The Sahara

Reading about the Sahara desert growing up, I always felt like there was a disconnect. It seemed unfathomable, that such a place could exist on Earth. I felt as though I were reading about Mars or some other far off place, perhaps it was all just a fairytale, certainly not fact. The desert just didn’t fit into my (limited) perception of the world.

I read about it in many of my books, enthralled with the details of this foreign landscape. However, it never made my bucket list. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because it just seemed so unrealistic. New Zealand was a pipe dream; this was just flat out impossible.

That is until I found myself at age twenty, knee deep in a sand dune grinning at the sheer impracticality of the situation.

It was incredible.

I suppose, however, that I should start at the beginning. We left Rabat at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning and began our 12-hour trek to the desert, stopping off several times to take in the scenery.

I never really put a lot of thought into how the desert starts—I guess I just pictured a clean divide, a clear border in which the sand began and the green stopped. This would, like many of my preconceptions, prove false.

As we drove, the rolling countryside of green hills and fertile farmland slowly began to bleed into stretches of dirt and sand. Trees still dotted the landscape, but rather than grass, dirt sat at their roots. As we progressed, the trees became more and more scarce until they abruptly gave way to massive mountaintops.

The most notable feature of the desert, in my albeit brief experience, is its paradoxical nature. It is simultaneously flat and mountainous—large stretches of impossibly level earth give way to massive mountaintops that dominate the landscape for miles. The dunes also put a wrench in the flatness of the desert, with the flat earth leading up right to the edge of a massive expanse of sand stacked improbably high, with seemingly no end in sight. It’s astonishing.

The first thing about the desert that you notice, however, isn’t the landscape: it’s the heat. Now, I know that seems obvious, but the heat is different then anything I had experienced before. This was an all-encompassing heat, the kind that presses down on you, enveloping, suffocating. Even the shade seemed ill equipped to fend off the intensity of the African sun.

On Saturday morning, we kicked off our actual “desert experience” after a night of fun and games, by taking jeeps off-road to the edge of the dunes. I really enjoyed this, the hot air buffeting my face as we whipped through the dirt and rock.

When we reached the edge, a feeling of uneasiness crept down my spine—the silence of the desert is unnerving. It’s not the stuff of movies in which a buzzard squawks overhead and a tumbleweed is blown across the landscape. It is completely and utterly silent. There are no birds. No rustling leaves. No wind. Complete silence.

It’s not a peaceful silence, like the type on a mountaintop where the wind quietly shakes the trees. It’s an uncomfortable one, one you can’t escape. The kind that gives merit to the ever-popular idiom “deafening silence”.

Following the trip to the dunes, we drove to another town where we listened to traditional Gmaoua music, dancing and laughing in a partially underground dirt building to escape the sun. It was fun to laugh and dance and listen to the strumming of a gambri (a long stringed instrument) and the beat of the drums.

We had a break after that, in which we swam and enjoyed the hotel we arrived at earlier in the day. The heat reached a peak of 107, the pool offering the only escape from the sweltering sun. That is, until the storm kicked up.

It started with a slight rain, one that we laughed at and discussed the rarity of. Those droplets, however, turned into a downpour, but still we enjoyed the improbability of it. Then the sand came. Tiny grains bit into skin and blinded us, seemingly inescapable. We ran to take shelter, but still watched eagerly from our windows, enthralled and terrifies by this new phenomenon.

The thrill quickly wore off as the dust settled and the dunes remained blanketed in swirling grey chaos, delaying our plans for a sunset ride into the desert via camel. We waited for half an hour before finally getting the go ahead and beginning our trek out.

I had been looking forward to this moment since applying to this program back in November and I don’t think the grin that appeared on my face has ever been larger. The camel ride was fantastic and actually going out and into the dunes was just astonishing. The sheer vastness of the desert stole the air right from my lungs. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We climbed a large dune after about a 45-minute ride, leaving our camels at the base. The sand swallowed my legs as I raced up the side, pulling me down with each step. Again, the concept that such a large quantity of such small, insignificant particles could not only exist, but create such wonders was incomprehensible. Watching the sun slowly sink beneath these enormous structures seemed only to seal this idea.

That’s not necessarily saying that it was easy-going. Bear in mind that a sandstorm had just ripped through the desert, leaving the wind with quite a bit of gusto and what felt a bit like spite as it continued its attempts to topple me from the dune. Sand was everywhere, it coated my eyebrows, my eyelashes—every inch of my body had a firm layer overtop of it.

Still, the experience was phenomenal and two days later I’m still struggling to believe that it actually happened. The aforementioned grin still creeps onto my face as I think of how it felt to stand on top of that dune, and I think it just might stay that way for a while.


Fes, Meknes, and Volubilis

It’s no secret that I love taking photos. During most of my free time I can be found with a camera slung around my neck—whether I’m exploring a city, traipsing through my backyard, or taking photos of my beloved Australian Shepard Scamp, my camera is ever present. For each photo I take, however, there are at least 7 more I wish I could have. Opportunity is a large part of what makes a great photo great. While I’m all for making your own, there’s only so much wiggle room you can get in a crowded medina or a pushy market, etc. etc.

