Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Simply Walking into Mordor

After exploring the geothermal area of Rotorua for a couple days, Gemma and I took a bus to the small village of National Park between Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. Tongariro National Park is a active volcanic zone with three huge snowcapped mountains and many craters and lakes. It is most famous for being the site used to film Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies, with Mt. Ruapehu as the site of Sauron’s tower and Mt. Ngauruhoe as Mount Doom. Gemma and I decided to go there to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro, which is frequently called the best day hike in New Zealand.

However the weather had other ideas. We were originally going to stay in National Park for two days, but both days it was raining and cloudy with 80kpm winds that made hiking the crossing too dangerous. The first day of rain we did another hike in the park to the crater-formed Tama Lake. The hike was at a lower altitude than the crossing so we were less vulnerable but it was still windy and rainy and cold. For the first half of the hike we walked through thick fog and could barley see our surroundings. When we reached Lower Tama Lake the visibility was so low that we couldn’t even see the lake. But soon after we reached the lake it stopped raining and the skies cleared up enough for us to enjoy the scenery. The hike went through a valley of low brush, with long grasses and various lichens and mosses. The surrounding mountains and the ominous clouds made us feel like we really were in a scene from Lord of the Rings.

After a lot of tinkering with logistics and bus schedules we were able to stay an extra day in National Park in order to do the crossing in good weather. So on Sunday, November 29th aka my 19th birthday, Gemma and I set off to hike the 19.4k Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Because it is a famous hike and there had been bad weather for the past couple days, the hike was packed with people. At first it was tough to find our own space on the trail and walk at our own pace but after walking for a couple kilometres we were able to find space and not worry about the other people. We didn’t want to let the large amount of tourists bother us and ruin our experience. In the end it’s better that a beautiful hiking trail is accessible and that so many people want to get out and enjoy nature.

 The crossing began on a well market path that started on a gradual uphill and then through a valley. We walked in the shadow of the huge Mount Ngauruhoe, which has a perfect cone shaped top covered in lava rock and black sand. When we looked closely we could see a little wisp of smoke coming out of the volcanoes top, as if it was trying to remind us that it was still active. To our left was the many smaller brown peaks of Mount Tongariro, some of which had patches of snow around the tops. The sun was very strong and the sky was perfectly clear and blue. After a little while we began the steep uphills to reach the highest point of the crossing, the Red Crater at 6,018ft.. At first the uphills were steep but on well maintained trails with built in stairs that made the climbing easier. The views were constantly stunning. The black jagged lava rocks, the low grassy bush, the red moss, the snow covered mountains and the looming volcano was all incredible to walk among. After a little while the trail got steeper and tougher as we We had to climbed our way through slippery rocks and sand.


 At the end of a long and exhausting climb we reached the top of the Red Crater. The crater is a huge chasm that looks like it was chiselled into the mountainside. The colouring varied from bright red, to deep maroon and jet black. From the top of the crater we could see three stunning geothermal pools called The Emerald Lakes which were formed by volcanic activity.We walked down to the pools on slippery black sand and ate our sandwiches sitting on the edge of the Emerald Lakes. It reminded me of the geothermal areas we saw in Rotorua but it felt even more special because we had worked hard to get there. Seeing green lakes in the middle of the wilderness surrounded by mountains and a volcano made them feel more wild and part of nature.

 After the lakes the the hike got easier as we left Mt. Ngauruhoe and the Red Crater in the distance. We went uphill a bit more before starting on a long switchback path down the side of the mountain. The mountainside was covered in low-lying grasses, teal lichen, red moss and small yellow and white flowers which all melded together in a cool mixture of texture and color. We walked for another couple hours before the trail became a skinny gravel path through the lush New Zealand forest. We reached the end around 3pm, exhausted and satisfied.  
Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was definitely a perfect way to spend my 19th birthday. It was the most diverse hike I’ve ever been on, taking us through volcanic rock, snowy mountains, geothermal lakes, low-lying bush and lush forest. That evening Gemma took me out to a nice dinner for my birthday because she is awesome. We are currently beginning our travels on the South Island after being joined by Emma and working on an awesome farm which I will write about soon.



