Tag Archives: friends

Where is home?

“Where is home?”

This is a question that I have been asked many times throughout my life. By friends and family alike. To most, it is a simple question. “Where is home?” However for me, it has always been complicated. Being born in Texas, growing up in Indonesia and living in New Zealand for half of my life, means that I have several places to choose from. Throw San Diego into the mix, things just get crazy. This leads to questions such as “Do you not consider New Zealand home?”, “Where do you identify yourself with most thought?”, and “Where do you want to live the rest of your life?”

I have never truly known the answer. Honestly, home has been scattered for me. I have never truly had a place to call home. I have never felt like I quite fit in any one place. I leave parts of me everywhere I live, and in a lot of places that I travel. Part of me always viewed Texas as home, and I had always planned on returning there in the future. Indonesia could never be a home that I could return to, due to citizenship requirements, and so much has changed since I left at the age of 12, but it still has a special place in my heart. And although I have lived in New Zealand for 12 years, I have never felt truly settled there. I have never truly fit into one place.

However right now, I am sitting on a train, and reflecting. I am currently obsessed with a travel writer, Paul Theroux, and in a book of his that I am currently enthralled by, he writes that “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.” And today this is exactly how I feel.

I left Wellington one year ago. I left New Zealand 9 months ago. And today I return.

I return, but I am definitely not the same person as when I left. Today I leave my heart in San Diego.

San Diego. Bridge to Coronado.

Who knew that 6 months could make such an impact on someone’s life? I sure didn’t. Not until now. My entire trip, throughout my travels in Asia, Europe and Africa, and even recently through the East Coast and Midwest of the States, I found that the best memories are those that you don’t expect to make. That you don’t have photos of. Instead, you have mental images, stories to tell, and memories that will last a lifetime. It is not the tourist sites you see, museums you visit or Broadway shows you see. It is the people you meet along the way. The people who make an impact on your life. That is the true difference between a tourist and a traveler. A tourist sees a city. They don’t experience the city.

Baseball game - Padres v Giants. Phi Alpha Delta.

And I definitely experienced San Diego. I had no expectations about San Diego. No tourist sites to see. I didn’t even know if I would make a single friend, or do well in any of my law school classes. So to leave my heart behind in this city, after only 6 months, truly amazes me.

San Diego Mission Beach

The people who I met, who I became friends with, and who I saw at least once a week if not every single day, are the reason that San Diego is now the place that I call ‘my home’. So, those in San Diego who made an impact on my life, this blog post is for you.

My amazing San Diego friends, you made me never want to leave. I extended my trip by two months so I could spend time with you. And even now, I am not viewing my trip back to NZ as ‘returning home’. My trip to New Zealand is a vacation. A very long vacation, where I will be starting a career at a law firm, but a vacation nonetheless.

Because, to everyone who I know from San Diego, you have truly touched my heart and changed my life. I am not an overly emotional person, but the very thought of leaving San Diego, and leaving you, made me so upset that I refused to acknowledge it. Because once I acknowledged it, it was real, I was leaving. I was leaving all of you. I cried more on my last night in this city, saying farewell to you all, than I cried when my first serious boyfriend and I broke up. When everyone was avoiding the topic, saying ‘see you later’ or just ‘see you soon’, and Jon straight up says ‘Good bye Jen’, I lost it. I couldn’t hold it together, hearing the words ‘good bye’. Good bye is final. It means no returns. I am still shedding tears, on a train to LA, probably making everyone around me incredibly uncomfortable. I will most likely cry until there are no more tears left. But that just goes to show how much you all truly mean to me, and how much San Diego means to me.

Because in San Diego, somehow, just somehow, I found a place to call home. This is not to say that I am not excited to return to New Zealand. I am. I can’t wait to see my friends and family. To eat a crumpet, have a flat white and enjoy a Monteith’s Summer Ale in the sun. See sheep, snowy mountains, and beautiful New Zealand landscape. Go for a run around Hagley Park. But it is no longer my home. I don’t think it ever was, but it was the closest place I had to a home. I truly cherish the past six months, the experiences I had, and all the wonderful memories. The good times, the bad times, and the absolutely ridiculous times. There were many firsts, things on a kind of reverse bucket list of things I never knew I wanted to do, until I did them. I don’t regret a single day, and I wish I could re-live every single day I was there. But alas, I am getting emotional, and I have a long journey ahead of me. Time for another glass of wine.

