Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | April 8, 2013

Darn This Blog!

So as you may have guessed, it has proven impossible to keep our blog current given the hectic pace of our travels, which makes me quite sad since I want so much to share what we’ve seen and experienced with those we love and miss. I grossly overestimated the amount of ‘down time’ we would enjoy on this trip. The days fly by, and at their end I am always far too exhausted to stay up all night writing (as there is just SO much to say!) so I opt to get some sleep and catch up on my documentation later. But later keeps pushing itself further away, and at this point I am so far behind it’s nearly comical. I’m sure I’m close to becoming officially the worst travel blogger ever. So, I’m hereby changing my strategy…

Since there’s no way that I’ll be able to find enough time during the next several weeks to write what needs to be written about our multitude of experiences and observations on this journey, but I’m still really eager to at least share the photos we’ve taken, I’m going to make all the photos available at once on Flickr and I’m just going to catch up on the writing when we finally stay in one place long enough for me to organize my thoughts. If it ends up being written mostly after we return to the USA, I’m just going to have to be OK with that.

Oh, and one other thing. The posts won’t necessarily be in the same order in which we visited the countries. It’s all going to be pretty willy nilly from here on, and for that I apologize. But I suppose it’s still better than a blog that’s stuck back in the beginning of January. This life moves fast, faster than I can keep up, and it has taken me this long to admit defeat.

So, without further ado, here is a link to all the photos we’ve taken from our round-the-world trip (warning, there are a LOT, and since I’m the one behind the camera they are almost always featuring Dwayne, haha), and I promise that the explanations will eventually follow. Hopefully in a concise and timely fashion, but no promises. Hope you enjoy!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckenzie_pictures/collections/72157632061479492/

Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | April 1, 2013

New Zealand: Sweet As Expected (Part I, The North Island)

“The world isn’t in your books and maps, it’s out there.” –Gandalf the Gray

Here is a link to the photos we took in New Zealand… http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckenzie_pictures/collections/72157632657870815/

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There has certainly been a lot of hullabaloo about New Zealand in recent years. With the Lord of the Rings, the Flight of the Conchords, and now the Hobbit giving it lots of well-deserved publicity, it’s hard not to have it on your travel radar. It’s also hard not to anticipate it being the most beautiful physical landscape you’ve ever encountered. Having seen the LOTR films several times, I was expecting nothing less than magnificent craggy peaks, wide open valleys and lush, mossy woods (preferably with trees that talk and walk around). New Zealand delivered all of the above and then some, except of course for the walking/talking trees. As we hoped, in a relatively small and accessible island nation, nature has somehow managed to stuff the best of everything it has to offer, from active volcanoes and glaciers to waterfall-fed fjords, boiling hot springs, sandy beaches and tropical jungles. It is an exceedingly efficient and eco-conscious place with clean, bright cities to explore and a tourism infrastructure that truly puts the rest of the world to shame. Though I know I sound like I’m being paid by the New Zealand Ministry of Tourism, I will still say that it is, from the moment you step off the plane, the easiest place to travel ever.

Auckland

We flew from Fiji into Auckland, and as the plane circled the city we were both surprised by the beautiful turquoise blue of the city’s surrounding bays. As we would find out later, there seems to be no body of water in New Zealand that isn’t shockingly, bizarrely blue in its own unique way. Walking through the terminal halls in Auckland’s airport is like walking through an exhibit in a New Zealand themed museum, with the sound effects of birds, waterfalls and Maori tribal music playing on speakers hidden in the walls behind murals of Lord of the Rings movie scenes and vivid photography of New Zealand’s national parks and cityscapes.

After catching a spotless public bus (complete with a glass roof and guided commentary on each of the bus’s stops) into the center of town, we checked into a YHA hostel and wandered along one of downtown Auckland’s precipitous lanes towards Queen Street and the colorful harbor front. Rows of tiny Asian restaurants were stacked along the streets and alleys alongside outdoor gear shops, coffee houses and Maori art galleries. A flash mob of giddy dancers in Indian saris clogged one side of the street, flailing their arms to the beat of hippie drummers sitting nearby on the sidewalk.

The steep hills led down to the water’s edge, where there was a cruise ship docked and swarms of tourists clogging the nearby gift shops and information centers. We ducked into one of them to pick up a few free maps, and I felt happily overwhelmed by the sheer mass of perfect, glossy booklets that were available outlining every possible detail about every possible location in the entire country. New Zealand clearly wants to make its tourists as happy as possible, and that suited us just fine. We would later come to find that there are so many tourist information booths in New Zealand’s cities and parks that there is never a need to use your own phone to book anything (which was a huge relief, since it turned out neither of our phones worked there and we didn’t want to bother with finding SIM cards). The staff will always call around and check availability and book everything for you for free, and then they’ll call a cab for you to get there. Easy as kiwi pie.

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The skyline in downtown Auckland is dominated by its Sky Tower, a space needle-type structure that has a ledge from which adrenaline junkies can base jump while attached to a cord that slows them as they reach the ground. We watched from far below as tiny, black outlines of humans leapt off the edge like ants falling off a tree branch. New Zealand is famous for being a mecca for the crazy people of the world. Bungy jumping and skydiving are seen as normal, everyday activities here. Though I am (sadly) not in a place in my life where I have the guts to jump off a bridge, we were determined to do something exciting while in this adrenaline-saturated country. It would just be a matter of choosing which activity to do, and we would wait until we got to Queenstown, the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world, to figure that out (see Part II for further details).

By chance, we just happened to be in New Zealand while ‘The Hobbit’ was playing in theatres, so we bought tickets to see it since we were only a few hours away from where it had been filmed. As we watched, each scene of stunning mountain scenery and quaint hobbit villages heightened our anticipation of what beauty awaited us outside the city borders. Watching as Bilbo Baggins decided to face his fears and venture out into the world to have an adventure made us excited to start our own. We couldn’t wait to get out there and explore this hyped-up country. There was only one more hurdle to clear, and that was learning to drive on the opposite side of the road and the opposite side of the car…

Shifting a Little to the Left

I had been dreading this particular challenge for months. When I had booked us a rental car earlier, the agent had called me from New Zealand to confirm the details, and I asked him if many of his clients from the USA had head-on collisions because they forgot to drive on the left. He said only sometimes. Not very comforting. My mind kept conjuring a disturbing scene in which I was having a nervous breakdown in a busy downtown intersection, headed in the wrong direction around a dizzying rotary and being honked at by dozens of angry locals. We nervously picked up the keys to our car, loaded our bags, took some deep breaths, and jointly decided that Dwayne would be the first to give it a shot (sigh of relief).

He merged cautiously out into the traffic while I dutifully studied the road map and did my best to give him plenty of advance notice as to any turns he would need to be anticipating along the way. There were about four lanes of traffic when we began, and it took a little mental adjustment to get used to the on ramps and exits being on the left and people passing on the right. Right hand turns and rotaries were tricky, and every time Dwayne went to turn on his blinker, he would instead turn on the windshield wipers. Every single time. (It later turned out I would do the exact same thing). But for the most part, it was much easier than we had expected.

Fluffballs on Mount Doom

Driving south towards Rotorua, we headed out into the countryside, where the ‘real’ New Zealand began to unfold before us. Steep, grassy hillsides were speckled with thousands of white, fuzzy blobs. As we got closer, the blobs revealed their true shapes as some of the countless herds of sheep that prop up New Zealand’s economy on their woolly backs. It is said that sheep outnumber people in New Zealand by a ridiculously huge ratio (about 4 million people to 60 million sheep). As we drove through the hills, it became abundantly clear that this had to be true, and also that cows and deer had to outnumber people by a large margin as well. The rugged landscape was divided into sprawling sheep, cattle and deer ranches reaching out to the horizon in every direction, organized neatly by an extensive system of high-quality modern fencing. We wondered how the farmers were able to keep track of such vast tracts of land and all their 4-legged residents, but clearly they manage somehow.

