The Southern Coastlines of New Zealand

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Where civilization is at your back, the endless array of possibilities lies in front of you, and the healing of the salty air is all around you, are the coastlines. I will admit, most of my venturing entails quite a bit of ocean therapy. I was born in a coastal state, and my entire life has been lived within close driving distance to the sea. Being without feels foreign, and when I’m away from it for a period of time, it is something I crave. Traveling down some of the coastal areas of the South Island brought a vast array of changing landscapes and ocean creatures coming up from the waters for a rest from the tumultuous cold waters.

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I’m going to start, right off the bat, with my favorite found location in these regions. The Katiki Lighthouse is hardly talked about, and there were no people there when I went. The lighthouse was built in 1878, I was told, because there were ships crashing into the dangerous reef that surrounds, while on their way to Port Chalmers. This is one of those hidden, not so talked about gems I discovered during my explorations. There are yellow-eyed penguins you may be able to spot, dozens upon dozens of seals, birds of all kinds, rabbits hopping right across your path, and red sand beaches that are probably untouched because they would be difficult to get to. The lighthouse itself is a stunning sight as well.

From Katiki, the Moeraki Boulders aren’t far; just make sure to plan this around low tide for some great photos and beachcombing. These boulders are giant spherical shaped formations that have been there for hundreds of years, and I’m not sure there is an agreement on how they got here, but there are definitely some local legends attached. The beach goes on for a good stretch, and though there are plenty of people there is also plenty space at low tide. I will say that the sand isn’t like a soft gritty sand that would feel good between yours toes, it’s more like a clay, muddy sand that you will want to wash from your feet right after walking on it. I wore shoes.

From here traveling up north to the smaller towns of Omaru and Timaru are great stops for the cozy cafes to warm up in and fill your stomach. Sitting along the harbors will be docks filled with birds, and Omaru will have the tiny blue penguins coming onto the land during sunset. There is a viewing fee to enter the area where one can actually see them. There is also a fence that is down in an area behind the viewing building that leads to a decent view as well, not that that’s what I did or would ever recommend.

Just outside Dunedin rest some of the most stunning cold water beaches. St. Claire to St. Kilda is filled with surfers ready to brave the waves in there thick full-body wetsuits. And then there is the staggering sight of Tunnels Beach with giant drop off cliffs, a waterfall when the rains have come, and of course a whole in the rock in the form of a tunnel where the sea crashes and swirls around.

The variety of landscapes alone, just along the coastlines of South Island, are magnificent and plentiful. The best method to get to all these places and to be sure you have the time to enjoy them is to have your own transportation, possibly even a camper van.

The Battlefield between Forces of Nature, Where Glaciers have Seceded, FIORDLAND

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These mighty mountains, with scale so large any man or animal would be left aghast and know its place, have been forced to bow into the sprawling valleys, who have demanded their space to be, left buy glaciers compelled to secede. Where the sun, God to many, has had difficulty conquering the indomitable ice and snow with skin so thick no force has been completely able to penetrate, and its thick build up is left to plummet in an avalanche destroying everything in its path. Where water, in any form, is plentiful, and its liquid form is showering over every mass with a drop it can find. Where these masses submit to the tumultuous emotions of the sea, is Fiordland.

Daring to travel Fiordland in the middle of winter, though the days were chosen wisely, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a snow flurry in sight for at least the next couple nights, the carpool departed from Queenstown in the wee hours of the morning before the sun had awaken. With layer upon layer, we were ready to venture out into what I was told was a majestic wilderness. Rounding Lake Wakatipu were kayakers determined to paddle despite the cold. With this lake so still, kayaks glided with ease through these scenic, cold waters. Rounding every icy turn Highway 6 had, down through Devil’s Staircase provides endless sights of this lake, though with breath sometimes held through some of the slick turns.

From there to Lake Manapouri lies endless native bush to explore, and some ranchlands. Lake Manapouri is also a great place for an overnight stay. With sandy shores against this massive lake and islands sprinkled throughout, it has endless trekking options. It really is an outdoor enthusiast dream that most have yet to discover. The next town is Te Anau which is a bit more populated and has its own lake filled with its own sights and allure. From here be sure to fill up on petrol, food, warmth, and anything else you might need because what lies ahead is pure wilderness.

