Rotorua, New Zealand

America has Yellowstone. New Zealand has Rotorua. The north island has a lot of geothermal activity, but Rotorua is famous for its concentration of hot springs, geysers, and permeating “rotten egg” smell.

I drove in from Mount Maunganui on Thursday morning. The drive was pretty easy and not as winding as in Coromandel. I had read about a waterfall and my hosts in Katikati said it was great, so I decided to make a pit stop and check it out.

Omanawa Falls is a local gem. It’s hidden from the main roads and only accessible by a long farm road followed by a mile hike. There are no signs showing you where the trailhead is. The only way I found it was from the other 2 cars parked along the side of the road and a giant police sign saying “TRAIL CLOSED.”

I’m not normally a risk taker. If I had found this sign without researching beforehand, I would have turned around. But the internet said the police had closed the upper deck of the waterfall due to people trying to jump off, but the bottom was still accessible, so I figured the signs only meant the top.

I hopped the fence and continued on my hike. The trail lead to a gorgeous viewpoint overlooking the waterfall so I stopped to snap some photos.

But I was confused. I thought I was going to the lower viewpoint, so how did I end up at the top? During my hike, I passed two other people who were coming from the waterfall and they had clearly been swimming, so there must be a way to the bottom. I looked around and spotted stairs leading down to a doorway that descended into darkness. I could hear the roar of the waterfall echoing up the tunnel. There was no other way. Either I entered the tunnel or I turned around. I stood there for a full minute debating my options. I had come so far and I wanted to see the waterfall! But the tunnel was pretty terrifying and looked like it was out of a horror movie.

I decided to do it. I turned on my phone flashlight and walked very slowly down the slippery stairs that went on forever. When I emerged, I found myself at the base of the waterfall and it was gorgeous!

There was a viewing platform raised above a bed of boulders leading to the water. There were 5 other people who had jumped the fence and climbed down to swim. I wanted to swim, but I was scared. I usually never break rules. It looked dangerous. As I mentioned before, I am terrified of slipping and falling, so this was daunting! But after pretending to “enjoy the view” for several minutes, I pumped myself up and hopped the fence.

Surprisingly, climbing down the boulders was easy. I forget how human feet have literally evolved to help us grip the earth. I didn’t slip once and even felt confident climbing down into the freezing water. Once I jumped it, I was ecstatic. I had conquered my fear and was now swimming in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I felt on top of the world!

After my swim, I hiked back up to my car and drove the rest of the way to Rotorua. Before I met my hosts, I stopped by a free park that has an amazing geothermal pool you can walk over top of. It was already a scorching hot day, so standing in the steam was a bit nauseating, but the views were cool!

Then I drove to meet my hosts, Dan and Sarah. They live in a cute little house that Dan has completely renovated since he’s a builder. Sarah works with foster kids who live in group homes. We sat all night drinking beer and chatting about our travels.

I learned that Rotorua has a reputation as a cheesy tourist capital. Asian tourists come here by the bus load to see the geothermal sights and stay at the fancy spas. The city has earned the name “RotoVegas” since the streets are lit up by neon hotel signs every night.

On Friday, I woke up and headed to the Redwoods Forest to go for a morning stroll. My knee STILL is giving me troubles, so I opted for only a short walk, knowing I had a whole day of activity ahead of me. After the forest, I headed to Kerosene Creek. There are numerous hot springs you can pay $20 to sit in at a resort, but I’d much rather drive into nature and find a hidden one for free!

Kerosene Creek is named from the stinky gasoline smell that comes from the water. It’s a long stream that has many waterfalls that bathers can sit under and enjoy. Before I went, Dan and Sarah warned me not to put my head underwater because some people have died from amoeba entering in the nose/ears and causing meningitis!

When I arrived, Kerosene Creek was deserted. I shared the spring with only two other people, but suddenly a large tour bus arrived with loud, obnoxious Australians who began splashing each other and causing a ruckus. I figured it was time to leave.

Friday afternoon, I went with Dan and Sarah to meet their friends and spend the afternoon on Blue Lake on their boat.

It’s always lovely to spend time on the water and I’m so glad I got to be on the lake! Tomorrow morning I head out to Napier for their Art Deco festival!

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Coromandel & Mount Maunganui, New Zealand

After weeks of anxiety over driving on the opposite side of the road in New Zealand, I finally did it. And it was actually pretty easy.

Luckily I’ve been driving in fairly populated areas of the country, so it’s easy to just follow the person in front of me. The only time I’ve had a slip up was in a residential neighborhood where there weren’t any lines on the road. I had just pulled out of a park and was lost in my head for about 10 seconds before I realized I was driving on the right hand side of the road instead of the left! Luckily there were 0 cars around, but I still felt silly. Since then, I’ve gotten used to driving on the left and it feels second nature now.

After picking up my rental car, I drove to Katikati where I had coordinated to stay for two nights. During my travels around NZ, I am trying to save as much money as possible. Hotels are out of the question since they run about $100 per night minimum. Hostels are a better option at $25 per night, but that means sleeping in a bunk room with 8 other snoring people and usually no air conditioning. So I’ve decided to do Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing is an online network of hosts and travelers all over the world. If you know you’re going to be in a city, you can look for hosts accepting guests and then contact them to see if they will accommodate you for free. It is all about cultural exchange and connection. Usually hosts have traveled around the world via Couchsurfing and are now looking to give back to the community. When I traveled through Scandinavia with my friend Tracy after university, we couchsurfed and it was an amazing way to meet locals and learn about the history and culture of a city.

My first hosts were Ian and Marionna in Katikati on the eastern coast of the north island. They own a nice farm with tons of kiwi, vegetables, and cows! They are middle aged and have 3 kids who are in their 20s but are scattered around the globe.

I arrived on Tuesday and was greeted my Marionna. We sat in the living room and discussed their farm, family, and recent NZ news. It’s a big deal here that politician John English resigned! She also made us a nice dinner of corned beef and salad with tomatoes from their farm!

In the morning, I took a day trip to Coromandel. I drove two hours north to the town of Hahei. There is a famous rock formation called the Cathedral Cove. I didn’t get to go see it because it was packed with tourists (it’s the Chinese New Year this week, so everything is crowded!) and it required a 2 hour hike to get to. I normally would have gone in a heartbeat, but I am trying to let my knee heal so I decided not to. Instead, I explored Hahei beach and even found a cute swing to play on!

Then I drove to the nearby Hot Water Beach. It is famous because it’s an area of geothermal activity. There are collections of lava under the beach that heat the groundwater. The ocean water is still cold, but if you dig 2-3 feet into the sand, you can find the heated water. This phenomenon causes tourists and locals to flock to the beach with hand shovels to dig their own mini spas. It was definitely a bizarre sight to see!

It was getting late, so I drove the winding road back to Katikati. I’m not sure why I expected NZ to be flat, because it certainly is not! Every road is like a back country road with curved switchbacks that you have to go 25mph around. It definitely takes a lot of concentration, but the views are incredible. I told myself that I have to stop at every scenic viewpoint and take a photo. Here is the first one:

That evening, Marionna made us another wonderful dinner of pork chops and roasted kumara. Kumara is basically like a sweet potato, except a different species and different color. The kind we had was white with dark flecks throughout. So tasty!

Over dinner, they taught me about the various types of birds and trees in NZ. It’s amazing how much they knew! They said that there are very few mammals native to NZ, so birds had to adapt to fill all of the niches. That’s why NZ has so many non-flying birds. They could flourish because there wasn’t any competition. But now that invasive species like possums have been introduced, many birds face extinction. It was all so educational and interesting!

While I certainly appreciate the gracious hospitality, it was definitely an experience living on a rural farm. They didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were open 24/7, allowing all sorts of flies, spiders, and crickets inside the house. Falling asleep was tough because I was constantly batting flies away from my face and having the crickets jump onto my bed. But overall, it was an awesome experience getting to live on a kiwi farm and I’m excited for the rest of my Couchsurfing adventures.

Thursday morning I woke up and headed to Mount Maunganui on my way to my final destination of the day, Rotorua.

