Friday, June 10, 2011

Day to Dive

This morning I woke up around 6:45 to the most spectacular sunrise right outside my window. I quickly raced down to the beach to try and get pictures of it, but they just don’t do it justice.  I had heard that the sunrise would be really good, because the stars were so clear last night; I am so glad I got up in time to see it.
            Breakfast started at 7:00am, and I had cereal and milk and toast.  I met a group of English travelers, and made a few new friends.  We planned on going reef snorkeling after breakfast on an activity, but instead I decided to dive.
            The dive shop is down on the beach, and run by a Fijian man and woman. Because I am not certified, the dives require one of the divemasters to supervise me for the whole dive, and I can only dive to a limited depth.  Also, generally these ‘Discover’ scuba dives are more expensive.  We worked out a really good deal that I would pay FJD$100 for the first dive, and then $85 for the second (USD$95 total).
 He took me on my first dive of the day to the Pinnacle, along with another man who comes here to dive every year.  I had a minor personal freak-out when we starting descending, because for some reason being deep underwater feels a bit claustrophobic or something (I am not even claustrophobic…), and its scary to be listening to your breathing, and easy to panic yourself. I was thinking all about how I was stuck underwater, and everything that could go wrong, and overthinking my gear, and just freaking out. Being deep is a bit of an adrenaline rush. I calmed down after a few minutes of steady breathing, and started enjoying myself instantly.  We probably went down 15m, and the sea life was really awesome. The water was deep, but the coral bed was so thick that it really wasn’t far from the surface. You could look down between the corals into spaces between each one. The divemaster stayed with me the whole time while the other diver went down 30m, and let me touch almost everything.  He brought fish bones and fed the little fish and white tip reef sharks. The sharks were between 3 and 5 ft long, and their jaws were super strong looking. They were very curious about us, especially about the fish the divemaster fed them. I was able to touch the sharks, and I can’t believe how sandpaper-y they feel. There were also thousands of fish, of every different kind, everywhere- above me, below me, beside me.  I saw a lot of the famous fish I have seen in aquariums, living in their home environment. There were even big brown/black and white cod, with the big lips and fat bodies.  I played with fringe brittle stars that crawl on your hand; they were absolutely everywhere. My favorite thing was the huge moray eel we found sticking out of the reef.  It was the softest, coolest thing I have ever felt, and it actually wasn’t aggressive (although it looks like it could be, with that creepy opening and closing teeth-lined mouth). My second favorite thing was the responsive sea anemones; little fish, like Nemo, hung out in the sea anemones just like I have seen in pictures.  You could touch the sea anemones and the fish would move to a different part, and sometimes the anemones would stick onto you, and other times they were suck themselves down into the coral.  I could probably spend all day putting my hand in sea anemones, and playing with them, and making them move around, because they are so cool looking and soft and alive.  It makes me wonder how exactly they can sense my intrusion, and how they know to retreat.  They are one of the coolest things EVER. We spent about 38 minutes below.
Before lunch I hung out with one of my new English friends on my front porch, and we just chatted for awhile. She was a marine biology major at uni, and then she worked in research for television, and now she is traveling a little before she goes back to England to start a speech therapy career. We talked a lot about her upcoming trip to the States; I told her she had to get some Mexican food when she went through Texas, and that she could ride a donkey down into the Grand Canyon, and that she needed to have her culinary experience in the Deep South when she passes thru New Orleans and Alabama. It really made me miss home telling her to get some boiled peanuts, gravy and biscuits, and fried chicken. We also talked about some cultural differences between Europeans and Americans; it is very clear that Americans are in much more of a hurry to begin their lives, and start the American dream, than the Europeans. There are so many Europeans that just take years off their young lives to travel around, while Americans feel heavy pressure to go right to college after high school, look for jobs as soon as college graduation happens, and get settled into a routine. I feel the pressure to know what I want to do with my life as soon as I get home from this trip, and I know so many others like me who feel like if they aren’t working they aren’t being productive.  SO MANY Australians I have met have taken a gap year between high school and college, and even more take a break after university ends.  I sort of wish the ‘gap year’ thing was more popular in the states; the only person I know to have ever taken one from home was a girl who was accepted into Harvard for the following academic year. I am not sure what she did, but I bet it wasn’t as dynamic as some of the activities the Australians I have met have done, like volunteering in African schools, or working as camp counselors in the US, or living with families around Eastern Europe. Quite a few travelers I have met have taken years at a time to travel this part of the world; I have talked to more than several people taking 3 and 4 years to travel (my question is who pays?). They figure out how to make it happen, even with limited funds, and often make it a working holiday.  I would love to take a page from the Europeans book and do a couple more months of traveling after I graduate at Wofford, but in a lot of ways feel pressure that in order to compete with the other graduates I will need to be going right out into the workforce, or right into more school… Anyway, lunch was around noon, and we had fish and chips: trevally and REAL potatoes (not cassava!). After lunch I walked down to where the ladies were selling their handicrafts and bought a little Christmas ornament angel to remember this island.
Around 1pm I went out with the female divemaster to Kuata Wall, just on the other side of the neighboring island.  This was an even better dive than in the morning, because the reef was SO SO SO beautiful. The coral was like coral you see in pictures, or in magazines. Every different kind of coral: fan coral, coral that looks like a table, coral that looks like a blanket, and so many others.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  I thought the coral at big aquariums was exaggerated to look beautiful, but this coral was real, and even more beautiful than anything I have ever seen in an aquarium. The colors, along with the thousands of colorful fishing dashing around everywhere, were magnificent.  We went down about 20m on the side of the wall, and looking back up from down there was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.  The reef was HUGE, and looked even more monstrous from below. I was so overwhelmed by it; I have never seen anything like it, and I am still in awe even hours later at the reality of it. While we were down there we saw some huge puffer fish (not puffed), but I enjoyed looking at all the little fishes, of every color, hiding in the coral the most. I also saw another little reef shark down on the bottom, but he stirred away from us. I cannot put into words how much I enjoyed the dive; I have a warm feeling from glimpsing something so beautiful not many people get to see. I wish I had an underwater camera, but even then I feel like I would not be able to capture it. We were underwater for about 35 minutes.
After the dive I did a little laying on the beach and reading, and at 3pm had tea time with my English friends. We chatted for awhile about so many different things, and the conversation was light and easy.  I put in some more beach time, then around 5pm I headed back to my bure for a little evening nap.  I slept so well with the sounds of the swells and rustle of palms, and woke up just in time for dinner at 6:30.  We were served mackerel and some kind of pork, and yummy rolls.  I stayed down near the dinner area and met a girl from Hawaii who is also traveling alone; it was nice to bond with an American, and she and I talked about how we could not be gone from home as long as a lot of the people we have met stay gone.  She and I both agreed that traveling for years would feel completely worthless and unproductive. I really had fun talking to her, because even though we are from really different areas of the US, we had a lot in common. She and I talked a lot, too, about how grateful we were that the Fijians were so welcoming to visitors, and that many visitors to the islands should stop complaining about trivial little things about the islands (‘we had to sit on picnic tables at dinner’, ‘the soup was a little cold’, ‘the power was only on for a couple hours at night’, ‘someone was mowing the lawn during my massage’) because we are guests of people who are doing the best they can with what they have (and doing a damn good job if I may say so myself). In my opinion, being a guest in someone’s village resort is not the same as going to a 5-star hotel, and it is ignorant to bring Western expectations about how things should be. I am really enjoying myself, even if there are mosquitoes and things aren’t completely perfect by Western standards, because I am at a beautiful place with Fijians who are happy to host me, and because I am supporting a village that depends on Wayalailai resort for its livelihood.  I am worn out now, though, and because the power goes off around midnight want to make sure I am actually ready for bed by then tonight J. Until next time…