You stay classy San Diego.

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Farewell 2012…

I can’t believe that it is New Years Eve. December 31, 2012. The year has flown by so quickly. It seems like just yesterday I was finishing my job at Buddle Findlay in Wellington, getting on the ferry to drive down to Christchurch, saying goodbye to my home for a year. Researching and preparing for my round the world trip, and then again saying goodbye to my boyfriend, my Mom, and my friends.

Little did I know, at the beginning of this year, what 2012 would bring. It exceeded all my expectations – just blew them out of the water. 2012 will probably be one of the most memorable of my life, a year I will truly cherish. Not merely due to my experiences and the places I visited, but because of the people I met along the way. When I talk about my travels, especially through Vietnam, I focus on the people I met, not what temples or museums I visited. The people. Both tourists and locals.ImageMr Tien, my motorbike driver in Hue, who drove off road through the rice paddies, past small villages, and taught me all about the culture of central Vietnam. Luna and Tom, Hanoi locals who introduced El and me to the local activity of drinking lemon tea and eating sunflower seeds by the side of the road, whilst sitting on child size plastic seats. And I will never forget Abdul, our whiskey-drinking joyful guide in Tanzania, who had a personality larger than my Dad’s personality and mine combined. I will never forget seeing a warthog at the end of our first day, me yelling out ‘Pumba!’, and Abdul driving after him, rhythmically repeating Pumba Pumba Pumba. And driving through the savannahs, listening to ‘Circle of Life’, while he taught us all about the animals, the local culture, and his experiences as a park ranger. It was my very own Lion King.

And this year really helped me realize who I am as a person. I learned a lot about myself along my travels, and became more confident and stronger. I moved to San Diego, to a brand new law school, where I didn’t know a single soul. I had never even been to San Diego – I had no idea what to expect. I thought it could be an opportunity to reinvent myself – no one knew me, so I could be anyone I wanted to! However I soon found that I was the exact same person here. Just improved. I had no constraints on my personality based on prior high school dramas. It was refreshing, and reaffirming.

And as I said above, this year has really been the best year of my life. San Diego has been, and still is, the most amazing, beautiful city to live in. I found it hard at first. My first day of law school, when I ended up crying because I couldn’t decide what to wear. Going to a law organization mixer, not knowing a single person, but leaving having met over a handful of people, one of whom has become a very close friend. Trying to hold my own in law classes, where preparation is vital, participation is mandatory, and expectations are high. I spent more time in the library this year than my previous 4 years combined. But I have met the most amazing people, and had the best American experience a 23 (now 24!) year old American-Kiwi could have hoped for.

I flew to Ohio to spend Thanksgiving with a friend’s family, and experienced true Midwest hospitality. I got to visit her college, met her college friends, and even saw her college football team play, and dominate, their rival team. I dressed up for Halloween on three different nights. I went to Disneyland, learned to play flip cup and participated in a Color Run. I took the most interesting legal courses of my law school career, and really felt like part of a community. I was adopted for Christmas, and made to feel welcome and at home amongst a family I had never met.

And all my experiences are thanks to the wonderful people I met here, who will always hold a place in my heart. I was meant to leave the USA on December 23, but I then postponed my departure until January 18. I am now staying until February 13. I don’t want to say goodbye to America, because that means I return to New Zealand, have to start work, and resume my mundane life without 3 story bars, the ocean on my doorstep and sunshine year round. However the real reason I don’t want to leave, the reason I kept delaying my departure, is that I don’t want to say goodbye. Goodbye to the wonderful people here. My amazing friends. My new family. They are the reason that despite 3 months of traveling through 13 countries, San Diego is really what made this year the best year of my life. Friends are the family you choose for yourself. And once I leave, once I return to New Zealand, I don’t know when I will see my San Diego family again. I know there will be many tears when I leave, and I may have to be dragged onto the plane against my will. Of course I am excited to return, and excited to see what 2013 brings, but I doubt any year will ever top this last year.

So here is my year in review. The places, and people, that shaped my year.

