An Extraordinary Encounter While Exploring Mackay Australia

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As I walked through the doors of this older building that was now a restaurant and karaoke bar, the ex-nun I was with, who was in costume as a streetwalker, introduced me to everyone at the tables where we would be sitting. As the introductions ensued, she came to a man who appeared to be in his late twenties to early thirties. She introduced him as the head chef. As our eyes met I could tell immediately, that my presence made him pretty nervous. He was noticeably uncomfortable, and his impression of me made him a bit flustered. I decided in that instant, I was going to sit right next to him. His name was Mick, a nickname for Michael in Australia, and I noticed that even sitting, he appeared to be quite a large guy.

As the night went on, he hardly said two words to me. I asked him a couple questions and got short, simple answers in return; I guessed he was a man of few words, or at least with me. He was up and down from the bar to our table, sometimes talking with those he knew, and he even got up a few times to sing karaoke. As he gave it his all and belted out Mustang Sally, everyone got up and danced, including me. With his six foot five, strong athletic frame and medium brown hair, he had a considerable presence and didn’t appear to shy away from attention. However, in the next moment, he’d sit back down towards the back of the room a bit removed from everyone else and exuded a more mellow, relaxed presence.  When he spoke had a strong Australian accent and it was abundantly obvious from his rough, rugged exterior, he was very country.  After a few hours, I said goodnight to everyone, and left with the neighbor who brought me.

A couple days later I joined my neighbor for a beach walk and, out of the blue, she casually mentioned Mick knew I wanted to explore Queensland. She advised me it wasn’t the safest to do on my own, so it may be wiser to allow him to show me around a bit. She gave me his number and asked me to give him a call. That evening I decided to give him a quick call before I started to make dinner. I figured it would only take a minute. After all, he hardly had anything to say when we met. He kept me on the phone for an hour, and asked me a million questions! Amongst the million questions, he asked me what kind of things I liked to do and what I wanted to see. We decided he would pick me up at around three in the afternoon the next day, after he got off work. It was quite convenient that he worked an early shift and was off by two in the afternoon.

The next day he showed up in a giant ute, a truck with a flatbed on the back, a popular vehicle in Australia. We went to a lookout with a beach down below, and after exploring the beach we grabbed dinner on the pier. I remember looking at him, as he was inspecting some rocks up at the lookout, and asking myself if I could possibly be attracted to him. I quickly dismissed it and thought nope, he was a nice guy, but not for me. He appeared much too “from the outback”, rough around the edges for me, and I just didn’t feel an attraction. I had a quick, piercing but fleeting thought, “He is your husband’. It jarred me. I quickly silently laughed at myself and thought,” Shut up Melanie, no way! You’re losing it. Oh man, I’ve been traveling solo for so long I’m now hearing things.” I brushed it off and quickly and determined I was thankful for the friendship and the company, but that’s where it ended. As he dropped me off that evening he asked what I wanted to see tomorrow. “Oh, we’re doing something else tomorrow?” I said a bit caught off guard. We quickly planned another adventure for the next afternoon. From then on, he showed up, every day, to pick me up and take me somewhere new.  Every day, he showed up. A few nights in, he offered to make me dinner, crispy skinned salmon with baked crunchy potatoes, chipotle dill aioli, and Thai citrus salad. That’s when the attraction began. It wasn’t just good; it was divine.

We went into the bush to hike in Eungella National Park, and swim in its cold waterfall to escape the hot, scorching sun. We surveyed for platypus and fresh water crocodiles. We drove further north to Cape Hillsboro for more beautiful hikes and views, while also able to enjoy crocodile free beaches with kangaroos and wallabies bouncing around everywhere.

While coming to The Leap, a giant hike-able cliff, he told me the story of The Leap Massacre. In the 1800s Australian “police” were known to capture and sometimes murder Aboriginals. While being pursued, an Aboriginal mother, holding her baby, ran up The Leap, a cliff dropping hundreds of feet below, to escape. Holding her baby, she jumped. Story has it that her baby survived and grew up to marry, have children, and she lived a long life.