Rotorua: Nature is Weird 

After our weird adventure at Satyavan we had to figure out how to spend the week before we met our friend Emma from Chewonki and went to work on our next farm in Hawke’s Bay. It was too late to try to find another farm so we decided to just travel on the North Island for a week. We decided to spend a couple days in Rotorua, which is known for geothermal areas and indigenous Maori culture and then spend a couple days hiking in Tongariro National Park before meeting Emma in Hawke’s bay. I did some last minute logistical manuvering to book hostels and buses to make it all work.  
We spent 3 nights at the YHA hostel in Rotorua. Rotorua is a small town that is run mostly on tourism, but still has some charm to it. We were trying to save money so we bought groceries to make breakfast and lunches at the hostel. There was a small area nicknamed “Eat Street” where we got some nice dinners and drinks. Rotorua’s tourist attractions tend to be expensive package tour things so we had to do some work to figure out what we could see in the area for free. 
The first morning we explored a place called Kairu Park which was right next to the hostel. It seemed like a typical grassy park, until we saw the “Danger Thermal Zone”sign. The rest of the park was filled with small thermal pools. Some of the pools were thick dark mud bubbling from below and spraying into the air, which made it look alive. Other pools had light green colored water with steam dancing along the top in the wind. It was a pretty crazy sight and cool to see in the middle of the city. That afternoon we walked to an old Maori village on the edge of Rotorua Lake. It was a small town of modest houses with a couple beautiful buildings with dark red and white carvings on the outside. We bought some hand carved bone necklaces from a very sweet Maori women. The carved symbol is called “koru”which is modelled after the fern fiddlehead and represents rebirth and new beginnings. The lake was huge and filled with birds, including many huge beautiful black swans which are known for being kind of aggressive but didn’t bother us.

The next day we took a shuttle to visit Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. Waiotapu is very touristy, as you can tell from the name, but it is also one of the most beautiful and surreal geothermal zones in the world. We started our day at the Lady Knox Geyser where makeshift amphitheater tiers had been set up so people could watch the geyser erupt. It was a very touristy spectacle but the actual geyser was pretty cool. It was a white cone shaped rock that looked like a large barnacle. The eruption started with foam bubbling from the top, like a science fair project volcano. Then, as the whole crowd waited with their cameras at the ready, it erupted shooting warm frothy white water 20 meters into the air.

After the geyser spectacle we headed to the full geothermal park where a 3k path lead around the park from sight to sight. First we passed a bunch of deep steaming craters with names like “The Devils Pit”. The rocks were many different colors, from calcified white to a deep red to charcoal black. A strong smell of sulfur, aka rotten eggs, permeated the whole area and it was much hotter from the steam. We continued walking past many multicolored pools which were all billowing steam. Each one was more shocking than the next. We saw a large pool with sections of red, yellow, blue and green which was aptly named “The Artists Palette”. One of my favorite pools was blue with a bright orange rim around it and tiny bubbles on the surface. Another pool was a dark forest green color. Towards the end of the path when we thought we had seen everything, there was a bright lime green pool which was one of the most surreal things I have ever seen. Waiotapu was pretty touristy but we got to see some pretty unique and spectacular natural sights. The lesson we learned from seeing Rotorua was the nature does weird stuff and it is pretty awesome.


