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The World I Saw

 

Charming Nagasaki

I wound up in Nagaski more by coincidence than desire to see the city, and now I view my short visit there as a testament to why I should follow even the smallest of signs from the universe.

It was the night after Matt left. I was alone in my hostel in Tokyo and unsure what my next steps would be. Should I stay in Japan and go south to Fukuoka? Or maybe hop over to South Korea or Hong Kong? Or go to the airport and find the next reasonably priced flight to somewhere random? (I still want to do this third option one day. Movies and TV shows always have people buying tickets at airports, who really does that? Hopefully me one day. I want to go to a major airport, look at the departure board, and pick a flight that sounds good. Maybe next trip.) Then I met my bottom bunk mate Franka who had just arrived in Japan and already discovered the frustration of accommodation. She had had to book a double room in Nagasaki, her next stop, for just herself because it was all that was left. So, she said, if I did end up going south to Fukuoka and wanted to come by Nagasaki for the weekend, she had an open bed in her room.

Once I decided to explore Kyushu after Tokyo, Franka’s Saturday arrival in Nagasaki – the day that I would leave Fukuoka – turned out to be perfect timing. Nagasaki made sense for my route and was supposedly a highlight of Kyushu, and with the option to share a room that would help cut costs for both of us it seemed like a logical next stop. So I messaged her to see if she still wanted a roommate. She did.

Nagasaki is a charming city. It has a mixture of cultural influences: it has Japan’s oldest Chinatown and was at one point in history a major Dutch trading post (hence Franka’s interest in going there, she’s from Amsterdam). It is a pleasant city to walk around, with enough activity to feel alive but not too much to overwhelm the small streets. There’s plenty to explore, from the picturesque Nagasaki River spanned by stone bridges to the covered arcade and surrounding streets lined with local shops and restaurants to the numerous temples and shrines. And for further excursions the streetcars are easy to navigate while adding to the delight of the city.

I had one of my favorite mornings in Japan in Nagasaki. Our fantastic hostel, Nagasaki International Hostel Akari, has a program where locals volunteer to take around visitors for an hour. Franka and I spent the morning with Ayumi, a sweet 29-year-old teacher who grew up in Nagasaki and is teaching herself English. She volunteered so she can practice the language. She took us first up to the Suwa Shrine – a great place to look out at the hills of the city – where she taught us the ritual of throwing a coin into the trough, bowing twice, clapping twice, and bowing once more, for good luck. This luck seemed to work when we visited the small zoo next door, home to many birds and monkeys, including one peacock who showed off his gorgeous feathers during a mating attempt with the females sharing his enclosure. Ayumi proclaimed us very lucky for getting to see this rare show. Next up was the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, which was meant to be just an exterior look but again luck took over and we were invited inside to see a samurai play about the kite festivals, and a lesson about not trespassing on a farmer’s land in order to win. We made our way to the Meganebashi Bridge (Spectacles Bridge), known to be the most beautiful of the stone bridges due to its pair of arches, where we jumped out onto the stones below for a picture. What was supposed to be an hour tour turned into a whole morning, and we were having such a good time that we asked Ayumi to join us for lunch. She took us to Bunjiro, a lunch spot that specializes in tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and is clearly a local favorite. I don’t ever eat fried food at home but found this meal delicious. And the best food award goes to Japan.

While the sites and the lunch were amazing, the best part was seeing them all with Ayumi. I always value time spent with locals, getting to talk about what life is really like in the place I’m visiting, so I really appreciated that she took so much time out of her day to show us her city.

I could go on about other parts of Nagasaki – the peaceful Kofukuji Temple, the wonderful handmade ceramics shop where I got a sake set for a wedding gift, and the accidental but fun night of drinking games in the hostel with more new international friends – but that would make this already long blog post inordinate. There is one more thing though that I feel I have to relay.