Yogyakarta - Borobudur, and the friends I made.

Yogyakarta – Borobudur, and the friends I made.

Siem Reap, and our wonderful tuk tuk driver, Mr Golden Stone, in Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap, and our wonderful tuk tuk driver, Mr Golden Stone, in Phnom Penh.

Hanoi and Hue - Mr Tien and I on the motorbike, Tom and El eating nam, and Mr Tien's cousin, El and me at the incense shop in Hue

Hanoi and Hue – Mr Tien and I on the motorbike, Tom and El eating nam, and Mr Tien’s cousin, El and me at the incense shop in Hue

Halong Bay Sunset

Halong Bay Sunset

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang

Serengeti National Park

Tanzania Safari – The view from our camp in Serengeti.

Tarangire National Park

Elephants, at Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

My new brothers and sisters from PAD, at the Padres game - my first ever baseball game

My new brothers and sisters from PAD, at the Padres game – my first ever baseball game

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Cindy and Lauren after the Color Run

Nike Hoops!!!!!

Nike Hoops!!!!!

Thanksgiving with the Foleys in Mayfield, Ohio.

Thanksgiving with the Foleys in Mayfield, Ohio.

OHIO - Ohio State v Michigan Game

OHIO – Ohio State v Michigan Game

So thank you to my San Diego family. I will visit you soon. Never forget you. I love you all.

Whiskey-Drinking-Football-Watching-America Jen

When I arrived in America, a mere four months ago, I was excited about the possibility of ‘reinventing’ myself. No one knew me, so I could be whoever I wanted. I could dress a different way, be interested in new things and have a completely different personality, without anyone realizing. I could escape all the prior restraints on who people expected me to be, based on high school, college and work.

The funny thing is, even knowing that I could do this, become someone brand new, free from all prior expectations on who I should be, I am the exact same person here as I am back in New Zealand. Of course I am not absolutely the exact same person, because I traveled for 3 months, am experiencing new things, and of course learning and changing based on my experiences. But for the most part, I haven’t changed too much. The things that have changed are pretty trivial, and really quite entertaining.

For example, America Jen wears jeans whereas New Zealand Jen does not.

New Zealand Jen wears skirts and dresses. She owns about five pairs of jeans, but hasn’t worn them in over two years. However in San Diego, I own two pairs of jeans (including the pair shown in the photo). And I have worn each pair at least 5 times.

Further, America Jen drinks whiskey.

New Zealand Jen hates whiskey. Hates it. Hates the smell, the taste, the thought. But somehow, here, in California, for America Jen, whiskey is a common Friday or Saturday night drink. America Jen will order a whiskey in a bar and drink more than one. Happily. Any kind of whiskey. I have even had whiskey just by itself…yep..not even mixed with diet coke, 7up or even water.

What is wrong with me….

America Jen also watches American football. Actually enjoys American football. Understands and follows American football. And college football.

New Zealand Jen doesn’t watch sports on TV. She is not a sport enthusiast. Whatsoever.

New Zealand Jen is also not nearly as studious as America Jen. America Jen spends an average of 8 hours a day (during the week) doing law school work – attending class, researching for my two papers or doing readings and preparing for class. And add on around 10 hours on the weekend = 45. New Zealand Jen spent 8 hours a week in classes, and about 8 hours a week outside of class doing research and readings for class. 16 hours.

16 versus 45.

So actually, after looking at the above, America Jen kind of is different. She drinks whiskey, owns a San Francisco 49ers tshirt and Dallas Cowboys running shorts (I may follow football but I don’t necessarily have a set team!), and wears skinny jeans. She spends far too much time in the library, and therefore spends far too much money on iced lattes (which also, prior to California, I never drank).

But the important things haven’t changed. My morals haven’t changed, if anything they have become stronger. It has reinforced that I know who I am, and I am happy with that. I like my personality. I like who I am. I like my international background and the fact that I am ‘from’ New Zealand – it makes me who I am. I like what I like and what I don’t. The important things haven’t changed, and they aren’t going to change anytime soon.

