Rest Stop Snacks

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From top left: bowl of live spiders, bowl of spicy crickets, boiled chicken fetuses and baby chickens with a giant bowl of cooked spiders in the middle, an array of bugs and arachnids for munching wit hard boiled duck eggs.

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June 14, 2013 · 7:54 am

Sometimes you get threatened by a Cambodian street gang

Sometimes, on an around the world jaunt, you’ll run into problems. You’ll have to classify these problems after the fact as something that was either totally out of your hands, or, what Kate and I like to call, Kelley and Skye hijinx, i.e. we most likely caused this to happen but are safe now so let’s crack up about it endlessly.
Last night was a slight combination of both. It started out completely out of our hands, but slowly dissolved into the hijinx that would land us using an emergency credit card at a 3 star hotel, drinking instant coffee and using the free internet to write about this very instance. You see, yesterday, Kate and I boarded a rickety old bus to take us to another rickety old bus. On that rickety old bus we stayed, for nine hours. NINE hours to go about 300 kilometers. I know what you’e thinking, “how in the fresh hell is that possible?” and the answer is, that’s typical, and not even the longest bus day we’ve had on this journey. it was, however, the most frustrating. We stopped about every other kilometer for about fifteen minutes to load on people in surgical masks carrying boxes. What was in the boxes, we wondered? Fruit? Clothes? Which quickly turned into talk of drugs? Fake Prada bags? Child slaves? Guns? The fact of the matter is, no one seemed to know but the bus driver and the men getting on and off. So, here are some Dos and Donts about what to do on a Southeast Asian intercity bus ride:

DO bring a sweater, because even though it’s searing hot outside. Like, baking your skin off hot, they WILL attempt to freeze you off of the bus. The a/c vent is a personal one, like on an airplane, only you can’t close it, and it WILL pound you with freezing cold air throughout the entirety of your journey.

But also, DON’T dress only for cold weather because the bus a/c might be broken in which case prepare for the hottest, sweatiest, sick nasty bus ride of your life. There will be B.O. It will mix in the air. But at least you won’t have to pee as much since your body will need all the water it can get. Really, it’s just:

DO prepare for all climates from Everest Base Camp to the Serengeti.

DON’T ask what’s in the boxes or question if it’s okay to bring this many live roosters onto a public bus. You may implicate yourself should your bus be pulled over and searched. Better not to know. Better to try and sleep. But,

DON’T sleep unless you have a fanny pack for your valuables or a friend in the aisle seat who cannot sleep on the buses or airplanes because locals WILL rifle through your shit to find money, cell phones, really anything of value.

DO use the squat toilets at the rest stops because you won’t have another chance. Learn to use them while wearing a backpack and a purse dangling dangerously below your knees. Do bunch your pants up as much as possible but don’t squat too low because then you risk getting your self soaking wet with water from…where? Who knows? Punjabi pants are great for bus rides because you can pull up the elastic around the ankles.

DONT eat the food at the rest stops, even if you have a strong stomach. Trust me implicitly on this. Even though your bus driver will pull over what feels like way too many times to get off the bus and have a full half hour long sit down meal, you shouldn’t.

DO bring Pringles.

DONT get excited when you see GI Joe Retaliation is playing because you won’t be able to hear it. But DO prepare to watch, on full blast, the same Cambodian music video DVD on every single bus ride. You’ll memorize the songs and vampire movie commercial in between. You’ll be an EXPERT at Southeast Asian dance moves. You’ll turn the volume up all the way on your iPod and just be mixing the sounds of the Vaccines with the sounds of a Cambodian karaoke music video superstar and at first you will think it’s hilarious. But slowly, it will drive you to the point of asking the person next to you to knock you out. Just punch you right in your face to avoid this fate.

DO get over your crippling fear of spiders because they will be crawling around in a tray on the floor of the rest stop that doesn’t offer Pringles, but does let you pick out your very own giant spider with a giant stinger on its butt so they can fry it for you on a stick. And you can eat it.

DO get over the fact that the person behind you is eating a giant bag of crickets. Snack with them if you’re adventurous. Yolo.

