Party boating on Ha Long Bay

Sarah and I went big the week of October 6th, which marked both the halfway point of my RTW journey as well as my birthday. For two days we partied on a boat in Ha Long Bay with an eclectic crew of fellow travelers.

Ha Long, which means descending dragon, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features around 2,000 limestone islets that are over 500 million years old. The first morning we explored an incredibly massive cave (!) adorned with the craziest stalactite and stalagmite formations you could imagine. Later that afternoon we kayaked through the islets before spending the remaining hours of daylight jumping off our boat into the bay.

We had a hilarious bunch, including a lawyer from Romania, a camp counselor from New York, a guide from Australia, an engineer from Silicon Valley, the owner of the largest air con company in Perth, a professor who teaches management in Malaysia, and a DJ who is launching the EDM scene in Vietnam. Turns out you can bond with just about anyone if you spend hours jumping off the side of a boat beneath a nearly full moon and playing king’s cup. At one point, I caught a moment of quiet with one of the women and we dove immediately into a discussion about the challenge of wanting children but also our freedom — which then led to the Ann-Marie Slaughter “women can’t have it all” versus Sheryl Sandberg “lean in” debate.

The next day we had a cooking class on board and learned how to make spring rolls…yummm.

It was so hard to leave that boat!! As we waited for our bus at a coffee shop, I was roped into trying some Vietnamese tobacco, which is traditionally smoked from a long pipe. Yes, it is just tobacco, but whooeee…likely because I don’t smoke, one inhale knocked me on my butt for at least a minute. When one of the guys offered me some tea, I was only capable of lifting my pinky finger. I have no idea how men in the mountain villages (women don’t smoke) manage this on a routine basis!

When we made it back to Hanoi, Sarah and I reunited with some folks from the boat and danced the night away. Not an hour passed before we ran into another guy from the boat! Hanoi has an 11 p.m. curfew, but a few select clubs, for reasons I won’t get into here, have worked out a 2 a.m. closing time. We tracked one down on the edge of town. And saw three more people from the boat! It never ceases to amaze me, how small and intimate this world feels while traveling.

Good night, Vietnam.

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Posted in Asia, Round the World, Travel, Vietnam | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Soul Sisters in Sa Pa

Like the butterflies that roam Vietnam’s terraced mountains, Sarah is larger than life.

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The day after she flew in from LAX, we girled around Hanoi, exploring historical sites, buying gifts for loved ones, and getting our nails done — all the while risking our lives between throngs of motos every time we crossed the street.

That evening Tiger beers with a view was in order before we hopped on the night bus for Sa Pa.

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Despite our different socioeconomic backgrounds and political leanings, Sarah and I have similar values. It is partly because of this that we now struggle with similar questions. It is also because of this that we are amazingly good at having fun. Like, the best ever.

Day 1 in Sa Pa

Sa Pa lies in northwest Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, and houses the Hoang Lien Son mountain range — an eastern extension of the Himalayas. Fansipan, at 3,142 meters, is Vietnam’s highest peak. Trekking Sa Pa is an exploration not just of Vietnam’s landscape, but also its culture. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, the largest of which is Viet (86%). Despite Vietnam’s recent capitalist efforts and heavy encouragement of foreign investment, some of the smaller ethnic groups, such as the H’mong, have managed to preserve their traditional cultures in Vietnam’s northwest mountains, which they terrace to cultivate rice and corn.

With our 19-year-old H’mong guide, named So, our entirely female crew set out for the hills.

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Friends for the morning

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Our homestay

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Good times with rice wine until the poor couple realized they lost their water buffalo!

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Day 2 in Sa Pa

Meet So, our tour guide. Although her dream was to work in a hotel (so that she would have whiter skin), she opted for a position as a tour guide because it allows her the flexibility to continue working in her mother’s fields every week. The rice season is between May and September, and is arduous labor, to say the least.

The amount of property a family owns is an indication of wealth, So explained, not because they sell what they cultivate but because it’s an indication of how much land the family can divide up among the children once they marry. At 13 or 14 years of age is when most H’mong people marry one another. A girl’s group of friends will lie in wait to kidnap her and bring her to her suitor’s house. So told us that the girl was expected to marry the boy unless she cried and cried for three days and didn’t eat or drink anything. “If she eats even one piece of rice,” she said, “then she has to marry because it shows she’s not unhappy enough.”

So shared her own story of having survived a marriage kidnapping, and ended by saying, “Handsome is for everyone. I like the heart.”

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This sweet, sassy girl followed me for a kilometer without taking her eyes off me. The oldest children aren’t able to go to school because it’s expected that they care for their younger siblings and work in the fields.

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Slash-and-burn

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Day 3 in Sa Pa

Each day, Sarah and I talked ourselves quiet. Although she is a doctor and I, an attorney, we are at similar stages in launching our respective careers. We discussed leadership — its various forms and challenges, and how we see our own roles. The topic of faith also arose, a first between us, and we realized that we share the same foundation for our respective beliefs. Another central theme was…men! Duh. And boys. But mostly men.