Mick took me too his family’s property for an Australian barbeque. We spent every day together during my time in this part of Australia, and we were able to explore so much of the area. I was at a crossroads of needing to find a job in the U.S. and spending more time here. With a bit of help from Mick’s persuasion, I decided to extend my stay a couple weeks and he helped to put me up in a beautiful hotel overlooking the beach.

My time in Australia was winding down and I began planning my way back to the states, when I got a phone call from a friend whom I hadn’t spoken too in a couple years. She worked for an online resort travel company, and they needed a new content director. She had read my blog and forwarded it to her boss. After a couple phone calls and negotiations, I landed my new job as a content director and could work remotely. The timing was, well, it was miraculous. I would be starting in three weeks. Training would be in Noosa, Queensland just north of Brisbane, so I’d be flying out soon. My long-term visa was for New Zealand so that’s where I’d be based once training was complete.

On the second to the last evening in this part of Australia, we decided to have dinner out with Mick’s family. As we sat in the parking lot of the local pub, winding up the windows of his old ute. I turned to him and hesitantly asked him, “So, what are we? What are we doing? I mean, I’m leaving in two days, and I don’t have a plan to come back.” His immediate reply was “We’re together.” And then there was an awkward pause. I was so uncomfortable asking but I needed to know. I continued, “Okay, but… if we’re together then what’s the plan? I mean, I won’t be here. What’s the point of doing long distance if there’s no plan to be together in the future? We’re not even going to be in the same country. What are your thinking about all this?” He sat there listening to me and I uncomfortably shifted in my seat as I got to the cringe-worthy part of the question I needed an answer too. “If we stayed together long distance…do you see this as like possibly leading to marriage or…” I loathed that I even asked that but with me about to leave the country I needed finality, a simple yes or no.

“Yes, I definitely see that happening.” He said without hesitation. “Okay, so we’re just going to date long distance a while and see how it goes.” I say as I’m wrapping my head around how in the world this would even logistically work. “Like how long are you comfortable dating long distance?” I asked before really thinking about what was coming out of my mouth. “I don’t know, like two years?” “Two years?! I’m not only dating you, and be in a long-distance relationship, for two whole years!” I immediately replied. “Well I don’t know! I’d marry you tomorrow! I just thought that’s what you’d want!” We both just sat there shocked, and in complete disbelief of the direction this conversation turned and what was just said. “Well… definitely not tomorrow, but… Okay everyone is waiting for us inside so let’s stop talking about this. And let’s not bring this up to anyone that we even talked about getting married yet.” I quietly said a bit shaken by this entire talk. “Okay.” he agreed.

We walked inside and sat down with his whole family. Mick, his brother, his mom, and his brother’s girlfriend went up to the bar to get drinks for the table. When they came back, the mood had changed and they all were trying to hide their smiles. Mick sat down next to me and I had a feeling he’d said something. I whispered to him reminding him that I we agreed not to tell them anything. He responded, “I didn’t tell them we ARE getting married. I told them we MIGHT get married.” I had no words.

Two days later I was on a plane to Brisbane to train for my new job, and then on a flight back to New Zealand. We kept in contact daily. Two months later he flew over to New Zealand to visit. We ventured around the north island a bit while I worked remotely, and he proposed while we were on a picnic near a small waterfall. Three months after that we got married in Hawaii.

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Setting Sail in Northland New Zealand and Being Reminded that Ships are Not Built to Stay in the Safe Harbors

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“You, you want me to do what?” I stammered as I looked up at the captain completely puzzled. “Well I can’t do this all by myself. Raise the sail. Pull that rope; hand over fist.” He commanded loudly as he’s rapidly moving around the deck of the sail boat doing I don’t even know what with other ropes that looked to me like they were haphazardly strewn all over the place. I jumped to my feet with a willingness to help but a startled nervousness not knowing what in the world I had just gotten myself into. “Oh, this sail is heavy.” I thought to myself as I really had to muscle the rope down to move the sail up the pole. “What in the world did I just get myself into” was the thought that was stuck on repeat in my head.

