Don’t Wait to Travel the South Pacific Islands!

Don’t Wait to Travel the South Pacific Islands!

I lived in New Zealand for almost two years but didn’t visit the islands of the South Pacific until my final months, instead electing to fly to Myanmar and Chile during the vacations of my first year. Why did I wait? I suppose for similar reasons never trying to visit the Caribbean from the United States. I thought there won’t be much to do beyond the beach and I could only handle several hours of beach relaxation, especially in places where the sun was so strong. I thought traveling the islands would be expensive and, since they were so remote, lack infrastructure for solo travelers. What I didn’t realize is the islands of the South Pacific are filled with friendly people, a wide assortment of aquatic and outdoor activities and a fascinating cultural heritage. My advice is don’t wait! If you’re thinking about what island to visit first, I’d recommend: 1) Fiji- Paradise for solo travelers I was a bit hesitant to visit Fiji because I thought it would be too touristy but I also figured it might be the best option for solo travelers like myself. Yes, it’s a bit touristy when you first arrive in Nadi but there’s so many islands that everyone spreads out and you can easily find a tropical piece of paradise that you share with a few dozen others. Furthermore, the infrastructure makes it easy and affordable to get around on your own and there’s many backpackers there who had just finished working holidays in Australia or New Zealand or were on round-the-world trips. Everyone in the boat to my first resort was traveling alone so making friends was easy. I spent a week in Fiji with a night in a beach backpackers near the airport then took the ferry to the Yasawas Island group. I had done some research and chose to split my time between Barefoot Kuata Resort and Manta Ray Resort, which was recommended by a friend. I was lucky because both of these places turned out to be good choices but I didn’t realize that all the islands offer different activities so I’d recommend thinking about what you want to do then staying at a resort that has it. Humpbacks during a heat run in Vava’u, Tonga. Photo by my friend @delacordilleraalmarAt Barefoot Kuata, the main activity was scuba diving with bull sharks. It’s possible for people even without their diving licenses (like me) so each person is paired with an instructor, you swim down about 12 meters and hide behind a coral wall. They feed the sharks, and supposedly the wall of bubbles distracts the sharks from the fact that there are people there but the instructors have metal poles just in case. (Very safe, haha). It was absolutely an incredible experience to be just feet away from bull sharks, reef sharks and other colorful fish with no cages separating you from the mighty fish. The one downside of Barefoot Kuata is its only a couple hours away from the main port so the island gets pretty busy with day trippers but beyond that, it was perfect. Manta Ray Resort, as the name suggests, is famous for the option to snorkel with manta rays. In the mornings, they have people waiting to see when the mantas swim during the channel, then when they are spotted, people run through the resort shouting “manta ray swim!”, everyone grabs their snorkeling gear and piles into the boat. The actual manta ray swim was a bit disappointing for me just because there were so many tourists, from this resort and others, following these mantas in a herd. However, this resort has an incredible snorkel spot right off its shores so after returning from the official swim, a staff member saw a manta when I was snorkeling, dropped me off near it and I had a private swim with a manta ray. It was a good workout, trying to keep up, and an absolute magical experience. The one “downside” of Manta Ray is it was more of a family resort so if you’d prefer a holiday without kids running around, maybe chose another. 2) Tonga- Humpback Whale Swims & The Friendliest People One of the friends I made in Fiji headed to Tonga straight after to fulfill her bucket list dream of swimming with humpback whales. Tonga and the Dominican Republic are supposedly the only two places you can do this, as the whales seek warmer climates for calving season between June and October. She spent a few weeks in Vava’u, one of the main island groups, doing a 10-day whale cruise, followed by several day trips with...