It probably sounds miserable. It probably sounds like I’m complaining. In actuality, if you have any sense of humor at all, you will find it hilarious. HILARIOUS. The first go around. Then it goes from funny to zany, funny but seriously what is happening, what is life, am I a person, do I have a family, what is my name? These are the stages of intercity bus rides. You will feel them all. And then you will arrive in your destination city, in this case, it’s Phnom Penh. And in a matter of hours you will have been threatened by a Cambodian street gang.
Kate and I had stayed in Phnom Penh before. You may recall, if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, that we were upgraded at our hostel, MeMates Place from the dorm to a private air conditioned room with an ensuite bathroom and HOLY SHIT it was awesome. When things like that happen, because someone overbooked the dorm, you truly feel your guardian angel kissing your forehead, telling you that you deserve this. You can now not worry once more about top vs bottom bunks, snoring, farting, hard partying roommates who don’t shower, etc.
So we booked for our layover night in Phnom Penh at MeMates because DUH they were a great hostel the first go round and they had a delicious cheap breakfast AND you could book your 30 hour bus ride to Laos through them. And we were SO looking forward to that bus ride. So we got to our hostel, and, here is a copy of the email I sent to my Dad about what happened next, edited to exclude certain details (since this is a public blog and I’m apparently on the run now):

Hey Dad!
Hope trial is going great! So Kate and I got off of our 9 hour bus ride from Siem Reap and took a tuktuk to Me Mates Place, where we had stayed before, and booked another night, to sleep before catching our bus to Laos. We booked the room two days in advance and got a confirmation email that it would indeed be ready for us.
Upon arrival, they had overbooked us and were acting REALLY weird. Also, the staff we had known before was not the same. It was all strangers, which should have been a warning sign, and kind of was. But they quickly told us they could book us at a hostel up the road (read: in the red light district) if we just gave them $10. It was all sorted! “Great!” we thought as we headed into our free van to drive us to the hostel
So we get there, they have us sign in and take us to a room and I’m not exaggerating, Dad, there was blood and water on the floor, Kate’s pillow was stained with brown, and my sheets had been eaten by a rat. Also, there was poop in the toilet. It was basically a Hungarian torture chamber, or a jail cell. We went and got dinner, thought about it, came back, and there was even more water on the floor. So we decided to NOT stay there.
Because we had already paid $10 to the strangers at Me Mates, we asked the staff of the 11 Happy hostel (the red light one) to please call them so that we could get our $10 back since we weren’t staying at either place. They graciously let us use their phone, and when we called back, we may have incurred the wrath of a Cambodian street gang. I DON’T WANT TO FREAK YOU OUT, and as such, we are checked in (on the emergency credit card) to a nice hotel with 24 hour security filled with Westerners. But back to the story: so we asked the guy for our money back and he said he wouldn’t give it to us because he had had to pay $3 to book us at the other hostel. But it was his mistake that they overbooked. I know what you’re thinking, Dad, “Erin’s it’s $10, let it go”. But when you’ve been ripped off by lazy Cambodians for three weeks, it gets a little old and $10 is a small fortune here, so we insisted they give us our $10 back or we would involve the police because, in essence, what he was doing, was STEALING from us. He then said, “he’d find us” and demanded to know where we were staying, we told him hell no, and hung up, but before we did, he told us he’s find us whether we told him where we were staying or not. The people at 11 Happy hostel told us they didn’t even know this man, they’d never met him before, and they didn’t know what to tell us because THEY WEREN’T EVEN SURE HE WORKED AT MEMATES PLACE! This. is. Cambodia. We then high tailed it to a hotel. HOWEVER, do I feel safe in Phnom Penh now, not really? Are we planning on taking the 30 hour bus ride to Laos? No. Am I sleeping with my knife next to me Fiji style? You betcha. But really, don’t worry. We’ll laugh about this in Hanoi together.
I love you!!!!
EK

Oops! Typical Kelley and Skye hijinx! But don’t worry, y’all. We are leaving Phnom Penh in a matter of hours and headed to new lands, sans any street gangs trying to “find us”, and have learned our lesson about overbooked hostels. If they don’t have your reservation, just go find somewhere else! Also, never stay at MeMates place again! Also, the red light district’s hostels, while affordable, are in fact, scary as hell and could give you an incurable disease, and are therefore, not worth the money. Also, don’t you dare try to get your money ack. Also, rats will eat your sheets here.
Also, don’t threaten scary men with the police. Also, maybe don’t come back to Phnom Penh for awhile, and if you do, wear a disguise.

