Thumbs Up

Key Summit, 2nd time around. 

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.




When the clouds are lifted, you can see Lake Marian from the Summit. (2nd time around.)

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.






Into the Bush

“Jaime! You alright?” asked one of my hiking companions, already 10 feet ahead of me on a steep slope, having scaled up with a single rope.

It was my 2nd day in Milford Sound, and I was tramping through the lush New Zealand bush to go atop the Lady Bowen Falls, the area’s highest at 162 meters.  The views were supposed to be one of the best.

“Um…I think so!” I yelled back.

Not wanting to hold up the group, I hoisted myself up only to slip again. The rainfall from the previous week had dampened the rocks, which were slick with mud. After using the rope with no avail, I decided to use my hands and knees to work my way up with the natural footholds – vines, rough and jagged rocks, and patches of vegetation – on the slope.


I arrived at the end of the rope with soggy shoes, wet sweaty clothes, and record amounts of slippage. This was proving to be more challenging than the Tongariro Crossing. Whereas the crossing was about endurance, this track was about obstacle and level of fitness.

Ascending up to Lady Bowen Falls, January 2016.

We followed an old water pipe for a good 15-20 minutes, before we reached ladders to bring us to a pool of glacier water helm by rock formations.

Everyone except me jumped in. I frozed, overcome by self-consciousness and fear of the unknown. What if I hit a rock? What if the water, iced cold, would be a shock to my body? More importantly, I was feeling unconfident in both situation and in my body; the fear of judgement still consumes me at moments like these. I just couldn’t will myself to do it.

We sunbathed and chatted by the glacier pool for a while before setting off to see the top of Lady Bowen Falls. After 20 minutes of meandering through the trees, bushes, and rocks we finally made it and were treated to the most magnificent view of the fiord.

From the top of Lady Bowen Falls.


On the second to last day of my time in Milford, we climbed up again and I willed myself to let go and jump in the glacier pool. It was electrifying.


Excerpts from Milford

Milford Sound, January 2016

During the course of  21 days in Fiordland National Park, I used less than 600 MB of data, a feat for someone who came from such a digitally connected country. Mainly it was because the internet connection in Milford Sound was almost non-existent, therefore expensive. For a budget backpacker (or shall I say suitcase roller), I needed to quit the internet cold turkey. It was a welcomed change. With technology, its very easy for people, or shall I say myself, to be in split minds, never fully focusing on the present.

Another vice I had to somewhat forego was take-away coffee and other forms of caffeine, specially the flat white. For the 21 days, I bought myself less than 5 coffees from the cafe at the I-Site making my consumption of coffee almost nil…for the first week. Until I spied a bag of instant coffee in the “Free Food” cupboard and claimed it as my own. Let the party begin. 


In that first week, exhaustion from physical work, absence of caffeine, and the feeling of disconnection plagued me. I had receded inwardly just like this area of Fiordland; isolated, and hard to access. I lost the shield that technology and other distractions provided and had came face to face with the present. I had to entertain all of my thoughts and most of all people who I met. In this limited space, there was no hiding.

Gradually, I eased into this slow pace of life. After work, we would either go on hiking excursions, have conversations, watch movies, cook, or nap, which was a group favorite. In the first week I ventured out on my own a lot, wandering everywhere but nowhere.


My roommates and coworkers – all of us on a Working Holiday –  were a nuanced bunch, and while we all had different characters, we clicked. There was Y a musician from Finland who was adventurous and independent or in other words badass, A from German who was reserved and a deep thinker, I from Wales who was comedic and caring, and N who was strong-willed Canadian and a natural leader. I would like to think we became quite the team and accepting of each other’s flaws.

Milford at Dawn, January 2016

I played London Grammar’s song Wasting All My Young Years a lot during this time. I felt as if my decisions in NZ have been made in haste, but I realized I haven’t felt this free in ages.