9 Months as An Ex-Pat in Auckland: The Tumbleweed Has Stuck

9 Months as An Ex-Pat in Auckland: The Tumbleweed Has Stuck

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” –Allen Saunders I know I’ve been terrible about updating my blog lately and since I just paid to renew my domain name, I thought an update was overdue, especially considering the ironic turn my life has taken since my last post about ex-pat life in Auckland, 4 months ago. When I wrote that, I was about to give up on Auckland. I felt useless at work, I saw my life passing me by and I was so determined to make a change, I was applying to jobs back in the Northeast, something I never thought I’d do. That was the beginning of many things I never saw coming. Just to put this in context… January 2016 Just before moving to New Zealand, my grandma predicted, “you’re going to meet a nice Kiwi bloke and stay forever”. I responded with maniacal laughter. “First, New Zealand is way too boring and far away from everything. I’ll stay the year I promised to work, then return to civilization. Secondly, Kiwis are too pale and too chill for me. Auckland’s main redeeming quality is that there’s lots of ex-pats”.   She dismissed my indignant protests with a “grandma-knows-best” little smile and I grunted at the ridiculousness of her premonition then immediately forgot about it. Fast forward to a few days after I wrote that post (May 2016) Out of sheer boredom and utter desperation, I rejoined Tinder and started talking to a guy who just passed in his two weeks notice for an engineering job that he felt no longer challenged him. We enjoyed some “good banter” (as they say in these parts) online for a few days, and agreed to meet up. A few minutes before we were supposed to meet, he texted, “I just got out of a relationship and I don’t know what my next step will be after this job ends, so I’m not looking for anything serious”. I replied, “well, that’s fine with me. I may quit my job and return to the States so I’m not looking for anything that’ll keep me in Auckland”. I also knew that traveling made me incredibly detached, and I was always the one trying to keep things from getting too serious. “Not a problem at all”, I told myself. Well, our first “meeting” (to which I wore crazy leggings and slippers, as the ultimate anti-date apparel) was nice but relatively ordinary. We went for a walk and we chatted. I liked talking to him and it seemed like he had a good head on his shoulders, but he didn’t make any moves and didn’t even text me that night. “Well, it’s probably for the best”, I reassured myself, “I’m leaving this place soon enough anyway”. Well, long story short, he might not have messaged me that night but he did text me the next day and somehow, it quickly turned into messaging each other for hours each day and hanging out more than we probably should have. A couple weeks after I met him, I knew I was in trouble when it was time to go to Myanmar and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave. This was a country that had been on my list for ages and anticipation for 3 weeks of wearing elephant pants and being a dirty backpacker again is what was getting me through long workdays. Myanmar turned out even better than I wanted it to be but somehow traveling this time wasn’t the same. Up until this point, I was driven to travel by a desire to find where I belonged. But during this trip, I had a nagging feeling that I belonged near the pale, blue-eyed Kiwi with ridiculous dance moves. Needless to say, I shortened my trip by a week and joined him and his parents for a few days of fishing and boating on their South Island “bach” (holiday house).    Spending time with him and his parents, who were just as silly and easy going as he was, felt so right that I didn’t even mind giving up warm Southeast Asian weather for being bundled up in thermals and having to de-numb my limbs by the fire! Fast-forward another 5 months to the present day (Nov 2016)… This Kiwi bloke didn’t completely cure me of my travel addiction (I still snuck off for quick trips to Colombia, the States and Niue (a small island in the South Pacific) but those trips too weren’t the same. It was fun to see, eat and do new things but I still couldn’t wait to board the plane back home, knowing he’d be there...