So there you have it, those have been the last 24 hours for me. How’s everyone else’s week going?

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Ta Prohm & one very excited Westerner.

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June 12, 2013 · 7:41 pm

Real Talk from Cambodia (the tangent of tangents)

I’ve been in Cambodia for three weeks now, and I’ve formed some opinions on this country. Opinions are, of course, like assholes, everyone as one, and therefore, I’d like to preface this post by saying three weeks in Cambodia probably isn’t enough to fully gage what it is I’m trying to talk about here, but I’d like to try nonetheless.
Cambodia is a beautiful country. This cannot be denied. It’s lush rainforests, breathtaking waterfalls, stunning ancient ruins, and smiling children (who are fond of waving from the front of their parents scooter as they whiz by) make for an aesthetically grand country, so close to the Equator you’ll no doubt sweat through all of your clothes in a matter of minutes. What isn’t so beautiful is what you find when you take your eyes off of the skies- off of the natural wonders, the ancient man made structures, the bright sparkling eyes of that child on the motorbike, and look down at the street. That’s when shit gets real. Because the amount of garbage, stray dogs, skinny, struggling children and staggering poverty of the people is enough to make anyone depressed for much longer than three weeks. We leave tomorrow for the green fields and tubing rivers of Laos, but what I have seen will stick with me.
Siem Reap is by far the nicest of the cities we have visited in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is, arguably, the country’s national treasure, and therefore a lot of money is flooded into this area, moreso it seems than Phnom Penh, the capital. Flooded, however, by foreign aide. India works to rehabilitate crumbling Ta Prohm, Japan works on Bayon, and the US floods money into various temple projects like the restoration of Angkor Wat. Where then, is the tourism money Cambodia makes from the thousands of people who visit these sites per day, going? Into the pockets of a corrupt government? Into flawed and cracked systems of healthcare of education? I don’t know, and neither, when asked, do the Cambodian people. They know their government is corrupt- there is really only one political party- and they don’t seem to care.
I chalk up their apathy from the hardships they have faced as a nation throughout the last century. They were bombed mercilessly in the World Wars, suffered in Vietnam and Korea, and lest we forget the most awful tragedy of our parent’s lifetimes, the tragedy so often swept under the rug and not taught in schools, the bloody “reign” of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian people are focused on their present with little regard toward their future. Their children beg or sell overpriced souvenirs in street stalls and on the roadsides, young men drive tuktuks for $2 a pop rather than work toward a higher education, and the human trafficking in Cambodia is on another level of horrifying. And yet, life rolls on for these people. And Angkor Wat is just another business venture- it’s no exception. It’s especially frustrating because as tourists we are told we must cover our shoulders and legs and show respect for the temples, yet the Cambodian people rush up to you while you walk about the temple grounds screaming at you to buy postcards or T shirts or sodas, blocking your pathway, grabbing your arm, asking you why you won’t help them, why you won’t buy 10 magnets for a dollar.
The answer to that question is, of course, that you don’t want to feed into the poverty levels. You don’t want to give money to these children who will just bring it back to their caregivers. You want to be the bigger person. But you’re not. Because the white guy behind you is going to buy that T shirt if you don’t and the cycle begins again. And it’s so. fucking. depressing. No one cares about their children’s futures, hell, the orphanages here are tourist attractions. No one cares about the quality of their craftsmanship or the authenticity of their goods or the honesty of their business. Everyone is just trying to rip everyone else off to make a buck, and as Westerners, we take the huge brunt of this practice. And it sucks. Of course it sucks, but at the end of the day, I make more in one shift at work than the average Cambodian does in a month, possibly a year. And yet I STILL have the audacity to complain about it. What the fuck is my problem, right?
