A 20 Hour Layover in Singapore

My flight from Auckland to Singapore was less than ideal! I drink a lot of water, so I always book the aisle seat on daytime long haul flights so I can use the restroom without disturbing my seat mates.

It was a full flight, so I was sitting next to a young couple. They seemed nice enough… at the beginning. Soon, he asked to go to the restroom. No problem. It was a 10 hour flight so I expected to have to get up a few times to let them out. Then, around 30 minutes later, she asked to go to the restroom. It was a little frustrating to have to keep pausing my movie, unplugging my headphones, and putting my tray table up and balancing my drink, but oh well. It’s part of the game.

But it kept happening. An hour later, he asked. When I stood up, I asked her if she also had to go. She said no… but then 45 minutes later she did. I had to get up to let them out twice per hour for 10 straight hours. My breaking point came when the hot dinner was being delivered. Our row was just served, so all of our tray tables were down and filled with food. Not even 30 seconds after receiving the food, he asked me to get up so he could go to the bathroom. I flat out said, “Not right now. You have to wait until after meal service.” Not only did I have no where to put my food, multiple drinks, and electronics, but he would have disrupted the flight attendants who were blocking the aisle anyway. He huffed and puffed but stayed seated. Maybe they had health issues, but then why not book an aisle seat or ask me to switch? They also demanded vegetarian meals despite not booking ahead for them. I’ll never understand how some people are so inconsiderate and lack foresight.

I didn’t let this experience damper my travels! The flight was otherwise perfect. I kept myself entertained by movies and eating. We got SO MUCH food! Singapore Airlines is an indulgence! We received a hot lunch, snack basket, hot dinner, and nuts. I had booked the gluten free option – mainly out of curiosity and hoping it was healthier – but it was just bland vegetables, rice, and gluten free bread that tasted like styrofoam. Never ordering that again!

When I landed in Singapore, I was amazed by how quickly I got through customs and immigration. My flight landed at 6:40, we exited the plane at 6:50, and I was waiting for my Uber by 7:00! My driver into the city was so excited I was visiting. He told me his favorite spots and some information about Singapore. He said it’s one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. All signs are written in multiple languages, but most people just speak English to each other.

During the drive into the city, I was amazed. I’m always surprised by how modern new cities are. The media always portrays non-European foreign countries as dilapidated and “backwards,” but the more I travel, the more I find it’s farther from the truth. Driving into Singapore was like entering the future.

I checked into my accommodation – The Pod Boutique Hostel. I discovered it on a trendy travel blog and booked it due to the cheap price of $25 per night and the unique breakfast. I also love sleeping in a pod! I know it would make most people claustrophobic, but I think it is cozy. Plus the walls block out most of the noise!

I immediately hit the streets. It was 8:00pm but the city was booming. It seemed like most people were just getting off work and heading to happy hour. First on my agenda was to see the Sky Gardens. It’s a large outdoor garden that has towering electronic trees that change color.

Getting there was… a feat. It looked straightforward on the map, but I quickly found that most intersections don’t have crosswalks. Instead, you’re expected to either go into a mall and use the skywalks above the streets OR go underground and use the metro tunnels. I got lost countless times! I finally got close. I was inside the famous Marina Sands hotel and the gardens were right next door, but I couldn’t figure out how to cross the expressway separating them! I had to ask a parking lot attendant. He said to go to the 6th floor and find the footbridge. I ended up wandering around an empty hotel hallway with no bridge in sight! I finally asked the concierge and she pointed me to a separate elevator that led to a different 6th floor. Nothing made sense. But finally I got there and it was stunning!

Afterward, I was starving. I had spent 3 hours wandering around Singapore. I wanted to go to the Lau Pa Sat street food market, but it was quite far away in the opposite direction. I was exhausted and desperate. I decided to follow the suggestion of my Uber driver and go to the Albert food market instead. It was closer to my hostel. I set off on foot and walked 20 minutes only to discover it was closed! Apparently it’s a daytime market. I cut my losses and headed back to my hostel. It was already 11pm and I wanted to get an early start the next day.

I woke up at 7am and had first dibs on the hostel breakfast. There was your typical Western selection of toast with peanut butter and jelly, cereals, milk, and eggs. But there was also local items like rice porridge, boiled peanuts, corn kernels, and interesting lamb pies. There was even a dessert selection of cream puffs, cake, and cookies!

After I filled up on sugar and carbs, I headed out to explore. I wandered through the Arab quarter first. There are several mosques and Turkish restaurants. I kept an eye out for my favorite dessert of knafeh, but I didn’t see it. It was surprisingly nice to wander the morning streets and get lost in memories of Jordan. The aroma of spices, fresh bread, and car exhaust always brings me back to Amman!

I walked a few streets over to Little India. As the morning progressed, more shops and restaurants started to open their doors. I passed many “fast food” type counter stalls where several workers were sitting around plastic tables, eating their breakfast. Everything smelled amazing!

I took a few photos of the temples, but I always feel uncomfortable gawking at places of worship. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and all other non-Western religions have fought discrimination and colonization from my ancestors, but now I arrive with my camera to “ooh” and “aah” at their beautiful religious buildings. It feels disrespectful, so I try to be discreet and polite.

Also nearby was Chinatown and it was far busier than the other neighborhoods. I walked through a bustling market and impulsively bought a “nonya dumpling” for $1! I had no idea what it was, but it looked yummy and was wrapped in a banana leaf. It turned out to be spiced meat surrounded by gooey, compacted rice. The rice was so squished that it almost formed a wet dough. Very sticky, but yummy!

I love how mixed the buildings are in Singapore. Historic temples are next door to modern cafes and only a block away from giant skyscrapers. Walking around never gets boring! It’s also interesting to see the diversity of people on the street. Almost every person I passed was completely different from the last – but most minorities were equally represented.

I found myself at the Lau Pa Sat market that I decided to skip the previous night. I was excited to try satay, stingray, and crab – the local delicacies! But in a cruel turn of events, I discovered that the market is only open at night! A few stalls were operating, but they were only serving simple soups or drinks. That’s what I get for not planning!

