Wednesday, April 30, 2014

live music.

Oh, how I love live music!! There's just something electrifying about being in a room full of people who all love what's coming from the stage, who bond in the dark over memorized tune progressions and bits of lyrics. Music connects people in a way that very few things can, even if it's just for a couple of hours.

I went to see Katie Herzig in concert a couple of weeks ago. She was great! (It probably helped that this was my first concert since September but she undoubtedly knows how to put on a show.)

Here's one from her brand new album:

She talked about her dad watching this for the first time and how he wasn't sure how to react other than to say things like, "Well, it's very white," and "It's definitely different than anything else you've done." And she just laughed and said, "It's called 'art'." I definitely don't understand everything about art but I know what I like and I do love her voice!

She didn't perform this song, but it's one of my favorites.

I had been a little discouraged leaving all the fabulous venues in DC but Salt Lake's got a pretty decent music scene and I've already got a few shows on tap for later this summer. (Yes, Katie, tickets for The Head and the Heart have been purchased!) Who was your last concert? Who is your next concert? Who is your dream concert? Or are you not a concert goer at all?  I'd love to hear why (and then convince you that you, of course, are wrong :) but we can still be friends...maybe.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

a trip to New Zealand (part 3)

Anne is a great cook and Saturday morning our spread included toast with vegemite (another NZ original, also not very delicious) and jam, eggs, bacon, fruit, granola and more. And then we were off. Jenny’s aunt and uncle had joined us as well and the girls went one direction, the boys the other. Anne was a fount of knowledge and we saw way more with her driving us around than we ever could have on our own. First was a stop at Mount Eden, one of many remaining (dormant) volcanic cones sprinkled around the area. More than just a peak, there’s a definite crater—super big and super steep—that is closed off by a small fence and revered as sacred by the Maoris though that doesn’t stop people from rolling and hiking down into it and often not being able to get back out! There are also some spectacular 360 degree views of the city and the harbor.

Next up was a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. We learned a bit more about the Maori culture and history, got a glimpse of New Zealand’s involvement in the two world wars, and witnessed another short dance performance by a Maori group. The grounds also contain a botanical garden which we visited on the way in.

Then we headed to the Sky Tower for city views from a different angle. We watched people walking along the outside rim and bungee jumping off the side. We stayed safely on the inside but did stand over the plexiglass floor that gave us an unimpeded view of the street below, 192 meters down. The Tower complex houses a huge casino, hotels, shopping center and restaurants. Anne works for one of the local news agencies and was invited to the opening of most of them so she took us in for sneak peeks at some of the décor and told us stories of the events and the famous chefs.

Next was a drive through the up and coming waterfront district which was teeming with families out taking advantage of the free events and the sun. And then we were back across the bridge to another volcanic cone turned park. This one had been used as a defensive gunnery/lookout during WWI and the hill is still riddled with the mazelike tunnels.

We finished our day out with a stop in the neighborhood of Devonport, just adjacent to Narrow Neck. It’s a charming area, streets lined with shops, restaurants and historic buildings. We got some amazing chocolate to take home (mine didn’t make it, I ate the whole thing in the car, it was fabulous!) And then headed back to meet up with the boys, eat some dinner and catch up on everyone’s day.

Sunday morning we had another great breakfast spread, but thanks to daylight savings it was technically an hour later than what our bodies told us. We ate and walked down to the beach to watch a triathlon. Sponsored by Wheatbix, the “Try-athlon” hosts countless schools in the area and encourages children to get involved and active. So here were all these tiny little kids from about 6 years old up through 13 or so heading down into the water to swim, then pedaling bikes down the other length of beach and then running through the neighborhood. It was a sea of madness and chaos and thoroughly entertaining! And what a great way to get kids motivated and moving at a young age. (and let’s face it, families cuz you know that most of those kids weren’t training on their own, they had very supportive parents there with them.)