I think the main part of this is that in a new country where no one knows who ‘you’ really are, you are more willing to do different things. Try things out. Be social. Be exciting. I realized this weekend that in the States, I never say no. I never turn down an invitation, be that for a night out, a breakfast burrito, an evening of study fun in the library, or a trip to the beach. If someone wants company, they know I’m in. I am only in California for six months, I might as well make the most of it. Take every opportunity that comes my way, and have every experience possible.

So that is why I drink whiskey on a Saturday night and Bloody Marys Sunday morning. Why I have been to two NFL games and spend 3 hours watching Ohio State college football on a Saturday. Why I even stay at the library until 11:30pm on a Monday. Because I don’t say no. Sure I may regret it on a Sunday morning after only 4 hours sleep, getting up to go to breakfast followed by the library. But I would rather do that than stay in bed a few more hours, missing out on what the day can offer. Because this year has gone by incredibly quickly. I don’t want to miss another day or waste a day away doing nothing, when the sun is shining outside.

In 3 weeks, I will have completed my last exam for my law degree. Ever. 4 weeks, and my last law school research paper will be handed in. The last component of my law degree. 6 years done. Finished. No more university classes for the foreseeable future. A day after I hand that paper in, I turn 24. I’m getting old. A week later, it will be Christmas, then New Years. Then before you know it, I will be back on a flight to New Zealand. I can’t believe the year has disappeared. It feels like yesterday that I packed up my room in Wellington, and like yesterday that El and I boarded our flight to Singapore. It feels like I only just got settled into life here in San Diego, only to be leaving in two months. So there is no way I am slowing down now. I only have two months left, but I am going to make them count.

Tomorrow I am flying to Ohio for my first American Thanksgiving in 20 years. My first time in the Midwest, and first time going to a college football game. I can’t wait. I packed last night and can barely focus on class today because I am so excited. Sweet potato casserole. Stuffing. Pumpkin pie. Cranberry sauce. Oh man. So excited. For my New Zealand friends, you may not know where Ohio is, only that it was a very important state in the recent US elections. I had to look it up on a map myself, and inquire as to why it is the ‘Midwest’ when in fact it is quite far east, especially as California is ‘west’.

After finals, I am planning on going to Texas for a bit, seeing family and friends, and spending a few days in Austin. Then once my lease finishes in January, I want to explore the Northeast – Boston, Connecticut, New York, Philly, Baltimore and Washington DC. Get some winter weather into my system before I return back to New Zealand. And again, try to do as much possible before I get on that plane to Auckland. Before I pack away my jeans and my 49ers top, have my last Bloody Mary and say goodbye to America Jen, as I don’t know how much of her will return back with me.

San Francisco Shenanigans

Last weekend I decided to mix things up a bit and swapped Southern California for Northern California. I visited the beautiful city of San Francisco, stayed in a hostel, met other travelers and generally had an awesome time. One of my friends from law school in NZ is studying in Victoria, Canada, and so we met up for a catch up and tourist weekend. We saw Alcatraz, Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, and enjoyed some delicious dumplings in Chinatown. I participated in a Beer Olympics (and in the process learned to play flip cup) and attended my first American football game. Although my school work doesn’t thank me for it, it was fun staying in a hostel again, drinking cheap beer, sleeping in a bunk bed and getting very little sleep.

Alcatraz was a really interesting experience. It is one of those things you have to see when you visit San Francisco, and we were very lucky we booked ferry tickets in advance because they were fully booked!! It is pretty weird walking around a prison, but the audio tour was really informative and I feel like I learned something that day. The highlight of the weekend though was the football game. It basically took up the entire Sunday, so it had to be the highlight. The San Francisco 49ers played the New York Giants. We took a special bus out to the stadium, met other local fans on the way, and upon arriving we were lost in a sea of red (the main 49ers color). The stadium was HUGE, fitting over 60,000 people, and had security to match. The security guards had metal detector wands at the entrance, they searched your bag in-depth, and once you passed you had a long way to walk to find your seat. While watching the game, Rob commented how you never see any streakers at football games, like you get in New Zealand at rugby games. Then we saw the cops on the field with guns…that explained it.

Like I said, the stadium was pretty big, and even though we were pretty much all the way up the very very top, we still had a good view because of how vertical the seats are.