Boulders that appear larger than the largest buildings have resigned to the flat lands of Eglinton Valley, left by an enormous glacier that once called this its home. This glacier that is now just a distant memory, was once hugged by the sloping mountains that surround; you can see its former size by looking around to see the width of this now extended valley. Down the road, a bit lie lakes so pristine and still, the neighboring Earl Mountains see their reflections with crisp clarity and vivid colors. These mirrored lakes are so clean and untouched when leaning over to see your reflection, not only do you see an exact mirror image but you will be able to make out the color of your features and the clothing you are wearing.

From here on, at every turn, when looking into the mountains, is an opportunity to see the remains of an avalanche. Some set off purposely by man to save men who are traveling through, and others, the mountains just could not bear the weight of the relentless snow and ice. These beginnings start at Knobs Flat, yet another picturesque sight. Be sure to walk across to Monkey Creek with its water so clean it’s safe to filled up on water straight from the creek. I did. In the middle of all this, Lake Gunn has made its claim to a natural rain forest with red beech trees and a variety of birds. Another perfect stop for a walk along the way, and keep an eye open for the Kea bird, a colorful mountain parrot both in sight and personality.

And now every piece of land is succumbed to the fourteen fiords where the sea holds its monopoly. The most popular and easiest to get too being Milford Sound. The term easy is used loosely due to it also being unreachable when any given avalanche decided to claim the inhabitants below, or the ice covers the road so thick nothing will provide enough traction to pass through. The only way to really experience the greatness of Milford Sound is by sea. Via boat you can see the deep cuts the ocean has gouged into the land to make its way through. Waterfalls are endless and cascading over every cliff side when rain has made has been present or the sun is forcing the snow to become water. The most well-known waterfall being Crystal Falls is consistently flowing, and if aboard a boat, you can get so close you can feel the spray.

Though these forces of nature may have contended with each other for hundreds of years, the combination of all has materialized into a great harmony allowing all to exist, composing Fiordland.

Women Empowering Women

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During my explorations in New Zealand’s South Island, where I spent over a month exploring, I decided to visit local churches and walked into Elim Church in Dunedin. I was immediately welcomed and befriend by some loving, extraordinary women. They invited me into their homes, fed me, and together we shared pieces of our lives and stories. I was asked to share my story to a women’s group within the church; I’m usually not much for any form of public speaking, but I felt prompted and said yes before the words “no way” could escape my mouth. This was one of those raw moments that, like a domino effect, led to other women opening up, sometimes despite the tears streaming down their cheeks. These are the pivotal points in time we as women can choose to really support, uplift, and empower each other in both emotional and practical ways.

I started out feeling nervous and realizing that no one in this room really knew me. In those first moments, I was unsure how I would be able to relate to all these different women when I had no idea who they were and what their experiences have been.

“My life hasn’t turned out the way I wanted or ever expected it to go, and I thought I’d share a piece of my story with you, and why I’m doing what I’m doing.” As I began with those first words to just lay it all on the line, I saw every woman’s eyes I looked into, looking back with complete connection, understanding, and waiting with expectancy for what I was going to say next. I went on and talked about my achievements, my heartaches, my disappointments, and why I walked away from a good paying career to explore the world and at least give myself a chance to pursue things that fill me with passion and a sense of purpose. (If you want to know more about this please read my “About” page, and feel free to contact me with any questions.)  I talked about faith and what that looks like when God hasn’t given you the life everyone else seems to have and you so badly wanted. I talked about how I hear God, how I’ve listened to Him asking me to step out of the boat, then feeling like I am sinking. How in this entire adventure I am stepping out not knowing where the next stepping stone will be or when it will show up. Similarly, how the Israelites were called into the wilderness and continually cried out to God wondering if He brought them there to die because they too felt like they were walking blindly with everything resting on their faith and trust. How Hagar was cast into the desert with a child and had to lay Ishmael down under a bush to die because they didn’t even have water. I shared about my confusion in this season and how here I sit, amongst a group of women speaking about faith, and I myself am unsure how I am going to keep a roof over my head.

Most importantly I shared how I saw God show up, sometimes at the very last minute, every time I made the first move to step out, and take these huge risks. I’ve always chosen to walk forward until I see God close the door; and then sometimes He opens a window and I crawl my way through that. He is always there, and He always answers in some form. God always provided for the Israelites and a spring of water for Hagar, in the last moments. Ishmael thrived and grew into a great nation. God ALWAYS provides when we follow His promptings in our journeys; sometimes it just looks a bit different than we expected. I shared that I really do believe our lives are made to be stories of God’s mighty work, and for there to be room for Him to truly reveal Himself there has to be great imperfection, lack, and despair. There has to be a need, a deficit, for Him to fulfill. Our stories aren’t just for us to have this outwardly appearance of a good life. Our stories aren’t just for us at all, but for God to reveal Himself through us to the world. Our ultimate goal shouldn’t be to have a cookie cutter “good” life, but to connect with others through the life we have and share our stories.

