The Stunning Beauty of the Cook Islands’ Flora and Fauna

 Coleus Oxblood. Obsessed with coleus so I have 2 big pots at home now.

I mentioned briefly in my Rarotonga post that one of the best things the Cook Islands did to me is awakening my love for flowers and plants. Which is slightly strange, as I should have been aware of how I feel much earlier, considering that I love nature endlessly and have a penchant for colors, patterns, and textures. It has never been the same again after the Cook Islands, as now whenever I visit a place I search for botanical gardens around the area first and foremost. And since returning home, I have bought 40 houseplants. Tending to them is quite therapeutic!

Without further ado, let get the floral extravaganza started.

Hibiscus, Cook Islands’ quintessential.

“The Earth laughs in flowers.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson. You speak my mind, Mr. Emerson.

These are Jatropha integerrima, or Peregrina, and toxic if ingested.

Red ginger (Alpinia purpurata), an indigenous perennial flowering plant to regions of the South Pacific, such as Malaysia, New Caledonia and the British Solomon Islands.

I’m familiar with bougainvillea, as we have a lot of it in Vietnam. But we do not really have that lovely orange color here, so in a way the Cook Islands has taken my fondness for bougainvillea to the next level.

Hibiscus schizopetalus, also known as Chinese lantern, coral hibiscus, East-African hibiscus, fringed hibiscus, fringed rose-mallow, Japanese hibiscus, Japanese lantern. OK, serious question, why the hell do they have to give that many names to a plant and how did they come up with that many names to begin with? 

Mussaenda erythrophylla, commonly known as Ashanti blood. That tiny blooming yellow flower is so cute.

Now we have come to a section where all my efforts to name tag these flowers yield no result. [Read more…]

How To Spend 3 Days in Aitutaki

The bar has been set too high now. I hate comparing locations, as no two locations are the same, but even the Maldives pale in comparison. Where will I go now?

(Hi, it’s me. I’m still alive. 2017 was a disgusting year for this site; I wrote a total of two entries. 2 posts in 365 days…what an achievement. No, I was neither too busy nor too unmotivated to write. This website generates almost no money, but it’s where I hone my writing skills and share with the world my travels and photos so never has writing here felt like work or a burden. In fact, not writing feels weird to me. However, towards the end of 2016 and throughout 2017, I struggled so much with self-discipline and productivity. I’d open a document, write 5 sentences, check Instagram and useless websites, and go back to the draft only to close it. The vicious cycle went on and on, and now there are so many drafts sitting in my email and on my desktop. My day job (teaching) was fine but started to be repetitive after four years. So, 2017 was pretty much a year of constant restlessness and stagnancy. My trip to Cook Islands was 10 months ago so my memories of it are quite blurred, but I need to write them out. To wriggle myself out of this rut. To feel some sense of accomplishment. And of course to provide some useful information for those about to visit this wonderful part of the world.) 

*****

I spent my first day in the Cook Islands in Rarotonga before flying out to Aitutaki the following afternoon. After a short 50-minute flight, I landed in Aitutaki and was hit with stifling humidity and heat. The Aitutaki airport is the most non-airport-y (is this even a word?) place I have ever been to. It is so small, smaller than even your coffee shop with, if memory serves me right, one counter and no carousel. When you check in, someone will take your luggage and put it on a big cart and then someone else will haul the cart to the plane. Everything is basic and manual. However, what it lacks in amenities and visual stimuli it more than makes up in natural light and fresh air.

No bells and whistles, but still manages to put you in a good mood. That is the essence of Aitutaki.

Aitutaki from above. Would have been even more gorgeous had the light been better.

My stay was at Gina’s Garden Lodges, based on the suggestion of the blog Never Ending Footsteps. I did not see anyone from Gina’s upon arrival, so I asked a smiley woman nearby if she knew the place. With a resounding Yes, she opened her old-school flip phone and called Sally, who manages the lodge. I was very pleasantly surprised because I had never been to a more tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone during my travels. Within 20 minutes, Sally and Gina arrived in their weather-beaten car.

Gina owns the lodge but has retired. I assumed she is in her 70s, but she still is remarkably alert and agile. Sally, about 20 years younger, has dark skin and a warm grin that stretches across her face. Her voice is manly and coarse, which I later figured must have partly come from her chain-smoking. Over the course of my short stay, Sally took great care of me. We would banter, and I’d always tease her, Why are you doing that to yourself?, whenever I saw her drink coke and smoke. And she would quip back, Hey I’m not spending my money on travel and shopping. If I don’t spend it on cigarettes and coke who will spend it when I die?. We also had a few moments of vulnerability when Sally talked to me about her divorce and her children.