Patience became the virtue of the weekend as we headed out on our first in-country trip of our program. Our itinerary included stopping in Meknes and Fes, two imperial cities as well as exploring the Roman ruins of Volubilis. It was an awesome trip, but it was exhausting—we were constantly on the move, packing in as much as possible in 3 days, not that I’m complaining. The lulls in our time generally came in the form of waiting on others in shops or delays in traffic while we travelled between cities.

I think much of my patience was used, however, behind the viewfinder of my camera. Fes is a much more touristy city than Rabat or even Meknes, and Volubilis was crawling with people from all over the world. Naturally, I had no desire to capture these people in my photos, so I had to pause, hold my camera steady and wait for the gap that would come between groups of people.

I’d pause in the ruins and anxiously wait for the last person to disappear behind a pillar, or to be hidden within the shadows, absorbed by the landscape. It was tedious and somewhat frustrating, but in the end I wound up getting better shots then what I would have had I just snapped and moved on. I applied this philosophy within the medina as well, waiting to catch a shopkeeper unaware (that sounds much more nefarious than it is, I just really wanted some nice photos), snagging a carefully composed picture rather than a blurry mess, which many of my earlier snaps had resulted in.

Moving on from my musings, the trip was phenomenal. Fes was every bit as beautiful as promised. Prior to leaving, everyone we talked to said it was gorgeous and they were right. Huge gates with hand-carved and carefully painted embellishments could be found at each wall of the city, towering over the scores of people and busy traffic lanes. The markets were much more organized than the medina back in Rabat, with stalls toting out polished, carefully written signs advertising their wares and wood latticework covering the alleyways from the scorching sun. The alleys were much more intricate and tightly compacted than those we had seen previously, I made sure to keep the guide in sight at all times for fear of losing my place. Later, half the group returned to the hotel and the other half stayed to continue exploring the Sooqs (markets). The weaving of the alleys and stalls seemed to have no rhyme or reason and it was fun to just get lost within the walls of the medina, swallowed up by the flurry of activity.

Alas, Fes is tucked between the Atlas Mountains, and the constant climbing downhill and then back uphill was murder on my legs, which have yet to adjust to the heavy workload I’ve imposed upon them in recent weeks. By the time we hailed a taxi, we were dead on our feet, ready to keel over and nap beneath the African sun.

During our guided tour, the coolest aspects were definitely the tannery, the Argon oil shop or the shop where they wove and embroidered scarves, blankets, and other fabrics. In the tannery, the largest in Morocco, we watched the dying of the hides as well as got the opportunity to purchase finished products. Upon entering, we were handed sprigs of mint to hold to our noses—the hides are bleached in pigeon excrement, sold to the tannery by locals for 20 dirhams a kilo on Saturdays— the smell is less than pleasant.

The Argon oil shop was interesting if only for the fact that we got to see how the oil is made, observing how the nuts are taken from the tree, peeled, and crushed to reveal the seeds which hold the oil. We were informed that the slivers of the nut were edible, so naturally I tried some. Edible as used in this situation is a very subjective term. Apparently they are actually eaten, just generally crushed and mixed with milk and sugar—the ones we ate were not. At first, it tasted basically like an almond. Then the bitterness hits you. I nearly choked on the bitter, oily taste that sat in the back of my throat for more than half an hour. I will not be trying the Argan seed again.

The shop with the scarves and the blankets was one of my favorites. It was a calmer experience than we’re used to—no yelling or crowds of people. We got to see how the loom worked and the production of their different wares. I wound up buying two scarves because they looked so beautiful. I don’t even wear scarves, but I suppose I’m going to have to start. The shopkeeper also demonstrated for us how to wear the scarves on our heads, showcasing the different styles to keep the sand away for our desert trip next week.

Velubolis was just as incredible, just in a different way. To walk through the stone ruins and experience the ageless wonder of the 42-acre city was breathtaking. To be surrounded by so much history, to walk where the Romans walked, to see the area that was their South most border—it was an experience I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to top. It’s incredibly humbling to stand beneath structures that are so ancient I can hardly comprehend them with my twenty years on this Earth. Their massive size coupled with the history embedded into their foundations are awe-inspiring.

Like I said, patience is a big thing around this trip. The ability to wait is an underappreciated one. There were several times on the trip where things didn’t quite go according: we got held up behind a marathon when we drove to Velubolis; my outlet converter was broken in the hotel; several people got sick throughout and after the trip. Despite this, or perhaps because of these setbacks, depending on how you look at it, my weekend was amazing. I wouldn’t trade the experience I had for the world.

I will say, however, that when I returned to Rabat, I wanted nothing more than to just be horizontal and not move for 6-12 hours. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan and me, being me, gave into my restless nature and wound up at the beach. The crashing waves against the rocks combined with the stars and the subtle sounds of the music filtering in from the festival down the way created the perfect atmosphere to end a great weekend.


Lessons of the Garden

While sitting in the garden outside my school the other day, I noticed a butterfly sitting on one of the plants. I kicked myself mentally for forgetting my camera upstairs in the classroom, as we had just taken a brief tea break, but proceeded to get a closer look. It was then that I noticed the huge yellow wasp that sat only two leaves behind the butterfly.