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wayalailai in the Yasawas

Wow- so things just got touristy! I just went through Denauru Marina, and it is nothing like the Fiji I have seen so far.  White tourist families wearing matching Bula shirts and dresses, people with sunhats everywhere, and Australian, German, American and French accents make this place the most touristy I have seen yet in Fiji. Since these few days with Awesome Adventures Fiji will be my first solo trip ever, I am happy to see that it is really touristy, because that usually means there will be a lot of backpackers and travelers for me to meet. I am pretty nervous about traveling alone (who will I sit with at dinner?, but know that I will be fine. I am so happy that I won the trip, and have been studying its details; I spend two nights on one island resort, then transfer to another island resort, with all meals included.  The package that I won is a very popular one that many ‘alternative travelers’ (backpackers) choose, so I am sure that there will be lots of other people with me…
Mr. Ali picked me and two friends up from the Beachouse around 6:15am this morning, and we made the 1.5hr drive back towards Nadi (I gave him USD$25 for the trip, tip and all). The Yasawa Flyer, my boat over to the islands, departed at 8:30, and I disembarked at my destination, WayaLaiLai Ecohaven Resort, around 10:30am. On the boat ride over I got to see lots of different little island resorts, and magnificent views of the Fijian mainland Viti Levu. On board the boat I met a big group of students on a summer trip from University of Georgia; it was so nice to hear the drawl of southern voices and meet people who, like me, are so far from home.
When I arrived on my island there were lots of people out playing volleyball, lying on the beach, snorkeling, and lounging in one of the 15 hammocks scattered about. I was welcomed by at least six Fijians singing down on the beach, introducing themselves and shaking my hand. I learned what times breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner were (all included), how to sign up and pay for activities, and the layout of the resort.  I decided during check-in that the beachfront bures looked so nice, and that because I am traveling alone it might be worth it to have a private room and bathroom (and also because I haven’t spent anything to be on this trip).  I worked with the organized and nice Fijian receptionist and upgraded my stay to right on the beachfront (USD$90 for 2 nights).  I went from a little single bed in a eight-person dorm (up a mountain from the beach) to a beachfront hut with a front porch, private bathroom, and twin and double bed. I am so happy with this decision (right now, I am currently listening to the sound of waves and sway of palms on my porch), and might even look into an upgrade at my next little resort.
As soon as I put my bags down and got my bearings I headed out to snorkel.  I got out to the reef right off the beach, but for some reason was feeling little stings all over my body.  I asked some Fijians, and they said that the coral around this area can sting, along with little things similar to sea fleas, but that they are harmless.  I did some laying out, and before I knew it the Fijians were beating drums to sound the call for lunchtime. Lunch consisted of a buffet of rice, fish, squid, beef and pasta, salad, and juice. I met some girls from Switzerland, and a couple traveling from England, and enjoyed talking to them about the places they have been. I was planning on getting on the internet to call home, but learned that the resort does not keep the power on during the day; the solar powered island only has power from around 6pm until about midnight.  After lunch I joined a big group of village women and visitors on a tarp set up in the shade to learn weaving. With the help of a sweet lady I made a bookmark; she patiently fixed my work when I made an error, and made it pretty for me when I finished. The ladies had handicrafts set up on tables in the shade, too, and I enjoyed looking at their wares, promising to come back and purchase (I found a Christmas ornament!).
After making my bookmark I was dying to get back into the water, so I got a kayak and headed out towards the reef. The kayak was stable enough for me to stand up on, so I made it into my own little paddleboard and observed the reef from the top of the water. The wind stopped blowing for awhile, and I could see down into the reef almost perfectly.  I explored the island in both directions from the resort, and even kayaked down to check out the village. In some places the coast is pretty rocky, but the main beach area is perfect. The coral is really awesome, and there are TONS and TONS of fish. After my kayak I was a little worn out and starting to sunburn, so I decided to sit on my porch and read. The sound of the waves and palms and the sticky humid heat made me drowsy, and I went down for a nap really quickly. Around 5pm I awoke and returned to the porch to my book.  A big group of male villagers showed up at the beach volleyball court; after stretching together and before playing, they gathered into a huddle and sang a song, completely in harmony. The sun had sort of gone behind the clouds, and rain had began, and it was truly beautiful melody; I had one of those moments when I feel like I am experiencing something I might never again, glancing into someone else’s culture and life. I think I may have been one of the few people watching, so I know they weren’t putting on a show, but it was such a natural and special thing to see them outside singing several verses to a song they all knew before playing a sport together.  They even included a traveler in their huddle, and though I doubt he knew the words to their song, I am sure they made him feel welcome.
I showered and headed to dinner around 6:15; we had some more rice, chicken, sweet potatoes and cooked carrots. I sat with a big group of kids studying at the University of NSW in Sydney, so we had a lot to talk about.  There were probably 8 or 10 of them: several from all over Canada, one from Norway, two from Mexico, and another from Denmark. After dinner one Fijian man told us all about tomorrows activities and how to join in, and then lead some entertainment, like a Fijian line dance lesson and some games.  I sat down for another kava ceremony with Fijian elders, and realized that the kava I drank at Beachouse must have been fairly weak, because the kava here was a bit stronger. It still didn’t effect me though, but I enjoyed the socializing with the Fijian men (they had lots of advice, like where to snorkel, and how to avoid stingers) and the other travelers also enjoying the kava ceremony. While there is still tradition here, the ceremony seems to be less defined. The men sit together on a mat, without shoes, and whenever someone comes up to drink kava and join, they must all drink another bowl around the circle.  And then they continue to sit, and talk to each other and the visitors, and enjoy the night.
I can already tell a difference in the culture of the Wayalailai resort and the Beachouse. A white family with Fijian and Australian roots owns the Beachouse, while Wayalailai is owned communally by the village on the island. While Beachouse employs many people from the village, one of the girls told me they don’t pay them much (USD$3/hr).  One day when the owner was gone from the resort, things did not get done as quickly or efficiently, but even when he was there things were a bit unorganized.  The village also seemed like it was more separate from the Beachouse, and the villagers only came to hang around when they were working. As soon as I got to Wayalailai, however, I noticed how neatly the staff were dressed in matching uniforms, and how efficient everything ran. They seem to really have invested themselves in the resort, and strive to make each traveler’s stay enjoyable and easy. The village is very close by, and many villagers come to hang around the area. Around dinner time many of the men came to drink kava on the big dining deck. Young Fijian children  are here at the resort, too, with their mommies (‘nay-nay’ in Fijian). The 40 or 50 travelers, mingle with other travelers and the villagers, and almost everyone wants to introduce themselves and asks about your stay. The genuine friendliness is very obvious, and it’s nice to feel so welcomed. I really enjoyed my stay at the Beachouse, and feel that it was a WONDERFUL paradise, but as far as authentic Fiji goes, it seems that the Yasawas do a better job at giving travelers the real experience, because it is actually owned and run by the local Fijians, communally… However, I have only been here for one day, so my feelings could change. 

