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My Trip Tattoo

Before I left, I knew I would get a tattoo to memorialize this adventure. But it goes further back than that really. I knew for years that I would get tattoos to mark different phases of my life: my first one was about heritage, family, where I come from, and ultimately the first 22 years of my life; my second tattoo in Khao Lak was a bit less predictable but was still a meaningful life symbol – the evil eye has been important to and watched over me since I was abroad, when this crazy life goal of a year of travel first entered my mind, since what seemed like the end of childhood and a change to my solo adventures, from living in big cities to embarking on this trip. But it was never meant to be the symbol of the trip itself.

I never knew what shape that would take. I had ideas in passing, nothing I would commit to, until one day on the beach in Goa when it all clicked. India was my last stop, the itinerary complete, and here I was with my best friend talking about getting tattoos together. She wanted one for India and I wanted a symbol that would forever commemorate this moment. Like Khao Lak, the timing was perfect. I had to do it.

I didn’t want something obvious, like a compass or a world map; I wanted something slightly obscure but unique to me. I thought about my route. When I bought my flights, Indie generated a map of the path I would be taking. It was the backbone of my plan, and no matter where I went in between that line stayed in tact. It was the literal visual symbol of my 9 months.

Then I remembered the words. Here it goes. When Kwaz asked why those words, all I could think was to show her what I wrote in the Ho Chih Minh City airport, the first time I thought of getting them tattooed on me:

December 8, 2014. Ho Chi Minh City Airport.

“I thought of a new tattoo. I knew I wanted to commemorate this trip somehow but had put no pressure on myself to come up with anything. I figured it would come to me eventually, probably at the end. Then I reached a crossroads in Vietnam. As I sat in the Ho Chi Minh City airport waiting to board my flight to Hanoi, contemplating this rebirth of my trip, the phrase that came to mind again was: “Here it goes.”

This phrase was the title of my first blog post saying what I was setting out to do. It has been a constant phrase in my thoughts ever since, even if I had to edit it out of most posts so I wasn’t too repetitive. And in the moment I was about to start this new phase it again came to the front of my mind.

This trip continues and as it does it reveals itself to me along the way. So all I do is smile and think, “Here it goes.” The rest will work itself out.

I’ll think on this for a while, but those three words mean more to me than they seem. And they may just end up a permanent part of my body.”

Here it goes became my mantra, my philosophy, and my comfort. So I combined my backbone with my mantra, weaving the words into the line of my route: here in between the US and South America, it flying across the Pacific Ocean, and goes on the way to Asia. The three parts of my trip.

The line trails off after that, on the back of my ankle, not a definitive ending but a line that could continue on to anywhere on the other side. It wanders off like I am now, with no period at the end of the phrase, guiding me as I keep walking, right foot forward, towards the unknown next phase.

I Did It

It’s my last real day in India.

I say real because I’m about to embark on 40 hours of travel to my next destination, and I don’t think a day spent just on planes, trains and automobiles should count as my last day here.

So it’s from the beautiful, serene, fantastic village of Hampi, India that I say farewell not just to this country but to my itinerary. I did it. I reached the end. It may not be the end of traveling (it definitely is not), but it is the end of the original plan.

For the past nine months I’ve traveled the world. I learned how to survive in the jungle, the cities, and the mountains of South America, adopting Spanish and companions as I went. I drove through, jumped out of a plane over, and played frisbee golf within the vast landscapes of New Zealand, forming a fondness for this faraway place that may result in a prolonged return in my future. I swam with sea turtles, got a solid tan, and enjoyed the gastronomy of Australia, a continent so far yet so familiar. I rode on every form of two- three- and four-wheel transportation imaginable, ate meals that cost little but tasted lots, and sweated my ass off in Asia, while learning hello and thank you in more languages than I can count on one hand.

I feel satisfied. Happy. Accomplished. I did what I set out to do, my 9-month open-ended plan, and now from my last location I am proud to say that I feel like I completed my goal. Everything from here on is bonus.

Thank you to the people in my life, both new and old, who have supported me, shared the adventures with me, and at times helped make this solo journey bearable. Thank you to the countries I encountered for making me feel welcome and showing me everything you have to offer and more. You are all wonderful. Thank you to myself, which feels weird to say but is true, for following through on my life goal, for not backing down when things were tough, and for becoming more myself than I have ever been.

