Monthly Archives: April 2013

Rotorua, if I forget you…

Rotorua, if I forget you….

I have officially found the promised land, y’all, and it goes by the name Rotorua. It was a busy week- from a day spent in bubbling in hot mud to a trip to The Shire to a rainy hike in the Redwood forest, a mini roadtrip to go caving and a 23 foot drop down the world’s largest commercially rafted waterfall, the adventures were abundant, and each gave the others a run for their money. New Zealand is, simply put, a glorious country full of beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and adventures so amazing, you never thought you’d experience them in your lifetime. And the best part is, you experience them one after another- they just keep coming!

We arrived in Rotorua a bit later than expected, about midnight on the eve of Kate’s 25th birthday. After a long bus ride we were weary and got lost on our way to our hostel, which ended up being just a few blocks from the bus station. We searched for what felt like hours, and finally ended up at the Crash Palace, where we, quite literally, crashed. The next day was Kate’s birthday and after a bit of a sleep in we took a shuttle to the Hell’s Gate mud pools, a short drive away. The mud pools are naturally occurring thermal mud alongside sulphur baths that are great for softening skin! What we didn’t know at the time was that Kate is allergic to sulphur- oops! Her eyes started to burn and her head began to ache, and after a hot shower, she still didn’t feel up to doing much for her 25th. We had planned on a doing a Maori cultural experience, but I was happy to save the money and instead we had a glorious steak dinner at the Kurious Kiwi on the main drag. Duck fat potatoes, onion rings, garlic bread, we went a little overboard but it was so worth it after eating mostly ramen noodles and cheap Thai food! I chalk it up to saying we needed the protein.

