Monday, August 31, 2015

Sunshine and Sea Salt

Summer ended today. For me, summer ended as a group of friends dropped me off at another friend's apartment so I could catch a flight early the next morning. Even as I excitedly sit in the airport, waiting for my flight to take my to the next leg of my adventure, a part of me wonders why I am leaving people and a place who are so incredibly good to me. Something good ending, especially a summer as enjoyable as this one, even coming at the cusp of an exciting beginning is always a sad moment for me.

And as my summer has been drawing to a close, I’ve tried to spend every last moment with the people I love so dearly, and was fortunate enough to catch up with a friend from last summer who was on the island for just a little bit. We were reminiscing on the golden days of the previous summer and sharing stories of the intervening year when he started telling me about friends whose relationship had fizzled as the school year started again because it was built on, as he so eloquently phrased it, “sunshine and sea salt.” The implication being that clearly nothing between them could have lasted, having been built on such a foundation as that. 

And that poignant description stuck with me all through the next day–everything I treasure about this place, rests on sunshine and sea salt. It started building in the magic that is unique to the beginning of summer. When the light fades slower into the pleasantly warm evening, the glow of the stars and lightning bugs makes anything seems possible. All that summer could hold is big enough to make any dream feel destined to come true because in those moments all the dreams of climbing, paddle boarding, bonfires, friendship, marathons and spectacular camp programming will happen. There's no reason for them not to because the days are just long enough and ten weeks is just long enough to pretend like the magic of summer will never fade into Fall. But inevitably, the sunshine fades into a darker autumn and waters grow too cold to swim, and the question seems to arise with every heart-rending goodbye, will it be enough? Is the friendship we sowed with sunshine and sea salt enough to last?

It’s a hard question to answer because the answer only comes through time, and it’s not always yes. And it’s even harder, knowing that there are always people who remain only in the blissful memories of carefree evenings, baking in the summer sun. But then, there are those special cases–and I feel lucky because at CBC they seem to be as much the rule as the exception–that prove sunshine, sea salt and just a little bit of that summer camp magic can yield amazing friendships. 

It’s hard to say when exactly it happens, but somewhere between trekking up and down the hill, tag team counseling a distraught camper, and acting on those long dreamed of climbing trips, friendships are born that are as deep and fulfilling as those developed over many years. So when that moment comes to say goodbye and emerge from camp bliss, the parting sentiment goes much deeper than “keep in touch.” When I hear my camp friends say, “Let me know if you ever need anything” or sometimes more specifically, "Come on a road trip with me and then stay on my couch for a while" I know they mean it. 

In my two summers spent pretending like I’m a Mainer, I have made better friends than I feel I could ever deserve. And those relationships carried me through many of the less spectacular moments of the intervening year. From the friend I’ve called in tears, miserably stuck in my house on top of a mountain, needing a weekend away from my life to the ones I’ve called asking for a ride to the airport before 5 am. I know they would do anything for me because they’ve proven they will, and I, in equal measure, do the same for them–answer those 3 a.m. phone calls because I know that’s when they need it most and put plans on hold to edit papers shortly before they’re due.

In the incredibly short 20 weeks I've spent working at CBC, I’ve made the kind of friends that make my heart leap when I see a letter in Tyler’s handwriting, a voicemail from Paul or an incoming FaceTime from Jenny and Jim. It might not be an every day occurrence, but in those happy moments, the warm rays of summer shine through and I can smell the sea again. 






Sunday, February 15, 2015

There's Something about Working in the Mountains

I work a job where I am on the clock 22.5 hours a day, 5 days week. I work a job where I spend more time walking around, retrieving extra forks and drinks at meals than actually sitting down and eating. I work a job where I maybe have time to shower once during the week. I work a job where I have to use every trick, tip, song and dance I've learned in my years of working with children on a daily basis.

My job is hard, and my job is fantastic. But at the end of the week I have given everything I have to give; it's all been laid out for the kids I take care of every week. My brain is mush by the time I drive out of the gates Friday afternoon.

We, as an instructional staff, have a lot of responsibility and expectations placed on us to do an exceptional job. At summer camp, the children's parents put on the pressure to keep their kids happy and healthy in a very active setting. In outdoor education, that same standard applies but with the additional responsibility of meeting their teachers' expectations that you teach their students lessons better than they could have in their classroom, otherwise half the point of coming all the way up the mountain is gone.