Mount Maunganui is a cute beach town with the namesake mountain sitting less than a mile from downtown. After so many days of rain, I was craving sun, so I headed to the beach and enjoyed a morning coffee and watched people surf.

Each town seems to be set up in the same way: one main road with all of the restaurants and shops lined up along it. The standard grid layout of American cities doesn’t apply outside of Auckland, Wellington, and other major cities. It’s quaint, but makes parking quite tough!

Before heading to Rotorua, I grabbed a quick snack at one of the many adorable cafes in town, Wild One Whole Foods Eatery. NZ has some of the prettiest cafes, but also most expensive! All of their menu items like salads and sandwiches were $18-20! I got this small falafel wrap for $8. Feels like a steal! At least it comes with free yummy basil water.

Auckland, New Zealand

They say if you smile at the world, it will smile back.

All of the books I’ve been reading are a about the importance of having a positive outlook. This is especially hard for my cynical, worry-wort nature that always has me expecting the worst outcome of any situation. Maybe it was the spirit of aloha, but on my last day in Hawaii, I was in a carefree mood.

So when I had to carry my 40lb backpack despite my shoulder injury still causing pain, I decided to look on the bright side and rejoice that I could check it and not haul it through the airport. And when Ausra explained that I had to return the car at 11am despite my flight not leaving until 2pm, I agreed and looked forward to exploring the gorgeous Honolulu airport gardens and enjoying a walk before sitting for 9 hours.

My easy going attitude of the day was rewarded when I checked in for my flight. One bummer about booking a ticket with Chase Rewards points is that I never get a seat assignment. This usually means I get stuck with a middle seat, so imagine my surprise when the gate agent assigned me 14G! A quick google search told me it was an aisle so I was thrilled. I could drink as much water as I wanted (and I love water!) without bothering my neighbor every time I had to pee. I gleefully stood in line and chatted with the people around me.

Once I boarded the plane, I was dumbfounded. The seat 14G was an aisle… in the Comfort Plus section! The seat map I looked at was wrong and I actually had an aisle bulkhead seat – the best possible combo! I enjoyed my 9 hour flight with a complimentary bag of toiletries (toothbrush, comb, eye mask, moisturizer, chapstick, and headphones!), unlimited free alcohol, and two meals. Hawaiian Airlines is definitely the best airline I’ve ever flown.

I landed in Auckland around 10:30pm and was antsy to get off of the plane, but the pilot announced we had to wait an additional 15 minutes in a quarantine area. Apparently ALL international planes have to be inspected and then have all the overhead bins treated with a special spray to prohibit the accidental introduction of invasive species. The flight attendants had to open each bin and spray our bags. It was definitely interesting!

I didn’t get through immigration and customs until 11:30pm and planned to take an Uber into the city since it was so late. I opened the app and thought it was strange there were no Ubers in the area – turns out it’s because Uber is banned from picking up passengers at the airport!

Even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I had to figure out the bus system. Luckily there is a direct bus from the airport to the city center called SkyBus. It was a hefty $18 one way, but I had no other option. I arrived downtown and decided to walk the mile to my Airbnb. Even though I had my giant 40lb backpack, I figured I needed the exercise after sitting on a plane for so long.

Halfway though my walk, I was faced with a massive 40 degree incline hill. I made it to the top… only to find ANOTHER massive hill. Auckland might be more steep than San Francisco! I’m not sure why I expected it to be flat, but it certainly is not!

I made it to my Airbnb in one sweaty piece. My host had left the keys in the mailbox of the apartment building so I could let myself in. The listing was very vague, but it sounded like I would have a private room in an apartment. Other female Airbnb guests would be in other rooms, but I would have my space. Imagine my surprise when I realized my “room” was actually a bed in the living room with foldable partitions separating it from the couch! There WAS another guest staying there… but the host also lived there with her elderly mother! Such a bizarre arrangement, but for $10 a night in the city center, it was a steal.

I woke up the next morning eager to explore. It was a sunny summer day and I wore a T-shirt and shorts. Unheard of in February in Portland! I wandered around the waterfront and business district until I found myself at the Auckland Domain. It is the Central Park of Auckland, but on top of a giant hill! Several hiking paths lead to the top where there are beautiful gardens.

I strolled back into town through Parnell – a very trendy and popular street with several cafes and modern restaurants. The characteristic I love most about Auckland is how each business has very unique branding and design. A coffee shop isn’t JUST a coffee shop here – everything about it is Instagram worthy, from the cups to the decor to the menu font. Business owners here definitely do not cut corners.

I made my way back to the Wharf to catch a walking tour. I typically despise tourist traps and prefer to see everything on my own. But after a day of walking, I felt like I was missing something. Even after researching online, I couldn’t find any significant historical or cultural attractions. There wasn’t much to DO in Auckland other than eat or work. I was ready to be proven wrong, so I attended the walking tour to find out the true appeal of the city.

During the 2 hour tour, I learned a lot about the history of Auckland. The sudden availability of fertile land to British settlers inspired a longstanding obsession with gardening, sheds, and always “fixing it yourself,” – traits that are still common in most Aucklanders. This had lead to urban sprawl, with every homeowner wanting a single story bungalow with plenty of yard space. City developers are trying to draw people back into the downtown area by investing in areas like the waterfront Wynyard Quarter. They are turning an old shipyard into modern living and trying to recycle old shipping containers in the process. So many public spaces feature repurposed shipping containers as functional art!

New Zealand recently won the America’s Cup boating competition which means they must host the next race in 2021. This global spotlight has put pressure on the city to renovate its harbors. What used to be a desolate fishing harbor is now home to multi-million dollar yachts that Rhianna performs on!

While all of this history was certainly interesting from a urban development standpoint (part of my major!) it didn’t provide much insight on tourism in Auckland. Everyone I’ve spoken to says that locals spend their time on their boat or hiking or enjoying the beaches. It’s a very outdoor-centric culture. I’m eager to see that side of New Zealand once I get out of the city!

Despite the numerous outdoor activities available here, I couldn’t do any of them due to the terrible weather. A massive storm arrived on my second day and it didn’t stop raining until my last day! I’m not afraid of getting wet, but for what purpose? To aimlessly wander around the city, looking at fancy shops and restaurants I can’t afford? In addition, I had injured my knee after walking 12 miles my first day and 7 my second. The overuse presented some pretty severe pain in my knee and calf whenever I walked at an incline or decline – impossible to avoid in Auckland! I think it is just tendinitis, so I’ve been taking it easy to give it time to heal.

To pass the time indoors, I decided to do what I do best: make friends on the internet! There is a giant network of solo female travelers who connect via Facebook to share travel stories, tips, and questions. I discovered a New Zealand chapter of this group and joined to connect with fellow travelers. I saw a post from Liz, a Chicagoan who had just finished roadtripping around the South Island and was now in Auckland. We decided to meet for coffee to pass the time on a rainy Saturday! She ordered a “Piefee” which is coffee served inside of a pie shell! Only found in Auckland!

It was nice to get some social interaction. Both of my apartment-mates stay in their rooms and barely talk, so it’s been a bit lonely! I’ve gotten a lot of planning done for the rest of my trip. I found amazing deals on the two excursions I’m willing to pay extra for while in NZ – a boat tour of Milford Sound and a water tubing tour of the glow worm caves in Waitomo!

I also have a rough plan of my time in Italy and Greece. Until yesterday, I only had a flight into Milan and that was it! Now I know I want to spend March 23 – April 15th in Italy. That gives me enough time to see Milan, Lake Como, Venice, Bologna, Florence and Pisa, and maybe the Cirque Terre. I’m only going to spend 2-3 days in each city, so it’ll be a quick trip until I get to Rome where I want to spend at least 5 days. Turns out, I’ll be in Rome for Easter! How exciting.

Afterward, I want to set up a home base on the Amalfi Coast and spend a week taking day trips to Napoli, Pompeii, and cities along the coast. Eventually, I’ll fly out of Napoli to Greece where I’ll be from mid April to mid May.