The Beachouse, Coral Coast

I really got used to ‘Fiji time’ (slower, relaxed pace) during my stay at the Beachouse. The resort hosts about 60 people at a time, so I got very comfortable with the rest of the travelers by the end of the trip. Everyday I woke up early, around 8am, to a beautiful tide.  A breakfast of toast and cereal and fresh fruits was served every morning until around 10am, and then activities would begin. Some activities cost money, while others, like kayaking, are free. There is a little surf school at the Beachouse, and many mornings a big group of surfers head out. Also, there is a Jungle Trek option (USD$6, with a Fijian man who tells all about the history of cannibalism, the jungle and the culture), coconut jewelry making & grass weaving (free), paddle-boarding (USD$10/hr), a freshwater pool, horseback riding (USD$20-30), fishing (USD$10-15), and snorkeling (USD $7 for a boat ride out to a better reef and snorkel gear). There are also atleast five hammocks scattered around the beach and pool, and a beach volleyball court (very popular with Fijians!).  At 3:30 is tea; scones (just like southern style biscuits) are served with tea and coffee.
One of my favorite parts of the resort are three dogs, Oscar, Lucy, and Diesel, that wander around living dog dream lives.  I thought our dogs had it good, but these dogs really top them.  They play in the water for hours during low tide, watching fish with their tails wagging, and then wander up to the pool area to receive lots of attention and table food from all of the travelers.  They run around and play with each other and it’s just adorable. I haven’t had any dogs to play with since I have been abroad, so every though they are stinky outside dogs, I love petting them and giving them lots of attention. They really give it a homey- feel.
  On Sunday I took it pretty easy, laying on the beach and in the pool, and kayaking during high tide. I also got an hour massage by a nice Fijian woman (USD$ 13) who was willing to tell me about herself a little. She called herself a ‘Fijian doctor,’ as massage has been a ‘gift’ her family has had for many years. She was pretty young; I was wondering about some Fijian customs, and she was willing to tell me about them.  For example, the 21st birthday is one of the biggest ones because that is also the legal age to smoke, drink alcohol, or drink traditional kava (the kids get to participate in kava ceremonies with juice).  Also, she said that most Fijian girls get married around 18 years old, and that a Fijian bride wears a white dress underneath a traditional brightly colored dress.  I also wondered if Fijian girls were allowed to marry people they love, or if they are chosen to marry certain men, and she really didn’t answer, just telling me she married her boyfriend.  Anyway, after a little nap, for dinner I had a delicious Mahi-Mahi meal (USD$9), and in the evening socialized with everyone out by the pool. 
Around 11am Monday morning I went fishing with a big group of guys. The boat driver took us out to bottom-fish.  It was a little choppy, and got windier and windier, and one person got a little sea-sick. From the sea, though, you realize how many palm trees really are in Fiji (TONS!) and how big the mountains really are.  I was dying to catch something big, and was a little disappointed to only catch a coral trout.  I did, however, catch the first fish of the day.   I got it cooked for lunch (USD$6 with fries). The chef, an Indian man, pan-fried the whole fish (head, tail and all) in a lemon, butter, and soy sauce, and it was tender and delicious! I was a teeny bit sunburned after fishing, so I hung out in the shade of a palm tree after lunch, girl-talking with the other travelers and listening to the sound of the surf.
 I had signed up on the board for horseback riding, but wasn’t really planning on going until the man, Eddie, came to get me for my ride.  I really needed to visit the ATM, so he told me we could go down to it on the horses on the beach. We rode down to the Warwick during sunset along the beach, and it was beautiful. He let me canter and trot and lead the horse on my own, and it was great. The horses were a little smaller than quarter horses, and they didn’t wear horseshoes (which sort of bothers me because the beach is pretty rocky in some spots). When we got to the Warwick he told me not to tell anyone I wasn’t staying there, but to just run up to reception and use the Westpac ATM. The 5-star resort was reallyyyyyy nice; I passed a little spa with a fancy fountain in front and little mini moat fountain, at least 30 fancy cushioned lounge chairs lined along green lawns, and a fancy walkway out to sea set up for dinner for two with candles. No one gave me a hard time about walking in, and there were little shops and ladies with handicrafts.  I walked back out to Eddie, who had put our horses near a little handicraft hut a woman ran on the outskirts. It was already dark, but she let me in, and I got some jewelry.  I really took to a little dog that was running around, and I think Eddie did too, because when she brought me the cash she told us that we could have the dog (an adorable, sweet, sweet little female puppy that looked like a little lab mix). Eddie let me ride the horse back with the puppy in my arms, and he proceeded to call it Vic, because my jewelry shopping had gotten him a puppy.  He told me his children didn’t have their own dog, and that his daughter really wanted one. When we got back he let me take the puppy up to the Beachouse and show it off (everyone really fell in love with her).  I am so happy he took me riding, and now that his family has a new puppy to share.
On Tuesday morning Laura and I got up early to go paddle-boarding. After a little confusion over which one we could use, and the details, we both set off on one.  We figured out a little system (because both of us couldn’t stand up, and one person paddling was really slow)- I laid on the front and paddled like I was on a surfboard, and she stood on the back and paddled correctly. We really got going, and some friends of ours had rented surfboards, so we set off to go out nearer to them, past where the waves were breaking.  We made it really far, and we were really enjoying looking at the reef underneath our boards, when we started hearing people yelling at us and waving their arms.  Laura and I had a conversation like “hm, we must be doing something wrong, but we don’t know what…” and I made a joke about them coming out on a boat to get us, if worst came to worst.  All of a sudden a boat was coming towards us; the owner of the Beachouse came out to get us! He brought us in the boat, gave us a lecture about being in the waves (and how the coral was super sharp and dangerous), and took us and the board back in. He also told us we weren’t to paddle-board again (which I don’t think he was serious about). We felt a little rebellious, and I guess I still don’t understand what the big deal was.  Anyway, in the afternoon I took it easy, laying out on the beach, lounging in the hammock, and floating on a life-jacket for awhile. For dinner I had a little toastie sandwich.  Some of the girls did a horseback ride down to the same little jewelry shop I had been to, but had a bad experience.  One of them got bucked off, and it was dark and scary on their whole walk back.  Also, not all of them had much experience riding horses, so they felt unsafe. They got back sort of later, too.
On Wednesday I was so sad that it was my last day at the Beachouse (I think I could spend weeks here, like a lot of other travelers we met).  I waited around to go fishing until 11am, but we had a great day. Within the first 15 minutes one of the guys leading the trip caught a little Trevally on our way out the spot trolling, and when we anchored I quickly caught 4 little fish (I am not sure what they were). Some other people on the boat also caught all different kinds of little coral trout and stuff, and we really did much better than the last trip (maybe because it was a smaller group?). I split the little fish with the other girl who went fishing for lunch, and then she and I split the trevally for dinner (USD$8 each to get it cooked with fries). The chef prepared the little fish similar to the way that the fish was prepared last time, but the trevally was baked and delicious, with just enough spiciness.
After fishing I went on another horseback ride, this time up a mountain. We literally went straight up a mountain, to a summit that looked down over Navola village’s school and church.  The view was absolutely stunning, and when we got to the top I gave my horse a break and walked around for pictures. Instead of Eddie taking me on this trip, a little boy, maybe 12 or 13, led me through the trail. He was happy to tell me about his school and rugby games.  He was also very good with the horses, and it was clear that he is learning how to take care of them from Eddie. While I was up there I learned that the Japanese have a nice school in the village, and handpick Navola village children to learn their language and trades so that they could be able to go to work in Japan. There was also a big building being built: a second church for the village! The villagers seem to be very religious from everything I have seen, as they take Sundays off and place high importance on the church. I wonder if this could be because it has lots of community purposes, or serves as a neutral community meeting place?...
I was back from the horseback before sunset, and it was beautiful from the beach.  A couple of us went exploring the low tide grassy and rocky areas of the beach, because I had heard that there are lots of beautiful blue sea stars. There were all kinds of interesting creatures in the water, like sea slugs and sea snakes and weird feather stars. There were so many sea stars, too! The water was just deep enough in some areas to cover big pieces of coral, but just shallow enough to let me get right up to it and peer at it closely; it was better than being in an aquarium.  I really wanted to see an octopus (the villagers go out during low tide to collect octopi for eating), but didn’t have a pokey stick to get them out of holes, and didn’t really know where to look. The dusky evening was so relaxing, and I was tired by 9pm. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Paradise Found

