Tag Archives: travel

Classic India: Crossing the Ganges at 5 am

A lot of hilarious and crazy events took place during Kate and I’s week in Rishikesh. We took sitar lessons, I got stopped for a record number of photos with locals, the Ganges flooded (again), and we saw a man slap a cow in the face for eating his chapati. We adopted a dog for a few days with a local shop owner who named it Joy, we made friends with the man we bought water from every day to the point where when we left, he felt so sad he demanded a photo shoot and gave us free Oreos, and once again we spent way too much time drinking chai and talking about things decidedly, un-Indian.

But by far the most undeniably insane and memorable story comes from our first morning in Rishikesh, or rather, our journey there from the train station of Haridwar, when the chain of events that took place was so increasingly unbelievable and stressful the only possible time we could top it was the day Kate got bit by a dog in Jaisalmer and the resulting hospital visits and Googling of “rabies” made for one hell of a four day stay. But we’re not talking about Jaisalmer, we’re talking about Rishikesh. But to get to Rishikesh, we must first journey backward to Varanasi, where Kate and I booked an “overnight” train ride that would take us about 25 hours, in second class sleeper, to the Himalayas we so longed to gaze upon.

So, with our packs stored under our slatted bunks, we happily ate Oreos (the official snack of Kate and Erin in India) and listened to the hustle and bustle of the train car, engaging our bunk mates in talks of arranged marriages and saris and mendhi until they hopped off the train at their stop. New bunk mates joined us, angry, old, man bunk mates, and so Kate and I decided to take turns sleeping so that one of us could alert the other when our trained pulled into the station. Because here’s the thing about Indian trains- they don’t announce what the next stop is. No one tells you when to get off. And 98% of the time there’s not even any labeled signs in the train stations to tell you where you are. This meant Kate and I were (and now that I think back on this the mental image and what the Indian people must have been thinking cracks me up) jumping off the train at every. single. stop., frantically looking around for any sign of where we were, and, if we could not find it, literally just grabbing the closest person and asking, wide eyed, “IS THIS HARIDWAR?! HARIDWAR!?” Most of the time the answer was a resounding, “I don’t speak English”, but after awhile someone would say, “No, it is not,” and we would jump back on the (sometimes already pulling out of the station) train car to wait for the next stop. Cut us some slack, this was our first overnight train ride.

Cut to 3 am. It is my turn to sleep, and I am suddenly awoken by an extremely frantic Kate. “We’re here! Get your stuff, WE GOTTA GO!” So, I throw my backpack on, grab my day pack, pull the iPad out from the thin pillow I’d been hiding it under, and we attempt, unsuccessfully to disembark. Indian men are standing around, drinking chai, not moving from the narrow aisles we need to exit from. We start to ask nicely, then ask sternly, then, as we feel the train start to move again, we start to push. We are screaming, “Move, move, God, how rude!” as we elbow our way off the moving train and into the Haridwar train station.

Another thing about Indian train stations and, really, just India in general: people will sleep anywhere. We were stepping over and around families, all sleeping on the floor of the train station at 3 am, trying to get to the taxi stand. This took about three times as long as it should because when you have a backpack strapped to your back, and a daypack strapped to your front, and are clutching an iPad like an idiot in a third world country, you have a lot of people coming up to you asking if you need a ride, and a lot of people grabbing at you for what seems like inexplicable reasons until you notice the Apple product in your right hand. I quickly stuffed my iPad into my day pack, and we booked it out of there.

We made it off the train, at 3 am, into a strange town, full of people trying to swindle us, and we needed to get 25 miles to Rishikesh by tuk tuk or cab. It seemed like all we needed was to find a decently priced tuk tuk and we’d be home free…and then it started to pour down rain. We argued with a few tuk tuk drivers over what the price should be to Rishikesh, but after a few minutes of standing in the rain we relented and agreed to pay 800 rupees to get to our accommodation, The Green Hotel. So we climbed into the tuk tuk of a seemingly friendly 30-something Pakistani man (read: seemingly), and took off for Rishikesh.