Still rocking my Kiwi socks

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We checked out a few local schools

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After the trek we were off to Ha Long Bay! A post for another time…

Posted in Asia, Hiking, Round the World, Travel, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ubud: a taste of Indo culture

Ubud, a historic town on Bali, in just a day taught me vast amounts about Indo’s fantastically multidimensional culture. Regrettably, I’m lacking the time to share what I learned! (I’m in Vietnam now and awaiting the arrival of a very special guest :)). Also, you’ve heard enough from me these last few days. For now, some photos to hold Ubud’s significant place in my travels until I can fill in the blanks.

My beautiful homestay: Nirwa, which overlooks a rice paddy. I can’t recommend this family-run place enough!

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Ok Mom, stop reading here…

Seriously, not any further.

My mom, a physical therapist who has treated many motorcycle head injuries, made me promise many years ago that I’d never ride a two-wheeled motorized vehicle. It’s the only way to get around the island unfortunately, if you want to cover a lot of ground. When I spoke with the moto vendor, she asked whether I had driven one before. Yes? She looked at me like the inexperienced white girl I am. $5 is $5, though, so she gave me the keys and told me to be careful.

So off I lurched, driving a moto for the first time in my life, on the left side of the road — also a first. I successfully made it down the side street and around my first two turns until I came to a massive, deity-clad roundabout and proceeded…right through a red light! People laid on their horns, managing to just barely skirt around me, and cussed me out in more than one Indonesian language. Off to a great start, I deeply breathed. Then I noticed three officers standing in the roundabout — staring at me. My next thought was of Indonesian jail, or if I was lucky, a hefty fine. I was clearly not their priority, however, as they lazily leaned against the statute of the deity beneath the mid-day sun.

My priority was getting out of the city center to more naked roads. No such luck. I passed masses and masses of motos, the concept of lanes lost on everyone. Noticeably, I was pretty much the only white person driving a moto…and definitely the only white female. Lots of strange stares. Although that could have been my driving.

Eventually I tracked down some of the more famous temples, pulling over every so often to explore and learn a few things.

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And a few other roadside temples:

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I found a hill and figured I’d keep driving up and up to see if I could catch a view for the sunset. I stumbled across an incredible, terraced rice paddy!

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Lastly, I swung by a monkey forest:

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And found some other little monkeys:

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Sunset:

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That evening, Ubud’s community hosted its annual ceremony in which they cleanse the temple to restore harmony within. Over the course of the year, people bring bad energy into the temple so this ritual, which lasts several weeks and involves a procession to sea, serves to purify the holy space.

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The next morning, Nirwa’s owner — a patient, kind, and hilarious soul who loves to laugh at his own jokes and blast Adele — drove me to the airport. Within an hour I learned heaps about his community — their belief in and commitment to the collective whole, how each person in the community has a responsibility and role to play, and why their divorce rate is so low (2 couples out of 300).

And then before I knew it, I was off to Hanoi.

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Posted in Asia, Indonesia, Round the World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Once Upon a Time on Gili Trawangan

Last weekend, I did Gili Trawangan (“Gili T”) proper, partying too hard and getting too sunburned. There was another element that this island offered me, though, which took me by surprise.

On Friday, I boarded the boat on Lombok immediately after descending Rinjani with dirt streaked across my arms, legs, and face and caked into the corner of my eyes. In addition to looking like I had been raised by wolves, I was exhausted, having risen at 2 a.m. to summit Rinjani. Oli and I had a rushed parting at the dock, and so I was still in the space of letting go of our friendly attachment to one another.

So, it is odd that the word “refreshing” is what marks this last weekend. Jon uttered it first, but I felt the same way about meeting him.

He was on my boat from Lombok and, after overhearing me ask around about places to stay on Gili T, took pity on me and the ridiculous state I was in. After we disembarked and I began to wander aimlessly away from the beach, he kindly offered to show me a homestay, run by a young couple with an infant, that he had been living at for the last month.

A few words of introduction:

Funny enough, like Oli, Jon is French Canadian, originally from Montreal. (As a side note, he also recently gave up drinking and smoking, as has Oli. The coincidences on my travels, some perhaps even verging on themes, have at times made me pause and scratch my head.) If the focus of Oli’s journey is happiness, however, Jon’s is spiritual — which I picked up almost immediately as we walked toward the homestay. It took 24 hours before he framed his journey in those terms, though, for fear of making me uneasy.

But let me back up. Jon is, first and foremost, a free spirit. Second, it wouldn’t surprise me if one day he became a shaman. Third, his calling is environmental sustainability; his vision is to develop a self-sustaining farm in Latin America where people can stay and be exposed to (what should no longer be considered) an alternative lifestyle. Lastly, his passions are meditation, yoga, and free diving.

Jon spent much of his youth working in his dad’s mechanic shop, and expressed his creativity through metal work (at one point he built a motorcycle, which he then used). He went on to do marketing for the Canadian MTV equivalent until he escaped from an unsustainable lifestyle. Since then, he’s been on the road for five years, spending a significant amount of time in India and Australia. For the last month, he’s been living on Gili T in order to train with one of the world’s top free divers, Michael Board, whose record is 102 meters (334 feet) with a fin (YouTube video here). Jon’s is 50 meters (164 feet). Without a fin, Jon has Michael beat at 41 meters (134 feet). I say this because I find it impressive, but Jon cares only about doing his personal best each day.

