Sometimes, my mind is a mess of the many places and things I want to be that I forget to be grateful of where and who I am in the present.
The other night, as I sat on the crowded and delayed train, I felt like New York City was home again. The feeling of familiarity awash over me like a bursting water balloon. Here we are, people from all walks of life, packed like sardines in a train car, sharing the same experience. Eyes rolling, heads shaking, with looks of disbelief as the conductor announces delay after delay.
And as I walked to the bus to take me over the Queensborough Bridge, with the droplets of rain pelting my face, I felt whole. I accepted the fact that for now, this is where I am.
It seems surreal that it’s been almost a year since being abroad. Now, I’m back into the work grind and easing – sometimes reluctantly – into the hustle and bustle of living in New York City.
As the current news of the politics, climate change, revelations and work stress (inflicted by myself) weather and age my mind, I took the day to relax and be in the moment of my surroundings – I know, it’s a privilege to do so.
I took in the beauty of the late autumn foliage in Central Park, the happiness of sharing a meal with family, and being grateful of the pleasure of daily life.
Connie, my sister, had been itching to try the Chocolate Banana Mille Crepes cake from Lady M Confections, a bakery originating from Japan. We choose the location at the Plaza Food Hall and within 10 minutes, we were seated in the dining area with two slices of mouth-watering masterpieces – the mille crepe and the Flan Aux Pomme.
As our spoons cut through the 20 layers of crepes filled with pastry cream, our neighbors asked what we were consuming and where it came from. As the cool vanilla bean flan paired with sauteed apples and almond shortbread of the Flan Aux Pomme melted in my mouth, it was all I focused on – all other streams of information faded from my mind. I felt young again, when pleasure was truly as simple as apple pie.
They say sometimes having no plan is the best plan; that was just the case for me upon arrival to Oban, Stewart Island. I booked accommodation for 2 nights at Bunker Backpackers and I had purchased a departure ferry ticket…though that could be postponed. Anything goes…maybe we might go on the Rakiura Great Walk…or perhaps I might even land work here! (I was extremely tempted to apply for a position at the local fish and chips vendor Kaikart Takeaways, which stole my heart.) In the end, neither of those items happened, but we made the most of it.
I spent most of the time on the island with Y and a German traveler whom I shared a hostel with in Te Anau. Highlights included playing life-size chess by the beach, savoring Kapiti ice cream bars, spying a kiwi bird together for the first time (out by the rugby field at night), making pancakes together, and watching the sunset at Observation Rock…definitely worth the 30 minutes uphill walk!
At the end of our time on the island, we even managed to catch a local rugby match while noshing on sausage sizzles (made with a slice of plain white bread), which was a NZ and Australian classic.
During that time, the town was buzzing with rumors that NZ Prime Minister Bill English was in town for the “Man of the Year” competition, where young chaps in town would compete in “manly” challenges to win the title.
At this point, I was starting to feel my budget tighten and I couldn’t stop thinking of finding work soon. Whenever I had internet, I found myself browsing Backpackerboard.co.nz, Indeed.co.nz, and Seek.co.nz, all of which are main sites for job seekers.
Shortly after leaving the island, I would end up in a whirlwind of visiting Queenstown and Wanaka, and going on a weeklong West Coast roadtrip, before landing in Motueka, popular for it’s seasonal apple orchard work.
As the tour bus made it’s way down Milford Road towards Te Anau, the memories of the past month became more distant. Even the kayak trip I did in the morning seem like a dream; full of fog, rain, motion sickness from the rolling currents, and playful baby seals.
The last few days at Milford Sound was a flurry of activity filled with hikes, meeting the new work exchange volunteers that would replace us, goodbyes, cruises, and strolls by the shore front. We even watched the peaks at dawn.
Y, my Finnish coworker/friend, and I were to meet in Stewart Island in a couple of days. but since we used different bus companies I made arrangements to stay at Te Anau, to recharge, and to feel solitude again. Also – to use digital gold in the form of Wifi at the local library. It was time I hunkered down and planned my next-steps.
The whole bus ride down, I sat next to an interesting French traveler who was between jobs, who had just completed the the Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. He was staying in Te Anau to walk the Kepler Track next. He talked of constellations, photography, his trips to the U.S., and his fiance. He hinted at sharing a meal together, but the tiredness and the call for solitude was too much.
By the time I reached the hostel, I was pooped. After a long shower, I went out and bought groceries at the local Countdown and made myself a quick salad. In the kitchen, I started chatting to another French traveler when she asked me why I was reading The Stranger by Albert Camus, which was passed on to me a friend in Milford whom reads it once every year. According to her, it was a depressing novel that she was made to read in high school.
I hit the sack that night before 10 PM and slept until 1 PM the next day.
When Linus, a Swede I met in Kaikoura had decided to come to Milford Sound for 3 days, I took it upon myself to show him around the area. The itinerary would be crossing the Cleddau River, tramping the Tutoko Valley, and playing Jenga.
Five of us set out to cross the Cleddau River at it’s shallowest area and even so, the current was strong. We were advised to find a long branch to steady ourselves. From a stranger’s view, I bet we looked like hobbits following Grandalf.
The water was icy, the rocks slippery with moss, I focused on the grip of my feet on the ground underneath 2 feet deep water.