I tell this story because as I continued to observe the butterfly, a gorgeous white and brown winged specimen, I thought it was rather fitting for my current experience. When I announced 8-months ago that I wanted to go to Morocco, my entire family about hit the roof. “It’s a third world country,” they’d say. They’d cite the gender inequality or the country’s struggling economy as reasons to stay home. The cultural and religious differences were highlighted each time I brought it up, the constant negativity bogging down my excited outlook.

The thing is, Morocco is a beautiful country. The people here are kind and helpful. The country thus far has been an amazing time, with each day offering a new promise of something entirely unprecedented in my short twenty years. That’s not to say, however, that it’s without it’s problems—catcalling on the street happens, several students in our program have gotten sick due to the different levels of food sanitation, etc. In the end though, the good outweighs the bad ten-fold.

For example, thieves are a reality here, especially in the crowded Medina where all of us are staying. My host mom has encouraged (and by that I mean chastised me if I didn’t) me to put my phone in my backpack and keep my pockets empty when walking to school. A girl in my class was walking yesterday and had her phone in her skirt and a man yanked it out and began walking away with it—a shopkeeper on the street, however, noticed and stopped him. Berating him and returning the phone to my classmate. This ugly side of the country exists, it’s present and demands attention, however the good is there and allows a level of protection and deserves recognition. The threat of the wasp shouldn’t take away from enjoying the butterfly.

I’ve been here for under a week but thus far it’s been incredibly fun as well as informative. We spend each day in class going over observations and questions, focusing on different aspects of the world we are just now getting to see. Then, during our free time, our group ventures out on our own to explore Rabat and see as much as possible. A month may sound like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not.

Thus far we’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the medina, in which we live with our host families. It offers a plethora of sights and sounds, always awash with activity and excitement. The markets provide interesting wares including (but not limited to) fresh fruit, beautiful rugs, goat heads, pigs’ feet, and hand made paintings and vases. The alleyways that lead to our respective houses wind and twist in mind baffling ways, each turn seemingly making less sense than the last. Yesterday I wasn’t paying attention and took a turn out of instinct, leading myself back to the front door, the first evidence that I’m actually managing to learn my way around.

The medina lets out into a marina where the river flows between Rabat and Sale. It’s a busy place with people milling down the edge of the river and boats ferrying passengers between the two cities. We stayed down there for a bit after class while we waited for another half of our group to meet back up with us. It was relaxing to watch the water and take in the people, sometimes it’s nice to just take a moment and sit while we’re here. Too often I think we get caught up in moving around and seeing all there is to see, but actually sitting and taking in the surroundings is a terribly underrated experience.

I could sit here and list all of the incredible things I’ve seen the last few days, but frankly I think it might bore those reading to bullet point down the list. Exploring the city has been fun though, and I will say that the juice here is incredible (and cheap). Thus far I’ve had an assortment of fruit called panache, lemon ginger, and avocado almond. All were awesome. Tomorrow we embark on our first in-country trip to Meknes, Fes, and the Roman ruins Velubilis. I’m excited to get underway and see what else this wonderful country has to offer.

Bringing it back to the point, the last few days have taught me that you shouldn’t allow fear to hold you back in your endeavors. If I had solely focused on the presence of the wasp, I wouldn’t have been able to observe the butterfly. That being said, if I had blundered around like an idiot and disregarded my surroundings, I definitely would have gotten stung. The balance isn’t necessarily a simple one, but it’s vital. I’ve cherished my time thus far and I am glad I chose Morocco to spend my time, however, I remain aware of the fact that I’m not in an environment I’m used to and there are new hazards to be wary of. Regardless, I still have over two weeks of excitement left, and I can’t wait.


A leap of faith

There’s a moment, when you’re on a plane, just before you take off, where the world seems to pause. It happens just as the wheels leave the tarmac, when you’re pressed against your seat, moving at an unfathomable speed and that pit forms in the bottom of your stomach. The plane leaps into the air and just for that moment it seems as though the world reconsiders itself—it reconsiders this massive object, with hundreds of souls aboard, its displacement in the universe and how to respond. The plane is suspended in the air, willing itself forward and praying that the air around it catches it and propels it toward its destination. That pause, it happens every time.

But just for a moment.

Sitting in the Frankfurt Airport, staring down an 8-hour layover, that moment of uncertainty in the air seemed more poignant than usual. This flight was hard on me I must confess, having a cold on an 8-hour flight is an experience I truly wish upon nobody. I exited the flight on another continent, unable to hear aside from an atrocious ringing in my ears and the growling of my stomach (the in-flight meal was a choice between chicken and pasta, God help me I couldn’t tell the difference).

Having been awake for more than 27 hours, I stretched out across a few seats in the terminal, a few rows away from my group, looped the straps of my bags into my arms, and fell asleep.

I awoke an hour later to a very lively Chinese couple laughing and taking a photo of me (I’m pretty sure I caught the phrase ‘American’ thrown around a few times).

Not exactly the glamorous start I was anticipating.

The thing about that moment on the plane, however, is that every time I’ve been aboard (knock on wood), that plane has caught itself and continued pushing forward. Even thought the odds seem insurmountable, a giant metal beast that has no business defying the laws of gravity taking to the air with ease, it happens.