It’s been an incredible journey that has affected me more than I could ever say here. I am not done posting, not even close, because even though the plan ends here the adventures continue. My Travel Abrodge is not quite done.

So where will take 40 hours to get to, you might ask?

Tokyo.

Japan, you’re up next. Get some sushi and sake ready for me. I have no doubt that you’ll keep this amazing experience going.

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Why Is It Cold in India?

I spent a day in New Delhi but you’d never know it from my camera. I took zero pictures. I blame it on the rain.

Yes it was raining in New Delhi. It was chilly and wet and the least motivating weather to do anything. It was the exact opposite of what I imagined India weather would be.

Most of our time in Delhi revolved around coming up with a plan for our quick two weeks in India. Just like the rest of my trip, we had arrived with nothing more than one night booked at a hostel and a general outline of things we wanted to see. And as will happen, that outline shuffled and changed as soon as we got into the specifics and talked to people in the hostel; what was my last destination became my first, Holi in the North instead of Mumbai took priority, and we cut Varanasi, a destination I had previously put at the top of my list but was too complicated and expensive to get to. Confident in our new plan we booked an overnight bus to Rishikesh and had the rest of the day to see Delhi.

We signed up for the hostel’s Old City tour at 2. We had one day there, we should see it right? But it was so cold, so rainy, so windy, and Kwaz and I hadn’t seen each other in almost 9 months. So we ditched the tour and found a cozy bar to call home while we caught up over beers and Indian food. To me it was the best way we could have spent our first day together. From what we’ve heard anyway, Delhi is just a big city filled with people not to be trusted. I don’t feel like we missed out on much. Plus it’s much easier to sleep on an overnight bus after drinking all afternoon.

Vibing with a Place

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately, and in the right circumstances talking about, is the way a person connects with a place. I have moved quickly on my trip, a fact I don’t regret but am starting to alter, and in thinking about why that’s happened and why I feel okay doing so I realized it comes down to one thing: some people just vibe better with certain places than others.

I don’t want to tell anyone how to travel, where they should go or how long they should stay, because I don’t really like it when people do that to me. To each their own. Some people love Hanoi, stay there two weeks, but after 2 days I felt like it was enough. Hell I left Phnom Penh and Mandalay after just a day with no regrets. But other people hate Santiago or Bogota and I could’ve been at either of those for much longer. And Kalaw for two and half days or San Pedro de Atacama for three might be unthinkable to some but were the highlights of Myanmar and Chile for me.

Whatever the reasons may be some people and some places just connect. That’s what travel is about really, finding the places that speak to you. So no matter what guidebooks, blogs, or other travelers may tell you, I say go with your gut. If a place doesn’t work for you get the hell out. If you love it, stay as long as you feel the need to. This world has too many great options to explore to not keeping moving till you find your place.

The Decision to Go to Myanmar

I added Myanmar.

In the original plan I was going to India on February 9th but, seeing how it’s almost the end of February and I’m not in India, that flight changed along the way; it was more important to go to Holi so now I’m flying to India on February 28th. This opened up a new three-week window in my Southeast Asia itinerary.

When this change happened I saw it as a chance to add another country. Myanmar is the place to go now, everyone says, since it just opened to tourism recently and will probably change drastically in the next 10 years. I’d heard so many great things about this country and knew I’d be just a hop away in Northern Thailand so it sounded like a perfect use of my new-found time.

The land border between Thailand and Myanmar is a tricky crossing, and since I’d had some recent bus frustration I looked into booking a flight from Chiang Mai. In thinking about timing for Myanmar I had outlined the last two weeks of February; the cheapest flight happened to be on Sunday the 15th, which aligned perfectly. Over the past months I’ve had route questions that always ended up working out in the way my first instincts thought they might, so I decided that would probably happen again and I should just book the flight. As much as I hate booking definite things like flights, I prefer buses mainly for the ease of getting tickets on short notice, it seemed like the right thing to do. I had a visa (acquired in Singapore) and a now-unmovable date to India, so this was the time. I was going. Flight, purchased.