As we had hoped, the hills began to look more and more like Hobbiton. It was a lumpy, twisted terrain with tiny squiggly paths (presumably from the sheep) winding up the hillsides and old, stunted trees rooting messily into grassy knolls. Some of the hills were green, and others were golden, with breezes blowing the tall grasses so it looked like the hills had hair that was being blow-dried. It was tranquil and cozy, and whenever we stopped to take photos all the sheep would stare at us and bah to each other with concern.
The road got windier as it hugged the shore of Lake Taupo and, as we neared Tongariro National Park, the unmistakable outline of the volcanic cone that was used as Mount Doom (in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) loomed in the distance. The name of this iconic peak is Mount Ngauruhoe, and we were a bit spellbound by it. As it got larger in the windshield, we noticed another nearby volcano along the Desert Road section of NZ Route 1 that was actually spitting up an ash cloud. It’s fascinating enough to see a volcanic landscape when you are only seeing the aftermath of eruptions, but we were fortunate enough to be seeing a mini-eruption as it was taking place. What luck! I excitedly pulled the car over to snap some photos, and was bahhed at by an orchestra of sheep as an added bonus.

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Once we came down from Tongariro’s mountain pass, we pushed on towards Rotorua and eventually pulled into their YHA hostel, a shiny and trendily-designed metallic complex with cheap walls that shook when anyone in the entire dorm building closed any door. The lobby was packed with college-aged travelers inquiring at the reception desk about where to bungy jump, skydive, canyon swing, and cave tube, and video screens showed promotional video clips of people skydiving and rafting over 15-foot waterfalls. It began to sink in that hostelling does wonders to make anyone over the age of 24 feel extremely old and unexciting.

In the Land of Stinky Steam and Haka

Rotorua is a thriving region, famed for its status as the cultural center of Maori (indigenous New Zealander) society and also for its geothermal attractions. Once we had plopped our bags down next to our wooden dorm beds, we walked around the central part of town and along the lake’s edge. We strolled along a lively pedestrian mall full of every type of ethnic restaurant we could think of, and after finally deciding on Indian food we ordered up some refreshingly delicious tikka masala and garlic naan. As far as food culture shock goes, there is very little of it that happens when an American visits New Zealand, as all the same food choices, including most of our popular fast food chains, are readily available at every turn. (Finding familiar brands in the grocery store is another story entirely). Our spirits were high in Rotorua. The breeze from the lake was cool, the sky was clear and sunny, the food was tasty, and we’d gotten through the first day without crashing the rental car while driving on the left. It was a good start!

The next morning we visited the “Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland” to check out New Zealand’s finest display of volcanic surface activity. We struggled to find an open spot in which we could stand on tiptoes to peer through the immense crowd of tourists waiting to get a partial view of Lady Knox Geyser, which was rumored to erupt at precisely 10:15am every day. Impressed that a natural geyser would have such punctuality of routine, we waited eagerly to see if it lived up to the advertising. 10:15am came and went, and about 5 minutes later a park ranger walked up to the geyser, gave a short speech about its history and science, and poured a bag of chemicals down its spout to trigger an eruption. A bit of a letdown. Though the geyser was interesting to watch, I couldn’t help but compare it to the dazzling spectacle that is Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park back home. The American snob inside me peeked out from where I had hidden her and whispered snarkily, “We have a wayyy better one back in the US, and it erupts all on its own without being triggered by a park ranger, so there!” and it made me wonder how many times this snob would come out from hiding over the course of this world tour.

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Indeed, the snob managed to sit on my shoulder the entire time that we explored the geothermal landscape. The air reeked of sulphur as we wandered through the steamy valley, and as we would view each bubbling mud pot, neon-hued hot spring and gaping sinkhole, I couldn’t help but compare these lovely features to their (in my snobby opinion) far more awe-inspiring cousins in my own country. Though it brought about a sense of pride in my beautiful home, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to shake the urge to compare this place with the USA. This trip is about experiencing new places and appreciating them for what they are, not judging them against what I left behind. The world is not just a giant beauty contest with each country vying for the number one spot on each traveler’s list of favorites, so I decided to try my very hardest to silence the snob and tuck her way so as to only be focused on my current surroundings. (Easier said than done, I’m afraid.)

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That night, we bought tickets to see a Maori cultural show. The anthropologist in me was eager to get a peek at some of their famous facial tattoos and fierce expressions that I’d seen pictured in textbooks during my years of studying indigenous peoples in college. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%81ori_people#Culture) That, and I couldn’t wait to see the Haka! Haka is a particularly ferocious Maori war dance of the sort that used to strike fear into the hearts of early European sailors unlucky enough to find themselves facing the wrong side of a Maori weapon. These days, rugby is the undisputed king in these parts, and the infamous New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has adopted this traditional Maori dance as a part of their pre-game warm-up routine, much to the fascination of onlookers everywhere. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdMCAV6Yd0Y) As such, the Haka dance has gained notoriety and so has become an expected element of any exhibition on Maori culture, sort of like Hula Dancing in Hawaii but more bad-ass. The tourists will pay big money for this glorious outburst of shouting, stomping and intimidation, and I whole-heartedly jumped on the bandwagon, excited to be intimidated. We hopped a ride to the ‘traditional Maori village’ on a school bus full of tourists, and spent the ride learning a few Maori words from the bus driver and choosing a ‘chief’ to represent us at the village welcoming ceremony. Cheesy, but not at all a surprise.

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Though they first arrived in canoes in ancient times (around 1300 or so), today’s Maori people are modern, cell-phone-toting, Facebook-checking, office-job-holding folk just like everyone else in New Zealand. So, we expected the traditional village to be simply a museum of sorts with people in costumes pretending to be warriors based on what they’ve learned about their culture from older relatives and schooling. And that was precisely what it was. There were elaborately decorated actors who took turns showing us ancient wood carving, game playing, and battle readiness training techniques at various stations along a wooded path in a replica village. They posed for countless snapshots with their trademark scowls frozen perfectly as the tourists scrambled to focus lenses and adjust camera settings. I asked one of the actors if any of the Maori people still get the traditional facial tattoos, and he said not usually because they don’t want to be judged. I felt sad, but knew that answer was coming. Outwardly visible Maori culture has completely morphed into what the current era requires it to be, a show. The real life of the Maoris is not something I’ll ever be a part of or a witness to, but I sure hope it is still burning strong behind the souvenir masks and the tattoo paint.

Once we’d been shown a video on Maori history and a dancing and singing performance in their auditorium, they launched energetically into the Haka as the grand finale. And yes, for all its theatrical, touristy hype, it still can send shivers down one’s spine. The rhythmic pounding of feet and controlled puffing of breath, mixed with the guttural chanting and unrestrained shouting in a language so exotic it’s nearly impossible for outsiders to even attempt to read the words aloud, made for a truly enthralling few moments. You can temporarily forget which century we’re currently living in, and forget that these people will drive their cars home to their electrified, internet-connected houses when they are finished performing for us. For a few moments, it is possible to imagine that you are a Captain Cook era explorer and that these people are a fearsome local tribe ready to kill you to defend their home from dangerous intruders who mean them harm. It’s a magical history lesson, and then it is over, and you wish it would begin again. These brief moments of time travel, of peering into the past and succumbing to an unfamiliar feeling of awe at the power of just one, primitive human sound, renew my faith that humanity is still a thing to be proud of and inspired by. But the moment quickly passed, the lights came back on, and just like that I was back in 2013 again.

We were herded into a dining room where the cooks had prepared a ‘Hangi’ style dinner which consisted of potatoes and meats that had been cooked underground in a large, covered pot buried in a bed of embers outside. The resulting flavor was smoky and not necessarily pleasant. I was happy not to have been born in a time period and village in which this was the regular way of preparing dinner. That said, I have always had an obsession with the traditions of indigenous cultures from all over the world, and there have been many times when I have half-seriously lamented not being born about 300 years earlier so that I could have been an explorer in the truest sense, back when the big, wide world was still a dark mystery. Today, I am an explorer in a world that is ready for me, that knows I’m coming and is prepared with plenty of gift shops, camera-flashing crowds, staged dance shows and packaged tours with convenient English translation. The days of wandering through a wild jungle into an unmapped village of tribal people living a simple, sustainable lifestyle are very close to being behind us for good.