After I shared my stories we had great discussion. Multiple women opened up about the heart-wrenching struggles they are facing and have faced in their own lives, and how they too have lives that don’t look like they’d ever imagined. Stories of husbands leaving, having no means to support themselves let alone their children, struggles of depression, and just not being where they thought they would be in life. These are the moments we as women can speak life and hope into each other, reminding each other of who God is and His love and sovereignty over our lives, or we can completely miss this opportunity. We all have shortcomings, but these are the times we can really connect and push each other forward in our faith and in our lives. It is a beautiful thing, when women allow themselves be completely be striped of any pride and share their struggles. Take these opportunities, when we see the needs right in front of us. Be conscious that sometimes we are called to not just listen and embrace, but to act in any way we can provide help. Empowering isn’t just verbal but sometimes requires action and provision. So, there I was the next day, with no income myself, no knowledge of where the next roof over my head was going to be, arms filled with grocery bags, walking up to a doorstep I was seeing for the first time, and leaving all the groceries for someone who’s need was greater than mine.

Women empowering women.

Deeply Rooted in Wanaka New Zealand

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When I look back to the places I’ve cherished most around the world they all have a common thread that ties them together. They are places where I was able to sit and just be. Places where all I could hear were the sounds of nature, and the voices of man were rare if existent at all. I found these spots all around Wanaka. I could’ve lumped a Wanaka post in with my Queenstown trip but it wouldn’t have given Wanaka the notoriety it deserves and unique identity it has. This is a place where I just walked for hours along the lake.

 

About 10 minutes into my walk I saw a man taking several photos of a tree that was surrounded by muddy water. The tree didn’t have any leaves on it and it didn’t seem that pretty to me, so I was having a hard time reconciling why out of all the beautiful scenery that surrounded the both of us he was obsessively photographing this tree. It literally looked like a giant stick in the mud to me. I looked at this tree and immediately had thoughts that it would probably end up dying. It was rooted in an area that will be covered in the lake waters as soon as the lake rises and it’ll probably drown, get uprooted, and eventually wash ashore. For now, it just stood there all by itself.

 

I walked up to the guy taking the photos of the lonesome, bare tree and said “I wonder if it’ll survive much longer?” He responded, “Well, I guess there’s no telling, but the locals call it a weed, and this weed has survived over 30 years, sometimes half submerged in lake water. I bet its roots are deep into the soil below, and its branches are always ready to absorb the sunlight. This tree has gotten quite a bit of tourist attention recently.”

 

“This tree has gotten quite a bit of tourist attention lately.” This statement had me thinking about this tree for a large part of my continued walk. What made this tree so special was not its eye-catching beauty or massive impressive size, but simply because it was making it through difficult environmental conditions time and time again. And, through these conditions it has still been able to push through only God knows what under this lake to grow roots deep enough to keep its stability. This tree is sometimes up too its branches in water and it has still been able to grow enough to always touch the sunlight and not completely drown.

 

It was such a parallel to the season my life is today and probably seasons that at one point or another many of us get to. Where we are completely out of our natural element and comfortable environment, plucked and placed far away from those who usually console us or give us advice and feedback, and left to decide what we are going to dig our roots into so that our soul gains stability. And, in these moments, when we feel the cold waters rising to our necks, are we going to choose to raised our hands in anticipation of the moments of sun made just for us to soak in its beneficial nutrients, provide comfortable warmth, and eventually cause the waters to recede.

When Jesus spoke again to the people He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light in dawned.” Matthew 4:16

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify the Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

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The Road to Queenstown is as Beautiful as Queenstown Itself

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Pulling my tiny rental car over to the shoulder became a much too frequent occurrence on the way to Queenstown, but I just couldn’t help myself. The scenery had an untouched beauty that is rarely scene in more developed areas. I was planning on the drive being about four hours due to icy conditions but it turned into about eight, and I don’t regret a single second. Dressed warmly for the snow thanks to my dad who sent me some money because he knew all I has was summer clothes, I was well prepared for some freezing weather sightseeing and snow- filled experiences, cold weather hiking boots, wool socks, and all.