After we said goodbye to Ayumi, Franka and I went to Nagasaki Peace Park. Nagasaki was the second and last city on which the United States dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. I felt a need to see the site where this happened, like I felt the need to go to the museum in Hiroshima, to acknowledge and mourn this horrific event. Just like Hiroshima, Nagasaki has turned this event into a call for more peaceful relations across the world. The Peace Statue points one hand up to the sky, signaling the threat of nuclear attack, one hand to the left symbolizing peace, and has closed eyes in prayer for those who lost their lives. Nearby is a stone pillar marking the hypocenter of the explosion and preserved areas of land where debris is visible embedded in the dirt. There is another museum here but we chose not to go in; the park was enough for me, causing contemplation and reflection through its simple yet powerful monuments. It was an echo of how I felt in Hiroshima.

Just like the morning with the city and Ayumi, I valued the conversation with Franka even more than seeing the sites of Peace Park. As we explored we talked, an American and a Dutch, about the dropping of the atomic bomb, war, the attacks on 9/11, and other world conflicts. It was a candid conversation, serious yet still light, between two new friends from different parts of the world, and one of those moments that just happens in a trip like this. I really appreciate those moments.

Nagasaki was unexpected and maybe that’s part of the reason it was so great to me. So thank you Franka for leading me to this wonderful experience.

Scuba Diving in Gili

Scuba diving in Gili Air was incredible. I had heard that it would be incomparable in Indonesia and I was not let down. I saw more sea life than I could process, from tiny coral-bound organisms to huge sea turtles to families of Nemos, it was everything I wanted and more, and one of the highlights of my trip. I am hooked. I want to go back and get certified. I want to see the wonder of that world every single day.

I was the only person signed up to do the Discover Scuba Diving so I had a private lesson with my instructor Gareth. DSD starts out in the pool learning how to breathe. I had already done this in Colombia, which Gareth was thrilled to hear. We flew through the pool stuff. He even taught me some more advanced things like how to control my buoyancy with my breathing. I still finished 45 minutes ahead of schedule and had a break before it was time to go out in the boat.

We did a quick “here’s what we might see today” lesson before getting into the boat with everyone else. Gareth and I were first in the water – sit on the edge, hold on your mask and breathing apparatus, fall backwards in to the water – and I promptly smacked my head on a metal bar. Fucking A. It hurt but no matter. We swam a little away from the boat and descended.

Just like last time, I had some initial issues equalizing, but he just lifted me up a little and my ears figured it out, and I didn’t have any more problems the rest of the dive. In fact, Gareth was such a good teacher at telling me to slow down my breathing, that I didn’t even come close to running out of air. The dive ends one of two ways: your air tank gets to 50, or you hit 60 minutes underwater. Gareth has never had a DSD stay under for 60 minutes. Until me. When 60 minutes had passed Gareth made me go to the surface. I would’ve kept going, my tank was still at 80. He was stunned. When we got back he told other people at the dive center. He said I really should get certified, I would be so easy to teach.

I was just enjoying it way too much to want to come up. I did figure out how to control my breathing, but I’m also just not nervous underwater. I’m too busy looking at everything around me. It’s an alternate universe in the ocean and I’m fascinated by it.

We started at a sunken pier that has turned into a reef. Coral stick to tires and fish have made this their home. We swam away from the wreck and a reef extended out further than I could tell, and visibility was perfect. Gareth would point things out from the book and I would try to get pictures on my GoPro. Twice we saw sea turtles, big ones, right next to me, and both times it took him pointing it out three times for me to finally see it. Once he even grabbed me and turned me around so I was looking right at it. I didn’t think it’d be possible to not see such a large animal but apparently it was. When I finally realized what I was looking at I would excitedly give him the ok symbol, eyes wide. He laughed. I reacted the same way with the Nemos. We saw an octopus but it was hiding inside some coral so I couldn’t really tell what it was. Too bad. The colors, the creatures, the life down there, everything about it was incredible.

I will get certified one day. I didn’t have the time in the Gilis, nor do I think it’s something I’ll spend my money on right now, but one day I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to dive in Indonesia, and Malaysia, Belize and the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Borneo; you name a good diving spot, I want to go there.