You cross this line

Do you find it hard to say it with me tonight
I’ve walked these miles but I’ve walked in straight line
You’ll never know what was there to be

I’m wasting my young years
It doesn’t matter here
I’m chasing more ideas
It doesn’t matter here

We are
We are
Baby, I’m wasting my young years
We are
We are
Baby, I’m wasting my young years

Don’t you know that it’s all I feel
I wouldn’t worry, you have all the love
I’ve heard it takes some time to get it right

I’m wasting my young years
It doesn’t matter here
I’m chasing more ideas
It doesn’t matter here

by London Grammar

With the recommendation of A I began to read Immortality by Milan Kundera. Quotes that really resonated with me were:
 “…the serial number of a human is the face…it reflects neither character or soul nor what we call the self…” (p. 13)
“She looked forward to the drive, too, because in the car nobody talked to her and nobody looked at her. Yes, the most important thing was nobody looked at her. Solitude is a sweet absence of looks.” (p. 31)


Favorite Cafes in North Island, New Zealand

Remedy Coffee, Auckland

The first time I went into the Auckland CBD, I came upon Remedy Coffee, a small cozy cafe tucked in the busy commercial area.  I ordered an iced coffee assuming it was the standard American version with regular coffee and ice.  To my surprise, it came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream! Compared to the others I had in NZ, this was the most memorable with a near perfect ratio of fresh expresso, milk, and ice cream; meaning the expresso is the star of the drink, while the rest is secondary. The price is a bit steep, on average costing about $7 NZD and not a drink I would order often, but definitely nice to try.

The cafe had a friendly ambiance with board games and book exchange. However, it was very difficult to find a seat due to its popularity.

Lamason, Wellington

Of the few cafes (The Flight Coffee Hangar, Fidel’s, etc.) that I tried in Wellington, I enjoyed Lamason the most for its spot-on flat white and delicious avocado toastie with a runny egg on top.

I was dripping in sweat by the time I finally found the Lombard Street cafe after searching 30 minutes, circling the neighborhood at least 2 times. Shamefully, it was my was also my 2nd time searching for it; once during my first trip to the city with my travel-mate and then a layover alone in the city. It was well worth it. Though I would recommend avoiding lunch-time, when it is the most crowded.

CC Cafe, Kerikeri

Hands down my favorite cafe for lounging, relaxing, and chatting with friends. Their coffee is consistent, their staff personable, and their gluten-free orange almond cake is heaven.



This eco-conscious cafe (that turns into a bar at night) own by a Swedish-Kiwi (casual term to reference New Zealanders) couple quickly became our hang-out spot in town during our 2 month seasonal work stint in Kerikeri.  We would sit by the two armchairs out front right by the sidewalk and share a slice of that cake with a dollop of yogurt on the side. Other times I would bring my laptop and work on my resume (they have power outlets, but no wifi).

Their eggs benedict with ciabatta bread and NZ salmon gravlax is also a must-try.

An honorable mention goes out to Ikarus Coffee Roasters who has a stall in Kerikeri’s Bay of Islands Farmer’s Market. They are independent coffee growers and roasters by Doubtless Bay with a mobile coffee cart at various farmer’s markets in the North Island. One Sunday I woke up early to visit the market, and got a chance to try their flat white which was decadent, especially when paired with the lively atmosphere of people shopping, the music from the live band, and early morning sunshine.


Bay Expresso, Hawkes Bay

In June 2016, my friend Charlotte and I moved to Hastings to get a piece of that apple packing action. Going to work we would past the Bay Expresso storefront on Omahu Road everyday, but never had the chance to go.

Until finally, after an exhausting day of work we rode our bikes into town (15 minutes) and visited the Cornucopia – The Organic Shop, where I purchased the BE’s Cafe Blend for $13 NZD. This bag of coffee made me excited to start the work day at 5 AM.

Two days before leaving town and a failed attempt with a co-worker to visit the Omahu location (closed for Saturdays), I made my way alone on bike to the location on Karamu Road. Having never gone beyond Hawkes Bay Showgrounds, I was nervous and I was riding next to a highway.



The cafe, which was pleasantly surrounded by farms, was quaint and quirky with illustrations decorating the walls. With the sun streaming in and unpretentious atmosphere, it was the most relaxing feeling I had in the past month. I sat with my laptop and sipped my flat white, which was smooth and nutty.



The Pursuit of Fiordland


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At the crack of dawn, I headed off to the bus “depot” from Deco Backpackers, the hostel where I stayed for my one night layover before heading off to Milford Sound. The Remarkables, a mountain range right by Queenstown – “Partytown”, New Zealand – sat quietly in these early morning hours as the town began to stir.

A few people were strolling, others were headed off to the bus depot, probably going where I was. The buzz of excitement from these travelers were undeniable. While I was pumped to go to Milford Sound, I felt my energy waning. The constant travel and socializing was enjoyable but exhausting and at times, made me a bit anxious. I was eating less than normal and needed proper sleep.