In my free time, I love watching “food porn” on Instagram. People upload photos and videos of unique food – usually extremely decadent or aesthetic. Most are in LA, NYC, or Tokyo. For the last two years, I’ve been obsessed with “omurice” or “egg rice.” It is popular in Japan. I love it because it is a football shaped egg omelette that is firm on the outside, but once you slice it, it falls open to reveal a gooey inside. I haven’t been able to find a restaurant that serves it in Portland and making your own is really difficult!

I headed to Omu – a Japanese restaurant that recently opened in Singapore. They mainly serve omurice in a variety of sauces. I ordered a duo of mushroom cream sauce and a beef tangy sauce. I tried to film myself cutting it open like they do on Instagram, but I was terrible at it! Instead of a smooth slice, I had to hack away at mine to get it to open.

I’ll admit, I was disappointed. The egg itself had no seasoning and was extremely bland. The sauces were good, but the true star of the dish was the tomato rice underneath. I’m glad I finally got to try it!

I left in a total food coma. Between the meals on the flight and all of my breakfasts, I was actually glad I couldn’t get seafood at the market because I didn’t have room!

I walked back to my hostel to get my bag. I was able to send my giant checked luggage directly from Auckland to Hanoi, so I only had a small bag with pajamas and toiletries. I headed back to the airport with plenty of time to spare. The Singapore airport is consistently rated as one of the best in the world. It is MASSIVE. It has 3 terminals and each one is the size of a normal airport. I was expecting security to take forever, but there wasn’t even a line!

I was a little frustrated because I filled up all of my water bottles after security. The airport doesn’t haven’t any intercom announcements telling passengers which flights are boarding. You’re expected to watch and time and figure it out yourself. I got to my gate 45 minutes before departure and it was already the final boarding call! But before I could get on the plane, I had to go through another security checkpoint. They have mini scanners at every gate and you have to re-scan your luggage and walk through another metal detector. They pulled me aside and said I had to get rid of my liquids. So I had to dump my water bottles and then sprint to board the plane. I guess water isn’t allowed on planes at all?

I had booked a window seat, mainly to avoid the previous issue, since I know I can hold my bladder for at least 3 hours. As luck would have it, I was seated next to two big, elderly men. Inevitably, my seat mate kept digging his elbow 4-5 inches beyond the armrest and into my arm. I kept pushing back, hoping he would get the hint.

It wasn’t a full flight, so the man on the aisle got up to claim a different seat in an empty row. Maybe he was experiencing the same elbow digging? Once we were in the air, I said, “Since that seat is open, do you want to move over so we both have more room?” He agreed and my life got 100% better. It’s funny how such a simple request can completely turn a flight around, but I had to spend 15 minutes working up the courage to ask. It’s puzzling how I can be so brave and travel around the world alone, but I have to pep myself up to tell a stranger to move over. I’m glad this trip is letting me work on being a better advocate for myself and finding my voice!


Christchurch, New Zealand

I remember the day when the news of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake hit. I was a freshman in college. My university had a few students who were studying abroad in Christchurch, so the community was eagerly waiting to hear if they were safe. New Zealand felt worlds away and I struggled to imagine what the city might be like. Given its name, I envisioned a lot of stone crosses that had crumbled.

Visiting now, I learned that my imagination wasn’t too far off. Even 7 years later, the city is still rebuilding. Historic cathedrals have entire walls missing and are surrounded by scaffolding. The scars of the earthquake are very evident.

Everyone had told me that there wasn’t much to see in Christchurch, so I expected a small city. As I drove, I realized it was actually sprawling! It is much more spread out than Wellington or Queenstown. I must have spent 45 minutes driving through the suburbs just to reach the center.

I arrived and I was immediately hungry for lunch. It was raining, so I stopped into my favorite restaurant: Madam Woo. I originally discovered it in Queenstown, but they also have a location in Christchurch. They had a special for half priced laksa. I had never heard of laksa before coming to NZ, but it is an extremely popular dish here. It comes from Malaysia and its basically a giant bowl of noodles in curry broth topped with egg, shrimp, and vegetables. Imagine combining curry with pho – that’s laksa!

I ate my leisurely lunch and then wandered over to the art gallery. I spent a few hours walking through the exhibits. It was a nice way to kill some time before seeing my hosts!

David and Jen had agreed to host me. They are a married couple around my age. They just returned from their own around-the-world trip, during which they got married in Iceland! Their beautiful wedding was even featured in a magazine.

They were housesitting for David’s parents, so we all stayed in a massive house in the suburb of Halswell. They were also hosting two Chinese travelers, Addison and Jin. Just like in Queenstown, I arrived first and was given the bedroom while the other travelers had to crash in the living room.

We all stayed up late making nachos for dinner and discussing travel plans. Addison and Jin had just arrived in NZ after spending 3 months in Australia. They were relying on Couchsurfing for accommodation and hitchhiking for transportation. Definitely an inexpensive way to travel!

The next day, I had planned to meet for coffee with another female traveler from the Facebook group. She was from DC and had just moved to Christchurch for a year on a working visa. She was working in a hostel and hoping to open her own someday. I asked if she had any horror stories since my hostel experiences always seem to be terrible, but she didn’t. I guess I’m just unlucky!

We had coffee and then wandered around the city. She showed me the hip shopping district and the famous container mall. After the earthquake, buildings were damaged but life still had to carry on. Business had to quickly rebuild and people had to find somewhere to shop! The quick solution was to relocate shops into shipping containers since they are sturdy, portable, and plentiful.

An entire mall was built out of shipping containers. It quickly became a tourist attraction. Unfortunately for me, it has started to be disassembled as stores relocate to permanent buildings. When I went, only a few food carts remained.

I spent the rest of the day seeing the famous spots – the botanical garden, the Canterbury museum, the damaged cathedral, the old timey cafe street, and the temporary “cardboard cathedral” that serves as a place of worship since most churches were damaged.

I usually love walking around cities, but Christchurch is undergoing so much construction that it is very unpleasant. Sidewalks are randomly closed and the loud sound of jackhammers echo through the streets. After a few hours of exploring, I realized everyone was right – there wasn’t much to do in Christchurch!