I also gave in and bought a 49ers tshirt, to really fit in. We had been at the NFL store earlier that day, but I didn’t want to spend $40 on a red singlet that I would never wear again. But when I was at the game, so many people had jerseys on and I just really wanted a tshirt. I didn’t like any of the women’s tops, so I ended up with a children’s top (I didn’t realize it was a kids top at the time of picking it out). It was $20 cheaper so I didn’t complain. And it was only a large – the extra-large children’s top was too big on me. Only in America does a 23-year-old fit a kid’s t-shirt…

So here is me before the purchase, trying to fit in with the correct team colors (and with the huge stadium in the background):

And here is me after, with the most awesome Heineken bottle ever!

I won’t discuss the game, because we lost, pretty badly, but it was still such an experience and so much fun to be at an actual football game and see it all live. You really understand it more being able to see everything happening on the field, rather than the close ups you get on ESPN. You also don’t see the cheerleaders on ESPN, so it was kinda cool seeing them live. Although I think the boys were a bit more into the cheerleaders than I was. It was also such an incredibly hot day, I wore jeans (and I never wear jeans) and I was DYING. You get given free towels when you walk in to wave around, and a lot of people were using them in more practical ways, like wiping the sweat off their face or covering their face from the strong sun beaming down on us.

Sunday really was an epic day, because not only did we go to the football, but we also walked the Golden Gate Bridge!! Last time I was in San Francisco, I visited with my Mom and we did Napa Valley, saw Berkeley, the Mission, Castro, Union Square, the Ferry Building Market and Fisherman’s Wharf. On our way back from Napa, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, but that was the extent of our exposure. Wining and dining (and visiting the amazing bakery Tartine!) was much higher on our list of things to do. This time, however, the Golden Gate Bridge was up there. We got to the bridge after the game, around dusk, and had the most beautiful sunset views.

And lastly, my favorite, a panorama of the bridge and the water at dusk. You really need to click on it and open it up fully to appreciate it.

School Spirit! Go team go!

Throughout high school I was never one heavily involved in school spirit. I never went out of my way to attend school events or involve myself in activities. In year 10 (9th grade), we had a swimming sports day where we all had to wear house colors, competitively race and support others. My friends and I decided after around one hour to sneak out and hide in the arts room the entire day, listening to music, drinking Coke and generally misbehaving. I was in the choir and heavily involved in drama, but never wanted a leadership position. I never contemplated applying for Head Girl. And although I became involved in volunteer activities, that was only because I was required to complete 50 hours of service to receive the IB Diploma.

In college however, I got a bit more involved in extracurricular activities. I was on the Wellington Youth Choir Committee, I took notes for students with disabilities (and was later the Team Leader for the law faculty) and organized the 2011 RNZFB Red Puppy Appeal, coordinating over 100 volunteers to collect donations over 3 days. My first few years of law school I abhored all law school related activities. As you can tell, I loved to volunteer in  non-law school related activities, but refused to attend any law school events, be that orientation week, T-shirt night, competitions and even the law school ball. But in my 4th year, I decided to run for the Administrative Vice President position of VUWLSS (the VUW Law Students’ Association). And I won. From then on, I became heavily involved in all aspects of law school life. I promoted activities and became your typical “Go team go” type of girl. I became this upbeat “law school is wonderful” kind of person.

And now that I am in San Diego, I am taking it further. Despite my Vice President position, I never got involved in other activities at university. But here, I am all for it. I find that the best way to meet people is through exposure to different types of activities and organizations. That way you expose yourself to all types of people. I have become very proactive in volunteering for all types of activities. I figure that as part of my 6 month reinvention, I should give the peppy “go school go” personality a go. And secretly, just secretly, I quite enjoy it.

On Friday night, I was initiated into Phi Alpha Delta, a co-ed law fraternity at CWSL. It is the largest legal fraternity in the United States and it also operates on a worldwide level. Throw away all preconceptions of fraternity and sorority initiations – there was no hazing here. Instead we dressed professionally, and had a candlelit initiation ceremony in the beautiful moot room of CWSL. Following this, we met our Big Sister (or Brother) and being introduced to the rest of our family within the fraternity. I was lucky enough to have the Justice (equivalent of the President) of CWSL PAD as my Big Sister. And as she has 6 Little Sisters in all, I gained 5 sisters that night.