Satyavan @ Karekare Beach: Waterfalls, Rain and Crazy People 



After leaving Le Jardin, we were planning to spend the next two weeks wwoofing at what we thought was a meditation retreat and herb farm called Satyavan. The place is in a remote mountinous area of Auckland near a beautiful beach. I am generally a bit sketpical of Westernized mediation and yoga places because they tend to cherry pick the parts of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism that are convinent wihtout fully understanding them. However this place looked beautiful and seemed pretty genuine, and Gemma was excited to learn about mediation so we signed up to stay there for 11 days. We met the owner of Satyavan, Jenny, at her other yoga retreat close to the city called Kawaii Purapura. Jenny had long, stringy brown hair and a small frame and wore white flowy clothing and lots of jewellery. We stayed at Kawaii Purapura for a couple hours before Jenny drove us and two other volunteers to Satyavan in the mountains. The other volunteers were a very sweet German couple in their 20s who had just arrived in New Zealand and planned to travel for over a year. They were quite apologetic about not being fluent in English, but their English was actually quite good and they were very funny and interesting.   
As we drove up the insanely windy roads into the mountains we had the first hints that something wasn’t quite right. Jenny was really confused by our plan, despite the fact that we confirmed it with her before arriving. She kept saying we were staying for 5 days and that we were supposed to be just one person. She never admitted she made a mistake but simply explained to us that we could stay for 6 days if we worked 8 hours for 3 days and then had 3 days off.  
The retreat was in the mountains of the Waitakere forest and overlooked the gorgeous and wild Karekare beach. Jenny described the retreat to us as a small spiritual community of artistic people but we were not sure what religion they were exactly. All the people living there were very secluded and never introduced themselves to us. Gem and I were staying in a tiny room with a bunk bed and about 2 square meters of floor space. Our meals were prepared by an incredibly sweet small old woman with white hair who had lived in new Zealand her whole like but sounded like she had an impeccable British accent. She would sit with us at meals and start asking questions to us about one topic that would set her off on a tangent that would lead her to tell us the entire life story of her niece or explain the names and personalities of all the cats living in the community.  
We started the next day’s work at 8:30am in the cold rain. Jenny simultaneously very spacey and always on edge, and she always moves quickly. When we signed up for the farm it made it seem like they had a vegetable garden and herb farm that we would work in, but we quickly found out we were just going to do landscaping and beautifying work. Right away Jenny brought me over to a mower and very briefly showed me how to start it and empty it and told me where to mow and then was gone. I was left standing in the rain to learn how to mow a lawn for the first time in my life. After some struggling in the beginning, I got the hang of mowing and actually ended up enjoying it. It was exhausting to do for 4 straight hours but it was satisfying work and kept me warm in the cold rain. Gemma was not having so much luck. She was stuck weeding some shrubs around the temple area in the rain and cold while being yelled at by Jenny to go faster. Jenny then yelled at Gemma and Valery saying they weren’t working fast enough and weren’t up to the work, even though they had completed the task she gave them and had been working all morning.  

After lunch Jenny sat us down and said, in the most condensing voice in the world “two of you are struggling and two of you are fine.”, referring to Gemma and Valery because she wasn’t happy with their weeding. She told us all that we should work half days for 3 day and then leave. At this point we wanted to get out of there as soon as possible so we were happy to agree. It was frustrating and difficult because we had depended on us having room and board for the next week and a half and we would have to change plans. The place didn’t have wifi, only an ancient ethernet cable, so we couldn’t even look online to organise places to stay.  

 Jenny and the others never once mentioned anything about a religion or a guru, only saying that it was a “spiritual community”. The whole place was filled artefacts and symbols from various religions, with Buddha heads and Gaenesh statues and Tibetean prayer flags and pictures of Jesus. The house itself was full of pictures of an older Indian man with a round wrinkled face and a large afro of frizzy black hair. There were big and small framed photos, books, some cds and even a calendar all with pictures of this same man. I saw that the man’s name was Sathya Sai Baba but it took me another day or so until I found the “Sathya Sai New Zealand Newsletter” which helped me figure it all out. Sai Baba was a recent Hindu guru who taught that all religions are one and God is within everything. He died in 2011 but still has active groups of followers all around the world who believe he was a reincarnated prophet and had performed miracles. The symbol of his followers is a lotus flower on a candle stick surrounded by the symbols for Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The newsletter had stories of peoples encounters with Sai Baba and their experiences with his god-like abilities. The newsletter ended with the “Question Corner” which addressed Baba’s views on evolution. It explained their religions view that God caused evolution while also using random inaccurate scientific statements and claiming that scientists don’t know as much as they think they do. After reading the newsletter and putting all the pieces together, I began to realise that this whole meditation retreat and community was of people who worshipped the guru Sai Baba. It was starting to feel very cult-like and I was happy we were leaving soon. 

The one redeeming quality of this place was that it was in a very seculded and abosluetly beautiful area of New Zealand. Gemma and I hiked down to the beach one afternoon on a small red dirt path through the forest to a tall waterfall before leading to the beach. The waterfall was really beautiful, a tall skinny stream of water coming off the cliff and into a small pool surrounded by lush fern trees. Karekare beach has dark sand and is lined with jagged rocky cliffs. The waves are quite rough and the current is strong so swimming is considered very dangerous. It was still raining and windy and the sky was overcast which gave the wild grey sand beach a more eerie look.