Must-do Niue Attractions, Exploring a Hidden Gem in the South Pacific

Must-do Niue Attractions, Exploring a Hidden Gem in the South Pacific

Niue is a small island in the South Pacific (just about 70 kilometers in circumference), about a 3.5 hour flight from Auckland.  It’s a magnet for divers and snorkel enthusiasts, because the lack of sandy beaches mean it has some of the cleanest waters in the South Pacific.  It has a close connection with New Zealand, so they use NZD as their currency and you can find L&P soda and hokey pokey ice cream sold everywhere. I spent four days in the place and absolutely fell in love.  It’s small enough that you can bike everywhere but there’s so many caves and swimming spots, that we barely stopped moving during our trip.  Here’s a list of must-do activities, most of which we were able to squeeze into four days on the island so they are tried & true Niue attractions. 1. Cliff jump at the Limu Pools (ambitious jumpers can ask locals about a more daring jump at the Matapa Chasm)- Limu Pools are one of Nuie’s most famous attractions for their crystal clear water and secluded snorkeling spot.  It’s not just for tourists though- locals head here on the weekends, attempting increasingly brazen jumps to impress whatever females might be in the vicinity.  They’ll welcome any foreigners who are brave enough to join in. 2. Feel at home at Niue Backpackers– Ira and Brian run a three or four room hostel in the house above “the world’s biggest small yacht club”.  It has an awesome central location, airport pick up and drop off and a cozy collection of couches and an endless supply of really dusty books.  They’ve also compiled notes, advice and tips for dozens of travelers… it’s better than Lonely Planet!  Niue Backpackers is a good deal at $25-$30 per night but you’ll have to pay in cash! 3. Have a cup of espresso at Hio cafe- Hio cafe was opened in September 2016 as a container restaurant with a perfect location above one of Nuie’s only sandy swimming spots.  The owner, Victoria, is super passionate about the operation and has an espresso machine with roasted beans from a cafe in Auckland.  It’s the perfect spot to stop for a pick-me-up and they hope to add cabins soon. 4.  Trek to Talava Arches- most of the swimming spots and caves are just 200 meters off the main road but Talava Arches involves a longer walk through a butterfly-covered forest.  It’s one of the most well known images of the island and scrambling through the caves makes the destination all the more impressive.  If you time your visit for low tide, you can get closer to the arch. 5. Find the secret swamp at Togo Chasm- Togo Chasm was my favorite hike on the island.  You meander through some tropical jungle, then take a precarious path through a razor sharp coral “forest”.  That leads to a long ladder where you can descend to a chasm filled with sand and palm trees of a mysterious origin.  But the magic doesn’t end there… if you climb over the boulders, there’s a secret, moss-covered swampy pool.  You’ll definitely feel like Indiana Jones.  On the way back, make sure to climb over some more rocks and check out the waves crashing on the coast.  The coral pools make this view pretty mesmerizing. 6.  Watch the sunset at Sir Robert’s Wharf- The main shipping port is the perfect place to catch an uninterrupted view of the sunset.  (And it’s right in the center of town!) 7.  $5 roti at Gill’s Indian Restaurant- Food in Nuie is pretty pricey (you’ll pay at least $20 for a main dish) so grabbing a chicken, beef or vegetarian roti at Gill’s Indian Restaurant in the main square is a great deal for lunch! Additionally, Gill’s the only restaurant I found with vegetarian options. 8.  Test your strength (or your stomach) at a Village show day- During the month, villages take turns having show days to showcase their local crafts, food and culture.  Usually, a lot of locals show up to catch up with their family and friends so it’s not just for tourists.  It’s pretty entertaining to watch the boys of the village test their strength throwing coconuts or climbing soap-covered poles.  It’s even more entertaining when the adults (women, then men) engage in a canned corned beef contest, where everyone’s a winner with the free lunch. 9.  Make at least one canine friend- Like people, you’ll encounter the same furry friends again and again and most of them are pretty charasmatic!  It’ll be hard to leave the island without befriending at least one dog. 10. Enjoy gourmet sushi at Kai Ika- An Israeli...

The Beauty of Uncertainty & Chaos

The Beauty of Uncertainty & Chaos

What first attracted me to physics was how nice and predictable it was.  You could use the kinematics equations to predict exactly where a ball would roll off the table, and as long as you chose a dense enough ball for air resistance to be negligible, Ta-da!  The ball fell in the cup.  Once you understood the language of mathematics, could turn words into numbers, you could predict how nature would behave.  For an ambitious student who loved to plan, whose life vision was a constant refinement of a decision made at the age of 5 (teacher->physics teacher->physics professor), I found tremendous comfort in the predictability and order of the universe. The last day of my freshmen physics class, this simple worldview was blown out of the water by a day long teaser discussion on special relativity.  Sure, my teacher debunked the twin paradox (where you could send a twin on a super sonic spaceship and he’d return to earth younger than his land-loving counterpart) as an incomplete analysis of the situation, and thus not a paradox.  But still, the day left me full of questions and a little bit angry, “How could quantities as fundamental as space and time be measured differently for different observers?  How can the perceived storage of energy depend on your reference frame?  How can basically everything be relative except for the speed of light?!?!” Well that led me down the worm hole, so to speak, and reading about special relativity inevitably morphed into learning about quantum mechanics which turned out to be even more frustrating.  Supposedly, you couldn’t even determine the most basic properties of a subatomic particle and the process of making the measurement affected the outcome.  If you tried to make a confident measurement of position of a particle, you’d lose information about its speed and moment.  Even more frustrating, our measurement abilities couldn’t be attributed faulty apparatus, it was an intrinsic property of these tiny particles.  Instead of absolute outcomes, the best you could do was speak in probabilities, probabilities that are affected by initial conditions, nearby particles and the actions of the observer.  For someone who loved knowing things, predicting things, planning things, quantum mechanics was deeply upsetting.  A “shut up and calculate” approach got me through my college courses but anytime I slowed down to think about things, the idea that the universe wasn’t innately knowledgeable disturbed me. It disturbed me until I realized that it corresponded with reality much more accurately than a predictable Newtonian universe.  Despite all my planning and micro-managing my life aspirations, the vision rarely corresponds to reality.  The universe isn’t always a logical progression of cause and effect.  Life is random, and a lot of the time, the best you can do is predict that one outcome is more likely than another, based on certain initial conditions.  You can adjust your behavior to maximize the chances of achieving something, but life can always interfere.  Certainly, trying to predict the behaviors of other people is nearly impossible, and if they know you’re observing them, that will almost certainly impact their actions. The real revelation wasn’t realizing that a quantum mechanical view of the universe made intuitive sense but it was recognizing the beauty in unpredictability.  This took much longer, probably not until I started traveling longer-term, when I dealt with uncertainty and chaos on a daily basis, when a lot of my expectations for my life were turned upside down and replaced by new dreams. “Perfectionism is merely an endless treadmill of self-destruction that’ll only build momentum until you’re running at unsustainable speeds.  Rather than remaining a slave to the illusions you perceive as safe, step off the treadmill and live as the piece of art you are: messy, colorful, fluid, adaptable to change, mistakes, shifts, surprises, pain and of course immeasurable moments of beauty. It is there, outside the enclosed walls of perfect self-imprisonment that you shall touch the meaning of freedom” -Victoria Erickson Life was so much more fun when I embraced opportunities as they arose, took advantage of serendipitous encounters and spent time enjoying life instead of waiting to control it. “Our anxiety doesn’t come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it” -Kahlil Gibran Rarely were the highlights of my trips hitting the tourist attractions that were on the itinerary I designed for myself.  Instead, it was accepting a daughter’s invitation to learn to make dumplings from the Chinese lady who barely spoke English on the Singapore subway.  It was hopping on the back of “Rasta Roberto”‘s motorcycle in El Salvador and enjoying metaphysical musings as he shared his piece of paradise.  It was spending two weeks sailing with a guy who I...