Does that fit neatly together for you? Yeah, nor does it for me, and I love it. Perhaps because of that, I haven’t found a thread to weave through this post to make it cohesive so I’ve decided not to force it. I believe, in any event, that Jon would appreciate the following stream-of-conscious style of writing that pretty much reflects the nature of our time together.

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Over a dinner of mouth-watering salad and seafood on the beach, upon which swaying boats lit up the waves with twinkly lights, Jon discussed the importance of mindfulness and clearing one’s head of chatter. I’ve had training in mindfulness, and recognize that it’s helpful for surviving a law career in a healthy manner, but I protested nonetheless. “I love my chatter,” I said, believing that that’s how I connect the most unrelated of dots and feel a sense of magic about the world. He pushed back, and for his reminder I’m grateful.

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That evening, he laid out his Indian sarong on the porch and we drank rose tea beneath the stars, discussing various cultures’ paths to enlightenment and quests for oneness with the world. Jon spoke of his recent studies in India and I, my exposure in Cambodia. Eventually, the island’s emaciated, inbred cats — defined by their stubby, corkscrew tails — drowned us out with their mewing as they circled about our legs.

I awoke at dawn to the crowing of a rooster who was deliriously happy to be a rooster that morning. It was a more restful sleep than I had had the last few nights anyway so I happily dragged my butt to the beach and sat it there for the rest of the day — my poor skin paying for it later, despite having been under the shade.

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Toward the end of the day, I took a walk along the beach as the sun began to sink lethargically into the sea. Jon and I ran into each other, grabbed some veggie stir fry, and wandered about to find the party. Sama Sama, the reggae bar, was where it was at. The band, belting out covers of Bob Marley (who’s revered as a deity here), packed the place. What made the crowd erupt, though, was “Once Upon a Time on Gili T,” a song we had heard banged out beautifully by some teenagers on water jugs earlier that evening on a moonlit side street. Locals and travelers mingled, spilling out onto the street and the beach beyond.

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Jon and I danced in the back with the owner of our homestay, who laughed freely, swung his hips as only Indonesian men know how to do, and sucked on clove cigarettes.

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Eventually the smoke and one too many Bintangs had me feeling nauseous so we found some bean bags on the beach and chatted with some fellow free divers. What a world! So utterly foreign to me.

Other than a local who was making good headway with a study abroad student, Jon and I closed down the beach with good conversation, touching on the science of health and medicinal eating, my run-in with homeopathy when western medicine failed me, and how some believe that the manner in which you eat reflects the type of lover you are.

We eventually left the beach, and the young duo who were in full make-out mode, and made what we thought at the time was a brilliant decision to consume some fried springs rolls from a street vendor. How regrettable. We were both done for the night.

The next day, Jon took me snorkeling along a coral reef, which was out of this world! I’ve never seen fish with such electric colors. Blues, purples, yellows, and even ivory white that caught beams of light as if at a night club. Some fish sported cheetah print, others tiger stripes, and still others, orange flames on their flanks and flashy hooks on their tails.

There wasn’t much time before I had to catch my boat back to Bali, where I was headed to Ubud for the next few days, but Jon and I managed to squeeze in some more interesting talks, including the newly discovered properties of water (Jon structures his water after filtering it — for info on this, see the documentary, Water: The Great Mystery).

He walked me to the harbor, but not before giving me (structured) water, earplugs, and tea. Small acts of kindness and caring go so far when on the road.

We expressed our deep appreciation for the influence we had on one another’s lives in less than a 48-hour period. He too understood that language often fails people when it comes to describing bonds developed on the road. A French expression he left me with seems to capture the general gist: “Dens gens au gout du jour dans ta vie,” which roughly means, “People that have the taste of our life today.”

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Summiting Mount Rinjani

“After I’m done traveling this year, I’ll be ready to settle down and, you know, grow flowers,” he said to me and the Dutch student on the bus. There was a pregnant pause where none of us so much as nodded. “Or not,” he laughed. Oli is a 30-year-old French Canadian prosecutor from Quebec who is taking the year to travel while his girlfriend works in Thailand. Not only will I be practicing law in a similar field as Oli, but in 2008 we both worked in DC on labor policies related to the North American Free Trade Agreement — he for the Canadian government and I, for a human rights organization. Another coincidence is that I happen to be doing the same trek as Oli and his girlfriend in early October.

Neither of us was in the mood for Kuta, Bali when we arrived — so our paths crossed on the first bus out of there. My plan was to climb Mount Rinjani on the neighboring island of Lombok, and I needed a partner in order to book a guide — which the government requires since deaths are not unheard of (caused largely by falling off cliffs or hypothermia). Oli wanted training for the October trek so his interest was piqued. I had my doubts initially because he was in a more talkative mood than I, but when we got off the bus in Padangbai and he asked me to hold his guidebook while he turned to blow a snot rocket, I knew he was the one!

Two days later at 5 a.m., we were on our way to Mount Rinjani.

Rinjani is Indonesia’s second largest volcano whose most recent eruption was in May 2010. Within its 50 km² caldera sits the crater lake Segara Anak (Child of the Sea), believed to be sacred by many Lombok natives who do pilgrimages there. Eruptions within the caldera have formed a new small cone called Gunung Baru (New Mountain). The trek ascends up to Rinjani’s summit, which sits on the outer rim at 12,224 feet (3,726 meters).