Through these transition periods, from one place to another, I often wonder what I was really trying to pursue. Was I delaying the time until I had to settle down for good? Am I wasting my time? What would I do after this? And after NZ? How do I want to live my life? I know I’m going to put myself in another challenging situation, but is it worth it? These Piscean thoughts rolled around in my mind, chasing the tail, one after another.

Halfway from Queenstown to Milford, the bus stopped so we could see the Englelinton Valley, a location where Lord of the Rings was filmed. Gray clouds loomed overhead, the air humid.

A teenage tourist on the bus stood during the entire bus ride, recording and photographing the sights as he bounced from one side of the bus to the other. During the curvaceous part of Milford Road, just before Homer Tunnel, he wobbled and swayed with the bus, yet his phone stayed firmly in the air. His parents told him to sit, and he would… but for just for a moment before he was at it again.

As we headed deeper into Fiordland National Park, I was in awe. Lupin grew in scattered bunches, keas roam the park, and the clouds snaked through the valleys. The endless wildlife was incredible with the Homer Tunnel as the first sparse hunk of infrastructure in miles. My anxious thoughts silenced by the sound of nature, I was ready for another adventure.


En Route to Milford Sound

Christchurch Art Gallery, 2016

It was in early January 2016 that I once again packed my bags and left for another destination in New Zealand. This time it was from Kaikoura to Fiordland National Park, renown for their majestic ice-craved fiords. Again, not wanting to rush my visit nor spend serious money on accommodation and cost-of-living, I signed myself up for a work exchange in the area. Now it was time to worry about transporting myself there. I scoured the internet and to my disbelief I found a $1 Intercity bus ticket from Christchurch (NZ’s third biggest city, and South Island’s largest) to Queenstown, the closest town to Mildford Sound besides Te Anau. You bet that I bought that ticket in a heartbeat.

My co-worker and friend Chloe left for Christchurch with me and she sent me off the next morning at the city’s central bus exchange, a large modern structure that was built to replace the original after the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2011. The city was quieter than expected, but the atmosphere was nevertheless invigorating with colorful graffiti-ed murals, clean streets, construction cranes, and innovative commercial revitalization solutions, such as the ReStart container mall in the central business district (CBD). Later on,  I would end up settling in this city for 6 months. But that’s a story for another day.

I boarded the Intercity bus without a hitch and quickly settled into a comfortable state-of-mind on the bus, listening to my high school playlist off my iPod (which I can’t update unless I want to lose all the existing songs).

As Dido, Regina Spektor, Faye Wong, Keane, Rachel Yamagata, the Cranberries, and Sixpence None the Richer crooned, the varied landscapes of the Canterbury and Otago regions flew past in an instant and left me curious. At times, I wanted to just get off the bus and explore.

We stopped briefly in Timaru and Oamaru before we boarded another bus to take us to Queenstown.

All of a sudden the driver yelled, “Ms. Cho, please come up and see me outside the bus”. As I made my way up to the exit, I felt the other passengers look at me. My heart began to race. What could it be??

I gingerly greeted the bus driver. My heart dropped when told me that my bus ticket I bought for $1 was for January 2017, a year later.

via Daily Prompt: PanickedPanicked

Small Town Life

Having been born and raised in New York City with a population of over 8.3 million people, living in Kaikoura was a welcomed change. But both places are tourism hot spots in their own rights; NYC with its cultural diversity and Kaikoura with biodiversity.

Sounds of seagulls and ocean waves replaced those of traffic noise, lush plants and sand replaced slabs of concrete, and the mountains replaced buildings as the tallest structure in the landscape. And within 1 minute from the town centre was the sea.

The area, with its proximity to the sea, was well-known for their seafood, especially crayfish or kai in Maori.

White Bait Fritter, Schoolyard Market
Crawfish Fritter w/Mussels from Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk

Meals was relatively simple. Breakfast would consist of microwaved muesli and milk and dinner would most likely be some type of pasta dish. My friend and I got in the habit of cooking and sharing dinner together and would make anything from pesto pasta to green curry (instant, of course) with rice. I remember meals shared, of candlelight dinners with potato gratin and red wine prepared by my French co-workers, of chowing down on carbonara pasta (made by yours truly) together in the hostel’s living room.

We walked and biked everywhere. Once we even biked 2 hours to Mount Fyffe, stopping by a lavender farm called Lavendyl on the way. their lavender ice cream laced with honey intoxicated us, especially against the backdrop of the mountains and fields.