As much as I want to see Corfu and Kefalonia, they are just too far out of the way, so I think I will fly into Athens and spend the next month island hopping. I really want to utilize the WorkAway network and find accommodation in a hostel in exchange for working a few hours per day. All of this traveling ain’t cheap!

Finally, on my last day in Auckland, the rain cleared and gave me a bit of time to walk around. My knee was still giving me trouble, so I didn’t go as far as I normally would, but I walked to my favorite restaurant, Revive Cafe. I love trying new food while traveling, but the prices in New Zealand have prohibited me from indulging. A single egg on toast costs $12 NZ, which is around $8 US! A proper meal can range from $17- $30 NZ which is $12-23 US! It may not seem too outrageous, but my food budget is $10 US per day, so spending most of that on one meal is crazy. And most of the time, the cheapest food is the most unhealthy. I still try to eat mostly protein and vegetables and avoid grains and dairy. It makes it tough!

However, at Revive Cafe, I can get their “Large” portion for only $7 and it’s more than enough for two meals! A similar spot called The Raw Kitchen serves tasty grab-and-go salads. I enjoyed this mixed salad of Curry Carrot and Anise Beetroot in Victoria’s Park! I also found my FAVORITE drink of all time – banana flavored milk! And it’s made with coconut milk and no sugar!

Tomorrow I will be picking up my rental car. I’ll head to Tauranga where I’ll be staying for two nights. It’ll be my first Couchsurfing experience in New Zealand! I’m excited to meet locals and get some tips on where to go. Plus I’ve been craving social interaction! I’m starting to miss my lively hostel in Hawaii!

Week Two in Hawaii

Every time I feel out of place and unsettled, I have to remember that everything always gets better with time!

Remember my surfer housemates who I found it difficult to connect with? They’ve all moved on and been replaced by several other female solo travelers! It’s funny, we are all tan, blonde, and tall, but from different countries around the world – America, New Zealand, Sweden, and Germany! It’s been much nicer to chat with them about travel topics. The New Zealander said I am doing my trip the right way by spending 1.5 months there instead of a quick 2 weeks. I expressed my quiet fear of learning how to drive there (everything is opposite!) but she said it’s actually pretty easy. So fingers crossed that’s true!

I’ve been on a few more hikes around the island, but I had one particularly memorable one on the Pu’u’ohulu Kai trail. About halfway through the hike, I realized I don’t actually like hiking in Hawaii.

I usually spend the entire ascent worrying how difficult it will be and if I’ve done the hardest part yet. Then, when I get to the top, I start worrying about how I’ll get down. I mentioned it before, but I HATE slipping and the fear of falling. You know that butterfly feeling you get in your stomach when you slip on ice or gravel but then catch yourself? That’s my worst nightmare. So I walk at a snail’s pace on the way down, worrying if I’m going to fall, and not admiring the scenery because I’m staring at my feet.

Maybe it’s something special about Hawaiian hikes, but they all seem to be extremely muddy or extremely dusty – both conditions lead to slipping!

So once I realized that I actually get very little joy out of completing a hike, I decided to stop going. It’s as simple as that!

The next day, I asked myself what would make me happy. I was feeling particularly mellow and wanted to be surrounded by nature and have fun taking photos, so I went to the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens and spent hours walking around. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting! Instead of a “zoo for plants,” it was a giant network of paths and campgrounds and roads. Each area was dedicated to plants from a different region. I was expecting a tourist attraction, so I wore a dress and sandals, but I ended up hiking through mud and forest!

My favorite part were the giant mountains looming over the city. They were so massive and the cliffsides were lined with trees and waterfalls. The eastern area of O‘ahu bear Kailua is definitely my favorite due to the pure beauty. I haven’t seen something so breathtaking since the green, rolling glacial valleys of the Faroe Islands

I also visited the Byodo-In Temple. It is a replica of a famous temple in Japan that was built to honor the Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. As frugal as I am, I was willing to pay the $5 admission fee since it goes to a good cause, however, upon entry, I had a bizarre conversation with the cashier. I was the only person around when he greeted me. I said “Five dollars, right?” and he said, “Wait. Where are you from?” I was a little flustered since he said it in a flirty way so I replied “… uh, America.” He laughed and said, “Well, DUH! We are in America!”

Hawaii is so beautiful and unlike anything in America, so it’s easy to feel like you’re in a foreign country! In hostels, most people usually only say which country they’re from, so it was an honest mistake! I explained that I’m actually from Portland and I’m visiting Hawaii on my way to New Zealand. He said, “Don’t worry about the fee. Enjoy!” I’m not sure if this was a perk of being a female, but I’ll gladly take it!

I spent about 45 minutes at the Temple. There was a giant bell you could ring before entering. The plaque said the resonating noise is meant to represent the transient nature of time. I really liked that.

Thankfully I did all of these outdoor activities as soon as I got on the island, because the last 5 days of my stay have been rainy! I’ve spent a lot of time reading at coffee shops. I even went to see a movie! The rain is definitely making me embrace the leisurely island lifestyle.

I am really glad I decided to rent a car. Even when it is rainy in Haleiwa, I can drive to Honolulu where it is always dry since it’s a desert climate on that side of the island. One day, I signed up for a Hot Hula class in Waikiki. It was definitely an experience. The only people in class were elderly Hawaiian women! I felt so out of place in my adidas activewear while they wore traditional skirts, but I had fun. Afterward, I wandered around Waikiki. It’s crazy how touristy it is. It feels like a completely different country compared to the rest of Hawaii.

Another day I ventured to the east coast to see Kailua. Apparently that’s where Obama likes to stay when he visits! I saw the famous Lanikai Beach and drove around the promenade. If I lived on Oahu, I would pick Kailua as my city of choice. It is nestled between the ocean and the giant, looming mountains. So scenic!

Since there’s not much to do in Haleiwa at night, my hostelmates and I have had to come up with creative ways to entertain ourselves. Last night, we built a fort in the living room and watched Troy on Netflix. It always amuses me how total strangers can become friends so quickly. About a week ago, a 60 year old Brazilian woman checked into the hostel. She’s been spending her days studying for the US Citizenship test which she just took today and passed! This hostel has such a diverse group of people – surfers, tourists, students escaping Honolulu for the weekend, and even local environmental volunteers who have the craziest stories about swimming with sharks!

Today is my last day in Hawaii and I woke up to sunshine! It was forecasted to be another rainy day, but I got lucky. I went with my friend to Waimea Beach and enjoyed the sun before the clouds rolled in.

Tomorrow I have to return my rental car to Ausra and catch my flight to New Zealand. My flight departs around 3pm on Tuesday the 6th. It is a six hour flight, but due to time zones, I don’t arrive until 10pm on Wednesday the 7th. I lose an entire day! Isn’t that wild?

Until then, I’m going to enjoy my last day in Hawaii and pray the airline serves an actual meal again!

Week One in Hawaii

“Oh my god. I’m actually doing it,” was my first thought when my alarm rang at 5am on Monday, January 22nd. It felt like a lifetime in the making, but the day had finally arrived. I was leaving Portland for a 6 month trip around the world.

My last day of work was January 12th and I had given myself a week to prepare for my trip. It turned out that was ample time and I had actually become quite bored! I was excited to finally get on the road.

I gathered all of my belongings for the next 6 months: a 40lb travelers backpack and small purse. Since I had the space, I also brought a tote bag filled with RxBars (protein bars) since I knew I would be eating on a budget.

My flight from Portland to Honolulu was great. I flew Hawaiian Airlines and they actually served food! An entire free breakfast! That’s unheard of these days. Unfortunately it was sugary yogurt, sugary cereal, and a cheesy bread loaf. None of it I wanted. Even though I’m on “vacation,” I still know which foods make me feel gross, so I try to avoid them. Obviously I’ll make exceptions for unique things, but plane food doesn’t cut it!

I landed in the afternoon and was picked up by Ausra, the woman I was renting a car from. Having a car isn’t totally necessary on Oahu, but I had a credit which made the rental pretty inexpensive. Plus I wanted to be able to access hiking trails and beaches at my leisure.