Day 1

Before the climb, with Rinjani’s peak in the background to the left:

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We were paired with a group of four other people — from Germany, Switzerland, and France. Several other groups started at the same time, however, so it initially felt a bit like a cattle call to see who could make it to the first camp the fastest. We wound our way through densely-packed trees whose roots wove steep, church-like steps up one of the volcano’s saddles. A canopy of palms and vines protected us from the heat until the late afternoon clouds began to roll in.

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The next people to introduce on this journey are the porters, whose steadfastness is matched only by the volcano they traverse daily. They also have a sneaky sense of humor that catches you by surprise. I asked one porter whether rain was expected, to which he responded, “Yes . . . When you reach top, rain from your eyes.” And when one porter tripped near the edge of a cliff and I said, concerned, “Careful, don’t fall,” he smiled and said, “Don’t fall down, fall in love!”

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Late in the afternoon, we summited the crater rim of the volcano. Here we are looking at the inner volcano (Rinjani’s peak is on the left):

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Have I mentioned how terrified I am of heights?

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After setting up camp precariously on the volcano’s slope, Oli said, “I love carrying my life on my back, setting out my home in my tent; my shoes go here, clothes over there, and light up there.”

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Sunset:

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You can spot the peak of Mount Agung (9,994 feet) on Bali, to the right of the setting sun:

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This trek is polar opposite of New Zealand’s pristine landscape, marked instead by ash, grit, trash, and shit. Grime covers everything, from the rocks we scaled to the plates and forks from which we ate. And people use the volcano as a giant dump, littering its sides with garbage, excrement, and toilet paper. The mountain has a rawness that I strangely appreciate, but when we crawled into our heavily-used sleeping bags provided by the porters, Oli scared me into thinking that they were lined with crabs.

That night, the wind whipped furiously at our tent as we froze our butts off despite wearing every article of clothing we brought. I must have slept all of two hours, but somewhere in that time frame I awoke from my fetal position to what I thought was an avalanche of volcanic rock and molten lava tumbling down the mountain. Indeed, it was only the wind — offering a foreshadow of what was to come. I yanked the sleeping bag over my head to warm myself up with my breath, settling back into my nightmare of crabs spreading across my face.

Day 2

At dawn, everyone emerged from their tents laughing about how they had to spoon each other to prevent from freezing to death overnight — most of us didn’t know one another let alone have the same mother tongue. Needless to say, we all bonded rather quickly.

Early morning descent to the crater lake:

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Before lunch by the lake, we swam in the hot springs:

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This is the moment I will remember when I’m pulling 80+ hour weeks at my next job:

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The ascent up to our second campsite involved, to our surprise, rock climbing. In the mountains, you must have confidence in your footing. I had none. The film of volcanic dust made me unsure of every step so I put to use the “three hands rule” that my dad taught us as kids when we climbed anything (and we climbed everything). With my butt up in the air for the last two hours of the ascent, I imagine I looked like I did when I was first starting to crawl (I refused to let my knees touch the ground like a normal toddler).

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Oli greeted me at our campsite with cookies — shortbread with jam filling. He has a hilarious grandma taste in food, loving also, of all things, cabbage. Fortunately for him, that worthless vegetable managed to find its way into every meal.

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We camped among other groups of trekkers smack dab on the volcano’s saddle (who does that??):

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Rinjani’s peak, and a preview of the next day’s climb:

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Another spectacular sunset:

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Because we were camping on a ridge, the wind’s ferocity intensified that night. Although the sun had just set, we all huddled in our tents for protection. Oli and I stayed up talking as the wind howled and slashed at our paper-thin walls, sounding like we were on a ship sailing into a squall.

“My goal is happiness,” said Oli, referencing how he would never do a job that made him unhappy. We discussed how being happy is a higher priority for our generation than it is for our parents’ generation. I spoke of how the mountains in my life that are my grandfather and father, however, root me more so in the older generation when it comes to postponing happiness for the sake of my belief in a greater vision. But I know there must be a balance, and I appreciate the influence of others like Oli.

We talked law, why he was interested in prosecution and I, defense. His law and MBA degrees made him well-suited for the world of white collar crime. Given his five years of experience heading up his own trials, which at times involved upwards of 30 witnesses, I could understand his frustration with defendants and their lawyers. I explained that my pull to defense was rooted in my desire to strengthen nascent legal systems. Good defense attorneys are especially needed in international criminal law, a relatively new field, in order to improve the legitimacy — and thus sustainability — of its foundational institutions and laws. Having had experience at both international and domestic courts, I have seen just how far we have to go — which makes me eager to sink my teeth in.

Oli and I exhausted ourselves discussing law and laughed about the irony — part of the reason we were traveling was to take a break from lawyers.

Day 3

I slept even less this night than the previous one. Apparently it is indeed possible to look forward to waking up at 2 a.m. to climb over 3,000 feet, just for the sake of getting one’s blood moving. Thank you, you cold, sleepless night you?

After a handful of cookies and tea, five of us strapped on our packs and joined the throngs of other trekkers from all over the world — we guessed over 50, excluding guides — who were attempting what I soon discovered was a stupidly steep ascent to the top. Within ten minutes you could feel the altitude. “It feels like we partied SO hard last night,” Oli huffed. My lungs were also burning, as well as my calves. Despite trying my best to lodge my feet into the mountain, the loose volcanic rubble came out from under me. With each step, I took half a step back.