The next day was probably one of the best days of my life. A bus picked us up and took us…to…HOBBITON!!!! Though or names aren’t in the final credits of the extended cuts of the movies (where fans could pay $39.95 to have their names appear), Kate and I are still pretty big LOTR fans. So when we walked though the gates of The Shire into a land of colorful hobbit holes, beautiful flowers, and frolicking lambs, we were pretty much holding back tears of joy the entire time. Hobbiton is not the original set built for the first three Lord of the Rings movies, instead, it’s an exact replica of the set used. The initial set was made of cheap building materials that could be taken down, since Peter Jackson had borrowed someone’s farm for the prime, hilly location. But after filming wrapped, the farm owners said they’d be happy for him to rebuild when it came time to film The Hobbit, as long as it was a permanent settlement where they could give tours to the curious New Zealand natives and rabid fans that flock to Bag End from around the world (like us :D). The set has been used to film The Hobbit trilogy most recently, and is absolutely beautiful. They keep the grass trimmed just as Hobbits did, by letting sheep graze upon it. All the flowers and vegetables are real, tended to meticulously to keep it in tip top Hobbiton shape. It is truly the most magical place on earth. After the tour of the hobbit holes you even go to the Green Dragon, walking over the bridge near the mill, where you are given a free drink! There are four options, two traditional ales, one Old English style and one more modern, a hard apple cider, or a non alcoholic ginger beer. They “shout” you (buy you) your first round, so Kate and I sampled the Old English ale and the cider, and tucked into some delicious beef and ale pies. They also have cold pork pies and other Tolkeiny treats! It was honestly a beautiful day.
Kate and I knew we’d be dropping some major dough in Rotorua and decided to do a free activity on our third day. The Redwood Forest seemed just the place since we both love hiking and I had never seen a redwood tree. We trekked out the the forest, taking the outer link bus and then walking down a long, dusty road. It was beautiful out- cool, clear, a light mist falling. Conditions seemed perfect as we head up the path- a loop of a two hour hike through the redwoods, uphill to a lookout point, and back down. About halfway up the uphill climb the light mist turned into a drizzle, and then, into a downpour. It was POURING rain and we were climbing up a muddy path. We were about halfway, so there was no sense in turning around. Instead, to protect our canvas packs that wouldn’t wick away water, we tied our rain jackets around them, and let the rain soak our clothes. I, of course, had chosen to wear jeans. Brilliant! By the time we made it to the bottom it, of course, had stopped raining. And as we caught the bus back to town we shivered, but laughed, excited for food and hot showers. All in all, the rain made the hike more adventurous, and if I were with anyone but Kate I don’t think I would have laughed as hard or enjoyed being soaking wet quite as much.
The main thing that I wanted to do on the North Island was the famous caving and black water rafting in Waitomo. About two hours away, Kate and I were having trouble finding a ride that wouldn’t set us back almost more than it cost to go caving. We went downstairs to talk to our hostel manager about the cheapest way to get there and the most serendipitous moment ever happened- there was a guy with a car downstairs trying to book the same trip…for the same day! It was as if the universe were telling us to go caving! We all three booked together and met up the morning of the trip, driving to Waitomo together. Our lovely driver and new friend was Lars from Holland, a lively, lanky, house music enthusiast who wanted to talk about American DJs and music festivals. By the time we got to Waitomo it was the afternoon, and we met our guide and geared up for the caves. We had to wear wetsuits, jackets, cotton pants, rubber boots, and helmets with attached lights to see in the cave. After a short refresher on abseiling, we strapped on our harnesses and got ready to repel into the cave. I, of course, volunteered to go first in a moment of sheer ballsiness, and after looking down into the cave, the 25 meter (82 foot) drop looked quite far down. But I strapped on my harness and jumped off the platform, abseiling down into the darkness of the cave. It was beautiful, wet moss covered the walls and light streamed into the opening. I landed in a river and waited at the bottom for the rest of my fellow cavers. Kate came down after me, then Maggie from France, Mark from the Netherlands, our old friend Lars, and finally, our guide. We then grabbed some innertubes to and hiked upstream to the glow worm cave. After a few tight squeezes through massive limestone caverns we made it. We turned off our lights and were sitting in total darkness in the cave. Then, we heard a large BAM, then another, and another. It only took one hit for me to realize it was Amy, our guide, slapping the innertube into the river. As she did, more and more glowworms started to appear in the cave, their blue lights lighting up the ceiling and walls like tiny constellations and clusters of beautiful stars. “Did I wake them up?” she asked. We all agreed she most certainly had. But in fact, she was using adrenaline via our fear of the bang to dilate our pupils. When you get a surge of adrenaline in the dark your eyes become more focused and your senses heighten, making you more able to see what’s in the cave around you. Pretty cool, right? So there we sat, gazing at glowworms. After a short hike back upstream, we plopped our innertubes down into the water and continued down the underwater river. We stopped deep in the cave, turned on our lights, and started caving into tiny holes and tight squeezes. I thought I was claustrophobic but apparently I’m not because those holes were TINY. There were moments where I thought I was stuck, but somehow always managed to clamber back out into the darkness. After squeezing and floating some more, we harnessed back up and rock climbed back up the wall, this time about 90 feet, into the twilight. I was nervous, because it was hard to stick my little limbs into makeshift footholds to hoist myself up, but somehow, I climbed my way out. Caving was awesome, and after some hot soup and a long drive back I slept like a baby.
The next morning we woke up early for yet another day of adventure- rafting the Kaituna river, famous for it’s 23 foot waterfall, the largest commercially rafter waterfall in the world. It. was. WET. We suited up and Kate and I jumped in the front of the boat, since our fellow rafters were a bit more nervous than us. We were purely excited, and as we rafted the two “practice” waterfalls (still pretty large!) we got even more amped for the big falls, even though by the time it came Kate and I were already soaking wet. When it came time, we were told to jump into the bottom of the raft and hold onto the sides, clutching our paddles in one hand. We came pretty close to capsizing, but somehow came out without tipping, and continued down the class five rapids. It was exhilarating. The water was freezing, but again, the adrenaline kept us warm in our soaking wet fleeces and wetsuits. Wee were SO excited to raft the Wairo the next day- there are no waterfalls but it’s much more technical and narrow. But when the morning came after a long night of rain, the river had flooded and we were unable to raft. It was SO sad, especially after our great day at Kaituna. And we couldn’t reschedule, because the mighty wairo is only open 26 days a year, closing in April. I took that as a sign that I need to come back to New Zealand one day, and put the Wairo on the top of my to do list.
Rotorua is amazing. It’s a geothermal wonderland (which is why it smells so strongly of sulphur everywhere), with a great Maori culture and so much to do. The people are so friendly, and everyone gives suggestions on what to do for the rest of your time in New Zealand. Shop owners were pleased that we had devoted an entire week to their lovely town, because most only stay a day. We had given it a week and I had more fun than I could have imagined. I had high expectation for Rotorua, but this town exceeded all of them. I love New Zealand, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

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LOVING NEW ZEALAND!