The rain pounded down on the tuk tuk and we passed over bridges, through little towns and villages, and as we drove, we noticed hordes of people in orange shirts, walking along the roads, carrying buckets of milk and river water, flower wreaths, and incense sticks, now put out when the skies opened up to soak us to our bones. “Bolba, Bolba, Bolba,” they chanted. And Kate and I, confused, watched them fade behind us in the distance, but more would always be found walking the roads, barefoot and clad in orange, toward the rushing Ganges.

Our tuk tuk came to a stop. “I can take you no further,” our driver said, “the roads are flooded. Get out here and walk ten minutes that way, then you will be at your hotel”. We looked at each other, wide eyed. It was pouring rain, and we knew we were still in Haridwar. We weren’t even close to our hotel, and this man wanted us to get out and walk…where?

“No,” we blatantly refused, “You have to take us further. The roads aren’t flooded.”

“I cannot,” he explained, “but I will take your 800 rupees now.”

It was moments like this I was glad I had Kate as my travel buddy. “No way are we paying you 800 rupees to get dropped in the rain, man. Take us further or we aren’t paying you.”

“I canno-“, he couldn’t even finish before we watched two tuk tuks and a rickety old car speed past us on the road.

“Clearly, you can,” Kate said, and as we watched his face fall, we felt the tuk tuk rev its engine and start back up. We were back on the road, passing more pilgrims in orange, as rain continued to pelt us mercilessly.

About ten minutes later at the edge of Haridwar we came to another stop. “I can take you no further, the roads are flooded,” and this time he meant business. He hopped out of the tuk tuk, grabbed our packs, and threw them out of the tuk tuk and onto the wet, rapidly flooding ground. “Okay, well you’re high if you think we’re paying you 800 rupees,” Kate said, shoving 300 rupees at him.

Furious, the man demanded the price we set. Kate refused to pay, and as I watched them argue it occurred to me I should probably grab the rest of our stuff out of the tuk tuk, as I watched the man’s face grow red with anger. “You said 800 rupees! We agreed!” he was yelling. “I agreed I’d pay you 800 rupees to take us to our hotel. You are dropping us in the middle of nowhere in the rain. You’re lucky I gave you 300,” was Kate’s decidedly awesome response. With both of our 60 L backpacks on me, I handed her my day pack. Then she looked at me and just said, “Run.”

So, with our packs hanging off my weary shoulders and our day packs soaking through with water to destroy any and all electronics, we took off running (well, I was more waddling than anything) as the man yelled at us to come back. But we didn’t even look back, and instead, we disappeared into a huge crowd of orange pilgrims, our blue and grey backpacks the only things differentiating us from the crowd. And just like that, we were free, lost, and wetter than ever.

With absolutely no idea where we were, at 4 am, we began asking people how to get to Rishikesh, how to get to the Green Hotel, how to get some place dry. No one spoke English, and instead, they would grab our arms and lead us forward, chanting “Bolba, Bolba!” until we shook ourselves loose to ask another stranger. Finally, after about half an hour of walking in the rain we found a yoga studio with a man standing outside, and we rushed up to him, begging for help. He let us use his bathroom, dry off with some old rags, and get our rain jackets out to wrap around our day packs. Then, he pointed across the Ganges. “You cross that bridge, you’ll be in Rishikesh.”

Let’s just talk about this bridge: it was small, rickety, swaying in the wind, and absolutely every inch of it was covered in pilgrims. It was a swinging, orange bridge over the massive, rushing, Ganges, which poured at a hundred miles an hour downward from the Himalayas as rain added to it’s mighty flow. We were terrified. It was 4 in the morning. We were wet, cold, and in the middle of the Durga festival. We had no choice. The man told us unless we were going to pay him, we had to go.