My sisters

We had dinner, shared laughs and stories and then continued onto a rooftop bar at the W Hotel to have the signature PAD cocktail (it was purple, like the color of Phi Alpha Delta, and very very strong!). The bar was pretty swish, and had an interesting art display of red chairs on fire. It allowed for more networking and an ability to meet more members, both new one initiated that night and those who were Bigs for us Littles.

Weird art display of chairs on fire…

Then, despite being out until 2am, I woke at 5:30 Saturday morning before the sun had even contemplated rising to volunteer at Race Judicata, a 5km race organized by CWSL to raise money for XONR8 (the student branch of the California Innocence Project). Along with 4 other girls, I set up a water stand around the 4km mark, handed water out and cheered on the runners. We jumped up and down, yelled and whooped and gave words of encouragement. It was at this point when I definitely realized I had become a “go team go” type of girl. All I needed were some pom poms. Cheering was followed by a huge group breakfast with a live band, and a few of us taking home huge casserole dishes full of leftover food. Go law school go!

Sunrise at Race Judicata. Made it kind of worth the early morning (photo courtesy of Lauren)

After a few hours rest, I was up and going again to watch my first College Football game with Lauren, a fellow Phi Alpha Delta who I had met at the W the previous night. We didn’t attend the game, it was on TV (as it was in Ohio), but it was still the first college game I have ever watched. Lucky for Lauren and Kyle, I had a crash course on American Football given to me two years ago, so they did not have to explain the rules to me or what was going on every 5 seconds. We headed to Gaslamp Tavern, enjoyed a bloody mary and game food, and cheered on Ohio State (I even wore red, their team color).

One would have thought after watching an entire football game, I’d had enough of sports for one weekend. But no, I am all about school spirit remember? Taking every opportunity possible, even if it leads me to a state of exhaustion (which Saturday night, it did!). A group of PAD members were heading to the Padres baseball game, and my big sister could not believe I had never been to a baseball game before. I was instructed that I had to attend! So after meeting everyone at school and heading out for a pre-game drink at The Local, we headed down to PETCO stadium around 5:30. There was a nice large group of us, as you can see we block the entire pitch in the group photo:

Us at the ball game

And this afternoon just highlighted my love for the weather of San Diego. It has been so warm and sunny every day I have been here (it is currently 29 degrees C/85 F outside as I write this!). It was fabulous being able to attend a baseball game starting at 5:45 when it was bright and sunny and still be out at 9pm in shorts and a t-shirt. That would NEVER happen back in New Zealand. We would have brought blankets, layers and be shivering as the night went on. And despite the huge stadium, our seats were perfect – nice and close to the pitch, and the right side of the stadium to see the sun set in the distance. Gorgeous.

View from our seats of the field and the sunset

And everyone was so sweet and made sure I had the best baseball experience – answering my questions, telling me the lingo and making sure that I had a hot dog, got popcorn and peanuts, and stood behind home base for a while watching from that point of view. The Padres haven’t had a great season, although on Saturday we had several home runs (where they set off loud music, fire, and other fun celebratory things) and we even won!! And I learned that here, a baseball game is so much more than just a baseball game. It is an entire experience. For one, they show random YouTube clips between innings, and one of the refs went all out dancing on the pitch after the 3rd. Then they played “Ganham Style” by Psy where the crowd went absolutely wild dancing. I only just discovered this song last week, but it is a hit here. The TV crew found the most hilarious people to show on the big screen, for our viewing pleasure. So even though the game itself wasn’t all that exciting, it was a fun night. I can definitely see myself attending a few more. And in 2 weeks time I will attend my first NFL game, ticking a few more things off my America bucket list. I need to start adding things to it so I don’t run out of activities!!

Me at my first baseball game!! Go Padres!

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Motorbiking to Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou

The Kuang Si waterfall and Pak Ou Buddha caves are two of the main tourist attractions around Luang Prabang. The waterfall is about 32 km south-west of the city, and the falls are about 25 km north-east. Both take about an hour to reach by road, the most popular option being to share a tuktuk (to share the cost) or go on an organized trip. To visit the caves, you can also go on a boat ride, 1 hour there and 2 hours return.