I expected, coming into this job, that the formal teaching part of the job would be the aspect that I would find easier and corralling a cabin of girls would be the part I would struggle with. That, as it turns out, is completely opposite. Spending time with my cabins of 5th to 8th grade girls has been, well, I won't say a breeze because that make it sound too easy, but it's been the most fun part of the job.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy teaching the classes. But it's been more difficult than I originally anticipated simply because I didn't arrive having a good depth of knowledge of the curriculum. I have never studied Forest Ecology or Aerodynamics, and now, I teach three hour lessons on the subjects.

Being able to teach those classes didn't happen by magic. We have all had to devote a significant portion of our weekend to interpreting and planning these lessons. My house, called Onacrest, tends to prep at the same time, so we can all figure it out together and tap into the knowledge of the returning staff. Fortunately, I work with a very diverse group. We all have a wide array of skills, all relating to the field of Outdoor Education, and we often times find ourselves sitting around the staff lounge during our precious off time trading tips and information on tactics that worked in the 26 classes we have to be able to teach.

Each time I teach a class, it gets a little bit better. The first time I taught Orienteering, all of my 16 kids went wandering in the woods, despite my instructions that they must stay within sight of me. Saying that class was stressful is the biggest understatement I could ever make. The second time I taught that class, I knew I had to drop the hammer early, and because I knew I had to be a lot stricter, all of my kids stay within sight and completed the activity. So I know I am not perfect, but I can see myself getting better at what I do.

Working in the Outdoor Education and Camp Industry, like most fields that deal with kids, requires an exceptional amount of self sacrifice. In the first two weeks of camp, everyone and I mean everyone caught the plague and worked through it with smiles and as much cheer as it was possible to muster. It can be difficult to find the time to go to the bathroom during the day, let alone take care of any other personal needs, yet you would never know it by looking around at my coworkers. Our job is to make what we do seem easy and natural, smiling through every adversity. No one does it perfectly, but I have been impressed with how well we as a staff cheerfully greet the very real struggles in our jobs.

In the very little time I have for self reflection and self evaluation, I have been wondering what I get out of the work that makes it so enjoyable to me because on paper, it sounds miserable. The most glaring reward I get, the one everyone talks about, is the satisfaction of giving kids an experience unlike most others they've had in their lives. Kids are almost uniformly sad to leave camp. They load the busses amidst declarations that they never want to leave or want to bring the whole family to live at camp.

But that is not all that I get from this job. The rewards that make this job worth doing may seem nonsensical, but to me they make all the difference.

I get...

To have a trash picking up party every Friday while listening to what the musical geniuses that are Lil Debbie, Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha have provided the world.

A place to use my ridiculously bad dances moves in a nonjudgmental environment in both planned and impromptu dance parties.

To tap into the vast experience of +50 coworkers to become better at my job.

To spend almost all day outside hiking, climbing and playing among the trees.

An incredible support system for all my personal and professional triumphs and shortcomings and the ability to share in my friends' successes and struggles.

5 Valentines dates who are excited to get dressed up to go to a burger restaurant.

The opportunity to live in the mountains with stunning views, clear(ish) air, and now this is the most important part for me, weather that has been in the 60s during February.

To live in the same house with some truly wonderful and hilarious humans who are rapidly become some of my best friends. One of these people is a really incredible artist and was kind enough to let me use some of his photos to show you all the San Bernardino Mountains. All these photos are Avery Meaux.

My house Onacrest back when there was actual snow. #DCH


It's hard to beat having views like this every day.

We actually live above the clouds. 

I love my job. I love how hard it is. I love the people I work with. I have spent so much time going out into the world and trying to find myself, trying to figure out who exactly I am and where I want to go. I don't have it all figured out, who does, but being in places like this affirms that I am in a place where I belong. I look around at my coworkers singing at the top of their lungs and consoling the homesick campers and know that I am in the right field. Seeing them I can't help but thinking "these are my people; I am home" and feeling incredibly lucky to be able to lay out everything I have each week for the sake of the kids and the benefit of my coworkers.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The World Feels Like Home

"The best part about leaving your heart in different places?
Everywhere feels like home."

I read this phrase in a buzzfeed article about wanderlust that my best friend sent me. I had just woken up (finally able to sleep in after dealing with a bout of lingering jetleg and sickness) and was casually reading the article, silently agreeing with basically everything, until I read the last bit and jumped out of bed inspired, all thoughts of sleepiness banished as I rushed through my morning routine so I could sneak in a few moments of writing before I had to go.

