Thursday, February 24, 2011

From Tears to Aroha

These have been a stressful couple of days, and as I have emerged from the initial instinctual reactions to this unsteadiness (literal and figurative), the intensity of what happened in Christchurch really hit home. There were moments when I could not see anything about it without tearing up. It has become obvious that I was in one of the safest buildings in the entire city, and I was far enough outside the city center (2.5 km from the cathedral), that I did not see the horrible wreckage and people everywhere.

But then with each news item, I get hit with the devastation again. I realize what befell that beautiful city and its wonderful citizens. I ask, “why me?” with the deep knowledge that the universe works in interesting and unique ways and that I got out unscathed to do something else with my life on this planet. My gratitude grows. Yesterday was nearly useless for me, but this morning, I decided to sit for a few minutes and deal with it. I dealt with it the only way I know how – metta.

Metta is a Sanskrit word meaning loving-kindness. Metta meditation is a type of meditation where you offer loving-kindness to yourself and others. It is much more than that as well, but for purposes of this post (especially on the non-yoga blog), that will suffice.

Short of giving money (which I have done) and food (which I will do), there is not much for me to do to help the people of Christchurch. Crisis cleanup is just not my specialty, not to mention that I have but nine months to write a 150-page thesis that I have barely begun. But we can all offer our metta to the world. I can sit and wonder why I got out so easily, but that does no one any good.

During orientation, we learned a little Maori. It is, after all, one of the two national languages in New Zealand. The one word that stuck with me was “aroha.” Yes, it looks almost the same as aloha and has the same roots. It has a more “limited” definition than aloha, and we were told that it really means love. As I tought about metta, I turned to aroha, the Maori concept of what I have studied in Buddhist and yoga practices. I thought it was a perfect transition.

Then I looked up the meaning and realized it is far more perfect than I could have imagined. It may be an online dictionary, but this is the definition I found: as a verb, “to love, feel pity, feel concern for, feel compassion, empathise,” and as a noun, “affection, sympathy, charity, compassion, love, empathy.” It encompasses exactly what I feel for the people of Christchurch, exactly what I feel for those who survived but saw others who did not.

Below are two photos of what I saw after the quake and a photo of the building I was in when it struck. While it is obvious there is damage, you will notice that it is nothing compared to the utter destruction of the Central Business District (CBD). I have learned so much from the kiwis in the past month (Monday was a month after I arrived). Perhaps the greatest lesson has been the one of aroha – love coupled with all its meanings, including charity, compassion, and empathy.

The flooded street. I think I heard the word liquefaction 500 times that day, and I had never heard it before.

But one photo of the cracks in the sidewalk, but they were not too bad near us.

The AMI Rugby stadium, where the Forum/conference was being held. We were on the 5th floor. My backpack and bag are still there. It is sort of surreal to think of all that stuff just sitting there - the spilled water and our bags - simple reminders of what transpired.

There is no doubt the tears will continue. In fact, they flowed most freely this evening at a Dunedin community gathering (a vigil, in the United States) in which a group of people gathered to support Christchurch. As I write this, a helicopter is flying overhead, and my first thought is that it is from Christchurch – Dunedin is the closest big city to Christchurch, about a 3-hour car trip. But more than the tears and the constant feeling that the Earth is going to shatter below me, I feel aroha, for the people in Christchurch, but also for all people – a constant reminder that we must hold that notion at all times.

It is unusual for me to share so openly, but after this tragedy, it only seems natural. So, from tears, to aroha, to hopefully finding a better way of living in the world. As I said in my Is Yoga Legal post, “As we got off the plane, I told a high-ranking US politician that if we are to survive, we have to act, at all times, as we acted that day. The best part was that he agreed. For a brief moment, idealism, from my yoga background and my generational attitude, was able to come through.”

Hopefully, I can now move forward and start getting some work done again. After all, I am here for a purpose, and that purpose must be fulfilled, now more than ever.

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

As "Luck" Would Have It

This post could also be called “The Morning After . . . on 4.5 hours of sleep.” In other words, please bear with me and my probable typos and grammatical mistakes.