…So last night I landed around 7pm (2 hours ahead of Australia, 16 hours ahead of home) and was ushered through customs. On the way to customs a band was playing ukuleles in their Bula shirts (brightly printed floral patterned) to welcome guests. There was a health and bio-security portion, a revenue portion, and a general immigration portion.  It was actually pretty thorough! As soon as I retrieved my bags and exited the gates I was surrounded by many different drivers who all asked if I needed a taxi.  I found a help desk to locate my shuttle to Smugglers Cove for me, and patiently waited for the rest of the group.  It actually feels very exotic here, and it was a little stressful alone.  The people are very nice, but I can imagine (since they deal with tourists all the time) not all of them are nice. On the drive over to our hostel (located on the beach at Nadi Bay) it was already dark, so I really couldn’t see a lot of scenery.
I was so happy to see a friendly face, and I think Laura was really happy for me to finally get there.  We split a vegetable pasta dinner (that was delicious) and then sat down at the bar all night.  We did some meeting and greeted- we talked to a big group of golfers staying at Smuggler’s Cove to do 16 days of golfing! We also got friendlier with the staff, and were really taken care of.  We had a private room at Smugglers, with two twin beds, a flatscreen television, a mini-fridge, and a private bathroom (booked on expedia for USD$92/night).  I slept pretty well there.  Continental breakfast was included in the stay, and consisted of rice crispy cereal and toast.
We checked out around 10am and they called us a taxi, and a black Mercedes picked us up and took us into town. Our driver, Mr. Ali, a cute little older Muslim man, was very nice, and apparently was the boss of the company.  He took us to a really nice souvenir store in the city called Jacks (I bought a Fiji t-shirt and a Fiji oven mitt, and this little granite dolphin that I broke-oops). We walked around a little though (against his advice), and really stood out like sore thumbs.  I thought we would see a lot of tourists shopping in the city, or at least getting out to look, but we were the only ‘white’ people that I saw.  I noticed quickly that the Indian population is pretty dominant; all the clothing stores sold the traditional Indian outfits (shirt and pants set lavishly decorated with rhinestones and glitter) right next to the Fijian tropical patterned shirts. There were lots of people on the street, and for the first time since I have left to study abroad, I actually felt a bit of culture shock.  It feels very exotic…
Mr. Ali was so great- I told him I wanted to get a couple of cucumbers to take to the resort to snack on.  He immediately took us to a Fijian food market.  He told us to sit in the car while he ran in to get the produce (painfully ironic, that the two little Americans sat in a black Mercedes while their driver ran into the market, in the middle of a poor and dilapidated city).Women sat under tarps selling their few organic fruits and vegetables.  There was no ‘big’ company around; it seemed like the ladies selling the fruit also probably grew the fruit in their own yards. He brought us back two of the biggest/thickest perfect cucumbers I have EVER seen. He also got us some fresh cut pineapple, skillfully carved with the stem intact so that it can be eaten kind of like a lollipop. On our way back to Smugglers Cove he pulled us into a market so we could grab some peanut butter and crackers.  He probably drove us around for two hours, so when we got back to the hotel we were prepared to pay for it, but he only charged us USD $12 (FJD $18). It really reminded me of how cheap the labor is in this country, and how little the pay must be.
 Before Mr. Ali left we arranged for him to take us to the bus station, so right around 1:00 he came back to get us.  The bus station was back through town, and was really typical of what you would imagine a bus station in a third world country to look like.  At this point, the heat was starting to get to me (and the insane humidity), so I got myself a popsicle for USD$.60 and a Fiji water while we waited for the bus.  That was one of the biggest surprises for me when I arrived in Fiji- the Fiji water sold in grocery stores at home actually comes from Fiji, and is actually the most popular bottled water here (it really does taste better).  I had always imagined it owned by Coca-Cola or something, because of the nice looking bottle and high price.  It is cool to think that even when I am home and far away from Fiji, I will be able to run to Kroger and grab a bottle of Fiji water for a little reminder of the country.
Anyway, the bus station was full of people on benches; women, men and children patiently waited for their buses. Some of the buses were open air buses, and all were pretty old. We took a Sunbeam public bus, and sat near the windows so that we could feel the air coming in.  There was a television in the front of the bus, and random movies like one about a wonder-dog came on.  The movie that played after we passed thru Sigatoka was an obviously Fiji-made film about an Indian women who gets mistreated by her high roller Indian boyfriend, and falls in love with a Fijian man who goes to church, helps old people, and is just an all around good citizen.  It says a lot about the culture here, that what is important to a lot of people are someone’s values. The bus ride was a teeny-bit miserable, but we survived and finally got to the Beachouse!
Upon arrival we met up with a few other Americans who had already gotten here, and quickly settled into our dorm.  The dorm is really nice; it is right near the bathrooms, has clean-feeling tile floors and good fans, and only holds 6 people (all girls in ours). The way the resort is set up also feels very Fijian. We walk down a little dirt path thru beautiful green gardens past blooming tropical flowers to reach the bar area and pool, and then the beach is just a green lawn away.  It truly is PARADISE.
Before dinner we participated in a welcome Kava ceremony with a man from the local village, Navula.  The kava was made in a big bowl that was carved out of solid mahogany.  The kava is made from the powder of the stem of a special plant; it is put into cloth and strained into pure water, so the water looks sort of muddy. Each person then downs a bowlful after clapping once, and everyone else claps three times. It is a very interactive tradition, as everyone watches everyone else and claps for everyone. The kava is a mild narcotic, but only if you try to drink more than 5 bowls. It makes your mouth numb for a few minutes after one, though.  Then, dinner is served around 7pm, but is ordered off a list of 3 specials around 4pm.  I dined on stir-fried veggies with potato, or ‘cassava,’ chips. The rest of the group arrived about 3 hours after we did, and everyone had a delicious dinner. One thing that is really conveinient about The Beachouse is the way you can put almost everything you do at the resort on your tab, just by using your name and room number (could be dangerous though, haha).
With nightfall, the stars were absolutely unbelievable- I felt like I was looking out into the solar system. I can even see the REAL milky way! In the southern hemisphere you can’t see the Big Dipper or North Star, but you can see the Southern Cross. I have never really been good at picking at constellations, but the Southern Cross is really prominent and easy to find. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bula Vanaka from Fiji!

So, I am on my Air Pacific Flight to Nadi, Fiji from Sydney, and I am reading lots of interesting facts about Fiji that I would love to share on my blog!
Fiji consists of 330 islands scattered across 20,000 sq. miles. They lie on the 180 Meridian, so they are the place where the first new day occurs! The biggest island is Viti Levu , where I will be arriving and spending most of my time. Nadi is considered the tourism hub of the country, and offers all types of shopping and accommodation. The average temperature around this time of year (their ‘winter’) is 84 degrees. English is the official language, but natives also speak Fijian and the large Indian immigrant population of Fiji speaks Hindustani.
Some Fijian words:
Bula- hello
Bula Vinaka- a warm hello
Ni sa moce- goodbye
Vinaka- Thank you
Kerekere- please
Mai kana- let’s eat
Walu- king mackrel

The Fiji tourism bureau claims that you cannot go to Fiji without getting sung to, and you cannot go to Fiji without being welcomed.  The Fijians are known as extremely welcoming and nice, and have a world-renowned reputation for opening their arms to visitors.  There are many traditional villages left in Fiji, and they frequently welcome tourists to stay overnight (home stay) or to visit their schools and churches. Kava (or ‘yaqona’ in Fijian) bowls are one cultural oddity of Fiji that deserves mention; the kava, made from a slightly narcotic plant, is served in a traditional coconut bowl, in a special ceremony. Some of the most popular souvenirs to bring back from Fiji are things like ‘Bula’ shirts, carved tanoa bowls, traditional woven baskets, Fijian replica war clubs, ‘cannibal forks,’ and Fijian combs. The most popular souvenir, however, would definitely be the ‘sulu,’ or sarong.  I was told before I came to get a sarong as soon as I get here, because that is the fashionable outfit around Fiji, especially in the evenings. Because it is a all-purpose, one size fits all garment that can keep you cool in the smoldering heat, the sulu is worn by both men and women.
One thing that surprised me is the popularity of Fiji for many activities.  Fiji has world-class scuba diving, surfing, and fishing.  For diving, Fiji is considered the ‘soft-coral’ capital of the whole world.  There are many different wreck dives you can choose to go on, and there are even shark dives (with HUGE bull sharks!).  The surfing is also well-known, and places like Cloudbreak and Frigates Pass have been featured on many different surfing documentaries. As far as fishing goes, charters pull in everything from mahi-mahi to sailfish and (black and blue) marlin.
After reading all of this, I just can’t wait to land- I will update the blog with more very soon!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Well Hello Melbourne!

So, I sincerely promise I have much more to write about Melbourne, but in the essence of time this is all I could produce since then (and i want to keep blogging as much as I can about Fiji).  Hopefully I will add more soon!