So we went. And walked with the pilgrims, chanting Bolba, trying to make light of the day’s events, across the bridge, swinging and swaying and being pushed and prodded and pulled until we reached the other side. The other side, it turns out, was full of cows.

I mean at least fifty cows in a quarter mile radius. All of them horned, and stressed out, and running us into corners. It was still raining, we were still lost, and the sound of “Bolba!” was still ringing in our ears. We asked a police officer where to go and he pointed up a hill. So we walked up the hill only to find a dead end and no Green Hotel. We asked an old man where to go and he pointed left, so we went left, only to find another dead end and no Green Hotel, only more pilgrims, and more cows. We must have looked desperate, because a young man came up to us with his wife and asked if we were okay. We were absolutely not okay, we told him, and we needed to get to the Green Hotel, or be sacrificed to the Ganges, whichever was easier.

The Green Hotel? That was his cousins place! He would take us there right away. And in a moment of weakness, Kate and I trusted yet another stranger to get us there safely. And, in a moment of rare fortune, he and his wife took us to an alley way, and said, at the end of this street, you will be there.

We walked, expecting another dead end, but found, instead, The Green Hotel.

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My Experience as a Female Traveler in India

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India is the #1 place I was urged not to go when telling people my travel destinations before leaving on this trip. Even though Cambodia is notoriously dangerous. Even though Egypt is literally in an all out war. Even though Somalians are kidnapping westerners in Kenya and ransoming or murdering them. Even though South Africa’s public transportation and streets are notoriously still segregated and extremely dangerous. It was always India, every time, that warranted the most intense and negative responses.

“Why would you want to go there?!”

“That’s so dangerous!”

“Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be raped!?”

“I would NEVER go there. I have no desire to see anything in India so badly I’d risk my life.”

And I appreciate the concern, because it’s a real problem here. It was reported, while we were in Thailand, that a woman is raped every twenty minutes in Delhi. That’s crazy. I mean, that is a staggering and horrifying statistic. Rape of foreign women, and western women in particular, has all but quadrupled in the last few months here in India. Violent attacks on westerners are becoming more and more common. And at the end of the day it’s a third world country so the harassment factor, the groping factor, and the condescending men would, we knew, be in abundance. But to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been all that bad. Surprisingly so, I suppose.

Upon our arrival in Delhi my father had insisted we check ourselves into a hotel on his dime. So we found a deal on hotels.com and checked ourselves into a plush hotel room in a hotel equipped with metal detectors and baggage scanners much like an airport, security guards posted at the elevators, and an extremely cautious staff. After a glorious and free breakfast buffet, which has become the #1 reason I love nice hotels, we headed to concierge to inquire about seeing the Red Fort, the temples, and other landmarks in Delhi. Just a bit of innocent sightseeing.

The look on the concierge’s face was grave when we told him we couldn’t afford to hire a car for 8,000 rupees a day (about $130), we didn’t have a guide, or an armed guard, or a driver. “I implore you, please do not go out on your own. Do not get into any cabs, do not get into any rickshaws, and do not walk on the streets. It is far too dangerous.”

Uh…what? What can we do then?

Turns out, borrow their DVD of Troy and promise to return it in 24 hours, then go watch it in our room and drink tea until it was time to catch our train to Agra the next day.

Again- we were IMPLORED that as women traveling alone we not take the cheapest option. You need to be in the safest car, they told us. You are pretty girls, young girls, Western girls, American girls. You have no men with you. You are not on a tour. The danger is great for you.

Not one to put my safety at risk or be reckless, because there’s a huge difference between recklessness and adventurousness, we paid the extra bit of money for the nicer train car, and took the earliest one, since we were told that was the safest and had the most tourists.

Well, there were three other tourists in our car. The rest were locals, and despite a few longheld stares, mostly looks of curiousity, we made it to our destination of Agra. This happened almost everywhere we went. The vehement warnings, the promise that this was the safest or best, and the sheer and resounding fact that 99% of the time it wasn’t. It was just as dangerous, or dodgy, or dirty, or what have you as anything else.