Half an hour down, three more hours to go.

Eventually I peeled ahead of the clumps of trekkers, feeling the wind intensify the higher I climbed. Every so often I’d find refuge from the gusts that tore at my raw fingers and face as I wound through mazes of volcanic rock that reminded me of the movie, Labyrinth (I’m dating myself aren’t I?). After about an hour, I found myself alone. On the ridge of an active volcano. With nearly vertical drop-offs ten feet to my right and ten feet to my left. In pitch black darkness with only my weak headlamp to guide me.

Terrified, having just looked over the cliff for the first time:

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Three times I passed a few folks who were huddled beneath a rock. Two guides who had turned around told me to do the same because the winds made the climb unsafe. Although intense, New Zealand’s Kepler Track had been worse, and because my pack was smaller I wasn’t being whipped around as much. So, onward and upward I plowed.

Finally, rays of light began to glow softly on the horizon, revealing what I was scrambling up:

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Even more terrified, now that I can see:

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Sunrise, 200 feet or so from the top:

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Made it! Apparently under ten of us summited. While Rinjani is not the highest I’ve climbed, it was certainly one of the toughest.

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I mentioned wearing every article of clothing I brought. This included a tank, thermals, long sleeve shirt, fleece, jacket, hat, gloves, two pairs of socks, and Forever 21 shorts, haha.

Below, you can see the outer volcano casting its shadow on the inner volcano:

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Marguerite is a French ophthalmologist who is taking a few weeks off from residency. When she shared a chocolate cookie with me at the top, I nearly died and went to heaven. P.S. How amazing are my Kiwi socks??

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The descent:

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As I skated down the ridge, filling my shoes with pebbles and lumps of dirt, a tall French guy caught up to me. “I’m just so proud of myself!” he began gleefully. He chatted away about how he was doing an around-the-world trip with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, this was the first fellow RTW-er I’ve met.

Early morning view of the peak, further down Rinjani:

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After returning to camp (I don’t know why the guide told us we had to carry our packs), our group wolfed down some banana pancakes before continuing our descent down the other side of the volcano.

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Our shy guide offered cookies to lift my spirits after Oli ran out. I’m filthy and smelly, but at least my nails still look good, haha.

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Peaceful lunch spot beneath the coolest tree:

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Oli and I finished the trek together, spending the last hour discussing the institution of marriage and how dramatically different people in Quebec view it than in the States (or the rest of Canada for that matter). Although Oli refers to his girlfriend’s mother as his mother-in-law, there is no pressure, nor even expectation, that he propose. He explained that his parents’ generation distanced themselves from the institution of marriage as a protest against religion, the result being that the next generation doesn’t even consider it to be a right of passage. Interestingly, in the States, those who have taken a stand against the church have for the most part opted to instead preserve and redefine the institution of marriage.

The way in which Canada’s constitution has shaped the institution of marriage there I find fascinating (my understanding of the following is based on my conversation with Oli and limited study of international constitutional law). Canada’s constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of marital status. Consequently, (in addition to gay marriage being legally protected), the government can’t give tax breaks to married couples. What makes Quebec unique is that its laws also take care of people when they separate, regardless of whether they were married. So if a woman (or man of course) drops her professional career to raise children, and then gets separated from her partner, Quebec’s laws ensure that her partner not only financially helps out the children, but also pays due compensation to the woman. People in Quebec therefore lack the legal incentives to tie the knot.

I wondered aloud to Oli the degree to which our countries’ respective laws shape our generation’s perspectives on marriage and whether our laws in the U.S. are partly responsible for the pressure my friends now feel to marry and have children when some of them freely admit they are not yet ready. When I asked whether there is a way couples from Quebec demonstrate their long-term commitment to one another, he just shrugged. My girlfriend is my partner now, he said, just as her mother has been my mother-in-law from day one. She feels the same way. We will remain each other’s committed partners until, if ever, we decide otherwise.

Again, there are so many ways to live and love in this world.

Back at home base, a little worse for the wear:

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Our group!

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Posted in Asia, Hiking, Indonesia, Round the World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lombok, Indonesia

Some shots of breezy adventures these last few days. Found a partner for Mount Rinjani, Lombok’s active volcano (12,224 feet). We leave in a few hours (5 a.m.) to begin the 3-day trek.

Sunday

My home in Bali

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Monday

Padangbai’s white sand beach

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Live music at Sunshine Bar (whose slogan is “light up your soul”)

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Today

The island of Lombok

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Lunch: fish and squid caught earlier today

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Hiked up to two waterfalls and a swimming hole

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Exploring

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Sunset over the rice paddy fields along the sea

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“Sweet as”

A Kiwi expression. New Zealand was sweet to me, being both totally rad and also kind. Its experiences, like its people, were grounding.

“Sweet as what?” I used to ask my Kiwi friend in law school who regularly used the expression. He’d just shrug. I understand now that there’s no comparison. New Zealand is utterly surreal.