Ausra was a character! She was from Eastern Europe but grew up in New Jersey. She said she meets a lot of travelers by renting her car and always admires their bravery in traveling solo. Her toddler was in the backseat and Ausra joked, “Sweetie, are you going to grow up to be a world traveler like this cool lady?” and then turned to me and said, “I’m so jealous of you. I really want my daughter to be independent and confident like you.”

It really shocked me. I had known her less than 30 minutes and she had already formed the opinion that I was a fearless badass. I felt so far from that! I was confident in my decision to travel, but I still felt so inexperienced. I guess I gave off a different vibe!

I got my rental car and drove straight to the beach. It was already 3pm so the sun was starting to go down, but I enjoyed it. After I got my fill, I drove to my hostel. I had decided to stay in Waialua/Haleiwa on the North Shore, about 45 minutes away from Honolulu. I wanted to get away from tourists and found a small hostel that had availability.

For $20 a night, I’ve been staying in a 4 bedroom house. Each room has 2 bunk beds, so 16 people total. When I arrived, the owner wasn’t around so someone told me to simply pick a bed. It was unlike any hostel I’d ever been to! What they say about Hawai‘i is true: the aloha spirit means anything goes!

I’ve been spending the last week waking up to the sound of roosters around 9am and then heading out to a hike. I try to pick dry ones along the coast, rather than humid ones in the jungle mountains. Afterward, I head to a beach to swim and tan. Around 4pm, I head home to make dinner and relax.

I expected the town to feel quaint and maybe discover a cafe I could spend afternoons reading and writing at. However, this isn’t the case. Most of Haleiwa is very touristy and expensive! It’s filled with retired sunbirds, tourist busses, and surfers from Honolulu who flood the city on weekends to catch waves. The main drag is lined with expensive restaurants, tourist beach shops, and art galleries. I haven’t been able to find a salad or anything healthy for under $15 a plate. Everything is greasy burgers or tacos. Even black coffee is $4 and up! So I’ve been making my own coffee and spending my downtime in the house where WiFi is free!

I’ve been spending most of my time researching and going on hikes. My favorite hike has been either the Kealia Point trail or the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail. I liked the Kealia Trail because it zig zagged up the side of a mountain, overlooking the coast. It was pretty rocky, so it was a great workout and wasn’t slippery like other dusty trails. The view was incredible!

I also enjoyed the Makapuu Lighthouse hike because it was paved (slipping and falling is my biggest fear, so I hate muddy or gravel paths!) which allowed me to enjoy the view instead of watching my foot placement!

The most fulfilling hike was Koko Head! It is an intense hike straight up the side of a mountain using only railroad ties as steps! It’s very touristy but I was feeling up for the challenge – and it was a challenge! The ties were uneven and dusty, so very slippery. Going up was a quad burner, but coming down was mentally terrifying. I saw so many people fall! But I kept repeating the phrase “one foot in front of the other” and eventually I made my way down.

I had a scary experience while swimming at Hukilau Beach. It was a sunny day and the waves were perfect for swimming. Families with children were in the water and plenty of teenagers were playing in the waves and trying to body surf. I swam out and had a blast playing with them. Then, a giant wave came and I got caught in the undertow. It slammed me into the sand underwater and I landed on my shoulder. I think I pulled a few muscles because my shoulder instantly turned red and started swelling like a balloon. I went home and took painkillers. It’s been a few days and I have full mobility, but it is still so sore. I’ll definitely think twice before playing in the waves again. The ocean is no joke!

I took a few days off from hiking to rest my sore body, so I got to hang around the hostel a lot. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time connecting with the other people staying here. They are all on the North Shore to surf, so that’s all they talk about. I did meet a flight attendant from DC who was here for a quick vacation. We spent a lot of mornings chatting over coffee. Hostels were fun to stay in when I was younger and could bond over drinking with everyone at night, but now that I’m older, I’m appreciating the value of peace and quiet!

I’ve cooked all of my own food in an effort to save money. I’m trying to keep my food budget to $10 a day. However, I did let myself splurge and eat out on Sunday! I got Huli Huli chicken from Ray’s. He only cooks it on weekends and only until he sells out. I went around 3pm and got one of the last chickens! Lucky me. I also learned that Huli Huli means “turn turn” since the chicken is rotated over hot coals. It was delicious!

I plan to spend my next week seeing more sights. I feel a little burned out of hiking. I’ve been on 6 in the past week! Now I want to visit the famous Temple, botanical gardens, coffee farm, and Dole plantation. I’m ready to be a little bit of a tourist!

Until next time!

Aloha!

Kate’s Trip Around the World!

It was always my plan after college. I would graduate and then take a year off to travel. I remember staying up late to plan it all out. It was the summer of 2013 and I had just returned from studying in Amman and moved to Portland for my internship. Wanderlust had me in its grip.

But, as with most wild dreams, it failed to come to fruition. I was intimidated enough by the scary idea of “life as an adult,” so I couldn’t bear to add the uncertainties of solo travel on top of it all. So instead, I stayed in my comfort zone and moved back to Portland to find a job.

Fast forward 4 years later to December 2017. My life looked exactly how I planned it to be: a great apartment in the best part of town, a solid group of friends, an interesting dating life full of highs and lows, a quirky job that let me live comfortably… so why was I bored?

After my break up with Shan, I started reading a lot of books about self-compassion and following your passions, even if they aren’t the easiest or most logical path to follow. I started examining aspects of my life that made me unhappy and vowed to change them. I started off small. I ended friendships that brought me more stress than joy. I stopped doing activities that I didn’t actually like, but felt social pressure to participate in. These included online dating, putting on makeup every morning, and binge drink every weekend.

Once I made a few minor adjustments, life felt so much better. I was finally the productive morning person who could wake up and journal while sipping coffee before the sun came up. But still, it felt like each day was a monotonous repeat. I wasn’t living for my passion. I could wake up early, but I wasn’t excited for the day.

All the books I read were written by inspiring women who spent years in relationships, jobs, and social circles that weren’t fulfilling. Their lives were “good enough” and gave each woman the comfort of being “on track” and “successful.” I found myself relating to them immensely. I enjoyed my coworkers, but I didn’t feel passionately about admin work or advertising. I loved my friends dearly, but didn’t feel like I was challenging my social bubble anymore. From the outside, I was exactly where every 25 year old should be, but I wasn’t happy.

The “a-ha!” moment that kickstarted my trip was the realization that I turn 26 in July. I will get kicked off of my parents insurance and have to finance my own, which means depending on an employer (or a husband’s employer) to provide access to a plan. Never again in my life will I have the freedom to quit my job for 6 months and still have free/inexpensive healthcare.

So I quit. On January 2nd, I gave my two weeks notice and booked a plane ticket from Oregon to Hawai‘i to New Zealand.

I am so lucky to have the opportunity and means for this incredible adventure. I will try to update this blog weekly with a few travel stories and photos. I’m trying not to plan too much, but here is my itinerary so far:

Jan 22 – Feb 6: Waialua, Hawai‘i

Feb 6 – March 14: Roadtrip around New Zealand

March 15: Day layover in Singapore

March 15 – March 22: Hanoi, Vietnam

March 22 – ???: Italy and Greece!

My friends have jokingly called my trip “Kate’s Eat, Pray, Love Trip” but I don’t have any big expectations for life changing realizations. I know who I am. I love myself. I am comfortable spending time alone. My sole purpose of this trip is to do exactly what I love: travel. I want to wake up each morning with gratitude and excitement for the day.

My goal is to post weekly about my adventures. First stop: Hawai‘i!

My Solo Trip to Amsterdam!

Another trip is on the books! I’m writing this post as I fly back home. The past 10 days have been a whirlwind. Easy and challenging. Rushed and leisurely. It was the perfect blend of a trip. But let’s start at the beginning….

Pre-Amsterdam

Getting to Seattle was tough. I booked my trip out of Seattle because it saved me $400! Even when I factored in gas and long term parking, it still saved $300. I thought it would definitely be worth it. What’s a quick 2.5 hour drive to Seattle?