Let me be clear, though. India is a very poor country. Overwhelmingly poor. Crazy poor. Unbelievably poor. People are just pooping on the sides of the train tracks, children are running around naked, people are living in slums that go on for miles, there are dead bodies floating in rivers and severed limbs in the street, and everyone wants your money. But I mean, can you blame them? The important difference to note is that while people will do pretty much anything to get at the rupees in your pocket, they never seem to want to take your life, or your dignity. They really just want your money.

When people in India see that Kate and I are traveling alone, just two women, without any men, without any guide, they immediately begin telling us what NOT to do. Don’t talk to this person, don’t believe this scam, don’t get into this car, don’t go out between these hours, etc. etc. etc. The warnings are endless and constant, but at the end of the day, most are scare tactics used so that you will use their person, believe their scam, get into their car or tuk tuk, eat at their restaurant, etc.

And being a Westerner, things can get pretty mental pretty quickly. People take your picture because you are white. Indian people at the monuments ask for pictures with you because you are white. If you oblige them, a line starts to form and the queue goes on and on with people who just want a photo with you. At the monuments I oblige because I think it’s hilarious and when the hell is a perfect stranger going to want my photo again, especially when I’ve got pit stains and no make up on, but on the streets, it’s always a firm no. The best part of the picture taking is that a lot of the time they want to shake your hand, like you’re the President of the United States, in the picture, and make it into a professional looking portrait. I love it, but as soon as we left the monuments, I would always put my scarf around my head and hold my bag close to my body. There’s a CIA saying that “paranoia is the perfect level of awareness”, and I when it comes down to it I’d just rather be safe than polite when out on the streets. But I did the same thing in Cambodia, in Thailand, and in Vietnam. In poor countries your property is always more at risk, it’s just a reality of traveling. I can safely say, though, in none of those countries did I ever feel truly in danger, like my life was threatened, ever.

And on top of that, traveling is amazing! It is glorious, freeing, and everyone should be so lucky as to get the chance to visit anywhere, but especially India. I truly mean that. And so it upset me, on the day we left Mumbai, to see the news headlines were of yet another gang rape in the very city we were staying in, just hours prior. And then, a Facebook post of a girl from the University of Chicago who had studied abroad in India and come home with PTSD due to constant harassment and multiple rape attempts. I was so, so very upset to read about her experience because mine had truly been so different. Kate and I discussed the story, the rape, these women, our fellow women, and much else in India and came to a few conclusions. First of all, men in India are men at their worst. It’s that simple. The culture of arranged marriages has made it so that men do not need to impress women. They spit, fart, burp, leer, pee anywhere and everywhere, make rude comments, and talk way, way too close to your face for anyone to be comfortable. They grope you when given the chance, so the important thing is to not let them.

I know that sounds insensitive. I know the general consensus when I say this will be, “Hey Erin, nobody ASKS to be groped. No one TRIES to be groped by strangers.” And I know that. Believe me, as someone who was groped in India, I know that. But every single time I got groped was the moment I let go of myself. The moment I felt comfortable next to a strange man was the moment he would grab my breast, or my butt, or brush too closely and smell my hair like a creepy, misogynist weirdo. As soon as you let your guard down, you get groped. That’s just the facts. That’s India. And that’s really really sad, but it’s true. Secondly, India is beautiful but it is cruel. Everything is brown, but there are these beautiful moments of vivid color. Men are dogs there, to be sure, but I also met some of the loveliest men during all of my travels in India. Thirdly, in third world countries, it seems like everyone has an agenda, and that really sucks, and they usually do, but if you can get past that there is so much incredible beauty you will never see anywhere else.