Find Happiness in a New City: 3 Secrets

Find Happiness in a New City: 3 Secrets

After a month and a half of “real life” in Auckland, New Zealand, I’m finally starting to feel settled and find my groove but it wasn’t not easy.  I’ve met others who have been for years and still doesn’t feel completely adjusted.  Whether you’ve moved to a new country or just relocated to a distant new city, you’re never going to have as much history as in your hometown.  And it’s always hard to be away from friends and family, especially if they still reunite regularly. When I first got here, I struggled, which might have been obvious when I wrote this post.  A couple weeks ago, I started to appreciate New Zealand more and, thanks to a change in attitude, I’ve continued to embrace this place.  Although I’m by no means an expert, here’s three secrets that have helped me find happiness in a new city, with specific suggestions for ex-pats in Auckland, New Zealand.  Well, maybe they aren’t secrets, but sometimes simple suggestions can be effective! 1) View Each Day As An Adventure When you are living in a new city, it’s the best of both worlds… the adventure of traveling and the financial stability of working… unfortunately, a lot of people get wrapped up into new jobs, new responsibilities and new habits that they forget to take advantage of the fun parts of being in a new habitat.  Or they think they have time to explore so they postpone doing it.  I recently read an article from CNN  18 things we love on vacation but hate back home that playfully exemplifies how different people react differently on vacation than at home. “When we travel, we become children again — every experience is box-fresh with a new-car smell. Public transportation? A magic train ride to awesome. Grocery stores? An Aladdin’s cave of unfamiliar vegetables and hilarious brand names.   Back home, we have our security filters on high alert. That friendly stranger must be a lecher, lunatic or bore. A carnival parade is a sequined traffic disruption and street performers are bell-ringing pariahs. But on vacation, we let ourselves be open. We’ll taste that testicle souffle, we’ll sample that snake-venom liqueur. And when our stomachs rebel later that night, we’ll still be glad we tried.” When things go wrong traveling, you’re more likely to view it as part of the adventure, and laugh off bad experiences as a good story to tell back home.  When you run into similar situations in “real life”, it can ruin your whole day (for example, the spontaneous parade that delay your trip to the beach or the random person talking to you on the metro, ruining your nap).  Things aren’t always going to go smoothly when you’re in a place with different cultural norms, values and tradition.  You can often respond by laughing or crying.  Although crying can be tempting when you’re stressed and struggling to adjust, adopt the traveler’s reaction, giggle then share your “crazy story” with your friends back home. This weekend, 9 of my physics co-workers and I decided to hike one of Auckland’s most beautiful tracks, the 10.3 km Te Henga walkway.  The forecast looked beautiful, the sky looked beautiful when we left Auckland but as soon as we got far enough into the trek not to turn back, it started raining hard.  Before we knew it, all of us were drenched and spent the next couple hours slip, sliding through the mud.  Some of the people who lived in Auckland to anticipate finicky weather were prepared, and the Italian even bust out an umbrella, but I got soaked to the skin.  But, we all had a good laugh, and it brought back memories of mud sliding through Sapa, Vietnam. My French friend took this lesson a step further.  He was tired of getting blasted by the wind and soaked by the rain during his bicycle commute to work so he decided to use the wind to his advantage.  Now wind surfing is his new favorite hobby and it makes him appreciate less-than-ideal weather. In addition to adapting a traveler’s attitude toward mishaps, go exploring!  Immerse yourself in the new culture, recreation like the locals do, try the regional cuisine.  The Internet is great for creating “little bucket lists” to consult when you’ve got a free weekend and nothing to do.  Instead of being depressed about your lack of immediate best friends, maybe you’ll meet one if you do something from 16 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do In Auckland, The Ultimate New Zealand Bucket List or 50 Things You Should Have Done if You Live in Auckland. 2) Adapt to Your New Surroundings If you’re going to settle in to a new city, you’re going to have...