That evening, Addison and Jin told us they were going to prepare an authentic Chinese dinner. I had just listened to a podcast about how 99% of American Chinese dishes are nonexistent in China. They were created only to please American tastes. So I was excited to see wha they would make! I arrived home to find that they made a simple egg fried rice. I appreciate the gesture, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed!

I did get to try the famous Caramilk chocolate. It’s limited edition and tastes like heaven! I also tried Vegemite. The proper way to eat it is on toast with a little bit of butter. It is very bitter and acidic. I did not like it!

The following day, I didn’t have anything scheduled to do. I asked my hosts for suggestions and their only recommendations were to drive 2 hours outside of the city into the mountains. I wasn’t keen on doing more driving and paying for gas, so I decided to stay in Christchurch. I drove up to a scenic lookout to admire the morning view. Then I went to another indoor pool to swim laps. I’m still struggling to find the balance between my healthy habits and treating myself while on vacation!

I had booked a sailing tour on Friday, but they emailed me to say it was cancelled due to pending bad weather. Bummer! At least I got a refund! I spent the day going on a long walk/jog (my knee is still preventing me from running!) and then planning the rest of my trip.

I am still not overly excited about Italy. I’m not a fan of museums or pizza. I debated changing my itinerary to head north out of Milan and see Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary. I ran the idea past my hosts and they warned me that it would be much more expensive than Italy. I did a quick look at train tickets and each leg through Switzerland would be 40 euros compared to 9 euros in Italy! That sealed the deal. I’ll stick to Italy and Greece!

On my final morning in Christchurch, I went to the farmers market. It was in the suburb of Riccarton. It’s the biggest market I’ve ever been to! There were so many free samples and vendors. I wanted to buy breakfast, but they didn’t accept credit cards and the only ATM on site only worked for domestic cards. I had no money! I found a single dollar in my purse and purchased the only thing I could afford: a chocolate chip marshmallow. It was delicious!

While I didn’t do much in Christchurch, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. I spent two solid days downtown and saw all of the highlights. It was eye opening to see how the city is still rebuilding after all of these years. That shows just how devastating the earthquake was. While I was talking to my hosts about it, they said they were sleeping when it happened and the force actually threw them out of bed and onto the ground. How scary!

I’m getting ready to board my plane from Christchurch to Auckland where I’ll pick up a different rental car and drive south to Raglan, a little surfing town. Fingers crossed the weather is good!

Lake Tekapo and Timaru, New Zealand

I departed Queenstown and headed toward the east coast. I could have driven to Christchurch in a day, but I wanted to take my time and enjoy the drive, so I broke it up into 3 days.

My first stop was Lake Tekapo. On the way, I intended to stop at Pukaki and have lunch at their fresh salmon fishery. I kept driving, expecting to see a little town or a sign welcoming me to the city, but there was nothing! I finally consulted my map and realized I had driven straight through it. That’s how tiny it was!

I continued on to Lake Tekapo. It is known for its gorgeous blue water and purple lupine flowers that bloom all over the city. Unfortunately it’s past their bloom season, but the lake was still stunning!

I couldn’t find a Couchsurfing host, so I booked myself a bed at Tailor Made Tekapo hostel. I always try to stay in smaller bunk rooms (4-6 beds) rather than the giant 16 bed dorms. I typically find they are quieter and have fewer snorers.

I checked into my room and there were two other German girls in the room. The entire hostel seemed to be entirely Asian or German! I explored the grounds and discovered a miracle in the kitchen.

I had been debating buying this exact flavor of smoky peanut butter. It’s a brand made locally in Wellington and has a cult following. But jars cost $12! I couldn’t justify it. So imagine my joy when it was being offered for FREE by someone who left it behind in the hostel! I tried it… and it wasn’t that great. I quickly put it back on the free shelf.

I spent the afternoon exploring the little town. The “downtown” only had a few shops that were geared toward tourists. I saw the famous church and it actually had a Sunday service going on, but you had to pay to get in! I also saw the famous statue honoring all border collies for their duties on the farm.

Lake Tekapo is in the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it a prime place for star viewing. The town has an observatory where you can pay $150 to go on a nighttime tour… or you can go to the golf course and gaze for free! I planned on doing the second option, but the evening was cloudy and rainy, so I stayed in.

My gamble on a small dorm room didn’t pay off. Two of the sleepers were snorers and that kept me up for awhile. Then, at 5am, someone woke up and started repacking their entire suitcase and using every zipper. As soon as they finished and left, someone else woke up and did the same thing! Around 7am, one of the German girls woke up and opened all of the blinds, flooding the room with light. I figured it was time to wake up since I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway.

I checked out and continued my drive to Timaru. This city isn’t known for anything special. I decided to stop because it is the halfway point between Tekapo and Christchurch… and I found a host so I could stay for free!

The drive was uneventful and rainy. I arrived in Timaru and debated seeing a movie, but I felt extremely tired. Probably from lack of sleep! I decided to take a nap in my car. I’m glad I didn’t follow through on the idea of camping in my car. It was extremely uncomfortable and I’m way too tall for that!

In the evening, I went to my host’s house. I stayed with Trevor. He’s a grandpa-figure who lives with his daughter and granddaughter. He’s traveled the world and now wants to give back.

We all stayed up chatting about travel and what to see in NZ. He made a lovely dinner of meatballs and vegetables. It’s amazing how accommodating my hosts are. They always ask my food preferences and manage to make something Paleo.

Most of the people I’ve met in NZ have been liberal, but Trevor certainly wasn’t. He made his pro-Trump views extremely obvious. When we were discussing the cray weather, I couldn’t help but internally laugh when he said “Global warming isn’t real!!”

Not only is “global warming” a misnomer for climate change – a fact Trevor didn’t seem to understand, but also NZ just had their hottest summer on record. Shouldn’t that prove that “global warming” is a real issue? That doesn’t even take into account the absurd increase in cyclones that NZ has had to deal with lately. All of my other hosts have talked about how serious of a threat that climate change/sea level rise/ozone thinning is to NZ. So for Trevor to completely ignore all the signs was baffling to me. It must be a generational thing. I let him continue to live in his ignorance. I didn’t want a bad review on Couchsurfing!