The first place I was eager to see in Northland was the picturesque Bay of Islands and to get to the islands, well you have to go by boat. I walked into the visitors’ center in Paihia to book a ride on a boat. They told me about a handful of boat options and all were very normal touristy options that entailed getting on a larger boat with a bunch of other people and spending the day laying on the beaches, basking in the sun on the peaceful relaxing boat rides along the way, and sitting back and enjoying the scenery. That is exactly what I was looking for, a serene boat ride to the islands and the ability to lay on the beaches. A calm relaxing day on the water sounded perfect… minus all the extra people that would be on the boats and then the beaches. I asked if there was anything smaller to charter to the islands. The woman at the counter told me there wasn’t much else. A gentleman behind the counter who was listening in interrupted, “Well, there is a man who will take out small groups of about five people on his sailboat. I’ll give him a ring and see if he’ll go out tomorrow.” After a quick phone call I was booked, to go on a sailboat.

The others on the sailboat with me were his close friends, a single Maori mother with three young boys. As she was busy keeping up with the boys, I was thrust into learning to sail. “You’re going to have to steer the boat too. I can’t do it the entire time.” I think he sensed I was just now understanding that this was not a sit back and relax ride I’d thought it would be, this was going to be a very hands-on experience.

As we navigated out to and then through the Bay of Islands I learned how to read the depths of the sea and steer. We all took turns and when it wasn’t mine I laid out on the nose of this beautiful sailboat and took in the beautiful sights of all the different islands and sea life.

We anchored in the bay of Waewaetoria Island. There wasn’t another soul in sight. The woman who was on the boat with me took me on a hike to the top of the island; we were barefoot which was another first-time experience, hiking barefoot. We enjoyed the views and the beaches for the rest of the day. It was one of the most beautiful places on earth I have ever laid eyes on. We all talked and laughed together as we enjoyed each others company on this expedition. Doing things together, figuring out how to work together to complete a common goal, even for just a day is a bonding experience; and even with me at the helm steering we all made it back in one piece.

There are few places on earth more magical than Northland New Zealand. This is probably my top travel destination and a place I will explore again. Traveling up one coast line to Cape Reinga and then down the other is a trip that is worth taking as much time as you can. I chose to venture Northland for about three weeks. This meant three weeks far away from most civilization, no Wi-Fi for sometimes days on end, seeing tiny old settlement towns, and lands still rich with Maori culture and history.

Traveling up and down the coast I visited the Waitangi Historic Reserve where the treaty that made New Zealand a British colony was signed, went on several hikes some to waterfalls and others to lookouts and beaches, stopped and enjoyed the water’s edge and bites to eat in small fishing villages, went to old colonial churches, and walked along beaches where if you go at the right time, after lightening as struck, you can dig up glass made by the lightening and sand. I took the risky drive on 90 Mile beach, basked in the almost vacant beaches just before Cape Reinga. (I highly recommend traveling these dirt roads to get to these beaches. All the tourists miss them and go straight to the Cape beaches.) One of my favorite areas to venture on the way back down was the beautiful Opononi area. The walks, the town, the lookouts, and the beaches were jaw-dropping. However, I do think this of the entire area of Northland. I stayed a large portion of my time in an Airbnb in Opua. It was a bit outside of the more touristy Paihia and has perfect trails to jog along to my heart’s content.

During my time, away from the majority of civilization and forced to do without phone reception and internet service for most of this time, coupled with my unexpected sailing adventure I had time to dig deep and pray about my next steps. Money was dwindling rapidly and the logical answer would be to go back to America and find work, settle back into a routine, and nestle back into the safeness and security of desperately missed friends and family. I had been searching for jobs in New Zealand to no avail. I was forced to think about making some logical decisions for my future and so I was in heavy prayer ever night, listening, waiting for affirmation from God that it was time for me to return home. I didn’t want to give up pursuing writing, but I equally wanted to be able to provide for myself, be a responsible human being able to contribute more to the world than I was taking, and use wisdom in my decision making. Why did I have this unnerving, guttural feeling that my travels weren’t done? Everything logistically was affirming that they were. I went into the town library to check my email and there it was, a three week housesit request in Australia. I immediately thought “Well that’s nice but God, You and I both know three weeks isn’t long enough for me to spend all that money to fly to Australia, rent a car, drive to this house and then have to fly back out of Australia because I wouldn’t be able to afford staying longer.” I randomly put in an application for another housesit that literally started 3 days after this one ended. I went back the next day to check my email… and there it was, a letter from the owner that she chose me to housesit and this one was for four weeks. The wild ride of faith begins where logic ends, and the doors were clearly opening.