Along the way, the landscape is continually changing. There are dry, rocky areas that have boulders the size of large houses strewn long the fields, lakes that seem to have no end to them, and quaint towns that sit along the shores. The architecturally impressive bridges allow passage over rivers with such clears water you can see the stones that lie at the very bottom. Though it was cold and icy, the sun was shining and I could feel its warmth as I took breaks to walk along the lakes and rivers. The small little cafes were worth the stops as well, for their fresh brewed coffee and homemade baked goods. There are wineries, vineyards, farms, and orchards all along the way and they are all fun places to stop and buy goods for the stay in Queenstown.

And alas Queenstown, a town that sits among snowcapped mountains and is filled with snowboarders and skiers all along the streets walking with all their equipment to the buses that come every twenty minutes to take them to the lifts. In the town center the narrow streets are lined with restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops for every need. As for me, I skipped the tourist trap shopping and went straight for the snow.

Skiing and snowboarding is a given must do while you’re up here but one of the free and usually missed and incredible experiences is the hiking that starts right in Queenstown. It is a cold climb however it is such an uphill climb I warmed up rather quickly. The mountainous views from hiking were stunning and the fact that most of the time there was no one else on the trail was astonishing to me. I passed the occasional guys carrying their skis up a trail to apparently back country ski but that was about it. I had found the beauty of Queenstown away from the crowds.

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And Wanaka is a treasure all its own, therefore owed its own blog post.

My Welcome to New Zealand Begins in the South Island’s Otago Peninsula

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It is true; there are more sheep than people. If you can’t sleep, you will never run out of sheep to count and these sheep don’t have to be purely a figment of your imagination. They are on every hillside I laid eyes on. If my excitement was bound into a bubble that bubble would’ve burst as I flew over rolling green hills that didn’t end until they either dropped into the crisp blue sea or turned into snow-capped mountains. I could taste the clean crisp air through my small oval airplane window. The greens were true greens and all the blues were rich, true blues. To say New Zealand is clean and beautiful wouldn’t do justice to these majestic pieces of land so small in comparison to its giant land mass neighbor Australia.

The Otago peninsula is home to cooler weather beaches, penguins, fur seals, albatross, sheep of course, Larnach Castle, and eye catching beauty in every direction you look. Cold or warm temps, I am a lover and enjoyer of the beach so along the coast is where I spent the majority of my time. I was able to stay in a home that overlooked the sound in Port Chalmers. A five-minute walk down the steep hill my home was perched on led to a running/bike path along water. It was my motivation to jog every day. Of course, I was there in the winter so they were jogs that only lasted as long as my frozen nose and cheeks could take. The air in the winter has an Arctic bite. I woke up early enough most mornings to see the lavender to violet beauty the sunrise was and most nights watched the sunset with the same level of astonishment. Only God himself could create a beauty of this magnitude.

One of my favorite beaches was Anderson’s beach with waves that broke clean and very few people. I searched and searched this beach for the penguins that come up from the sea and nest in the hillside bushes at night but it was to no avail. This was one of my goals while visiting all the beaches, to see a penguin in its natural habitat. It was one of my cold weather travel encouragements, and as those who have traveled for longer periods of time know you need some encouraging moments of astonishment that leave you in remembrance that this is the very reason for embarking on this venture. I was having several moments of things not falling into place and missing my friends and family. I was near the beach searching for penguins once again on a crisp sunny day and talking to God about my life and what to do next. My frustration was pretty high and I just told God, “Look, I just need to know that you are still here with me, that You still want me to go forward with this. It’s been weeks and the single thing I wanted to see in this cold climate and have been searching for daily was a penguin. I haven’t even been given that. If You are still in this with me if You are still here, please show me a penguin. I walked about ten steps forward and it was within three minutes, if that, there, right before my eyes was a penguin. My eyes welled with tears. God answered. This penguin looked at me with the same peace-filled gaze I was giving him. As I walked closer he wasn’t jarred in the least. He widened his belly, sat on his feet and got ready for his nap under a bush. I just stood there and watched for about fifteen minutes thanking God for His presence and just hearing me. This moment was such a comfort I won’t even attempt to put into words.

Otago peninsula, you are glorious.