That phrase was it. The perfect summation of my travels–this weird feeling of belonging in places I'd never been. I felt it everywhere I visited but it was particularly strong in Budapest.

Each time I travel, I feel like I collect a new place to ache for later–like little pieces of me are strewn over the world, lining the walls of the Vatican and Montmartre and the canals in Venice–a small sacrifice as I fall in love with the city. Whatever I've left, I've gotten something new and different back. I take a little bit of the place and the people with me, more than memories, that become a part of my soul and burn with a desire to return. Like I've become a collage, reflecting pieces of the places I've been and people I've met, and I feel them in the little pangs of longing I get when looking back through my photos or read about one of the places I've been.

All these places I've lost myself to and people I've shared secrets with have changed me, slowly and subtly, bit by bit. For better or worse, I am very different than the person who first stepped off the plane in Paris only over a year and a half ago.

Despite my intentions in the beginning, I have become a nomad without a place I truly call home. My parents certainly serve as a wonderful base, and being with friends and family in Kansas feels as close to home as I've been in a long time. I keep waiting for my lack of center to become exhausting–someone can only be on the road for so long, but instead I feel free. I have learned to be at home everywhere I go. Anywhere can be my home.

Never was that feeling more clear to me than my most recent trip. Getting off the plane and exploring a new area in Europe felt welcome and easy, like slipping on a my favorite pair of shoes. It just fit. The newness is, in itself, comforting to me. It's what I know and what I'm use to.

Nowhere in Ireland did I feel more of a sense of overwhelming rightness than in Dingle. It is the beautiful town–just bustling enough with tourists that it can't rightly be called quaint or sleepy but still retaining a distinct small-town vibe, as though it's still surprised to find itself so full of people. About every other building lining the street was a pub (of course, it's Ireland), but between them sat wonderful oddities like the Violin & Gardening & Restaurant & Toy Store and a store that sold "nontraditional" wool items (If you can imagine it, they probably had it). And the town was full of those winding side alleys that I love so very much, covered in ivy and overhanging signs for hostels, beer and espressos, the likes of which can only really be found in Europe.

For me, Ireland felt like this wonderful echo of New Zealand, both having sweeping pastoral landscapes of rolling hills and sheep but each with a distinct twist. Neither were identical but both showing the kind of beauty that comes easily with an abundance of green though Ireland's landscape was often interrupted with stunning shows of geology and archeology like the Cliffs of Moher, the Giant's Causeway and Newgrange. Both were places I was fortunate enough to get to see almost all of however briefly, touring around the whole country and seeing it all in beautiful, broad strokes.

Prague and Budapest were different animals all together. Seeping in history, the castles, government buildings and churches dominate the view of both cities. During the day these buildings share the glory with all the small buildings that frame them, but at night they quite literally outshine everything else. Walking the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Margit Hid in Budapest provide some of the most
Pictures really can't do it justice.
stunning views of the cityscape.

I don't always know the moment I fall in love with a place, but I certainly did in Budapest though it built over several days. Finally coming to a head whilst seeing the buildings bathed in an yellow-orange glow, glittering in the distance and feeling the bustling city move all around,  I all at once lost my heart to the city and breathed in its energy to carry with me.

It truly was a wonderful city that managed to feel both young and ancestral simultaneously. It felt like a place growing into something new and grand with its feet firmly planted in a storied history. The ruin bars are the places that seems to demonstrate this feeling the best. Set in old buildings brimming with character: the bricks and crumbling plaster can just be seen through the layers of graffiti and eclectic art pieces hung on the walls. The youthful buzz of a bar juxtaposes the physical space that feels as though it has stood through the annals of time. It certainly was one of the more unique places I've visited and probably one of the coolest bars too.

Pretty swanky Parliament Building. 
And speaking of unique places, I have to apologize to anyone I spammed with semi-incoherent snapchats from the Labyrinthine in Budapest. In my defense, I was acting out of abject terror. Allow me to explain. Rather than going through another series of castles and museums on Castle Hill in Budapest, I decided to seek out the less common experiences. Instead, I went to the Hospital in a Rock, followed by the Labyrinthine.

The Labyrinthine started out bizarre and rapidly turned terrifying. Underneath the Castle Hill is a series of natural, underground caves. For a small price, you can walk through parts of them, and it is quite possibly the strangest thing I have ever done. I ended up recording videos, but before you watch them, some background information is necessary.

