From Raro to Fiordland

We got to spend a day at a local elementary school in the Cooks! These kids demanded piggyback rides.
We got to spend a day at a local elementary school in the Cooks! These kids demanded piggyback rides.

Two of the best weeks of my life just flew by. For mid-semester break, I had to the privilege of spending a week in the paradise that is the Cook Islands. It was an incredible time to be fully immersed into a beautiful, unique culture that welcomed us with open arms. This trip was organized with IES, the organization that I am studying abroad through. For a fair price, we had our airfare, lodging, meals, and numerous activities covered. I don’t even know where to begin with the adventures that we embarked on during this trip. I will touch on a few. One day, we went on a cross-island mountain bike tour where we picked fresh starfruit, bananas, coconuts, and more from trees. We biked along the shore and through the thick forest of the island.

Butterflyfish! One of the many beautiful species in the Cook Islands.
Butterfly fish! One of the many beautiful species in the Cook Islands.

It was magnificent. Another day, we went snorkeling in the crystal clear, coral filled waters. I got lucky enough to see hundreds of magnificent, bright fish, several Moray eels, and even an octopus. The Cooks are the definition of paradise.

After leaving the Cook Islands, I was beat. However, I had a another week of traveling planned down the South Island of New Zealand. I had no idea what I was in for. Flying into Queenstown was intense to say the least. The first snowfall of the year came early and it hit hard right as I landed. Three of my friends were supposed to meet me in Queenstown but their flights got pushed to different cities because of the dangerous conditions. It was a rough start. However, we all managed to meet up later in the night and get back on track. The first two days of the trip were remarkable.

Kayaking through Doubtful Sound.
Kayaking through Doubtful Sound.

We went on an overnight kayak tour through Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park. Kayaking through perfectly still waters surrounded by jagged, snow-capped mountaintops has been the most beautiful scenery I have experienced since being in New Zealand. Words and pictures can’t give it justice! After our kayaking trip, we went back to Queenstown where we explored the night life and ate at some of the iconic restaurants of the South Island. We capped off our trip by bungee jumping at the top of the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown. One week in the Cook Islands and one week on the South Island. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect mid-semester break.

Lake Marian in Fiordland National Park
Lake Marian in Fiordland National Park

The Shire one day – Mt. Doom the next

Bag End. The hobbit hole where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins lived.
Bag End. The hobbit hole where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins lived.

It has been quite some time since I have last posted. In the last few weeks, I have gone on many adventures including: skydiving, navigating through caves, climbing mountains, and more. I am adjusting more and more to this new life that I am living. It has just recently gotten to the point where I have been enjoying myself more in a relaxed manner. The first month was rather chaotic. I felt the need to squeeze in as much as I could in a short period of time every time I would travel. Now, I feel at ease when I have a day where I simply lay around.

With that being said, I have still been on some remarkable trips in the last few weeks that I have been wanting to write about. Traveling down to Matamata and getting a professional tour through Hobbiton was simply astonishing. Growing up, I watched The Lord of The Rings movies religiously and the films have always been engrained in my head. So, when I was wandering through the same hills and hobbit-holes that Frodo, Sam, and Bilbo all wandered through it felt like a dream from my childhood. It was truly magical.

One of the Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Absolutely beautiful, apart from the stench of sulfur.
One of the Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Absolutely beautiful, apart from the stench of sulfur.

After the peaceful tour of The Shire, our friends felt the urge to experience the polar opposite end of Middle-earth — Mt. Doom. We traveled down to the middle of the North Island and trekked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered by many to be the best one-day hike in New Zealand. The rugged terrain of the crossing was 20 kilometers long, but we added the painfully steep Mt.Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mt.Doom) summit climb to the midpoint of our hike. It was an excruciating trek to the top, but once we were above the clouds, roughly 2,300 meters above sea level, there was no need to complain about sore legs. The sheer beauty of it all was all my mind wanted to focus on. These were the things that I dreamt about when planning my trip to this stunning country.

Trekking above the clouds to the summit of Mt. Doom
Trekking above the clouds to the summit of Mt. Doom

A Few Must-Do’s in NZ

My friend Marc and I toward the end of our tramp around Rangitoto. The volcano can be seen in the background.
My friend Marc and I toward the end of our tramp around Rangitoto. The volcano can be seen in the background.

This past week has opened my eyes to more of the natural beauty New Zealand has to offer. It’s no wonder why Kiwis have been calling it God’s Own Country, or Godzone, for over 100 years.

A few days ago, a large group of us planned a day trip out to Rangitoto Island to climb the youngest volcano in New Zeland, which emerged from the water roughly 600 years ago. We took the twenty-minute ferry ride over to the base of the volcano. It was only a few kilometers to the summit, but it sure was tiring. The elevation increased hundreds of meters by the time we reached the top. The views at the summit were remarkable, but as many people say, pictures do not give this beautiful country justice. If you are spending time on the North Island, be sure to add Rangitoto Island to your itinerary.

Cathedral Cove from the water.
Cathedral Cove from the water.

After experiencing Rangitoto’s sheer beauty, I had a strong desire to quickly experience more of what the North Island had to offer. With this in mind, we decided to venture around the Firth of Thames and on up to the Coromandel Peninsula. Supposedly, the best way to experience the Coromandel is via kayaking. Considering this, a group of us scheduled a three-hour kayak tour in Cathedral Cove and it was the most enjoyable three hours I have experienced in New Zealand. This area is home to many scenes from “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies! The water was as clear and smooth as glass. There was one point where we were kayaking in 50-feet-deep waters and the ocean floor could be seen clearly. The tour was located on the Hahei Nature Reserve where fishing isn’t allowed and nothing can be taken from its beaches or waters. This resulted in some remarkable marine life. Following these two trips, I was extremely drained but so deeply satisfied with what I had seen and learned.