I’ve written about the adventures and the breathtaking landscapes that sparkle with rain and rainbows, but it’s the people that tied this country together for me. Folks on the South Island struck me as hard-working, adventurous, and genuine — a beautiful combination. My experiences were also shaped by fellow travelers. Traveling in the off season, you tend to cross paths more than once. The guy who warned me not to listen to DOC’s faulty advice about Kepler I saw walking along two different highways. I also ran into fellow Kepler trekkers in Wanaka and on the Abel Tasman track. The dude who made dying animal noises in his sleep in the Te Anau hostel was on the black water rafting trip with me at Franz Josef. Also on the rafting trip were some people from my last neighborhood back in Chicago. And a family I shared the boat with after the Tasman track boarded the same ferry I took to Wellington the next day.

And then there’s Nick. What initially brought us together I believe is the fact that focusing so singularly on our brains for our careers came at the expense of fostering other aspects of ourselves. New Zealand was for our hearts and souls. It took Nick a minute to realize this, however, and it wasn’t until he did that we clicked.

Beneath the stars in Wanaka, he flashed me a tortured look, and in that moment we both silently said to ourselves that it wouldn’t be a good idea to travel together any longer. I called him out and stated that a natural consequence of opening oneself up was getting hurt — but, that even that experience is a beautiful gift and so very much a part of being alive. It was his choice, though.

“It’s weird that I think of you as the older sister I never had,” he said. We aired, sorted, and settled the complicated undertones of our otherwise fraternal fondness for one another. After that, Nick settled into himself. He no longer worried about running out of things to say, no longer felt compelled to pry into my headspace or interrupt our quiet. It was incredible to see how he transformed in just two weeks. What took me aback even more, though, was how his process of opening up without any sense of fear circled back to me, fostering a mutual understanding and unexpected intimacy.

The English language has a dearth of words when it comes to capturing the milieu of layered relationships we all share with one another.

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have 30 words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of 30 words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart… Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.”

–Robert Johnson, “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”

The closest word I can come up with for our bond is “cherish,” but even that doesn’t do it justice. We have a song, for example, after which we named his car (“Riptide”). The only people I have songs with, strangely, are my brothers (“Soul Sister” and “Hey Brother”). We also had moments of intimacy that went beyond kinship. Standing on the porch in the rain with my cheek pressed up against his back, we discussed the power of our introverted sides and how growing up among complex personalities and ambitions shapes one’s emotional intelligence. Or the time he asked for some gum, and I handed him the last piece that I was chewing.

Language aside, the most important quality of our bond to convey is how purely we took care of one another for two weeks. And how we grew stronger because of it. With me, he developed a greater sense of self. With him, I processed my thoughts on the ghosts who have visited me in recent days.

Bottom line: We are great at spontaneity and laughter, accepting that there are no words.

As he carried my backpack to the ferry that would take me to the Wellington airport, I told him how far he’d come in just two weeks. He thanked me for changing his life, for showing him how to open his heart to others. We exchanged three words to express our mutual feelings of reverence for one another, and I boarded the back of the ship. Settling into a wicker bench, I watched the foggy coast line of the South Island recede until the waves and the collection of our road-tripping songs Nick had thrown together rocked me to sleep.

The last song, “Freedom,” was suddenly interrupted by the captain, who announced over the loudspeaker that there was a fire on deck six. They were looking into the problem, but wanted to give us the heads up. I figured it was a drill. Minutes later he came on again to say they were preparing the life rafts just to be safe. I looked around and no one seemed to be panicking. I checked the books and magazines people were reading, and everything was in English. What was I missing? The third time, the captain said it was time to please proceed calmly to the life rafts. Leave your bags behind and take out any sharp objects from your pockets. “Abandon ship, I repeat, abandon ship, abandon ship.” New Zealand was too good to be true, and I was here to die.

I made my way downstairs and asked a woman what the hell was going on. She laughed and said that this was a weekly routine.

“Well,” I said, turning to the cafe. “This calls for a slice of pie.”

It’s been real, New Zealand. I can proudly say that I lived you like I meant it.

Closing with a few photos from our various road tripping adventures as well as a guest post from Nick.

~Riptide in its element, winding through rainy mountain passes~

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~Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki~

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~Milford Sound~

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~The ocean~

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~Hostels by the sea~

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~Moss covered forests~

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~Rivers and glaciers~

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~Glacier carved valleys~

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~The Road, upon which we shed many tears of laughter~

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~”Don’t count sheep as you drive!” warn the billboards~

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Guest post by Nick

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Only an engineer might think this is a good idea, but I will attempt to capture the 2 week journey through the South Island of New Zealand with some numbers!

60 million – The number of sheep in New Zealand. This includes cute little lambs!

3 million – The number of people in New Zealand.

9000 – The estimated number of stars that can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. I recon we could see most of these while exploring Bark Bay during low tide.

1240 – Km’s driven in ‘tidy (thats 771 miles or 223 leagues for those of you using outdated measurement systems). I can’t decide if it was the stunning New Zealand scenery (mountains, oceans, lakes, rivers, forests) or the soundtrack (Dee’s music, laughter, contemplative silence, honest conversations) were the highlight of the journey.

140 – Km’s trekked. Battled the wind and snow while crossing mountain passes. Ducked and squeezed into the depths of the earth. Crossed countless rivers, streams and one huge surge channel. Fought (and failed) to resist the urge to take pictures on every beautiful sandy beach. Observed and admired the native plant life that included moss(!), manuka, palm trees, silver ferns, lots more ferns, giant ‘Dr. Zeus trees’, and all kinds of fauna that keep you hoping to see a dinosaur. Kept smiles on our faces despite blisters, sand flies, torrential downpours, girl issues, long days, too much coffee, empty stomaches, lost camera and bad jokes.