We weren’t quite as ambitious but we did head back down and take a swim after the worst of the crowds had dispersed. Then we made our way back over to Devonport for some ice cream, shopping, lunch and a ferry ride back and forth across the harbor to Auckland before heading home again to pack up and get to the airport to start our journey back to the US. It was hard to say goodbye to Jenny but I was excited to get home and see family again, including a new little nephew born the week I left Thailand.

I’d love to say I’m all adjusted to life back in the States, that I’ve found my ideal job, and I’m all settled. But I think I’ve got a ways to go before any of that happens. It’s a good thing I’ve got all these great memories to tide me over until I do!

Friday, April 25, 2014

a trip to New Zealand (part 2)

Thursday we had breakfast at an outdoor café next to the lake in Rotorua and then drove west to Waitomo past beautiful lakes, overlooks and pastoral farmlands. After checking into our hotel we were off to our glowworm/blackwater rafting cave adventure. We were fitted with uber sexy wetsuits, helmets and headlamps, armed with inner tubes and then taken to the mouth of the cave where we jumped! Part of the time we hiked and part of the time we floated down the underground river that ran through the cave. There were a few more jumps, a tiny set of rapids. And then there were rooms where we turned off our headlamps, looked up at the ceiling and witnessed an amazing display of glowworms that looked like a galaxy of indoor stars. It was really a little breathtaking. And the caving adventure was all kinds of fun! We ate a warming meal of soup and bagels (the river water was fuh-reezing!) and then cuddled into bed to watch a movie and get a well-deserved night’s sleep.

Friday we drove back to the cave site and took a nature walk around the outside this time. Then drove to the city of Hamilton, stopping by the LDS temple grounds along the way and then wandering through the city museum, an art gallery, pedestrian area and the river walk. It was the perfect rest stop on our drive back to Auckland.

Jenny has family living in Christchurch who have family that live just outside of Auckland and they graciously opened their home to us. So owe drove through the city and over the bridge to the charming area known as Narrow Neck. No one was home when we first got there so we parked the car and walked five minutes down the road to the beach where we dipped our toes in the water and gazed at the Auckland skyline across the way. That evening we were fed blue lipped mussels, a New Zealand specialty (which unfortunately neither of us loved), along with a few other NZ favorites like jaffas and pineapple lumps (both delicious!) among other truly delicious dishes and visited with our hosts Anne and Neville and their boys Campbell and Oliver, some of the nicest people around.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

a trip to New Zealand

Wednesday we slept late and then drove south to the town of Rotorua, stopping for a delicious breakfast at a tiny roadside bakery. Every day should begin with hot chocolate and pie (a savory hand pie filled with bacon, eggs, and cheese…I swear I should have been born in a British colony!) New Zealand (the north island anyway) was formed by volcanic activity and nowhere is it more evident than in the thermal area of Rotorua. The air is filled with a sulfuric stench and steam rises up out of the ground in the most random of places. We stopped at Wai-O-Tapu, a park similar to, but on a much smaller scale than, Yellowstone with mud pots and geysers and all. Jenny wasn’t a huge fan but I loved it. I think mostly it reminded me of home and childhood and all my previous trips to Yellowstone.

Next we checked into our motel and were treated to pure New Zealand hospitality. The lady who owned the place checked us in and then asked if there was anything else we needed. I was on a quest to taste hokey pokey ice cream—a traditional treat made with chunks of honey comb-- and asked where the best ice cream shop was. She insisted on taking us to the grocery store instead (it would be cheaper), and drove us down the street to make our purchase. While we were in line waiting to pay, the guys behind us were buying mint and lamb flavored chips. I had grabbed a bag of Thai sweet chili flavored chips on an impulse and in a moment of ‘homesickness’. We proceeded to open each other’s bags and have a taste test there on the conveyor belt much to the dismay of our checker, I think. (I won, by the way.) Then we were back out to the car where our hostess with the mostess was telling us about the best way to eat our ice cream. Make a spider! Which we found out is like a float but you pour lemonade over it. Well, first off we’d bought chocolate flavored so I didn’t think that was a good idea but she insisted. When we got back to the motel she pulled out a couple of cans of Sprite (aka lemonade) and sent us back to our rooms to have our snack. We laughed over the lemonade snafu and then made hokey pokey floats which were surprisingly tasty!