The next few days we did our work, enjoyed getting to know the German couple and tried our best not to get yelled at by Jenny. I spent another tough day mowing again, this time on a steep hill with a heavy mower for 4 hours, which was very difficult and exhausting. The third morning I did some pretty pointless weeding of the shrubs by one of the houses in the freezing rain. By the end of the third morning me Gemma and the German couple were all thrilled to be leaving that evening. Gem and I finally got wifi that afternoon and spent a frantic couple hours trying to book somewhere to stay in Auckland that night. Since it was the day of and there was a big Fleetwood Mac concert in town that night, everything was either fully booked or crazy expensive. We finally found and booked an overpriced hotel before Jenny drove us back into town. But the drama continued because as we were getting dinner we found out that our hotel booking had been denied. So at 7pm in Auckland we did not have anywhere to stay. We tried to contact our friends at Le Jardin but they were out of town. After much intense online searching we finally booked a hotel about 20 minutes outside of Auckland for a ridiculous amount of money, but at least we had a place to sleep. And we were incredibly grateful for our comfy beds and the lack of crazy people at the hotel that night.


Le Jardin Alpaca Farm 

Le Jardin Alpaca Farm is in Dairy Flat, which is a small farming community about 40 minutes outside of Auckland City. The farm is a big piece of land with the family home surrounded by pasture where they raise alpacas for wool and breeding and highland cows for meat. The area surrounding the farm is absolutely beautiful, with lush green rolling hills dotted with tall trees and grazing livestock. The family is incredibly warm and welcoming and have hilarious family dynamics.

Gemma and I area staying in a small guest house that has a big kitchen and living room with a huge window overlooking the hills. We call it “The Penthouse”. Gemma and I make our own breakfast and lunch in our kitchen with the groceries they bought for us, and we eat dinner with the family. Our schedule is very relaxed and we are given lots of freedom and trust to complete the jobs they give us.  

The work varies day by day. We feed the alpacas and collect eggs from chickens everyday but other than that the animals are pretty self sufficient. We spend lots of time doing landscaping work and do lots of other miscillaneous tasks. The work is usually not too physically demanding but quite satisfying to complete. For the first couple days we weeded the big gardens around the house, pulling out thistles taller than us and filling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with weeds. Another day we spread mulch around the gardens with the help of some of the family. One day we even oiled the patio furniture. The last few days we have worked on the small vegetable garden- clearing out old plants, weeding, adding compost to the soil, planting and setting up an irrigation system.  

Feeding the alpacas is usually the highlight of our day. Though alpacas can live on grazing alone, we feed them some pellets each day which gives them better nutrition and keeps them familiar with humans, which is helpful when it comes time for sheering. The family currently has 15 alpacas- 13 girls and 2 boys. The girls all hang out together in one paddock but the boys have to be seperated from the others. Alpacas are simultaneously very awkward and very beautiful animals, who look like they are a cross between a giraffe and a sheep. They spend their days grazing and taking dirt baths and sometimes running around, which is hilarious to watch. Alpacas are very curious animals. Whenever we walk anywhere near their paddock every single alpaca looks up and stares at us with their long pointy ears stuck straight up. Alpacas will make a humming noise as a way to alert the herd that there is something new and check if everyone is okay. If they are startled or nervous they will make a high-pitched screech that sounds almost like a bird.  

Alpacas have thick furry coats that make them look like stuffed animals so all you want to do is snuggle with them but they are actually quite skittish. It took them a little while to get used to Gemma and I and feel comfortable coming close to us, and if anyone tries to pet them they will immediately yank their head away. Alpacas have a strong matriarchy with the oldest ones usually being in charge. They will spit a super pungent smelling bile to tell others to back off or as a scolding. In this herd the oldest female is Abby, who is the sweetest and friendliest of the alpacas who always eats out of our hands. She had a tooth infection that is now healed but gave her a big lump on the side of her face that makes her look kind of lopsided and adorable. We don’t know the real name of any of the others but we have started to name some of them based on their distinct personalities. The one we call “Stefan” has a dark brown coat with floppy fur on her head and big buck teeth. She is always curious and pops out of nowhere and makes silly faces. The males stay in two different paddocks away from the females. One of the males is very goofy and friendly and will eat out of our hands. The other is more shy and spends his days standing by the fence staring at the girls. We call him Kanye. Spending time with the alpacas is always a fun part of the day and never fails to be a source of amusement.  