A Quick Moment in Phuket and Time for Reflection

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As I landed in Phuket I felt a sense of deep relief as I knew rest and refuge for my soul was just around the corner. I am so thankful for everything I’ve been able to experience thus far however, I am ready to slow down. I am looking forward to waking up and having time to journal about devotionals and readings on a daily basis, having time to just be and listen to what God is trying to tell me and where He is leading me next. I’m only spending two days in Phuket and then off to a new location for an entire month. I so need this.

As I sit on the beach in Phuket, I realize it’s not so much that feel like I’ve had any epiphanies about myself over the last two months, it’s more that I’ve just had confirmation about things I already knew. One being, I enjoy traveling slow. Traveling to new locations every few days is exhausting and, yes, I get to say that I’ve been to this specific place but the places I feel a connection to are the places I was able to spend time in, create relationships usually beyond one conversation, and not have my mind filled with a to do list before I leave because my time is so short. Also, I love not being worried about getting the great Instagram worthy photos. Those are great and I absolutely love it when I get one but to be honest many of pictures you see on Instagram do look that beautiful from the angle they were taken; what you don’t see are the dozens of people standing in line waiting for you to hurry up and take the picture of yourself over the ledge. These locations are usually the most touristy and cost a lot of money to get to because you have to buy a tour with dozens of other people to get there. Which brings me to my next received confirmation. I’m not that into guided tours. Especially if it’s in large groups. I do love guided tour groups revolved around things I just wouldn’t be able to by myself like taking a boat to swim with giant manta rays or riding an elephant, but if it’s something I can do on my own or with a friend or two I’d rather go that route.

I’ve been so busy these last couple months I haven’t had a clear mind to really just be with God without the busyness soon distracting me. I’m continually hoping and praying one of the reasons for this journey is to provide clarity on where my life is going next. I left a job I wasn’t in love with, sold everything, and said farewell to so many loved ones not just to travel the world, but to also find what I can add to it. I have asked God for a revelation about this time and time again. Time and time again He provides the next stepping stone of what He wants me to do next, but never the whole picture. There are moments when I hear nothing but silence and feel nothing but inaction on God’s part and I can be brought to utter frustration. It reminds me of Habakkuk. Not that I am surrounded by a world I feel is falling apart due to evil, although I’m not saying this isn’t happening; it’s just not my point right now, but that I have had extended dialog with God about various areas of my life and many times I see inaction and wonder why. My testament to walking by faith and not by sight is being built mightily. What I love about Habakkuk is although he had moments of complete frustration and not understanding God’s inaction or timing he didn’t run from God as Jonah did. He poured his frustration into prayer, over and over again. I will choose to continue in this way.

As I lay on the beach in Phuket, I look back and can see all the things in my life I grew tired of and knew it was time for me to move on, but I also see all the good I was able to pour into some of these heavy tasks. I am thankful God used me and worked through me in these moments and lie in anticipation of what He will have for me next. As impatient as I get for the story or my life to hurry up and unfold I remember that the purpose of my life isn’t for me or my story at all. This is all God’s story and Him revealing who He is to the world, and I get to be a small piece of the puzzle.

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Thailand’s Islands Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Ang Thong National Park, and Making Decisions Based on Unsettling Feelings

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A piece of my heart was left in Chiang Mai. That is one place I just feel drawn to go back to, further build relationships, and explore more of.  As hard as it was to travel on, I was ready for some more island life. My entire life I’ve lived coastal, and if there’s one thing this trip has confirmed is I get some sort of peace being near the ocean. When looking out at its vastness I tend to daydream of all my wants and desires. Then, like a horse drawn to water, my mind gravitates and rests in thoughts of the depths of God’s love for me, His mighty sovereignty He has proven over my life, and the endless array possibilities that are far beyond what I can see, all held in the palm of His hands. The opportunities He has opened doors to so far are beyond what I ever imagined my life to be; I just had to be courageous enough to continue to walk forward. He has done and continues to do the rest. I ponder all these things for hours when looking out at the ocean. The best part of going to Koh Samui, aside from being at the beach again, was we could actually take a plane there. A friend of mine met me in Chiang Mai for a bit and we decided to travel these islands together.