This is something I have realized is true, but can’t seem to accept yet because it makes me depressed. Have we truly found every wonder there is out there to discover? Are there no more hidden Machu Picchus or Angkor Wats left buried beneath tangled vines? The thought sinks my heart. Though, when it comes down to it, I have to admit to myself that I’d make a terrible explorer in the days of Captain Cook. The old, hand-drawn maps of those epic voyages are drawn with all manner of monsters and demons coming out of the sea to swallow ships whole. I am not a courageous person, and I wouldn’t have the strength to step onto a ship and sail out into a sea that may or may not have an edge that drops off into the void of space. I could not face the terrifying prospect of giants or sea serpents or cannibals roasting me over an open flame. The only reason I’m able to travel the world now is because I know, for better or worse, what’s out there to see. I live in the age of coffee table photography books, National Geographic magazines, Lonely Planet guidebooks and the Travel Channel. I know that if I step onto a plane, the chances are extremely good that I will step off it in a place that I already know a lot about. A place that I know with certainty actually exists, that I didn’t just hear about in rumors or see on a ratty treasure map. I travel in the safety of a globalized world, though the process of globalization often keeps me from finding the types of adventures I seek from travel. The real ones, the ones they can’t sell. Those are the modern day treasures, and they aren’t easy to reach.

I came away from my Maori experience feeling exactly how I expected to feel. Just like when I’ve watched costumed dancers in the Amazon and when I’ve visited famous frontier towns of the Old West, the encounter was fake, but I was prepared and therefore still able to immerse myself in the vivid daydream of these peoples’ history and what life must have been like, even if I’ll never experience it.

I am, I must always remember, indescribably blessed to have been born in a time, place and life situation that allow me to even be making these observations firsthand at all. Travel used to be impossible but for the wealthy, and vast swaths of the world could not be visited for lack of a way to reach them even if you had the money. Voyages were arduous and took months and sometimes years, and the risk was unnervingly high you might not return at all. Women were seldom allowed to venture out on these voyages at all, even if they were brave enough to be willing. In my world, by contrast, any location on earth is reachable within a few days’ time spent cruising through the skies in a comfortable, cushioned seat while being served hot meals and reading books on a handheld computer. You don’t need to be rich, just diligent about saving. You don’t need to be commissioned by a king or sponsored by a trading company or church mission, all you need is curiosity about the world, a valid passport, and enough money to buy a ticket.

The world has changed so much since the days when the Maori warriors would tattoo their faces and scan the ocean’s horizon for ominous ship sails approaching. In reality, back then it was probably a nasty, scary world to be living in. A world full of untreatable diseases, filthy living conditions and gory hand-to-hand warfare, but my mind will always find the romance in my imaginings of that seemingly simpler and more nakedly ‘human’ time. I long for the type of excitement that people must have felt upon discovering something truly never-before-seen, and I wonder if I’ll ever find that something for myself.

Windy Welly

As we neared the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, some of the ultra-modern homes of Wellington’s wealthier suburbs began to appear on the cliffsides high above the widening highway. We reached the seashore and could see sleek sailboats bobbing in the vivid blue bay, their sails rippling in the stiff breeze. Dwayne took care to stay in the center lane as the traffic began to close in heavier. Back in Rotorua, I had finally mustered the courage to drive our rental car and found it to be much less scary than my annoyingly overactive imagination had made it out to be, but Dwayne happened to be driving when we descended into Wellington’s CBD at rush hour. I struggled to read the map fast enough to direct him through a puzzling network of one-way streets to the hostel where we had reserved a room, and eventually a visibly stressed Dwayne decided that Wellington was not his favorite place ever.

Wellington_NZ

The breeze picked up as we later walked along the capital city’s artsy oceanside promenade, with bronze sculptures of divers hanging off the dockside and beanbag chairs strewn in front of lively pubs. People swam in the bay, but it was far too windy and chilly for us to be jealous of them, and we went to bed that night eager to wake up and hop onboard the ferry to cross Cook Strait to the South Island. Not because we didn’t like Wellington (though admittedly we weren’t particularly in love with it) but instead because of the spirited ravings we’d heard about NZ’s notoriously spectacular southern half. It was very closeby now, and our anticipation was growing. We shared a hostel dorm room in the Wellington YHA with some Irish travelers who provided lots of insight into the beer-drinking scene in Australia, choked down some overcooked mac-n-cheese in the filthy hostel kitchen, crashed for a few hours, and made up our bunks early the next morning to head to the Interislander ferry terminal to catch our boat to the South Island and what many a traveler claims to be the most perfect place on Earth.

To be continued…

Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | February 11, 2013

There Must Be Something in the Kava (Or, Beware of ‘Fiji Time’)

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Here is a link to some Fiji photos… http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckenzie_pictures/sets/72157632482239199/

We headed off to the Honolulu airport a few hours earlier than we normally would for the first international leg of our journey, for fear we might run into some sort of glitch. And so we did. The American Airlines check-in desk was closed, so we sat in the terminal for about two hours, just waiting for someone to show up. They eventually opened for business, but although our tickets had an American Airlines flight number on them, we found out (after considerable confusion) that we were actually instead flying with Air Pacific, a small Fijian airline that is somehow affiliated with American Airlines. The lady at the desk had never heard of this Fijian airline and she looked at us and our paperwork with growing puzzlement, then wandered around for a while, not sure of what to do with us. She kept looking at our passports, frowning and shaking her head. Not exactly the most reassuring way to begin our international experience. Eventually, she asked someone else and they pointed us down to the very end of the terminal where an agent at a small desk in the back corner with a single sign reading ‘Air Pacific’ was checking people into our flight. Relief!

After about 40 minutes in a claustrophobia-inducing security line, where Dwayne was pulled aside for having peanut butter in his carry-on luggage (it’s a liquid-like substance, don’t ya know?), and then another 20 minutes or so navigating the sprawling, crowded terminal to our gate, we arrived just in the nick of time to board our flight to Fiji. Good thing we arrived absurdly early to the airport! We decided we would do the same for all future international flights, just in case.

Christmas Island

After several hours cruising over the Pacific, we descended into Christmas Island to drop off some passengers and pick up some more. The landscape beneath us was a flat, watery honeycomb of lagoons enclosed by rust-colored sand bars, largely devoid of any human touch save for a few dirt roads and some sparse clusters of homes hidden amongst stubby palm trees. It was a stark contrast from the pointy-hilled, lush, idyllic tropical islands that graze the covers of the South Pacific tourist brochures I’d seen. Dwayne and I talked about the famous Christmas Island migrating crabs we’d learned about from various nature documentaries, and wondered if we happened to be looking down on them without knowing it.

The plane touched down and taxied to Christmas Island’s international airport, which was little more than a metal-roofed shack with a sign on it that read ‘International’ (quite possibly in hand-painted letters). Our huge jet pulled right up to the front door as if we were nothing more than a grossly oversized SUV pulling into a parking space in a suburban house’s driveway. Aside from one other small private jet, we were the only plane. A handful of passengers filed out the front door of the airport and walked across the pavement to hop on. It felt somehow comical to be at an airport such as this after just leaving the chaotic and labyrinthine Honolulu airport behind. It made us smile, and we decided Christmas Island might be a fun place to visit someday.

Once airborne again, we spent the rest of the flight to Fiji taking full advantage of the free food and beer that were provided by festive Air Pacific flight attendants wearing ‘Happy New Year’ party hats. A very pleasant surprise, especially since American Airlines doesn’t offer so much as a free bag of peanuts anymore on 5 hour flights, those cheapskates. After some taste testing, we decided that Fiji Bitter beer is appropriately named and Fiji Gold beer isn’t much better, but the price sure was right.

Fiji

The sun was setting as we finally began our descent into Nadi, Fiji, and we could see a densely populated landscape beneath us with massive cruise ships chugging slowly along the coastline towards a few Polynesian-themed resorts with thatched-roof huts clustered onto long piers over azure lagoons. Just inland from the resorts, the homes looked much more modest, ramshackle even. Many of the homes had large bonfires burning in their yards, which confused us until we found out that they were processing sugar cane to then use or sell. We landed and then walked up the gate tunnel into the open-air airport, where we were immediately taken aback by the shrieking of hundreds of tropical birds perched along the terminal’s rafters. It was as if we had entered a bird sanctuary at feeding time. They cawed and swooped as we made our way to the customs desk. It worked wonders as a reality check that we were now on a tropical island.
After our passports had been stamped and our bags x-rayed by some men wearing sarong-like cloth wrappings, we walked out into the night and were immediately deluged by hyperactive taxi drivers, as is always to be expected. (If there’s one thing I hate about travel to the developing world, it’s haggling with pushy cab drivers.) Luckily, we had pre-arranged for our hostel to pick us up in a van, so we just dismissed the cabbies and went back inside to wait. Eventually our van driver arrived, and we piled into the back and headed out onto the streets of Nadi with American pop music blaring scratchily from broken speakers.