As you all probably know by now, Christchurch New Zealand was struck by a Magnitude 6.3 earthquake a few minutes before 1pm on Tuesday (New Zealand time, which would make it about 7pm Wednesday, Eastern Time in the United States). Instead of being in Dunedin or Wellington where I will be studying for the next 9 months, I was in Christchurch. I was part of a Forum called the Future Partners Forum, which was part of a larger US-NZ Partnership Forum. There are press releases to both forums, but suffice it to say that business and political leaders from both countries were attending to discuss the US-NZ partnership, and we were asked to discuss its future. It was quite an honor, but not the point of this post.

The Future Partners consisted of 9 United States Fulbright Fellows and 11 New Zealanders. We all had vastly different backgrounds, and the Americans and kiwis met for the first time on Sunday evening. That is important to this story. To keep this somewhat short, I am using bullet points and focusing on “as luck would have it.” At the end, you will know why.

As luck would have it . . .

·      We were an over-anxious and productive group. We had a “brown-bag” lunch. Instead of being in the center of town, and all spread amongst different restaurants, where the vast majority of the Forum was, we were all together working through our lunch break when we could have been socializing, etc. In other words, we were together as a community. Readers of my other blog will know the importance of community to me, and if you are curious, here is a link to 12 blog posts on it.
·      We were in a particular room of the rugby stadium. As the floor started to shake, the building did exactly what it was supposed to do. It shook violently, and water glasses fell, a little of the soft ceiling fell (so someone told me, but I did not see it), and the windows and walls stayed intact. My CA training kicked in, and I protected my head before my computer, which got a little water damage and saved immediately after the shaking ended, but my head came first.
·      We were in New Zealand. I am from CA, but little did I know how unusual the phrase “Duck and Cover” is to the vast majority of Americans. The kiwis made sure we were all under tables. They felt they had an obligation to protect us in their most common natural disaster that makes CA look calm by comparison. Not only did our kiwi counterparts scream to get under tables, but I heard that other Americans were dragged under tables by the kiwis they were with.
·      We were in New Zealand. Within seconds, and I mean seconds, crew from the stadium were in the room, on radios, evacuating us from the room and the building.
·      I have a blackberry. Ok, this is purely personal, but as we were walking from the 5th floor to the outside, I emailed my four parents to tell them I was safe. This was before the phone lines got clogged, and I could still get through. They heard that I was safe before they heard there was an earthquake.
·      We were in New Zealand (are you seeing a theme here?). The entire staff was outside with us, comforting us, taking care of us. They all live in Christchurch, and they were concerned about their family and friends and their homes, but they stuck with us until a bus arrived.
·      There was a home across the way. Let’s just say that within minutes several of us had to use the facilities. We walked across the street and were welcomed into what can only be described as a college house of boys. Clean or not, they had a toilet, and they let many of us use it. (Later, as we left the area, they had set up a card game outside – not for us, but they were doing it, probably because they were bored, and there was little power in the city.) They were really, really kind to let us use their home.
·      We are Americans (and our kiwi friends were not leaving us). The embassy acted fast! Some of the Partnership Forum was also in the stadium and found us about an hour after the earthquake. The rest of the people started to migrate back. Before 5pm (now that I think about it, that was about 4 hours after the earthquake when roads were nearly at a standstill and the city was in shock), a bus was there for all of us ready to take us to the Antarctic Center. We were all accounted for, and reaccounted for, before we got on that bus. We made sure our kiwi friends got on with us. This was the Partnership Forum, after all, and we are partners . . . and now friends. The embassy took them with us!
·      We were with some VIPs, and the military cares about us. We were at the Antarctic Center less than an hour when it was decided that we would be evacuated by NZ Air Force jets to Wellington. They made sure that we future partners signed up for our boarding passes first and foremost. We were getting out! But more importantly, being with these people made us all feel safe. Without going into specifics, people trained in disaster preparedness, who have helped with some of the largest most recent natural disasters in the world, were there, and they were working together to make sure we were all cared for properly.
·      We were with some caring people. This was the first trip on a C130 for most of us, and for many, this was their first earthquake. One VIP in particular spent the pre-flight once we were on the plane ensuring we had earplugs and ensuring that we were ready for a different sort of air trip. (We also passed out sick bags for those that were worried.) That same VIP realized that several of my friends were a tad nervous, and he chatted with one for 15 minutes about her work, her boyfriend, etc., just to distract her. We had to scream to hear, and even then it was hard. The outpouring of love and support to everyone was amazing.
·      We have an amazing Ambassador. Here is a link to his official blog. Let me just say that it was his call that we were safely removed. It was him on the tarmac as we got off the plane. It was him who ensured that we had housing last night. It was him who made sure that a Navy Captain was there to pick us up and take us to our lodging. The embassy staff, along with the Ambassador, ensured we had everything. I have rarely before been so impressed with a group of people.
·      I was wearing Flourite. Ok, odd one, but I’m putting it here. I bought this bracelet about two years ago, and it is both pretty and useful. Apparently, florite sold out after 9/11 because it has a calming effect. I don’t know if it helped, but I’m glad I have it on.
·      We are alive.