In the morning, I packed my bags and headed to Christchurch!

Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand. Between jet boating, skydiving, bungee jumping, and skiing – there’s never a slow season. Queenstown is flooded with tourists year-round. I mean PACKED! Even when I started searching for accommodation a month prior to arrival, all hostels and hotels had 0% vacancy.

I was lucky enough to stay with Sean. He had a house with roommates located in Kingston, 40 minutes south of Queenstown. I wasn’t thrilled about the location. I obviously preferred to stay within the city, but beggars can’t be choosers. Even if I did find a hostel, they were all $50+ per night!

The drive from Wanaka to Queenstown was only an hour, so I took the scenic route and stopped by a popular roadside attraction: Bradrona! It is a pun since it is located in Cardrona.

It is a fence with hundreds of bras tied to it. The idea is to collect donations to raise money for breast cancer. It was a fun stop and a cute idea!

I also stopped at the scenic viewpoint as I drove over the pass in the mountains. Apparently it is the highest sealed road in NZ! The views were beautiful!

I arrived in Queenstown in the afternoon and the weather was perfect. The scenery was simply stunning. The city is located on a giant lake surrounded by mountains. I never got tired of the view.

I wandered around the town for a bit. Parking was almost impossible to find since it was so crowded. The streets were lined with travel agencies peddling their bus tours and skydiving excursions. It was definitely a tourist town.

I decided to grab lunch at Madam Woo. It’s a modern Malaysian restaurant on the waterfront. Ever since Auckland, I’ve been obsessed with roti – a flaky, chewy flatbread typically served with curry. It’s much different than naan. I ordered the duck salad with a side of roti. It was the best I’ve ever had!

After lunch, I drove to Kingston to meet my host. He had told me to arrive any time during the day. I knocked on the door and there was no response. It was unlocked, so I opened it and yelled, “hello?” No one was home. It seems to be typical kiwi culture to leave your door unlocked and expect visitors to help themselves inside, so I did.

Sean arrived an hour later and we chatted about travel and Queenstown. I asked if he had been skydiving and he said no. Apparently, there was an accident last month that the media swept under the rug. Wind blew a skydiving tandem off course and they had to land in the giant lake. They saved the instructor but weren’t able to retrieve the tourist. His body is still in the lake somewhere! I didn’t plan on skydiving, but that definitely would have dissuaded me.

There was a knock on the door by two German travelers. They were also Couchsurfing. I was lucky enough to arrive first and get the spare bedroom. They were going to sleep on the sofas. We all made dinner and watched tv before bed.

The next day, it was pouring rain. Somehow it always rains when I arrive in a big city! I didn’t have any plans and really didn’t want to spend any money on the expensive adventure excursions. I was also feeling gross and lazy from lack of exercise. I researched and found an indoor pool in town. I had packed my one-piece suit in case I decided to do surfing or a water activity, so I was prepared! I spent the day swimming laps and enjoying the sauna. It was simple, but isn’t that what vacations are for?!

That evening, ANOTHER couchsurfer arrived. She was from Chile and we immediately hit it off. The next day, all 4 of us couchsurfers drove into Queenstown and spent the day there. They decided to pay $50 to ride the chairlift up the mountain, but I didn’t think it was worth it, so I walked around the botanical garden and hung out at the beach. I also got a charcoal latte! It tasted like coconut.

That night, we decided to all chip in and cook dinner for our host as a thank you. We decided on a burrito/taco bar. On our way back to Kingston, we stopped at the grocery. Boy, oh boy. It reminded me of how difficult it is to travel with another person. The two German girls were bickering over what type of guacamole to buy and no one could agree on vegetables. The stress and tension of travel was obviously getting to them. It’s a familiar feeling! I know by Day 3/4 of traveling with a friend or partner, I start to get annoyed. I silently celebrated my plan to travel alone and avoid that inevitable hostility.

After dinner, the Chilean couchsurfer named Fran asked me what my plans were for the next day. I told her I had booked an excursion to see the famous Milford Sound. It’s hailed as one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand! She decided to come with me and immediately booked the same tour.

Milford Sound is a 4/5 hour drive from Queenstown. There is only one hotel in the town and it is EXPENSIVE. So the only option is to drive there and back in one day. I didn’t like the idea of driving 10 hours, so I purchased a tour that does all the driving and includes a 2 hour boat cruise on the water. The only downside was that the bus wouldn’t pick us up in Kingston – only in Queenstown. So we had to wake up at 5:00am to drive into Queenstown to meet the bus… only to ride on the bus back down to Kingston. It was frustrating but the only way!

The drive to Milford Sound was beautiful. It is remote land that not many people inhabit. The area is known as the fiordlands due to all of the fjords that formed from the glaciers. Very similar to Scandinavia! It was a rainy day, so waterfalls were pouring off of the mountains.

The cruise was very touristy, but fun. We got very close to the waterfalls and even saw dolphins and seals! The heavy rain made it difficult to go on the deck of the boat, but if it had been sunny, there wouldn’t have been any waterfalls. I think we got lucky.

The drive back was uneventful. We arrived back in Queenstown at 7:00pm. That’s 14 hours of travel for only 2 hours on the water. Milford Sound was beautiful and I’m glad I went, but I’m not sure it is worth the exhausting travel. There are tours that fly you in helicopter to the sound. THAT would be worth it… if you have a spare $400!

The next morning, I drove Fran into Queenstown on my way north to Tekapo. It was so nice to bond with someone past the typical small talk. She’s also very inspirational! She studied to be an engineer but then decided to travel and has been living in Australia for the last year. I wish I had her carefree attitude and spontaneity!

Overall, Queenstown is a beautiful city with lots to do… if you’re willing to pay for it. It isn’t budget friendly. The only smaller attractions are the famous Fergburger restaurant and the booming party scene. I didn’t participate in either since I don’t like burgers or alcohol anymore!

