It has been a little more than a week since the end of my midsemester break and I just have so much to say. Firstly, it was amazing and incredibly eye opening. One of the main reasons I wanted to come to one of the lands down under was because I wanted to learn more about distinct wildlife and ecosystems much different from that found in the states. I wanted to explore, expand my horizons, and learn. And boy did I these past two weeks. I’ll admit that my first half of the semester was starting to be a bit worrisome. I found myself going out less often and hibernating inside studying for exams and focusing on schoolwork. While studying is not a bad thing, I was closing myself off to the country I was so excited to explore. Which is why I was so relieved to take a break and re-find my love for travel and exploration.
The first week consisted of my mom traveling from home to visit me, and this in and of itself was just amazing. As someone who comes from a family that would not be described as financially thriving, it was impossible to think that I could come to NZ let alone be able to share this experience with my mom. In fact, on her last day with me, we discussed how we might not be “flushed with cash”, but we always get by and find ways to make our dreams happen. I am incredibly proud of that. I am very appreciative of the scholarships and opportunities granted to me that allowed me to not only study in New Zealand but lift that financial burden from my mom and me, so that she could spend time working hard to take the vacation of her dreams too.
Anyways, upon her arrival in NZ, we jumped straight into the adventures! We took a road trip down to the Waitomo Caves and Rotorua and were able to see so many of the beautiful landscapes and cows/sheep on our way. One of the first places recommended to me by my student coordinator was the Waitomo Glow Worms Caves, so it was quite amazing to check that off my list. The caves were absolutely fantastic. We got a wonderful backstory on the history of caves and got to see a recent joining of a stalagmite and stalactite which I have never seen before. The glowworms themselves was everything I thought they’d be and more. They are a nocturnal species found exclusively in New Zealand, so it was a privilege and pleasure to witness their beauty in person. To not spook them, we had to stay very quiet and weren’t able to take pictures until we reached the end of the caves because loud noises and light can make them retreat. It was honestly fascinating to learn about the glowworms which are (spoilers) actually not worms. They’re at the larval stage of a fungus gnat that have a bioluminescent point at the end of their tale. I’m going to nerd out for a second and say that I have been fascinated with bioluminescence since learning about GFP about a year and half ago in my biochemistry class, so I’d definitely like to learn more about them. From the caves we drove to Rotorua. From my understanding, Rotorua is known for its celebration of the rich Maori culture. I knew I wanted to go there from the moment I arrived in NZ to learn more about the people of the land I am standing on. So, after enjoying a traditional hāngī lunch buffet, we were able to tour the one and only New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Only accepting a small (~4-6) applicants a year, students hone their skills in wood carving, stone and bone carving, and weaving. We were able to see students at work and feel some of the various weaving crafts. While there, a part of me was concerned that the abundant tourism of Rotorua was almost in a way exploiting the Maori culture, but I was pleased to be informed that its actually the tourism of the center that is able to fund the institute. Because they do not receive funding from the government, it is the people visiting and appreciating the culture that helps support the school. While I am not sure the same can be said for other tourist areas, I was glad to hear that this relationship was mutually beneficial in some way. Finally, my mom and I were able to witness the well-known geysers of Rotorua AND the famous New Zealand Kiwi! They had a sanctuary that housed three kiwi birds and boy was I in awe. First off, Kiwis are much bigger than I imagined and I didn’t know they are flightless birds! It was so cool to finally see the bird I had heard so much about and learn more about them. And the wonderful sanctuary that protects them.
Side note: I just realized this may be a bit long as there is just so much a want to say!
Okay so after that long day, we took the next one for me to show my mom around Auckland. We walked around Queen street and I was able to show my mom where I go to school. We spent the day talking, touring, and just catching up, which felt nice. The time difference between NZ and the eastern coast is one of the hardest things about being here. I had not really gotten home-sick but I did realize that my conversations with my family had decreased, so it was wonderful to just relax and talk with my mom. We also made sure to try some Mexican food which was something I wanted to do since being here. NZ does a lot of food well, in fact, they have been able to make me like foods I had not liked before, so it felt appropriate to see how well they did Mexican food. I’m not sure if the same could be said for every Mexican restaurant in New Zealand, but the place we went to was awesome! The tortillas tasted home-made and burritos that we ordered were very tasty. While the name is a bit on the nose- “The Mexican Café”- 10/10 recommend.