My flight from Seattle to Reykjavík to Amsterdam departed at 3pm on Saturday. I woke up and went to an OrangeTheory fitness class at 7:30am (if you aren’t familiar, just imagine 30 yuppie women running 9mph on treadmills while club music plays on full blast in a dark room!) I really pushed myself in class, knowing I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work out for a full week.

Little did I know, pushing myself in that workout would make the drive to Seattle miserable! My arm muscles ached so much and I just wanted to relax them, but I had to keep gripping the steering wheel! The weather was foggy, rainy, and dismal. It made visibility almost impossible. I spent the entire 2.5 hour drive white knuckling the steering wheel and struggling to see the painted lines on the highway.

I made it to the airport and to my gate. I didn’t get to use my TSA Precheck since Icelandair doesn’t participate in it. I didn’t know it was an optional thing! I managed to fit everything into my tiny Swedish backpack. No need for checked bags! I HATE checking bags. It is so time consuming and, unless you’re traveling for more than 14 days, you don’t need that much stuff! For my personal item, I brought a little tote bag that I found in my car. There is a simple but true statement printed on it: “May you always have the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It made me the most popular person in the airport. Everyone from TSA agents to flight attendants to fellow passengers complimented me on it.

Once I was at my gate, I spent the down time journaling and eating roasted veggies out of a plastic baggie. I brought along a tiny Moleskine journal to record my thoughts on the trip. Best idea ever! I typically don’t journal, but it’s very helpful since I tend to forget little details more often these days.

I got lucky and had my entire row to myself! It was a 6 hour flight to Rekjavik, but I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited! I watched a few movies and read a bit of my book. Icelandair was very nicely equipped with TVs and charging ports for each seat, however, there was no free food! Not even snacks! Everything had to be paid for. Have you ever heard of that on a transatlantic flight? Crazy!

By the time I arrived in Reykjavik, I was starving. It was 9pm Portland time and I had only eaten some eggs for breakfast plus a few protein bars I packed. I try to eat Paleo (no dairy, grains, beans, sugar, or processed foods) so finding food in an airport is pretty difficult.

Imagine my surprise when I glanced at a deli in the gate and saw a refrigerated meal with a giant label that read “PALEO!” It was the last one, so I snatched it up without thinking. It was a salad with beets, lettuce, veggies, chicken, and barley. Technically barley isn’t even Paleo, but my options were salad or parfait or a pastry. I figured the barley wouldn’t kill me.

After waiting in line for 15 minutes, I got to the register and realized it was 1750 Icelandic kroner. That’s $17! For a deli meal! I bit the bullet and figured it was all I was buying for the day, so it was okay. I’ve been to Iceland before but obviously forgot how expensive it was!

My next flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. I still couldn’t sleep, so I read my book and thought about my goals for the trip. I didn’t expect Amsterdam to be culturally challenging. I wouldn’t have to struggle with a language or cultural norm barrier. My true apprehension was whether or not I would get lonely. 10 days is a long time to spend alone. Why was being alone considered a bad thing? When I originally told people I was traveling solo, they were shocked. Not for my safety, but because it is assumed that traveling with a friend is “more fun,” so why would I choose to go alone? I made it my goal for the trip to become comfortable hanging out with myself. There’s no shame in eating dinner alone, going to a concert alone, or being alone! I wanted to learn to be self-reliant and empowered!

I arrived around 12pm Amsterdam time and took the train into the city. The train ticket machines don’t accept US credit cards without a PIN, so I had to wait in line to buy one. Public transportation and finances are always the trickiest part of traveling!

Amsterdam Centraal is the main station in the center of the city. Emerging from its tubes into the hustle and bustle of the city was jarring. It was like traveling directly from JFK to Times Square. There were people everywhere. Trams, busses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians all battled each other for the right of way. I quickly consulted my phone map and took off in the direction of my hostel.

I walked through the heart of Amsterdam, through the red light district, and finally into winding back alleys that led me to my hostel – EcoMama. It was still too early to check in, so I left my bags and hit the streets. I walked around the neighborhood and was awe struck by the beauty of the city.

I knew Amsterdam had canals and skinny townhouses and houseboats, but there’s something that can’t be conveyed through photographs. The city is BEAUTIFUL in a romantic, heartwarming, cuddle by the fire kind of way. The cobblestones, the chimney smoke, the bells of bicycles, the aroma of fresh bread from the corner bakery – it felt like I was transported into a different world. Cities don’t normally elicit an emotional response from me, but this one did.

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As I walked, I stumbled upon a street market. I browsed the stalls and sampled homemade ice cream, sausage, and hot chocolate. I was quite hungry, not having eaten since that expensive salad six hours prior, so I consulted my map.

When I went to Cuba in the spring, I made a map on Google maps with a pin showing all the cafes, restaurants, and points of interest I wanted to see. Since I don’t purchase international cell service when I travel, I have to export it to an app called Maps.me that lets you download entire city maps for use when you don’t have service. So before I came to Amsterdam, I made one and saved it to my phone.

I looked at the map and saw there was a salad restaurant called Sla nearby. I ordered an autumn harvest salad that had chicken, egg, roasted parsnip, brussels sprouts, pumpkin, and parmesan. The best part was the black truffle pepper dressing. It was the BEST salad I’ve ever eaten. I was in heaven.

Afterward, I walked a bit more but returned to my hostel at 5pm since I was exhausted. I checked into my room – it was an 8 person dorm room. I met another traveler from Indiana who had been working as an opera singer in Germany. He was also traveling alone for the week. We ended up becoming friends and eating the hostel breakfast together each morning.

I hadn’t slept in 28 hours and it was catching up to me. I fell asleep at 6:30pm and sleeping until 10am!

Day 1 in Amsterdam: Jordaan

I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to spend the day exploring the Jordaan district. The name is said to come from the French word jardin or “garden.” There are many courtyards and picturesque trees in this area that the rest of the city lacks. It is in the northwest quadrant of Amsterdam and is a bit more yuppie and upscale. I wandered the streets, peering into shops and cafes. Everything was so cozy and welcoming. After walking about 5 miles, I settled into a store/cafe called STACH and ordered a coffee and snacks. They sold Paleo protein bars! I also saw these white chocolate peanut butter cups that I made a mental note of. My strategy for treats during the trip was to keep an eye out for anything tasty and keep a mental list. Then I would go back and buy the one I wanted the most on the last day of my trip! It may seem like a control-freak tendency, but I struggle with moderation and didn’t want to go overboard!

I had signed up for a photo tour of Jordaan that afternoon. A local photographer named Jan would show us around his favorite part of the city and teach us how to take photos… as well as take a few photos of us! As a solo traveler, it is hard to get photos of myself. I don’t want to trust a stranger with my iPhone, but I also don’t want all of my photos to be selfies. It’ll take 2 weeks to get his photos back, but hopefully they’re good!

I learned a lot from Jan. Most of the canal houses were valued based on the square footage of their foundation. The wider the house, the more expensive! Most canal houses are also bigger on top. The attics could have a larger square footage for free since it was only the foundation that determined value. This makes the buildings looked a bit warped… like they’re leaning forward and about to fall over!

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During the tour, I met another American from DC. She was also traveling alone, but it was her last day in Amsterdam. We planned to get drinks later that night! I had worried about being lonely, but making friends was easier than I expected.

After the tour, I had a reserved ticket to see the Anne Frank House. It was a simple audio tour retelling all the facts we learned in grade school, but it was sobering to be in the same house where it all happened. The exhibit took a look at the strategies Hitler used to create widespread anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. One interesting example is that he singled out and demanded punishment for athletes during the Olympic Games who refused to salute him. Sound familiar to our current leader?

I was a little disappointed to find out that her diaries were removed from the exhibit temporarily to be refurbished. Isn’t that the main draw of the museum?

After the Anne Frank House, I walked to get dinner. I had read about a place that makes the best ribs. I know, I know – you shouldn’t go to Amsterdam for ribs, but it sounded good! I sat at the bar and ordered a simple plate of spare ribs. Oh my god. For 20€ I was given the biggest portion of meat I’ve ever seen. At least 15 ribs plus a salad plus a bread basket. And the ribs were delicious. Fall off the bone and melt in your mouth good. I’ve tried several rib joints in Portland and haven’t found anything this good.