Melbourne has been so great so far, for so many reasons… We arrived last night late, around 11:10pm, to Avalon airport (in the middle of no where). When we booked our flights we simply booked them based on price, so we didn’t realize that Avalon was the airport outside of town.  We had to take an airport shuttle into Melbourne for AU$36 each (round trip) for about an hour to our hostel in the CBD, Nomads.
            Early Friday morning we were up and ready for our day; we had to wait until around 10am to book our tours for the weekend, but after that we headed to Queen Victoria Markets, about 2 blocks away.  The markets were awesome!!! They were cheaper than the Paddy’s Markets in Sydney with just as much selection, with everything from socks to souvenirs to salami.  There were people peddling their handicrafts, too, along with a huge organic fruits and vegetables market.  My favorite part was an area with lunch food; greek food, fancy sandwiches, home baked breads, and lots of lollies. Laura saw an American Doughnut Stand (in a big van) and had to splurge (absolutely delicious, rolled in sugar and filled with strawberry yummy-ness).  For lunch we split a chicken schnitzel on a big roll, and it was perfect.
            After a little too much time spent at the markets we headed down the main streets, like Elizabeth Street, and Queen Street, towards the center of the city and Federation Square.  On our way we found the ‘Graffiti Alley,’ a place where graffiti is actually appreciated as art; some other tourists where there at the same time, taking as many pictures as possible. The art was unbelievable!  It is really cool that there are graffiti artists that take what they do so seriously, and really while the graffiti in Wollongong is mostly just words, the graffiti at graffiti alley was all pictures and ideas, even some faces.
We really toured the city on foot, and saw as much as we could before we headed to Haights Chocolate store to begin our chocolate tour at 1:30. Our tour started at Haights, a family owned gourmet chocolate company that began in South Australia.  Everyone on the tour sampled dark and milk chocolates, and also fancy champagne truffles, and almost everyone bought something from the shop.  It was located in an arcade built into the city modeled after one in Europe- the architecture was beautiful, and it felt old and special.  The arcades really had a lot of character, and I could probably spend all afternoon wandering around them, or trying desserts, or eating snacks…  We went to some other chocolate shops, like a place called Chocolait, where we were served delicious liquid chocolate (disguised as ‘hot chocolate’), and Coco Black, where we were given fancy truffles rolled in chocolate shavings. Our tour guide, an older lady who was a self-proclaimed chocoholic, also commentated our walk around the city with fun facts about the history of the area and the history of the chocolate in the area.  Our tour ended at a fancy café, and we were happy to be served breakfast tea and fancy, pretty desserts that WEREN’T chocolate. 
After the chocolate tour we went back to Queen Victoria market and bought some bread (on sale because it was so late). We headed back to Nomads and made tomato soup for dinner, and then got ready for a Australian Football League game! We took the trams to Ethiad Stadium, which holds 50,000 people, and planned on buying tickets when we got there. Fortunatley for us, some people had three extra tickets and were happy to invite us in with them.  Their tickets were awesome, and we had a great view of the game. They also explained the game to us- the field is round, and it doesn’t stop like American football.  Instead, the players kick the ball around to one another and ultimately try to kick it between two posts. The game was a really close one between the Carlton Blues and Geelong Cats; it came down to the last 3 minutes on the clock, and the Geelong Cats won in the end.  It was so fun; I had the best hot dog that I have had so far, with lots of ketchup.  I think maybe it was the last one in the place, because when Laura went to get one a few minutes later they had run out! … The game ended around 11pm, and we were worn out, so we headed back to Nomads and were happy to get into bed.  

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gold Coast and 21st!

The trip to the Gold Coast was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was our first planned trip where we planned for some downtime we could spend at the beach. I was happy to get out of Wollongong, especially because I had just finished some heavy duty work at school.  We arrived on Thursday night to many high rises and excitement of a very lit-up city.  Young people were everywhere, and the area we stayed in, at the Islander Backpacker (a high rise hostel + hotel), was a very busy place. Outside our balcony we could see the ocean far off (3 blocks away), and many the many high rises that surrounded the area.  I was pretty surprised; this is the first heavily developed place I have been in Australia (when I say heavily developed, I mean American style, with high-rises, and condo units, and neon lights- like Florida). Cairns was developed, but most of the hotels seemed to be smaller 3-4 story type places, and Airlie was sort of the same way.  Surfer’s Paradise, however, had it’s own Vegas style casino resort, hotels with penthouses, and luxury beachfront apartment buildings.
On Friday we spent the day on the beach.  We haven’t been able to get much sun lately in Wollongong, so we took full advantage of our time in Surfers to maintain our brown tans we got on the big Spring break trip.  The guys at the Gold Coast are also more American or Miami looking than those we have seen other places.  A lot of them even looked like guys on Jersey Shore, buff with big muscles (besides here, Australian guys are typically pretty scrawny). The beach was lined with mostly young people, and along the beach a boardwalk ran all the way down.  One cool thing about this area is the prominent Surf Lifesaver’s Club; surf lifesaving is an important aspect of the Australian beach lifestyle, and the club in Surfer’s Paradise is the central building on the beach.  While I was grabbing lunch some of the girls even saw a team of the lifesavers do a training demonstration down on the beach.
Three more girls arrived in the evening, and we all went and grabbed dinner down by the shore. There were A LOT of restaurants along the beach area, and their prices were really great.  For dinner we grabbed $5 fish and chips and sat by the water; the weather was so great, and eating outside listening to the waves was the perfect end to a such relaxing day.
During the day Saturday we sort of did the same thing; the weather was even better than before so we spent our time on the beach again.  It was even busier than before, and hard to find a great spot.  We left pretty early because we had booked all the girls to go on a ‘Wicked’ bar crawl to ring in my 21st ; we decided to do a crawl because bars in Surfer’s Paradise usually charge a cover, so by doing the tour we would only pay one fee and then get entry for the rest of our trip.  The crawl started around 5pm, with free drinks and dinner at the first bar and at each after.  I was also able to tell the bartenders it was my birthday to get free drinks. We danced the night away at clubs such as Vanity, Sin City and the Beach house. It was such a great girls night; I think everyone had a wonderful time, and we really got some good pictures. By 2am though we were worn out!
On Sunday morning I wanted to get crepes with ice cream for my birthday at a little breakfast place near our hostel.  Laura surprised me by ordering chocolate cake with a birthday candle on top, too, and they sang me happy birthday.  After breakfast we headed to a wildlife sanctuary just outside of town. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out til we got there that the sanctuary was having a special event: locals $5 entry for Mother’s Day.  It was an absolute MADHOUSE; there were screaming children, more people in attendance than the park was ever made for, and no specials for tourists.  There were so many people there that when you tried to feed one of the (at least) 40 kangaroos in the kangaroo area none would eat because they were all so full.  We did get a picture holding a koala, though, and that was really why we wanted to go. The koala handlers tell you to stand in a specific place, put your hands down by your belly button, and not to move at all.  Then they simply set the koala on you.  I was so happy to be holding a koala, though, I started bouncing it like a baby, and the handler got pretty upset.  Needless to say, she was very quick to take it from me, so I didn’t get a good picture on MY camera.  My professional picture turned out ok, though.  Maybe I should have told her it was my birthday, haha…
For the evening we rushed back to Surfer’s Paradise to take a $15 sunset cruise I had found a brochure for. Laura brought me some champagne to drink during the cruise, and I put my legs out over the side and enjoyed the wind in my hair.  The canals around Surfer’s Paradise are lined with Palm Beach style mansions, so riding up and down admiring the beautiful homes and estates was totally entertaining. A family ran the cruise boat, and when the captain’s wife found out it was my birthday she announced it to the whole boat, and everyone proceeded to sing me happy birthday.  The cruise was the ABSOLUTE PERFECT way to see the sun set on my birthday, and was probably my favorite part about Gold Coast.  Being on a boat renews my spirits, and from the water is a great viewpoint for seeing the sights.
After the cruise we headed to a Mexican restaurant nearby (where I received another free drink), and then to a bar close to our backpackers where Keri and Kaitlyn had visited earlier to arrange a birthday treatment.  The bartender took absolutely amazing care of our group! I wore a pretty white dress and a boa, and as soon as I got there he made me a huge fishbowl drink and poured all the girls champagne.  He also made us two rounds of shots, and another fishbowl when we finished my first one.  I was in no rush to drink a lot, and wanted to just enjoy the evening, but some of the girls took full advantage of the opportunity and got really drunk.  He continued to refill our champagne glasses, and eventually I handed my fishbowl off to more keen drinkers.  My day had been pretty great without an insane drunken evening, and I was pretty tired, so we eventually went to bed when the party girls had gotten their fill. I am so glad we went out, though, especially to Melbas, because we were all treated like royalty because it was my birthday!
On Monday it rained, and our flight out was around 2pm so we couldn’t do much around town.  We ended up holing up at the hostel with movies and popcorn, and watched ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’  A bunch of people were sitting around in the tv room, so it was a pretty relaxed movie day that we could all enjoy. I was ready to get back to Wollongong, though, and sleep in my own bed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Big Blue Mountains!