17 – Times the words to “Riptide” were sang incorrectly while driving across the country or lying in the bunks trying to keep warm. (This is according to the play count in iTunes).

12.5 – The cost (in New Zealand Dollars) of more then enough fish and chips to fill up 2 people.

2 1/2 – Minimum spoonfuls of instant coffee to wake up Dee and Nick. This can be doubled if still not awake or if the moment is being enjoyed.

2.2 – Total extra pounds added by carrying Southern Comfort with us on the trail. Trust me, it was well worth it.

2 – The number of bottles of wine that Goldilocks would have chosen.

1 – Shared experience that I wouldn’t trade anything for and I will never forget.

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Abel Tasman: the Goldilocks Walk

The Abel Tasman track — named after an explorer for the Dutch East India Company in the 1640s who thought he had reached South America — is one of the nine Great Walks that hugs the northern coastline of New Zealand’s South Island. We logged 60 km in three days.

Day 1: 20.8 km to Bark Bay

Nick and I coined Abel Tasman the Goldilocks Walk because it was just right. It wasn’t too hot or too cold, and it wasn’t too hard or too easy. When everything seemed a little too perfect, it started to rain…and that was also just right.

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The beginning of the track guided us along the sea whose low tide had beached sailboats and cargo ships alike. Eventually we turned away from the shore, a tunnel of vines inviting us deep into the forest. We wound our way up and back to granite cliffs that jutted out over the breaking surf below.

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When the sun clocked in directly overhead, we came across a rope swing that distracted us. Recess time.

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When dusk descended, we rounded the corner to Bark Bay where turquoise waters crashed gently onto white sand. Through a few trees, you could make out our hut.

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By the time we settled in and made tea, night was upon us. Never in my life have I seen such an impressive blanket of stars over the ocean. The constellations, unfamiliar in the southern sky, were that much more awing. With the soft waves lapping at our feet as we gazed upward in opposite directions, Nick and I stood speechless in a fraternal-sororal embrace, a bond understood only by those who together endure long days of pain to appreciate beauty more deeply.

Day 2: 24.4 km to Whariwharangi

My cup has been christened Tiny Tee, named after a stuffed bear I carried around with me everywhere as a child. Strange, the attachments you form on the road, even to inanimate objects.

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Awaroa Bay can only be crossed at low tide so you have to time your trek accordingly. DOC warns you that following heavy rains the estuary may be impassable. Because we were doubling our daily mileage, we were cutting it close as the tide began to rise rapidly. The moment I took off my shoes and sank my toes into the ocean floor, the skies opened to welcome us with a deluge. With the hard rain from above and the high tide on our heels, we were booking it as fast as we could, knowing that it would take at least 30 minutes to cross.

But we weren’t moving fast enough. We had to navigate our way through land mines of crabs peering out from their homes with daring eyes. And with each step, shards of seashells cut into the blisters lining my toes and rough sand ground into the blister on my left heel. As I winced, an angel suddenly appeared from behind me. He rode up on a four wheeler, with Nick already on board. With a big smile, the plumber lent me a hand and hoisted me up. He was on his way to do some pipe fitting for some of the cabins in the area and saw us struggling. He shaved a good 20 minutes from our walk before dropping us off where the water had risen too high for him to continue. With deep gratitude, we leapt into the knee-deep water, wading another five minutes to the estuary’s tree-lined banks.

We began another steep ascent up from the ocean floor to the cliffs above. Doctor Seus trees lined our path into the mountains, providing a screen to the world of Jurassic Park below, the prehistoric slopes rolling out to sea.

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The laughter hasn’t stopped, and I can no longer blame sleeplessness. During the more strenuous moments forging uphill with water logged shoes and rain streaming down our backs, Nick and I competed to see who could do the more obnoxious grunts. At one point, having reached the top of a particularly steep stretch, a bug found its way into my pants (yep, all the way up there), and I did a bootie dance that had Nick in tears.

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Having worked as a tree planter in New Zealand for several months, Nick shared fun facts about the landscape along the way. He pointed out New Zealand’s renowned silver fern — the symbol of their All Blacks rugby team — and distinguished which berries were edible on various flowering bushes.

The downpour was truly torrential, but it was worth it to see the fog rocking slowly amidst the towering tree tops. It was a long day that required the motivation of coffee at lunch and music in the afternoon. Nick gave me his ipod, content with singing to himself.

As we began our descent to sea level again and the mist receded to reveal the hut we were staying in, our jaws dropped. We had no idea we were staying in a farmhouse built in 1896.

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Yes, that’s a chess set! And the mess we spread out, making the place look like a tornado hit. The rains must have discouraged other trekkers because we had the entire place to ourselves. The moment we arrived, Nick set to work on the fire, spending the next four hours stubbornly coaxing the wet wood. Nick’s patient relentlessness is a quality I appreciate deeply about him. The only tangible result of our efforts unfortunately was an array of splinters that slipped into our fingers.