My first impression was that Fiji is comparatively orderly and calm, with very little car honking and reckless driving. A pleasant surprise. Though the signs are all in English and everyone understands it, the people generally speak Fijian instead, which was nice to hear. (It always feels good to see a former colony retaining its unique, pre-colonial flavor despite all the pressure they must have felt to abandon it.)
Once we arrived at our hostel, ‘Bamboo Backpackers’, our van driver hoisted a piece of our luggage onto his shoulder and carried it up to our room for us as we followed. It was a nice little room, with a small balcony outside of a pair of flimsy sliding doors. We dropped off our bags and headed downstairs to the courtyard out front where many of the other travelers staying at the hostel were sitting on cushions in a circle under a thatch-roofed shack. In the middle of the circle was a dread-locked Fijian young man strumming a guitar and stirring a large vat of some sort of brownish liquid. We joined in, and learned that this was a tourist version of the Fijian tradition of ‘Kava’. The brown, murky liquid was a drink made from a type of root, and it was being passed around in a single, communal coconut for each traveler to drink. Any tendency towards germaphobia had to be abandoned immediately if one was to take part.

Between playing songs on the guitar and taking drags off his cigarette, our Fijian Bob Marley continued to scoop out over-sized swigs of the earthy, bitter drink. Each time he’d hand the coconut to a backpacker, he’d say “high tide, incoming!” in a groggy stoner voice. Though it was not alcoholic and didn’t cause a buzz, it did have a numbing agent of some sort, as we discovered when our tongues and cheeks began to feel like we had just left the dentist office after getting Novocain shot. When we had our fill (and then some, as it was not very tasty) of the kava, we headed off to bed and hoped that a.) the numbness would wear off by morning, and b.) that we would not be making any middle-of-the-night emergency bathroom dashes since we had no idea what was actually in the liquid we just drank other than that it had probably been made with the unfiltered tap water.

Happily, the morning arrived without any bathroom drama and we both had feeling back in our lips. Things were looking up. Since we only had one full day in Fiji, we got dressed and headed downstairs right away to see if we could arrange a day trip to one of the nearby islands. Our hostel had advertised that it offered an organized day trip that included a boat ride to ‘Beachcomber Island’ that left directly from the hostel, which sounded great to us. It meant we didn’t have to wait around for public transportation to bring us to wherever the other organized boat tours left from, which was a relief since there was a sign next to the public bus schedule on the wall that warned “beware of Fiji time”.

We sat down for some breakfast at the hostel’s café, which was a tiny, open-air, thatched-roof hut sheltering some picnic tables. As people in the café ate, the hostel staff (which consisted of the Fijian Bob Marley, the van driver, a few other teenager boys with gold teeth, some teenage girls who were cooking in the café, and a 10-year-old boy who was probably somebody’s little brother) broke into a water fight. In every direction we turned, buckets of water were being emptied over peoples’ heads and then revenge was being sought by drenched victims. Busted flip flops were flying around the hostel grounds as would-be targets darted away from their assailants at top speed, weaving in and out of the diners eating breakfast at the café. We began to wonder how organized our hostel’s ‘professional guided tour’ would turn out to be. We soon found out.

After we signed up for the boat tour, we were informed that we were the only two people on it so far and that we would leave very soon, just as soon as one more person signed up to go with us. Otherwise, the amount we paid wouldn’t cover the expense of the boat’s fuel. Fair enough. We settled down to wait, confident that the staff would soon recruit one more person and we’d be on our way in no time.

Three hours later, after several more water battles had been waged and no progress had been made in the recruiting department, we decided this was ridiculous. The day was half shot, and all we’d seen of Fiji was a picnic table at our hostel’s café and several drenched staff members. We had clearly fallen victim to the dreaded trap of Fiji time. We grumpily told our gold-toothed ‘booking agent’ that we would be making other plans since we only have the one day in Fiji and it was quickly passing us by. He looked concerned that we were disappointed, and quickly consulted with his buddies to work out an alternative plan. They decided that they could take just the two of us, but not as far as Beachcomber Island. They would instead take us to a closer lagoon where we could watch them as they went spear-fishing. Dwayne and I agreed. At this point we didn’t care what we did or where we went as long as it didn’t involve sitting at the hostel. The Fijian Bob Marley and two of his cronies (who were apparently going to be our guides) scurried around gathering up spearfishing equipment and flippers.

Just as we were about to leave, a Canadian couple expressed their interest in the Beachcomber Island tour, and just like that we were back to the original plan. We waited around a while longer for the couple to finish lunch, change into swimsuits, assemble backpacks with towels and gear, and lather on sunblock, and then, at long last, we all headed for the boat.

What Dwayne and I had been hoping for was a nice, relaxing cruise along the tropical coastline to a slightly offshore island. Perhaps there’d be a gentle ocean breeze and some small swells, just enough to make the ride more fun. No one told us that there had been a typhoon recently (we found out later). We hopped into a small whaler (probably about 15 feet long or so), took a seat towards the front, and slopped on some sunblock. Our ‘captain’, a scraggly, skeletal-looking fellow, did his best impression of the shrunken head from the Harry Potter double decker bus scene as he stated “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, hahaha”, and steered the boat straight out towards the open ocean.

We spent the next hour crashing recklessly through enormous, white-capped swells (that is, of course, when we weren’t airborne). We held on for dear life as the boat pounded into each wave with a shaking thud that sounded as if it would loosen all the bolts holding our poor little vessel together. We tried to keep from falling off of our seats while wiping the relentless sheets of salty spray from out of our stinging eyes. The same drenching spray was power-washing off any of the sunblock that we had applied, and our skin quickly began to redden in the beating sun. The wind whipped across our bow as we sped passed a few small islands, and we noticed that their beaches were strewn with debris from the recent storm. My gaze locked onto each island within sight with a longing for it to be Beachcomber Island so our ‘relaxing cruise’ would finally be over, but we kept sailing by them. With each passing island, I couldn’t help but assess whether I’d be able to swim the distance to it if we were to capsize. From the look on the faces of the bedraggled Canadian couple, they were wondering the same thing.

Finally, we pulled up to the leeward side of Beachcomber Island and hopped ashore with a collective sigh of relief. Soaked and rattled, but overwhelmingly happy to have our feet on solid ground, we ordered some beers from the island’s small resort bar to celebrate surviving the first half of our sea cruise. Dwayne and I walked the beach around the outer edge of the tiny island, which took all of 15 minutes, and then took in a show of hula dancing and fire baton tossing to the beat of Polynesian drumming over a loud-speaker. All the while, I couldn’t help but worry about the return trip to the main island and whether our little boat could handle the abuse that was to come.
To make it worth the perilous journey, we decided to do some snorkeling on the side of the island where the surf was slightly less rough. After considerable difficulty (I’ve previously mentioned how inept I am at maneuvering with flippers on and how little I enjoy having my hair ripped out by the rubber snorkeling mask straps), I crab-walked into the water, wiped the fog from my mask and awkwardly dunked my head to see what could be seen. The water was so churned up that all I could see was murk, which made me grouchy. I swam around for a bit, trying to find a clearing where I could see some colorful fish through the suspended silt, but swiftly became bored and headed back to shore to ditch the flippers and mask. Dwayne headed further out to sea, popping his head up every once in a while to exclaim enthusiastically that he had found a sea cucumber or a blue starfish and that I should give it another try because the water was clearer further out. But I was much happier to simply bob around in the cloudy shallows, free from the frustrations of rubber straps and huge artificial feet.