The lodge is on the other side of the island. From the airport, we slipped past resorts, locals’ houses, two ATMs, some simple eateries, the Pacific Ocean, and a boisterous soccer match that seemed to bring the entire town out. The entrance to the lodge is lined up with a couple of tombs. I was initially a bit crept out, especially the first night, but then gradually loosened up when I learned that they are of family members and burying loved ones right next to where you live is a time-honored tradition in the Cook Islands and the spirits of the dead are there to protect you. Staying at Gina’s Lodge was an interesting experience; it feels like being in a forest, as you are in an enclosed area, surrounded by nothing but trees. The silence is eerie yet comforting.

Aitutaki greeted me with this tender sunset. I saw an old man taking photos and asked if he was a visitor like me. But no, he has lived in Aitutaki for as long as he could remember and been taking sunset photos almost everyday.

Three days in Aitutaki felt like three days in a completely different world. It was not like stepping back in time in Myanmar or Tibet. It was not like the Maldives where it is extremely beautiful but inaccessible in a way because of the cultural and language barriers. With Aitutaki, you know it is the reality yet you still have that feeling of disappearing from the reality, at least temporary, if that makes any sense. The pace of life is super slow, the people are super gentle and trust each other, the copious sunshine and warm salty ocean breeze are invigorating…life is so simple and blissful.

As I passed by locals lounging about in front of their houses or leisurely hanging their laundry, I thought about happiness. The media these days constantly bombard us with cliches like how we need to slow down and simplify our lives and try to be less materialistic. Which is valid in a way. But that way of living is not for everyone, especially those who thrive on challenges and want to contribute to their communities. A lot of pressing issues in our society will not be solved by slowing down or simplifying. However, this simple and peaceful life is perfect for others. And it was truly wonderful to see the Cook Islands people enjoy it. It was a lovely and gentle reminder that we all live differently and there is no one-size-fits-all formula to how to lead your life.

Mama Sally picked me up in the morning of the third day and drove me to the airport. We hugged each other tightly and said goodbye. I took one last look at all the lush palm trees that both accentuated and contrasted with the cloudless deep blue sky and promised myself I would be back.


Here are a few things you can do if you decide to spend a few days in Aitutaki.

1. The Vaka Cruise

This cruise is a must-do. Actually, you do not have to join this particular tour because there are several similar cruises so you can pick what is most suitable for you, but you need to go on one that takes you to One Foot Island.

One Foot Island is excruciatingly, inexpressibly beautiful. Actually I do not have the words to describe its beauty, so let leave the photos do the talking. How can you accurately tell the colors of the waters?!?

The cruise takes about five hours and involves some very lovely and make-you-feel-good live performances.

Cook Islanders have gorgeous skin and do not look their age. Seriously. Can you believe the guy on the left (he is super friendly!) is only 18? And remember Mama Vara? How is she in her 80s? [Read more…]

How to Spend 4 Days in Rarotonga

Vision of Love, the Cook Islands Edition.

It has been two months of dead silence on this blog. I am alive, but life got in the way. Or to put it another way, I was not motivated enough to write. March was a busy month, and I spent the better part of April in New Zealand and Cook Islands. The good news is now I have a lot of stories and photos to share with you guys, and this time I will not repeat the mistake I made with the Tibet series—always drafting but never completing. I am full of shame whenever I look at those unfinished drafts.

I visited New Zealand for the first time in April ’16 and fell head over heels in love with the country. When I left after criss-crossing the South Island, I was not sad. Instead, I felt happy because after 20 countries I finally found a place that I love with all my heart. I decided the moment I arrived at the airport on the departure date that I would return as soon as I possibly could in 2017.

And I did.

On this second visit, it was all about the North Island, coupled with a quick jaunt to the Cook Islands, 4-hour flight from Auckland. Sounds easy-breezy, but getting to Cook Islands from Vietnam was genuinely taxing. First I had to fly to Singapore (3 hours), then to Auckland (10 hours), and then to Rarotonga (almost 4 hours). 17 hours in the air, but more than 30 hours in total with all the waiting.

However, it was worth every hassle and penny.

Love the way the pink house and blue trash can interrupt an otherwise perfectly verdant, lush scene.

I wish I could find the words to express the intensity of my love for this sequestered place. It is just inexpressibly beautiful! I have never felt more physically, mentally, and creatively nourished anywhere else during the last few years roaming the world than when I was in Cook Islands. The most wonderful thing is that there was no expensive resort, Michelin-stared restaurant, Internet (well, there was some WiFi, but it happened, like, every 3 days), or any hedonistic shenanigan. I stayed among the locals (and passed by a lot of tombs every night on my way home!) and slowly got to know them. Days passed by languidly; they consisted of reading, writing, yoga-ing, gazing lovingly at the sparkling Pacific ocean, driving a scooter around and letting the sun beat down upon my face and the ocean breeze fill every corner of my lungs, flowers hunting, sunset chasing, and trying to absorb every tiniest detail of the slow yet fascinating island life.