I loved my time in India. Did I love every minute? Of course not. But through the rough times Kate and I kept laughing, and kept making memories, as lame as that sounds, and it brought us through it. Some of my favorite memories are from India. Some of my best stories too. This journey would have felt incomplete without India. I miss India already- it’s food, culture, religion, and the people. And as a woman, I urge other women to travel to India. I urge you travel with a friend, and keep your wits about you, and make smart choices. But don’t be scared. Don’t fear a random act of violence that could and does happen all over the world. Go to India, and take pictures with babies on their parents’ camera phones, and eat 100 pieces of garlic naan and then question why you aren’t losing weight like everyone said you would, and visit the Taj Mahal and marvel at its marble, and explain to women on the train why you aren’t interested in an arranged marriage to shock, awe, and disapproval, and walk miles in the rain and across the Ganges to your hostel during the Durga festival in Rishikesh and have the time of your damn life.

Being a woman in India means bindis and henna and chai and saris and bangles. It’s beautiful if you make it beautiful, just like anything and everything else. India is poverty and misogyny and stray dogs and cows and camels. It’s a severed leg in the street and trash all over the roads and wondering if the shit you just stepped in was animal or human. It’s pimped out tuk tuks and longheld stares and being groped by an old man in a haveli. But it’s also the most beautiful temples you’ve ever seen and smiling children and amazing old forts and chai sixteen times a day. It’s colorful saris and bhang shops and camel safaris and spicy curries. It’s naan and chapati and roti. It’s the desert, the Himalayas and the beach. It’s lotus flowers and Hanuman and Ganesha and yoga. It’s one of the best and most memorable places I’ve ever been and I love it with all my heart. There are things about it I would change. But there are things I would not change for the world.

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September 5, 2013 · 6:42 pm

ASIAN SENSATION PHOTO RECAP PART DEUX: Elephant Splash Fight

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Guys, I love elephants.

Like, I really, really love them a lot. And let me just tell you they don’t feel the same. They wanted me OFF of their backs immediately if not sooner. Luckily they’re easily swayed to your favor with a bunch of sugar cane or a bushel of bananas. The way to an elephant’s heart is the same way as to a man’s: through their stomachs. So with a hand full of kip I tried to buy an elephant’s love for an afternoon. But it would take more than a few bananas to make these elephants love a human.

When we first got to the Elephant Camp outside Luang Prabang, down a dusty road, around a mountainside, and across a muddy bridge, we were taught elephant commands, introduced to a bevy of wrinkly, grey beauties, and told that the elephant’s favorite part of the day was bath time because they love cooling off in the water.

I can’t speak for the elephant’s but I think they just hate everyone at the Elephant Camp in general. Southeast Asian people don’t treat their animals well, domestic and non, and the elephants, it seems, were no exception. It was less awkward than Tiger Temple, but that’s another story entirely. (See how I foreshadow like that? Damn I’m good.)

The elephants are large. I know this. You know this. They’re gigantic. They could sit on us and murder us, but they choose not to because they are docile, gentle giants. And so they let us, tiny predators, jump on their backs, strap literal benches to them, ride on their heads, prod them with poles. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. But the mahouts (Laotian elephant trainers) have absolutely no problem yelling, kicking, pinching, poking, and, in the case of the river, literally jumping on top of them to get them to perform for the white tourists who come to see them in hordes.

So, we rode them, fed them, laughed and took photos and then it came time for bathing. I had to put on that gorgeous navy blue men’s shirt because my bathing suit was too sexy (I know it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I took it as one), and we headed down to the river to wash our elephants. We walked down a steep hill into the river and the elephants, every single one, immediately took giant dumps in the water. Turds the size of a baby, just floating past your legs, brushing up against your thighs. Lovely.

And then I became the most uncomfortable I was all day: my mahout asked me if I wanted to get wet. I mean, I’m in the water aren’t I? I’m in my bathing suit? “Yeah,” I said, “Sure. Go for it.” And then he literally started jumping on top of my elephant, jumping up and down, slamming his feet down into her little adorable wrinkles yelling, “SHOWAAAAAAHHHH! SHOWAAAHHHH!” And shower me she did. After some light coaxing (this is blatant sarcasm), she splashed me again and again, I’m assuming to avoid more jumping.