I walked down the stairs into the caves being followed by the older woman, probably in her early seventies. We entered the main cave at about the same time. There is literally no one else around. Intense opera music starts building as I walk deeper into the caves. All the while behind me, I can hear the steady thudding of her cane and shuffling of her feet. All around are these wax depictions of various opera scenes.
Are they supposed to look like they're in prison?
 
Peppering the walls are various sizes of stones that have labels like "door frame" or "table." Why were there depictions of the opera and giant stones everywhere? Your guess is as good as mine.

While this is all very weird, none of it was really very scary. Until I had to pick between two directions, blue light or orange light...? I picked blue. NEVER pick blue.

The woman behind me also picked blue. Though her steady thumping lent a slightly ominous background noise to the weirdly intense opera music, I was none the less grateful for her company. Right until she vanishes. She didn't stop walking. She didn't turn around. She was just gone. I went back to look for her and make sure she was all right, but as far as I could tell she'd been totally swallowed into the blue light. That was when I noticed the sign that I was entering "Dracula's lair" and saw what I can only assume is meant to be Dracula's empty throne.

Keep in mind it's only this light because of the flash on my camera. 

I keep walking, hearing the music slowly change from opera to just flat out scary horror movie soundtrack.

Gulp.

Undeterred, I keep walking into the misty blue light.





The video stops there because I may or may not have dropped my camera in terror at the sight I beheld around the corner.







But can you blame me?? Seriously! And not only was this waiting for me around the corner but this area is a dead end, so I have to turn my back to the decapitated heads and walk back through that blue light. (The woman behind me seems unimpressed.)



The horror music then begins to give way to equally frightening monastic music. 


(Mom) I am sorry about the bad language. I was too scared to hold it all back. Ha.

Despite the bout with unadulterated terror, I felt connected to Budapest in a way I've only connected with one other city: Venice. I felt connected with them on a subconscious level. I rarely needed to check a map; I just knew where I was supposed to go. Outside of the language, nothing felt foreign. Everything was, for those few days I was there, exactly as it should be. I suppose if I believed in past lives, I would say I lived there at least once before. It just made sense in a way that almost no other place does. I really can't explain it better than that.

In light of all my reflections on losing myself to a new city and taking something in return, I am brought back to the poem that lends itself to the title of my blog. One of the reasons I love poetry is that it can take on so many different meanings. I picked that poem because of what it means to me, but now, given how I carry my experiences, I have to think of it in a different light and have to feel the title of my blog is more accurate than ever.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you


here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart


i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

e.e. cummings

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Nine Weeks at Camp Beech Cliff

Camp Beech Cliff: nine short weeks; 42 incredibly long days. 42 incredible days.

Within those 42 days, something transcendent happened at camp. Some how all the bits and pieces of programming, scheduling and logistics transformed into something wonderful to behold. Some how pottery, performing arts and sailing became so much more than just building pinch pots, singing and being on the water. Some how camp became something greater than the sum of its parts: something magical.

I say "some how," but I can tell you exactly how it happens. Hard work. Stupendously hard work. The kind of all-consuming work that at the end of the day left all the counselors crowded around the table in staff housing, stuffing their faces with whatever odd bits of carbs and sugar they had left–there's no time to get to the grocery store–staring blank faced at each other, too tired to follow through on the grand plans of volleyball or rock climbing. That is, of course, assuming these same counselors were able to get away from camp to eat something in the first place.

The transcendence, the "magic," doesn't appear in the air; there are two places you can see it created–one, forged slowly when, not just one or two, but a whole host of staff burns the midnight oil, hoping every moment with campers shines. The second part comes while facing reality: camp happens.  All those beautiful plans can be destroyed in mere minutes. If you really want to see the magic, watch what happens when you tell the camp director 7 staff members are out sick or a program head they have to accommodate 15 extra kids in their activity or a counselor they're getting the rowdy kid who has to move groups. You might miss it at first; it is subtle: camp still happens. And it is still good. So very good.

There is no potion, no perfect recipe to make everything come together. And outside of a sea of caffeine, the only thing that makes the task easier is knowing that there is an incredible group of people at your side for support and an equally incredible group of campers who demand and rightly deserve the very best.

The best is what the campers got. From the first moment through the last, they always got everything their counselors had to offer. Many times, most times even, that was more than enough. I worked with truly inspiring people, seeing them give everything to camp, witnessing their amazing ability to slowly but surely change lives kept me striving to be better all summer.