Last Friday, after we got home from New Zealand, we were picked up around 3pm to go to the Blue Mountains with CIEE.  I was pretty worn out, but excited going because CIEE always takes such good care of us.  We were driven about 2 hours away to Leura, a small, prestigious suburb in the mountains, to a beautiful, huge house.  The CIEE staff Wayne, his girlfriend Nicole, and our driver Scott prepared dinner for us.  We had delicious Brie cheese and crackers to start, with dips, chips, and finger foods. The royal wedding was live on prime time in Australia, so we all huddled around the huge television to watch Kate and William get married.  For the main they prepared grilled chicken and steak.  Everything was delicious, and it was nice to eat so well (especially after New Zealand!). There were at least 8 bedrooms in the house, and each bed had a heating blanket on it, nice sheets, and fluffy pillows. 
On Saturday we woke up relatively late and had quick breakfast, then headed to our abseiling adventure.  We were suited up and practiced on a small rock.  Abseiling is a bit scary, because your legs are basically completely parallel to the ground, but your body is parallel to the rock you are leaning on with your legs.  You have to lean back and ease your butt down, then you can move your legs down.  Each time you abseil, too, there is a spotter at the bottom who is holding onto your rope, so you won’t go down to fast or lose control.  It was raining, though, so in my mind things were going to get slippery.
We did five different abseils, and each got bigger as we moved on.  On the fourth one they taught us how to push ourselves off from the cliff when we encountered an overhang. I am not going to lie- abseiling was terrifying.  Just getting yourself off the top of the rock and trusting the ropes when you lean back to hold you safely was tough. I was pretty thrilled when I got down the big cliffs, but the views from the top were amazing.  Abseiling was an awesome activity that really tested my fears, but the experience was pretty rewarding, too.
After the abseiling activity ended we ventured into town to grab lunch.  We ended up eating all together at a little café in Leura.  Everyone was pretty cold after getting wet on the mountain abseiling, but we were all keen to warm up with hot chocolate and hot tea.  One popular thing here in Australia are the hot chai lattes, and sometimes a dessert chai beverage (like a milkshake) is offered.  I don’t absolutely love chai tea, but people who do LOVE the chai lattes and frappes.  After lunch we walked around the shops in the town a little bit, and I even picked out a Christmas ornament! Leura and the surrounding villages are very touristy, but they are tucked away in the mountains so each is a little bit isolated from the others. The shops were pretty unique; the specialty stores and boutiques had everything from French specialty soaps to custom stationary, and I think a lot of the shops were tailored to a wealthy crowd, as the prices were pretty steep.
In the afternoon we stopped at all the popular tourist lookouts, but because of the weather we could not see anything. The CIEE leaders had discussed letting us organize dinner and breakfast, so we took a trip to Woolworth’s grocery store and in groups purchased all the food we would need for the meals we wanted to prepare.  The dinner group decided they wanted to make Mexican food; they grabbed stuff to make quesadillas, fajitas, and chips and salsa. I was on breakfast duty, so when we got back to the house I immediately ran up and got into bed under the heating blanket (my pants and clothes had been wet all day, so I was ready to warm up!).
The group that made the Mexican food did a great job! Wayne, Nic and Scotty (the Australians) had never had Mexican prepared so well, and were surprised how much they liked it, especially the quesadillas. I was pretty worn out after dinner, so I watched a little bit of a movie and headed to bed early.
I was on breakfast duty, and was in charge of making French toast, complete with fruit toppings and whipped cream.  We also prepared scrambled eggs and bacon.  The bacon is Australia is really different from in America; the slabs of meat, or slices, are much bigger, and there is a lot more fat on them.  They also are cut a little thicker, so it doesn’t get very crispy (the way I prefer it at home). It is definitely more like ham. Anyway, everyone loved the breakfast, and the Australians kept asking if we had such sweet breakfasts normally in the states.  We reassured them that breakfasts this fancy were only on days like Sunday, when people have time to cook yummy breakfasts with so many items. It was so nice to have a kitchen to cook some familiar food dishes, and it was nice to have so many people who were so excited about eating what we cooked.
After we tidied up the house and checked out we headed to the famous lookout points to see the Three Sisters, a rock formation in the heart of a famous valley.  We also went on a short walk to see a waterfall, and got to see some of the flora up close.  The Blue Mountains are ‘blue’ because of the blue-tinged haze that comes from all the eucalyptus trees. They remain green all year (so there are no fall colors to see here!), but the mountains look blue.  The valley where the Three Sisters sit is the second largest valley in the world, only a little smaller than the Grand Canyon! It was truly spectacular, and definitely worth seeing.
I did not want to return to school, though because I knew my week (and the next 3 after it) would really academically stressful.  After the Blue Mountains, I had to turn 2 papers in, write a paper in class and take a test.  While that doesn’t sound like much, when you are in Australia (traveling around) it is a lot. We shall see how it goes…

