Wednesday, January 27, 2010

1.26.2010 – Taurangi to Port Waikato

Port Waikato
Sunset
Purple flowerworks!
Talk to me
Mount Nga...icantpronouncemaoriwords
Volcanic crater
That volcano again
And again. So cool
Sulphur lakes

Sacred Maori Hot Springs
My newest Soul Sister Lilli
Hot River Paradise
Zoned out from 2 hours in the river

Wow, what a day. I can’t believe where we started and where we ended up. Yesterday seems like forever ago, climbing over and through the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. I met a woman named Lilli who’s from Australia and is an International Student Volunteers leader who was working here for a couple weeks and has a few days off before going home tomorrow. She and I hit it off and she offered to take me with her on her mission to find hot springs to soak our sore legs after 20km of hiking. Needless to say, I was in.

We hopped in her car and took off up the road as the rain clouds moved in after a beautiful sunny day, chatting and really hitting it off. Soon we were at the hot pools and soaking our aches away while the rain pattered down on us. After we were like limp noodles from the hot water, we decided to check out the thermal walk they had right next to the hot springs. We wandered into the bush on the path and found beautiful sulfuric pools of all shapes and sizes hidden in the trees. Think Yellowstone, only we were alone. So when we came to a small burbling mud pool, we looked at each other and Lilli hopped over the fence, grabbed the stick that was already in the mud pool and we eagerly smeared the smooth, warm mud all over our grinning faces. On our way out we pulled our hoods over our heads to make sure we didn’t get in trouble. We drove down the road giggling and came to a quiet backpackers where we cooked a delicious meal and had a really restful night.

This morning we woke up naturally and had buckwheat and soy milk for breakfast. We got a tip from the owner about a place where two rivers converge; one is really hot and one is cold so they make a delightful confluence where you can soak in water however hot or cold you like. We were stoked and headed up the road to explore a historical Maori village site, cruise past a lake covered in trumpeting black swans.

Our next stop was spontaneous when we saw a sign that said “Blue Pool” along the river. We were hoping for a hot pool but it was just a good fishing site, so we had a snack on a bridge suspended over a large river then continued on to the hot river.

We found it very easily and decided we had found paradise. It was totally natural, no signs or anything, just two rivers, one steaming hot, and a pleasant place to soak among the trees and feel the rain on our heads. A thunderstorm moved in and suddenly lightening was flashing and thunder pealing right over us. We smeared black mud from the riverbank on our faces and delighted in the calm, waters with only a few people around us. When we were soggy again and a busload of young people arrived and looked skeptical about getting in, we decided it was time to go and discovered we had been in the river for almost two hours. Wow, we felt rejuvenated and our skin was radiant!

We tried to find more mud pools we had seen signs for but they were closed for a boardwalk construction so we ate a picnic lunch and drove on toward Rotorua. We saw a sign for Te Puia and decided to check it out, but couldn’t find the main entrance at first and when we did we shied away from what seemed to be an extremely touristy place where you could experience Maori culture, walk through hot pools or even take a helicopter ride over the area. We didn’t even make it to the front door before we decided it felt weird and continued on. A similar experience followed when we actually arrived in Rotorua; it seemed like it could be a great place to play but we had had such a spiritual experience that had opened us up completely physically and mentally, neither of us could handle a busy city filled with activities and souvenir shops. We decided to skip the city and drive up to a small town on the beach for Lilli’s last night and for me to chill out before heading back to Auckland.

It took us forever to get here, I’m still not sure why but I have a feeling stopping at several grocery stores to find a certain organic yogurt may have something to do with it. After driving and driving we finally found ourselves on the West Coast of New Zealand with the sun sinking toward the waves. We found the backpackers with no problem and were delighted to find it to be very clean, spacious and devoid of other people besides ourselves. The beds even have blankets and sheets and she gave us towels to use and the kitchen is fantastic and filled with spices and cooking oil and all sorts of treats. I even found a dusty Sigg water bottle in the back of a cabinet Lilli is taking back with her! Sweet!