Ex-Pat in New Zealand: Appreciating This Quirky Country

Ex-Pat in New Zealand: Appreciating This Quirky Country

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable.  It is designed to make its own people comfortable” -Clifton Fadmiman It seemed that my last post made people conclude that I’d be happier with ex-pat life here if New Zealand had more issues.  Not exactly, I don’t wish more pain and suffering on this world and that’s not what I was trying to say. But I followed their advice anyway, started reading books and asking around even though I was skeptical. Weirdly, it was a productive exercise. I came here with high expectations, because everyone loves New Zealand, and that usually sets the stage for disappointment. Also, when you know you’re going to a developing country, you’re prepared for discomfort, chaos and that’s part of that fun.  Coming to New Zealand, you don’t expect it to be much different than America and at first glance, it isn’t.  For example, I asked one of my American friends who moved here three years ago what was hard for her to adjust to. She laughed, “there’s no culture shock. Well, maybe the ketchup. It’s sweet and tastes weird here.”  Because it didn’t seem different, my first conclusion was that New Zealand was a lame, lazy version of America (a very arrogant American thing to conclude).  This is a different country and does NOT want to be like America.  I needed to rid myself of this ridiculous notion before I could start appreciating what makes this place special.  It’s easy to do when you travel to a country that looks visibly different, but it’s much harder in a country that seems so similar. So on the surface, New Zealand appears like any mostly white, developed country but, while not so obvious upfront, it has a whole different set of values and priorities.  It felt so familiar that I thought I’d have nothing to learn by being here and I’d get frustrated when things didn’t work the way I expected them to.  But the differences run way deeper than just a funny accent.  Compared to Europe, America’s idea of “history” is almost laughable, but New Zealand is one of the last places on the planet to be settled by humans. Similarly, New Zealand is a rural, island nation at the bottom of the world so you can’t expect people to be as worldly as those in countries that can drive to another nation. Unlike competitive countries, New Zealand prioritizes quality of life over being the “best” at anything and seems quite content flying under the radar. For example, I think recently New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with the US, Canada, Mexico, parts of South America, Southeast Asia and Australia but it a lot of people were against it because they want to maintain a less capitalistic, competitive nation where maximizing money isn’t the first priority.  Honestly, at times, money doesn’t seem to be a main motivator at all.  According to the ladies at the science craft lunch session today, it’s a place you go to a rural craft shop (in someone’s house) to buy some wool, and its “in the sticks” and the internet doesn’t work so she gives you the wool and tells you she’ll send her bank information so you can pay her later.  Then you have to aggressively remind her to give you bank information so you can pay her. Anyway, since identifying some of the problems here helped me realign my expectations for this country (and made me appreciate how quirky this place is), I’ll share a few then discuss how I’m growing to appreciate Kiwi living. Gangs.  Prior to my arrival here, I was talking to someone about choosing between Auckland and Johannesburg.  They replied with fear in their eyes, “Auckland?  Have you heard about the gangs?!?!”.  I almost laughed because how could anything in sheep country be more dangerous than infamous Joburg?  I never figured out what movie alerted them to the issue but when traveling the country in November for my interview, I did see one computer printed sign taped on the door of a sketchy looking Wellington bar; “Those displaying gang colors and insignias will be denied entry”.  Once again, it seemed almost laughable to see the suburban surroundings.  After finally joining the local library, the first book I checked out was Patched: A History of Gangs in New Zealand.  Yes, the book contains tales of group rape, murder and other debauchery but it still seemed like the gangs here seem to be more bark than bite.  While the book Gangs by Ross Kemp claims New Zealand has more gangs per head than any other country in the world (seventy major gangs and over 4,000 patched member in a population of 4 million people), gangs vary...