That last point is, of course, the most important. As I talked to people who saw the damage, and the news came through that at least 65 people had died, the cathedral I had photographed that morning to show my parents a view from their hotel where they are set to stay in a month, had collapsed, and hotels and buildings around the city still contained missing persons, the last point hit home harder and harder. We are alive, uninjured, and together.

These next few days will be about processing. I beg of you to think of those in need right now. I was treated the way I would expect royalty to be treated, perhaps because I was with the VIPs of both countries, but also because I know how much the Fulbright program means to our current Ambassador. I feel like I do not deserve such treatment, but I am grateful for the support and caring that we received.

I have been in many, many earthquakes in my life, but this was, by far, the roughest (though not worst magnitude). The last time I went through one that resulted in a state of emergency I was 7. Today I can grasp what happened. I woke up this morning in a strange but safe bed unsure of what I experienced yesterday. There will be more posts, but I wanted you to all know that I feel “lucky.” I do not actually believe in luck, so the better word is grateful, incredibly, incredibly, incredibly grateful. Wow!

It is now several hours later, and I have not had internet access to post this, so I am adding to it. I am actually on a flight from Wellington to Dunedin as I type this, and as I read the newspaper, the survivor guilt sunk in. Why me? Not only did I survive, but I got to leave the city – in a military jet. I know it is the embassy’s job to ensure our safety, but after being in a devastating earthquake my biggest inconvenience is that I had to buy a toothbrush at the airport, wear the same clothes two days in a row, and get back to Dunedin about 15 hours after I was supposed to arrive there. Oh, and some of my stuff is still in Christchurch. That is hard to stomach, really hard. But yes, I am grateful, and I know that this Forum / Partnership is going to do what we can to send whatever help we can to the people who have been hurt, killed, displaced, etc.

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Little Things

During orientation we were asked to embrace the differences between New Zealand and the United States. I appreciate the sentiment; after all, an underlying purpose of the Fulbright Program is to ensure understanding between cultures. But it seems sort of silly between New Zealand and the United States. After all, I have one friend on a Fulbright in Kenya, and another friend currently in Georgia (the country, not the state) teaching English after having spent time in South Korea teaching English and doing the Peace Corps in Tanzania. New Zealand is small potatoes next to those.

With that disclaimer, however, there are a few differences I have noticed, and while I do not want to imply that either country has a single story (the link is to an amazing article written by the friend in Kenya about places having single stories), I do want to point out the most interesting differences I have noticed over the past month.

First, people here walk around without shoes. I thought it was just in the south at first. After all, the south in so many countries (gross generalization) seems to be far more relaxed. But no, people do it everywhere in the country, from the Bay of Islands (think San Diego beach town) to Auckland (think major metropolis – 1/3 of the New Zealand population lives here). And yes, they go into stores and restaurants without shoes. By no means is it everyone, but I see several everyday. The best part was the American I saw at the bank without shoes – apparently he caught on quickly.

Second, teatime! I wrote about how wonderful teatime is on my other blog, Is Yoga Legal, but here I want to discuss it differently. I noted in my last post that NZ used to be tied to the Motherland – the UK until it realized that it is much closer to the Pacific Island nations. I really will get more into that another time, but back to tea. The tea culture, no doubt, comes from NZ’s English history. With no evidence to support this notion, I believe that teatime was a requirement in England. It is COLD and DARK. Tea warms you up, which seems to be as good a reason as any to have morning tea and afternoon tea and tea after supper. I happen to love this, and I love even more that the law school at the University of Otago has a tearoom. It is about the size of a closet, but there is a hot water dispenser, and a sign asking people not to use too much milk, so there is enough for everyone. Many people take milk in their tea here – something that has not caught no as much in America.