Life Doesn’t Get Much Better than Habibi in the Whitsundays

When I left Cairns on an overnight bus for Airlie Beach I was excited. It was time to start my adventures. First stop: a 2 day, 2 night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands.

I boarded Habibi with 19 other travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, England, Canada, and France, as well as our Aussie skipper and 3 crew members. Together we sailed off into the expansive blue ocean. Or more accurately, we motored off. The wind wasn’t in our favor so the skipper mainly used the motor to get around. We were convinced that the few times the sail went up was more for show than practical application. I didn’t care either way though, we were still out at sea living on a boat and it was amazing.

The boat was an older model with wood benches above and even more wood bunks below. As we set off we were told our sleeping arrangements. Claire and I apparently won the lottery; we were given “the orgy bed” – it was almost the entire back of the boat and could have easily fit more than just the two of us, but we were happy to be able to starfish and not even come close to each other. Our boatmates that were assigned the small bunks were not as happy as we were.

I got lucky with a good group. There’s always an element of risk when you book a tour like this, especially as a solo traveler. As I walked to the boat I wondered what kind of group I would be with: partiers? couples? awkward people? What I got was a friendly group who was happy to hang out on a boat in nature. By the end of our few days together I wished we could keep the group together for the rest of my time in Oz, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The Whitsundays are paradise. Deep blue sea dotted with uninhabited, green tree-covered islands lined with thin white stretches of sand. In one case we stopped at an island that was only a thin white stretch of sand. It was quiet, relaxed, sunny, warm, beautiful.

Our days on Habibi went as follows: Day 1 was spent just getting out to where we would spend the night. We played a get to know each other game but didn’t stay up too late since we knew we had a full day ahead of us.

Day 2 we were woken up around 6 am for breakfast and then shuttled off to the island that was home to Whitehaven Beach, famous for being the most pristine beach in the Whitsundays. We were first to the island and from a viewpoint above the beach we saw it empty, devoid of the throngs of tourists that would soon catch up with us. We had 3 hours to play on the beach. We walked in the shallow water with sting rays all around us, took pyramid and jumping pictures in our attractive stinger suits, played soccer, and lounged on the sand. Some people practiced yoga and I took my now-traditional cartwheeling picture.

We returned to the boat for lunch – Habibi has really great food – before our snorkeling afternoon. Stop 1 was all about fish. From a school of striped fish right at the boat to George the gigantic parrot fish, we were never alone. Stop 2 was all about turtles. We had seen some turtles bobbing their heads up around our boat where we stopped the night before, but at the second snorkeling location we actually got a chance to swim with three of them. There’s not a single person who wasn’t smiling after this encounter. On our way to where we would drop anchor for the night we learned how to summon eagles from an island we were passing: whistle very loudly and wave some meat. Twice we were able to successfully throw a piece of meat in the air and watch an eagle swoop to catch it. This is entertainment in the Whitsundays.

We watched the sunset, sending it below the horizon with a cheer, and in the darkness we played a game and watched for shooting stars before another early bed time. I slept on deck with a handful of others. My bed was a bench covered with a yoga mat that cocooned me like a wooden hammock. Surprisingly I slept pretty well.

Day 3 we had one final snorkeling stop before motoring back to shore. This ended up being my favorite location. The reef was colorful, varied, with tons of different coral and fish to keep me entertained for the entire hour or so we were in the water. I even saw Nemo! Or at least the blacker cousin of Nemo. If it wasn’t for the jellyfish we had to swim through to get out and back it would’ve been a perfect location. We just hoped they weren’t the kind of jellyfish that could kill us (they do exist in the Whitsundays).

As we made our way back to Airlie Beach everyone was quiet, gazing out at the water or napping in the sun. I sat with my feet dangling off the side of the boat and watched the islands pass by, soaking in the happiness of the past few days on Habibi.

The Whitsunday boat was a last-minute decision when I got to Cairns and turned out to be a highlight of my time in Oz. It was a relaxing few days with great scenery, nature and people.