Next I head to Lake Tekapo, Timaru, and then Christchurch! Lake Tekapo is located in the Dark Sky Reserve and has one of the best night skies in the world! Hopefully I’m there on a clear evening.

The West Coast, New Zealand

Although I was sad to leave Nelson, I was excited to head south. One of my top reasons for coming to New Zealand was to see the incredible glaciers and fjords of the South Island. All of the photos I saw online looked incredible. Having been to Scandinavia and hiked a glacier in Iceland, I know that it’s my favorite type of landscape. Sandy beaches and ocean sunsets are nice, but I much prefer foggy glacial valleys and ice cold waterfalls. I love the indescribable feeling of humility and mortality that I get when standing at the base of a mountain.

I originally planned to drive the entire coast to Queenstown in one day, but it was going to take 9 hours and I wasn’t feeling too excited about that. So I decided to break up the trip into three days and stop at a few smaller cities along the way: Hokitika, Franz Josef Glacier, and Wanaka.

The drive from Nelson to Hokitika was uneventful. It was mostly through forest, so there weren’t any stunning views. I was starting to get worried that the South Island wouldn’t live up to my expectations! But then, I reached the coast and it was gorgeous.

I stopped to see the Pancake Rocks. They are an incredible formation of rocks along the coast with perfect horizontal striations resembling a stack of pancakes. The tourist center cafe even offered pancakes to eat!

I had a nice walk around the park before continuing my drive. When I got back into my car, I noticed I had a 1/4 tank of gas left. My destination was only another hour away, so I figured I could make it. I didn’t have much choice since there wasn’t a gas station around, anyway!

After 30 minutes of driving up and down the mountain hills, my gas tank was empty and the fuel light was on. I checked on the map and the next gas station wasn’t until Hokitika, another 30 minutes away. I kept driving, trying to coast as much as possible. Worst case scenario, I had a pen and paper to write a giant “GAS?” sign to hold by the side of the road. My rental also comes with roadside assistance for a hefty fee if that didn’t work. I tried to stay positive and keep driving! Luckily I made it to Hokitika and fueled up.

I arrived at Andrew and Joke’s (pronounced yoh-kay, she’s Dutch!) house just south of Hokitika. They had messaged me saying they were finishing up some trail repair in the mountains and wouldn’t be home until evening, but they left their door unlocked and I could make myself at home. I am continually surprised by the generosity of strangers on this trip!

I was exhausted from kayaking in Nelson and then driving all day, so I had a quiet evening and planned the rest of my trip. I’ve decided to return my car in Christchurch and fly to Auckland instead of driving the 17 hours back up the islands. It worked out perfectly. The flight only cost $50 and I can use the remaining days of my rental to get a different car in Auckland and explore more around the city.

That evening, Andrew and his girlfriend Joke returned home and brought Indian food for us all to share. We discussed travel and health care in America. They were amazed how expensive ambulances are!

The next morning, I took off early to explore the Hokitika Gorge. It is known for its gorgeous blue waters and giant suspension bridge! Luckily it was a bit rainy so I didn’t have to fight a giant crowd. I had a bit of fun climbing over the rocks to get a good view.

Afterward, I was starving so I drove into town to try to find food. All the cafes in smaller towns only have pastries and meat pies – never anything healthy! After wandering from cafe to cafe and getting increasingly hangry, I went to the grocery store and bought a premade salad. They tried to charge me a dollar for a plastic fork, so I decided to eat it with my hands!

I headed south along the coast. My destination for the day was Franz Josef Glacier. Andrew had warned me that it was a giant tourist trap and I definitely realized I was on the same route south as numerous camper vans and tour busses. My drive took longer than expected since I kept getting stuck behind them going 20mph up mountain hills.

There are two main glaciers on the South Island – Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Since they are shrinking due to climate change, tourists can’t hike on them. However, there are tour companies that fly you to the top in a helicopter and then let you walk around at the summit of the glacier. I’m sure it is a fun experience, but the best part of the glacier hike I did in Iceland was climbing up it! Plus, I didn’t want to spend $300 on something I’ve already done.

It was a pretty rainy day, so once I arrived in Franz Josef, I went to the hot pools. They aren’t natural hot springs like in Rotorua. These were definitely a man made tourist attraction, but after a long drive, I just wanted to relax in warm water!

I had tried to get my host’s address, but he said that since Franz is such a small town, they don’t really use addresses. It would be easier for him to meet me in town and then show me. I told him I’d be done at the hot pools around 5pm and to let me know where to meet him. 5pm rolled around and I still hadn’t received a message. It didn’t help that the town has no free WiFi and my personal WiFi had terrible service! I waited around until 6pm when he said he was going out to dinner and I could meet him at the restaurant. While I was waiting, I checked hostel availability since he seemed flaky. Everywhere was full.

By this point I was annoyed and hangry. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I had bought groceries to make dinner. I met him at the restaurant and he invited me to join him and his friends for dinner and beer. I explained that I don’t really drink and already had groceries for dinner. He said he couldn’t drive to show me the house since he had already had a few beers. The entire time, I was getting more and more annoyed by his lack of planning.

He said he would show me on the map where his house was an I could try to find it. I pride myself on being great with maps and directions. I rarely get lost. So when he said “Go down this gravel road and you’ll see a red tiki statue. Then you’ll pass garbage cans. Then left. Then left. Then right. And you’ll see a green Subaru in the driveway. Just knock on the door and tell my roommate I sent you,” it sounded easy. I drove and saw the tiki, so I kept going. Then I saw some oil barrels. I figured those were garbage cans. So I kept going. Suddenly, I was on someone’s private farm with no trespassing signs. I tried to turn around and backtrack but it took me in a giant circle. It had started pouring rain and I could barely see. I was so frustrated and for the first time on this trip, I felt helpless and just wanted to curl up in my own bed.

I decided I would go back to the red tiki and take the turn off road since it was the only other option. Of course, then I saw a row of actual garbage cans. And after a few more turns, I found the Subaru. I was so relieved I found it, but annoyed by his terrible directions. Why did he tell me to “pass” the tiki when he meant “turn right”??

I knocked on the door and the roommate had no clue who I was, but let me in anyway. He was just heading off to work, so again, I had a stranger’s place to myself. I fixed dinner and finally ate.