That night we visited a Maori village for dinner and a cultural presentation. We were treated to a traditional hangi meal (cooked in the ground via steam) of all-we-could-eat lamb, veggies, and a million other things. It was delicious! Then we were taught about the Maori culture and witnessed a fabulous performance of traditional dances like the haka (always a treat!) After the show we walked to the wildlife park next door for a viewing of their kiwi birds. We had to be basically silent and look at them in the dark because they are so sensitive (plus that gave us a better chance to see them.) But it paid off. We got a great view of one. She was rooting around in the dirt, snuffling through the bushes and coming right up to the fence so we could see her. It was a fantastic sight.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

a beautiful vacation spot.

Monday morning we had a leisurely breakfast on our patio and then it was time to check out, head to the airport and begin a stressful day of travel to get to New Zealand. In my wonderful, efficient travel agent mode, planning a trip while trying to pack and compile grades and all, I failed to take into account that flying from Australia to New Zealand would be an international affair. There were limited flights from Ayers Rock to Sydney and even fewer from Sydney to Auckland, and in an effort to save us an entire day of hanging out in airports and doing nothing else, I stumbled on what looked like the perfect solution. But as we checked in to our flight to Ayers Rock I realized that I hadn’t accounted for the international-ness which meant we would be hard pressed to make the second flight (which was in another terminal) and then would most likely miss the car rental people on the other end. We’d either miss a flight and have to pay for a second hotel night, an extra day for the car and cut something off from our itinerary, or we’d have to have a miracle. It’s not a true travel experience if you don’t have at least one thing that doesn’t work out as planned but I’m thrilled to say this wasn’t ours. A miracle was had and after a lot of freaking out on my part we made everything just perfectly and were welcomed into Auckland about 1 am. I even managed to drive the car…on the left! (I had been driving on the left for the last six months, of course, but only a motorbike. A car is a completely different story!)

Tuesday we drove through rolling fields and farmlands to the little town of Matamata about 2 hours south of Auckland. There we were transported to Middle Earth and embarked on a tour of The Shire in Hobbiton. I was grinning like a little kid the whole time. It was so much fun! The landowners made a deal with Peter Jackson et al after filming the Lord of the Rings that they would be able to keep some of the sets up and viewable. When it came time to film the Hobbit they agreed to let them film there again but this time they had to rebuild all the sets using permanent materials. Thus they are set for life! They take bus loads full of people through every day at 75 bucks a head. Ridiculous, but it was worth it!

We wandered among hobbit holes peering into windows and peeking over fences at the vegetables growing in the gardens watching smoke rise from the chimneys and imagining all the festivities taking place underneath the party tree on the green and stepping across the threshold of Bag End. We wound up our tour at the Green Dragon Inn where we had a tasty ginger beer in front of the fire before heading back to reality.

Then we were back in the car and driving an hour east to the coastal town of Taraunga. It’s the busiest port in New Zealand but the area we were in was quiet, quaint and charming. Our hotel was gorgeous, with a pool overlooking the sea (which we unfortunately didn’t use because it was a bit too cold!) And a five minute walk took us to the waterfront where we had to choose between a hundred different options for dinner. We decided on a hearty pub meal with views of the water and then went back to the hotel to watch a movie and turn in a little early in the hopes of recovering from our late night the night before.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

a miracle.

I'm taking a tiny break from all of the vacation posts to share a powerful holiday message.  This past week is known as Holy Week to most of the Christian world, commemorating the last week of Jesus Christ's mortal life and ministry, culminating in the miracle of His resurrection Easter morning. I can't even begin to put into words the feelings I have for my Savior.  His perfect life was an example of all we should strive to be. His sacrifice gives each of us have the opportunity to repent and start again.  His death and resurrection are the means by which we can eventually overcome our own mortality and live eternally in His presence. I don't pretend to understand how any of it was accomplished but my faith in Him brings me peace and purpose in a world that is most often crazy and chaotic.