I was on my way to Australia.

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Divine Appointments on The Road Less Traveled and Around the Lakes in Rotorua and The Redwood Forrest

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Inspired by the unending beauty of this area, I set out to see as many of the fresh water, pristine lakes as I could. This is one of the many astounding sights God has placed in this small country of New Zealand. The fresh, crisp, yet to be polluted lands and waters of this area continuously give me motivation to start each day earlier than the last with an excitement not knowing exactly what I will see, but confident my mind and heart will be full by the end of the day; mind full by everything my eyes are taking in and heart full because for some reason God has placed this blessing upon me to experience what many never do and not just once but over and over again for several months now on end. And I’m still not exactly sure why me; why the woman who would have been content with staying in Hawaii, getting married, and having 2.5 children (or whatever the average is now). Why this journey, why this girl? I’m still not sure but I love watching His story unfold…

My first stop was the famous Tikitapu (Blue) Lake and Rotokakai (Green) Lake.  There is a look out hill in between the two lakes and when you look to one side you see just how blue the blue lake is and just how green the green lake is. It is quite incredible to see two lakes so close together be such vibrantly different colors. I see that Lake Tikitapu is supposed to have a walking trail the entire way around so I decide to go for a long, long walk. It was a beautiful sunny day out and I think to myself I can find my way. About 20 minutes in I am thoroughly confused as to where I am and if I’m even still on the right track. It had rained for several days on end just prior and I begin wondering if now the lake has pushed its boundaries over the trail. I look around and see a couple coming out from the bush and I ask if they know. It turned out they are guessing their way around the lake as well. We begin talking and I opened up about what I was embarking on and that I was blogging along the way. I talked about how I loved writing but it was something that I had put on the backburner for too long. We ended up talking about travel and life the entire way around the lake. Isn’t it just phenomenal how that happens? Relationships built in mere minutes, and all because we were enjoying nature, open to life, open to talking to each other, and got lost, haha. We stopped and all took photos on our trek and just enjoyed each other’s company learning bits and pieces about each other. They let me know they owned a New Zealand outdoors magazine and the wife, the editor, would take a look at my blog.

We parted ways for the day; I continued my adventure to Lake Tarawera, which out of all the lakes is probably my favorite, its span is broad and the trail around it leads to salmon streams, lots of bush, and a sandy beach area perfect for swimming during the warmer months. I took my picnic lunch to include a celebratory bottle of wine, and a blanket and had my lunch in a near secluded area of the lake front. I watched a man flying fishing from a semi-near dock, and a couple of paddle boarders paddle by. These are the peaceful moments I unendingly crave.

After exploring the lakes, I went into the nearby Redwoods forest that is filled with treks that will fill anyone’s day and potentially get you very lost. I headed into the woods and soon felt lost. There were families and people passing by so I wasn’t too worried. I stopped and asked a man who was bent over putting creek water into a test tube which way was out. I was intrigued at what he was doing and found out he is a German scientist who coming once a year to study this area of New Zealand and monitor it. He told me all about it but if you asked me to regurgitate any of it, well that wouldn’t happen. I admired the scenery of the way back out and decided to have dinner then come back for the lantern and lights canopy tree walk they do at night, and oh was it more than worth it. This is something I highly recommend if you’re in this area and it’s not too crowded. It truly magical.

When I got home late that night I checked my email and the couple who own the New Zealand magazine had emailed me. The editor told me one of my articles greatly touched her and I had a gift; she loved my writing. This couple, the editor and owner of New Zealand’s longest standing magazine, were soon to become one of my greatest encouragers and advocates for taking steps to become a writer. One simple chance meeting, with an open heart, leads to further divine moments of destiny.