We high-tailed it down to the beach to squeeze in an ocean dip at sunset with the surfers playing in the waves and the sky glowing orange and pink. The beach sand is black and sparkling, it felt truly magical to finally lower our core body temperatures again after the scalding river water. We frolicked in the waves thinking about our crazy day then headed back to the hostel to drink tea and cook up some amazing wheat-free pasta with veggies, tofu and cheese. So satisfying and delicious.

Lilli is really cool and we have a lot in common. We talk about synchronicity and following what feels right and how that really makes or breaks a trip. It just felt right to go with her to the hot springs and we found accommodation so easily and got the tip to go to the river. Being in Rotorua just didn’t feel right; Lilli couldn’t find a parking space and we couldn’t decide on a place to eat or get tea and it just felt wrong to be there, and getting to Port Waikato has been perfect in every way. I am so excited to spend the day relaxing here tomorrow. It’s just really nice to be reassured that following my intuition is what works best.

1.24.2010 – National Park, NZ

Kite boarders near Auckland
My lovely hosts Bill and Margaret

Waterfall Action
Punga trees, the coolest ever. FERN TREES!
Supper time view
Bay of Islands
Beached

I’ve been in New Zealand for five days now and I’m finally adjusting and enjoying the place. It is definitely culture shock to be here. Every Kiwi I’ve ever met says Auckland is a big, disgusting, dirty city. It is the most quiet, organized, clean and prosperous looking city I’ve seen in months. No honking motorbikes, no tuk tuk drivers accosting you to go visit the gem store, no piles of garbage burning. Even the air is clean and fresh off the ocean, not a brown cloud obscuring the sun.

I am most grateful for my father, his friend Geoff from New Zealand, and most of all, Geoff’s parents Bill and Margaret who have graciously taken me in and made me feel so at home. Bill even met me at the Albany bus station near their house and drove me home, then they promptly fed me and let me clean up and relax. They have been my home base and I will stay with them again before I leave next week. Their son Larry and his family were staying with them the first few days which was fun because his two young daughters were always running around and being excited about the beach, which is only five minutes away. It’s quite different than the beaches I’ve been on; as in it’s windy and cold and cloudy but people are still swimming. Not exactly Ko Tao but still beautiful.

I spent one day in Albany being jet-lagged and shown around by Bill and Margaret. There are tons of beaches and rolling hills and they have a great view of the city from across the bay. It was a beautiful drive and fun to see kite boarders and wind surfers playing in the waves. Then we went back to their house where three out of their four children’s families were congregated for “tea”, or dinner as we call it in the states. There were tons of kids running around and we all enjoyed salad and fish and chips (thank God, I finally got some French fries! I’ve been craving them since Thailand).

The next morning I caught a bus us to the Bay of Islands, a beautiful coastal town with lots of lovely forest and islands and walks to take. I arrived early in the afternoon to be swooped up by an Israeli man with a guesthouse, then I went walking to a waterfall and got caught in a brief rainstorm that blew over and left a vibrant rainbow over the turquoise waters of the bay. It was spectacular to eat my tea by the water and watch the rainbow.

The next day I was up early and rented a kayak to paddle around for an hour. I found a beach on the back side of an island in the bay that was protected by the strong winds and explored the rocks and sand completely by myself, then fought the wind back to shore.

In the afternoon I went jogging on a trail through the forest which was delightful and led to an overlook of the entire bay. It was sunny and warm but cool in the trees and felt great to run again. Then I caught the bus back down to Albany and spent the night with Bill and Margaret before getting up early the next morning to catch a bus down to Waitomo Caves where there are glowworms! I arrived late morning and that afternoon I was suited up in a smelly wetsuit, gum boots, a helmet and harness to go blackwater rafting. This entailed a 27m rappel down into the lush mouth of the cave and being able to see the water flowing below me. The underwater stream wasn’t too high, it was easy to walk through but deep enough in places to jump into and not touch the bottom. We walked upstream first and squeezed through rock openings and began to see the glowworms twinkling on the ceiling of the cave like thousands of blue-green stars. We turned off our lights for a few minutes to let our eyes adjust while our guide taught us that glowworms are actually maggots and they glow to attract food and mates. Then he scared the hell out of me by slapping his tube against the water as hard as he could to create a vibration that made the worms light up even more. Then we floated back down in our tubes, did a few more rock squeezes and jumps then our guide gave us hot drink and chocolate and we did an easy rock climb back out of the cave. It was beautiful and surreal and I loved it!