If you'd like to know more you can visit this link for a beautiful re-cap of the Easter story.

Thanks for bearing with me. Besides, I figured you could use a reprieve from all the travelogue-ing. Australia's pretty much done with. Next week...New Zealand!

an adventure Down Under (part 5)

Our afternoon/sunset tour took us west towards Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas as it’s often called in English. Where Uluru is formed from one sandstone monolith (it’s conjectured that only 30% of it is above ground the rest lies below like an iceberg), Kata Tjuta is composed of at least 36 sedimentary conglomerate domes. They look similar from a distance but up close are very different. We were able to see them from a lookout point and then hike to a waterhole settled between two of the domes. They are pretty spectacular in their own right but because there isn’t the same level of sacred mystery as there is for Uluru they often get overlooked. (Clarification: the aboriginal people have similar myths, legends and respect for Kata Tjuta but it hasn’t struck the same chord for some reason.)

After our hike we drove to a lookout point and stopped for ‘nibbles’ (Australian for fruit, crackers and cheese!) The sunset behind us was wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the sunrise we’d seen earlier but the changing light created even more patterns and colors on the face of Uluru stretched out in front of us. I realize it’s just a rock, but in the same way that the Mona Lisa is just a portrait. There’s just something about it that inexplicably grabs you and pulls you completely into its orbit, making you a part of that world that’s just a step outside the real world that we inhabit every day. There’s no rational explanation for it, you have to experience it for yourself. And I highly encourage you to do so!

We were back to the hotel by the time it was dark and spent some time eating ice cream and re-packing for the millionth time. As night fell the stars came out in infinite numbers, which was good because we had booked ourselves one last tour for the day, a lecture with the resident astronomer. The light pollution there was minimal and with not even a tree to block our view we had a fabulous expanse of black sky at our disposal. He pointed out stars only visible in the southern hemisphere, shared a few of the myths about the constellations and then the rest of the time was spent looking through high powered telescopes at faraway stars, clusters and galaxies. We literally saw millions of stars that night, over 3000 of them with the naked eye. There were stars that twinkled and glowed different colors and some so bright they were almost blinding. And then there was the absolute peace and quiet of the area itself. It made me feel humbled at the vastness of the universe and God’s creations and awed that I could be a part of something so immense and complex. What an amazing day!

The Olgas/Kata Tjuta

Ayers Rock/Uluru

an adventure Down Under (part 4)

Saturday we were back at the airport headed to the red center of Australia; Ayers Rock (also known by its aboriginal name : Uluru.) This was the part I’d been waiting for, the place I’d wanted to see most of all, the thing that made it truly and finally feel like I was in Australia.

A part of me always feels at home in the desert. The red rocks, the vast blue skies, the smell of sage and the brutal heat remind me of so many of my childhood hours spent in just such a locale. There’s something about that combination that makes me breathe a little deeper, my heart seem a bit calmer and my soul feel more whole. I’d also read a few books about the area and the beliefs of the aboriginal people regarding the rock and it’s nearly ‘supernatural’ powers and was excited to witness this magical place for myself. Our first glimpses were out the airplane window, and they were enough to ensure that all the expense (this short jaunt was costing almost as much as the rest of our trip combined) was going to be worth it.

We flew into Ayers Rock airport which is a short drive from the resort, the only speck of civilization for miles. The town of Alice Springs is 280 miles away and there’s not much else but wilderness in this area of the outback. It’s easy to imagine what it must have been like for early explorers, how it has remained so remote for so long, and why it captures the imagination the way it does. There are a few different accommodation options within the resort from camping to 5-star luxury. It’s all overpriced but as it’s the only option you’re kind of stuck. We went for the middle of the road and were more than happy with everything. There are multiple restaurants, souvenir shops, even a grocery store, post office and hair salon all on the property and a shuttle runs most hours of the day taking you just about anywhere you want to go (though it’s only about a 15-minute walk from end to end.) We spent the bulk of that first afternoon getting acquainted with our surroundings, wandering some of the nature trails to overlooks of the rocks, indulging in iced chocolates to combat the heat and verifying all of our tours for the next day. I capped off the day with an ironically delicious kangaroo burger and an early night to bed in preparation for the busy day ahead of us.

