gear???" (insert confused stare). We missed the memo on hiking supplies. We didn't even pack changes of clothes...talk about clueless! We were left to sleep in the clothes we had hiked in, damp from sweat and rain. We rationed out our meager food supply for the next 24 hours, and salivated as we watched others cooking up a storm of foods they had so wisely packed. Turned into bed early & just prayed we would be warm enough in our sleeping bag liners to sleep through the night.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 28, 2015: TAKE ME TO THE COUNTRY

Is there an “I left my heart in New Zealand” shirt? Because there needs to be one! The magic of New Zealand really hit me on our drive from Auckland to Thames. The scenery was magic. The countryside was a series of rolling hills spotted with hundreds of cow & sheep. If you know me well, you should not be surprised that I could not contain my excitement. Jessica and I were squealing “holy cow!” & “oh sheep!” around each corner.

The contrast between the quaint landscape, and the Kiwis’ wild way of driving is something to experience. The major highways connecting the towns and cities of New Zealand are narrow, winding, two lane roads- posting speed limits of 100 km/hour. Bridges are often just one lane, with a small sign advising you to yield, or “give way” to oncoming cars. There are cheeky traffic signs around every bend telling you to slow down in a way completely unique to New Zealand. You’re never quite sure if the sign is referring to driving, or some bigger life lesson.

“other people make mistakes, slow down”

“think about what’s ahead of you”

“don’t drink and drive. C.U.Soon”

“pay attention, wandering minds cause crashes”

“control your pace, enjoy the ride”

The country landscape is so peaceful and calming, but the drivers are extreme- and will keep you on edge. Luckily there are pull off points every few miles to allow for eager drivers to pass you!

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 28, 2015: HELLO & GOODBYE AUCKLAND

We had a great breakfast at a hip breakfast spot around the corner from our hostel called Imperial Lane. Spent the morning enjoying cappuccino, goat cheese and traditional smoked butter toast, AND free WIFI…spent an hour or so planning the next couple days. We decided we couldn’t leave Auckland before doing at least one touristy thing- so settled on the Sky Tower. 220 meters up- the views were pretty amazing, and gave us a bird’s eye view of the city we spent one short night in! On to the Coromandel Peninsula!

TUESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2015: WHAT DAY IS IT?

After just about a five hour flight from Papeete to Auckland, and crossing time zones, we arrived to New Zealand early afternoon on Tuesday. We picked up our rental car- and I jumped right into left-side driving! The most challenging piece of this driving seems to be the controls being reversed- resulting in my windshield wipers going wild every dang time I try to signal a turn. It’ll sink in eventually- probably just in time for us to leave New Zealand ;) We made a quick stop at The Warehouse- best compared to Walmart- to grab bottled water, fruit, and snacks. We found our way into the city center and our hostel (Auckland Nomad). There was a restaurant named Fort St Union attached to the hostel, where they offered hostel guests a free pitcher of beer with purchase of a pizza- yes please!

MONDAY, JANUARY 26, 2015: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

LAX to Tahiti! We didn't plan our Tahiti layover very strategically- leaving us only a quick overnight stay on the island, with no opportunity to explore. We arrived around 10:30pm, and were greeted with a lovely ukulele band. Once through security we quickly realized that the airport terminal we had planned on sleeping off our layover in, was an outdoor one. This fact made it hard to ignore the airplane announcements and signs alerting travelers of the dengue fever outbreak-carried and spread by mosquitoes. First of many detours so far in this adventure! After deciding coming down with an exotic disease on night one was not a risk we wanted to take, we sought after indoor shelter for the night. We ended up spotting a motel just up a hill across from the airport- so trucked it up there. It was good for a few hours of sleep and a warm shower in the morning! We left just after sunrise for our next leg...Tahiti to Auckland!

SUNDAY, JANUARY 25, 2015: TAKE OFFS & LANDINGS

So much build up and anticipation over the past year, and here it is! My departure date has finally arrived. My mind has been racing all over the place. I have been dealing with irrational thoughts of all the worst-case scenarios I could encounter over coming months, however am confident in knowing I have carefully selected this path. I am terrified of this journey, however excited to dive into the unknown! I am sad to say goodbye to family and friends, however so happy and excited to be leaving feeling all of the encouragement and support from loved ones. Too many emotions for this girl...so as usual I just put off dealing with them until the last possible moment. Kristin dropped me off at the airport, and after a teary goodbye and some words of enthusiasm and encouragement, I was off!

Reuniting with my travel buddy, soon-to-be partner-in-crime, Jessica, was another source of uncertainty and anxiety. Jess and I haven't seen each other since college! We have been planning this whole crazy endeavor via texts, emails, and phone calls for the past nine months- and were meeting at the airport just hours before the big departure! I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief the moment we met up. It was like we hadn't missed a beat. And it was comforting to finally be around someone who was experiencing the same mix of emotions I had been going through the past few months. Despite our individual doubts and fears- we were able to tell each other that not only were we going to be OKAY... but the next year was going to be nothing less of spectacular!

CATCHING UP

Hard to believe it has already been one week since our sneakers left American soil! Hard to believe it has only been one week. We have done so much in so little time, and the adventures keep coming! It seems truly impossible to describe the experiences we have had this week, but I will try my best. My smile keeps growing, stomach keeps aching from laughing, and heart keeps swelling with each moment in New Zealand. I'm playing a bit of catch up in posting, as finding WIFI has become somewhat of an adventure in itself. I have been keeping a daily journal/blog to record how we are spending our time, and will continue to post online as opportunities arise!