I stayed in the backpacker accommodation offered by the tubing company because it was the only cheap vacancy (cheap meaning 28 New Zealand dollars…ouch). But I didn’t realize how far away it was from any kind of food source. By the time we were done caving it was 7pm…luckily I had some cheese, an apple, a cucumber and five Tim Tam cookies. I was up the next morning to jog along a lovely country road through rolling hills, grazing cows and sleepy farms. It was partly cloudy and partly sunny and perfect for a jog. Then I caught another bus to my current location in National Park, which, astoundingly, is situated between two national parks. The view from the hostel is spectacular; there are three volcanoes dipping in and out of the clouds.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to do the Tongariro Crossing, a very popular day hike on and around one of the volcanoes. The landscape is supposed to be similar to Yellowstone with hot pools and geysers and things like this. Hopefully the weather will hold and I’ll be able to summit!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Second Home Farm

This is an organic farm run by Chinnaworn, a Buddhist monk who teaches us about farming, the land, building small houses out of natural materials and Buddhism. We are in a very rural area of northern Thailand near Chiang Mai; so rural that sometimes people in the villages nearby don’t know where the place you’re looking for is.

We are really enjoying the peace and quiet here; there are no large towns anywhere nearby and it was extremely difficult to get here because nobody knew where Pang Term Village is, which is where Second Home is located. We ended up here a day late after going about 100 kilometers in the wrong direction, meeting some wonderful people who had a roadside restaurant who took Spencer around on the motorbike asking friends how to get here (nobody had any idea since we were so far away). Well, one day and 1,000 baht later we figured it out and arrived to see Chinnaworn and two wonderful women from Australia barefoot smearing mud on the side of a mud hut. We had arrived!

We wake up in the morning and take turns cooking breakfast. If we cook, we’re up at six in the morning, otherwise we all eat around eight am in the open air kitchen overlooking agriculture terraces and the jungle and watching the clouds and trees. Breakfast here is pretty open to whatever you want to cook: rice soup, curry, stir fry, eggs, anything! Spencer even made spring rolls filled with rice, coconut milk, papaya and banana. They were delicious!

After breakfast we work, which means we do whatever we feel like to help out around the farm. That could mean going with the neighbors to learn how to plant seeds, making mud bricks, dancing around in the mud pit to mix it up really nicely with your feet, repairing other huts that are falling apart, protecting the compost from the dogs, and of course weeding. Chinnaworn likes to have fun and is always dancing in the mud or telling us papayas dreamed about us and want us to hold them, things like that. If we want to clean up a bit before lunch, Chinnaworn made a small pool with a waterfall and stream that flows down by the kitchen. We can jump in the cold water and scrub off the mud, which gets everywhere especially when Spencer and I get into mud fights, or conversations as he likes to call them.

After working for the morning we have lunch then it’s free time to walk, explore, read, nap, meditate, draw, write, cook, eat, whatever you want. Chinnaworn will take one or two of us “shopping” in the evening which means wandering around the fields and hills and picking wild edible plants that are growing. He knows so much about plants and building things and cooking, it’s always a learning time. He doesn’t eat dinner so that’s up to us but sometimes he will help us cook something amazing from the plants we gathered from shopping, then at 7:30 we have a group meditation in the meditation area. Spencer brought the singing bowls he bought in Chiang Mai and we use them sometimes which really sets the energy for the meditation.