After what seemed like a very short while, our Fijian guides rounded us up and we were instructed to hop back into the boat for the dreaded return journey to Nadi. We warily took our seats, covered our belongings as best we could, and held on tight. Though not quite as nerve-wracking as the first trip, the boat trip back to Nadi was indeed still a wild ride and when we reached the beach we had to hop out in chest-deep water because it was too rough to get any closer to shore. With drenched clothes and burnt skin, we walked barefoot across the jagged pavement to the hostel, lugging our dripping towels and gear.

Once we’d hung everything up to dry, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and realized that I looked like a half-drowned, half-boiled shellfish. Much worse than I had thought. Dwayne looked similarly the worse for wear. This, of course, added some fuel to my grouchiness. So much for a relaxing tropical day cruise in the island paradise of Fiji!

The next morning as we packed our bags, both wincing as we hoisted the backpack straps onto our tender, crimson shoulders, I was shocked to discover that my legs looked as though I had contracted the chicken pox overnight. Huge, red welts were swelling up on my ankles, shins, and thighs, at least a dozen on each leg. I had not so much as swatted a single mosquito the day before, so I must have been unknowingly attacked by sand flies (or some other stealthy biting creature) while my mind was otherwise occupied with concerns about capsizing boats and roasting noses. The grouch-o-meter levels soared even higher.

As we hopped into a cab and headed to the airport to catch our flight to New Zealand, we decided that Fiji had not been given the proper opportunity to prove itself to us. It couldn’t be faulted for this. Had we travelled out to one of the more remote islands and stayed there long enough to experience a few days of good weather, good seafood, good swimming in a clear, tranquil sea and a boat ride that didn’t make us fear for our lives, than Fiji would most likely have left a much more rosy impression. As it was, our crispy-fried skin, bruised butts from the tumultuous boat ride, and constant itchiness from the many bug bites made it impossible to fall in love with Fiji. It felt strange to be experiencing relief when leaving a place that is considered to be heaven to so many, but we left it behind without any reservations. The sunsets may be beautiful, and the beaches may be white, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee that it’ll become a favorite destination. There has to be more to it than beauty, and a place has to be given the proper amount of time to reveal itself and its hidden treasures. We simply caught Fiji on an off day, when she wasn’t feeling her best and didn’t feel like playing the charming hostess.

So, with a dismissive glance back at Nadi as it disappeared into the blue horizon, we set our sights forward to New Zealand, the land of sheep and hobbits and adrenaline junkies, and hoped it would be friendlier towards us.

Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | January 11, 2013

Eddie Would Go (And I Wanna Be More Like Him)

Surfing Pipeline at the North Shore

Surfing Pipeline at the North Shore


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Click here to see our photos from Hawaii

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckenzie_pictures/sets/72157632478701976/

Eddie Would Go (And I Wanna Be More Like Him!)

Hawaii is one of those places I always knew I would get to eventually. It strikes me as a place that every American who likes to travel (and doesn’t mind flying for long stretches at a time) doesn’t have a choice but to visit at some point. Who in their right mind hasn’t dreamed about sipping a tropical drink on a white, sandy Hawaiian beach while watching surfers and hula dancers and wearing a lei of fresh flowers? Visions of Hawaii have been so ingrained in our culture (Elvis songs, tv shows, hula girl Halloween costumes, casual Friday Hawaiian shirts, and so on) that we don’t even seem to think of it as a real place where people live and work. More like one big, contained, controlled resort paradise for anyone who needs a break from winter (or life). A place where it’s never cold or rainy, there’s no pollution or litter, everyone has their own private waterfall to swim beneath, and the volcanoes erupt on command for our viewing pleasure. A tropical Disney World, if you will, with grass-skirted dancing ladies instead of cartoon characters, always eager for a photo op.

Strangely, it never appealed to me that much. I’m just not really a tropical beach kinda gal. For starters, I always feel a bit like a misplaced albino when walking along a beach surrounded by perfectly-bronzed college girls who all look as though they just got back from competing in some sort of Cancun Spring Break bikini contest. Secondly, I have a fairly restrictive fear of swimming in deep water (depending on the circumstances). If the water is dark or cold, if the undertow is strong, if I can’t see what’s beneath me, and if there’s the remote chance that what’s beneath me involves spines, fins, teeth, claws, shells, scales, pinchers, tentacles, beaks, buggy eyeballs or jaws, then I’m out. Ditto for large, scary sea plants.
Not only that, but I’m a big fat wimp when it comes to water sports. When scuba diving, my mind wanders to horrific scenes of myself in one of those locked compression chambers, recovering from a case of “the bends” because I had to sneeze and therefore swam too quickly to the surface for fear of sneezing my face mask off. When snorkeling, I normally trip over the flippers enough so that I get flustered and end up just walking backwards into the water, looking thoroughly ridiculous. Then I go on to whine about how the rubber mask strap rips out my hair when I take it off. Further whining ensues when I get salt water in my nose, eyes, mouth and ears, when the water washes off the sunscreen it just took me 20 minutes to apply, when my clothes are soggy and cold, and when the sand is too sticky to wipe off so I have to walk around with sand in every single nook and cranny that I possess. Water-skiing is out because the falls hurt too much and there’s no way to control my own speed, my arms are too wimpy for me to be any good at tubing, and surfing seems like a great way to lose a swimsuit bottom with everybody watching. Shark cage diving? SO many reasons why that will never be happening. Cave diving or cliff jumping? No thank you. Shipwreck diving…HA!

And yet, the first stop on our trip happens to be a water sports mecca like no other. Mostly because I wanted to at least see what all the Hawaii fuss was about (and check off one more state), but also because my husband gets as excited about tropical beaches as I get nervous about them, and this is his trip, too. And though I don’t necessarily yearn to participate, I must admit I do indeed love watching surfers. Boy, do I love watching surfers! There’s something pretty mesmerizing about looking on as we small and breakable humans head out to challenge the ocean, no matter what it’s serving up, armed with only a little board. Something about it brings about a feeling of pride in my species, that we might be so bold as to take on the sea. What other creature has such brass? So, after staying one night in a Honolulu motor lodge (that we later found out was a filming location for the Hawaii 5-0 movie) we headed straight to Oahu’s North Shore and a beachside hostel called Backpackers Vacation Inn/Plantation Village to see if we could catch a glimpse of surf culture.

As it turns out, spending time in the North Shore is like being dunked head-first into a spinning whirlpool of surf culture more so than casually dipping one’s toe into it. Surfing oozes from the pores of these people like, I can only assume, nowhere else on earth. At any given moment, night or day, you are within a stone’s throw of a sun-bleached, brown-skinned, messy-haired, barefoot surf bum headed to or from the beach, board in hand. Surfing is a religion, a life choice, a priority that falls somewhere between food and shelter. Jobs are only a means by which to be able to afford to surf. Surfboards and boogie boards are piled into the back of trucks, strapped to the roof of Volkswagon vans and open air jeeps, and tied precariously to the sides of rickety, salt-weathered bicycles.

Shoes are fairly rare in these parts, even in restaurants, shops and grocery stores. Shirts seem to be entirely optional as well. This came as a bit of a surprise while I was waiting in line (apparently entirely overdressed) at the grocery store. Ironically, they were selling wetsuit-like shirts in the shirt-optional grocery store, along with flip flops and more surfing magazines than celebrity gossip rags at the checkout line. Oh, do these people love their surfing.

Granted, this is the surfing high season, which would probably explain the traffic jams on the way to every major beach and cove. It is clear that no matter how much the local people here eat, sleep and breathe surfing, watching those waves never gets old for them…not ever. We dropped our packs into our bungaloo and headed right out to the beach to settle into the sand alongside all the other spectators and watch the waves roll in.

When I say waves, I don’t mean gentle ripples lapping at the shore like what you would hear when holding a conch shell to your ear. No, what we encountered when we walked out onto the beach was a display of the power of nature that did a fine job of reinforcing my fear of the ocean. Huge, pounding, angry swells pummeling the beach with a thunderous crash before churning up into a froth that sucked the sand backwards into a sweeping, jagged current resembling a class V river rapid. We watched, wide-eyed, as they kept on coming, each looking more massive and closer than the last. Forbidding danger signs were posted along each beach that we walked to, warning of dangerous riptides and currents, telling us there was absolutely no swimming allowed. And yet, at each and every beach these danger signs were whole-heartedly ignored. Surfer after surfer plunged into the waves, ducking their heads underwater just as the huge swells crested so as not to get knocked out as they crashed down, and then paddling with all their might against the currents that threatened to yank them out to sea.