Women Empowering Women

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

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

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

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

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

Women empowering women.

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop Phuket!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Traveling through Ubud and the Wondrous Sights up to Bangli

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

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

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

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

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A Trip to Gili Trawangan and Nusa Lembongan

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After our unexpected camping trip in Amed my friend and I were so excited to take a fast boat to Gili Trawangan and enjoy a more tropical paradise escape in accommodations that included air conditioning and hot showers. The Gili islands are known to have clear turquoise waters and great snorkeling. Many from around the world come to these islands on holiday to swim and, what I soon found out in Gili Trawangan, party. I did not know the latter of the two until we arrived. The Gili islands are tiny islands located off the coast of Lombok. Lombok is a predominantly Muslim country so it was a bit of a surprise to me to find out that drugs on the Gili islands are legal. As I’m sure you’ve put two and two together now, many people on holiday choose these tropical islands for that reason.

We took an island taxi, which is a horse and carriage to our stay in a quaint little cottage style bed and breakfast. It was very cute and private with great flora around it and a pool. When I got into the room it had to be close to 100 degrees F. It was insanely hot as it is hot and humid on the islands. I came to soon discover the air-conditioning was broken. I talked with the guy in charge of the place and he had someone come out to fix it, thank goodness. It was fixed by the evening. That evening after exploring the island a bit I came back to my now cool room to take a hot shower and wash all the sweat off me after a long hot, humid day. As I waited and waited for the shower to get hot I realize there just in no hot water. Cold showers for the next couple of nights it is. Late one night as my friend and I were returning from a late night out I put the key in the gate to enter into our cottage area. “The locks are changed.” I look at her and say. She didn’t believe me and thought I was just having trouble with the door. I explained to her again “No, you don’t understand it’s a different lock. This is not the lock for this key.” She tried the key as well but still wasn’t comprehending the someone really did change the locks on us. A neighbor came over and tried. She came to the same conclusion. We walked around the perimeter of the building, calling with no good way in, calling out our property managers name. Finally, his wife came to the gate and let us in. I said to her someone changed the locks. She giggled and confirmed her husband did in fact change the locks while we were out. Like I said, drugs on these islands are legal and shrooms are the drug of choice. Needless to say, we stayed at a different place just a block down the road for the rest of our trip. These experiences make for unforgettable memorable moments.

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The Gili islands are nice but a short stay will suffice. Gili Trawongan is by far the most crowded and touristy of the three. It is small enough that you can go for an easy bike ride around the whole island. There is a small part you do have to walk your bike through sand. Gili Meno and Gili Air are smaller and much less populated but also go to them very aware that there are going to be limited things to do there. There are a few places to eat and mostly just fun more secluded places to relax, enjoy a beach and snorkel or swim. You can also take a boat between these islands which is what I did. After 5 days in the Gili islands we were ready to move on… to Nusa Lembongan.

Only a few short days on Nusa Lembongan was just not enough. This island is more known for its surf breaks, it is a bit less touristy and a bit more outdoorsy. With the help from a newly made friend in Uluwatu I got a beachfront room with a hot shower. My first hot shower in a while and I was over the moon. We had a great view from our balcony of the popular surf breaks and were steps away from the beach. It was paradise and I wish I would’ve planned to stay on this island longer. The breaks a pretty far out so it’s perfect for stand-up paddling which I did. And we also took a canoe down a quiet very still river which was relaxing and picturesque. However, my favorite moment on my entire journey thus far was taking a boat from Nusa Lembongan to the coast of Nusa Penida and swimming in the deep sea with giant manta rays. I have never had an underwater experience so exhilarating. The boat captain didn’t make us wear life jackets or hold onto a raft and stay on top of the water and just look, he let us loose. I put on my fins and mask and dove in. It was at first terrifying to see such huge creatures gliding by doing circles around me. There were dozens of these creatures in the water and they ranged from 10 to 16ft wide. They were huge! As soon as I got used to seeing the size of them I was able to enjoy the magic of what was happening. Every time I turn around I would see another one gracefully glide by. I was sure not to touch them because though they are docile animals they are still wild animals and I would not want one to think it had to protect itself in any way.