Sunday morning we started off at about 4:30 for a sunrise tour. There were millions of stars out and a cool desert breeze as we loaded into a 4WD vehicle for a drive out into the blackness and unknown. After a short hike up a hill we were served a breakfast of damper bread drizzled with honey, hot herbal tea, and a bacon, egg sandwich as we shivered, chatted with our neighbors and waited for the sun to rise.

Most sunrises are rather anti-climactic. The sky just gradually lightens and then it’s morning. There are rarely vivid colors or breathtaking views. This was the exception. The sky did lighten gradually and we were able to make out more and more of our surroundings but we were also treated to a sky colored scarlet, navy, pumpkin, and gold as the sun nudged its way over the horizon line. The area around us was primarily flat. Even in the deserts of home there are mountains and canyons and elevation changes in the distance. Here there is almost nothing. The rise we were on was one of the few ‘high’ points, the barely discernable shadow of Uluru far off in the distance was the other. The black outlines of trees and shrubs showed against the changing sky but Uluru itself seemed to change with the sky. First it was a shadow and then it shifted from gray to blue to purple. And as we loaded back into the van and drove up to it we saw it shift again from purple to brown to rust. Even closer and you could make out all the scars and pits and shadows that are lost at a distance. Like the pyramids in Egypt, it looks deceptively smooth from far away but up close it’s an entirely different story.

Our tour guide shared countless stories from the aboriginal history regarding the rock; how it came to be, the life lessons one should learn from it and some of the natural history as well as we drove and walked around the base. I wish I could remember them all or could have found a book with all the stories in it as they were simply fascinating. There were similarities to some of the Native American beliefs and ways of life that resonated with things I knew or had heard before yet most stood on their own and provided interesting insight into a people who have been widely acknowledged as the longest/oldest established culture in the world.

There is a recent effort to give back and make amends to the aboriginal people for all the misdeeds done them throughout history. There have been public apologies and days of remembrance but most significantly, I think, is the approach made in respect to Uluru. It’s regarded as a sacred site, similar to a temple or synagogue in western culture. Only men are permitted to visit and only when there is a tribal gathering or specific need. In 1985 the area ownership was handed back to the aboriginal tribe in the area with the agreement that they would lease it to the National Parks Agency and it would be jointly managed. One of the stipulations of the agreement was that tourists would no longer be able to climb it. Obviously it’s not a perfect system, people continue to climb up (and die on) the rock. But great efforts are being made to honor the aboriginal beliefs and restore ecological balance to the area.

I would have loved to have done more but we had to head back to the hotel for a little lunch and relaxation before setting off on our sunset tour starting at 3 pm. 

More to come!

Friday, April 18, 2014

an adventure Down Under (part 3)

Friday we had booked a tour of the nearby Blue Mountains. We started off with a visit to Featherdale Wildlife Park where we able to pet koalas and kangaroos and see birds, crocodiles, wallabies, wombats and more. Then we drove to Scenic World, a former coal mine turned nature park. The coal cart tracks have been turned into the world’s steepest scenic railway taking you from the top of the mountain into the valley below. They also have a tram and cable car that fly above the mountain tops providing amazing views. Jenny and I decided to do a little hiking down to Katoomba Falls and a lookout over the Three Sisters (a rock formation with a mythological story to go with it.) We took the railway back up to the top for lunch just as the clouds rolled in blanketing the mountains in a thick mist and bringing the rain with it.

That evening we met one of Jenny’s friends in town for dinner, waited in a mad long line for some delicious gelato, and practically tripped over Gerard Butler on the sidewalk. True story! It was a great way to finish up our visit in Australia’s largest city.