Our hostel host, who sounded a bit like Keanu Reeves, had informed us that there was a big storm offshore and therefore the waves were ‘totally epic’, and also that we were within easy walking distance to the infamous Banzai Pipeline, an area featured in surfing movies (not necessarily good ones, Blue Crush anyone?) and used for competitions. We headed that direction, stopping along the way for a fish sandwich and a pineapple smoothie at one of the local food trucks, the Shark Cove Grill. Oddly, there are very few restaurants in the area aside from a few food trucks that have more or less set up permanent residency by piling rocks on either side of the wheels. To our delight, we realized that this is because the stretch between Waimea Bay and Pipeline, where we were staying, is not a very ‘touristy’ place. There are no hotels, no spas, no visitor centers. Just peoples’ homes, a church, a surfboard shop, and the Foodland grocery store. The people around us are mostly locals, and this is their life. A wonderful, laid back life that revolves around whether the waves are big or small. Could I live this life? No way. But it fascinates me nonetheless that other people are.

Once we reached Pipeline, it felt as though we were the last ones to show up to a beach party. The hoards had arrived to watch anyone who dared venture out into the frothy, swirling mess. And there were many who dared. So very many! It became clear that although I had assumed that waves this size were only tackled by professionals that are featured on the cover of Surf magazine, I was grossly mistaken. From what it looked like, every resident of the North Shore and their Grandma could surf this caliber of wave. There was a constant stream of surfers making their way to the water, along with boogie boarders and (perhaps the most crazy of them all) photographers wearing only flippers and a snorkeling mask. People would hesitate along the edge for a few minutes, interpreting the rhythm of the wave sets, sometimes saying a little prayer and crossing themselves, and then they would break into a run, leap belly-first onto their boards, disappear into the white foam, and we wouldn’t see them again for a while. Sometimes a very long while. Eventually, they would bob to the surface and head out to the deep, slogging their way through the current to join the other 40 or so people floating over the swells as they waited patiently for the perfect wave.

Back on the beach, we were surrounded by what had to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-end camera equipment. Photographers had set up tripods with enormous lenses and weather shields from one end of the beach to the other. I felt a little silly pulling out my lowly point-and-shoot to get some shots, but I did nonetheless. We sat and watched with a sense of awe that so many ‘normal’ people were able to take on such intimidating, behemoth waves. There were people over 60 and people under 13. There were women in bikinis, and heaven only knows how they managed to keep them on. There were small children being encouraged by their parents to play in the surf, which made me cringe in horror as if they were being encouraged to play on a busy freeway. It was all a very surprising scene, and one that made me entirely fall in love with the North Shore for all its’ bizarre normalcy.

We spent the next few days exploring the Waimea Valley with its’ lovely tropical flowers and swim-under waterfall, browsing the surf shops in Hale’iwa (where we realized that a surfboard can cost upwards of $1000!), sampling the local spicy pork burritos and P.O.G. (pineapple, orange, and guava juice) at Kono’s Big Wave Café, eating sushi bowls at the Pupukea Grill food truck, attempting to rent bicycles that were literally held together with duct tape (we eventually abandoned that idea), and swimming at Waimea Bay Beach. To be fair, I watched as Dwayne did the swimming, and got a bit nervous every time I saw him duck into a wave that could capsize a ferry. But he survived, and all the bellowing from the lifeguard tower’s loud speaker was directed at some other yahoo that was getting dangerously close to the ledges.

At our bungaloo, there was a lot of excited buzz from our roommates about the waves being large enough that competitive surfers had been flying to Oahu from all over the world in anticipation of the ‘Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau’ surf competition. This is a surf competition in Waimea Bay that only takes place when the conditions are just right, and for this reason it hasn’t been held since 2009. According to Wikipedia, “the irregularly-held tournament is known for a unique requirement that ocean swells reach a minimum height of 20 feet before the competition can be held. (Open-ocean swells, rather than wave faces, are the preferred method of Hawaiian wave measurement.) As a result of this requirement, the tournament has only been held eight times during the history of the event, most recently on December 8, 2009.” We felt immensely lucky that we were visiting during a time when the waves were so large that we might get to witness an elusive surf competition that’s only been held eight times in history.

Alas, the perfect conditions didn’t materialize and the competition wasn’t held. But that didn’t stop the entire town from showing up at Waimea Bay to either risk heading into the massive breakers themselves or to cheer on someone else who was fearless enough to do so. We laid out our towels on the beach to watch the amazing show, and after a while I got up and walked down the beach to get some shots of the sunset. When I returned, Dwayne had befriended a guy on a neighboring beach towel. Turned out he was born and raised on the North Shore and he and his wife lived just up the street from our bungaloo. He would have been out there surfing the Waimea Bay giants himself had it not been for an injury. He offered us some Coronas, and after a few minutes of chatting he invited us to his house so they could cook us dinner. What a show of kindness towards strangers, and what a positive reflection upon this region and its people. It’s not everywhere that the locals offer you beer and chicken five minutes after introducing themselves. What a wonderful place! We accepted, and headed off to the Foodland to buy some extra chicken and beer to contribute.

The evening was spent talking about politics, dogs, and (what else?) surfing. They showed us various types of surfboards and what types of waves they would be best for. They explained when to use the ‘shaka’ (aka, the hang loose hand sign), which apparently works quite well as a thank you when other drivers give you the right-of-way at intersections. Who knew? We talked about surf culture and surf heroes, the uniquely Hawaiian way of measuring wave height (from the back instead of the front), and we learned about “Eddie”. Eddie Aikau is an iconic figure in this region, a legendary surfer and the first Waimea Bay lifeguard who rode big waves back in the 60s when it was virtually unknown to do so. He and his family, native Hawaiians who have done much to protect the people and landscape of the North Shore, are treasured by the locals as an inspiration. There is a saying that can be found posted or written here and there, it reads “Eddie Would Go”. As it was explained, when someone is considering whether or not to ‘go for it’, be it an enormous wave or some other challenge, they say this to gather the courage needed to move forward. Are the waves too big? Meh, Eddie would go.

What a powerful character he must have been to have that kind of personal influence on people as they are facing their fears. Imagine being the central part of a mantra that is used to inspire others to push their own limits and become more than they think they can be. Eddie was lost at sea when he was 31, while trying to go get help for the people stuck on a boat he had been crewing on that had sprung a leak in the Pacific.

How can we all live the sort of life that Eddie lived? Fearless, selfless and pioneering. These are the type of people I have envied all my life, the ones who are able to ‘just go for it’ despite their fear. Fear is something I think about a lot, something I struggle with, and something that I am hoping this trip will give me the opportunity to take control of (more on that later). I am the same age now as Eddie was when we was lost, and if I died today I would not be remembered for saving lives and achieving things that other people would be far too afraid to attempt. So, what would I be remembered for? With any luck, these travels and experiences will help me to determine how I hope to be able to answer that question.

We left the North Shore and headed towards Honolulu on New Year’s Eve, eager to get started on the rest of our trip. As it turned out, Hawaii ended up being the perfect launching pad for our little adventure. There are so many places in the world (perhaps all of them) that put on a show for the tourists so that all you experience of the place is what you see on the glossy brochure covers. The experience is packaged and neatly presented so that whatever positive stereotypes have been instilled, whatever vision of paradise is already in your mind, that’s what is painstakingly delivered to you. Hawaii is no exception. There are, of course, the phony Polynesian village luaus and the leis handed out at the airport. There are overpriced helicopter rides and giant, floating tricycles and tour boats clogging the bays and coves. But underneath that façade, Hawaii is real. There are giant, sumo-wrestler-looking Polynesians that ride around in the back of trucks playing the ukulele and singing songs. Not for the tourists, just for fun. There are chickens running amok in every yard and street, and people flashing the shaka to their friends. And every salty, golden, messy-haired surfer from every cheesy surf movie is actually out there, heading into the pounding waves of Oahu’s North shore each and every day. It was so refreshing to see. Hawaii certainly exceeded my expectations.