Then Shambhala happened. The last day of Shambhala was February 15th, the day of my flight, meaning I would have to go back to Chiang Mai a day before it ended. I was torn up about this. Here I was in one of the best weeks of my trip and I had to leave a day early because I’d jumped the gun and booked a flight, something I rarely do. I cursed my planning self. My mindset at the festival was all about the now, the moment I was living, and the desire for ultimate flexibility. I’d already ditched my Pai and return to Chiang Mai plans, I could ditch my flight too. My visa was good until April, I could go after India; or screw the visa, it wasn’t that expensive. Then I could have more time to go to Pai and hang out in Northern Thailand. Why had I added Myanmar anyway? I should’ve just had more Thailand time.

Every day at Shambhala I was back and forth on this decision, but it was Josh’s encouragement to stay till the end of the week then still make my flight that stuck in my mind. He was right – this was an amazing experience, but for one final day I was going to completely miss out on a country that I had previously been excited about going to. I realized that while I was having the time of my life there, it would soon end, and once back in Chiang Mai I would remember just how much I had given up.

So I left. Goodbyes were hard; it felt like I was tearing myself away from my happy place. I had to convince myself the whole bus ride back to Chiang Mai to not get on the first bus right back to Chiang Dao.

Now I’m in Myanmar and I can, without hesitation, say that I made the right decision. This country is spectacular. It’s not easy by any means – hotels can be expensive, buses are always a question mark, and the signs of a country that is behind in development are obvious – but the sights and the people more than outweigh the hard parts.

As I write this I’m looking out over the town of Kalaw, nestled in between green hills. Single story tin roofs mix with multi-story stucco boxes advertising hotel names in big block letters. This is Myanmar, changing before my eyes, and I have become one of those “everyone” saying: “Go now. Go before the air conditioning tourists change it all.”

A Tale of Two Bus Rides

I have two night bus border crossing stories for you: first crossing from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos; and second from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both started out seemingly straightforward but turned out to have unpredicted waits and unforetold transfers. It’s because of these experiences that I ended up buying a flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. I think I’m done with land crossing for the time being.

Bangkok to Vientiane
I got a bus ticket direct from Bangkok to Vientiane, including transfer from my hostel to the bus station, from a hostel-recommended travel agency near Khao San Road. It sounded nice and easy. It was not.

I was picked up at my hostel at 4:30 like they promised, but oddly in a taxi which was too small to fit all of us for the hour drive to the bus station. Once we got to the “station” we were told to wait on a patch of grass where a group of Westerners had already been deposited. People were going to Phuket, Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, but I was the lone Laos traveler. After about 15 minutes our driver came back and called out “Vientiane!” I had to fill in a flimsy ticket and he gathered me and the Chiang Mai group and pointed in the direction of a building. It just had a bunch of minivans outside and we all knew we were getting on big VIP buses so we went right to the main station. We heard someone yelling something but didn’t knew what it was or who it was directed towards – we were all used to ignoring random yelling around us at this point – so we just kept going. The Chiang Mai people found their gate and I found where mine would be if there was a gate 99; it ended at 98 but there was a random bus along the sidewalk near it that could have been 99. Still, I asked someone, and they told me it would leave from 86 instead. I found that one and sat down to wait. I had 2 hours to kill.

About 45 minutes before my bus was supposed to leave 86 was still empty. I got up to ask some people again. Long story short, I found out I was at the wrong bus station. This is the South Station, no buses go north from here. I’m sorry, WHAT?! I found the Chiang Mai group and they were just as pissed as me to learn that we were at the wrong place. We all ran to the ticket booths to try to change our buses since we were clearly not going to make it to the North Station in time. We finally made the decision to split a taxi to the North Station when we ran into our original driver. He was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He ran with us to a minibus and promised to take us straight to the North Station and get us new tickets at no extra cost. At this point we’d figured out that we were supposed to get on one of those minibuses we ignored and it would have taken us to the North Station. That would have been helpful to communicate to us.

The Chiang Mai group got on the next overnight bus no problem, but Vientiane was no longer a simple option for me; I had to get a new ticket to Nong Khai, the border town on the Thailand side. The driver gave me 100 baht in cash to cover the border crossing expenses. Then he made sure we all knew exactly where to go so we would get on the right buses this time. It was after 9 by the time I was finally on the bus.