So despite these low moments, where I do confess some malaise crept into my excited demeanor, I found a grin firmly affixed to my face as we were given a brief tour of the city this morning. A 5-hour jaunt in a hotel gave me some much needed and well-used rest time and so I set out with a much more positive outlook and a sprig in my step.

The city was beautiful, with paintings and carvings painstakingly done by hand shown on the most prominent of buildings. The weather was warm but not too hot, with a nice sea breeze kicking up from the coast. With blue skies and such beautiful sights, the place felt a bit like paradise.

Paradise, however, can be overwhelming and certainly the medina qualifies as that. People swarm in and out of makeshift stalls and the crowd is a constantly moving, thickly populated mess. Its easy to become carried away or cut off, which is intimidating.

With this though comes an air of excitement at the constant activity. Fortunately for my group, another trip consisting of 28 other Americans from all around the country have been here for the last semester, and one of them happens to share a residence with me and another girl in our group. Thus, I found myself on an unofficial tour of Rabat with tips and tricks to help us grow more accustomed. We met 5 other students who are studying with the same organization as us and we caught up with them after to grab juice at a local place.

The juice was incredible and the company enjoyable, it’s nice to have some friendly (English-speaking) faces around. The language barrier is proving to be a challenge as the Moroccan dialect varies immensely from the Arabic I have spent the last two years learning. French and a combination of French and dialect seem to be the languages of choice and unfortunately for me I find myself lacking knowledge of either.

I’m confident it’s something that can be overcome, however, and I have been informed my Arabic skills are to be put to the test by an adviser at the center we study at. The challenges presented by this trip honestly just make me more excited. Communicating with my host family is the current objective, but thus far we’ve been able to get by. The food here is exquisite and the mint tea is everything that was promised. Tomorrow we start our first lesson and I can’t wait to actually learn some of the history of this incredible place. In the meantime, it’s about 9:30 p.m. here and I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to try some of that aforementioned food for dinnertime, as dinner is later here to accommodate evening prayer. If it’s anything like lunch, I’m in for a treat just as if the rest of this trip is anything like today, I’m incredibly fortunate. This leap of faith has proven true thus far and the world has un-paused for what I hope will be an awesome experience.

And we’re off… Again.

I grew up in a little white house with black shutters and a red door. Situated in the middle of the street, the most notable thing about said house, at least in my opinion, was the gangly oak tree that sat smack dab in the middle. The tree was young and tall, awkwardly tilting slightly to the left. As a child, the tree was my boundary, the line my mom drew in the sand. I constantly wanted to be outside and the rule was to never go past that oak tree.

I love testing boundaries, and that precedent was set when I was a child. I would sit level with that tree and poke my toes further and further forward into the grass. I would lay longwise and dig my feet into the soil around the tree, stretching myself as far as I could go—trying to see how far I could get while still technically staying within those limits.

I tell this story to show that I’ve always loved pushing things to the limit. Whether it be my personal boundaries, physical limitations, or my mother’s patience. Now, at twenty I’ll be testing all three as I sit at the Port of Columbus Airport preparing to depart on my month long journey through Morocco.

A year ago I had never really left the country, embarking on my first trip abroad to New Zealand. For those who followed this (now criminally neglected) blog, you know that it was the time of my life. I have the same expectations for this trip and hopefully they’re met to the same extent.

For those asking “why Morocco?” the answer is simple and at the same time not—at the surface, I’m an Arabic minor and can knock out a few requirements by doing this. More truthfully, the answer is slightly more complex. I have two years of my undergraduate degree left and quite frankly I don’t want to waste it. I am fortunate enough to go to a university with practically unlimited opportunities and to squander that would be more than wasteful, it’d be idiotic. Morocco isn’t a place that you can just hop on a plane and go gallivant through for a few days. I mean, you can, but you wouldn’t get very far. This experience is one that I wouldn’t have outside of the university and I want to take advantage of it.

In terms of the actual trip, this one is quite a bit different than the last go-round. I have a lot more in-country travel—heading to a multitude of cities while being based in Rabat, the capital city. We travel to other notable ones such as Casablanca (the movie geek in me is screaming ‘Play it again Sam, for old times’ sake’) and Chaouen—the blue city, where all the buildings are painted blue in Jewish tradition to remind them of God’s presence. I’ll stay with a homestay again, but this time with another Ohio State student travelling with us. I’m excited for this particular aspect as I think that getting to converse (maybe in Arabic, depending on how atrocious my accent is) with people from such a unique culture offers a really phenomenal opportunity. The most exciting part of the trip, in my opinion, comes toward the end, where we will take camels out into the dunes and camp in the Sahara desert.

I would type more, but I’m so excited I think my head might explode.

Morocco is known for their mint tea—allegedly the best in the world. Tea there is a tradition, a time to take and reflect on the day, enjoy one another’s company. The ceremony surrounding the national drink is a sacred one and each day we have it built into our schedule. I’m eager to partake in such a seemingly serene tradition, and for those that know me, it seems as though it will be right up my alley.

This trip will be much different than any experience I’ve had in my twenty years and I’m more than excited to finally head out—the anticipation really might kill me. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this blog updated. In the meantime, Cheers and مع السلامة.