It’s worth mentioning that this is where I met Pascal, Chris and Marie, three Germans who were doing pretty much the same trip as me. We had actually all been at Asylum in Cairns at the same time but didn’t know it; we met on Habibi, where we figured out we’d be on the same Fraser Island tour, and that our timing would align in Byron Bay and Thailand for Christmas too (minus Marie who had to go home after Fraser). When we returned to Airlie I spent the day with them before our overnight buses to Rainbow Beach, where we would reconnect in our hostel before Fraser Island. Their names will come up again in future posts. I was no longer alone in Australia.

Returning to Auckland

I ended my month in New Zealand back where it began – Auckland – but now that the culture shock was gone and I was lucky enough to have a local tour guide this revisit was nothing like my first time there.

Auckland has a lot more to offer than I realized, probably because most of what it has you need a car to get to. I couldn’t have had such a great second visit there if it wasn’t for Kevin, a friend from my NYC days who just happened to be back home in Auckland while I was in town. Fate!

Kevin showed me a great mixture of Auckland activities, from hiking days to indulgent desserts, so that the next time I hung out with a bunch of Kiwis from Auckland (which incidentally was my next few days in Sydney) they were surprised when I said I liked my time there.

In short, over the course of 5 days we: hiked up One Tree Hill to see the sprawl of the city from above; wandered the trails around Piha beach, from a jungle walk to a three-tiered waterfall to the vertical hike up Lion Rock, a huge rock in the center of the sparkling black sand beach; had huge green NZ mussels (forever ruining for me the normal tiny mussels in the US); climbed the volcano Rangitoto Island; finally had some great NZ fish and chips while checking out Mission Beach; went to probably the best dessert restaurant I’ve ever been to, Chocolate Boutique in Parnell; went wine tasting on Waiheke Island; checked out a fantastic light art show at the Auckland Art Gallery followed by more delicious desserts, this time Chocolate Lahroaig ice cream at Giapo; had a true NZ steak and cheese pie (#2 in the city) in Ponsonby; and saw one final volcanic crater with a view of Auckland from Mount Eden. Add in some great hot tub and sauna sessions at the apartment complex and the amazingness of staying in a home with Kevin and his dad, a room to myself, tea with avocado and honey on toast breakfasts, and some fantastic home cooked dinners, and it’s clear why this return to Auckland left a much better impression than my first round there about 4 weeks earlier.

My final days in Auckland were the perfect end to a month in NZ. Much like leaving South America by staying put in BA for an extended time, staying with a friend in his home was the perfect recharge before my next phase. I really can’t thank Kevin and his dad enough; I was so lucky to have experienced such amazing hospitality.

When I got to the airport (at way too early an hour, the gates weren’t even open yet) I felt ready to move on to Australia and happy with the time I had in the great country of New Zealand. I have come to accept that there will always be more to see in the countries I’m visiting on this trip, but I left NZ satisfied with my experience.

Road Trip South Island: Skydiving Over Fox Glacier

I went skydiving! I was going to try to write about Glacier Country first and then casually bring up the skydiving, but let’s be honest, there is no casually bringing up skydiving. And it’s way more accurate to my emotions if I just blurt it out up front.

I knew I wanted to skydive in New Zealand from the early stages of planning this trip, it was just a matter of when and where. Frank, on the other hand, had no such plan until he met me. Again, you’re welcome Frank. I had seen advertisements and gotten recommendations from friends about where to go – Glenorchy, Wanaka, Queenstown, Franz Josef Glacier – but it was the receptionist at our hostel in Hokitika that convinced us to skydive over Fox Glacier. A sport diver who has done over 2,000 jumps, when he started talking about skydiving we all got giddy with excitement. His enthusiasm was contagious and we were all ready to jump that minute; we almost had Josi convinced to skydive too. This guy has jumped all over the place but thinks Fox is the best there is, and he’s not alone.