In his book “Me’a Kai: The Food & Flavours of the South Pacific,” which I had to buy because it is so stunning, the award-winning chef and author Robert Oliver describes Cook Islands as “the last frontier of friendliness.” His words hit the nail on the head. The Cook Islands has all the hallmarks of paradise- feel-good climate, drop-dead gorgeous beaches, extraordinary fauna and flora, and an conspicuous lack of tourist traps and bad tourist behaviors, but what truly distinguishes it from all other advertised “paradises” around the world (at least all the ones I have been to) is its people. Cook Islanders are gorgeous both inside and out. Their looks and cultures couldn’t be any more different from mine, but they all made me feel like I was coming home, not an outsider from a far-flung country many of them had very little idea of. They waved, smiled, hugged, said Kia Orana (Hello) and Have A Lovely Day Darling, bought me drinks, and stopped whatever they were doing to help me when I needed it. Their hospitality made me feel good about everything.

*****

For those of you unfamiliar, Cook Islands is a country with 15 islands spreading 850,000 square miles over the South Pacific. The islands are divided into the Northern and Southern group, with the former being more remote and thus sparsely populated. Its capital and biggest island is Rarotonga, which offers you the greatest number of accommodation and activities options.

The nation’s history, for the sake of brevity, dates back to around 800AD when fearless seafarers landed on Rarotonga after crossing the vast South Pacific.

“The earliest records of the Cook Islands can be traced back to the 6th century CE, when Polynesians migrated to the southeastern islands from nearby Tahiti. However, the oral history of Rarotonga, the first island to be inhabited (and the most influential of the group) dates back 1,400 years. Until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, they followed a chieftain system, where power was inherited through mana kinship. Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sighted Pukapuka in 1595. However, the first recorded European landing on Rakahanga was not until Pedro Fernández de Quirós stepped foot in 1606, calling the island Gente Hermosa. The year 1773 marked the arrival of British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook, who called them “Hervey Islands.” The name “Cook Islands” was not introduced until the 1820’s. Missionary John Williams made the first written sighting of Rarotonga in 1813, but it was in 1814 that the first recorded landing on the island took place. Trouble brewed between the islanders and the sailors, and brought great bloodshed from the warring parties. The islands were freed from Europeans until 1821, when British missionaries arrived to spread Christianity, which was widely embraced and still followed today. Christian churches are well preserved and landmarks like the Takamoa Mission House (built in the 1830’s) and the hand crafted coral limestone structure known as the Cook Islands Christian Church (one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture on Rarotonga) still stand today. After the missions, the Cook Islands came to be a British protectorate. The islands were annexed by the New Zealand Government in 1901 and locals were provided New Zealand citizenship in 1949. Only a few years later, they were granted self-governing status. Islanders were given Cook Islander citizenship, though strong ties with New Zealand are still evident.”

 *****

I spent 4 days in Rarotonga. It was not love at first sight; in fact, my initial reactions were along the line of Did I just travel for more than 30 hours for this?!? However, my affection for the island grew slowly and firmly, just like how the pace of life is on the island. I did not get greedy and try to squeeze everything in, but everything that I ended up doing was great in more ways than one. If you are headed to Rarontonga, I hope this guide will be helpful 🙂

(A lot of guides will tell you to do a lagoon cruise. I did not do it in Rarotonga because I stayed in Aitutaki first and did the cruise there. Once you do the lagoon cruise in Aitutaki, no other lagoon cruise will measure up. Even locals affirmed to me.)

1. Pa’s Cross-island Trek

I feel constitutionally incapable of handling the beauties of fern leaves.

This 3-hour trek would take the cake, if I had to rank my most favorite activity in Rarotonga. It was fun, adventurous, (moderately) challenging, educational, and eco-friendly. And judging by the unanimously great reviews the trek has garnered, I am not alone.

This guided trek, as its name indicates, takes you across the island through a lush, tropical landscape of tall trees and plantations, culminating at Te Rua Manga (The Needle), one of the the highest points on the island. Length-wise, it is easy- only 2 miles, but the trail includes some steep, narrow, and slippery ridges and streams that require scrambling and ropes to climb up/down and cross over. Also, since we hike through the jungle, the humidity and heat can be stifling. It takes a decent level of fitness, so if you want something more forgiving but equally interesting and educational, you can try Pa’s Nature Walk, which is about herbal medicines and native plants and led by Pa himself. He led the cross-island trek for many years but has handed it over to Bruce (his nephew) because of age. I wish I had done the Nature walk too, as Pa strikes me as being very interesting, but time was limited. [Read more…]

Style Inspiration from Tibetans

One of the best things I did in Tibet was getting myself a hat like that. Only $10 but forever makes a statement.