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After swimming with the mantas, we took the boat to Crystal Bay and Mangrove Bay, other areas off the coast of the Nusa islands. I have been snorkeling in and all over Hawaii for 7 years now and I have never seen the untouched variety of coral and fish that I saw in Crystal Bay. It is still so alive and flourishing. I saw fish in colors I have never seen on fish before and the coral was like something I had only before seen in pictures and on the discovery channel. Beautiful doesn’t justice to how immensely invigorating and exotic this small piece of God’s great creation really is. I want to come back to the Nusa islands and do this all again. I have a feeling it would be a new a different experience every time.

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The Sacrifice of Warm Showers and Clean Sheets: On the way to Amed, Bali

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Yes, you read that right. I had little idea of what I was getting myself into and no idea it was going to be a camping adventure until I got there, but it was worth its weight in gold for the life experience. My friend joined me in Uluwatu and we made the trek to Amed to experience a different side of Bali. But first we had a good size list of things we wanted to do while on the way there. The drive was several hours so we made sure to enjoy the treasures Bali had along the way.

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Bali is known for a few things, one of them being silver. Some of their silver is high quality, at a good price, and the craftsmanship to make their Balinese style jewelry is unmatched. There is so much silver being sold in Bali that it is worth your while to take the time and ask around to verify that where you are planning on buying yours is high quality. A lot of the not so high quality silver has a higher mix of iron in it and much of it is sold at higher prices in the areas with higher tourist traffic. We asked around a bit and decided to stop at a silver shop outside of any main city where we were able watch the silversmith make the jewelry. I don’t normally purchase jewelry for myself but on this occasion, I did a little splurging.

Another art and craft Bali is known for is Batik. Batik is a technique of wax resistant painting. And this of course was another must on our stop and see list. To watch these women painting intricate patterns with such ease and grace on usually silk and cotton fabric was astounding. It is truly a talent and an art. Many of the pieces they are painting on are worn for special occasions in Balinese culture and a good quality batik silk dresses or saris are a bit expensive. It does make for a beautiful dress or long skirt.

Onto temples and the prettiest most intriguing water palace I’ve seen to date. There are so many temples in Bali; it really does seem that there is a temple on every corner the way there is a Starbucks on every corner of Seattle. Through talking with a few newly made local friends in Bali I was told there are three temples in each village. This makes for over a thousand temples on the island of Bali alone. Each temple has its own meaning; one is to represent creation, one is for daily maintenance of health, luck, life, etc., and the third is for destruction or “the destroyer”. The village cemetery is also always by the temple that represents destruction. Disclaimer: I do not claim fully understand Balinese Hindu; I am merely just regurgitating for you what I was told. I may in the near future write a blog on all I learned about Balinese Hindu which is different from Indian Hindu and why Bali is the only island left in Indonesia that is predominantly Hindu. That being said I have seen so many temples. The water temple is one worth taking the time to visit.

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We didn’t arrive to Amed until well after dark and the street, if you can call it that was windy, narrow, and very broken. When our taxi stopped at our stay I thought “Is he sure this is the right place?” We were escorted back to these cabins on stilts. I couldn’t see much because it was so dark outside and there weren’t any lights along the path. There was just a faint glimmer of lights coming from other cabins. “Oh, good there is electricity!” I thought. We walked up ladder like steps into a cabin. The man escorting us turned on a light. There was one light, I think one electrical socket, with a mattress on the ground and a ladder to a loft with another mattress on the ground of the loft floor. I’m thankful for the mosquito nets provided over the beds. The man left and my friend looked at me and asked, “Are you okay?” I could tell she was wondering if she was okay as well. We both just looked at each other realizing we both smelled the not so good aroma coming from the mattresses and whatever was under our cabin. We opened the back door of the cabin that put us back outside and there was another small light. We flipped the switch and saw the hose fastened to a concrete wall that was our shower and a toilet that was less than clean looking. I looked at my friend and just said “We’re camping.” She replied, “that’s what I was telling myself too.” “We just have to tell ourselves we are camping and then it’s not so bad.” I said back to her. We both smiled and laughed.