Getting around on these islands is easiest if you rent and know how to drive a scooter. These islands are big and a scooter rents for about $6 US dollars a day. That’s less than one taxi ride. Our hotel was literally on the beach and also at the end of the Fisherman’s wharf that housed the fun night markets. The location couldn’t have been better. We steered away from the wild nightlife areas, wanted to be on the beach, and the semi-peaceful, semi-lively fisherman’s wharf was the perfect in between. Along the wharf’s alley like streets where many restaurants, clothing and craft shops, and every kind of variety shop you could imagine. Getting out on the scooter and venturing to other sides of the island and other beaches is a must. Hiking to and swimming in the waterfall pools was also a favorite moment.

The natural beauty of the islands east of Thailand’s mainland is astonishing, however, like many beautiful places around the world they have now make a huge amount of their money based on tourism. This means, more pollution in touristy areas, expensive guided tours that you feel like you are in a cattle drive, and locals treating you like, well, a tourist. They want to make money and the easiest way to achieve that is selling you things. Ask questions about the tours they want to sell you. How many people are on the boat? How much of the island do I actually get to see? A lot of these tours will let you go to a specific location but not allow you on the rest of the island. They will also limit your time in each area. The guided tours are okay as long as you are clear and accepting of what you are getting and where you are going. One example of this was when we went on a boat to visit a specific island. They explained that they did not want us sitting on towels or laying towels on the beach because the beaches are losing sand. So, to stop this there were dozens upon dozens of beach lounge chairs to sit in. Once you were sitting in a beach chair they then told you it wasn’t free and the cost to sit amounted to about $10 US dollars for one hour. These islands are beautiful; just be knowledgeable on what to expect where you are going. My favorite moment in all the boating amongst the island was the Ang Thong National park. It is absolutely breath-taking, and kayaking around its waters and an island is worth every penny for the life time experience. I was a bit under the weather for part of this trip so my friend helped me with some photos when I just needed to lie on the beach.

Traveling is one of those life experiences that has you constantly out of your comfort zone and your “normal”, and in a state of heightened sensitivity to what is happening around you, well hopefully. Especially when you are traveling in third world countries. I have strong guttural instincts that so far in life, have not steered me wrong. I usually know right away if someone is being dishonest, trying to take advantage or me or the situation, or something is just off. So, when I get them, I listen. I can get pretty bold when in these situations and won’t hesitate to ask more questions as needed, be very slow to answer or make decisions, often standing in silence thinking and processing all the while letting others sit in their discomfort of their own insincere motives. My friend wanted to go to a specific island that just didn’t sit well with me. I had nothing to base this feeling of just not wanting to go on. I told her I was probably just going to stay on Koh Samui and not go to Koh Tao to stay. I went back and forth in my head several times because as a friend, I of course wanted to do fun things with her and not have her travel alone when unnecessary, but something was just telling me this wasn’t this place for me to go. Literally two days before my friend leaving for Koh Tao I get a message from a friend in Hawaii with an article attached. She said “make sure you don’t go here”. The article was about several backpackers ending up missing and later found dead while staying on this island.  It is not for me to speculate what happened or make any decisions for anyone else’s future travels, however, for me this confirmed this just wasn’t a place I wanted to stay. I probably would’ve been fine however I am careful with the environments I enter into. The only reason I bring this up is to encourage fellow travelers to listen when something doesn’t feel right for you.

Next stop Phuket!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand – A Bustling City Nestled Amongst the Mountains Holding True to Its Roots

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Northern Thailand, with its lush greenery and multiple rivers flowing through, has seemingly kept so much of itself untouched and untamed. Just below these mountain tops lies a bustling city alive with markets, activities, and so many delicious cafes and authentic restaurants it’s difficult to choose which one to go to. My time in Chiang Mai and the northern region of Thailand was memorable and I left still knowing there was so much more to experience and explore.

Through advice from a friend who lives in southern Thailand I decided to stay in the Old City part of Chiang Mai. This area is rich in history and is still surrounded by the old moats and crumbling city wall ruins. These moats and walls were built, I believe in the 1200s, to keep out neighboring countries prone to invade, primarily Burma. Now, it lends itself to keeping people like me from getting too lost while wandering the many small streets lined with shops and vendors. While staying in this area everything I needed and more was within a 5 minute walk and laundry could be dropped off right across the street. The walls are built in a square to surround the city in about a mile or two radius, I could be wrong on the distance. This area of Thailand has as many temples as Bali does, but these temples are Buddhist as opposed to Hindu and the structure and artistic design is very different and unique.