I was woken up at 8 am in Nong Khai. A Frenchman approached me – Westerners stick together – and we shared a tuktuk to the border. Leaving Thailand was simple enough – the tuktuk dropped us at the immigration building, quick line for the exit stamp, then a bus over the bridge to the next border station – but crossing into Laos took forever thanks to the visa upon entry process. I chatted with a Lithuanian girl on a border run from Southern Thailand while we waited and once we were finally through we split a cab with an Israeli duo into Vientiane. Just a few extra steps thanks to the Bangkok miscommunication. I arrived in Vientiane at 11 am.

Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Every travel office in Luang Prabang advertised a bus from LP to Chiang Mai. Pick up from guesthouse included, big bus, some even promised it had a bathroom. So imagine the shock of all 22 travelers when we were led to a minibus for the 12 hour overnight ride to the border. What happened to that big bus with reclining seats? We were packed in like sardines to the 1-by-2 straight-backed seats, with one unlucky passenger stuck in a fold down center aisle seat. To make it even cozier our bags were placed in the small aisle. At least they served as pillows for some people. We looked at each other in minor disbelief at the complete unsafety of our transportation and the fact that we would be stuck this way all night.

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I took a melatonin to try to sleep but the extremely bumpy roads and constant inhalation of dust (I was right behind the driver so I got to breathe in all the dust that was being kicked up through the vents) made it tough. Eventually I curled up into a ball with my feet on a backpack and at least time passed faster.

We arrived at the border at 6 am. It didn’t open till 7:30. We were told to sleep in the minibus so that’s what we did until about 8, when we found out we were waiting for another bus to take us through the border. It arrived at 9. You can imagine how unhappy we all were that we just spent 3 hours in a parking lot. Now we finally got on the big VIP bus that took us to the Laos border for exit stamps and over the bridge to the Thai border for entry stamps. That was the extent of our VIP bus ride.

We were loaded back into minibuses for the ride from the border to Chiang Mai. Someone guessed it was about 6 hours and we’d arrive around 3. No one could have predicted our driver would stop every hour for seemingly no reason, and that he’d take us actually into Chiang Rai for a lunch stop that no one really wanted. We didn’t arrive in Chiang Mai until 5 pm. I had been picked up at my guesthouse in Luang Prabang at 4:30 pm the day before. Over 24 hours on minibuses to get to Chiang Mai.

So there you have it. The hell of land crossing between Thailand and Laos. A quick side note: both of these night buses gave us snacks and blankets. An odd perk in two stressful journeys. The only silver lining I can find is that border crossings like this really bring people together. I am still in touch with Eugenija from Lithuania, and ended up running into the Israeli guys in both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, where we happily greeted each other like old friends. I also ran into two guys from the Chiang Mai bus at a temple the next day and proceeded to hang out with them the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. Nothing like trying travel experiences to bond strangers.

The Long Route to Bali

We took a 24 hour bus to Singapore.

Kara, thank you for bearing with me on this one. I know it’s the last thing you want to do on vacation but the budget savings are always so helpful, and at least you had a three-week vacation so a day wasn’t the end of the world.

To get from Krabi to Bali was going to cost more than we wanted to spend on flights. That’s what you get trying to fly around during the holiday season. We discovered that it was possible to take a bus from Krabi to Singapore, which was our end destination in mid-January, and then we could take a round-trip flight from Singapore to Bali for a fraction of the price of multiple one ways. So this is what we did.

We left Krabi at 6:30 am on the 4th in a van. This van was the most crowded one I’ve ever been in; they didn’t leave any seats open for bags so they were all piled up in the aisle next to me. It was not a short ride to the border either. Somehow I slept a lot and podcasts got Kara through it. We were dropped at a border town in Thailand and told that the Singapore bus didn’t pick up there. I’m sorry, what? The van driver was not helpful and just kept trying to leave, not giving us back our tickets so we had no proof that we’d paid to get to Singapore.

The new man in charge at a travel agency was an outright dick. This guy and the van driver are hands down the two most frustrating men I’ve dealt with so far. Eventually we found out that the Singapore bus knew we were there, had our tickets, and would come pick us up at 12:30. This is all we knew and we had to trust it.