For me, this is probably the most fun post about Tibet to write because it aligns with one of my big personal interests. You all know I love colors and fashion, and seeing them during my travels is cherry on top.

Tibetans impressed me greatly with their unique, time-defying, and inspiring sense of style. They have a great eye for colors and patterns, wearing combinations that I myself would never be able to come up with. The best thing about the way they dress is that layering, accessorizing, and wearing bold colors are part of their culture; they most likely don’t stand in front of the mirror for hours mixing and matching to attract attention and be photographed. It’s not about actively trying to express their individuality through clothes like how we justify ourselves these days; it’s about using clothes to convey their history, heritage, beliefs, and social statues. I never got to talk to them to understand more about why they wear what they wear as most of Tibetans don’t speak English and are shy, so I did some googling and found these insightful explanations of Tibetan clothes, jewelry, and ideas. Fascinating read!

Nothing is more visual than clothes, so without further ado, let me show you why Tibetans are easily one of the most effortlessly well-dressed people you will ever come across.

These women are very sartorially adept and can teach advanced courses in mixing colors. Combining cobalt and pink takes a lot of skills.

I posted this on my Instagram a while ago, and everyone LOVES her magenta gloves. I personally think she looks incredibly stylish from head-to-toe. Sneakers with robes are both fashionable and functional.

I met him on the way to Mt. Everest. He tried to sell me some beads but didn’t succeed, as I wasn’t interested in anything but Mt. Everest at that point. However, I succeeded in asking him for a portrait, even though Tibetans are notoriously averse to being photographed. I was sincerely impressed with his characteristically rugged Himalayan look and how he dressed with so much panache. His earrings could easily sell for a few thousand dollars, as they’re made of red coral and turquoise stones, both of which are very valuable. Also, now, the khaki and red combination is in my repertoire. I need to buy red stuff.

It is time that all of us have colorful stripes things in our wardrobe.

mount kailash sunset, confused dasher, How to Spend Two Weeks in Tibet, suggested itinerary for two weeks in tibet, 3 day kora around mount kailash trip reportHis outfit is 200% runaway-ready. Perhaps on the catwalk of Louis Vuitton. Its menswear designer Kim Jones loves the Himalayas.

mount kailash sunset, confused dasher, How to Spend Two Weeks in Tibet, suggested itinerary for two weeks in tibet, 3 day kora around mount kailash trip reportI met them when my entire body felt as if it was disintegrating after I trekked 22 kilometers for the whole day at an altitude of 17,093ft/5,210m to Mount Kailash, the most sacred place in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. They look small in stature and live with the most spartan of conditions yet put the rest of us to shame when it comes to endurance. These two in particular also have plenty of style and attitude.

          Tibetan traditional jackets do NOT look outmoded at all. I’d wear them, especially the one on the right. The color is so great!

[Read more…]

Tibet Travel Overview: Two Unforgettable Weeks Around the Roof of the World

I don’t know the name of this mountain peak (I forgot to ask and take notes. My brain lacked oxygen so it was slow), but it has such a Paramount Pictures Mountain Logo feeling (that opening mountain rising above the clouds opening credit), right? Except this one is much more magnificent than the one in North America that inspired Paramount, as it’s over 26,000ft/ 8,000m and so in the top 2 or 3 highest in the world. The Himalayan range is the ultimate showstopper!

I feel absolutely awful about disappearing for almost three months. I want to post regularly, but I have severe issues with self-discipline. I’m sick of acknowledging that I can’t overcome my laziness, so I’ll just get right down to telling you about my trip to Tibet.

I had long wanted to visit this secluded region but couldn’t go for all those years because unlike the vast majority of places in the world where if you want to go you book tickets, get visa, and go, Tibet has quite a few travel restrictions in place (imposed by China), the most annoying of which is you have to travel in a group led by a Chinese government-approved travel agency. I always travel independently, but I don’t mind going with a tour group if that’s what I have to do, so two years ago I contacted several tour companies in Tibet and was extremely discouraged by their exorbitant quotes. The best way to cut down the costs, they all advised, would be to gather a group of 5-7 people. Finding that number of people to travel with would be time-consuming and put me in a passive position, so I decided to temporarily give up on Tibet and visit other countries on my list. Tibet, however, remained at the back of my mind.