Anyway, I digress. My issue with Cambodia is not with Angkor Wat or the quality of my visit or the searing heat or the amount of times I was so clearly ripped off. My problem is that there is no end in sight. No change to be made. No one is working toward a better Cambodia. Nobody. Not the king, or the government, or the people. Stray dogs with worms and fleas run around the streets. People stomp at them and chase them away when they beg for food or shelter because they’re, you know, SOCIAL ANIMALS WHO ARE STARVING IN THE STREETS. It makes me want to cry. I clearly have an issue with this stray dog problem and I won’t get into how Kate and I have made guerrilla efforts to fix it and failed miserably because on the off chance someone is reading this who doesn’t care about animals (what’s your deal, are you a serial killer or something?) we can just get back to the issue of children. And the elderly. And the fact that there are no elderly people to teach these children the way of the world because they were all killed in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. I’m not kidding- I have seen maybe two people over the age of fifty. Everyone else is young. Really young. With no one to guide them. And so how can I blame them for the way their children beg and run around naked and have no regard for their futures? How can I be mad when their kids beg for money, just like they did, and still do, in a way, selling fruit on the side of the road? How can I shake my head and say “no” to the double amputee who lost an arm and a leg to the genocide, who now wheels a makeshift cart about the city selling books about the very genocide that maimed him, that traumatized and scarred him physically and emotionally, for just a few dollars to white people who feel guilty? I have no right to judge Cambodia; I have no right to be disappointed in its people. But I want to change it so badly.
There are so many things that are needed here. A garbage program for starters. Clean water. Sustainable resources. Medical Care (free is even better!). An education initiative. Shit, I swear Kate and I have had so many talks about the things we want to change about Cambodia. For the better. For them, not for us. Better business practices for one! Everyone is selling the same shit at the same prices so NO ONE MAKES ANY MONEY. I want to teach Cambodia about supply and demand. I want to tell that woman to put down that Tshirt she’s trying to sell me and take her daughter to school because she has a right to an education and a future and the government is taking care of that. I want to tell the man selling books about the genocide that he doesn’t have to do that anymore. That the King has set up a program for victims of the Khmer Rouge. But I can’t. Because there fucking isn’t one. So he has to keep guilting white people into buying these books. He’s just trying to make an honest living. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
When Kate and I were in Sihanoukville, a beach town, where one comes for the sand and surf, and I suppose stays for the garbage and stray dogs, we were accosted, and I mean accosted, truly harassed by Cambodian people trying to get us to buy sunglasses, hair braids, bracelets, even get our pubic hair threaded on a PUBLIC BEACH for just a few dollars. I am now wearing three bracelets from the beach in Sihanoukville because as one girl put it, I’m an “easy sell”. Because I feel bad. Because my heart breaks for these eight year old girls hocking shitty bracelets on a Tuesday when they should be in school learning about history and math and geography and how to get as far away from Sihanoukville as their legs or their father’s tuktuks will carry them. I would be laying down, eyes closed, trying to be inconspicuous, and all of a sudden in my ear, “Lady, lady, you want to buy bracelet? I give you good price. Cheap cheap.” And as much as I’d say no, God damnit they’d wear me down. Little by little, til i was wearing one of their bracelets. But if you give a mouse a cookie, she’ll tell her friends and they’ll want cookies too. After awhile I’d just make excuses to not go to the beach anymore and just read outside at the hostel instead. I simply couldn’t afford it.
So that’s Cambodia for you. It’s a beautiful country with a glorious history complete with jungle ruins, silly monkeys (which I can’t get enough of) and delicious banana smoothies. But It’s a land of smiling children, most of whom have no future. Of friendly people, who stop being friendly once you won’t buy their wares. And of breathtaking temples, that will cease to exist once no more money can be squeezed out of them. If this sounds pessimistic, that’s because it is. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Cambodia immensely (other than a three day bout with some horrendous food poisoning), it has not left me unscathed. I want to take this country in my arms and cradle and give it a future by nurturing it and cultivating it and helping it grow. But I can’t do that, so I’ll start by donating to aid programs (NOT run by the government). I’m talking grass roots, ex pat, international foreign aid shit. I’ve got to, or I’d never forgive myself. I took what I could from Cambodia, and while it wasn’t much, I already feel like it’s time to give back.