One of my favorite aspects about NZ. So many islands scattered throughout the water.
Bright and early kayaking in the Coromandel. One of my favorite aspects about NZ – the islands scattered throughout the water.

Bienvenue En France!

Today marks the start of my second week in France. This sounds absolutely ridiculous to say out loud and in print, because with everything I’ve done, I feel like I ought to have been here for at least double that time.

We all arrived in Paris on January 6 to report for Orientation. I’d flown overnight, as had most everyone else, and we were all extremely jetlagged. We met the Resident Director of CIEE-Rennes at the airport and a bus took us to the hostel. And then…we saw as much of Paris as is humanly possible in three days.

I do not exaggerate when I say there wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t having fun. We were a big group, so it was pretty obvious we were tourists, but the program gave us different options of things to do each day. Every morning we could pick between to places—hmm, the Eiffel Tower, or the Louvre?—and then after lunch we all had a mandatory excursion with a tour guide. One day we went to Montmarte (a small mountain in the northern part of Paris also home to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica), and the other, Isle de la Cité (one of Paris’ two islands and the place with—maybe you’ve heard of it?—Notre Dame Cathedral).

View from the top of Montmartre--a photo doesn't do it justice, so go see it in person!
View from the top of Montmartre–a photo doesn’t do it justice, so go see it in person!

I also had the privilege of being able to visit the Paris Catacombs, a relatively unknown location full of history. We paid a group fee to have a tour in English, which turned out to be invaluable. The Catacombs are both an old quarry and an ossuary. They weren’t even in Paris at one point—which is why they have all the bones. The condition of the Parisian cemeteries was at one point so bad that Louis XIV ordered them all to be emptied and put into the quarry he had just ordered to be mapped. They think there’s around 6 million people buried in there.

Skulls arranged to resemble a doorway to heaven.
Skulls arranged to resemble a doorway to heaven.

If you want to be simultaneously awed and creeped out, visit Les Catacombes. Even though I was super interested in the story of the quarry and catacombs, I felt a little freaked out by the series of tunnels with bones stacked about five or six feet high. I was expecting some sort of barrier between us and the remains of human beings, but nope! I could have reached out, grabbed a skull, and said “Alas, poor Yorick!” if I’d wanted. But I was told I’d be fined if I did that, so I refrained.

A carving done by one of the quarry workers. According to our guide, he had planned to show it to his friends the very day he was crushed to death while working.
A carving done by one of the quarry workers. According to our guide, he had planned to show it to his friends the very day he was crushed to death while working.

Not what you picture when you think of Paris, eh?

After a couple days, of course, we all climbed on a bus and headed to Rennes, where we’re eagerly and nervously waiting for our classes to begin! À bientôt! See you soon!

Spain Surprises

My parents visited me here in Spain, and there are a few things that surprised/entertained/ shocked them, so I thought all y’all might be interested too:

Zona WiFi Gratis

Wee- fee: This is how Spainards say wifi. In the eloquent words of my mother, “It sounds like pee pee!”
Table heater:  Because of the lack of central heating, they use very long table cloths and then have a heater underneath the table. The table cloth then doubles as a blanket as well.
City personality:  My parents were a little worried that the cities would be very Americanized. While we did see our fair share of American brands and the occasional McDonald’s or Starbucks, they were very contented with the unique character of the cities we visited.starbucks_mcds
Walk-ability: They had heard about ease of walking in European cities and the fact that everyone walks almost everywhere.
Personal space: I’m so glad I warned them about this. For example, we were sitting on a beach looking at the med and a couple guys can up looking over the fence RIGHT next to us. My mom looked annoyed that they didn’t select any of the space along the rest of the fench until I reminded her of this.
Life is in the street: They kept commenting on how many people were in the streets, bars, and cafes. It’s not just because we were traveling during a busy time, it’s also that Spainards love spending time in the street.

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Okay, perhaps this photo is a bit deceiving as today we got snow in Toulouse, but a few short days ago this was life after classes, sun-bathing on the banks of the Garrone. Such bliss!!!

I seem to have somehow entered a glorious place in my study abroad experience:  the demands of the language are not as exhausting as they once were!  When I first arrived listening and speaking French sucked the energy right out of me.  This would then lead to a vicious cycle of blank stares and quizzical looks as my exhausted mind tried and failed to find the French words for “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Of course I suppose I’ve been improving slightly everyday, but I know feel like I have finally come to a place where (hopefully) my progression will be more fluid.

And as it turns out, the ability to speak someone’s language makes friendships much more interesting and natural! This past weekend, a friend from the program and I went to a surprise birthday party.  It was a blast and full of French (read “better”) versions of American food!

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We contributed these little guys to the party.  They were an all-around success considering we had to translate the recipe from French. Despite buying two cartons of milk when we needed two spoonfuls, we somehow managed to pull it off.

And in other random and wonderful news, I live right next to a veterinary school. Why is this exciting!? Because their grounds are open to the public!  This means I have a wonderful place to escape the city and bond with some French farm animals.  The random joys! 

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