Cheers, New Zealand

In Maori, kia ora means hello. I’ve heard it countless times since coming here. It’s a warm greeting here in New Zealand, used by Maori and Pakeha (non-Maori/European) alike. In my time here, I’ve picked up a handful of Maori words that are used in every day practice here. However, as I packed up my bags last night and prepared for my departure in the morning, I found that I didn’t know the word for goodbye. This is a pretty basic one, so I was a bit taken aback. Upon examination though, I’ve realized that I haven’t really put a lot of thought into my leaving. This place, in the month I’ve been here, has felt like a home. It took twenty young, loud Americans in and adopted them into its culture, into its beautiful scenery and friendly atmosphere. Leaving feels wrong; I’ve found paradise and I’m not ready to let go. I looked up the word for goodbye today, noho iho rā, but the fact of the matter is, I’m just not quite ready to say it yet.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Christchurch airport, waiting to board my flight to Auckland where I’ll catch my connection to Brisbane, my next destination. While I am looking forward to it, my excitement is hampered by the sadness over leaving New Zealand. This place has taken me in, adopted me into every day life. It shows by the familiar faces I see on campus, by the little kiwi slang that’s made its way into my speech. I notice it on my walk home, where I no longer frantically search for street signs, my feet instinctively knowing where to turn and which direction to head in. New Zealand has taken a piece of my heart, becoming a home, albeit a temporary one.

When I first came here, I was incredibly nervous it wouldn’t live up to my excessively high expectations. I had dreamed of visiting New Zealand since I was little, after reading a Nat Geo article describing the lush forests, blue water, and vibrant wildlife. It has surpassed everything I could possibly have dreamed of. I am so incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to come here and to have the experience I now do at only nineteen. I would just like to take a second and thank everyone who made that possible. Thank you to my two best friends for volunteering to pick me up at the airport in Columbus despite the late hour and the inconvenience (you better not forget me). Thank you to all of the people who organized this program, as I was a bit nervous since this was the first year for it. You did a wonderful job; I wouldn’t change a thing. Thank you to my group, who made this trip that much the better. I’m so grateful to have met such a wonderful collection of people that I can now count as friends. Finally, the biggest thank you goes out to my mom for teaching me that the sky is the limit, for pushing me out of my comfort zone time and time again. I know letting me go all the way around the world wasn’t easy, and I appreciate it more than you know.

I feel as though this trip has taught me so much, both about the world and about myself. I’ve spent time acclimating to a whole new culture, but I’ve also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time alone with my thoughts. This trip provided a unique opportunity to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of life. On other holidays, you still have the stress of work or school weighing on you, you’re with your family and your phone probably doesn’t ever stop buzzing. Here, I’ve been on my own, my phone doesn’t work about 40% of the time and when it does, it’s some obscene hour back in the states. The isolation, at first, was a bit unsettling, but towards the end I relished in it. Taking a step back and being able to look at things objectively has been a blessing. This trip was sort of like hitting the pause button on life, while I’ll have to hit play soon, it’s been nice to take some time off.

I would like to think that I’ve grown a lot on this trip, that I’ve learned to take things one step at a time, to relax a bit. I would like to think that I’ve learned to let some things go and also clarified when it’s necessary give in a bit and where I need to demand more. I think the one thing I have learned for sure, however, is that my thirst for adventure isn’t going away anytime soon. Standing on top of a mountain, cruising through the Pacific Ocean, and standing on the very edge of a cliff, amongst other things have only left me eagerly searching for more, and I fully intend to find it.

It’s been a phenomenal month, one I’ll never forget. Each day, a new adventure revealed itself, each better than the last. I considered this trip to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’ve realized I’m going to have to do it at least twice. While I’ve done a lot in my short time here, there’s so much left to explore. I’ve fallen in love with this place, so I don’t think I’m going to be able to stay away. In the meantime though, thanks for the memories NZ, Cheers.


Ending on a High Note: A Weekend at Lake Tekapo

When I signed up to go on this trip, I didn’t really factor in the fact that there would be nineteen other people going. It was a non-issue for me; they would do their thing, and I would do mine. I imagined us as separate ecosystems, quite naively if I do say so. I didn’t stop to imagine the possibility that I might make some (lasting?) friendships.

This past weekend, sixteen of us twenty decided to plan a separate excursion since we had two days off for the queen’s birthday. Sixteen people planned an entire trip, got along, and had a blast. I don’t know about you, but I find that exceedingly impressive.

The entire bus ride down to Lake Tekapo, our chosen destination, I could hardly contain my excitement. Nearly every kiwi we had talked to described this place as a slice of heaven, their favorite place in the whole of New Zealand. Upon arrival, I could see why.

The lake is by far, the most intensely blue body of water I have ever seen. Accented by the snow-capped mountains, the lake glistened like something off a movie screen. I think each and every single one of our jaws hit the floor of the bus when we finally got there.

Another really great aspect of the trip was one that sort of happened by accident. Since it was a holiday weekend, Tekapo was booked full, with backpacker’s lodges not having any rooms available. As such, we decided to rent three hotel rooms and just sneak a few people in. At the time of the booking, we didn’t really pay attention to our accommodations aside from making sure we were close to the lake. We didn’t take the time to realize that we had somehow managed to nap three villas with a lakeside view at an unreal price. This was quite a nice surprise to find.