 Living with the family and getting to know them has been a really cool part of this experience and made it feel very real. They are very kind, interesting people who are also hilarious and full of funny stories. Though I didn’t really think of New Zealand as being much of a culturally different place, its been really interesting to get to know the cultural differences between it and the US. We have had many long conversations with the oldest kid, who is 15 and very mature for his age, about the nuances of new zealand and american slang words. For instance in NZ, if someone wants to describe something they could say that it’s, “sweet as”or “cool as” or “big as”. Its basically like adding a “really”for emphasis and is very common in New Zealand. We eat dinner each night with the family and drink lovely New Zealand wine. They have a hot tub, which here they call a “spa”, which has been a lovely place to unwind after hard days of work. One evening we sat in the hot tub drinking glasses of local Chardonnay while looking out on the rolling hills of the New Zealand countryside, and I felt ridiculously lucky.   
Gemma and I are basically living in our own little apartment here which gives us lots of independence. Cooking meals together in our own kitchen has been really fun and we are both becoming better cooks. Gemma hadn’t seen Lord of the Rings before, which was famously filmed in New Zealand, so we borrowed the DVDs from the family and I have officially gotten Gemma obsessed with it. We’ve spent many fun nights eating ice cream and watching LOTR and staying up late talking.

Working at this farm has been a very different experience for both of us. I am coming from working 8 hour days at a rustic farm in Taiwan and Gemma is coming from shovelling horse poop all day at a farm in France, so we are both a bit in awe of our luxurious live here. We have fallen in love with the view, gotten to know the alapcas different personalities and felt like part of the family. After only being here for about 2 weeks, we are both very sad to leave.  


The 2015 Rugby World Cup Final: New Zealand vs. Australia 

On Sunday morning I set my alarm for 3:45am so I could walk to a pub downtown and watch the 2015 Rugby World Cup final between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australia Wallabys. The game kicked off at 5am (the tournament was in England) but I needed time to walk downtown and to find a pub that still had seats since many locals booked tables ahead of time or came early to line up. After seeing a bunch of packed bars with lines out the door, I finally found a bar that had space and lots of big screens showing the game. Soon after I entered the bar was packed with locals in All Blacks jerseys drinking beer, who had most likely been up all night. I got a spot standing in front of a big projector screen before the game began. The bar was filled with a communal energy and excitement. First the team sang the NZ national anthem while everyone in the bar sang alone and cheered. The Hakka is a traditional Maori war cry and dance that the All Blacks perform before each of their game. Once it began, the bar went absolutely silent as people watched intently and respectfully. During the Hakka the team is totally synchronised with strong, deliberate motions and powerful chatting. The New Zealand players looked formidable with bulging muscles and fierce looks and the Aussies stayed intentionally expressionless.   

After the Hakka, the game kicked off. After playing rugby for 3 years and watching the Hong Kong 7s many times, I have a good understanding and familiarity with rugby that allows me to really get into the games. Watching the All Blacks play is truly remarkable. They held posession for most of the first half and got a couple kicks in but were unable to finish until an incredibly try in the last few minutes of the first half which made the score 17-3 to the All Blacks. The crowd was cheering like crazy. They started off the second half with an amazing break away try by Ma’nu who dashed through an opening, faked out the defenders and raced to the try zone with Aussies diving at his heels. After that the Aussies came back with two tries and some kicks that brought the score margin to only 4 points. The crowd was quieter and I could feel the tension and nervous energy in the air. One younger guy near me with an All Blacks flag draped around his shoulders looked about ready to faint. Then Dan Carter, one of the best rugby players in the world and an amazing kicker, scored a beautiful drop kick that widened the lead and put All Blacks back on the offensive. The crowd made a collective sigh of relief. Shortly after the All Blacks scored another beautiful try that solidified their victory and the bar went wild.  

The All Blacks became the first team in world history to win two consecutive world cup finals and the first team in history to win 3 total world cup finals. This game was the end of a golden era for the All Blacks, with many of their strongest veteran players retiring soon, so it was an even more special victory. I watched the team celebrate, receive their medals and trophy and pose for photos while spraying champagne towards the camera. It felt really lucky and special to watch such an iconic victory for the All Blacks and to be able to experience it in New Zealand. I got to cheer with the kiwis for their home team at a bar in Auckland at 5am as the All Blacks made history. It was pretty awesome, to say the least. I walked back to the hostel through a city that was in full celebration. Cars honked their horns joyfully and people waved flags out of windows and ran around with them as capes with high fiving everyone they saw. There was a strong feeling of pride and joy in the air. I walked slowly and took int the whole scene before getting to the hostel and crawling back into bed for a couple more hours of sleep.