But sometimes, the very best I had to give, the very best we had to give, wasn't good enough. Sometimes my best was only enough to watch the kids play for an hour before their overnight started rather than joining their games. I still tried to give everything I had, but there was nothing left. And in that moment, all I could do was stay awake and stop them from getting hurt.

Sometimes all I could do was let the campers play their very favorite game for an hour because I had lost three of the four people I relied on each day. The very best I could give that day was just not crying because some of my best friends had packed up and left.

And in those moments, I hated myself for not being better. For not making every moment outstanding. I know it's normal, and I know it's perfectly okay to have bad days. But my coworkers, as a whole, set an impressively high standard by which I judged myself. Because all day, all around me I saw stellar examples of counselors rocking their jobs, smiling through every adversity. And it made me better. My best got better because of the wonderful family I got to be a part of.

It's the whole of the Camp Beech Cliff family that I have fallen in love with. It blows my mind how many outstanding moments can transpire in such a short time–how 50 almost-total strangers can pull together so quickly to create magic.

And truly, we are a family. Wonderful and weird as we may be, we are bonded now in a way that only people who live and work with each other continually can understand. And just like any other family we developed our idiosyncrasies: different oddities that get picked up and carried by working so closely with a very funny, diverse group.  I asked some of my fellow counselors what quirks they noticed our staff had developed.

We determined if you spend nine weeks a Camp Beech Cliff you might:

Find yourself asking to "connect" with someone you just want to have a conversation with. And during the time you "connect" ask them to help you "facilitate" whatever you're trying to accomplish.

Say things like "I understand why you feel that way. Can you think of a better way to react the next time this happens" and "can you explain what you mean when you say that" to your friends.

Immediately crouch or kneel when beginning a conversation.

Think to yourself, "when was the last time I sat down? I sat down when I ate lunch, right? Why don't I remember that? Oh. I didn't eat lunch." Or "when was the last time I showered? I think it's Friday, so Tuesday, right? Maybe Monday... Sunday at the latest."

Realize that if you wash your staff shirts at least once in the summer, it's still fine to wear.

Develop an immunity to feeling weird about how much underwear gets left on the boardwalk. "Guys everyone has to wear underwear. It's not gross; it's fine."

Gain a sixth sense about campers misbehaving. "Why do you just look like I need to get you in trouble? What are you doing? Go back to where you're supposed to be."

Crush hard on Sylvie. Everyone has a crush on Sylvie. There's nothing better than getting a Sylvie smile during the day.

Run into campers in Bar Harbor and spend the next week talking about exactly who cried during The Fault in Our Stars and who didn't.


It has been such an amazing summer. I really don't have enough good things to say about the people and the place. I have been struggling to finish the post because I don't know how to write the conclusion. But I suppose it's fitting because I also have no idea how to conclude my summer. I didn't want it to end. And saying goodbye has been extremely difficult for me. I would love nothing more than for everyone to show up next Monday at 7:30 for a staff meeting to kick off the week. So rather than dealing with all of that, I'll take Jenny's advice: "It's a blog. You don't need to conclude jacksh*t."

Being friends means never having to button up your shirt. 


Monday, July 14, 2014

You Can't Ride in my Little Red Wagon

There are certain songs that I hear that invariably remind me of the summer. Everything about them seems to perfectly embody the sense of boundlessness that is summer. They're the songs that make us roll down the windows and crank it up.

And they are the songs that just deserve to be sung at the top of your lungs, or if you are a camp counselor, shouted at the top of your lungs. I'm not sure if I could tell you my "summer song" from last summer, but this summer that award by and large goes to the following song:



If listening to that isn't for you, the gist of the song goes "You can't ride in my little red wagon. (Repeated by campers) Front seat's broken and the axel's draggin' (repeated by campers)" sung in three increasingly loud refrains. And it is glorious.

I'm convinced that at any given time that song is stuck in at least 10 staff members heads, and I am almost always one of them. This is only one of many silly songs and dances sung during Camp Beech Cliffs morning circle each day, but it always the loudest. It is sung so loudly that the older campers who don't sing in the morning anymore had to relocate up the hill to have a chance to hear the counselors and be heard by everyone else.

It's those moments in the morning, right before my real work picks up, watching the kids have competitions over who can sing the loudest, that I feel I can fully appreciate just how incredible my job is.

Seriously. If you sat me down and asked me to design the perfect job for me, I don't think I could have made it as satisfying as the one I currently have. My job has basically allowed me to pool a lot of the skills I worked tirelessly to acquire during college, and I'm using this post as a way of expressing gratitude that I was lucky enough to find this place.