We started off our first day with a hike up Mt. John to watch the sunset. The hike was a lot of fun, but a lot more treacherous than we had initially planned for. Much of the trail had frozen over so we had to be especially careful. There would be long stretches of clinging to trees or climbing up over shrubs in order to avoid sliding down or injuring ourselves. With a lot of our group not having proper footwear nor a lot of hiking experience, it was a bit of a struggle to get to the top. Once we got there though, I think we were all very glad to have but in the effort.

Standing at the summit of a mountain with an altitude of 3,376 feet is an extremely sobering experience. You feel small, but also accomplished; calm, but simultaneously triumphant. Trees that stand at least five times taller me when next to them now looked like garden shrubs. Passing cars on the road looked like ants. The lake, in contrast, spanned the field of my vision, before disappearing into the horizon. The silence on the mountaintop was deafening, with each of us lost in our own thoughts as well as lost in the atmosphere of the mountain. I would like to think that we all got some sort of comfort at that summit, a peace of mind.

Personally, I sat on a rocky ledge for a bit, just taking in the scene, the crispness of the air and the general feeling of the place. Before this trip, I will admit to being a bit of a mess. Second semester had fried my nerves with stress academically, professionally, and personally (for a taste of this, check out my previous post “The Myth of the Blank Page). Coming here has been such a blessing in that I feel ten times lighter; I no longer have a weight pressing on my chest. I’ve taken a step back and taken the time to relax, to unwind, and to reason through issues that had previously overwhelmed me. Watching the sun sink between the mountains is something I’m never going to forget. I’d like to think that the next time life becomes a bit too much, I’ll just think of that mountaintop. I’ll think of the way the tired sun sank between those twin snowcapped peaks. How the light made the mountains look a bright purple color. Or how the silence was so incredibly pure: no talking, no birds, no busy cars or slamming doors. I like to think I will find that sense of peace again.

That’s enough on my teenage angst, however, and more onto the fun stuff. The hike down was a little rough, with the sun having gone and with it all the warmth we had previously enjoyed. The path had only gotten slicker with the dropping temperature, and so we clung to the brush for dear life, trusting no rock or patch of snow. At the bottom, however, it was all smiles as we reflected on that feeling at the summit.

We turned up for dinner quite early with the hike having left us ravenous. The restaurant we booked was notorious for their lakefront view…it’s just to bad we hadn’t factored in the pitch darkness of the night. Nonetheless, dinner was fun and quite good. I had a delicious udon noodle soup as well as some miso basted fried salmon. We all had some house made ice cream for desert as well (I ordered a delicious bowl of green tea flavored ice cream, my favorite).

After dinner, we headed back to our rooms, meeting back at our villa to hang out and chill for a bit. I mentioned at the beginning of the post how I didn’t really factor in making friends here. I can’t express what a mistake this was. The people I’ve met here are not people I would have encountered were it not for this trip. We come from all different backgrounds, majors, and ages. Our group dynamic is quite odd, and yet, it works. We are all kindhearted and truly look out for one another. Sure, we have a few jokes at the expense of each other (okay, a lot more than a few), but we know how to have fun and we genuinely have grown to care about one another. I count myself as extraordinarily lucky to now call them my friends.

A very unique part of Lake Tekapo is the fact that it has the second clearest view of the stars in the world. I’ve seen stars before, there aren’t that may lights on my street so they’re decently clear on a nice night. Not like this though. Around two in the morning, we all layered up and trekked out to see the stars in a field by our lodge. We plopped down and laid amongst the frozen blades of grass, taking in the sky above us. With the new moon making things even clearer, the stars were so unbelievably bright, they looked as though they were fake. The purple outline of the Milky Way was clearly visible, creating an awe-inspiring view. I will say, I didn’t stay out for all that long, after twenty or so minutes, I was ready for bed. The view was incredible, but I wanted to be rested for the sunrise trek to the lake in the morning.

At 7:00 in the morning, our alarm clocks blared, rising us from what’s probably been our best sleep since we got here (the room had heat, something most of our homestays do not). I will admit to a moment of weakness in which I contemplated going back to bed and missing the whole thing. I’m only human.

Upon dressing and layering up for a frigid morning, we headed out the door, groggy and blurry eyed. The second our feet hit the beach though, our eyes went wide and the weariness left us. I know most of those who read this blog are probably tired of me describing things as beautiful. Honestly, to me it sounds like a cop out. But the fact of the matter is that there are not any words in the English language that are capable of describing the sights of seen in the last few weeks. Lake Tekapo is one of the hardest. Seeing the lake at first light was a wholly unreal experience. The stillness of the lake combined with the frosty morning made it appear as though made of glass, the mountains accenting its near-frozen beauty.

We sat there for upwards of 45 minutes, watching the sun make its ascension to the sky. Again, totally silence ensued (for at least the first half of the time, we are a particularly chatty group). After, we headed back for breakfast and check out, readying ourselves for another hike.