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What I’ve been up to lately:

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May 15, 2013 · 9:56 pm

Land of the Long White Cloud

That’s what they call it. New Zealand. The land of the long white cloud. I heard it a million times while working at the Mai Kai, the world’s #1 Polynesian restaurant and always thought it was a joke. Because most of what the Mai Kai does is a joke (except the rum barrels, those are no joke!) But it is, in fact, the land of the long white cloud and I have a sticker to prove it. It should be land of the long grey cloud, though, because it seriously rains there all the time. Like, constantly raining. But it’s not the rain you’d imagine, pouring down, soaking through clothes and awnings alike, leaving nowhere safe to tread dryly. Instead, it’s a lovely mist, much like Ireland, that falls softly to the earth and turns everything brown and dry to green and lush. I happily donned my rain jacket everyday to head outside and hike a mountain, raft a river, abseil into a dark cave, fly to what I was sure was my imminent death on a 500 foot canyon swing. But I survived New Zealand and let me tell you, I didn’t just get by; I love that country. I miss it already.
Why is New Zealand so easily missable? Could it be the sweet woman in the Mt. Eden pharmacy who helped me pick out a multivitamin suitable for the cold I had carried over from Fiji? Perhaps the friendly bus driver who asked us all about American current events- events we had no grasp on, because we’d been out of the country? Maybe the meat pies, topped with creamy mashed potatoes whose smells waft out of the many pie bakeries along the roadsides? Or was it that every drive we took was through the most beautiful landscapes in the world? It was probably a mix of all those things, but I digress.
We explored quite a lot of New Zealand. We started our journey in Auckland and headed down through the North Island to hit Rotorua, Taupo, Matamata, the River Valley, Bulls, and Wellington. Then we caught a ferry to the South Island, into Picton, Nelson (Malborough wine country, I love you!), Kaiteriteri, Lake Mahinapua, Westport, Greymouth, Mt. Cook, Franz Josef, Wanaka, Queenstown, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Christchurch, and beautiful coastal Kaikoura. We climbed to glaciers, slept in glorified trailers, got inches from baby seals, had baby seals sneeze in our faces (well, just my luck, actually), and ate more ramen noodles than safe or reasonable. Adopting all carb diets because they are the cheapest and travel well, we gained fatter thighs via Fergburgers and fish ‘n’ chips, and made new friends we can’t wait to see again! (Talkin’ to you Gretch and Chardawg). So now the question is- what were my favorite things? What would I, a travel blogger extraordinaire with more than just my parents as readers (there’s gotta be like 5 of you by know, right?), recommend to a fellow backpacker in New Zealand. I’ve narrowed it down to a top five list of must see places. You’re oh so welcome:

5) Milford Sound: I guess this one’s obvious but HOLY SHIT Milford Sound was incredible. We went on a sunny day, and were told it’s even more beautiful when it’s raining. Well, I can’t imagine that. Because it was the most gorgeous place on this planet. Rushing waterfalls, giant fjords, snowcapped mountains, the calmest most beautiful water for a cruise into the Tasman Sea. It’s green and brown and white and there are seals and dolphins and rushing waterfalls and Japanese tourists pushing you out of the way to get pictures of them. It’s amazing. Plus, there was free tea and coffee- heyo backpackers I know you feel me- FREE STUFF! But free tea aside, it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places on Earth and a must see destination for anyone traveling the South Island.