After wandering around Waikiki Beach for a while, sampling some pineapple soft serve and rainbow shaved ice, and making our last phone calls home before turning off our cell phones for 6 months, we rang in the New Year with Mai Tai’s and butterflies in our stomachs. What a year 2013 will be!

Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | January 8, 2013

The St Louis Arch in the Rear View Mirror

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So it begins! Hugs have been given to all our family and friends, our desks have been cleared and our work badges handed in, and the last few boxes of our possessions have been tucked away in the back corner of Dwayne’s parents’ basement. We’ve handed in the keys to our apartment, parked our cars in an out-of-the-way spot, made copies of our passports and stuffed as many comforts of home as is humanly possible into our two carry-on bags.

As it was happening, I felt strangely unemotional about radically shifting from a very stable, safe 7:30-4 in a cubicle type of lifestyle to becoming a willy nilly vagabond. The weeks leading up to the trip have been so wildly hectic that I haven’t had much chance to reflect on what’s about to happen, though there were a few choice moments when I felt the weight of the situation pressing more firmly on me than usual.

The moment that it was time to leave my job was a difficult one for me. Shutting down my computer for the last time and hugging my friends goodbye (some of whom I had worked with since 2008) made me choke up a tad, though I hope they didn’t notice. It was also tough for me to close the door for the last time on our apartment in St Louis. It has been a great little home for us. It’s the place where we lived when we got engaged and married. The place where I plastered the walls with photos of faraway places while planning for this trip. We are leaving behind our favorite parks to go walking in, our favorite hole-in-the-wall breakfast cafes and the ability to visit family and friends any old time we feel like it. Our nieces and nephews will no doubt look a little different when we return, some of the littlest ones might even be speaking in full sentences by then, who knows. But hopefully there’s only so much we can miss in a six month period.

I’m guessing these will feel like the fastest six months of our lives, and at the same time we will come back feeling as though we have been away for years. Travel always has a way of making two weeks ago seem like a lifetime away. No doubt the songs playing on the radio will be different, people will have moved away or bought houses or gotten engaged or pregnant, and with any luck the government will have figured out how they are going to deal with the ‘fiscal cliff’ (so glad we’re leaving THAT whole mess behind us for a bit).

As I was headed out of St Louis on Highway 64, my car loaded down with the last few kibbles and bits from our now-empty apartment, I caught a glimpse of the Gateway Arch in my rear-view mirror and it made me smile. What an amazing place that city has been for me. The most unexpected place to end up has turned into a second home that I will sorely miss. The decision to move to Missouri led me to find not only my husband and his incredible, kind, welcoming extended family, but also a career field that I think could keep me interested for life. So, I leave Missouri behind with a big thank you for all the love, paychecks, BBQ’d pork steaks, summer float trips, career opportunities, Schlafly pumpkin ales, Cardinals baseball games, free concerts in the park, cheap utility bills, weekend road trips to Chicago and Kansas City, and the best friends I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with.

We flew out of St Louis airport on December 22nd, not sure whether we’d be moving back after our trip or not. Time will tell. For now, the future is wide open and anything and everything is on the table. The Missouri side of the family sent us off with pizza and plenty of well-wishes, and then it was off to Maine to celebrate Christmas and say goodbye to everybody there.

Christmas in New England was as relaxed and wonderful as ever. The icy temperatures are always a bit of a shock to the system, but there is plenty of hot tea, a crackling woodstove, and a couple of fluffy, warm dogs who are always willing to snuggle. So, we stayed cozy in my parent’s house, snacking on lobster chowder, pan-seared Maine scallops, and taylor ham and cheese on toast. My parents had decorated the house in grand fashion as usual (complete with a bridal-themed Christmas tree for my sister’s and my big year), and I savored the time we all spent together around the table, eating her home-made lasagna and playing cribbage games. Although one of the things I love the most about travel is the way it reminds you of the things you love about home, I almost never lose sight of these small details that make me feel so lucky to be living this life.

On Christmas day, we exchanged our gifts and visited with my extended family, which always does wonders for my soul and my stress levels. My brother-in-law had spent a lot of time making us some music playlists to bring with us on our travels and he loaded them onto our gadgets for us. And my sister, who is in grad school to become an expressive arts therapist, had prepared journals for Dwayne and I to bring on our trip with calming quotes, photos of beautiful parts of the United States, and relaxation techniques to help deal with the anxiety of our upcoming trip. She wrote a visual description/meditation about our home in Maine and all the comforts that make it feel familiar and safe, pasted a family photo into the front covers, and then had the whole family write us encouraging messages on the first few pages of each journal. What incredible gifts! I know there will be times during these upcoming six months when home will feel so unbelievably far away and this journal and music will be what I go to for comfort and reassurance that my family is still out there and, at any given time, I can go home to them if I choose. It’s this knowledge that gives me the courage I need to fly further and further away.

The morning that Dwayne and I set out, my whole family woke up around 5:30am to see us off. My Dad said that he was in awe of what we were doing, and as I was hugging my Mom goodbye she told me that she thought we were very brave. My eyes swelled a little at the thought of making my parents proud. We’ve had a bit of a unique experience among RTW’ers in that we’ve had no negative feedback about our trip whatsoever. We expected at least a few people would think this was a terrible idea, but everyone we’ve talked to about our trip, from bosses to parents to landlords to insurance agents, has had the same reaction…”COOL!” For all I know, they may just be telling us that it’s a neat idea but actually thinking we are entirely foolish, but either way it feels great that we haven’t had to justify our decision to anyone. Just another reason to be thankful for our incredible support system.

My family waved from the doorway as we pulled out of the driveway to drive three hours to the airport in Portland, Maine. The morning was bitter cold and the weather report was calling for a huge snowstorm in the next 24 hours. Knowing that we were destined for warmer climates, we left our winter wear in the car (that my parents would be picking up in a few days) and dashed across the parking area in our light jackets, teeth chattering as we finally got inside the airport doors. We flew from Maine to New York City and checked into a hotel in Queens just outside of JFK airport to wait out the storm and then (hopefully) leave for Honolulu the next day. Sure enough, Winter Storm Euclid dumped a pile of snow on the northeast, but we missed out on it entirely as we were curled up in our hotel room watching ‘Frankenweenie’ on Dwayne’s netbook while the wind swirled outside. We woke up in the morning, ate some fruit loops, and caught our flight to Los Angeles without any incident other than an awkwardly angry mother bellowing at the top of her lungs at her two kids on the escalator behind us. Ahhh, New York.

We reached Los Angeles around sunset on December 27th, only to be greeted by a three hour delay in our connecting flight to Honolulu. It turns out we were lucky, as many other flights were being cancelled altogether for no apparent reason (certainly not weather, it was sunny and gorgeous as usual). Ahhh, Los Angeles. Grouchy passengers all around were battling it out for the available outlets to charge their gizmos. Dwayne and I, also eager to make sure our electronics were charged for the long flight ahead, stumbled upon a Christmas tree near one of the gate desks where people were sneakily plugging into the strings of lights. Genius! We followed suit and placed our phones and netbook inside the Christmas tree to charge. By the time we were ready to board, we were charged up and ready to go.

The last time I was in Los Angeles was when I was driving away from it after living there for a year in 2005-2006. The southern California phase of my life was a particularly bizarre and transformative one, and the place it holds in my memory is bittersweet. And yet, I still wished for a few extra hours in LA to take Dwayne to Palms and Santa Monica and show him where I used to live and work. This place taught me so much, for better or worse, and I’d love to just stroll the Venice Beach boardwalk and reminisce for a while. Ironically, it was Los Angeles where I first heard about people doing RTW (round-the-world) trips while working as a travel agent for STA travel. Now, here I am years later waiting at LAX for the flight to the first stop on my own RTW trip. Whether I like it or not, LA will always be a special place for me. We loaded onto the plane and took off and as the plane banked right to head out to sea, I could see the sprawling lights reaching back to the mountains and the crashing surf on the beaches below. I watched until the lights were gone and there was nothing but black ocean below us and the Hawaiian Islands (and who knows what else!) ahead of us.

Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | December 17, 2012

5 Days Left (Whoa!)

So here we are, only a few days out now. Not quite sure where all that time went, I guess it got sucked into some sort of void of wedding/moving/trip prepping/holiday prepping craziness. Nevertheless, we went from 5 months away to 5 days away just like that!

Somehow in all the chaos we managed to squeeze in a pretty kick-ass wedding, some yummy BBQ outings with family and friends, a couple of trips to the dentist, and trip or two to Maine, and about 5 trips out to Dwayne’s parent’s place to stuff everything we own into a corner of their basement. We bought fancy new travel underwear, broke in our new hiking shoes, installed currency conversion apps and Skyppe on all our gadgets, and got shot up with such lovely things as meningitis, hepatitis and polio (can’t wait to start taking the malaria pills, those are always exciting!).

It’s our last week at our jobs, and our apartment has so little furniture in it that we’re sleeping and eating on the floor. Our travel goodies are laid out and ready to be packed. It seems as though this should all be feeling very…real. But the only time I feel the impact of what we’re about to do is when I get shivers of panic. I muddle through the days worrying about things like visa applications being rejected,  deportation, cab drivers ripping us off, going broke halfway through the trip, getting Delhi Belly on a 9-hour bus ride, finding a tarantula on my pillow, and Dwayne ending up with a kidney stone in some grubby jungle hospital in Cambodia. Somehow the excitement part has yet to fully hit me. The daydreams I should be having about lounging on Thai beaches and jet-boating in New Zealand are getting bogged down by thoughts about how we’ll have to do our taxes this year from some internet cafe in who-knows-where. Scary stuff, this vagabonding business, even for someone who’s been to lots of these places already. Perhaps I’m so afraid because I know what to expect, and some of it’s just not pretty!

But despite the nervousness and the apprehension, I also know what’s coming and I know it’s beyond worth it. I know very well the waves of giddy excitement that will be replacing all this fear very soon. They always show up eventually and they never let me down. I know that in the next few weeks, it’s likely I will feel the most free that I’ve ever felt. There will be moments when I have such gratitude to be where I am that I can barely express myself, and I’ll be so happy that Dwayne is there to experience the moment with me because I’d never be able to properly describe it. Those instances, those glimpses of real, unfiltered life are why it is worth so much of our time and money to step out into the scary places of the world. It seems a bit like sky diving, we have worked through the jittery, stomach churning nervousness of waiting to reach the right altitude, and now we’re dealing with the moment where you step to the open doorway and get ready to jump. You stand there, still safe, looking down and knowing that once you jump there’s no changing your mind. You endure that fear because you trust the rush that is to follow. Travel allows you to feel that rush in so many ways and in so many every day things that it transforms you in ways you can’t prepare for.

I am excited for the adventure, for the intensity, and for the transformation. It’s always refreshing to step outside of your small world and see what else there is. Not everyone out there is fretting over which gadget to buy next or which pop star has the best hairdo, so I don’t have to either. I’ve heard that we travel not so see new sights but to gain new eyes, and I like to refresh mine whenever they begin to get foggy with the things I like least about my own culture. I’m leaving to remember what’s important, and to bring it back with me again. Everyone needs to be reminded sometimes.

 

Posted by: Mckenzie and Dwayne | August 15, 2012

5 Months to Go!

So I guess it’s about time to get this blog started, with less than 5 months left to go until we hit the road.  First off, I suppose I should give a bit of background information…

Dwayne and I are going to travel the world. Not just ‘someday’ or ‘when we have some free time and money’ or ‘when the kids are grown up’ or ‘when we retire’, Dwayne and I are going on an RTW (round the world) trip in 5 months. Come January 2013, we will each be packing one carry-on piece of luggage, leaving our jobs, and setting out into the world for 6 months of continuous travel.

As of today, the plan is to visit New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China (Yunnan Province and Tibet), Nepal, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa (in that order). With any luck, we will be going on a dugout canoe safari in the Okavango Delta, hot-air ballooning over the Namib desert, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, campervan road-tripping along the fjords of New Zealand, traveling by train through the Australian Outback, rock climbing along the beaches of Thailand, boating along the Mekong River in IndoChina, seeing Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, learning about Buddhism in Lhasa, Tibet, and hiking in the Himalayas just outside Kathmandu, Nepal (among many other epic adventures). This is to be the trip of a lifetime.

The very idea of it is intimidating. How are we able to do such a thing?

Financially:

It has taken years of saving diligently. Long term travel is no cheap, easy thing (or at least not the type we intend to do). Backpackers can, in theory, live on a bare minimum budget by only traveling to the cheapest countries and staying in the dingiest, most run-down youth hostels in the most inconvenient parts of town, but that’s not quite what Dwayne and I have in mind. After all, what good is traveling to Thailand if you’re only able to venture within walking distance of your hostel and you are cooking packaged ramen noodles in your scuzzy dorm room every night to save a few bucks? In my mind, there is no point in traveling to an exotic new place if you can’t afford to venture out and experience it a little bit. So, we’ve been busting our butts for a while to be able to afford to travel the way we’d like.

We want to be able to eat out at the local restaurants and food stands, pay admission to the most amazing museums and national parks, and experience things like safaris, jetboat rides, treks and catamaran sails. But these things are a bit of a pipe dream to the half-starved, extreme shoestring backpacker, so some serious saving was in order. As such, we drive old, beat up cars that make clanky noises, it takes a lot for us to turn on the air conditioning even during the muggy 100-degree days that happen so often in Missouri, we eat a lot of leftovers and peanut butter sandwiches, our towels, dishes and pieces of furniture are the same hand-me-down ones we used in college, we don’t have cable or satellite TV, we’ve decided that heavy rain counts as a car wash, and as a result of these choices we’ve been able to squirrel away enough for a decent travel fund.

We have tried our best to find a happy medium between frugality and having a life. We still pay for things like glass blowing classes, belly dancing classes, occasional weekend float trips, soccer league dues, going out for beers with friends, flights to Maine to visit my family, the occasional new pair of shoes, and the like. But every expense is fairly obsessively tracked (God bless Mint.com!).

With any luck, even with paying for a wedding in the meantime, we’ll have saved up enough by January to be able to comfortably, safely and thoroughly explore the places we will be visiting, and not have to deal with frequent panic attacks about whether we’ll have enough leftover to buy a flight back home.

Psychologically:

There are so many monsters that one has to face when planning such a journey. There’s all the fear that hovers above your head like a storm cloud when you think about things like getting lost in the jungle, losing your identification documents, getting sick while abroad, getting robbed,  having some tragedy happen at home while you’re away, and not understanding what the people around you are talking about (especially if they are pointing and laughing at you).

But of all these anxieties, the thing I am most worried about is exhaustion. Though we have a 6 month window in which to spread out our travels, I have always been the sort that packs trips full to the brim for fear of missing something worth seeing. As such, we come home from two week trips and are utterly spent. Apparently, this is a common problem among vacation-starved Americans who feel they have to painstakingly stuff all their travel goals and fantasies into a two week block each year, sometimes even a one week block.  It’s impossible. It ruins the experience. More importantly, it misses the point of traveling to begin with. I realize these things, and yet I still have so much trouble separating myself from the “gotta squeeze everything in cause I’ll never get another chance to do this” mentality. I’m working on it!

Professionally:

This part is very, very tricky. Dwayne and I both have good jobs with great benefits, and the thought of tossing them out the window is nothing less than terrifying.  We may yet pursue the ‘leave of absence’ or ‘sabbatical’ route, but who knows if this is even an option. Regardless of whether it is or not, we are going!

In preparation, we have earmarked a portion of our savings for a cushion on which to subsist when we return. This should give us a few months to re-adjust to normal life in the US and let us figure out our next moves. In theory, we’ll be able to simply apply to similar jobs and pick up where we left off career-wise,  but that may not end up being what we want to do at all. We may discover some sort of new interest or passion while traveling that leads to an entirely new career focus, who knows. Suffice it to say, I am trying to remain open to any and all possibilities, and am trying to convince Dwayne that it’ll all work out the way it’s supposed to in the end. Easy to say, difficult to internalize. We’ll see how it goes!

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