Our hike this time wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the climb up Mt. John, it was actually quite the opposite. We took a bath around the lake, stopping at a few beaches here and there, enjoying a relaxed view of the scenery. We laughed and talked and munched on the snacks we had brought as well as some hurriedly made PB&Js (they were made with love though).

Overall, this trip has been one of the best parts of New Zealand. We planned it by ourselves and it went off without a hitch. That’s not to mention the fact that it was a boatload of fun. Everyone hung out together as well, it wasn’t just like we split off into our factions and ignored everyone else. While there are those of us who have become closer than others, we are, overall, a very inclusive group and that’s something that makes the trip that much the better. I suppose I will conclude by saying once again, how incredibly blessed I am to be on this trip. It’s better than anything I could have imagined.

Another Phenomenal Week

It’s hard to believe that as I type this, I’m finishing out my last weekend in New Zealand. It’s hard to believe how fast these three weeks have flown by and how much has occurred in such little time. I’ve had some incredible experiences as well as met some amazing people. I went from being surrounded by strangers in a foreign country to creating some phenomenal (lasting?) friendships in a place to astonishing to be real. I’m so incredibly grateful to all the people who made this trip as awesome as it has been, both here and back at home. Now, enough with the sappy nonsense and on to the fun stuff.

This week was a pretty low-key one, with the finishing of our research project being the prime focus (believe it or not, I do actually attend class here). We had a few adventures after class, but for the most part, school took center stage. One of these little excursions included a trip to the middle of nowhere to find this awesome t-shirt shop with my friend, Audrey. We got there right before they were about to close, and instead of booting us out, the lady let us browse and chat for a little bit which was really nice. I swear, Kiwis are the friendliest people on earth. After that, we sat in a café for what felt like just a few minutes, but turned out to be hours (side note, I got this caramel coffee cake that was to die for). The plan for the day had been to catch up with the rest of the group at the art gallery, where an event on Kiwi culture was being held, but we wound up missing them. That’s not to say we didn’t go to the art gallery though. I wasn’t initially thrilled about the event, as it didn’t seem like there was that much to do, but Audrey and I wound up sitting in on this really cool discussion on “Cultural Cringe”. It was an open talk about how New Zealanders perceive their culture and it was really interesting.

Another cool stop this week was the Antarctic center. Christchurch is the location of the U.S. Antarctic base so hence; there is an Antarctic center. The highpoint of this trip, however, is when we got thrown into a room that was, at the time, 17 degrees, a balmy summer day in Antarctica. However, this room was actually a storm simulator, which means wind turbines were turned on, lights went off, snow was kicked up, and the temp dropped to negative one degree Fahrenheit. I will say that the two other people aside from our group had to be pretty amused by the mob of 16 Americans running around yelling.

After the Antarctic center, we headed out for our final B.Y.O. (for an explanation of what this is, check out my previous post). Since my home sister was leaving that day, I met up with the group later and enjoyed a last meal with her and her family. Upon arriving at the B.Y.O. though, I found the group to be in good spirits to say the least. This B.Y.O. was definitely the most entertaining with two of the boys deciding it would be a bright idea to down two Chinese hot peppers. David wound up under the table and Wes wound up in tears, as did the rest of the group. We topped the night off by heading to the foundry, the university bar/event center to watch the live band before heading home.

The real fun began yesterday though, with our cancelled trip to Akaroa being made up. Akaroa is a port on the East coast of the south island that was formed by a volcano millions of years ago. We got to really explore the unique area by taking a harbor cruise out past the bay and into the Pacific. On the way, we saw breathtaking landscapes, a volcanic vent, penguins, dolphins, and seals. It was fantastic, seated at the front of the boat, I had a front row view. A quick note about the dolphins: they weren’t just your average run of the mill dolphin (you know, because I see dolphins all the time back in Ohio). These dolphins were Hector’s dolphins, the most rare dolphin in the world. Growing to only a meter in length and having unique white markings on them, they are only found here in New Zealand. I’m so glad we were able to make up the harbor cruise on a day so gorgeous. The water was probably the bluest I’ve ever seen and with the sun hitting the ocean mist as it rose from the waves, it looked photoshopped. Our boat, for the most part, was silent on the way back. There’s just something about gliding over the water, with the wind in your hair and the tang of salt on your lips that is so incredibly clarifying. I don’t know how you could have a worry in the world with such an incredible experience. HAR_1283.jpg

We finished the day off with some fish and chips and a little bit of souvenir shopping around the town. The drive home, however very weary after a long day, was gorgeous. We weaved through mountain roads and watched the sun set over the city. I swear, I really, really don’t want to leave this place

Today proved to be just as awesome as we trekked off to Castle Hill. For those of you who don’t know, this is where both The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia were filmed. Upon arrival, I could see why.

Massive rocks jutted from snowy outcroppings as the land wove its way into the mountain ranges. The air was warmer than usual, but still crisp from the snow so most of us wound up ditching our winter jackets as we climbed up the hills. The rocks were unreal, and upon climbing them, the view beyond was just as fantastic.