4) Kaituna Falls Rafting: If you are in or near Rotorua and you don’t raft the Kaituna falls you have made one of the bigger mistakes a human can make. Kaituna falls is the largest commercially rafted waterfall in the world at 23 feet and if that isn’t a rush, I honestly don’t know what is. You’re dead inside if you don’t have the time of your life rafting these class 5 rapids. It’s nonstop fun, not as technical as you’d think, and don’t worry, you can wear a lifejacket AND the fleece of your choice. Kate got to wear a puppy fleece and I will forever be jealous. The Kaituna Falls has two mini waterfalls before it to get you stoked, and you can even jump out of the boat and hold on as they take you down a rapid. If you don’t do this option, again, dead inside. You’re soulless. I’m sorry, it is what it is. The Kaituna falls was the most adrenaline I felt second to the Canyon Swing. How could I tell? Because that water is hella cold and I didn’t feel a thing! You could have told me I was in a hot tub and I would have believed you. Powerful jets in that hot tub, though. God’s hot tub. I’ll stop with the jacuzzi analogies now but suffice it to say, Kaituna falls is EPIC.

3) Nevis Swing: The Nevis Swing is #1 for adrenaline and here’s why: it’s a 500 foot drop to your death. Just kidding, you don’t die, but I felt like I was going to! And that’s what makes it so fun. Fun? You say? Death? No, Erin. that’s is actually the opposite of fun. To you I say, strap on that harness and push yourself over the edge and tell me you don’t have the time of your life. Kate and I were nervous, of course, SUPER NERVOUS. Nervous to the point of screaming like schoolgirls while still on the platform. But by the time we were plummeting downward and subsequently swinging out over the largest most terrifying and rocky canyon probably EVER all we could do was stop screaming, start laughing, and start yelling “YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND I LOVE YOU!” in each other’s faces. That’s how we ride, y’all. The Nevis Swing: it brings people closer. Like, honestly do I want my future husband to propose to me on it? Yes. Let him know when the time comes. Make sure he ties the ring to something that won’t fall into the rocky crevasse below us, please.

2) Kaikoura: Kaikoura is a seaside town on the South Island that smells of salty air and fish ‘n’ chips. The beaches range from golden sand and sea foam to gigantic rocks jutting out of the sea with waves smashing up against them to create a sea spray like no other. It’s also home to one of the world’s only naturally occurring albatross colonies which are probably the dopest birds on the planet AND is the location of Ohau Falls, another place to check and see if you are dead inside. Because there are baby seals hangin’ out all over the place at this tiny waterfall, and you can get SO close to the point of TOUCHING THEM. TOUCHING A BABY SEAL IN THE WILD, YOU GUYS. IT’S A MAGICAL MOMENT. Just be careful if the seal is sickly he will sneeze right in your face but you won’t even care cuz he’s so cute and fat and tiny. There are baby seals playing with each other on the rocks, barking little baby seal barks, while other sleep, or lounge about all around you. They aren’t even afraid of you cuz you’re on their turf. Damn, if I didn’t want to steal one. But now that I’m in Australia I have my sights set on a Quokka. Google it.

Hobbiton: As if you didn’t know this would be my #1 spot. More beautiful than Milford Sound, more adrenaline than Kaituna Falls (because the mere though of a hobbit coming out of one of those holes is REAL THING), and more perfect than even baby seal infested Kaikoura is Matamata’s own Hobbiton Movie Set. You can tour this magical place, peering into Hobbit holes, swinging from the party tree, drinking free beer at the Green Dragon, eating steak and ale pies and holding tabby cats in front of the fire…it’s the most perfect place in the world. You can tour Mount Doom (aka Tongariro Crossing), the misty mountains, Rivendell, and the like but there’s nothing there. They’re just places you can stand and know that Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean and mothereffing Sauron stood there before you. But Hobbiton is like being transported into ACTUAL Middle Earth. Don’t get me wrong, all of New Zealand is Middle Earthy as hell, but it’s nothing like Hobbiton, where there are tiny Hobbit Holes and vegetable gardens and cider and ale on tap at the GD. If you are a LOTR fan and you miss out on Hobbiton, you’ll die with a hole in your heart. Get there. Whatever it takes.

So, there you have it. My comprehensive must see NZ guide. I suppose I’d add Waitomo Caves and Auckland and the beautiful Queenstown (where Ferburgers are MANDATORY), but if I had to narrow it down to just five places, there you have ’em. So my fellow backpackers- save up that money- New Zealand is far from cheap, but I promise you, it’s worth every penny.

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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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