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April 18, 2013 · 4:22 am

Greetings from Rotorua!!!

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Kate and I hit the geothermal mud baths and sulphur pools for her 25th birthday! It was a glorious day basking in the chemical stink of nature!

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April 15, 2013 · 1:00 pm

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April 11, 2013 · 5:57 am

Fijian Sunset

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April 10, 2013 · 8:51 pm

Impressions of Fiji on a Shoestring

Fiji is, in a phrase, not at all what I expected. When one imagines Fiji I suppose white sand beaches, turquoise water, leaning palm trees, and hula dancers come to mind. And while I’m sure somewhere on this island of Viti Levu, or somewhere very near off the coast, one can find all of these things, the capital city, Nadi is home to brown water, volcanic sand, and locals who are pushy, aggressive, and frequently have a mouthful of gold teeth. Kate and I spent three days in Nadi accompanied by a new friend, Lara, whom we met in our hostel. The first two days we spent slathering ourselves with sunscreen and laying on the beach, taking time to “cool off” in the very warm, very dirty water on the very hot, very dirty beach upon which the backpackers hostels sat. Fiji on a shoestring means you are not staying on a five star hotel’s man made beaches, we realized quite quickly.
The mosquitos bit us, the sun burnt us, and we decided to head out for an island, booking in town with a travel agent who took $75 FJD and booked us for Robinson Crusoe Island just a short boat trip south of Nadi, assuring us white sand beaches and beautiful snorkeling awaited us. She said the bus would pick us up at 8:30 and after a long day of trying to catch yet another bus that never came to the mud pools and giant orchid gardens, we gave up and went back to our hostels, excited to be picked up by a reliable bus that we had prepaid for to take us to a beautiful island, which we had also pre paid for. Everything, it seemed, would work out in the end.
Well, the next morning 8:30 passed and then 8:45, and by the time we reached 9 it seemed high time to make a phone call and ask what was happening. We called the woman in town that we had payed and she told us the bus was probably on “Fiji Time”. Every local says, they are on “Fiji time”. At first, this was fun and totally acceptable. Your waitress takes a long time to bring your drink- Fiji time! The internet breaks in your hostel and it isn’t repaired for hours- Fiji time! But after awhile it seemed it was used exclusively to cover up for mistakes and as a strange half-assed way to apologize. We said had a feeling it wasn’t “Fiji time” and that she should call and check. So she did and it turns out the bus had forgotten us. Again, we had paid $75 and the BUS HAD FORGOTTEN US. We were pissed. We took a $10 taxi into Nadi town where the bus was waiting for us by a giant Hindu temple. With the staff claiming Fiji time we climbed on board and took our seats. “Fiji time!” was all we heard. You forgot us- Fiji time. We have no reservation- Fiji time. We aren’t booked at all- Fiji time. Luckily for us by the time we got to Robinson Crusoe island about an hour and a half later we were escorted up the dorms to find them completely empty, albeit one girl from Michigan who was leaving that morning. She bid us farewell and we dropped our things. We had a 13 bed room all to ourselves. While this sounds like it would be awesome, it actually just seemed creepy and we still shared a communal bathroom down a steep staircase and a walk from our room.
Never ones to make the worst of situations, Kate and I went for a walk on the much cleaner, much more beautiful beach, took pictures on the sandbar, and frolicked around looking inside shells for hermit crabs and climbing around on palm trees. We took a dip in the salt water pool, redeemed our free massage, and got a bucket of beers. Despite our crazy morning, everything seemed great and we were enjoying our time meeting the other visitors, talking to the locals, and watching babies chase each other around in the sea foam. We took a deep breath and relaxed. Since we had already paid for this all inclusive two night stay no one harassed us to buy things, no one came up to us and suggested in a way so friendly it was strange to book a day trip with their brother or friend or uncle. Instead, everyone just asked us if we were enjoying ourselves and would we like another beer. We would indeed, we decided, and after a few hours we all had dinner as a large group as the stars came out with local men playing acoustic guitar and setting up a welcoming kava ceremony.