Near the end of August this year, while attending a painting workshop, I heard a group was about to visit Tibet in October. I jumped at the chance and asked for the contact, though I didn’t expect much out of it. We had back-and-forth discussion, and our plan almost fell through when two of my travel companions still hadn’t got their Chinese visas two days before the departure date. But things sometimes work out in the most last-minute fashion; my friends received their visas at the eleventh hour- one day before our scheduled flight. When the plane was cruising at 30,000ft above the snow-cloaked Himalayan range, I marveled at both the beauty of nature and serendipity. I was about to spend 17 days in a place that I had long wanted to but not expected in 2016 with four lovely people I’d just met online.

The Himalayan range in photo. 


…and in iPhone video.

It was 17 days of awe-inspiring sights, hearty laughters, long and bumpy and dusty bus rides, debilitating headaches and nosebleed, a near death experience, spiritual enrichment, religious skepticism, consistently awful food and toilets, and many memorable moments. I was lucky to be with an eclectic group of people whose professions run the gamut from accountant, economist, business manager to yoga teacher and whose knowledge of religion and politics is much greater than mine so they all filled me in. To me, Tibet seems like it’s in a time warp; it’s compelling to see locals so devout to their religion and lead a lifestyle that seems to defy the modern world. Yet at the same time, it was saddening to realize that what I saw is only a remnant of a culture that is unique, fascinating, but on the brink of disappearing completely as a result of political and religious oppressions. My time there ended up raising more questions than answers, as it got me thinking about the interwoven nature of politics and religion (which I detest), how necessary religion is to our existence, and human greediness and self-righteousness.

As always, I’ll share my experience in multiple posts. Let begin with the essential information about traveling to the Roof of the World.

*****

TIBET’S GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY

I have a lot of negative feelings about what China has done to Tibet, but I’m not mad at how much it has improved the road infrastructure in Tibet. An interesting aspect of traveling around Tibet is buses can only drive at a certain safe speed set by the authority. For instance, if the authority decides that it takes 2 hours from A to B, tourist buses cannot arrive before 2 hours, or there will be fines. There were quite a few occasions when we had to stop and rest in the middle of nowhere so that we wouldn’t arrive before the predetermined time. It was reassuring to know that our driver was driving slowly, as very often one side of the road is a deep abyss. 

I had no idea how vast the Tibet Plateau is until I visited. Its size is 2.5 million square kilometers (965,000 square miles), which is larger than Alaska and California combined or more than 6 times the size of Germany.

The Tibet Plateau is geographically situated in the middle of Asia with a mountainous landscape. It’s nestled in the Himalayas and so home to most of the highest mountain peaks in the world, including the mighty Mount Everest. What surprised me the most about the geography of Tibet, however, is its lake and river system. It’s the largest water tank in the world; all the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. (Mekong River is indispensable to Vietnam, so it’s near and dear to my heart.) However, this blessing from Mother Nature is actually a curse in disguise; it’s made people greedy and do all sorts of reprehensible things. I was seething with rage when I learned that “since 1959, the Chinese government estimates that they have removed over $54 billion worth of timber. Over 80% of forests have been destroyed, and large amounts nuclear and toxic waste have been disposed of in Tibet.”

The region’s history may date back to as many as 2,000 years ago and has been full of tumult, the most impactful and heart-wrenching of which has to be China’s invasion in March 1959 that stripped Tibet of its status as an independent country and eventually led His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s spiritual and political leader at that time) and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to flee their own country. Now Tibet is recognized as part of China. Tourism has been prospering, but I’m pretty sure Tibetans themselves benefit very little from it. Mr Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington DC, confirmed it this past September.

I also read In the Shadow of the Budda: One Man’s Journey of Discovery in Tibet by Matteo Pistono, another eminent advocate of liberating Tibet (seems like if your name is Matteo, you will likely care about Tibet and stand up for Tibetans on their behalf). It provides in-depth historical context and rare insights into the many instances of injustice that have been committed in Tibet. An excellent preparatory read before you go!

I met these Tibetans when my entire body felt as if it was disintegrating after I trekked 22 kilometers for the whole day at an altitude of 17,093ft/5,210m to Mount Kailash, the most sacred place in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. These Tibetans, though small in stature and living with the most spartan of conditions, put the rest of us to shame when it comes to endurance. I posted this photo on Instagram, and right after a Tibetan photographer sent me a message complimenting it and explaining that one scientific research concluded that the reason Tibetans have little to no trouble living at such high altitudes is they inherited a beneficial high-altitude gene from archaic Denisovan people. Mind blown! [Read more…]

These Alpacas in Akaroa Stole My Heart and Never Return

Processed with VSCO with e3 presetI have never met a person who does not go nuts over alpacas. I am serious!