Every afternoon the locals would bring their produce, meats, and cooked foods into the city to sell fresh on a daily basis. Many of the shops would have a multitude of things you could get from that one small shop. Often times I could buy a meal, rent a scooter if I chose, and buy some groceries all in the same tiny shop; maybe even get my laundry done or buy a tour. At night, there were plenty of things to do and over all I felt safe walking the inner city streets of Chiang Mai by myself. Everyone I met had a helpful and friendly demeanor and there was always a tuk-tuk at the corner ready to give you a ride if you were done walking for the evening. The streets are filled with tuk-tuks, little motorized carriages, and I took many. It’s an inexpensive and fun way to get around and see the rest of the city outside the Old City walls. Every Sunday evening there is a big night market that includes everything all the other markets hold, clothes, crafts, foods, etc, but adds music, performances and is just on a much bigger more crowded scale. Be ready to be around a whole lot of people if you decide to go. Also seeing an authentic Muy-thai boxing event is a worth it event.

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By far the most memorable experience I had in Thailand was visiting, learning to care for, and riding bare-back, the elephants. The Asian elephant has been used in Thailand for hundreds and hundreds of years as a way for transportation, farming, and fighting in war. You will see elephant figurines and paintings mostly due to the fact that the elephant is recognized by many here as highly intelligent, strong, hard-working, loyal, and a huge help and asset to the survival of Thailand for centuries. For many here elephants are to be appreciated and respected. With that said I feel it is just as important to be aware that due to many factors, tourism being a big one, elephants are now often mistreated and abused. There are many elephant tours and sanctuaries claiming that they are good to or saving the elephants when in fact they are not and if educated even a little you will be able to tell before giving your money to a group. I never had a desire to learn about elephants or create an awareness about their treatment until I met one and she gave me a hug. My heart melted. It was then I realized they create strong bonds and have heartfelt emotions. Elephants feel love, joy, grief, compassion, trauma, stress, and in times of stress they give each other hugs. She must have known I was having an emotional morning because while the other elephants were doing occasional naughty things she was so gentle with me and seemed so patient even when I was stumbling to do things correctly for her. I am convinced she was just an emotionally intuitive creature, as most women are.

There were only three of us who did a little research and chose this smaller elephant camp. There were only four elephants on this large property that included a river flowing through it on the bottom portion of this giant land that stretched as far as my eyes could see with mountains in the background. Each elephant had its own keeper, a mahout. The mahout for the elephant I cared for had a special relationship with his elephant, it was obvious. They were friends and it showed. I was able to feed giant sugarcane stalks to my elephant to build a good vibe, then we just kind of hung out while she smelled me and we just got used to each other. Then I mustered up enough bravery to climb up onto her neck. She lifted her leg to give me a boost. Yes, it is a trained thing to do but I took forever and she waited with no impatience. I learned the motions to slowly guide her and we trekked for about half an hour down to the river. She then got down on one knee so I could get off without completely injuring myself. She gave me a good ride and took me through these scenic lands, so in appreciation I gave her a bath in the river. Sure, she can bath herself but who doesn’t like getting a sponge bath and someone else cleaning behind their ears. Bathing her took a while. She is huge and I did both sides, haha. We then hung out in the river and I was rinsing off and finishing up. Apparently, she was so appreciative she wanted to give me a bath too. She took water into her trunk and sprayed me. More than once. It is possible she knew I needed a good laugh as well. After all the fun she helped me get back on her neck and we were one our way back up to the top for lunch. We then had to say our goodbyes.

A couple things to know about elephants if you are looking into having an experience with one. They sleep a lot, not for long periods of time but shorts naps many, many times throughout the day. If you are going to an elephant camp and the camp allows for more than two short 30 minute rides per day than the elephant probably is not getting enough sleep or the kind of sleep they need. They work in spurts and a true sanctuary allows a short time with people once maybe twice per day and the rest the elephant will sleep and exercise on its own. If it is used for farming they will also work in spurts and eat and sleep in spurts. Another thing to know is the baskets on their back hurt. Having a human or two on their strong muscle-filled necks is equivalent to wearing a necklace, but those rigid giant baskets with seats used for riding tours are not good for their backs and actually hurt. I saw many camps who had these on the elephants giving ride after ride for hours on end. It was heartbreaking to see. Also it is good to pay attention to the relationship between the mahout and the elephant. If a mahout has more than one elephant, often it is not a good sign. If the mahout walks around with a big metal thing that looks like a hook that is probably how the elephant was trained and it likely was trained in an abusive manor.