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I ended up talking to the person sitting next to me at the bar. He was a Delta pilot and said my stay in Amsterdam was way too long. He suggested I go to Bruges, Belgium. I looked into it, but it would have taken at least two days. I only had 5 in Amsterdam! Plus, I like having “too much” time. It lets me explore the little spots away from the guide books. I finished my meal (well, I ate 4 ribs and took the remaining 11 home) and bid him safe travels.

That evening, I met up with my DC friend at a bar called Hiding in Plain Sight. It was an upscale cocktail bar near my hostel. I don’t drink much anymore, but I got a delicious beet and black pepper cocktail. It was 15€ but worth it! Since it was her last night, my friend wanted to do something memorable. But it was a Monday night, so nothing was really going on. We talked to the bartender for awhile and he suggested a death metal bar in the Red Light district. I was skeptical, but we went and the drinks were very cheap! We met a few Russians and chatted with them for awhile.

During my travels, I’ve found that most people can speak English… even in rural Middle Eastern cities and Cuba, but not in Russia! I’m not saying that English should be the global language or that other nationalities “should” speak English. In fact, traveling reminds me that I am ignorant in regards to not speaking a second language. I have so much respect for all of the cashiers and waiters I’ve encountered who start speaking to me in Dutch but then can automatically switch to English without a second thought.

As we kept drinking, we decided it would be a great idea to go to the “Live Sex Show” going on next door. We stood in line with two moms from California who were on a divorce celebration trip. They were wild and fun and reminded me of Tiffanny! We paid an astounding 55€ for entrance with two drink coupons. Of course, my friend demanded we sit in the front row.

I won’t go into detail, but the show was exactly what it sounds like. Typically each act was 5–10 minutes long and alternated between a solo dance/strip act and a couple doing everything. And I mean everything. Completely naked. Nothing hidden or censored. It was definitely shocking.

The highlight was the solo act where a woman was smoking a cigar with her mouth…. and then changed to smoking it with something else. I didn’t even know that was possible. All I could think was “Good thing you have universal healthcare because your likelihood of cervical cancer is through the roof!”

We left the show and I went back to my hostel. My first full day had been jam packed with excitement. Even if I had to leave the next day, I would have been happy with everything I accomplished! Plus I walked 10.5 miles, so I definitely saw a good portion of the city!

Day 2 in Amsterdam: Vondelpark

I woke up to the same predicament I found myself in the day prior: eat the free hostel breakfast or get better food elsewhere?

I had chosen to eat the breakfast the day before. The hostel is connected to a cute little cafe called The Fix. Each guest is provided a bagel, schmear, and coffee of choice. There were so many choices! Just for the bagel, you could choose between plain, cinnamon raisin, pumpernickel, sesame, and everything. For the schmear, they had original, chive, jalapeño, honey walnut, peanut butter, jam, and marmalade. And then any coffee you could dream of!

I never eat bagels, but I got an everything bagel with chive schmear. It wasn’t anything to write home about. However, I’m cheap as hell. If the hostel has a free breakfast, you bet I’m participating! So on my second morning, I devised a plan. I got a pumpernickel bagel with peanut butter, but then snagged a free apple from reception. I transferred the peanut butter into a baggie with the apple and saved it as a snack and threw the bagel away. Healthier free hostel food!

I set out on another 10 mile day. First, I walked through the university area to Vondelpark. It is a GIANT park that is popular in the summer, but still filled with dog walkers and cyclists in the winter. I also walked through FoodHallen, a large cafeteria style food hall with many different vendors. I didn’t eat anything, but I appreciated the concept!

I made my way to Dignita, a hipster cafe. I sat on the second floor balcony overlooking the main level. I got a coffee (served with a tasty biscuit!) and their autumn salad. The salads in Amsterdam are next level. So many tasty goodies!

I sat in my cozy corner spot and wrote in my journal. I reflected upon the previous day and how I felt challenged by the strangers I had met and whether or not I had let myself be vulnerable to new experiences. I found this act really soothing. I felt more connected to my life. Most of the time during traveling, I am rushing through the day and gorging myself with new experiences and emotions and thoughts without giving myself to digest. Journaling let me reflect on what these moments could teach me.

The idea of “being present” has taken center stage in the media recently. What does it mean? Pay attention? Stop worrying? These two word mantras are catchy, but how can you apply it to your actual life? I like to think of it as being present with your feelings. Each time I feel anxiety or nervousness or shame, I sit down with myself and examine why. Many of us have the habit of pushing uncomfortable feelings away. “Okay, I’m feeling jealousy. That’s bad. Stop feeling that way. Focus on something else,” but this only avoids the issue as well as building shame.

Taking the time to slow down and journal about my experiences let me dig into my emotions and become familiar with them. I’ve been reading a lot about self-compassion and self-love. Allowing space for how you’re feeling instead of rejecting it is the first step. By giving my emotions literal space on a page, I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress!

I spent the morning journaling at Dignita before continuing my walk around the canals and through De Pijp. I walked through the famous Albert Cuyp market and was honestly disappointed. Everyone had said this was the best market in Amsterdam, but I found it was mostly junk. There were vendors lining the streets selling clothes, shoes, appliances, etc. It all seemed to be poor quality. There were a few food vendors there, but they also sold the same type of things – waffles, fish, nuts, cheese, or olives. The market is certainly something different to see, but I wouldn’t plan on focusing an entire day around it.

I went back to my hostel and napped before going to the Hoodie Allen concert. He is one of my favorite rappers, so I was thrilled when I found out he would be in Amsterdam at the same time!

Waking up from my nap was tough. My body was still tired. The concert venue was miles away and my body ached and it was cold outside. I debated skipping it. I almost did. But then I remembered that I didn’t come halfway across the globe just to nap. So I put my coat on and ventured out.

I arrived just as Hoodie was going on stage. It was a small venue – maybe 200 or 300 people. Even though I was in the back row, I was only 10 rows back! It was so much fun to dance and sing along with other fans. At first, I felt self conscious. I wasn’t drinking so dancing in public felt weird. Then, I remembered everything I read about vulnerability. Sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things to make yourself happy! So I danced and sang loundly. No one laughed. No one stared. We were all having fun! I walked back to my hostel, proud of myself for simply showing up.

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Day 3 in Amsterdam: Hoorn/Wieringerwerf

On my final morning at EcoMama hostel (thank god, because one of my dormmates was a snorer!) I skipped breakfast and went to Bakers and Roasters. It is a New Zealand inspired cafe, but I desperately wanted one thing on their menu: Aubergine Pancakes.

I am a sucker for any food fusion. If you take two unexpected flavors or cuisines and turn them into a dish I’ve never had before, I’ll be ecstatic. Maybe it’s because I rarely eat out. I make 99% of my meals in my own kitchen, so when I do treat myself to a restaurant meal, I want it to be new and exciting. I already know what steak and mashed potatoes tastes like. Why would I order it when I can easily make it at home? But if there’s something on the menu that’s exotic or sounds impossible to recreate, I’m ordering it!

The aubergine pancakes are basically the result of turning the Middle Eastern baba ghanoush dip into a breakfast meal. The pancakes are made from eggplant and topped with whipped feta, cumin chickpeas, fresh herbs, an egg, pita chips and roasted cashews. It wasn’t mindblowingly amazing, but it was tasty and was a unique flavor combination.

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I journaled some more before heading out. I explored the little neighborhood surrounding my hostel. At one point, I was walking along a canal when I looked to my left and saw an elephant. Yep. An elephant. Smack dab in the middle of residential Amsterdam. Turns out the Amsterdam Zoo was across the canal – but I had no idea. It was a moment of surprise and mystery and definitely brought out a sense of childlike joy. I laughed with myself about the absurdity of that elephant for awhile. Sometimes it’s the simple things.