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Magical New Zealand

On Tuesday Laura, Caleb, and Ashley booked canyoning, but when we called to confirm the activity we were told that only two people were booked, for some reason, and that the trip was full.  I hadn’t really wanted to canyon (because I knew it would be very cold, and I knew I could find other things to do) so I didn’t book the trip.  Laura and I decided in the morning to do the zipline ecotour that starts at the top of the Skyrail mountain and zips down.  We piddled around in the morning, and took our time getting up and ready and checking out of our hostel.  We headed up the Skyrail gondola around 10:30.  Because we had arrived so late at night, we had missed a lot of the scenic views of Queenstown.  We were certainly impressed as we ascended on the gondola of the views around us- the town is beautiful, the mountains surrounding it are beautiful, and Lake Wakitupu that it sits next to is beautiful.  I couldn’t take enough pictures! 
When we got to the top of the mountain we checked out the viewing area (there was also a restaurant up top with fabulous views that we wish we could’ve eaten at!) and the gift shop, where I bought furry ear muffs, as it was pretty chilly.  We headed over to the ziplining check in point and geared up for our trip down.  We had two guides, a guy from England and girl from Canada, and two older couples from the north island of New Zealand were also in our group. The ziplining was great- some of the rides were very scenic, and they taught us to go backwards and upside down.  We zipped 6 long rides; the last ride was the steepest in the world, and quite thrilling.  Our morning adventure ended too soon!
One cool thing about our zipline company was how environmentally friendly they are.  They preached to us about sustainability and doing things to improve the environment.  They also introduced us to the area around Queenstown, and told us really interesting things about the city.  The forest we were in had originally been a Red Beech Tree forest, but about 70 years ago someone had dropped Douglas Fir tree seeds (from N. America) aerially, and because Douglas firs drop their branches and make the soil acidic, no more Beech trees can grow.  The company has replanted over 1600 native Beech trees in an effort to rebuild the environment, but more can always be done.
They also told us the stories of the area. The giant flightless Moa bird (10ft tall), the biggest flightless bird to ever walk the planet, roamed the area over 800 years ago.  Because the birds had never feared large predators, they quickly became extinct when the Maori people arrived because they were so easy to hunt. Their predator, the Haast eagle (3m wingspan!), had to find other large meals to replace the Moa bird, so he began to eat the Maori children. As legend goes, the Haast eagles became fewer in number over the years, and in the 1800s the explorer that began settling the area hunted the last Haast eagle.  The story is quite sad, but it was really interesting to learn about the huge animals that were in the area not so long ago. 
When we got back into town we were quite hungry, but wanted something light. We made our way into a little soup and dessert shop, and both quickly agreed upon the ‘Chocolate Lover’s Belgium Waffles,’ which we easily split and loved every minute!
In the afternoon we wandered around town for a little while; Queenstown is an awesome city. It is absolutely beautiful, too, because it is surrounded by the huge lake and remarkable mountains.  It is small and quaint enough to feel home-y, but very worldly and interesting.   The nightlife is also very vibrant in the city, as it is made up of many young people from many different places.  I have never been to Colorado, but it is what I would imagine the little ski resort towns there to be like. It’s a little more expensive to eat there and shop there than in the others places we have been so far, but overall it is usually worth what is paid.  The city has a lot of character, just like the people.  New Zealanders have slightly different accents than Australians, and tend to say ‘ay’ and ‘as’ after many phrases.  ‘Good hike, ay?,’ ‘Sweet, as!,’ ‘Cool as!’ Sometimes, I want to respond with ‘cool as what?’ (haha) but I figure it is just an expression.
In the afternoon we were set to drive to Milford Sound, a 4.5 hour drive (or so).  I had read that the drive to Milford was a big part of the experience, and that it was something not to miss.  One guy we met told us that on the drive you see the Grand Canyon, Alaska, and the plains all in one.  Unfortunately, on our drive there it got dark around 5:30 or 6:00, so we didn’t’ get to see as much as we would’ve liked.  We planned on getting out of the sound early the next day, though, to see the things we missed.
We were booked to stay in the only lodge in Milford Sound; the hostel was full of families and young people and children (the first one I had seen with a lot of children staying).  We had a little four person room, with bunk beds, and it was small, but ok.  It was so cold outside, though, that I refused to take a shower because you had to go outside in the cold.   For dinner I boiled some pasta and added some jar sauce in the hostel kitchen, and we ate together as a little family among the other people cooking. We had an early morning the next day, as Laura and I wanted to go on a cruise of the sound, so we headed to bed pretty early.
In the morning we drove down to the Milford sound visitor center and boat harbor near the water, and where all of the cruises left from.   Caleb and Ashley decided to stay back and take photos and hang out on the shore, and Laura and I booked a cruise out to the Tasman Sea with ‘Cruize Milford.’  The boat had two levels, and decks on the back and front, and we got muffin breakfast. The cruise was awesome; we learned and saw quite a few things:
·      The length of the sound is 16km, and the average depth is 330m (over 1000 ft!!).  The widest point is 2km, and tallest point is 1692m (Mitre Point, one of the tallest mountains in the world to rise directly from the sea floor).
·      The sound was missed two times by explorer Captain James Cook because it is so completely hidden from the view from the open ocean. It was eventually discovered in 1823 by a sealer, John Grono, who named it Milford Haven after his birthplace in Wales.
·      The crystalline rocks of Milford Sound and Fiordland were formed some 600 million years ago, and were once part of a ‘shield’ mountain range located on the eastern side of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland.  Over the past 100 million years tectonic plate movement, and the 12 major glacier phases have eroded them.  Rivers of ice up to 2000 meters thick formed between mountains and in valleys, and carved the mountain ranges even steeper and deeper.  As the glaciers melted, ‘fiords’ were formed as the sea flooded in, and sheer cliffs, hanging valleys and many waterfalls were left. 
·      The top 5 meters of water in the fiord is freshwater; the deeper water is saltwater.
·      Dark adapted animals live in the depths of the sound; marine animals that are found in very deep sea water on the continental shelf are often found at relatively shallow depths in the fiord. Black coral is endemic to Fiordland, and grows very slowly in colonies that resemble trees.  Some trees are estimated to be over 300 years old.
·      Dolphins, seals and penguins are also found in the fiord.  Because penguins are only found during nesting season in the spring, we didn’t see any of those.  However, we did see the New Zealand Fur Seals and some dolphin.  The dolphins were very lively, and the captain guessed that they were mating.
After the cruise we didn’t hesitate to get back on the road; we were ready to see the things we missed on the drive and get back to Queenstown.  On the way back to Queenstown we got to stop at quite a few cool spots.  We took a little walk around Boyd Creek, where we got to see small waterfalls and enjoy the rainforest.  Everything is completely covered in moss, and is green, and it seems so much like a movie.  It really is magical; it feels like walking around in a fairy tale.
            When we got back to Queenstown we showered and got ready to go out on a bar crawl around Queenstown.  The crawl took us to some big, popular bars around Queenstown, including the famous Minus 5 ice bar. We were pretty excited, because the admission into the ice bar alone was expensive ($30) so the bar crawl was actually a good deal ($33).  It was a lot of fun; there were people on the tour from the North Island of New Zealand, some from New York, and some from all over Europe. It was really fun to walk around the city with a guide, and to see bars that we wouldn’t have found without the guide. I went home early because I was worn out, and slept so well! It was a wonderful last night in Queenstown J.
            On Thursday morning we bopped around Queenstown a little, and grabbed Maccas (McDonalds). We had gotten a parking ticket a couple days before when we were there because we parked in a place that we weren’t supposed to (we didn’t know that a broken yellow line meant no parking), so we had to pay our ticket before we could leave.  We set out towards Kawarau Bridge, home of the first bungy jump ever, invented by New Zealander AJ Hackett.  Caleb was booked for a noon jump; he didn’t seem scared at all, and jumped like a pro! He loved it so much he signed up for a second jump, because it was pretty cheap and it offered a deal on pictures and videos.  While we were there we watched many different types of people jump; two girls, maybe 14 years old, jumped bravely as their mother and father watched from the sidelines.  The oldest person ever to jump there was 94, and the youngest was 10.  It was cool to visit the ‘original’ bungy jump (over 500,000 people have jumped there), and to learn the story of bungy jumping.  The guys who invented it got the idea from a ritual performed on the island of Vanuatu, where the men and women jump off of tall towers. They invented a safe device and simply starting jumping off bridges. At one point, AJ Hackett actually snuck up to the top of the Eiffel Tower to jump down, and was arrested by the Paris police.  I would’ve liked to have jumped, but chose not to out of respect for my parents wishes!
            Caleb finished jumping around 2pm, and we headed north towards Mount Cook National Park, and ultimately Christchurch.  The drive back wasn’t as eventful as I would’ve liked, but it was ok because all of our cameras had died (literally, none of us had working cameras), and had it been beautiful we would have been disappointed we couldn’t get pictures.  On the way we grabbed dinner, and eventually arrived at Christchurch airport, where we were planning on sleeping, around 10pm.  Laura, Ashley and Caleb took the rental car back, and then had to walk to the airport. I waited with all of our luggage in the brand new international terminal, but eventually I was kicked out, as they didn’t want backpackers trying to sleep in the new terminal.  No lie, atleast 7 employees of the airport tried to ask me to move; eventually a cop came over and told me that I was the first person ever he had to kick out of the new terminal.
            I moved our cart with all of our stuff to the international arrivals terminal, and found us a bench to lay on.  However, because we got there late, all of the good places were taken, and the bench was close to the automatic doors, and the outside was very cold.  It was very cold where we were, so as the night passed I moved around the terminal. I think I moved around, and slept in all of the areas. By 4am I was totally over attempting to sleep in the arrivals terminal, and found my way to our desk to check in for the flight.  I was worn out (and ready for alone time and a call home), and happy to get on the plane and head home.  However, I was quickly reminded that unlike home, landing at the airport is never the end of the journey.  We had both a long train ride, and then a long walk home.  As soon as I got back to Weerona, I was ready for a nap, but instead had to get ready to travel with CIEE to the Blue Mountains.  Cheers!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cooling off in New Zealand!