They were late, but eventually a glorified pick-up truck with a back door came around to take us to our bus to Singapore. We got in and were greeted by two young smiling American faces. This had to be a step in the right direction. Our new companions were doing a semester in Singapore and had just celebrated the New Year on Koh Phangan, where all their stuff was stolen on the beach. They were just trying to get “home.”

We were taken to the bus and at 1:30 were on our way to Singapore. We could breathe again. Made it. From then on the bus was par for the course; freezing, long, with two quick border stops. We made it to Singapore around 8:00 am and went straight to the airport.

We spent the morning sipping Coffee Bean using their wifi until we could board our afternoon flight. It was a relief to check in and make it on the plane. For me, just another crazy long travel day trying to get to an exciting destination: Bali. For Kara, an unfortunate bump in hopefully otherwise a great vacation. Now we just had to fly to Bali.

So the nerves weren’t gone just yet. I wonder when flying through Indonesia will stop being so scary, if ever. I haven’t been so tense on a flight in years, since I went through my brief fear of flying in early college. When we touched down in the Denpasar airport we looked at each other relieved. We made it to Bali.

The Decision to Leave Vietnam

I realize at this point the timeline might be a bit confusing so let me lay it out. Here’s how my last week in Vietnam went: Ho Chi Minh City for 2 days, Hanoi for a day, Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay for 3 days/2 nights, Hanoi for one night, flight back through Ho Chi Minh City on my way to Cambodia.

Basically what happened was that I knew I wanted to get up to North Vietnam and at least see Hanoi and Halong Bay. I had a good time in Hanoi and adored Halong Bay, but I realized while I was out in Lan Ha Bay that I needed to go to Cambodia. Nothing against Vietnam, there’s still plenty to see and do there (Sapa, Hue, Mekong Delta, to name a few) but if I stayed to go to those other places it felt like I was just filling time before I had to meet friends in Thailand for Christmas.

I was in a weird place. Between family leaving from HCMC and meeting up with people for Christmas I had 2 weeks. It was not enough and too much time all at the same time. I love meeting up with people, but sometimes it puts a lot of stress on the planning process. So the beautiful part about traveling alone is that I can make any last minute decisions that will alleviate this stress.

So the night I got back to Hanoi I booked a flight to HCMC, which departed 13 hours later. I didn’t have a bus ticket to Cambodia but was confident I would figure it out when I got to HCMC. I knew where it left from and the names of two companies, and I booked an early enough flight (6:45 am eesh) that I had all day to get to Phnom Penh. That’s the other thing about traveling this long – I’m not afraid to wing it. It would work out. This became the theme of Cambodia for me, and something that is still happening. I’ll get there eventually, if it’s last minute so be it, flexibility is king right now. And I got there: less than 24 hours after booking that flight I was playing pool at a hostel in Phnom Penh. I love it when it all comes together.

So why did I decide to leave Vietnam? It’s hard to explain. I just wasn’t feeling it. It felt anxious, it wasn’t working for me. Something in me told me I had to go to Cambodia. Angkor Wat was one of the reasons I came to Southeast Asia, and it felt like now was the time to go there. Plus I can always go back to Vietnam. If something isn’t sitting right for this trip then I should make a change so I do feel right. I’m not going to get everywhere right now anyway so why force it?

Maybe it had to do with everyone talking about getting together for Christmas and I needed to be somewhere that clearly reminded me why I’m not there with them. Maybe I had some residual feelings from the Amanoi. Or maybe I just don’t vibe with Vietnam like I expected and it was bumming me out. Whatever it was, I decided to go. It was one of those times where I just had to trust myself; it will all work out. And as always, it did.

The End of Part 2: My Feelings After Australasia

With my departure from Australia I ended Part 2 of my RTW trip. I always knew that the Australasia portion would be a familiar breather in the middle of disparate South America and Asia, and it was part of the reason I included it where I did. A recharge if you will, with modern amenities and plenty of beach time. Plus I had always wanted to go there, and that was the whole premise of this trip – go to the places I’ve always wanted to go.