What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that there is a secret transport option C: navigate the winding jungle roads by motorbike. And it is this option that Andy and I chose. Our first hurdle was obtaining an automatic motorbike. Neither of us can drive manual, and although I have in the past (manual motorbike and dirt bike) it has been at least 4 years. Plus I don’t have a NZ motorbike license so wouldn’t be covered by my travel insurance if we crashed. Everywhere rents out manual bikes for around 120,000 kip (15 USD) and there seemed to be only one place in town that all travel agencies got automatic bikes from, which were apparently booked out and then no one answered their phone. However walking around, we found one place that would give us an automatic bike and 2 helmets for 200,000 kip (25 USD) for 24 hours (Lao Siri Ticketing Co Ltd, 023 Ban Xiengmuane Sisavang Vatthana Road (map here), (856) 71 254885, laosiri.ticketing@gmail.com). As we finally found a bike at noon, we split up our travels and did the waterfalls that afternoon followed by caves the next morning. But this decision was actually made for us by the weather…read on.

I drove, and Andy seemed skeptical and somewhat scared saying “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, but once I gained my balance with him on the back, adjusted my helmet and got used to driving on the right side of the road, we were off!! No map, just a general “that a way” indication of our destination. Out of all the countries I have been in Asia, Laos was the most relaxed in terms of driving. No honking, no crazy over passing, one way roads are actually one way, and I felt totally normal driving. Wind in my hair, sun on my back, the only bad thing was the beautiful scenery that wanted to distract me along the way. I had to tell Andy to take photos as we went so that I could concentrate on the road.

Going by motorbike was also great because you encounter lots of beautiful butterflies along the way. Regrettably, one or two drove into me, but there were many more that weren’t suicidal. It took about an hour to get to the falls, on windy well paved roads, through lots of wonderful small villages, picturesque rice paddies and children playing games on the sides of the road. It really was an adventure.

Upon arriving at the waterfalls, the parking lot attendants laughed at my attempt to park the bike due to my sudden braking and the slippery muddiness of the lot. But 2000 kip got us parking, and allowed us to leave behind our helmets. The waterfall and all its lower pools were really breathtaking. You walk up through the forest, surrounded by nature, past ice blue pools, until you finally reach the waterfall at the top. It is huge. I climbed over the fence for some photos, and was the only westerner amongst local Lao doing the same. Andy then finally followed me out, getting slightly closer to the waterfall, although he almost fell in at one point, due to the slippery rocks!

We then found a nice quiet pool to swim in. Because most crowds arrive after 3, we had a pool all to ourselves. The water was freezing, and you have no idea how deep it is or even what is on the bottom, but it was so refreshing. I found some rocks to stand on so I wasn’t constantly treading water, and then realized the little fish were giving me a fish manicure. Like all the places popping up in Siem Reap, where you have fish eat dead skin off your feet, I was having a fish manicure but for free, and much more authentic.

Luckily we left at 3, because about half way back to Luang Prabang it started POURING with rain. And I mean pouring. We had to stop, scramble through the backpack to find our ponchos, put them on and continue on, with Andy putting his hand over my eyes to shield them from the rain so I could see. It was probably one of the most memorable moments of my trip, turning up at the hotel soaking wet in ponchos off a motorbike. You would never get that on an organized tour of even from a tuk tuk ride.

The next morning we ventured off to the caves before we had to return our motorbike at noon. We had no map, and unlike our trip to the falls, we had no exact idea of how many lefts or rights we had to turn. We just knew how to get out of town in that direction. And the way out of town included a very long bridge, with the driving space the size of a motorbike. I held my breath, and zoomed on. Somewhat slow and swerving, we made it across, without falling off to the sidewalk area, which would have been a mission to get back on the driving portion.

We soon found our way, and after stopping to ask for directions, and receiving no legible English answer, we finally found a road sign that said ‘Pak Ou’. The road changed from paved to dirt, windy and bumpy, but we became fully immersed in the rainforest and rice paddies, having workers and children waving and yelling hello. We even had to stop for elephants crossing the road!!

Once we arrived, we had to pay for parking, and were allowed to wander into the town. It wasn’t clear where on earth the river was, so we walked and walked, and finally asked for directions. We found the river, saw boats, but no boatmen. So continuing, we walked down, looked around, and a man appeared over the horizon out of no where, and let us on his little boat.