This is the last post of the New Zealand series, and I am saving the best for last. This post is cuteness overload; it is possibly the cutest post ever on this site. You’d better prepare yourself to Awww non-stop 😉

Almost a year ago, way before I decided to visit New Zealand, I learned about Shamarra Alpacas Farm when I was reading Legal Nomads, my most favorite travel blog. At that point, I had never seen alpacas in person and was not even entirely sure what kind of animals they are. I do not think there is any of them in Asia. Their peculiar cuteness made a deep impression on me, so I bookmarked the post. (I do it very often, even when I have no immediate plan to visit. Do you guys do it, too?) Around February this year when I chose to go to New Zealand, this farm was featured prominently on my places-to-visit list.

The farm is located in Akaroa, less than two hours drive from the city of Christchurch. Because I did not drive, my only option was to stay in Christchurch for two days and go on a day-trip to Akaroa, where I would be picked up by the farm staff. I thought Akaroa was just a pit stop so I did not do any research about it, and oh man I was in for a fantastic surprise. This small historic French and British settlement is so incredibly picturesque and relaxing, thanks to its stunning nature and quaint colonial architecture.

Mandatory history lesson for y’all: Canterbury’s oldest town, Akaroa was founded in August 1840 by French settlers. It has been suggested that French interest in New Zealand speeded up Britain’s decision to annex New Zealand. By the time French settlers arrived, the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Māori chiefs had been signed. Akaroa has a fine collection of 19th-century cottages and houses. Once a fishing and farm service town, it now serves mainly holidaymakers and tourists. The French associations are evident in street names. The resident population is slowly declining, and now more than 60% of the dwellings are holiday homes.

The town center is tiny, so several hours between my pick-up and drop-off time were the perfect amount of time to explore. There are accommodation options, so you can stay overnight if you want to dig deeper.

The farm is actually located 20 minutes drive from the town center, so if you do not drive the farm offers to pick you up in front of Akaroa i-SITE visitor information center, as long as you let them know when you book your tour. In my case, I left Christchurch at 8.30AM on the Akaroa Shuttle and arrived in Akaroa an hour and a half later. It was a pleasant trip, but the beauty of the sceneries along the way was somehow compromised by overcast skies. However, the clouds cleared up completely when I arrived. It was strange and fortuitous because I am here to tell you that the glory of Akaroa harbor shines most brightly in sunny weather.

The first thing I saw when I arrived at the farm. Almost fainted!!!

 I seriously wonder how it feels to wake up to this view everyday. I mean, if you look at something everyday, however gorgeous it is, you will eventually get used to it at some point, right? Do the people at the farm no longer bat an eyelid?

I was picked up and dropped off by Frank and Anya, the farm owners. They both were lovely, and it was interesting to talk to them in an one-on-one setting and learn a bit about their lives. Which would not have been possible if I had driven up there myself. They went from South Africa to the Caribbean before settling in New Zealand more than a decade ago and starting their farm. And you can tell by the way they talk about and interact with their alpacas that they do care deeply about them. As a dog parent, I always find it heart-warming to see people treat animals right.

I wish the tour lasted longer than just an hour. I literally can spend an entire day observing and photographing them.

They are mother and daughter, I think? I wanted to squeeze them so badly, but as soon as you get near them they will dodge you 🙁

OH.MY.GADDDD!!!

[Read more…]

How To Spend 3 Days in the Photogenic Queenstown

Heads-up: you can witness very ethereal lighting in Milford Sound 😉

I once read somewhere that your travels change when you find out specifically why, besides all the usual- and entirely legitimate- reasons of seeing new places and exploring the world, you want to travel. Some travel for the arts and history, some travel for the food, and some travel for the sceneries. For me personally, after a few years of being relatively “directionless”, I have fathomed out my Why. I travel to document the natural beauty of this world with my camera. I am wholly in my element when I am surrounded by nature. These days, when deciding where to go, I am more inclined towards countries that afford easy access to beautiful landscapes and plenty of opportunities to be in touch with nature.

New Zealand is one of those countries. And Queenstown in particular intoxicated me!

Queenstown was the final leg of my time in the country. By then, I had experienced an absurd amount of spectacular moments in Wanaka, Mt. Cook, Kaikoura, and Marlborough Sounds. Which made me slightly skeptical whether Queenstown would be able to surpass them all, given that it is overrun with tourists. Now looking back, I can’t help but chuckle a little because that was such a silly, unwarranted concern. A place is touristy not for nothing. It would be unfair to say that Queenstown was the most magnificent part of New Zealand I saw, but from a photography perspective it was the peak. I am truly happy with what I was able to capture.