Auckland: Waiheke Island and Mt. Eden 

For the next two months I will be travelling and working on farms in New Zealand with my good friends Gemma and Emma from Chewonki Semester 51. Gemma is also taking a gap semester before starting college in Febuaray and before this she worked on a horse rance in France and backpacked in Scotland. Emma has a long fall break, so she will join us for only a month. Gemma and I had to book separate flight itineraries, with me flying to Auckland from Hong Kong and her from England so we got into Auckland at different times, though we did overlap briefly at the Hong Kong airport. I arrived in Auckland around 2:30 and got the airport bus to the street near our hostel. The airport and bus were filled with young people carrying big backpacks all off on their own new zealand adventures. The hostel was clean and comfortable, with the lobby filled with travel brouches and posters and simple dorm rooms with bunk beds. I was sharing my room with a girl from Taiwan and another from Hong Kong, which felt like a funny conincidence since those were the last two places I was.

 I settled in, then went off to walk around downtown Auckland and get some food. I was pretty disoriented from lack of sleep and it was hard to register where I was. I walked down Queen St, the main street in downtown Auckalnd, and tried to take in my surroundings. The wide street was lined with a mix   of luxury good stores, souveiner shops, asian food restaraunts and small local stores. The wide dark stone sidewalks and the diversity of the city almost reminded me of walking through New York. Queen street ends at the Auckland harbour and the old ferry building with the big clock. From the coast I looked out onto the rich blue ocean with white sail boats by the docks and lush green islands further out. I ended up just grabbing a couple slices of pizza for dinner at a “New York style pizza”place and ate it while sitting in Albert Park. The park was up one of the steep side streets off Queens Street and next to the big Auckland Art Musuem. The park was filled with grassy lawns and many big, old and gnarly trees thathad twisted in incredibly ways over time.  

Gemma arrived late that night and we both slept in late the next morning. After a big brunch and some amazing coffee (in New Zealand you either get a “flat white” which is expresso and steamed milk or a “long black” which is just black coffee), we caught a ferry to the nearby Waiheke Island. We stood on the back deck of the boat looking out at the Auckland coast and the islands ahead. A big New Zealand flag flapped in the wind on the back of the boat. We reached Waiheke Island after about 40 minutes and walked down to Onerona Beach. The whole place was stunningly beautiful and it’s hard write a description that does it justice so I hope the pictures can help. The sand had dark wave markings from the tide and was scattered with clam shells. We took our shoes off to walk on the cool sand and feel the freezing water on our feet. We followed the Te Whau walking path up the coast of the island to another beach that gave us a awesome overhead view of the beach. At the next beach there was a small playground, a grassy area and a food truck selling woodfire pizza. We sat on a bench looking out at the water as we ate our delicious pizza with feta, onions and mushrooms. A group of teenagers were playing touch rugby in the sand, and a couple little kids in princess constumes were playing on the rocks. It was getting late at that point so we walked back to the village on the roads. The island has lots of beautiful but modest houses with nicely landscaped backyards and lots of trees. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner with wine from Waiheke Island vineyards.

The next day, after watching the rugby world cup final (see next post), Gemma and I walked to the top of Mt. Eden, which we found easily thanks to my best friend google maps. The Auckland area has a ton of dormant volcanoes and a couple are right within the city. Mount Eden is the highest natural point in Auckland city, though it only takes about half an hour to walk up. The mountain is lush green with long grasses and a cobbled path winds up it. Towards the top is a large crater covered in grass where the volcano collapsed, which is sacred to the indigenous Maori people. The crater was pretty stunning and it’s size was hard to capture in a photo. From the top of the mountain we had a 360 view of Auckland city. We sat on the grass for awhile looking out over the roofs of houses, the ocean and the islands in the distance. For dinner we ate some delicious and authentic pad thai at a restaurant on K Road.


Hanging out in Auckland City was really nice and I felt like I got a good feel for the city. Currently we are working on our first farm, an alpaca farm outside of Auckland. We have more limited wifi but I will try to keep making updates to this blog!  


A Final Reflection on Taiwan and A Look Ahead

Tomorrow I will begin my next adventure in New Zealand, but before I leave I wanted to reflect on my 6 weeks working on All Green Organic Farm in Hualien County, Taiwan.