Upon arriving at the caves on the other side, there are two caves you can visit, the lower and upper. The lower was a bit disappointing, as there are a lot of Buddhas but nothing overly impressive. Just lots of small to large Buddha statues haphazardly arranged. We then ventured up to the top cave – a total of 220 steps up. And it was a hike. It is much cooler up there, and you walk in a dark cave full of tourists. If you allow your eyes to adjust, you can actually see around without a flashlight, but most tourists are using flash on their cameras and flashlights so it took away from the magic of it. There were beautiful golden Buddha statues in the upper cave, but even those were not as beautiful as some of the Buddha statues we saw in temples in Luang Prabang. The caves themselves are not breathtaking or spectacular. It was still fun though, and definitely an adventure due to the motorbike.

Beautiful Barcelona

The last stop on my world trip pre-San Diego was Barcelona. I only had three nights there, so tried to pack in as much as humanly possible. A girl from Amsterdam in my hostel was so impressed with what I did in a day – it was apparently more than she had done in a week!! Barcelona in July is wonderful – it was hot and sunny every day, with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants, people enjoying ice creams and granitas by the harbor, and going to the beach. It was full of tourists – both Spanish and international – which meant that I met so many interesting people in my hostel, from the States, the UK, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. The interesting thing was that everyone I met was on a short vacation – ranging from a weekend to three weeks. However in Asia, everyone was traveling for at least 3 months if not longer, so everyone in Barcelona could not believe that I was ‘traveling’ for the rest of the year. I just loved walking around the city, exploring and soaking in the culture.

There was a fabulous market in the middle of the old city off La Rambla, full of fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and even candy by the pound. There was a tapas bar where customers stood by the bar, ate tapas and drank wine. You could buy fresh fruit juices for 2 euro or different mixes of fruit for 1-3 euros. It was all pretty fabulous.

I just loved the historic buildings in Barcelona, they were so beautiful and so I took far too many photos of buildings and not nearly enough photos of people. On my first afternoon I did a free walking tour of the Old Town, where we saw the Placa Reial, Placa del Pi, the old Jewish quarter, government buildings, the Cathedral, the Roman City, Placa Sant Felip Neri (my favorite of the Placas, it was so hidden and secluded and quiet) and Santa Maria Del Mar. Our guide Katherine was very knowledgeable and I learnt so much about the city and saw so much that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I also attended two free concerts at the cathedral – both school groups, choral and orchestral, which were beautiful. Fantastic acoustics.

On my own, I explored Gaudi’s masterpieces, mainly the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. Park Guell was huge, and quite a trek. It was very busy, so much so that people who didn’t know each other were posing together with the mosaic lizard so they could have a photo with it. The view of Barcelona was very nice from up there, and after much waiting I finally managed to push through to the front and have another tourist take my photo.

The Sagrada Familia had a line that roped three-quarters of the way around the block, so I found a free wifi spot outside Starbucks and purchased tickets online, and only stood in a queue of five people! The church itself is still under construction, so there are cranes working and so the photos of the outside are slightly tainted with cranes towering over it. The design of the building is…interesting. People either find it beautiful or ugly. I was not taken by the design, especially of the exterior, but the interior was very impressive. It is spectacular, although it requires a lot of reading and analysis to understand the symbolism and design itself.

The thing I loved the most was the stained glass in the church. The organ pipes were directly in front of stained glass panels, and the light shone through the glass and formed a rainbow on the pipes.

I also discovered amazing food – the tapas were fantastic. Especially the style of tapas where you choose your own from a huge display of different plates, each individual tapa having a toothpick in it. As you eat, you put your toothpicks in a little bowl, and at the end you pay per toothpick! This style is known as ‘pintxos’, and I discovered a very busy and popular restaurant specializing in pintxos right by the Cathedral, called Bilbao Berria. There were over 50 plates, with such amazing range. Each toothpick was 1.65 euro, and a glass of red Spanish wine was only 2.50.

And now, having had three beautiful days in Barcelona, it is time for San Diego. I don’t know what to expect when I get there, but I am looking forward to it anyways. It is a bit scary, a new experience, living in a new city where I don’t know anyone, but I am sure I will love it nonetheless.