 

In Amed I slept in and wore the same clothes with a swim suit for 3 days because I refused to let anything else I owned touch the mattress. I just couldn’t pinpoint what was in or on the mattress that was creating that smell and I wanted to subject as little as I could to it. And I got fairly clean feeling under the cold-water hose of a shower. I still however enjoyed the rustic and serenely beautiful landscape of this area. When we awoke the next morning, walking down the ladder-like steps, we were greeted by the calm ocean waters just feet from our doorstep. The few days we spent there were a good switch from where we were. We walked up and down roads and small paths that led to fresh spring water and rice fields along with other crops to be harvested. We snorkeled and saw a completely different ocean than the one I am used to in Hawaii. And my most memorable moment was capturing the small glimpses of an entire community coming together to prepare and build for a Balinese wedding that was soon coming. If you follow my Instagram you may have seen these stories. There were men building archways and women and children all helping. I thought they were building homes until I asked and was told the whole village comes together to prepare for these extravagant celebrations. Amed was worth the trek, just choose you accommodations carefully.

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International Travel Beginnings in Airports and the Uluwatu area of Bali Indonesia

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Arriving to Bali was a thirty-seven-hour event full of learnings and experiences that made me quickly realize how covered in grace I was. I’ve done limited international travel and never attempted the budget travel airlines until now. For anyone traveling internationally, if the airline has an option to purchase baggage allowance as you are booking, purchase it! And purchase enough. I thought that like the major none budget airlines I would just pay for my baggage at the airports but soon found out that the fees at the airport for those who don’t prepay are astronomical. My large checked bag would’ve been almost $500 just for the first flight. I had 2 more flights to go! Long story short the woman at the service desk pulled a few strings and let me check my baggage for $160 then at the next airport grace and mercy flooded down again and I only had to pay $70 instead of almost $400. There was a moment I wasn’t sure I was going to be getting on even the first flight, and in hindsight the experience allowed for me to not have any other option but to receive grace and multiple huge favors from complete strangers. There are people who want to help and want to see you succeed whether in large or small feats.

As I got off the plane with just about everything I own in my two suitcases, I saw a couple wave me down, I assumed they were the couple there to pick me up and take me to my first place to stay in the Uluwatu area of Bali. I suddenly realized I had no clue who these people were; I am completely unfamiliar with where I am, and here I am, standing with everything I own, needing a ride, and forced to trust them enough to get in the back of their truck. Yes, I was on edge, and yes, I prayed for safety. Talk about stepping outside of my comfort zone. I am naturally pretty weary of people until I get to know them and see them as trustworthy. My first experiences were filled with huge language barriers, not knowing much about where I am and despite all that compete strangers showing me an abundance of patience and a sincere desire to help.

One of the major hurdles in Bali is transportation. Yes, in comparison to the United States things are much much cheaper. However, even what seems to be small expenses add up quickly. By far the most affordable way to travel is by a motor bike or scooter. The traffic and just the way people drive in Bali terrifies me. The rules of the road are there are very few rules of the road. People on various types of transportation honk endlessly and enter oncoming traffic as they zoom passed each other. I will say there seems to be very few accidents however for the most part, so far, I’m more comfortable paying for rides to where I need to get. I’ve also walked miles every day.

I’ve walked and gotten rides to several beaches around Uluwatu and they are just breathtaking. My favorite is probably Nyang Nyang. It’s more local and much less crowded then the more popular surf beaches which are filled with travelers in search of amazing, thrilling waves. While in Indonesia one of the moments I really take pleasure in is drinking their fresh fruit juices. I cannot emphasize enough how delicious a tall glass of local papaya juice, or watermelon juice is. The local cuisine is phenomenal and for the most part pretty healthy which just adds to the flavor of paradise I’ve experienced near Uluwatu and South Kuta.

Next I am trading in my first world amenities (air conditioning, and warm showers) and leaving the more popular touristy area to head into a much more secluded and local area rich in Balinese culture and tradition.

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