Third, lax (or no) security on airlines. I did not remove my shoes or throw out my coffee when transferring from the International to the Domestic Terminal in Auckland and going through security again. I even got to keep my sweatshirt on. I thought it was lovely. Then I went from Dunedin to Wellington where they opened security ten minutes before the flight took off. I thought that was cute. Then, from Wellington to Dunedin, my flight number had 4 digits. Someone told me this meant it would be a small plane with no security. I laughed . . . then I saw that she was right. You read that correctly – no security. I will just leave that for you to ponder.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one final thing (though there are many more, and another post will  come with those). I took a shuttle to the airport for my trip to Wellington, and my bracelet fell off in the shuttle. The shuttle driver came inside and found me, outside security, of course, because it was not open, and she returned my bracelet to me. I think that action embodies so much of what I have witnessed here – amazing people. I laugh and grin about shoeless people in banks, but what I really see is how wonderful people have been, how welcoming, warm, and genuinely happy to talk to me.

I know there are wonderful people in the United States, but when we are forced to rely on others, living in a foreign country, we appreciate it a lot more. I feel so blessed to be here, so lucky to be among such amazing and wonderfully warm-hearted people, and to be in this beautiful country.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

English or Pacific?

After the amazing trip to the Maori Marae, Fulbright orientation continued to amaze. We had a wonderful introduction to the flora and fauna of New Zealand, during which we learned why NZ is full of such huge, and many flightless, birds – there were no land predators. The big debate is whether there are one or two native mammals in NZ. Yes, one or two. They know of a very small bat that does not act like other bats, and they just recently found the remains of what might have been another mammal, but no one is sure.

Sadly, the Maori and then the Europeans brought rats, pigs, dogs, etc. to the country and almost overnight wiped out the vast majority of the huge, flightless birds. Today, the kiwi bird is the most well-known flightless bird that remains in the country, and it has iconic status here, especially in that New Zealanders often refer to themselves as kiwis, though not as often as I had expected. ;)

Then, after this amazing introduction, we took a guided tour through the Otari Bush right within the city limits of Wellington. You would have no idea, however, that you were in a city. We saw an 800-year-old Rimu, which is one of the native trees in New Zealand, few of which remain that old because of all the logging and fires by people.

 Yes, this is a group of Fulbright Fellows and Scholars hugging the 800-year-old tree. :)

Yes, that is actually sun and blue sky in Wellington. We were so lucky!

The next day, we learned all about the peopling of the Pacific, the migration from Taiwan through the islands, all the way to Hawaii. Not much is known for sure, but my big question throughout the presentation, and one that I asked, was, “how did they miss Australia?” When people talk about the Pacific Islands, they include New Zealand, but not Australia because the migration never went there. It is the largest landmass, by far, in the region, and people made it through vast ocean space to end up in Hawaii, but they never went to Australia. This is a question I will continue to ponder.

It leads to another interesting issue, and one brought up by our flora and fauna speaker. Is New Zealand an English nation or a Pacific Island? He told us that when he was growing up, prior to the 1980s, really, New Zealand was British through and through. New Zealanders were proud to send their men to fight in England’s wars, proud of their English status, and certainly fish and chips are available everywhere. But then something started to change. The Maori population got louder, began to question the role and implementation of the Treaty of Waitangi – the document that “created” European New Zealand, New Zealand began to have its own trade with nearby nations, as opposed to sending all its goods to England, and they realized that they are a small, isolated land mass, but surrounded by Pacific Islands, all of which have their own cultures and customs, many of which are anciently shared with the Maori.

Overtime New Zealand has started to see itself as a Pacific Island instead of as a British country. New Zealand is, however, still a part of the British commonwealth, but more than half of our speakers, including the ones talking specifically about the political climate, discussed the growing belief that New Zealand will form a Republic soon. There has even been talk of changing the flag from the Union Jack / Southern Cross to a picture of the Silver Leaf – the national plant (and absolutely beautiful) of New Zealand, and I even heard someone mention the idea of renaming the country to Aotearoa, the Maori name for the country, meaning Land of the Long White Cloud. In other words, though they take tea at 10 and 4, New Zealand is finding its roots as a Pacific Nation more appealing.

All of this was great as we ended orientation with a discussion with a Member of Parliament and a tour of the Parliament building. It was loads of interesting and useful information, and after being oriented, I feel so much more prepared to engage with the community here, and so excited and honored to be part of a culture coming to grips with its place in the world. I certainly did not give this topic enough justice here, and I am sure I will add more in the future, but this post is long enough.