IMG_3004For the first three weeks of working I was the only other volunteer besides Lao Da so I spent quite a bit of time working alone. It was difficult at first to try to stay focused and not get bored, but spending lots of time alone ended up being rejuvenating. It allowed me to focus on one task at a time and to spend time simply thinking or letting my mind wander, which are things I will get much less of once I start college. On the schedule of a farmer, I began work most mornings beneath a beautiful deep orange and red sunrise. As I weeded or raked or planted or watered I could look up to any side and see a backdrop of stunning mountains surrounding me. The work was physical and demanding, but the more I worked the more in tune I felt with my body. I felt my muscles grow strong, my stamina increase and saw calluses growing on my hands.

On my days off I had time to explore Hualien County. Travelling alone is a whole Travelling alone means lots of selfiesdifferent experience compared to travelling with family or friends. I would do lots of research and planning before each day off, but once I was there I allowed myself to go with the flow and do things at my own pace.  Being by myself in a new place took away all of my self consciousness. I could take as many pictures as I want, talk to strangers and get They wanted to take a picture with me.lost without feeling like I was wasting anyone’s time. It was incredibly freeing. In the beginning I felt like I was tricking everyone around me into thinking I was an adult but I soon realized that much of adult life is simply faking it until you figure it out. Being able to successfully go on hikes and bike rides and navigate cities and towns by myself while speaking Mandarin gave me new strength and confidence in myself as an independent adult.

After 3 weeks of working and exploring mostly on my own, new volunteers began to arrive. For the next three weeks I worked with Wee Seng and Ling Chew from Singapore and Ady and Linna from Hong Kong. We chatted in a mixture of IMG_4177Mandarin and English and helped get each other through long, tough work days. It was really interesting to be in this group of people who were all in their 30s-40s and had recently left their desk jobs to travel. All of the volunteers, including myself, had strong personalities and it wasn’t always easy to work together, but I think that learning to compromise and find common ground with them was one of the most valuable lessons I learned on this trip. Through getting to know them I realized how similar we were despite our different backgrounds, while also learning about our cultural differences.

While in Taiwan I thought a lot about speaking second languages and the struggle to be understood. In the past when I spoke to someone who wasn’t fluent in
English the first assumption your brain makes is that the person is less intelligent. This is, of course, never true because being able to communicate at all in a second language is incredible difficult. However, this assumption can still shape how we communicate and interact with those who don’t speak our native language, something that became more obvious to me while I was trying to be understood in a second language.

Though the other volunteers and Nico spoke English, the common language for IMG_4113everyone on the farm was Mandarin. I arrived in Taiwan after taking 4 years of Mandarin class in high school, but I quickly realized that learning Mandarin in class and speaking it in Taiwan were two very different things. HKIS Mandarin class never taught a unit on farming vocabulary so it was easier for Lao Da to explain tasks to me in simple English. When the other volunteers came, Lao Da starting explaining things in Mandarin. I tried to understand as much as I could and the others helped me translate what I didn’t understand. When Lao Da spoke Mandarin, he was much more comfortable and animated, and more detailed in his explanations.


Day to day interactions between the farmers and volunteers were in Mandarin. When I spoke Mandarin I would frequently have to repeat myself or correct my tones before I was understood. I spent lots of time listening, trying to follow conversations by picking up on the words I knew then piecing together the rest. In school I learned the basic Mandarin spoken in China, but the group I was living with spoke Mandarin with many different distinct accents and expressions from their home countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan) which made understanding more difficult but also kept things interesting. It was really rewarding to be able to practice Mandarin in a real world setting, but I frequently felt incredibly frustrated while trying to be understood and it was exhausting to be constantly translating everything in my head. Trying to communicate in another language gave me new understanding of what it feels like to be misunderstood and a new empathy for those struggling to be understood in a different language.


These past six weeks I lived and worked on an organic farm in Taiwan while getting to know a beautiful area of the country, working to be understood in a second language, meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures and spending time alone. I got to spend every day working outside with my hands, being connected to the land I was living on, and seeing the tangible results of my hard work. I am so grateful to have had this experience and I hope to return to All Green Organic Farm one day when I am fluent in Mandarin.

Tomorrow I will fly from Hong Kong to Auckland to meet my close friend, Gemma, and begin our adventure. We will be working on three different farms on the North Island for 2 weeks each, then spending 2 weeks travelling down the east coast of the South Island. For this trip I will be carrying everything I need for 2 months in just my hiking backpack and my day pack. I will continue to update this blog with stories of our trip and pictures, though my access to internet will be less consistent than it was in Taiwan. Thank you to everyone who is reading this blog and supporting me on my adventures. See you in New Zealand!