“Ahh!” Linus yelped. “Help!”
Alerted, I looked over to find him slowly floating with the current.
“Linus, stand up!” advised one member of the group, who had grabbed on to his shirt.
Linus scrambled to stand, supported by the branch. Panicked in the moment, he had forgotten he was 6 feet, 3 inches.
After some exploring, we made our way back across the river again.
When I suggest we tramp the Tutoko Valley the next day, Linus looked skeptical. But being a good sport he agreed. Again we set off, walking 40 minutes along Milford Road until we arrived to the starting point of the track, which was a 4 km route with a 5 hour return.
The route was horizontal with no noticeable inclines. Though it remains one of the most grueling routes I ever encountered. Due to an earlier rainfall, the mud was deep and soft. In some areas, with every step, the mud would be 1 feet deep. The route felt like an obstacle course with twists and turns, natural footholds, Beech tree roots, large rocks, large logs, and blind spots. At one point we had to hop from large root to a log to avoid going into a large puddle – more like a pond at that point.
Most of the time we were quiet, each navigating the path with intense focus and varying speeds. By the time we reached a creek, Linus’ pants were ripped at the crotch by a sharp branch. It wasn’t before long after we started off again, did the sound of a ripping fabric and “Shit!” echoed in our eardrums.
Exhausted after 6 hours of tramping and walking, we had another 40 minutes to go before returning back to our accommodation. Shoes soggy with mud, pants wet with puddle water, and shirts drenched with sweat, we trudge slowly along the road.
The next day, we had a leisurely breakfast together and I sent him off to the bus station. No mentions were made about the battered pants.
For Memorial Day weekend, my friend Cristina and I packed our bags and drove two hours from Queens, New York to Asbury Park, New Jersey – a city by the ocean that was once a resort community.
It’s been four months since I came back from my year abroad and in that time I filled my days up with seeking employment, working, and settling into back into my social circles. There were hopes of traveling before June…a short trip to Barcelona, Spain (conflicted with work)…or to visit my partner in New Zealand (conflicted with work again).
It wasn’t until we bought tickets to an Oh Wonder – a band from the U.K. that I began listening to in NZ – performance that I found myself finally leaving the state lines.
Scanning Asbury Park’s TripAdvisor reviews, some of the visitors comments were scathing and along the lines of “There’s nothing there” or “Why would anyone go here?” But after researching the history of the city, I was compelled. With a population of 16,000 people, a large gay community, a persevering music scene, and a blossoming number of start-ups, it sounded nice to me.
When you enter the city, one of the stark contrasts is the fusing of old and new establishments. Of the colorful modern graphics promoting tourism in the area against the weather beaten brick structures with beautiful marine inspired carvings.
The food and beverages scene surprised me the most; from MOGO, a South Korean fusion fast-casual eatery to Booskerdoo, a local coffee roastery. There were also a lot of dining places such as Toast, Sabine and Pascal, and Chat & Nibble. For the price and atmosphere, I enjoyed Chat & Nibble the most.
Situated close to the residential area of the city, the diner felt homey and relaxed…somewhere you can wear your pajamas to.
Since I had woken up earlier than Cristina, I walked 20 minutes to Booskerdoo and ordered their cold brew. Coffee, early morning sunshine, and an uncrowded broadwalk felt “sweet as”.
With one hand gripping the pencil in my pocket, another was in mid-air shaped as a fist with the thumb out. I was hitch-hiking…alone and for the first time.
It was my day off and my workmate had backed out of this day trip to walk the Key Summit Track, a three hour and 3.4 km return route.
I gingerly stood on the side of the Milford Sound Highway (Route 94), with my most colorful piece of clothing on (a purple scarf). Always the one uncomfortable to ask for help, hitch-hiking was the ultimate test. You will get rejected time and time again, you will get gestures of encouragement from drivers who don’t stop, but when someone does stop for you, you are reminded of how kind people are. The people who stop – albeit the ones with bad intentions – do not expect anything in return, just a “thank you” and a friendly exchange.
After 30 minutes, as my patience and confidence was wavering, a couple in their mid-50s stopped for me. They were cattlers from Central Otago who were on their yearly vacation, headed back from a weekend in Milford Sound.
We exchange our backgrounds as Madonna’s hits played on their stereo; they were huge fans.
The Key Summit Track was gorgeous in the misty weather. As I was alone – also, first time hiking by myself – I was focused on the sounds of the birds, rustling of the plants, and the sound of my own footsteps. At times, I would get self-conscious of being alone, but as always, the journey ahead brought my focus to my present surroundings.
The pros of hitch-hiking in Milford is its touristic nature. Most drivers are visitors and often in a couple or families. Also – there is only one highway with all scenic destinations and tracks easily accessible. The cons is definitely the lack of reception for mobile phones.
Before setting off on your hitch-hike, tell someone of your starting point and destination, and if possible update them of your status along the way.
Use your intuition and common sense. I would not hitch-hike alone if the place was not a tourist destination. Nor would I accept a ride from someone who looks a lot stronger physically.
Make sure you research the route and know the visuals along it.
Wear colorful clothing so that drivers can see you.
Try to hitch-hike with a partner even if it means a longer process.