Now, the next three days was a thing of dreams. My mom and I had made the decision to go to Australia! We figured this is likely the only time we’d be on this side of the world and we only live once! After an early morning getting to the airport and then our hostel, the time in Sydney was just surreal. On our first day there, we immediately went to the Blue Mountains (actually recommended to us from our Rotorua tour guide). And yes, it was more than I expected. It was like the grand canyon but with millions of trees! Words cannot describe how gorgeous it was. We had the opportunity to take the SkyRailway OVER the mountains which made the view even better. I am just continuously in awe of what nature can do.
The second day in Australia, we did something that was actually my mom’s idea: a THREE HOUR CLIMB the Sydney Harbour Bridge! My mom is terrified of heights (yet somehow raised three daredevils) so for her to want to do this made me so incredibly happy. I honestly didn’t even know climbing the bridge was a thing, but my mom had seen Oprah do it and really wanted to follow in her footsteps. The whole process of the climb was fun. When we arrived, we started putting on this climbing suit which felt a lot like what I’d imagine an astronaut putting on their space suit feels like. There were so many parts: the suit, rain pants, harness, water pocket, headphones, etc. and EVERYTHING had secure cord so that nothing fell off the bridge onto the cars below. There are so many things I could say about how I felt up there, especially when we were at the tippity top- wind blowing and sun shining- but I think the words “accomplished” and “free” will do. On the climb, we also wore headphones for our guide to explain the history of the bridge, which is interesting. We learned how the arch was actually formed first as two separate halves that were joined together, and then the road was built. In fact, there was a lot of speculation whether the half arches would fit together, and I can just imagine people placing bets on such a thing. It is quite unthinkable to imagine the builders of this bridge, who didn’t have the luxury of wearing harnesses, just working day in and out to create what is now a staple of Sydney. Following the climb, we were taking off our space suits, and I don’t think either of us were aware of how much exercise we had just done. To be honest, in the moment, the steady incline of the bridge masked the hard work that it was. But, when we took off our rain pants, we were disgustedly delighted to see how much sweat we had accumulated! In retrospect, I actually cannot believe we did that. One thing I will appreciate about being here is realizing just how capable my body is of doing difficult things. I think often times many people including myself are very hard and judgmental on our bodies. I have definitely not been nice to myself when it comes to that aspect but completing the hikes I have completed and climbing a 1621 step- 500 meter span- 134 meter bridge is truly something I will never forget that. I did that. My mom and I did that. My mom also faced her fears and did that. I am incredibly proud of us and so happy we were able to experience that together.
Finally on our last day in Australia, we took a quick trip to the Koala Sanctuary and saw some actual koalas! Despite the name, the sanctuary was a beautiful place with MANY animals that are protected and are treated so well. I was able to hold a bunny and pet some kangaroos. Of course, my mom and I were ecstatic to see some koalas. Now, to keep koalas safe and healthy, petting or touching of any kind was not permitted. But honestly just the sight of the adorable native marsupials was incredible. My mom is obsessed with them (who wouldn’t be), so above all it made me happy to see her so giddy. Afterwards, we did something that I had long looked forward to: touring the Sydney Opera House. It is impossible to go to Sydney and not go to the Opera House. As a huge theater kid and appreciator of architecture, it is the perfect combination. We were lucky enough to book a tour so instead of seeing show, we got an in-depth history on the architect, Jørn Utzon, and the unjust sequence of events that led to him leaving Australia. The project was later taken over by Peter Hall making the interior design mostly different from Utzon’s original idea. It was fascinating to see how the two’s styles are intertwined and how most people were determined to keep Utzon’s idea alive. In addition, we did have the rare pleasure of witnessing about 5 minutes of a rehearsal in the main hall. This and getting a deeper understanding of one of the most famous buildings in Australia was a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime experience!
I feel so incredibly lucky and grateful that I was able to accomplish so much and see so many wonderful, breath-taking sights. Exploring a new part of the world is all I’ve ever wanted and it seems so surreal that it actually happened. I am so glad to have been able to spend this week with my mom and have photos that will last a lifetime to remember this amazing journey!
I will obviously be posting some amazing photos of this week’s adventures, and the next blog post will be on my week 2!