We kept ourselves up debating the Keystone Pipeline as the storm raged around us. A topic for the next post, Nick and I make for an odd traveling duo, he an engineer who worked on the Pipeline, and I, a lawyer who worked for a human rights organization opposed to its construction.

In part because of our wildly different backgrounds, and yet similar value systems, we covered a range of topics on the Abel Tasman. In addition to the politics of the Pipeline, we discussed the Security and Prosperity Partnership and corporate responsibility, particularly within the context of the agricultural industry. At another point, struggling through a mucked up stretch of the trail, we touched on religion and the positive impact of having grown up with the church.

Day 3: approximately 15 km up through Separation Point looping back to Totaranui

Breakfast of champs.

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You may have gathered based on the photos, but this track has been utterly desolate. In fact, with hardly anyone around, most of New Zealand has felt like my own personal playground. Although the weather has had its challenges, there is certainly value to traveling in the off season. It’s also a piece of cake to plan things completely last minute. On Abel, we saw a total of maybe five people. Shocking, given that it’s one of New Zealand’s most popular tracks.

It was truly special, having paradise all to ourselves.

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The lighthouse at Separation Point.

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We caught the ferry at Totaranui back to the start of the track. The sun was shining in full glory, capturing the sparkle of the raindrops that hung from the various layers of the rainforest. What a sense of accomplishment we felt, gazing at the kilometers of coastline we trekked in such a short period of time.

Along the way, we spotted a mama fur seal protecting her pup as well as New Zealand’s korora, or little blue penguin — the world’s smallest. After we disembarked, we swung by the visitor center to see if anyone had picked up Nick’s camera that went missing somewhere along the way. No cigar, but we’re still crossing our fingers!

When we reached the car, we collapsed on the grass, spending some moments in quiet reflection.

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We stayed in a cabin at a Holiday Park (a cultural experience), feasting on fish and chips at a pub just down the road on the coast. Win.

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Black water rafting

When in New Zealand, get your adrenaline rush. Plan one was skydiving, plan two was flying a helicopter and glacier trekking. Neither manifested due to weather. So, black water rafting it was! So surreal. Took a train then hiked through the rainforest to the mouth of the cave and then explored for an hour before rafting through its dark passageways. Stalagmites/stalactites and fossils that were millions of years old lined the cave’s walls, which opened up to reveal a spread of glow worms above. They were even more spectacular than Te Anau.

Rafting had its mildly terrifying moment when the new guide — a 25-year-old from Germany — took us down the section of the river that the older guide had explicitly told us not to go down. You could hear the rush of water around the bend that I immediately built up in my head as a waterfall’s death sentence when we bailed out of the rafts and struggled across the strong current to the other side of the river.

Post rafting, we drove the rest of the way up the west coast. I still haven’t been sleeping (most know that I can pretty much sleep on command, any time, any place) — which is mostly due to how excited I’ve been about whatever it is that I’m doing the following day. I think it was because of this severe sleep deprivation that today I found myself laughing to the point of tears at about absolutely nothing in particular. Apparently contagious, this got Nick laughing hysterically until everything got out of control and he ordered me to take a nap in the car. He threatened to put on an audio book re software engineering so I listened. Got in a few zzz’s, which is going to be essential for tomorrow’s trek. Abel Tasman here we come, rain or shine…

All photos courtesy of Underworld Rafting.

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Milford, All Blacks, and Dancing in the streets of Wanaka

Friday: Cruised around Milford Sound. Heaps of rain but it added to the intensity of the waterfalls.

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Met two English guys on the cruise, one of whom had recently traveled to Thailand and been knocked out by a Muay Thai fighter (who’s in jail now). The fighter’s girlfriend was trying to make him jealous by hitting on the English guy. Moments after telling him that she didn’t have a boyfriend, her boyfriend walked up to the English guy and knocked him out with one punch. He was rushed into surgery and had a metal plate put into his face. Other than broken treeth and a sagging eye, he looked great. Most amazing of all was his “shit happens” attitude about the whole thing.

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As we drove through Te Anau on our way to Wanaka, we dropped by the DOC site where I had a quick chat with folks about the discrepancy between information they were telling women versus men about hikes in the area.

Saturday: On our way to the bars in Wanaka to watch the All Blacks play South Africa, we stumbled across an amazing playground on the lakeshore!

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All Blacks v. South Africa’s Springboks. Epic game! South Africa game them a run for their money. Post-game we were walking to the next bar when we ran into our friends from the Kepler Track! Found some live blues/folk music where a man who looked like Where’s Waldo took off his shirt and had some pretty epic dance moves. Lots of stares so I jumped in and started a conga line.

When the six of us left the bar, we stumbled across Kai Whakapai, a bar that was blasting “Funk Soul Brother” from its outside speaker. Obviously, we started a dance party in the street, catching every willing passerby.

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The owner and bartender were wrapping up shop inside, but we eventfully got them to join us.

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On our way home we passed through the playground and jumped onto some swings, pumping high until our feet reached the stars.

Sunday: Thrift store shopping! Eating a high protein/high fat diet has decreased my food bill, but I didn’t factor in having to buy new clothes. For $9 NZD I got two pairs of pants. The rest of today we spent driving up the coast and getting out every so often to do a hike to a waterfall or vista. Lunch today we spent on a suspension bridge over a turquoise river.

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