This was what I saw when I stepped off the bus and looked up. I silently told Queenstown, Hey you were made for me!

I should clarify, though, that I didn’t actually spend all my time inside Queenstown. It is a small, compact, pedestrian-friendly resort town that, in my personal experience, does not take a lot of time to hit all the main spots. However, it is the gateway to some of the most unreal parts of the South Island. And those places were where my eyes and camera got such fulfilling workouts.

So, if you are going to spend about 3 days in Queenstown like I did, below are my suggestions. Queenstown is the capital of adventurous activities from bungee jumping, skydiving, to rafting and many others. They unfortunately cost an arm and a leg, so I steered clear of them. You don’t have to if you have the financial wherewithal 😉

Day 1: Arrowtown and Queenstown

THIS MADE ME SCREAM!!!

Listen, if you are in New Zealand during autumn, you MUST visit Arrowtown. I am not being hyperbolic; I am saying it from the bottom of my heart.

I am an autumn person through and through, and ever since I left the States I have been completely deprived of real autumns. I am living in Hanoi, the only city in South East Asia with four distinct seasons. Yet autumns here pale in comparison. When I set my feet in Arrowtown, I felt like I was finally released from an autumn dry spell.

Arrowtown is small and quaint. The detailed history of the town can be read here, the town’s official website. But basically, it was established in 1862, during the height of the Otago gold rush. The settlement grew quickly as pioneers constructed cottages, shops, hotels and churches, more than 60 of which can still be seen today.

To get to Arrowntown from Queestown by public transportation, take this bus, NZD 30 round-trip. The most important tip I have is you should take the earliest bus at 7.35AM so you can get there at 8AM. As a reward, you will have the whole town to yourself, and the lighting will be excellent. I took all of these photos in the span of two hours, from 8 to around 10AM. It is not easy to take photos once throngs of tourists pour in. I left at noon, but you can spend more time there if you want to.

The postcard quality of Arrowntown is top-notch.

Sigh, I am running out of words already.

I already told you guys I rarely feel the urge to shove my face in photos of places that I visit. I’m not young anymore and have come to a point in my life where I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to anyone. (Kidding, I still have a ton of inner work to do.) BUT, I had to wake up at 6AM to catch the bus and wandered around in freezing temperatures. So, I was just kind of like, “Self-restraints, you can go fcuk yourself. I need a photo with this beautiful background, in an au naturel I Woke Up Like This state.” 😀

One of the cheapest yet most enjoyable experiences I had in Queenstown. 

Day 2: Milford Sound

This sight is just too heinous!!!

Even my friends who live in New Zealand commented on my photos that they hadn’t seen Milford Sound this copiously bathed in sunlight for a long time. Yes, I know I hit the jackpot with the weather!

Milford Sound needs no introduction. It is legendary; it is the quintessential New Zealand experience. It was sad that I had limited time and didn’t have a car; otherwise, I would have allotted more time for this place and the adjacent areas. There, nature is in its unadulterated glory.

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What Made Me Fall In Love with Wanaka

Processed with VSCO with e1 presetWhat people say about nothing worthwhile coming easy is really, really true. Views like these sure aren’t easy.

To me, Wanaka is the poster child for the power of social media (specifically Instagram) in popularizing a destination. I’m sure Wanaka Tourism Board has used other marketing and promotion channels and I obviously don’t know all the ins and outs, but from my perspective as an outsider its social media campaigns (with influential travel bloggers plugging Wanaka on their accounts and websites) sure have yielded good return on investment. That is how I came to know about this place. I decided to visit Wanaka even before I decided to visit New Zealand, if that makes sense to you.

Before I visit a place, I usually browse through Internet photos, all of which, you know, usually show that place in its best light. With Wanaka, when I visited the spots I had seen in photos, I wasn’t let down. Not even once. The town in real life is just as picturesque and vibrant, if not more, as how it is captured in photos.

Wanaka, thank you for over-delivering.

*****

I came to Wanaka from Mt. Cook by way of Twizel (still with Intercity bus. If memory serves me right, there is no direct bus from Mt. Cook to Wanaka. You will have to stop over at Twizel). The entire journey took about 5 hours, the last two of which were a feast for the eyes, as everything that the bus passed by- mountains, trees, farms, and lakes- was bathed in the afternoon warm golden light. When the bus pulled into the parking lot, I barely could keep my excitement in check.

Wanaka is situated in a glacier carved basin on the shores of Lake Wanaka. It is a small town, but quite lively for its size. For me, that was a very welcoming change, especially after a few days in the sparsely populated Mackenzie region where there wasn’t any real good food or coffee.