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Goodwill to All

Fulbright orientation has begun, and what a great experience it has been so far. On the first day, we got a Maori pronunciation lesson and then headed out to a Maori Marae, called Waiwhetu. The marae has a traditional meetinghouse whose name translated into English is “Goodwill to all Men.” The people who live at the marae exhibited this sentiment beyond expectations. The word marae includes the space of the meeting house, but also the space around it as it is the center of the community for all types of activities.

As I mentioned in my last post, New Zealanders are a hospitable people. But this was hospitality beyond measure. Interestingly, the marae’s sister city is Tempe, Arizona, so I was called out being from Phoenix. In addition, there are a couple of lawyers in the community, and one of them does family law, so I hope to continue staying in touch with the people of the community.

We were welcomed with a traditional welcome ceremony, in which the US Ambassador to New Zealand was our representative and spoke on our behalf, thanking the members of the community for welcoming us and providing such warm hospitality. We had the opportunity to speak with him as well as spend two days with the members of the community. It was truly an honor.

In addition to the cultural interaction, we had a presentation about the Treaty of Waitangi, which is considered the founding document of New Zealand (with a funny story that opened my eyes yet again to the power of beginner's mind). It was a treaty signed by a representative of Queen Victoria and many of the tribal (iwi) leaders of New Zealand. It was first signed on February 6, 1840, and during my whirlwind trip through the north island, we stopped at Waitangi. We had the honor of hearing about the treaty from a Maori who continues to be involved in its present-day implementation.

All of this was wonderful, but I think the best part of the experience was being in the meetinghouse, in fact, sleeping in the meetinghouse. A traditional Maori meetinghouse is built to look like a person. The long pole along the roof represents the person’s backbone, the rafters are the rib cage, and the front is a person’s arms welcoming people inside. Each of them have a head on the front depicting the person represented. Inside, it is a dedication to the ancestors of the community. It is sacred space, a place for births, weddings, funerals, discussions, welcomes, etc.

A view from the front of the meeting house. The rafters reaching out are the arms welcoming all people, and you can see the head at the very top of the triangle.

A close-up of the head, representing the ancestor after whom the meetinghouse is named.

We all slept together on mattresses literally touching (though we each had our own mattress), and as I fell asleep, I felt the energy of the room literally holding me. Another Fulbright Fellow said the next morning, “it was held space.” In other words, I was not the only one who felt it. Being part of that sacred space was a delight and an honor, but on top of all of that, the house is called, “Goodwill to all men.” It was yet another reminder that when we wish all people goodwill, when we attempt to live together, in community, with all people (and I would say all beings), we find ourselves in that held space. We find ourselves safe.

Orientation is far from over. Up next is an introduction to the flora and fauna of New Zealand, a tour of the New Zealand bush, and then more information about the political structure of the country, but I am glad we started by being held, all together, by the ancestors of a very local Maori community. There can be no better welcome to this hospitable country than the sacred space of a home inviting us to have goodwill to all.

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What a Trip

This has been an intense week. I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter (who will be getting her master’s in cross cultural psychology focusing on deaf culture), and together we took two days to drive to Auckland from Wellington. We stopped in a cute town called Whangerei (the WH is an F sound, but more on Maori pronunciation after orientation begins today), where we climbed a huge hill and a tower and experienced the craziest wind ever, and then we headed to Waitomo – the home of the infamous caves from the last post!

After the caves, we headed to Auckland where I got my third exposure to New Zealand hospitality – my sister-in-law’s, sister’s in-laws had me over for a night and invited me back anytime I am up in Auckland again. I have never met their son, though I do know his wife (my sister-in-law’s sister) quite well. The New Zealanders are amazing and wonderful. I feel so blessed to be here.

The next morning, my first travel buddy and I met up with two other Fulbrighters, and we started by heading up to the Bay of Islands. Along the way, we found a gorgeous and wonderful café totally by chance (yes, I know, the universe was watching, but it felt like chance in the moment), full of yummy veggie food. Did I mention that one travel buddy is vegan and the other is vegetarian, not to mention I would prefer to eat veggie 90% of the time, and the last guy also likes veggie? It worked out well for that stop. J We also stopped at some famous toilets, decorated by mosaic and a perfect opportunity to get out of the car and stretch our legs!

