30 April 2008

North Island Adventures

Hello once again everyone! I'm back after a whirlwind of a vacation, trying hard to get back into the groove of school and homework and responsibilities... not the easiest of tasks, but I'm always up for a challenge. For the last two weeks, I've been taking full advantage of my university's mid-semester break to do a bit of travelling around the North and South Islands. I was able to cover quite a bit of ground, and undertake a number of awesome (and sometimes awesomely scary) adventures. I should also mention that this vacation was an extra special one, as I got to share it with my fiance, Michael. He's currently living and working in Washington D.C., and it was the first time we'd seen each since I left for NZ almost three months ago. Since it was also Michael's first visit to the country, I tried my hardest to show him a fair representation of all wonderful things NZ has to offer--no easy task on such a limited time frame. But in the end I think we did a pretty good job it. If nothing else, we definitely came out with some excellent stories!

We began our adventure up on the North Island in Auckland, NZ's largest city. (Take note here; it's a common misconception that Auckland is also New Zealand's capital city, when that honor actually goes to Wellington.) While it's not quite on the same level as New York City, Auckland was definitely quite a change from the grassy hills and brightly colored bungalows that make up Dunedin. With plenty of modern high rises, the futuristic Sky Tower, and a diverse population, the "City of Sails" had the bustling feel of a metropolis, but without the intimidating size or crowdedness.

After seeing the sights and taking a trip to the nearby volcanic island of Waiheke, we decided to try our hand at driving on the opposite side of the road and brave the motorway to Rotorua. The second we arrived, we immediately realized what the Rotarians back in Dunedin had meant when they said they city was "stinky." Because it is. Very very stinky. Located in an area of constant thermal activity, Rotorua comes complete with steaming rocks, bubbling mud, spurting geysers, and an oh-so-lovely rotten egg smell wafting throughout the entire city. You also have to make sure you watch where you step, and stay on the lookout for "KEEP OUT. ACTIVE THERMAL AREA." signs. Stepping in a boiling pit of mud wouldn't exactly make for the best time while on vacation. We did have a great time, however; seeing an authentic Maori village and song/dance performance, watching the Pohutu geyser do its thing, and careening down a mountainside on little plastic carts on wheels, known here as the Luge.

After two days had passed --and just when we were almost used to the sulfur smell--we hopped back in the car and headed for our first truly extreme adventure: black water rafting in the Waitomo caves. It was absolutely insane, the things we were doing with zero caving experience at all. After training for a grand total of five minutes, we started out with a 37m abseil into the cave. And I don' t know about you, but when I'm strapped onto a smallish-looking rope and dropping 100 feet down a black hole with only a cushion of jagged rocks to break any potential fall, you start to seriously wonder why it was again you thought this was a good idea. Needless to say our guides taught us well, and everything went perfectly. Soon we found ourselves lost in an endless chasm of rock and dark, with only our head lamps and the green luminescence of the sticky, thread-like glow worms to light our way. I got to zip line from a ledge to the cave floor below, just off a cliff into a FREEZING underground river, and scale up (yes I said up) a raging waterfall. It was scary, exciting, cold, and utterly amazing.

I hate to cut this short, but in the interest of space and attention span, I'll get into our adventures in the South Island the next time around. But as a quick preview, it involves gale force winds, more cliff jumping (only this time from significantly higher up) and getting stranded in Fiordland. So stay tuned, more is on the way!

10 April 2008

Living the Life

Greetings everyone! (Or Kia Ora as they say here in the "land of the long white cloud.") Before I share some of the amazing adventures I’ve had so far in my time as a Rotary Ambassadorial scholar, I want to say thank you to World View for allowing me this opportunity, and to you readers for taking the time listen to (or read, technically) my ramblings. So let’s get started!

For the past two months, I’ve been living waaaay down on the opposite side of the planet in Dunedin, New Zealand. And when I say way down, I mean way, WAY down. Dunedin (pronounced duh-NEE-din) is almost at the very bottom of the NZ’s south island, right on the eastern coast. It’s far enough south that there are penguins along the beach, year round. But surprisingly, it isn’t very cold. (Except for the water; if you want to get in, you’d better have a wetsuit!)

The city has about 110,000 people—over one third of which are students—and one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever had the privilege to call home. With its rolling green hills, brightly colored houses, and the beautiful coastline, Dunedin has the environment to suite any taste, all rolled into one vibrant city.

As far as daily life goes, NZ culture is a fascinating mixture of contrasts and similarities to that of the U.S. For example, I still have the option of eating at Subway or McDonalds; shopping at K-mart or Office Max; and catching the latest episode of American Idol. However, I had to figure out that "jandals" = flip flops and "togs" = bathing suit; learn to drive on the left side of the road; and get used to seeing people walk anywhere and everywhere barefoot (I suppose that comes from the strong surfing culture…).

And of course I had to grow accustomed to seeing sheep. Tons of them. Everywhere. My host counselors had quite a laugh when I told them that the only sheep I’d ever seen were in a zoo. But I suppose I’d find that funny too, had I grown up in a place that has more of the wooly animals than people.

While I’ve only been an honorary Kiwi for short time, I’ve had more new experiences than I can count! Surfing at a beach surrounded by rocky cliffs, tramping (the Kiwi word for hiking) through lush forests serenaded by the many native birds, paragliding off a mountainside, careening down a canyon river in high speed jet boat—the list goes on and on. And I’ve barely brushed the surface of all New Zealand has to offer. From glaciers to volcanoes to sprawling vineyards, the variety of adventure in this incredible country is endless.

So I don’t bog you down right out of the gate with a super-long blog, I’ll save the details of my favorite experiences thus far for my next post (which will hopefully give you a reason to come back!). Please, please feel free to respond with any comments or questions you may have about my life here or about the blog in general; I would love to get a good dialogue going! Thanks so much for reading, and check back soon! Cheers!