My host, Eric, and his girlfriend came back from the bar and we all watched TV. They put on “Naked Dating.” It’s a British show I had heard about on the radio. Six naked suitors are hidden behind a curtain on stage. Slowly, the curtain raises to show their legs. The dating contestant must eliminate one guy based only on their legs. Then the screen raises to show everything below the belt. She has to eliminate one more. So on and so forth. It’s a completely superficial show, but entertaining. And NOTHING is blurred out!

The entire time, my host is making extremely homophobic and sexist comments. When the genders switch and naked women are behind the screen, he starts talking about how fat they are and how he would never date them because they’re flat chested. His girlfriend is laughing along even though she’s not particularly fit or pretty either! It was so bizarre and uncomfortable. I’ve found that quite a few New Zealanders are extremely racist and rude. When I was talking to my host, Robbie, in Nelson, he told me NZ definitely has a problem with white superiority.

Finally, it was time for bed and Eric threw down a mattress on the floor and wished me goodnight. No blankets, no pillows (I had to steal ones from the couch!), nothing. I don’t expect luxury, but I definitely felt like an inconvenience. I woke up pretty early the next morning and got the hell out of there!

It was a gorgeous day, so I planned a few hikes along the 4 hour drive to Wanaka. The first one was Lake Matheson aka Mirror Lake. I arrived around 9am and the parking lot was already full of tour busses. I started to feel like my “freedom road-trip” was actually identical to the same path millions of other tourists take.

The walk around the lake was relaxing. It was quiet and the morning air was the perfect balance of crisp and refreshing. My knee had been feeling great for the last few days and my body was aching for exercise, so I decided to give running a try. I ran for maybe 10 minutes until the familiar sharp pain deep in my knee came back. I must have pushed it too hard, because the pain only got worse as I walked the rest of the loop around the lake.

I drove another 2 hours, passing through the mountains and along Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. The view was indescribable. My photos capture 1/10th of their beauty. Lake Hawea might be one of my favorite lakes. It’s light blue water is stunning.

I stopped at another hike, Blue Pools. I knew I should rest my knee, but I was really looking forward to seeing the famous pools. They are three pools filled with bright blue glacial water. The internet said it was a short 15 minute walk from the road. What it failed to mention is that it was STEEP! My knee hurts most with inclines/declines, but I pushed through.

As luck would have it, the “pools” were overflowed. So it was basically a giant river. Still pretty, but not worth fighting the crowds and stressing my knee.

I drove the rest of the way to Wanaka and popped a few Tylenol to help any inflammation in my knee. I’m going to commit to resting it. I don’t have any more hikes on my list, so I won’t have any temptation to strain it.

It was a gorgeous and hot sunny day, so I stopped at the beach in Wanaka. The water was frigid so I could only swim for a little bit, but it was nice to be on the water! Lake Wanaka isn’t quite as blue as Lake Hawea, but the water is still crystal clear!

I couldn’t find a Couchsurfing host in Wanaka, so I “splurged” on an Airbnb. Most accommodations were over $100 a night, but I found a cheap option for only $20! How did I find such an affordable place during the busy tourist season? Well, because it’s just a tent in someone’s backyard. Granted, the tent has a futon bed, mini fridge, and WiFi, so it’s more like “glamping,” but it was still a tent outside.

My hosts are great. It’s a family with a kiwi dad and a Mom from California. They have a daughter named Cholula and several Cholula hot sauce bottles on display above the fridge. I didn’t ask if it was intentional or a coincidence. Cholula is 12, so she wasn’t named after the TV show “The League,” either!

My first night glamping was very, very cold and the futon mattress was very thin. It reconfirmed why I never go camping in Portland: lack of warmth and the uncomfortable feeling of your hip digging into the ground. But I got to enjoy free coffee, a warm living room, and fast WiFi in the morning!

I explored Wanaka, but there wasn’t much to do that was inexpensive and didn’t involve hiking. Similar to Queenstown, it’s known for its adventure sports: hiking, ATVing, jet boating, kayaking, skydiving, etc. I decided to take it easy and enjoy the beach, write my blog, and catch up on “This Is Us.” It’s rare I have WiFi that’s fast enough to stream shows!

Perhaps the most important realization I’ve had while traveling is that it’s okay to have rest days. Especially on long trips, you need time to relax and recharge. Driving, swimming, and adventuring is exhausting! Spending an entire day recharging is not a waste. Every day can’t be a Level 10 day. I try to coordinate my recharge days with the weather. Today it’s cold and cloudy, so I plan on writing this blog, reading, and checking out a new cafe. I’ll admit, part of me feels guilty for not maximizing my time, but would it really be worthwhile to go to a winery or pay for a speedboat ride even though neither of those activities interest me and I’d only be doing them for the sake of “doing something”? I’m fighting that urge and choosing to take it easy instead. Life is about balance, right?

I’m off to Queenstown tomorrow. It’s quite a big town, so I’m sure I will find plenty of activities to fill my time. I have planned a day-trip to see the gorgeous Milford Sound by boat. I can’t wait!

Nelson & Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t that excited to stop here. I only planned it out of necessity. Wellington is at the bottom tip of the North Island. There aren’t any bridges connecting it to the South Island, so the only ways to get across the channel are to fly or take the ferry.

Luckily, the price of my rental car included the ferry crossing. A ferry ticket for a vehicle is around $200 one way! But it makes sense. The voyage is 3 hours long and covers quite a bit of distance. The ferry is also fully outfitted with restaurants, cafes, and even a movie theater! So each crossing must cost the company a pretty penny.

I booked myself on the 9am crossing from Wellington to Picton. Vehicles had to check in at 8am, so I set my alarm at 7am to check out of the hostel. I had been staying at the Lodge in the City. It was the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in! It all culminated on the final night when a Brit entered our dorm room at 4:35am (I know because he was so loud, it woke me up and I checked my phone.) I listened to him struggle to climb into the top bunk and then try to catch his breath. Not even 30 minutes later, he shouted “Is anyone awake?!” The guy sleeping above me replied “I guess I am now. What do you need?” And the Brit explained, “I’m disabled. I had a stroke and can’t move the left side of my body. I desperately need to use the loo but I can’t climb out of this bunk. Should I jump or will I break my legs?”