Meditation is about 40 minutes, then we usually read something from Thich Nath Han and Chinnaworn speaks for a bit then we talk about any business that we need to then it’s free time to do whatever we want. Last night we had a fire and Spencer and I made sticky rice in bamboo, or at least attempted it. Mostly it worked out and with coconut milk it was divine. We watched the stars, you could see so many and then went to sleep.

Spence and I have our own hut on the other side of the valley because all the ones on the side near the kitchen were too small or full. We walk past the neighbors’ house every day who are the coolest couple from Korea, Ben and Lee. They are so sweet and kind and happy. They have Nobby, the most affectionate and loving cat I’ve ever met that follows Spencer and I up the hill and meowed until we let him under the mosquito net and he snuggled the whole night purring next to us.

One day Spencer and I got to go to Samoeng, the next largest village nearby to do some shopping for things we couldn’t get in Pang Term for Agi to cook with. We got a ride with Ben and Lee to town and had the entire day to wander through the stalls, try to find things like carrots and mung beans and eat mediocre food compared to the fresh organic delicious meals we’ve been used to. We did get to drink some cha yen, Thai iced milk tea that is very sweet and tasty. A favorite treat for sure! It was really fun to see a smaller market and find treasures like Denver Broncos socks on a clothes table. Go figure.

We have continued to rebuild an unfinished mud hut while we’ve been here. There was a wooden bed frame in the hut and the walls were not finished, so Chinnaworn is showing us how to make a mud bed with a soil base and mud top-coat. We have also piled mud bricks up high on the walls to fill in the gaps and make windows. I even got to make a heart shaped window and Chinnaworn had Spencer and I work together on it. He is very cute and kind. We learned that in Thai if you want to use a term of endearment you call someone you love your eyeball. How fun is that? It makes sense; you do not want to lose your eyeball so you want to take good care of it, right? Hahaha!

Now, while I am writing this Spencer and I are watching the most comical bug ever putter around on the mats next to us. It has to be blind, its white and it keeps feeling its way around and has a long snout it points in the air.

It has been sunny today but the past day or two have been cloudy and we even got one full day of rain. It’s absolutely gorgeous here and we are really having a lot of fun. Gavin and Agi, two friends I met at Daruma farm are even here, which is really fun and Agi is a spectacular cook which is a bonus! We’re going to do some yoga then enjoy shopping and dinner. Thanks to Aleda for the tip to come here, we are so grateful!

Finding our way...kind of...But not all who wander are lost according to the painting
Meditation area
Main mud pit with kitchen in background and meditation area to right
Kitchen
Garden party
Spence, Laura and Carmen
Chinnaworn in the waterfall cleaning up. There was also a shower
Spence learning to cut the bamboo for sticky rice
Making fine tapioca mud for the inside of the huts
Maggot in love pillow (what?!?)
Misty mountain hop
Planting an avocado tree
Building a mud hut bed
Father Tree
View from our bungalow in the morning
Breakfast time
Progress on the mud hut. That's my heart window

Friday, January 8, 2010

ELEPHANTS!!!

We were up early again to ride to the elephant camp near Mae Tang, north of Chiang Mai about an hour. The place we visited was called Thai Elephant Home (www.thaielephanthome.com) and was absolutely fantastic.When we arrived we were shown our little room which had windows overlooking the elephants! They are enormous and beautiful and gentle yet powerful and I was so excited to interact with them. We met Jo, the manager of the place and he took us and the Danish family who would spend the day with us down to the altar to Ganesh, the elephant god to pay our respects to him. We said a prayer then each offered incense and a coconut to him.

After that we headed right down to the elephants and learned basic commands for controlling them from the mahouts there. We had a laminated card with the commands and helpful Thai words around our necks for an easy reminder, as well as a shoulder bag filled with our lunch and treats for the elephants. Some commands we learned:

Go- pai

Stop- how

Mae long- lay down

Look- stand up

Son song- leg up

At first I was dubious about the care of the elephants because they use the canes with metal pokers to hit and control the elephants sometimes and I hated that. But they rarely used the metal part, mostly they just whacked the elephants with the stick to make them go and after being with them for some time we realized they barely feel it.