The bathrooms and my travel buddies (Tom, Sunshine, Elli)

Our next stop was Waitangi, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, which is the “agreement” between the Maori and the Europeans. I will have a lot more to say about this after orientation, so here is just a beautiful shot of the locale, and the history will come later.

Maori war canoe overlooking the amazingly beautiful lake with a really cool tree!

The Bay of Islands was a bit like a San Diego beach town, but our hostel was nice, and we had a beautiful sunset walk. The next morning I woke up early, walked alone for a bit, and then we got on a boat to see some dolphins. My travel buddies wanted to swim with them, but that ended up not being possible because the only ones we saw had too many juveniles with them, and if people get in the water the juveniles forget to eat (too excited by the people), and they do not get their blubber layer, and they could get hypothermia – better just to stay on the boat. But we could put our heads directly over the edge of the boat and look right down into the water. It was awesome!

Then we headed back towards Auckland, with a stop at some beautiful waterfalls along the way. I mean, why not?

Back in Auckland, we bypassed the city and encountered some more kiwi hospitality. Here goes: one of our travel buddies worked at a science camp for a few weeks, met someone there who lives outside of Auckland with her parents. He asked if we could stay, and she said yes. When we arrived, however, it turned out that there just was not enough space at her parents’ house, so they sent us to their friend’s house, who not only gave us all a mattress but breakfast and my first encounter with vegemite as well. Vegemite is about the scariest looking creation in the world, but then I read the ingredients and realized it is brewer’s yeast and salt, which is chalk full of B vitamins, so I tried it. It’s salty, but not too bad. Go Brits!

Back on the road, we headed up to the Coromandel Peninsula, a much nicer beach town in my book, with a more relaxed and less surfer vibe. We found another great veggie restaurant where we had lunch and breakfast the next morning with a beautiful Dalai Lama quote on the wall – “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.” How true, how true. After lunch, we rented some bikes, and biked to a hiking trail, then hiked along to a beautiful lake. Then later, we hiked some more, waded through some incoming tides, and headed out to one of the Top 10 beaches in New Zealand. Getting back was a bit interesting, but we made it before the tide came in. Go us!!

From Coromandel, we headed to Rotorua, the geothermal capital of New Zealand with a stop at some falls along the way and a beautiful beach we happened upon because we needed a rest stop (read pee break). When we arrived in Rotorua, it was hot and humid, so the other three went for a swim in Blue Lake, and I headed out on what many said was a 2-hour hike and made it back in just under an hour. It was a GORGEOUS hike through native bush around the beautiful lake, and I had a blast walking around getting rejuvenated by the trees (I do not swim if I can avoid it).

The last day of the trip we headed to the sulphur pools in the morning, which were amazing, and they overlooked the lake and the mountains, and it was misty and lovely. Then three of us headed to the Wai-O-Taupo Thermal Wonderland halfway between Rotorua and Taupo. I was not sure I wanted to go in, as it was sort of expensive, but it was well worth it. We saw pools of geothermal water that was crazy colors, much of it bubbling and steaming, and the craziest green water I have ever seen. I swear it was neon. This photo does not do it justice, but it is the best my camera could do.

From there we headed to Taupo where we sat on a beach, some swam, and then three of us walked up the river to watch crazy people jump off a platform, plummeting towards their death only to be wretched back up by a rope attached to their ankles. For added “fun” they could ask to have the rope long enough to dunk them. The other option (which sounds less scary but still probably not on my list) is the swing, where you sit in a harness, whereupon they drop you down into the same chasm (actually off the same platform at a different point), and you swing back and forth until they haul you back up. At least on the bungy, you get off on the ground.  Craziness, I tell you, but those are the adventure tourists, and Taupo is home to bungy jumping.

Finally, we ended our time together with a lovely sunset walk through Taupo, and the next morning we got up early, and drove to Wellington. Really, we got up early, got in the car, they fell asleep, and I drove to Wellington, but it was great. We got back in time to return the car before we got charged extra, and we had the day to catch up on life. Today is when Fulbright orientation starts!