Our entire room spent the next 15 minutes telling him not to jump and trying to help him down. We ended up all lifting him out of the bed and placing him on the ground. I assume he complained to reception and got another room assignment because he came back soon after and gathered his things. It was certainly an eventful night.

I caught the ferry in the morning and landed in Picton around 1pm. It was a rocky journey since the remnants of Cyclone Gita were finally hitting NZ. Apparently the storms caused a lot of damage and flooding to coastal towns and roads. Some people are still stuck in Abel Tasman National Park since the roads are washed away.

I drove 4 hours from Picton to Nelson where I had decided to stop for two nights. I didn’t have anything I wanted to see, but I knew I would be tired from the ferry and then the long drive. I am trying to space out my drives and have rest days in between.

Nelson is known as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. Other than that, it’s just a town. The day before I arrived, I was researching things to do and finding nothing other than hikes in the National Park. I knew if I simply drove myself into the park and tried to explore, I’d get bored or frustrated that I didn’t know where to go.

So, on a whim, I booked an all-day kayak tour. I’ve never been kayaking before, but I figured it couldn’t be too difficult. They had half-day tours that they recommended for beginners, but those were only 4 hours long and only 2 hours of actual kayaking. If I am going all the way into the park, I want to be there all day! So I opted for the 7am-6pm tour with 8 hours of kayaking! I’m young and fit. My shoulder has fully healed. I figured it would be a fun challenge.

I arrived in Nelson and explored the downtown area a bit. It is located right on the waterfront with a quaint stream running through the center. There is a gorgeous park with some of the most beautiful flower gardens I’ve ever seen. As I continued to walk, I fell more and more in love with Nelson. Everything was so clean and well designed. There were cute cafes and organic grocery stores. It had everything, including a giant public beach!

In the evening, I met my host, Robbie. He lives in an amazing home on top of a mountain with great views of the bay. Seriously stunning!

I was greeted by his 3 kids since he was out making cookie deliveries for his bakery. When he came home, we sat on his balcony and watched the sunset while discussing travel and New Zealand.

The next morning, I drove into town to catch the bus. Part of my kayak package included a bus ride from Nelson into the park. The drive takes 1.5 hours, so I was glad to let someone else do the driving so I could enjoy the view!

I was expecting a small van driven by kayak employees. Instead, I was loaded onto a giant tour bus that several companies use to haul tourists into the park. I was the only kayaker on a bus filled with elderly tourists destined for a Sea Shuttle cruise that shows them the park without them actually having to walk. I had a really fun bus ride listening to them all complain about their bodily pains.

We arrived in the park and I was greeted by Mark, our kayak guide. Our group for the day was small. It was just me and another kiwi family with 3 daughters my age. The mom was quick to make me feel included by offering to put sunscreen on my back and sharing her snacks with me. The kayaks were all two-seaters and the mom even asked if I wanted to be her partner!

After a quick safety briefing, we hit the water at 10am. Kayaking was much harder than I expected! We would paddle for an eternity but seem to go nowhere. I started to doubt if I could last the entire day. I focused on my form and steering. Two-seater kayaks have pedals so the person in the rear can steer with a rudder. I volunteered to sit in the back, so I had to juggle steering, paddling, and admiring the view all at the same time!

Luckily, whenever my arms started to get sore, Mark would direct us to paddle into a cove. I bet we paddled for 2 hours before we stopped at a beach for morning tea. While Mark was preparing the snacks, I explored the beach and discovered the most beautiful alcove. Mark said that was the spot that early British settlers would shower. Apparently there’s even a painting of that scene!

After snack time, we paddled to Adele Island to see the seals. I’m not a big animal lover, so I didn’t take any photos, but they were fun to watch. After another couple hours of paddling, we stopped for lunch. It was getting pretty warm, so I spent awhile swimming and climbing on rocks. I forgot how much fun it is to just explore!

We headed south and the winds were picking up, so Mark suggested we try sailing. Basically, all the kayaks line up and hold onto each other. Then the people on the ends raise a giant sail and the wind propels the raft forward. It was fun! And saved us another hour of paddling.

Near the end, we paddled around Split Apple Rock, one of the park’s most famous attractions. While we were there, we even paddled through a giant cave!

It was so much fun and I’m glad I pushed myself to try something new. I will definitely be going kayaking this summer in Portland! They’re also fairly cheap if you buy them second hand. Might be a new hobby!

I had an early night since I was so exhausted. The next morning, Robbie invited me to the Nelson farmers market with him. It was giant! All of the other markets on the island were tiny in comparison. He bought some produce while I tried samples of goat cheese and granola.

Afterward, he showed me his bakery. I was expecting a regular cafe, but that’s not it at all! It’s located inside a replica colonial village. The bakery operates as an open museum, but Robbie rents it out so he has access to it 24/7. He said he goes there every Sunday and bakes scones as a way to relax. There’s even an espresso machine, so he made us coffee. It was such a relaxing way to spend the morning!

And with that, I left Nelson. It was the first place I actually wished I could stay longer. I wanted to spend some time hiking in the park and enjoying Nelson’s beach. They have yoga circles there most mornings and stand-up paddle boarding. I have a very short list of cities I’d love to own vacation homes in… and Nelson made the list!

Wellington, New Zealand

I’m consistently surprised by how small New Zealand cities are! On my first morning in Wellington, I had to figure out where to park my new rental car. Since my hostel was downtown, I wouldn’t be needing it for the next few days as everything is accessible on foot. I also didn’t want to pay for downtown parking! The only areas with free street parking were out of the city. On the map, it looked miles away, but in reality, it was pretty close!

I left my car in the Newtown area which seemed to be filled with young people. Wellington is known for two things: wind and hipsters. It felt a lot like Portland!

As soon as I ditched my car, I headed for the famous waterfront. As I wandered along the docks, I saw an astounding number of people jogging, walking, and generally enjoying the sun. Cafes and restaurants lined the water. There was even a rock climbing gym and a few boutiques located inside repurposed shipping containers! The city definitely seems to have everything you’d need.