After getting the hang of the commands we went on a walk, starting with the mahouts on the elephants as well to make sure they stayed in control. After a bit they hopped off and walked along side us to make sure the elephants were still well behaved but we were the only ones on them. They didn’t use the big seats on top of the elephants, we were directly on their backs which was so cool! It took me a while but I finally figured out if I sit on the neck and bend my knees up to rest my feet behind the ears I had better balance and was much more comfortable.

We walked up the hillside and across the river up to a pool of black mud. When we got close we dismounted and the elephants ran to the mud wall and started spraying themselves and rubbing their bodies all against the mud. They absolutely loved it. We tossed mud on them, which inevitably led to tossing mud on each other, which ended up with us and the mahouts covered in black mud, which Spencer and I were told we were not allowed to wash off until the river. So we got on our muddy elephants, completely black with mud and rode down to the river, passing some other tourists on elephants who looked astonished to see us looking so strange.

My elephant ran straight into the water and submerged itself and began to shake shake shake to get the mud off. Luckily I could hold on to the rope around its body and laugh and laugh as it wiggled around under me in the water. It stood up finally and we walked across the river then it lay down again and I hopped off and swam around and splashed water on it and other elephants and jumped off the elephants into the water, one mahout did a backflip off. They would dive down and wiggle around with us on their backs and we would laugh until they stood up again then do it again. Swimming with an elephant was one of the silliest and most fun experiences of my life.

After the river we walked the elephants back and said goodbye to the Danish family then Spencer and I went with two of the mahouts to cut down banana trees to feed the elephants. We filled up the entire pickup truck with banana tree trunks and brought them back to the elephants who devoured them. They actually tore down a couple banana trees during our walk that day too!

We cleaned up as best we could in a freezing cold shower then spent the evening with Jo who talked to us about the elephants and we realized how well they were treated; each one has its own mahout that loves it and takes care of it and they are not overworked, they can eat all during the walk and are finished early unlike other elephant camps where the elephants are walking all day with different groups of people with about four people on each ones’ back…not good. Jo showed us how to make sticky rice in bamboo over the fire and how to make little boats out of banana leaves which we made omelets in over the fire as well. That with vegetable soup was delicious mahout jungle dinner! Then Da, a mahout showed us Thai drinking games and we had a great evening, then fed the elephants corn at nine at night.

The next morning we got up at seven am to feed the elephants again and to clean up their poop from the night. We learned more commands and practiced controlling them more then went on a walk up the mountains just Spencer and I and the mahouts. It was so peaceful and beautiful. We had a relaxing afternoon and Spence and I went to the river to swim with the dog Bacon then got ready to go ride the elephants into the jungle to camp and stay the night out there.

It was four mahouts and Spencer and I and three bottles of whiskey. Needless to say shenanigans ensued and we slept well, even with no sleeping pads. Dinner was all over the fire, sticky rice in bamboo and pork on skewers and whiskey. Very fun and very delicious.

The next morning we were up early and rode back through the sunrise on our elephants. Spence and I had to get back to town early to catch the taxi to get to Second Home farm, which ended up being a disaster. We caught wrong taxi after wrong taxi and ended up going all the way back to Chiang Mai, then getting another taxi to a town near the farm, were told there were no more buses that night and had to stay in a nice guesthouse that cost us an extra 600 baht…but we slept for 11 hours and got a ride with the owner directly to Second Home where we are now, reunited with Gavin and Agi, a couple I met at Daruma farm near Bangkok last month! What a wild ride!

Spence on the big ele

With Da the mahout camping
Afternoon stroll

Loving a trunk scratch
Learning to make omelettes in banana leaves
Ele's in the mud!
Cutting banana trees for elephant supper
Mama and baby (crazy baby)
Is anyone really surprised about this?
Mud conversation
Scrub down
First elephant walk
Why hello there!