Kava, derived from the root of a pepper plant is the national drink of Fiji when pulled out of the ground, dried, ground up and mixed with water. It tastes, for lack of a better term, like dirt. But it’s sedative properties are world renowned, and Kate and I shrugged at each other. “When in Rome,” we decided, and took our places after dinner with the other guests of the 28 acre island. We learned how to drink the kava, saying “Bula”, when to clap, etc. and everyone went around partaking in drinking the kava. Then we all went around and said our names and “for fun” whether we were married or single. A majority of us were single, with a few married couples thrown in. They gave us tiny coconut bowls half filled to drink from, and after careful consideration with a Kiwi man I sat next to we decided that while we did want to experience the sedative properties of kava, we did not, in fact, want to drink a million tiny bowls like everyone else, but would rather drink just two large ones. So we did. And I felt nothing. But nonetheless we had fun, talking with the other travelers and drinking kava, passing it down to one another (mostly to a German backpacker who wanted to have “funny dreams”), laughing and musing on Fiji and the island. I sat next to two Fijian men who worked on the island and did the ceremony every night for the new travelers who had joined them that day. They were nice, and we talked about how the bus had left us, which they thought was very funny and again chalked up to “Fiji time”, about how they got sick of drinking kava every night with strangers, and about things to do on the island. All of it totally innocent, with Kate and a few others chiming in. Kate and I also laughed with a New Zealander about Flight of the Conchords, which was excellent, put us in a great mood, and as the kava kicked in and we grew tired, we bid everyone goodnight. One of the Fijian men who had participated in the kava ceremony with all of us asked me why we were going to bed. I said because we were tired. He asked where we were sleeping. Strange I thought. “On the island,” I said, trying to be as vague as humanly possible.
Kate and I went up to our room and decided because it was just the two of us that we should lock the doors. It was creepy to be in a giant room full of empty beds. It felt like an abandoned orphanage. But with locked doors, full bellies, and tired minds we drifted off to sleep by about 9:30 pm. I did not know, but at the time Kate had a feeling something bad was going to happen and not wanting to worry me, had wordlessly grabbed her knife, just in case, leaving in next to her while she slept. THANK GOD. So there we were, asleep in a giant room of empty beds, when at 11:45 we were both were startled awake to the sound of someone walking up the stairs to our room. “Kate,” I whispered, “do you hear that?”
“Yes,” she whispered back. And then the knocking started.
At first, a few knocks. Then, a fiddle with the latch. Then, the voice of the Fijian man from the ceremony saying my name. MY NAME. Over and over, “Erin, Erin, Erin,” he said in a loud whisper, fiddling with the lock, shaking the door back and forth trying to get in.
My heart was in my throat. I started to think about grabbing my knife from my bag next to me, but first we needed a lantern- the room was pitch dark. He kept saying my name and shaking the door, “Erin….Erin” he said louder and louder. Kate was clutching her knife, both of us laying there frozen, our minds racing with what we would do if he got inside our room. There were no windows, only screens, so he could hear anything we said. We said nothing. And after what felt like an eternity, but I’m sure was only a few minutes, he turned around and walked away.
Kate Parnell, the Rambo that she is, sprang up in bed with her knife. We tried to turn on the lights, but they were out. Nothing worked. No fans, no lights. Nothing. We grabbed our lanterns and my knife, and after a few minutes of discussion, went to find someone who worked there to demand an explanation and a change of rooms to one with windows and a lock. An older woman who was drinking tea outside took us to the manager, who apologized, but seemed, quite scarily, unsurprised. She led us to a private room with a large, king sized bed, and asked if it would be okay. Anywhere on the tiny island was honestly, not okay, but there was nowhere to go. We were trapped, on an island that takes half an hour to walk around entirely, with a person who had tried to break into our room for who knows what, and all of his friends. The islanders all saw themselves as “one big happy family”. The women told us the power was out because they turned