“Whoa!” I said, alarmed. “Don’t hurt her! It’s okay. I don’t need a shower,” I said to the mahout. “It’s okay,” he assured me, “she likes it”. Forgive me, but I don’t know anyone or anything that loves being jumped up and down on being screamed at to perform for some asshole white girl with a Facebook album agenda. I felt really bad. Really, really bad. Because these elephants really are so cute. So gentle. So nice. They don’t deserve that.

The photo looks so happy, right? Just a girl and her elephant having the time of their damn lives in the beautiful Laotian countryside. In reality, though I’m smiling, because you could throw hot wax on me and I’d still be all smiles with an adorable elephant showering me in a river, I’m actually very emotionally uncomfortable because I can tell the elephant is physically uncomfortable, as well as probably emotionally ravaged by its circumstances.

So, I decided I was against elephant camps. Why don’t they just free them? Let them run free in the wild where they belong!? Why these horrendous camps?!

And the answer is devastating. The elephants have nowhere else to go. Elephants are with killed when found in the wild, their tusks used for carved ivory, their bodies stuffed and sold to collectors, or they are enslaved and brought to work in the jungles hauling lumber. Elephant camps, as shitty as they are, are the best lives these animals can hope for. How much does that suck?

It’s incredibly sad to me that elephants are kept alive and healthy purely for tourism. If we stopped visiting elephant camps, if we boycotted them or shut them down, the elephants would be killed, or released into the wild to die at the hands of native people or hunters, or be recaptured and brought to haul lumber through the countryside. I really hate that.

And so, I like to think my elephant splash fight wasn’t all bad. At least my elephant got to cool off and take a dump in the river. At least she got all the bananas I could afford. At least she’s relatively safe.

I’d like to urge anyone who visits an elephant camp in the future to make sure it’s as humane as possible. Go somewhere the elephants only work a few hours a day, where they alternate elephants, where the elephants seem unafraid of humans. If the elephants are being forced to work all day, in the heat of the sun, over and over again for the amusement of tourists, don’t be that tourist. Just leave. Go somewhere else. You’ll be glad you did when your elephant splash fight is genuine and organic. You shouldn’t need a mahout jumping and screaming on your back to make your elephant want to play with you. They should feel safe and loved, not scared and abused.

Splash on. But splash responsibly.

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Apologies are in Order…

Oh hey, guys, it’s me, the worst travel blogger ever.

Listen, I have a really valid excuse for not updating you on all my shenanigans. I really do. Ready for it:

I’m having a great life.

And when you’re having a great life, i.e. meeting new people, rejoining old friends in new places, cruising through a monsoon on Ha Long Bay, spending $178 on watered down drinks at a famous hotel in Singapore, trying to figure out how to sneak into the Petronas Towers, getting ripped off time and time again by Cambodian children, you just don’t have time to upkeep a travel blog.

Or maybe you do have time. All other working travel blogs would point to the fact that you do, in fact, have time. But listen, I just don’t.

Traveling is exhausting.

Between waking up early to catch planes, trains, automobiles, and the occasional boat, walking around cities all day, squatting on toilets all night (talkin’ to you Ko Phangan) and debating whether or not to buy 1,000 sticks of incense for four dollars (I did), it’s just been difficult to pull out the ol’ keyboard and clack away about all my adventures and hijinx. And there have been many adventures, and much hijinx.

Now I’m in India, getting cultural on some curries and chais, being swindled in train stations, and just all around being told my safety as at risk by every Indian government employee I talk to. It’s a party, and we’ve got a month more of it. India is as enchanting as I imagined it would be, and I’m so excited to be here.

But for now, I’m off to see the Taj, the Assi Gahts, and get my palm read by an Indian mystic just to see what’s in my future!

PS I made a pact to myself that just for fun I wasn’t going to shave my legs for the entirety of India. I have a feeling my leg hair is going to be deliciously, luxuriously long. Pics to follow?

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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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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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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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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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