So you can imagine my surprise when I left Australasia feeling disappointed, lost, and questioning myself. I had just come from the best travel of my life in South America and I missed everything I had experienced there, from the locations to the people. New Zealand still had enough of a new place feel to keep me going, but Australia was unexpectedly hard for me. The tours, the kids, the prices, the beaches – it all came together to make me miss the unpredictable world I’d left behind.

When I think back to my month in Australia none of it is really negative. Noosa was the low point, but it was short-lived. Whitsundays, Byron Bay, Melbourne, and Sydney were all great locations that I would happily recommend to everyone. But there’s something about the impression of the overall trip that left me with a bad taste.

But I’ve come to realize that Australia served a purpose. I now know without a doubt what kind of travel I want to be doing on this trip. Organized tours and giant party hostels may have been great when I was in a different place in life, but where I’m at right now they are not for me. This was important to learn as I still have a few months of travel left and those types of things will not be left behind in Australasia.

Having said that, I still want to go back to these countries. I would love to go back to Wanaka for a season, with a few trips to the last places I didn’t make it to on my first NZ round. And I already have a route in mind for a 3 month Australia road trip. I bet you can guess none of it will be on the East Coast. I want to go to the West Coast and the interior desert; I think if I had done that trip I would have left highly satisfied. But everyone should see the East Coast once in their lives, and it’s probably better I did it before I had even more distance between myself and the other travelers, so I don’t regret the route I took at all.

Now that I’ve separated myself from those two months I look back fondly. Really I can’t imagine regretting any part of this year, and if I thought I would regret it then I would have left much earlier. There’s no reason to stay anywhere that doesn’t feel right. And I am happy to have learned more about the places and ways I want to be travelling; it is a valuable lesson for me.

So with that, I said goodbye to the familiar and embarked on Part 3. Asia would be a whole new experience with tougher language barriers and spicier street food meals, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about.

Transitioning in Auckland

My first stop in New Zealand was 2 days in Auckland. For me, my time in Auckland stands out less for the city but more for two things: the shock of being in a developed city in New Zealand, and the launching point for the next two weeks.

Even though Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand, the part that you explore as a tourist is pretty small. It doesn’t take long to walk around the downtown area or to the main suburbs. I spent most of my time just wandering the city; first down Queen Street to the waterfront and then over to the suburb of Parnell, where there was a Sunday market happening.

Within hours of arriving I was at a farmers market sampling locally produced goodies and purchasing organic produce. The San Franciscan in me rejoiced. I had left Buenos Aires proclaiming that I would be healthy in New Zealand; thanks to this market I had lots of veggies and salads to look forward to.

That night I walked through Sky City and it was a trip. Tourist buses and families wandered through the expensive restaurants. From a second floor balcony I watched people playing craps and blackjack in the Casino. When I got back to the hostel I sat around with a couple of recently graduated Americans and Brits who were talking about politics and how privileged they are to be here. Something about the conversation screamed “these are not the travelers I’m used to,” and I mostly kept quiet.

Day 1 was jarring. It was such a change from South America in both the city itself and the people I encountered, and I didn’t really know how to process it. Luckily my exhaustion from traveling overnight made sleep more of a priority than dealing with this confusion; I slept a solid 11 hours that night. I needed it.

The next day took a turn for the better. I had met Frank the day before in the elevator, and when we found ourselves sitting on adjacent bean bag chairs we swapped travel ideas for how best to get around New Zealand. The next morning we decided we would take on the challenge together. We spent the better part of the morning renting a car, booking the ferry between the North and South islands, and booking a Waitomo cave adventure for the next day.

That afternoon we walked around the suburb of Ponsonby together. We hadn’t paid for the car yet so if we ended up hating each other we still had an out. But it turns out we got along, so when we got back to the hostel we paid for the car and got some celebratory pizza. This was happening.

So here’s the plan: we have a car through October 14th. After a quick trip through the North Island – a day in Waitomo, a day in Wellington – we would make our way down the West Coast of the South Island. That’s pretty much it. We set off from Auckland with nothing booked except the Waitomo cave and the ferry, hoping to figure out everything else along the way.

My idea for this part of the trip had so far come true: I showed up at a hostel in Auckland, found a new friend to get a car with, and was setting off on an adventure that would unfold as we went. Here we go NZ, let’s see what you’ve got.