Ok, one more finally – I need to say that this blog has no affiliation with Fulbright. Anything I say is my own and is not supported by Fulbright in any way. This blog is really about fun and personal adventure, and if you would like to read my more professional blog (still not Fulbright-affiliated), please visit it at

Bad news - I lost my McDonald's internet (used up my bandwidth), and the waterfront internet is too slow to allow uploads of photos, so the rest will be uploaded later. Until then, check out the photos on facebook that I have posted. Here are some public links:

Namaste and Blessings!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Home of Adventure Tourism

Many, many people have told me that while in New Zealand I absolutely must jump off of something, whether attached to a rope only to be ripped back up by my ankles moments from crashing into the rocks below or by jumping out of a plane to freefall for a minute attached to some guy I do not know until he deems the time worthy to pull the cord and allow the parachute to open. My answer? NOT ON YOUR LIFE!!

But there is no denying that New Zealand is the adventure tourism capital of the world. From bungy jumping to sky diving to jet boating and ziplining, this country has something to offer anyone who needs insanity to get a kick out of life.

On Monday, another Fulbrighter and myself hopped into a car in Wellington with our only instruction being to return the car with 48 hours in Auckland.  (From Wellington to Auckland you can rent a car for free because so many people take them the other way. How cool is that?) We decided to spend a day at the Waitomo Caves about ¾ of the way between the two cities.

I would have been perfectly happy taking the walking tours of the three caves to see the cave formations and the glow worms, but my travel buddy said she wanted to do the whole experience, including repelling, ziplining, and hiking through the crazy current that runs 200 feet below the earth. I obliged.

So what did we do? We abseiled (in the US, we call this repelling) 37 meters into the cave. Alone on a rope, we inched our ways down, and yes, I freaked out halfway through. Then, without warning, they had us turn off our lights, and one by one attached us to a flying fox (aka a zipline), and let us go. To add to our amusement, they smacked pots on the other end to make it sound like some of us slammed into rocks. I went last – NOT a good idea. ;) Both were awesome, though. The zipline was probably one of the highlights, and the only adventure tourism I might repeat in the future.

Next they sat us on a cliff overlooking the water and handed us hot chocolate and cookies. It was cold down there. Then they handed us innertubes and said jump. Ok, I can fly through the air attached to a cord and fall 100 feet into a cave, but I am absolutely not jumping off the side of a cliff to land in water. I neither like swimming nor jumping into things, and the combination seems absurd. I climbed down the side of the rock (luckily I was not the only one). From there, we grabbed a rope and hauled ourselves upstream while sitting in the innertubes. And that is when we saw the glow worms.

People come from all over to see the glow worm caves. They are beautiful when it is dark and peaceful, and the glow worms light the top of the cave. So what are they? Maggots, really. Yup, they glow to attract other insects, including their own kind, and then release little strings, much like a spider web, though not webbed, and then unsuspecting insects fly into them, get stuck, and become lunch. Then the glow worms turn into flies, whereupon they have one task – mating – and then they die. But they must be the most beautiful maggots in the world!

After pulling and paddling upstream, we took a leisurely (though getting very cold) float back downstream right back to the site of the jump whereupon we started hiking back upstream, with a little stop for chocolate and hot tang. Ok, this requires a stop . Normally I would not touch Tang, I would not smell Tang, but when you are freezing at the bottom of a cave, and your body needs the sugar, in any form, and you do not have a nice hot cup of tea and honey, you take the Tang. No judging!

Then came the part they left out of the brochure – the swimming and climbing up waterfalls. Yes, we did what they lovingly call the drunken stumble upstream. This entails attempting to walk over rocks you cannot see through black water against the tide. Then we swam, crawled our way through the rebirthing channel, so small I barely fit through, and then climbed, yes climbed up a waterfall, with a little waterslide thrown in there for good measure.  Did I mention that I have a huge phobia of water in my face?

So we climbed up two waterfalls and made it back to land, where it was sunny and beautiful and in a land full of trees, and they took us back, gave us showers, and gave us soup and bagels. I warmed up by the evening, and as I write this the next morning, most of me is not sore, except my wrist, my ankle (still a bit sore from a 3-month-old sprain) and right where the helmet attached to my head.  But I do not mind that particular pain – I banged my head many, many times, and that helmet was always there to lessen the blow. Thank goodness!

So, that is my experience with adventure tourism in the adventure tourism capital of the world. I failed to jump off anything, but I faced some fears, swam, got water in my face and come on, I repelled into a cave and lived to tell the tale! I deserve some credit, right?

I do not have a lot of the photos, but here is a before shot of me freaking out. You cannot tell, but I was about ready to die. The other photo would not upload, and I must get going, so this is all you get, sorry!

Thanks for reading!