the generator off around 11:30 or 12, which explained the pitch blackness and took their leave. After the two women left, staring at us blankly, we went into our room and locked the door. Our adrenaline was in high gear, I could feel energy coursing through my entire body. Coupled with the kava, it made for one killer headache. We both couldn’t sleep and stayed up til about 4 am talking and whispering, then listening to the sounds of footsteps outside of our door again and again. We felt extremely unsafe and extremely uncomfortable. Eventually, knives in hand, lanterns on, we drifted off to sleep for a few hours. Sleep did not come easily, nor did peace of mind. The fact that this happened on the fifth day of our trip, in a country like Fiji- synonymous with relaxation- on a tourist ridden island, by one of the employees of the island made us all the more uneasy. The fact that he came right after the generator turned off and we were left to fend for ourselves in the dark, however, was by far the scariest.
So, after a long night of laying in the dark looking up at the ceiling, dawn broke and we left our room to talk to management. They apologized, but said that the manager who had helped us switch rooms that night had told them nothing of the situation. We briefed them, they apologized more, and asked if we planned to stay. We had breakfast and talked to some other guests about it, all of whom were sympathetic but shared the notion of, “if your room was upgraded and you have a locking door, what’s the big deal?” With the safety of daylight and traveler comradery we agreed, and got ready to go kayaking.
After a leisurely kayak out to the end of a sandbar we docked our boats and laid around, playing with shells, weaving them into Kate’s hair, splashing about enjoying the sun. An hour later we decided to paddle back, but about half way to shore we realized the tide had gone out and we were in extremely shallow water, and since Kate’s kayak’s hull was quite a bit deeper than mine she began to beach herself all over the sandbar’s shallow pools. After a few minutes of struggling we decided to tow our boats in, walking them to shore. Kate was about to step out when a poisonous sea snake swam past her foot. If there is one thing Kate hates- it’s snakes. If there is one thing that can kill us on the entire island- it’s poisonous sea snakes. Needless to say, we were a bit freaked out. I’ve never seen Kate jump so quickly- in seconds she was standing her her kayak, struggling to stay afloat. From there it was a bunch of hijinx- trying to tow Kate in with my kayak, trying to ditch Kate’s kayak all together and put her in mine, trying to push the sea snake away. Then, another sea snake swam by and into a hole. Then we realized there were holes EVERYWHERE and in the struggle to get Kate’s kayak moving we had gotten mine stuck! We had beached ourselves right in the middle of a sean snake lair. A LAIR. We were panicking, but laughing, but more panicking. We pushed ourselves as far as we could to shore, then jumped out of our kayaks and ran like hell to the sandy beach. We ditched our kayaks down the beach and walked back to the camp, realizing upon arrival that we had been gone for two and a half hours. Robinson Crusoe Island was indeed turning out to be an adventure.
After lunch we napped and read and played rummy with some fellow travelers and just generally had a lovely afternoon/evening, casually brushing aside the sea snake incident. And in the morning we packed our bags, which have somehow gotten 25 pounds heavier with the addition of one sarong, and got ready to head back to Nadi for our last night in Fiji before we headed off to the land of the long white cloud, New Zealand.

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And we’re off!

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Kate and I left Fort Lauderdale at 12:50 pm today, April 2nd, 2013. We have a few layovers and many, many hours on planes and in airports ahead of us, but we are excited, albeit already missing the crap out of our families and friends. I cried a lot this morning hugging my parents and sisters, I’ll miss them more than anything else in America including the giant showers, cheesy hamburgers, and Pizza Hut 10 Dollar Dinner Boxes. But, adventure awaits. I keep looking at Kate saying, “This is crazy. I never thought we’d be here. We’re actually doing this!” And she always answers with an enthusiastic “I know! I can’t believe it!” We feel so lucky to be going where we’re headed, with 42 pounds of luggage on each of our backs. We’ll see you for the holidays, America. Save us a slice of apple pie!

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April 2, 2013 · 9:12 pm