Castle hill wasn’t our only stop for the day though; we also headed to a local farm. Since New Zealand has more sheep than people, it was only fitting that we should see one before we left. The farm was really fun, with us getting to see a farm in action as well as eat a phenomenal farm fresh meal (I’m still full). The real fun though, came when the farmer decided to prove his point on the importance of sheep dogs. He had volunteers attempt to herd the sheep through the gate, two at a time, just as the dogs do. Naturally, Audrey and I volunteered.

HAR_1798.jpgToday marks the end of our university-sanctioned weekend excursions. Again, I don’t want this trip to end. However, I am excited for tomorrow as our group heads off on a mini trip we planned to Lake Tekapo for the queen’s birthday. Lake Tekapo is supposed to have the second clearest star gazing in the world as picturesque turquoise waters dotted with wildflowers. This time of year, it’s also supposed to be covered in a light frost. We’re staying the night, so we’ll have plenty of time to take in the sights. I can’t wait.

The End of the World

When I first told my mom I was heading to New Zealand, her first reaction was to say, “Samantha, what if you fall off a cliff?!”. I rolled my eyes and assured her that this was not a possibility (I do have more than two brain cells, contrary to popular belief). Today, however, I proved her half right. Sorry mom.

After a disappointing start to our weekend, with our plans to Akaroa being cancelled due to weather, I didn’t have high hopes. I had forgotten, of course, that here in New Zealand, all you need is some motivation coupled with a pair of hiking shoes and paradise is right around the corner.

Our group decided that after a rough start and a low-key day on Saturday, we needed to get outdoors, deciding to hike Te Onepoto (also known as Taylor’s Mistake) and Godley head. We took the bus to the absolute very end of the line, landing in Sumner and having to walk to the trailhead. After enjoying lunch on the beach, and chasing off some hungry seagulls, we made our way out to the hike.

Unfortunately, we had a bit of trouble getting to it. Asking locals for help, we eventually landed somewhere around where we were supposed to be, but with a lack of signage, we still couldn’t locate the bay very well.

Upon reaching several dead ends with fences blocking our paths, two of us decided to take matters into our own hands. My friend Wes and I hopped one of the fences and preceded on a little path carved out in the long grass. Our group was less than pleased, and continued to find their own way.

Wes and I continued a long this makeshift path and wound up looking over a ledge unto the sea below. The view was incredible; with wildflowers dotting the top and then a sheer drop to the bottom with nothing but ocean ahead. Content with our discovery, we opted to head back and rejoin the group.

However, upon emerging back onto the road we had left, our group was nowhere to be found. Not all that concerned, we continued along the road, looking for any sign of the rest of our party. We stumbled upon a sign labeled Taylor’s Mistake and of course, we followed it. Past a dirt path, a barbed wire fence, and an open gate, we found a tiny slice of paradise.

Jutting out several hundred meters from the mainland, a narrow peninsula filled with wildflowers and shrubbery laid just under the ledge we stood on, awaiting discovery. With the clay being quite soft from the previous day’s rain, we carefully made our way down the steep climb onto the thin patch of land. With the ocean waves hundreds of meters below thrashing against the side of the cliffs, and the sun beating down on our faces, I don’t think either of us has ever felt so at peace.

There’s something about standing on the edge of a cliff, with nothing but ocean out ahead, which provides an unparalleled sense of clarity. It felt as though we were standing at the end of the world. I have never felt so incredibly small in my entire lifetime. Not in a negative way, but in a way which provided perspective. The worries and stress of the world seemed to dissolve with each gust of the sea breeze that came over the rocks.

Flocks of birds made their way to roost in the sides of the cliffs and albatross dove beneath the waves below. The scene felt as though it had been taken from the movie screen. We stayed on the cliff for a good 45 minutes or so, taking in the sights and just the general relaxed vibe. Sitting at the top, we didn’t speak, just listened, watched, and relished in our little paradise. At one point, we both took turns, stood atop the very edge and yelled on the stop of our lungs, a victory cry of sorts I suppose. I don’t think anything has ever felt better.

Eventually, we elected to head back and rejoin the group, working our way down the road to the bottom where a small beach marked the start to Godley’s head. There we found our less than pleased classmates.

I don’t think either of us could stop smiling.

The rest of the trip proved to be quite nice as well, but nothing topped that peninsula. We hiked our way to the top of Godley’s head and then turned back as the wind warned of a coming storm. By the time we reached the bus stop, I was pretty spent. Looking at my Fitbit now, I have officially walked 11.07 miles today (this includes my walk to the uni and back, however).

I topped off my day by celebrating my host sister’s birthday. She turned eighteen this past Thursday, so we had a nice dinner and a cake to wash it down (I missed dinner and caught the end of dessert). Rachel moves out this week and I have to say I’m definitely going to miss her. While our paths don’t cross as often as I would like due to busy schedules, I always enjoy talking to her. She’s finishing out her college career at the University of Canterbury though so I do hope she comes back and says goodbye before I leave.

Today was definitely one for the books. Until this point in the trip, it seemed as though every day, something better than the last has come about. I don’t think that this can be topped, however. It is still hard for me to believe that such a place as this one can exist on earth. I think that the name of the destination we were searching for, Taylor’s Mistake, is quite fitting. A mistake is what led us to find this place, and I have to say that it was the best damn mistake I’ve ever made.