My job, put as concisely and interestingly as possible, is to design and facilitate challenge course curriculum for the kids from 7th to 10th grade. Not only do I get to spend all day facilitating the ropes, but I spend my mornings teaching the kids different technical skills and spend the afternoon developing and putting leadership skills into practice with the Leaders-in-Training campers. I'm actually excited and awake (relatively) in the morning for the first time in my life because I'm just so thrilled to do what I do (and I'm not physically capable of staying up past 9:45 after a full day of work. That probably helps.)


As if that wasn't enough, the high ropes course is brand new and totally kick ass. When I first showed up to camp at the beginning of May for ropes training, the course barely had all the gear it need to function properly, so I got the incredible jobs of building the course from the ground up (not literally, it was designed and physically built long before I showed up.) But I've been creating, adapting and purchasing all the resources I need to do my job.

Part of the reason I am writing this post is to try to fully appreciate how I am doing exactly what I want to do with my life (for the moment.) Since I graduated, I have been somewhere between "exploring" and "floundering" in figuring out what I want to do with myself and haven't been doing much of anything too legitimate. Don't get me wrong, I've been having a great time, but I've spent all this time wondering what I should do.

So I am still really far from having it all figured out since this job only lasts through September but it's more of a start than I had before I came here. It's really great to know that I am pretty good at something I actually want to do. So now I just need how to start turning these sorts of things into a full time gig.

Featured here are Lily Pads in the foreground , Islands in the Sky on the right, Burma Bridge behind Lily Pads, and barely in the left corner, Pirate's Crossing. 

Leap of faith is on the left and Power Pole is on the right. 

On the left, Vertical Play Pen (possibly one of the most fun elements I've encountered),  a rock wall, cargo net and on the right is the Giant's Ladder. 


I'm trying to keep myself from just blathering incoherently about how everything is like, totally awesome. But it's really hard. My bosses are so empowering. They trust my decisions and have faith that I'm designing my program in the best way I can. My coworkers are so great, and I am fortunate to live in community with about 20 of them. Staff housing is very lively in all the best sorts of ways.

Those of us who live in staff housing get to do exactly what all the campers wish they could do, live at camp. in the evenings we can go stand up paddle boarding (apparently this is called "SUPing), take the canoes out, shoot on the archery range or do high ropes if we want. Today I went SUPing for the first time on the beautiful Echo Lake and ended the event by doing yoga until I fell off the board and just laying on the board, drifting on the lake with the group. It was really quite ideal.

This is the part of the post where I was going to seamlessly transition into what a beautiful place Mount Desert Island is, but I think I'll save all of that for a later post, but to give you a hint it's the sort of place where Martha Stewart and the Rockefellers have summer homes.

So until next time, enjoy your summer!


Here's a bonus pic of me on the high ropes!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Flashpacking

Introduction: Sarah deserves credit for giving me the title of the post. So thanks Sarah.

There are some things I have a really difficult time writing about and the trip I took around New Zealand is one of them. I could never write anything summing up my time in Rome; the incredible things that happened, coupled with the sadness that it was over left me with too many feelings to put anything coherent on the page, and this trip is just about the same.

I was tempted to just briefly mention the trip in some coming post, but it seemed like I would be doing myself a disservice by not writing everything down to read later. So knowing there's no way I can possibly describe how excellent the whole trip was, I'll begin.

I can easily summarize the logistics of what happened on my trip: I left Auckland February 11th and began a bus tour around the North and South Island. During that time, I went to the beach, took a mud bath, went on a 20k hike, bungy jumped (yes, I did spell that right), ate a burger the size of my face, among many other things. But my trip was so much better than all the individual parts because I ended up traveling with the best friends I never knew I had. It sounds cheesy, but if you spend literally 24/7 with people for over 3 weeks with very fleeting wifi and cell service, you're either going to love or hate each other by the end of it.

There were about 40 people on the bus at any given time, and while I definitely didn't get to know everyone, there was a solid group of us who stuck together from mostly the beginning to mostly the end of the bus-Auckland all the way down to Queenstown.

It's grainy, blurry and probably the best photo ever taken.

I have to admit when I started the trip, I was a little nervous. I can't quite tell you why, but for all the traveling I've done, I'd never truly backpacked. So this was definitely a new experience. I didn't really come into the trip expecting to make very good friends. I knew I'd meet people, but I figured I'd mostly be independent. And what I got was, wholly and wonderfully the opposite.