I typically hate paying for tourist attractions, but I couldn’t resist paying $7 to ride the cable car up to the botanical gardens. It was an amazing view! It blows my mind to think that some people commute to work via the cable car and get to enjoy this view every day.

I continued to wander the city. I strolled down Cuba Street, the preeminent shopping and cafe area. It was very quirky and diverse. The shops ranged from expensive boutiques to grungy vape stores. Certain design aspects reminded me of posh Auckland, but others were uniquely Wellington. There’s a ton of cool street art, too! Once, when wandering into an alley to check out a mural, I discovered a hidden street with even more cafes and shops. I spent all day following my feet and checking out cool spots like the Wellington Chocolate Factory and the Capital Market – a giant outdoor food court that seems to be a trendy place to hang.

When researching free things to do in Wellington, I came across The Free Store. In an effort to reduce food waste, this nonprofit collects unused bread, pastries, sandwiches, etc from restaurants and cafes. Every evening at 6pm, they open their doors to anyone who wants free food. At first, I thought it was for the homeless population, but my hostel suggested that travelers go for a free meal! So I thought I’d check it out. I can’t say no to free!

I loitered outside around 5:45, a little nervous to stand in the line. There was a wide variety of people ranging from homeless to travelers to businessmen! I guess I looked a little shy, because a guy named Peter walked over and introduced himself. He was clearly homeless, but seemed kind and non threatening, so I chatted with him. He told me to come wait in line with him and enjoy some free coffee during the wait.

Volunteers for The Free Store clearly knew Peter and welcomed us both as they poured us coffee. We stood in line for awhile talking about travel (he was born in the Netherlands) until 6pm when it opened. Peter explained that everyone was supposed to bring their own bag to fill. I had assumed each person got 1 item, so I didn’t bring a bag. Peter let me use one of his.

The Free Store is located in a shipping container with a large window. Volunteers stand inside and recipients line up outside the window. One by one, recipients talk to a volunteer who retrieves food items for them. Food is separated by sweet, savory, and quality (sandwiches, salads, etc.) Recipients can get 3 sweet, 2 savory, and 2 quality items. It makes sense why you need a bag! It’s a lot of food! In addition, each person gets a loaf of bread and 5 bagels. On the day I went, we each got a gallon of ice cream, too!!

Recipients technically get to choose what they want, but it’s pretty chaotic and fast paced. I walked away with a final haul of: a gallon of ice cream, a baguette, a croissant, a scone, a cinnamon roll, a pita, a rosemary flatbread, 5 bagels, couscous salad, and a banana. It was a lot of food! I shared most of it with people at my hostel.

There must have been 100 of us in line and each person got an entire bag. It’s scary to think that all of that food would have been thrown away. It’s even scarier to think that it DOES get thrown away in the majority of cities.

When I returned to my hostel, the entire kitchen was filled with people eating the same strawberry ice cream. It seems I wasn’t the only traveler standing in line!

Tuesday morning I awoke to a downpour. Most of NZ is getting the remnants of cyclone Gita. I decided to stay indoors and check out Te Papa, a famous museum about NZ and the native Maori people. It is the most popular museum in the country! After spending a few hours wandering the exhibits, I ventured outside and realized I wanted to send postcards. Who knew it would be so difficult to find a tourist store selling postcards?! I walked almost 2 miles across the city before I found some… and then walked another mile to find a post office!

On my search for cheap eats, I discovered a popular hole-in-the-wall that sells a curry combo for $7 NZ or about $5 US. It comes with roti (chewy flatbread), curry, and peanut sauce. I wasn’t too hungry, so this lunch sounded perfect. Thankfully, it was delicious! I’ve had naan and pita bread before, but roti is so much better. Its a little flaky so you can pull apart the layers. I also learned that people judge curry by its shininess, so the oilier the curry, the better!

That evening, I got coffee with a few girls from the Girls Love Travel group. Most of them had come to NZ on the work visa and were planning on finding work and staying here for a year! I couldn’t imagine. Then, I hung out with people in my hostel and marathonned Comedy Central while enjoying more of the ice cream. I debated going back to The Free Store, but I honestly didn’t need more food. I thought I’d let other people enjoy it.

On my last day in Wellington, I took advantage of the laundry facilities in my hostel. As a last-minute spot, the hostel isn’t bad, but I got some bad luck in roommate’s this time. I’m only in a 4-person dorm, but each of the other 3 people are terrible. One is a snorer. One lets her alarm ring for 15 minutes before pressing snooze, only to have the cycle repeat again. And the last person is so stinky. I’m slightly concerned she’s injured because she lets out a wail each time she rolls over in bed. It’s alarming and bizarre.

After doing laundry, I went to Southern Cross Cafe to work on this blog. It’s the cutest cafe with a giant outdoor garden. The vibe is very bohemian and cozy. A fellow traveler named Ana came to meet me at the cafe. We met through the Girls Love Travel group. I’m so glad someone recommended me to the network. It’s been so nice meeting up with people and swapping stories and tips!

Once I picked up my car, I drove to the Weta Cave. I had seen it in several of the lists of free attractions and wasn’t sure what it was. A weta is a type of bird, so i thought it might be a cool cave filled with wildlife!

I drove to the West Cave and walked inside. It was a small warehouse filled with Lord of the Rings memorabilia. Since the films were made in New Zealand, there’s a large tourist market for showing off filming locations and items. Apparently the Weta Cave was actually another tourist trap!

I quickly left and went to Mt Victoria Lookout which gives an amazing view of the city. It was so gorgeous!

Tomorrow morning I have to wake up bright and early to catch the ferry to the South Island. Since I’m taking my car, I have to be at the ferry terminal at 8:00am. The journey takes a few hours but is often delayed. Hopefully not tomorrow! Then I head south, hopping through Nelson, Fox Glacier, and Wanaka until I get to Queenstown for a few days. I’m eager to see the stunning glaciers, but a little worried that the roads will be even more winding and difficult to navigate!