On Saturday night we arrived into Christchurch airport very late, around midnight.  There were quite a few Americans on our flight from Sydney- I even met 5 guys from South Carolina (the first people I have met at all from SC) who are studying at the University of Sydney.  On the plane, I sat next to a drunk, professional boxer from New Hampshire- I’m not sure how successful he is, as we were sitting in coach. Getting through customs was a breeze, and getting our luggage was easy too.  Walking through the arrivals terminal, however, was an interesting sight.  Atleast 100 people, mostly young people, were curled up on the floor under blankets or sleeping bags, some partnered up, and some in huge groups.  I talked to a lady in the terminal who works at the airport, and she said that since the earthquake backpackers have slept in the airport, as so many hostels were destroyed downtown. The night before, she said they counted 180 people sleeping in the terminal.  There is literally no place for everyone to stay who is trying to get into the South Island of New Zealand.
I worked out a deal with a taxi driver who took us to Old Country Cottage Hostel.  The hostel was really nice. We got two rooms with two twin beds each, and Laura and I had a little cottage to sleep in.  It was very cozy; the kitchens had fresh baked bread, there were little courtyards between each “house,” and the staff helped us find a rental car very quickly.  Our rental car company wasn’t planning to pick us up until noon, so we walked around town a little bit, and attempted to go to a grocery store, New World.  The streets were pretty empty where we were (not downtown or anything), and as we passed store windows we could look inside and see destruction.  The most heartbreaking for me was looking into a petstore.  It’s owners posted a note on the door that they were running the business at home; the inside was cluttered with broken glass shards, cages, and mess everywhere. I imagine they were attempted to avoid it as long as possible.   The grocery store ended up being closed, but Laura and I bought a SIM card at a little convenience shops, and we all grabbed sandwiches for lunch at a bakery.  Sandwiches were about $3.50- it was so nice not to pay a lot for lunch, considering Australia is so expensive. Things in New Zealand seem much cheaper and better value, even with the favored US dollar (which makes it even BETTER!).
Other than the earthquake bit, I really like Christchurch.  The city is beginning to turn reds, yellows and oranges with the onset of autumn, so it is really charming.  Also, not everything was destroyed; many places still look like my imagined view of Christchurch- cottage-y and quaint.  It was disappointing not to be able to go to church in Cathedral Square or even into the city at all, though, as that part is still completely closed off because of all the damage.
At the rental car company we only registered Ashley and Laura as drivers because they are the only 21-year olds.  My birthday is in less than a month, so I am a little frustrated I am not allowed to drive, but whatever…  Anyway, we set off out of Christchurch onto Arthur’s Pass Highway, or the Great Alpine Highway.  The highway is really famous and a very popular drive right across the south island of New Zealand.  It passes everything scenic.  I did a lot of research on our drives before we came, so I had some places in mind for us to stop on our way.
Our first stop (we didn’t make it very far) were the Castle Hill Rocks.  The rocks angle out of the mountains and are very large.  Some of them are climbable, so the place is really a rock climbers dream.  Caleb and Ashley attempted to climb to the top, but I found a nice rock to enjoy the views. The landscape at this point in the drive was just starting to change from what we saw outside the city, tall wall-like bushes, small sheep pastures, and green, to prairie-like flatland and grassy mountains.  The mountains were very different, though; some had rocks on the top, others had just grass on the top, and even others had shrubs dotting the top.  I couldn’t have counted the number of sheep had I tried, and literally as we walked around the huge rocks (where we could see no sheep) we heard baa-ing off in the distance.  It was pretty spectacular, and it was hard to talk Caleb into leaving, as it was any boys’ play place.
Almost right after leaving the Castle Hill Rocks we ran into the Cave Stream cave.  I had been reading about the cave, and how easy it was so cave it.  We prepared ourselves to venture into the cave by grabbing Ashley’s flashlight, and I put on my hiking shows, and we walked down to the cave entrance.  On our way we saw a family of four wandering out of the cave, with water to their waists, and rubber boots on.  They said it was a good day for caving, and that we should definitely go in.  I would love to know how the cave was formed; it was round on the entrance/outside, and the water steadily got deeper.  We wandered into the cave, and the water went to our waists.  Wading in deeper was challenging because it was so cold; the air wasn’t too cold, but the water was almost unbearable for long periods.  We probably made it 400 meters into the cave before we decided that one flashlight was not enough, and that we had gone deep enough, and that it was very dark and very cold.  We turned around and headed back out of the cave, and were happy to reach the entrance once again.  Considering we were the only people around who were in the cave, and really the only people around the cave, we felt pretty ballsy to have gone as far in as we did, and enjoyed our bit of adrenaline for cave diving the rest of the day.
On the way down to Franz-Josef, we stopped at a little conveinience store in a small town.  HUGE ice cream cones were only NZ$2.00!!  Coming from Australia, we were a bit sticker shocked at how CHEAP it is to eat here, once again. We grabbed some pasta to make for dinner during the trip, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and granola bars for snacks.  We figured we would need snacks and a meal on the road, and open-faced peanut butter sandwiches usually curb any craving! Yummy.
We missed a lot of things on the drive down New Zealand’s west coast because we spent so much time stopping during our drive on the Arthur’s Pass road.  It was dark by the time we turned south down the coast, and eventually we arrived at our hostel in Franz-Josef around 10pm.  Before we checked in, we decided to try our luck at finding glowworms in a local cave.  We found the Terrace Walk on the outskirts of town, and set off in search of the worm cave.  I had been told the walk was about 15 minutes into the rainforest from the road.  It was VERY dark, and we only had one flashlight.  From everything I know, there is nothing to hurt us in the forests of New Zealand,  but we imagined the worst, and eventually we all decided about 5 minutes into the walk that it was a bad idea.  As we were turning around, Laura spotted glowworms just off of the trail.  We got to get a peak of the teensy tiny little worms anchored on the roots of an overturned tree.  I was glad we got to see the glowworms, and I was also glad we weren’t wandering deep into the rainforest so late in the night.  We had had many big adventures during the day; my bravery had almost run out! J
The Glow-worm cottages were so nice, one of the nicest hostels I have stayed in so far!  We were given a 4 person bunk bed ensuite, so we had our own bathroom (WOW!), our own ‘kitchen sink,’ and our own toaster and fridge, for only $26 p/p.  I felt very spoiled to be staying in such a nice place!

Originally, when we tried to book a half-day of glacier hiking on Fox Glacier for Monday morning we were told the trip was full; after lots of persuasion and use of my southern charm (or attempt at it) we were added to the list, and told to arrive at 8:00 for check-in.  I brought my alarm clock on the trip, so I was the person responsible for waking everyone up in time for us to make the 30 minute drive to Fox Glacier in the morning.  However, when Monday morning came, my alarm never went off. I woke up at 8:00 (naturally) and realized I had set it for a PM time.  We hustled everyone up and out of bed, and quickly checked out of our hostel.  When we called the place, we were told that the trip would not wait for us (and that our spots had been given away), and that we would either have to forgo glacier hiking all together or sign up for the day long trip.  The dilemma over the day long, trip, however, was that if we left so late in the day for Queenstown we would miss many highlights on the drive because it would quickly get dark.
One problem about traveling in a group is usually that it is hard to get people to agree. In our case, however, we all realized that we would have to give one or the other up: glacier hiking or scenic drive.  We all easily decided to do the full day of glacier hiking. 
We had worn many layers of clothing, and our guides suited us up into big, tough boots, waterproof jackets and trousers, and hats and mittens.  I got a backpack from the company as well.  After a short bus ride, and a tough hike to the base of the ice, we put on our crampons.  I had never even heard of crampons before, so I was interested to see how they worked.   They were simply metal spikes that you can attach to the bottom of your shoes to grip the ice with straps.  Because we were doing the full day hike, our crampons were really intense looking and very sturdy. We were also given ‘alpine sticks’ to help us balance on the ice during our hike. Our guide, Scott, grew up on a New Zealand sheep farm just outside of the townships of Fox glacier and Frantz-Josef.  He was pretty young and adventurous, but also very knowledgeable about the area.
 Once we were ready to get on the ice, we went up stairs made between the walls of a deep crevice. We hiked straight up the glacier on a path forged for us by Scott; he would chop little steps or level places for us to step every now and then with his ice pick.  Even though the guides go every day, it seemed like he does something a little different every day, as he had to forge the path as we went.  As we were stepping across a small crevice I fell on the ice; I can witness that it was truly hard ice, and it really hurt.  One thing I was reminded of was that even when you don’t fall ‘hard,’ falling on ice is always falling hard, and almost always hurts. 
The hike was challenging, and I felt invigorated and worn out all at the same time.  Our guide took us to holes we could climb in, and caves we could check out.  There was  a lot to see on the ice.  We ate lunch at a rocky area on the top of the glacier. One benefit of the full day hike was that we got to go up to the faster moving area, where more holes and caves and ice arches form.  The Fox Glacier is one of the only glaciers in the world that is still getting bigger.  The glacier is formed by snowfall in the basin of the glacier.   Overtime, the snow solidifies into ice (5-6 years), and as more snow is pushed down and into the basin, the ice is pushed down the valley.  As the ice pushes down the valley, moving, it forges the valley.  Our guide said that on average the glacier is moving 1 meter per day- WOW!  As the story goes, a guy lost his engraved, fancy lighter in the 1970s in the top basin of the glacier.  In the late 90s the lighter was found at the bottom of the glacier, and the lighters’ speed was calculated over that period of time- it traveled over 13 km!
On our way back down the glacier we stopped at an awesome naturally formed ice cave.  We walked down into it and enjoyed looking up into the hole that formed from the melting water dripping down.  There were two little chambers to the cave that were big enough to slip into.  It was pretty fascinating. We took a different path down the glacier, but by this time I was pretty worn out and tired, and ready to warm up. 
As soon as we got down glacier hiking we jumped on the road to Queenstown.  It got dark before we turned inland, but we got to watch the sunset from the western coast of New Zealand! It was absolutely magnificent, but because it was similar to many other sunsets I have seen, pretty comforting.  Even in this side of the world, some things don’t change. The drive to Queenstown was about 4 hours; it was sad that we missed so many great views because we had to drive in the dark, but because of our time constraints I understand that something had to be given up. 
We arrived into Queenstown right around 9pm, and checked into our hostel on Shotover Street, Base Backpackers.  The hostel was really big and nice, and in our 4-person room we each received towels (WOW, a luxury in hostels) and teabags and sugar for NZ$29 p/p.  For dinner, I decided I deserved a big delicious meal, as I hadn’t eaten much at all on the trip so far, and I worked really hard glacier hiking.  A famous burger place, Fergburger’s Queenstown, was located right across from Base, so we were all happy to zip on over and grab delicious, huge burgers to satisfy our hunger.  They were some of the best burgers I have tasted since leaving the states, and I can’t think of anything I would have rather had.  By the time dinner was finished and we had gotten back to our room, it was past 11, so we decided to hit the sack, and get a good nights rest…