It was one of the best cultural exchanges I've been a part of, because, for weeks, we had so much time sitting on the bus or sitting around hostels to just share what our lives are like wherever we come from and ask questions about people from all over the world. Since we were all on a forced internet cleanse, having only a few hours of connection every few days, we relearned how to talk to people without just looking up YouTube videos (hint: you just end up telling someone about "this video I saw this one time" instead of being able to look it up.) But I also learned about everything from what it's like to be an electrician in London to Zwarte Piet to how addresses are written differently in Sweden. Is it super useful information? Maybe, maybe not, but the whole of it has taught me even more about different cultures.

To remember the journey, a lot of people kept trip diaries; they wrote a bit about what happened each day. I wish I did that sometimes, but I did write down a list of things in my phone that I wanted to remember and share in my blog.
So here is a list of some of the cool/weird things that might happen to you if you take a Stray bus around New Zealand. You might:


  • lose your cell phone charger and find it in the fridge because you had to pack up at 5:30 am. 
  • take an inappropriate number of bus selfies.
  • forget that bathrooms generally come segregated into mens and women's and get confused when confronted with separate bathrooms.
  • pour wine into an empty 2 litre to drink without being judged. 
  • have a difficult time falling asleep without the steady thump of the bar's bass and the shouts and giggles of those damned Kiwi Experience kids. 
  • realize that en suite hostels are better than any other sort of amenity imaginable. 
  • spill peanut butter over all your food and scrape it back into the jar because you can't afford to buy more. 
  • discover just how long it's possible to eat rice crackers, muesli bars and noodles (college kids ain't got nothing on backpackers.) 
  • play "never have I ever" until you run out of interesting things to say.
  • (inadvertently) develop more inside jokes with your bus than you did with your best friend in middle school ("Like I said, it was okay. I don't like repeating myself.")
  • learn to speak Dutch and/or German and/or Swedish. Or at least sing the Zwarte Piet song.
  • become an expert at packing by cellphone torch light.
  • do a load of laundry in a sketchy hostel that comes out questionably more dirty than when it went in. 
  • know that as long as you change your underwear, the rest of your clothes are clean enough. 
  • keep track of time in hostels, rather than a form that anyone outside of the stray bus would undersatnd. Ex: "Three hostels ago, at the one where the woman cried, we shared a room with the rando guy and...."
  • make some of the best meals you've eaten with only half the things you need because: hostel kitchens. 
  • get weirdly and beautifully sentimental during a group rendition of "Wonderwall." 
New Zealand is such an incredible country. I could spend forever telling you about the things I saw: mountains so steep the trees grew parallel to the ground, some of the most stunningly blue water in the world, black sand beaches, etc... And even longer telling you the things I did, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some pictures, the rest are on Facebook:

Eating Fergburger! In Ferg We Trust.

Nevis Bungy Jump

Here's a hint. If you take a sulfur bath. BURN those clothes. Sulphur is the herpes of smells
Sea tour in Raglan

Looks can be deceiving; this is another sulphur lake.
And now here is the fastest possible tour of where I went in the South Island
Franz Joseph Glacier: Four years ago it extended almost to where I was standing, but is melting at a startling rate.

Lake Matheson has tea-colored water

A scenic overview. The likes of which can be found all over NZ.  


Hanging out of the side of the road just 'cause.

Milford Sound: Cool, but not as impressive as anticipated/hyped.

OMG PENGUINS 



It snows in the hottest months here.

I repeat it SNOWS in NZ's equivalent of August way down south. Friggin' Antarctica 



Queenstown is heaven on earth. If heaven is quite cold and rainy a lot...

Views from the most dangerous road in New Zealand.

Definitely worth risking a 100m fall down the cliff.

I could go on and on about traveling especially around New Zealand. I could continue listing all the amazing things that you could experience. I won't, but what I will say is: Go. Go and get out there. If you want to travel, don't let anything stop you. It's never going to be the best time and you're never going to have enough money, but you'll always regret not going.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Life on the Island of Wine

I spent the past month living on what is often called "The Island Of Wine." I'm not entirely sure how I managed to tear myself away because this place is paradise. I've obviously been living on an island since October, but starting the first week of January, I moved to an even smaller island called Waiheke, off the coast Auckland. And my time here as been fantastic--insanely busy--and ultimately wonderful.
The gold star is where I was living.