I allocated four days in Wanaka. It surprised people I met a little bit, because it’s a tiny town and people usually spend a day or two before moving on to their next destination. Wanaka itself doesn’t offer that many things to see and to do, but the surrounding region is a treasure trove of attractions and activities. Mt Aspiring National Park is a prime example.

The sad reality, however, is I didn’t get to experience a lot during my stay either due to…budget constraints 🙁  I didn’t have a rental car, so my only option was organized tours. I love guided tours in New Zealand, since they can be quite informative, but heaven knows they are also prohibitively expensive. Like, I wanted to go on one of Eco Wanaka adventures, but the prices got me 🙁 Fortunately, everything I was able to see was gorgeous and surpassed my expectations so it remains a memorable experience at the end of the day.

Now, without further ado, let me show you what you shouldn’t miss in Wanaka.

1. Roys Peak Track

Multiple eye-gasms!!!

If there were a contest for the best-est free activity to do in Wanaka, I’d wholeheartedly vote for this. With one caveat!

While it’s free of charge, it will cost you a hell lot of calories. People could describe the hike in the most vivid, flowery words, but the simple truth is you just climb a mountain from the base to the top. It’s not the distance (11 km in total), but the steepness (almost 1,600 meters), that makes this track grueling. You don’t have to be an athlete or a seasoned hiker to complete it, but you have to be in good health.

But the views along the way are sensational and only keep getting better. The climax is when you get to the summit with a panoramic view of Lake Wanka, the surrounding peaks and Mount Aspiring. There are two summits to conquer; most people will stop at the first. I conquered both, and while I felt a tad more accomplished, you don’t have to do the same. The first one already will drive you crazy!

(Remember to bring more than enough water and some snacks. The track begins at the parking lot 15 minutes drive from the town center. If you don’t drive, you can try hitchhiking (which is time-consuming and not guaranteed), or take a taxi for NZD 20.)

They will cheer you on 😀

I always wonder when a track is said to take a certain number of hours, does that duration already take into account breaks? For me, it usually takes 2-3 hours more than what is estimated; I pause a lot. Not because I’m too tired, but because I need to absorb what’s in front of me and take photos. I’m not weird, right?

I genuinely feel New Zealand is one of Mother Nature’s most favorite children

I love this view unreservedly!

Here I am, at the very top. Listen, who looks this stoic and dresses like this going on a steep, knee-killing 7 hour- 16 km long- 1600m high hike up the mountain? I do, haha. Why? Because I’ll be shivering, de-hyrated, and out of breath when I get to the top no matter what, and so I’d want to be all of that (and I indeed was) in something that makes me feel I’m in my element rather than in, say, Northface or Columbia. Not that there is anything wrong with Northface or Columbia; it’s just that I’m not a windbreaker & sweatpants kind of person so I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not, you know 😀

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David Beckham at Louis Vuitton SS17 Menswear Show

I have never been a proponent of the black-on-black look on men, because most of the times it gives off a strong clerical vibe. But you guys already know that I consider David and Victoria my fashion parents. Which means I cannot find fault with anything they wear.

This head-to-toe black outfit David wore to watch the Louis Vuitton Menswear show in Paris last week is no exception. I accept everything about it without question!

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What David Gandy Wore During 2016 London Collections: Men

I am lagging behind in everything at the moment. I haven’t told you guys yet, but if we’re friends on Instagram, you may already know that I enrolled in a hiphop/urban dance choreography class at the beginning of this month. I have always been mesmerized with the performances of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Beyonce, to name just a few; and wanted to learn that high-energy kind of choreography. However, I cooked up various excuses over the years for not doing it until this year when I realized that I’m not getting any younger and there is something wrong with me if I can’t squeeze in 3 hours out of 168 each week to attend the class. Fast forward to now after 7 sessions, I am still barely able to dance and one of the worst students in class. Embarrassed and defeated? A little bit in the beginning, but I have got to learn a few new things about how music works, how to isolate different body parts, and given my memory muscle a good workout so I’m still very happy.

Anyway, onto fashion! The annual menswear fashion month started with London, and even though I haven’t got around to looking through all the collections, I made sure that I got my David Gandy out and about fix. I have always been vocal about my love for his personal style; to me, he is the quintessential part of London Collections Men Fashion Week. Let’s ogle at him, shall we?

David loves monochrome dressing. And so do I. There is nothing revolutionary about this outfit, but I still love it unreservedly. Because it tastefully displays his muscular physique. By the way, the man next to him is Joe Ottaway, whose sense of style is really neat, too. I recently started following his Instagram, too, and haven’t been disappointed.

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