Fox is rated #2 in the world for locations to skydive; the first is Mount Everest, which is $35,000 for a tandem dive, so I think this makes Fox the #1 place realistically speaking. As I mentioned before, weather on the West Coast is pretty terrible, so our new friend in Hokitika checked the radar and saw that Tuesday morning would be our best bet; it looked like there would be a pocket of clear skies. He knew the guys there so he offered to call and book it for us in the morning. This meant we had the night to decided between 12,000 ft and 16,000 ft (and between NZ$299 and NZ$399 – this was not a cheap adventure).

The next morning we called and booked a 16,000 ft jump for Tuesday morning at 10:00 am. Which was the next day. 24 hours later. Go big or go home.

What do you do the night before your first skydive? We didn’t know either, so after checking in at our hostel in Franz Josef we just hung out in our room with a beer each and tried to calm our nerves. Josi was no help with her constant countdown: “Just 12 hours till you jump out of a plane!” It’s a miracle I got any sleep that night.

It’s hard to describe the nervous stages before, during and after the jump. At first I felt calm, surprised at how not nervous I was. Arriving, gearing up, watching the first group take off in the plane, it all felt fairly matter-of-fact. Then the bus came back to pick us up (the landing site was a few minute drive away) and the nerves kicked in. Mauro, the cheery Argentinan who was responsible for making sure I lived, ran up to me and without giving me any time to think led me right to the plane, snapped a quick picture, and on we went. Frank and Chelsea quickly followed. It was at this point that I realized I would be the last to jump; I was sitting furthest away from the door. Shit. I was hoping to go first. Within seconds the plane took off. No turning back now.

Mauro talked me through harnessing us together and pointed out the sites around us – Mount Cook, Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, the mountain range halfway across the island – which was helpfully distracting. Because we were going to spend a decent amount of time climbing above 10,000 ft we had to wear oxygen masks for a part of the flight. When the mask came off I went silent; when I get that nervous I just don’t talk. As I write this my heart is racing.

The door opened and Chelsea was gone. Peak nervousness. A few seconds later and Frank was gone. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god.” I was now dangling out of the plane. Hold the harness, head back, legs back. Mauro: “Ready, set…”

Freefall. LOUD SCREAM. I felt Mauro tap tap tap on my shoulder and I moved into the banana formation – arms back, look straight ahead. There was nothing above us but the plane; we were even above Mount Cook, the highest peak in NZ. To my right were snow-covered mountains, to my left was ocean, and for the entire 65 seconds of freefall I was smiling the biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever seen (and not just because my face was a little frozen from falling through some ice). That view. Beyond words.

A quick hand-motion countdown and Mauro pulled the parachute. Time to ease our way back down to earth. We played around a bit, twirling to see the view before it was time to land. A few minutes later and it was all over, I had done my first skydive.

Safely back on the ground I ran and jumped on Frank. We were alive! And the adrenaline running through both of us was insane. Even Josi, who filmed our take-off and landing (thank you!), was so excited. When Mauro was detached from the chute I gave him a big hug and he picked me up and spun me around.

After getting my pictures (Mauro had a GoPro strapped to his hand the whole time) we went straight to a bar. Celebratory beers and shots for all. The rest of the day and for days after I would replay the dive in my mind, hoping to not totally forget it. The excitement of being in the plane, the fear of falling out of it, the happiness looking at the view, the playful landing.

I was able to pick out the most nerve-racking parts of the experience: 1) when the van came back and I realized it was my turn to go; 2) when the door opened and Chelsea disappeared; 3) the initial freefall, when your mind can still grasp that you just left safety and before the amazement at the view takes over; and 4) the instant the parachute was pulled and the only time I thought, “this could snap and I could fall to my death.” Those moments still make my heart skip, but then they remind me of the incredible experience it all was. As soon as it was over I immediately wanted to go again; that feeling has worn off a bit, but I would bet that I’ll skydive again in my life.

I can’t think of a better place for my first skydive than Fox Glacier. The view is unbeatable, and at 16,000 ft there was enough time to take it all in. We got so lucky with the weather too; by the afternoon the clouds came in and rain was back by nightfall. So thanks universe for making sure there was a clear moment so that I could have this incredible experience. New Zealand, you’re awesome.