 I came here knowing I would stay for just a month. I found a family to Au Pair; they needed someone to help look after their kids because they were about to open up a gelato, coffee and bagel business. The first two weeks I was here were pretty "normal:" the parents would work during the day and be home in the evenings. During the day, I'd take the kids to the beach, or friends house or whatever we got up to different days. And I'd get some time off and go exploring (wine tasting) around the island.

But the last two weeks were absolutely insane. I worked 72 hours looking after the kids in the 3rd week, and almost the same number of hours this last week I was there. I'll be honest, I started to go just a little bit crazy.

I'm not sure if looking after someone else's kids all day every day is harder than looking after your own, but I can tell you it is quite difficult. The kids were pretty good, but I don't think there's any way looking after a 3 year old for +12 hours a day isn't going to be exhausting.

Meanwhile, the family did get their business started with a bang. The gelato was an instant success on the island. They sell out of it almost every day. So most of the days I get to take the kids by and get a free scoop of some gelato that actually lives up to my incredibly high Italy standards. So that doesn't suck.
White Chocolate Salted Caramel and Hazelnut Chocolate.



The island is incredibly friendly. It's Manhattan, KS friendly. I've taken the late bus home a few times and without fail the drivers, instead of making me walk 20 minutes up hill, drive out of their way to drop me off outside my house. And, amazingly, it's a safe place to hitch hike. I did it once (with a friend mom, it was safe, don't freak out). We grabbed a ride from my house to the bottom of the hill and then another one in to town. It was actually quite fun. We had nice chats with the people giving us rides. I might have done it a bit more but I generally had a car at my disposal.

When I did actually get a few hours off, I spent most of my time moving from vineyard to vineyard. Waiheke is a great place to grow wine, especially red wine. Waiheke is internationally known for the Rosé, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Wineries on the island routinely win "Best wine in world" for their Syrah and Sauv Blanc.

I have taken it upon myself to sample almost all of these, so I can personally assure you, they are all quite good.

I managed to get to pretty much all the large vineyards where on the island. There are a ton more smaller ones, but my days off were limited and I tried to go with the quality over quantity approach. So I'd go to a vineyard or two a day and just enjoy the time there and then go relax on the beach.

I've made a map highlighting the vineyards I went to. I could spend a lot of time telling you about all of them but I won't because that would only be interesting for me probably.



The yellow colored dot was the first vineyard I went to called Mudbrick. It definitely has the most Tuscan feel to it and would be where I had my wedding reception if I had an infinite amount of money. The views were simply stunning. Unfortunately, I did not bring my camera that day, so I don't have any pictures to prove it!

I took a bike trip to the orange dot, called Kennedy Vineyards. They're the only all organic vineyard on Waiheke. It was a really friendly place, and it was comforting to know I wasn't drinking pesticides. I also didn't know that most places add things like milk, egg and gelatin among others were routinely added to wines. This place was so good I went back twice!

This was definitely an unusual color for Rosé but I think
it was the lack of additives. It still tasted quite good.

With a view like this, how can you not go back?

The purple dot is a place called Wild on Waiheke. It's actually a brewery and a vineyard, so it's perfect if you need a break from wine! But let's be honest, why would you? Also, they let you do things like archery and trap shooting because what mixes better with alcohol than that?

Right next to it is StoneyRidge vineyards where I think I had some of my favorite wines. Their Chardonnay and Bordeaux-style were some of my favorites. If they didn't sell for around $50 a bottle, I would definitely have gotten a few.
There were some great wines here, but lets be real, after drinking all of this, they all start tasting pretty great. Also, if you're concerned, I didn't drink all these myself. I had help. 

There are so many more awesome vineyards I could talk about, but the main point is that I drank some nice wines.

And the only things that can beat the wine are the views. Waiheke is beautiful and a really fun place. It attracts a lot of unique people too. People here are generally very creative, relaxed, fun and fairly wealthy. It makes for a really fun atmosphere!

The place is crawling with beaches as well, but rather than tell you about them, I think pictures will serve much better.

This is the biggest beach on the island called Onetangi. Two Maori tribes fought a battle here. "One" means beach
and "Tangi" means something like "funeral" or "sadness" or "weeping"


While not a beach, this is the view from my drive way of a vineyard. Seriously. 

It's rare that I see a sunset that beats near-daily stunning views of the Flint Hills, but if you look the other way out of the drive way at sunset, you'll occasionally see this.


Life is good on the island of wine. I was definitely sad to leave, but I am very excited to see the rest of New Zealand. I am finally leaving on my tour of the country in just a few days.