Another must see in this northern region is the famous white temple. Guided tours aren’t my favorite thing to do but this temple is a ways north near the border of Thailand and while up there seeing the “golden triangle” is another accomplishment and something just kind of cool to say you did. The Golden Triangle is the border location where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet via intersecting calm rivers. There is a small island in the center of this border that is unowned by any country, I don’t advise getting out of a boat and stepping foot on this patch of land. It is known to be the place that criminal activity can happen and no law enforcement can enforce and accountability for anything that happens there. The Golden Triangle is also one of the world’s largest and the center for drug trafficking. Largely in part due to the amount of opium that can grow here. This tiny area produces 25% of the entire world’s opium, usually then made into heroin. A guided river tour is advised and I wouldn’t take it upon yourself to wonder off alone. I briefly stepped foot in Laos but it was through the guided tour.

All of this and I feel it is all only the tip of the iceberg to all the wonders northern Thailand holds. There is much more to be educated about, see, and experience in this enchanted part of the world.

Solo Traveling through Ubud and the Wondrous Sights up to Bangli

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As I stepped away from the beach culture that a large portion of Bali is and into the cooler mountainous landscape richly seeped in Balinese culture, tradition, Hindu temples, and shrines, I had many conflicting emotions. This increased as I made a local friend who I could ask candid questions too, not offend him, and he would reply openly and honestly. Most of my discord stemmed from the fact that with every fiber of my being, to my core, I am deeply in love with Jesus. I have done nothing to deserve what He has done for me, I could aim to do nothing more for Him, and still He would love me unconditionally. I would still be His daughter and like a Father He would still have His arms reaching for me to help me up when I fall. This kind of love takes my breath away and  humbles me to the extent that it brings me to my knees with eyes brimming with tears. My relationship with my God is every day, very intimate, and impenetrable. When chaos swirls around me He is who I go to. I block everyone else out, so I can hear specifically from Him and the outside noise is muted. I crave for every person I come in contact with to have this. This is what sustains me when all else fails. With this said, I walk with open eyes still able to admire so much of the tradition, dedication, and amount of faith these people walk with day after day, year after year, generation after generation. I look at those qualities with admiration and can clearly see some things I am lacking in.

Ubud has so many holy temples and shrines; the craftsmanship is breath-taking. I took a trip to the Water Purification temple and witnessed locals coming in to a place believed to have fresh water that comes up from a spring that purifies and cleanses them of anything unholy and any wrong-doing. They bring offerings to their God in faith it will be pleasing and bring good things for their life and the life of their families. The commitment to give offerings on a daily basis, though smaller daily, is another quality of commitment that stuck in my mind. The emotion I saw as men, women, and children stood under the spouts to be cleansed by this water was convicting. Another moment of me reflecting if I am in each moment with God aware and feeling the emotions that come with it or has some of my relationship become routine and monotonous and I need to be more emotionally there. My relationship with God is like any relationship in that it needs to be fed and attention and care need to be given. One of the many questions I asked my newly made friend surrounded the cost of these rituals and he openly explained that with all of the offerings and ceremonies held he spends quite a bit of his money each year and so does each family. He explained that he like many families in Bali lives in a small house with his extended family and they live in poverty.

Another sight that should not be missed are the rice fields in Tegallalang and the lake among the mountains in Bangli. Go for the pictures you can take alone. The views in these areas you just won’t find anwhere else. There is a hike you can do to the top of the mountain but it starts at 2 am so I was out for that one. My trip to Ubud was a time for me to enjoy and regroup after bouncing from location to location so quickly. While is this region you can also visit and see a Luwak, a tiny animal, that makes apparently the most expensive coffee in the world. I tried it; it wasn’t my favorite but it was worth the experience. Apparently this animal poops out the coffee beans and the enzymes in the animal do something to the beans. They are then traditionally roasted in a pan over fire.

Lastly, Ubud is filled with some great shopping. Yes you have to dig a little and not all of it is good quality but some of it is and at a much cheaper price than sold elsewhere. I stayed in a nice boutique hotel that was a 15 minute walk to the main downtown like shopping area, and 10 minutes in the other direction was the monkey forest. Let me not forget to tell you there are monkeys everywhere. These one are not mean like the ones in Uluwatu and they are playful. And when I say they are everywhere they really are… hanging on telephone wires, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, crossing the streets with the people. It will put a smile on your face that these more non-aggressive monkeys mingle with people on a daily basis.

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