I checked out of my hostel and hopped on a train to Hoorn. I had to transfer there to a bus that would take me to Wieringerwerf. No matter how much I travel, public transportation will always stress me out. I try to research as much as possible, but nothing gives me a straight answer. Do I need cash? Do I specifically need coins and not bills? Will it accept my credit card (a surprising number of places in Amsterdam refuse to take American credit cards, even my Chase Sapphire travel card, because they have to be equipped with a PIN number… and most American cards don’t have that. If you use a debit card with a PIN, you get slammed with fees. There’s really no winning.)

I got to Hoorn and decided to take a quick break and get coffee along the coast. I love water. I’ve always loved water. It’s my favorite place to be, no matter if I’m swimming, wading, or just sitting next to it. It has the ultimate calming effect on me. You know the feeling you get after a hard day when you get home and your partner wraps you up in his arms? That sense of calm and security and safety that washes over you? It’s like that. Suddenly my earthly problems like bus fare don’t matter in comparison to the vast power of the water. I can just exhale.

It’s a life goal to someday live on the water. Expert level would be in the Faroe Islands, but maybe that’s a reach!

I arrived in Wieringerwerf unscathed. I turned on my phone’s data and texted my host. We had arranged that she would pick me up from the bus stop when I arrived, since their farm was another 5 miles away and it was too cold to walk. I waited. And waited. I decided to pop into the grocery store to kill time. I got some fresh veggies for dinner. Still no text.

I walked back to the bus stop and sent her an email message via the Airbnb app. Then I waited some more. Another 30 minutes passed and I was still waiting. The temperature was dropping and I was getting cold.

Suddenly my phone buzzed with her reply, “Got held up at work! My husband Rudolf and the kids are going to pick you up!”

My thought process: “Okay. I am in a rural town at dusk. A man I don’t know is going to pick me up and take me somewhere I’m unfamiliar with. Sounds like a really bad idea…. but there are no other options, so let’s see what happens!”

Old control-freak Kate would have been panicking that things weren’t going to plan. One of my goals for this trip was to go with the flow, so I sat back down on the bus bench and went with the flow. I didn’t get stressed or anxious or mad. I just waited patiently until Rudolf pulled up in a cargo van and I hopped in. He had his two adorable toddlers in the back seat. We barreled down the gravel road to their farm as he explained that his family has lived on this potato farm for 3 generations. The entire area used to be underwater, but then the government created all of this manmade farming land for “sea potatoes.” Recently, they installed a turbine and sell that electric back to the power company. They power 600 homes alone!

Rudolf showed me to my cabin (which was more of a trailer) and said his wife, Sasja, would be by shortly. She soon knocked on my door and introduced herself and showed me around the cabin. It was tiny! Maybe 6 ft x 11ft. The bed was a Murphy bed that pulled out of the wall and almost took up the entire room. It also had a little mini fridge, induction stove, heater, table and chairs, and sink (without running water.) The bathroom was located a stones throw away and had a shower, but was also shared with the other cabin occupant.v

Just as I was getting settled in for the evening, it started raining. Then hailing! The weather was taking a turn for the worse. I fell asleep listening to the sound of the wind turbine and hail pelt against the roof.

Day 4 in Wieringerwerf

My plan for the farm was to have the ultimate relaxation day. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bike into the city to explore, so luckily the weather made that decision for me. The high winds and heavy rains continued all day, keeping me inside. I woke up and did some yoga and meditation. At 10am, Sasja brought me a breakfast basket with fresh bread (still warm), butter, jam, meat, cheese, a fresh egg, yogurt, milk, and a dessert roll. It was way too much for one person, so I stuck to the bread, egg, meat and cheese. I wish I would have taken a photo of the basket. It was so cute!v25158136_10212175665005670_4581604744760878239_n

After breakfast, I wanted a change of scenery, so I walked to the greenhouse and spent awhile reading and journaling. It was very cozy and well decorated, but there was no heat! There was an old wood burning stove, but I couldn’t figure it out. I even googled and tried to watch videos, but this stove was older than the ones online with far more compartments and doors. I didn’t want to break anything, so I wrapped myself up in blankets.

Imagine my surprise when a few farm workers came into the greenhouse for a break and immediately flipped a switch to the electric space heaters. HA! I had suffered for two hours when the solution was so easy. Sometimes the answer is right in front of you.

The book I chose to read was “Present Over Perfect” and it is about slowing down your life so you can enjoy it. It is easy to get caught up in success or fall onto the “typical” path with each promotion pushing you farther away from why actually brings you happiness. It was definitely more for women nearing a midlife crisis, but I learned a lot from it. The biggest takeaway was that it’s never too late to re-evaluate and change your life. That’s the beautiful thing about individuality. We all have different strengths and passions, so why is it expected that we all follow the same path? The book challenged me to evaluate which fears are keeping me from living the life I want. For most people, it boils down to vulnerability. “What will people think?” “What if it inconveniences them?” WHO CARES? If you go through life being a people-pleaser and always saying yes, that will be your legacy. Do you want to be known as the person who was always responsible and dependable? Or do you want to be known for being brave and following your heart and having meaningful connections? I know these are all buzzwords and the book was admittedly pretty fluffy and inspirational, but it helped me brainstorm where I want the next part of my life to lead.

One of the most interesting questions from the book was, “If you had an open calendar and an unlimited bank account, how would you spend that time?”

Of course, my gut reaction is “travel!” I feel pretty proud that I’ve stuck to my goal of traveling internationally twice per year. I want travel to have a bigger role in my life, but I haven’t quite figured out how to implement that yet.

I read a different quote that said, “If you want to feel confident, you need to create something,” and it stuck with me. What do I create? What do I contribute to this world? My blog isn’t very active. I don’t have any other creative outlets.

Then it hit me. Maybe you caught onto before I did… but I love to cook and eat. I’m good at it, too. However, simply following recipes and eating meals isn’t very rewarding to me. So instead, I’ve decided I’m going to start experimenting and creating my own recipes. I know, I know, the food blogger world is overpopulated with mommies trying to stay busy. I don’t want to make this a job. I don’t even want to make any money. I want to create unique recipes that inspire the same excitement I get when I discover a recipe for “Pad Thai chicken wings” or “Paleo chili pie with cornbread crust.” Anything unique and unheard of. I want to contribute to something to the world!

I’m excited to return home and dive into this new hobby. Of course, everything will be Paleo and healthy, so I don’t expect my family to be avid followers, but I’ll share my creations here!

I fell asleep on the farm brainstorming ideas. I have a few good ones. Let’s see if I can actually execute them!

Day 5 in Wieringerwerf and Amsterdam

The next morning, I had another delicious morning breakfast basket. It’s dangerous how much bread I ate on this trip. I started off eating very well, but after my time on the farm when I was trapped in a cabin with loaves of bread, it went downhill.

A side note – Since January 2017, I’ve lost 40lbs. The majority of that has been since August. I’m finally at a healthy weight and my strength and cardio endurance is at the best it’s ever been. I can truly say I feel proud and confident when I look in the mirror, but finding the balance between dieting and living life is still a challenge. This vacation was hard. I still have 10ish lbs I want to lose and it’s the most difficult time of the year for weight loss. I really don’t want to backslide, but I also don’t want to pass up on unique Amsterdam food for the sake of counting calories. (Edit: Once I got back to America, I weighed myself and I actually lost 2lbs on vacation! Must have been all the walking!) After breakfast, I left the farm. The family’s nanny gave me a ride into town and made sure I got on the right bus. She didn’t speak much English, but she was my age and very sweet. Once I got to Hoorn, I had to change to the train. I bought my ticket and hopped on the train displaying “Amsterdam Centraal” on the side. Once we departed, the conductor came around the check tickets. He scanned mine and said something in Dutch. I asked if he spoke English and he said, “You’re on the slow train. You should have gotten on the fast one. You’re in for a long trip….” I was worried. I couldn’t find any concrete info on how long it would take. It ended up taking 2 hours instead of the ‘fast’ 45 minutes. Oh well!

Once I arrived back in Amsterdam, I was antsy. I walked the 4 miles to the hotel – perk of only having a backpack and not having to haul luggage! My room wasn’t ready for check-in until 4pm so I explored the Oosterpark neighborhood. It is known as being the working class/diverse neighborhood. There were many Arab restaurants and stores. Honestly, it reminded me a lot of Amman, Jordan. The aroma of freshly baked bread with za’atar, the fragrant spice shops, the juicy schwarma meat. It all make me nostalgic for Amman!

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I walked through the Dappermarkt and it was the same as the Albert Cuyp market. A bunch of junk! Maybe that is insensitive, but I hate how these markets are the “tourist destination for local culture” when it’s really just a flea market.

After a 4 mile walk, I checked into my hotel. It was definitely… pretentious. My dad would have hated it. The little details were creative, but a little annoying. The room cards said “Keep me. I unlock doors for you,” and the “Do not disturb” door cards said “Writing the next great novel, don’t bother me.”

The entire time I was checking in, the receptionist was telling me about their yoga class and organic breakfast and in-house haircuts. Never once did she mention the trick to getting the lights in my room to work. Imagine my frustration when I got to my room and none of the light switches worked. It was pitch dark and I was using my iPhone light to find a master switch or something. Next to the switches, there’s an illuminated “No smoking” sign. I tried pressing it. It didn’t budge. Finally, I asked the cleaning lady in the hallway if there was a trick to make it work. She barked, “You gotta talk to reception.” Okay….

So I went back down and explained the issue and she said, “Did you put your key in the slot?” I asked, “What slot?” She said, “There should be a slot next to the light switches that you put your keycard in.” I knew what she was talking about. The hotels in Amman had the same thing. I should have known. But I played along, “There’s no slot, there’s a no smoking sign.” She said, “Yes that’s it!”

How on earth was I supposed to know to put my card into the no smoking sign? I looked at my card and there were no instructions. I told her, “That would have been helpful information when I was checking in.”

That was the only time on my trip I felt defeated. It’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling. Like running up a mountain but you keep sliding down. Nothing makes sense, yet you’re doing all the right things.

Luckily, the feeling passed as soon as I turned on the lights and took a dip in the rooftop hot tub! The Volkshotel has 3 tubs on the roof and a sauna that is open for guests. I brought my bathing suit and planned to make full use of them. But when I got to the roof, it was pouring rain/hail. I was hungry, but couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat. Nothing sounded good. I also didn’t want to venture out into the bad weather, so I decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, Canvas.

I ordered the stemppot – a common Dutch food that’s basically a mash of meat, veggies, and potatoes. Perfect. One funny observation about Dutch dining: the waiter always disappears. After they attentively take your order and pour water and deliver your food, they disappear. I can only assume I’m supposed to walk up to the register to pay, because that’s what I did each time.

After dinner, I went back up to the roof. It was still raining, but I figured why the hell not. I sat on the hot tub for a full 2 hours in the hail storm. It felt incredible and was the perfect ending to a busy day.

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Day 6 in Amsterdam: De Pijp and Museums

I had planned to wake up and go to 10am yoga, but I wasn’t feeling it and I didn’t want to pay 12€ for yoga led by the pretentious hotel staff. Instead, I walked to a cafe called Cottoncake.

Getting out the door was a struggle. The redundancy of the day was challenging me. Did I really want to spend another 24 hours walking around a city, avoiding rain, paying for coffee, and shoulder checking tourists on the sidewalk who didn’t learn how to share it? I told myself it was the last day. Just show up.

So I did. And I was rewarded with the tastiest omelette of all time! It was a Brie and sage omelette and it was stellar. I stayed at Cottoncake for awhile, journaling, but soon it got busy and I had to give up my table. Just my luck, as soon as I left, it went from sunny to torrential downpour. My jacket is fairly waterproof, but it was starting to seep through, so I popped into another cafe for a coffee and to wait out the storm. One thing I love/hate about Amsterdam: each black coffee is served with a small cookie or biscuit. Far too tempting to avoid.

I continued on my way to the Ons Lieve en Solder. It is a museum inside a canal house that hides a secret Catholic Church. I would have NEVER chosen to visit this museum, but it was a gift. Each year, I participate in an online Secret Santa exchange. Everyone is matched with someone randomly in the world. This year, my secret Santa saw that I was going to Amsterdam and bought me a ticket to his favorite museum.vIt was certainly interesting and a fun rainy day activity. The history behind it is that Amsterdam used to be a Catholic City, but then “The Alteration” occurred and it became Protestant. The Protestants converted all Catholic Churches, but still allowed other religions to practice as long as it wasn’t openly displayed. This led to the creation of homechurches where followers would gather to practice. It might not sound impressive, but they hollowed out the top 3 floors of a home to create a giant altar. Given the tools of the time, it was no easy feat!

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After that tour, I continued walking. I had heard about Van Stemple and how they make the best cookies in Amsterdam. I’m not a big cookie fan, but I gotta try anything that is the “best!” So I stood in line for a single cookie.

It is a chocolate cookie with melted white chocolate inside. So many reviews said they brought home 50 of these cookies because they couldn’t get enough. The bar was set pretty high. Unfortunately, the cookies didn’t live up to the hype. They tasted like boxed brownie batter around bland Hershey’s white chocolate. I ate it still warm from the oven and it was still a disappointment. I took two bites and threw the rest away!

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The weather began hailing again, so I headed to the Moco to see the Banksy exhibit. I honestly didn’t know much about his work so I was excited to learn more, but the museum didn’t have much to offer other than a few placards about how famous he is.

One funny life lesson: Earlier in the day I realized I never saw the famous “Iamsterdam” sign that EVERYONE has their photo with. I thought about where it might be and figured it was at Dam Square, the tourist epicenter. On my way to the Moco, I walked through the square looking for it. I never found it. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to see, so I chalked it up to a loss and kept walking. I also couldn’t google it since I didn’t have data or WiFi available. After my visit at the Moco, I walked out onto the plaza to find the famous sign staring me in the face! Turns out it’s next to the Rijksmuseum! Sometimes you find things as soon as you stop looking.

On my way back to my hotel, I stopped for dinner at Sla. I was still dreaming about that salad I had the first night in Amsterdam! I ordered a different one this time – an Indian spiced tempeh salad. It was just as amazing as the first one.

I’m not a big fan of souvenirs but I decided to treat myself to the Sla Cookbook. It is entirely in Dutch, so I plan to use Google Translate to help me make the recipes, but I am so excited! Such a great way to remember the trip.

I returned to the hotel and had another evening on the rooftop in the hot tubs. It was more crowded this time, so I talked to a few new people. Surprisingly there were very few Americans staying at the hotel. Most were Dutch!

Day 7 in Amsterdam: Saying Goodbye

I woke up on my final morning to find it snowing! It was supposed to keep falling all day and I hoped my flight wouldn’t be cancelled. I ate the hotel breakfast (omg I forgot how tasty eggs on a croissant is!) and took the train to Schiphol.

Getting through the Schiphol TSA was a nightmare! I was behind a family from Spain and their toddler wouldn’t stop throwing himself on the floor and licking it while screaming. Luckily the agent took pity on me and let me cut them while they unpacked their million bags. I try to be compassionate in stressful situations, especially when the parent is clearly doing their best, but I was glad to get away from them!

While waiting for my flight, I ended up talking to a guy who went to the University of Colorado! Then, as soon as I said I went to DU, a different person said he sometimes teaches there! It is such a small world. I half expected to run into someone I knew on the streets of Amsterdam.

Well, we are landing in Reykjavik now. This flight was delayed, so I hope I can make my connection. Writing this post took exactly 3 hours! I feel like I’ve already woven enough heartfelt life realizations through this post. I don’t need to wrap up my trip in a tidy summarized box. Overall, it was a fun little vacation that gave me the space to evaluate the direction I want my life to head. Traveling alone is no longer a big scary challenge. It’s so easy. I might actually prefer it! I get to do whatever I want without the consideration of anyone else. There are no “What do you wanna do? I don’t care, what do you want to do?” conversations. There was virtually no harassment which was actually surprising!

I’m not saying I feel “ready to conquer the world!” or any feel good mumbo jumbo. But if you want to travel and the only obstacle stopping you is finding someone else who can go with you…. just do it. Just show up. That’s the hardest part. The rest will figure itself out.